CANADA SPECIAL: The Nova Scotia studios

CANADA SPECIAL: The Nova Scotia studios
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

November 27th 2009 at 11:02AM

Concluding our focus on Canada, we visit three studios based in Nova Scotia

Xona

Number of staff: 2
Year founded: 2008
Location: Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
Current projects: Xbox Live Indie title Duality ZF
www.xona.com

Proudly independent, Xona founders Jason and Matthew Doucette have been making games since their elementary school days. It was Xbox Live Arcade that helped them turn a hobby int a profession.

“We had plans of developing games for XBLA for years and Microsoft’s Dream Build Play 2008 Challenge convinced us to drop everything and enter,” reveals Matthew. Despite a government-funded MIT team winning the competition, Xona persisted, thanks to what they describe as ‘a healthy disregard for the impossible’.

As soon as Dream Build Play ended, Xona turned its attention Xbox Live’s Indie Games channel as a release platform for its distinct shoot ‘em up Duality ZF. A year later a more polished version of the game was entered into Dream Build Play 2009, placing second in Canada and seventh in the world.

Tax breaks are something are something Xona sees as secondary to what makes a studio succeed. “After many entrepreneurial projects, it always feels like the system is setup against you. There’s always 1,001 ways to fail at any given endeavour,” admits Matthew. “The point is: success comes from succeeding anyway. We pay little attention to taxes, the government, the industry – hose things are out of our immediate control, and become nothing more than excuses to fail.

The two are based in Nova Scotia out of convenience than anything – that’s where their families live. But, ”we want to prove that making games even in a small based such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, is possible,” they say.

 “I am most proud of the fact we stayed true to our childhood dreams and passions and decided to take a risk,” Matthew adds. “A year ago this was nothing more than an idea, and now we are being published in magazines, interviewed on TV, and placed seventh in a global Microsoft contest; all because we decided to follow our heart.  That’s the true story that most interviews miss. Following dreams and passions can lead to your greatest rewards.”



Huminah Huminah

Number of staff: 35 artists
Year founded: Started video game production in 2007
Location: Halifax, Novia Scotia
Previous projects: FaceOFF, Guitar Hero 5, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, James Bond Quantum Solace, Wisegals, Beefarm, Flash projects for the NFL, Nickelodeon, MTV and numerous others
www.huminahuminah.com

Huminah Huminah started working in film production in 2005 and moved to game development just two years later, initially creating simple Flash games.
“Now we have two companies, Huminah Huminah Animation, and Huminah Huminah Interactive; Both profitable businesses that produce original content, and production services,” says executive producer Adam Mimnagh. “HHI was able to really step into the next stage of providing game production services for clients such as Disney Online, Nickelodeon, and Warner Brothers because of NSBI’s ability and interest in developing the interactive gaming sector within this province.

“They sent a young – but experienced – Nova Scotia business such as ours abroad to be able to sit in front of big studio buyers and allowed us face time to sell our advanced skillsets and affordable abilities.”

Mimnagh is happy to admit that Quebec, which he has seen lure away several companies in previous years, has very attractive incentives, but more recently things have changed, and Nova Scotia has risen to be an impressive force in attracting and maintaining an interactive industry.

“There were very attractive incentives to setup shop there. Quebec was known to the world as a place where behemoth interactive gaming companies such as Ubisoft or Eido’s opened up and it is a direct result of their government backing,” explains Mimnagh. “Next came Ontario and Nova Scotia’s incentives, with NSBI lobbying to create a 25 per cent digital media tax credit.”

Now the Nova Scotia tax credit is a significant financial incentive to allow companies such as Activision, or The NFL to want to continue working with Huminah Huminah. Looking forward the studio hopes to continue to focus on combining the IP of its film clients with its own game development, while expanding its portfolio of internally-created casual gaming IP. There’s even plans to partner with other local developers under one roof, showcasing how ambitious this multitalented company is.



Silverback Games

Number of staff: Up to 14
Year founded: 2005
Location: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Previous projects: Ben and Kranky, Mr. Jones Graveyard Shift
Current projects: The Arc
www.silverbackgames.com

Business partners and husband and wife team Willie Stevenson and Colleen Shannahan left the TV industry in 2005 to set up Silverback Games. Employing six staff at the time, they spent two-and-a-half years ‘learning the tricks’ and establishing their children’s game series, Ben and Kranky.

Now, having established its first IP, Silverback is now expanding its portfolio.

“We needed to refill our empty coffers and find a way of generating a revenue stream as we positioned Ben and Kranky properly, so we decided to enter the world of casual games,” says Stevenson. “We created a prototype of a time management game Mr. Jones Graveyard Shift and signed with a distributor at GDC.

“We reworked this title and launched it on 20-plus portals in August of 2009. It made it to top-five on major portals and number 15 overall on Big Fish.”
The kind of success Silverback is enjoying is part of the reason that several young companies in Nova Scotia region are trying to migrate from a the local ailing TV industry into games.

“They are very different industries,” remarks Stevenson. “Although the firms that survive the initial growing pains will find out that the industry has a lot to offer and may be a lot more able to weather the storms of recession better than most sectors, it’s also a borderless industry and our governments are really making an effort to support the industry.”

Describing tax breaks in the region as ‘quite dramatic’, Stevenson is confident Silverback can benefit from the input of Canada’s financial incentives for the games industry, especially with regard to labour costs, which is where the studio’s money is generally spent.

Silverback plans to deliver a new episode of Ben and Kranky every three months. For now, though, the studio, is weathering the financial storm, even if that means Stevenson and Shannahan skip their own pay-packets to make sure that the staff get paid.