Welcome to Montreal

Welcome to Montreal
Michael French

By Michael French

July 12th 2007 at 12:46PM

So how, in the space of just a few years, did the Quebec province manage to pack so many developers into Montreal and Quebec city? And why has its tax credits attracted Ubisoft, EA Activision, Eidos, tools companies, and a host of independents? Develop visited the region to find outâ?¦

If the games industry is going to grow as the analysts, format holders, and marketing men would have us believe, the question to ask is where will it grow to? Not just numerically, but geographically.

Former global hotspots for talent – the West Coast, Tokyo, the UK – have arguably become too entrenched and too great an economic gamble, so one answer shouted loudly by the Quebec Province government is that Montreal (or nearby Quebec City) is the place to be.

With a development workforce of almost 5,000, it’s become the fastest growing games cluster on the planet, having raced ahead of Canadian contemporary Vancouver as interest from Ubisoft, EA, Activision, and a host of other companies, strengthens its talent base.

It hasn’t quite been an overnight success, but the region is currently riding a wave – a seemingly unstoppable ascension backed by two market forces: economics and culture.

HISTORICAL ROMANCE

However history has had a part to play, too, and although the region’s major player, Ubisoft (profiled on page 32), didn’t arrive there until 1997, it was 20 years ago with the founding of Softimage by Daniel Langlois when Montreal began its morph into a computer graphics/digital arts hotbed.

Langlois is a bit of a legend amongst the natives – he helped build Softimage towards the first releases of its 3D animation software, reaching a turning point in 1992 thanks to its help with creating the first deformable character performance in Jurassic Park. When acquired by Microsoft in 1994, Langlois lucked out financially, since then ploughing his money back into the region’s digital arts scene.

In those early years, the scene grew further, with Discreet (later acquired by Autodesk), Kaydara and Toon Boom all boosting the animation software circuit.

Although Softimage since then found a better home via the 1997 sale to Avid, the company’s activity – 90 per cent of its product development, including recent releases such as Face Robot, have been carried out at the Montreal HQ – helped build a thick vein of digital arts and 3D animation kinmanship and interest in the region. Something that’s easily relatable to games, as Softimage’s business, like the fellow Montreal-based creative teams at Autodesk, supports the games industry so heavily.

UBI-QUITOUS

Games development-wise, however, things didn’t get rolling until Ubisoft’s arrival in ‘97. French company Microids followed suit in ‘99, as did British-owned DC Studios. Meanwhile local indie A2M (originally called Behaviour) rose out of mergers between other smaller companies MMI and Megatoon.

Other start-ups followed, with the industry at a fairly steady but small scale – by 2003 28 companies accounted for 1,000 job. But that was the point things were about to explode.
Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell, and the Montreal team’s other successes (such as licenced and GBA titles) helped boost the French company – and then others started paying attention.

EA tempted former Ubisoft Montreal VP and GM Alain Tascan to form a Montreal studio, and overall growth in the region meant that just a year later, in 2004, the number of people in development related jobs was at 2,000.

Last year, Activision got in the game, by acquiring Quebec City-based Beenox (part of a mini-cluster of it’s own right – see ‘Quebec Cluster’), as did Babel Media by opening a QA outfit (see ‘Towering Babel’).

And just earlier this year, AI company Kynogon opened an office there, too.
The most recent survey of the Canada games development industry shows that there are over 4,150 employees currently working in the Quebec games cluster, across 56 companies.

BALANCING THE BOOKS
This boom, however, isn’t exactly an organic one – the government there has smartly helped edge things on.

In 1996 it introduced the multimedia tax credit, designed to encourage business and French-language content in the interactive space. At first, the credit was put in place specifically to address and maintain the needs of the growing Ubisoft Montreal team. Even though the outfit now towers over the region with some 1,500 staff, back when it was much smaller comparatively it was still a major business driver in the digital arts world – and the Quebec government of course wanted to maintain that.

In time, the credits and assistance programmes, handled by Investissement Quebec, have changed and evolved. But the short of it is this: after a year, games companies get back 30 per cent of their production and creative staff’s salaries from the government. If the company is working on a French-language version of their title as well (which the multi-national publishers commissioning games from developers in the region ultimately will want), an extra 7.5 per cent is thrown in.

Investissement Quebec also offers financial assistance to start-ups, guaranteeing loans and putting companies in contact with other funds designed to drive talent in the region.
And the above top line bonuses are joined by a possible 40 per cent tax credit for R&D, and other slightly different credits for major employment generating projects (including e-business solutions for interactive services).

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Ubisoft Montreal has grown so drastically (and holds the publishers online-serving teams) or that the region has attracted the attentions so many.

Now, the Quebec government wants more – and is actively courting potentials and big publishers.

Investissement Quebec won’t comment on who’s currently in play to join the party and help push the games development population past that nice round 5,000 mark. But it will be no surprise if a THQ or a Vivendi end up there, either via acquisition or new studio. (The latter recently nabbed Ubisoft Montreal’s former CEO Martin Tremblay as global studio head. While his move may have been related to what Ubisoft wasn’t offering rather than what Vivendi did– for more on this see the profile on page 32 – it’s doubtful he’s forgotten where he came from.)

POPULAR POPULOUS
However, speaking to the various studios and development people working in the region, it’s clear that the financial credits are just something that improve the situation, rather than make it what it is.

The accountants might disagree, but those who work there – and the development scene is a patchwork of locals and expats – say it’s the cultural aspects that make development so viable in Quebec.

