The Vancouver video game industry, oddly enough, can best be described by a line from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. “I am big,” says Norma Desmond. “It’s the pictures that got small.”
Vancouver has long prided itself on its gaming scene. It was established under terms similar to the creation of Hollywood North: generous tax incentives and a fantastic exchange rate brought Americans north, and for over 15 years, Vancouver has reaped the benefits of foreign investment.
It plays host to VFS, one of the best game design programs in the country. It is held in such high regard due to a local spirit of mentorship; one such mentor is Shane Neville, founder and president of Ninja Robot Dinosaur.
Earlier this summer, Shane Neville came together with local Slick Entertainment to create Shellrazer, a side-scrolling action game for iOS. Shellrazer has been a notorious success. It’s the number two game app in Canada, ranked fifth in Australia, and ranked sixth on the American iTunes chart.
It was made by six people.
The pictures may have gotten small in this industry, if the size of the team necessary to create them is any indication, but big questions still remain. Can the indie game industry swell large enough to fill the gap left by triple-A studios? Is there anything Vancouverites can do to slow the brain-drain of our talent into other provinces? After an hour in the company of the majority of the Shellrazer team (all but their sound team), it’s obvious that Shellrazer is as much the result of their experience in the big leagues as the six months it took to develop it.
Shellrazer’s lead quartet—Nick Waanders in programming, Neville in level design and marketing, Jesse “The Drawbarian” Turner handling the art and visual design, and Jenn Lewis heading sound design—all have years, with most having over a decade’s worth, of experience in larger studios.
A gameplay trailer for Shellrazer by Slick Entertainment.
Nick has been in the games industry since 1998, beginning at Holland’s Digital Infinity working for PC and Dreamcast. He came over to Vancouver with a job at Relic in 2002, where his path crossed with Shane Neville before founding Slick Entertainment.
Shane’s own history began in 1997, with stints at EA on the Need for Speed franchise before working at Nokia and Longtail Studios out in PEI (now in Halifax). Jesse, the youngest of the three, started as a game artist in 2006, creating multiplayer maps for Threewave and working on 2D art for Nerd Corps Entertainment.
Nick initially founded Slick Entertainment in 2007. When asked whose idea Shellrazer was, all fingers in the room pointed to Jesse. His response was characteristically modest—his job title at Slick Entertainment on LinkedIn is “Person.”
“I pitched the idea—initially the game was a lot simpler, I wasn’t familiar with touch anything, but I knew that my work is so stylistic that I could literally not find a job in AAA,” he explains to Techvibes. “The problem is, everybody has a guy like me in their big studio already. I was kind of floundering around, and I saw a band poster of a kiwi with a castle on its back, and I said, ‘Dude, that should be a turtle with a gun on its back!’ I pitched the idea to Nick at a bar, with some drawings I did there, and I wanted to make this game but I am not a coder. So it’s awesome to work with someone who’s just amazing at code,” He points to Nick first, then pointing to Shane before adding, “And amazing at design. Then my art can really live.”
“And I really can’t draw,” Nick adds, “so it’s great.”
Jesse leaps back in. “I’m really fast at drawing. Nick’s really fast at coding. And Shane’s insanely fast at design. That’s why our game was built in half a year. And Jenn’s just amazing at sound design. I had the kernel, but everyone pitched in, which is what I wanted.”
“The speed was so important,” Nick says. “If we we are all learning what we are doing, rather than having the years of experience, we could not have gotten it out in six months. And the programming, it was really for me, ‘I have this entire engine that I worked on—am I going to ditch that?’ But getting Jesse and Shane on meant I could use this engine. It meant we got a running start. Six months later, we were done. We initially wanted it done earlier, but then when Shane came on, there were so many ideas, that we had to take three more months to get those ideas in.”
This is part one of a two part series profiling Slick Entertainment.