IGDA executive director Jason Della Rocca is based there as well. He sums it up like this: “Really, the tax credits – although they are great – are just a sweetener to the fact it’s a great place. Of course we’re all biased because many of us are natives, but really, I don’t think you’ll find somewhere with so many creative people in one place.”

Education has played an important role in building this cultural profile. While the NAD Centre (see ‘The Games Finishing School’) has increased its games offer, so too have the local universities, culminating in the Ubisoft Campus project started last year.

Maxime Julien of EA Montreal, which purposefully set up in the region to take advantage of the younger talent base (see ‘EA Story’) adds: “We have 200,000 students in the five universities in Montreal, there’s a very good school system and the cost of living is decent. The city is really, really multi-cultural.”

Attracting foreign talent isn’t always that easy, though – at least at first. The fact that the Quebec region has French as its primary language is an odd stumbling block for some. “Oddly, most people don’t want to come because of the language,” comments a perplexed DC Studios’ CEO Mark Greenshields, but then adding with typical Scottish bravado: “They think it will make it difficult – but it won’t! If you need to speak to someone in the street, there’s a good chance they’ll speak both languages.”

And it’s a barrier that eventually dissipates, confesses EA’s Julien: “Initially it was difficult when we started – because if you say Montreal, peole don’t know what it is, but once they come here... then they know.” He even now helps out investment group Investissement Quebec when they’re courting new companies, showing them around his studio and offering tips on the city: “We’re willing to do that because the more people here the better it is for all of us. The pool of creative people is not infinite, but is still fairly untouched.”

And people do make the change to come over. Go back to Softimage and senior product manager Gareth Morgan has been with the company based in Montreal for some time, but he hails originally from Cardiff. He says: “We’ve gotten beyond critical mass in Quebec now, and with all the growth in the industry the region is in a really great position. And we’re really lucky because we’ve all these people who have risen up over the past five years now coming off projects and are thinking of starting up their own businesses. There’s a community of experienced people that have given the industry as a whole its own momentum.”

Softimage’s VP and GM Marc Stevens is also an out-of-towner, hailing from a shorter but no less foreign distance – Boston – but he agrees, adding: “It’s a good place to find talent whether you’re a games developer or a production studio.”
Both point to Montreal’s huge creative industry as a whole – it has strong film, advertising and marketing companies alongside the games ones – as a clear indication that the city is, both culturally and creatively, a great place to be.

SO WHAT’S THE CATCH?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it all sounds too good to be true. What about scale and size, does that present any issues? While all based there are deeply faithful to the province, the locals do point out potential hazards – but are swift to point out they are being easily and quickly avoided.

“People might think that labour is now limited, but in the long-term it won’t be,” says Babel’s new GM Stéphane D’Astous. “The education here – especially thanks things like what Ubisoft has done with its Campus – is getting better and making the whole region great. Really, everything is going to snowball.”

“The only problem could be is that it’s a fairly small city – we’re all in a square mile, pretty much, and everyone’s in that space. It’s all compact because public transport is great in the centre, but that might cause problems further on. I don’t know if such a small area is that healthy in the long-term. That’s perhaps the one advantage somewhere like California has,” says DC’s Greenshields.

But while he is understandably cautious – having seen the industry through ups and downs as he stepped in before the region balooned back in 1999 – he adds: “But other than the West Coast, around Burnaby and EA, there’s nothnig comparable. You’ve got Vancouver, but it’s not the same. So I’m sure Quebec will grow further.”

Staffing issues, a contentious point for studios the world over, may come into play, and games development’s most talked about staff-related legal cases, such as Ubisoft’s enforcing its non-compete clauses, have come from the region.

But despite the seemingly silent ideological war between those in Ubisoft and outside it, ex-Ubisoft people that left for something different say that there’s actually very little problems finding staff.

Adds EA’s Julien: “There’s not a free move of staff throughout the studios at the moment – but this is reaching the end, because people won’t want to leave the country to better their careers. So the non-compete element won’t hold out for long.”

Plus, he says, retention is good even with Montreal’s other big technical industries – such as its strong aerospace and science sectors – offering big pay hikes: “We don’t actually battle over salaries with other industry because here people don’t quibble over lots of extra dollars a year – they really want to stay where they are happy. And that’s in games.”

In fact, Julien tells people that he thinks it is set to be the creative centre of the Western games industry, and that’s what he tells people when on recruitment run.

PROVINCIALLY PROUD
Such pride is repeated from everyone in the region you speak to – especially A2M CEO Rémi Racine, also president of Alliance NumeriQC, the Quebec province’s games trade body.

As the leader of an independent studio that currently outnumbers EA Montreal – A2M has over 300 staff – and has been active in some form since the early ‘90s, he’s the best person to ask about the potential of the region. And as president of that trade organisation, he has a good eye for what’s coming.

He too says that other big developers and publishers are courting the region, although no names are mentioned. As such Alliance NumeriQC is working hard to maintain the region’s momentum, with the Montreal Games Summit (see page 8), training projects, and university and business discussions. He explains: “We’re working at being very to the community and encouraging people to get involved in the industry over here.”

His last claim, however, is the big one – and given the figures, and things like Ubisoft’s aggressive expansion strategy paving the way to 2010, it’s hard to disagree with him: “Find me somewhere else that can offer all this,” he says of the region’s education and cultural landscape. “We had great support from the government in terms of the tax credits.

“So in future Montreal is going to be the key hub of the industry in the world.”


Do you agree? To be honest, it might not matter whether you do or not – it’s a region on the ascent, buoyed financially and culturally. It’s a moot point as to whether or not others will go as those already there are growing it by themselves. The real question is: are you interested in being a part of it?