Nova Scotia: The studios

Nova Scotia: The studios
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

November 16th 2010 at 8:00AM

Develop looks at five companies at the heart of the development cluster in Nova Scotia

Following yeaterday's in-depth focus on the development sector in Nova Scotia, Develop offers an essential guide to the five studios at the centre of the work being done in the region.

HB Studios

Founded: 2000
Headcount: 90+
Previous games: 2010 FIFA World Cup, Big Beach Sports
Currently working on: Rugby 2012 and various
unannounced titles

THE EXTERIOR walls of HB Studios part a striking cultural contradiction. Inside the gleaming steel stairways and geek-chic wall hangings are typical of an energetic, contemporary developer.

Outside, however, is the picturesque rural town of Lunenburg. It’s an enviable juxtaposition that has played backdrop to ten years of success making high profile sports games for EA along with many other games.

“The biggest upside in Lunenburg is quality of life,” confirms studio head Alastair Jarvis.

“It affords us the opportunity to walk out the doors into such beauty, and for a lot of us, it’s a huge benefit of working here. The way I think of it is that we live in one of the most beautiful towns in the most beautiful country in the world, and we get to make games we like”.

HB Studios, which has also worked with the likes of Konami and THQ, is Nova Scotia’s largest studio, and a case in point that demonstrates the province’s capacity to play host to upscale developers.

In fact, the studio currently at work on Rugby 2012 is something of a poster child for the region’s drive to increase its standing on the global stage. It has also benefited from Nova Scotia’s generous provincial support.

“The support that is in place in Nova Scotia has allowed the development industry here to ride out the transition of the last couple of years, and we have been able to keep the number of people employed that we have here,” confirms Jarvis.

“It would have been a very different story without the tax credit in place.”

Clearly besotted with the area, Jarvis is quick to highlight the advantages of Lunenburg’s proximity to Halifax.

“The city has a vibrant arts community and a young vibe that is contributed to by the many universities and colleges in the city,” he says.

Positioned perfectly to embrace Nova Scotia’s quiet life and Halifax’s urban bustle, HB Studios has it good.
www.hb-studios.com

Xona

Founded: 2008
Headcount: 2
Previous games: Decimation X
Currently working on: Decimation X 2, Duality ZF,
Score Rush

IN STARK contrast to HB Studios, Xona consists of a two-man team working from a small office on the waterfront in the rural fishing town of Yarmouth. The company is a microstudio by any definition, but its size hasn’t been an obstacle to progress.

Most famously, the team is at work on the hyperactive XBLA shmup Duality ZF, but it is its recently confirmed dealings with Microsoft with regard to the first Windows Phone 7 games that is most interesting.

The giant computing organisation was suitably impressed by Xona’s work to approach it with a view secure two launch titles for the much hyped mobile handsets.

While the final details are still being inked, Xona’s shooters Decimation X 2 and Score Rush could become defining titles on Windows Phone 7, and as such have a potential that could see Xona expand significantly in the future.

“Xona Games will remain a moderate size until we obtain working capital, at which point we will expand by hiring contract work on a per-project basis,” confirms studio co-founder Matthew Doucette.

“Eventually this will transform into a full-time position, most likely filling business and marketing positions first, to allow Jason and me to get back to the reason we are here in the first place, which is to make great games.

“Eventually our company will grow and potentially may split into two development sub-studios working on separate games. The growth potential is great, but we want to maintain the indie spirit.”
www.xona.com

Silverback Productions

Founded: 2005
Headcount: Up to 14
Previous games: Mr. Jones Graveyard Shift, Empress of the Deep
Currently working on: Empress of the Deep 2 and an unannounced title

YOUTHFUL AND hip, Halifax’s Silverback Productions made the bold move of suspending work on larger games to gain low-risk, high-payout revenue stream making casual titles.

The strategy worked, and the studio’s games like have not only caught the eye of older female players in their droves, but also attracted some of the world’s most prolific distribution channels, such as Big Fish and Gamehouse. As a result, Silverback are in a robust position, and poised to expand aggressively in the coming months.

“We expect to at least double our team to 30 people within the year,” reveals president Willie Stevenson.

“We recognise that tax credits might not last for ever so we want to build a strong foundation on our own. Also, a growing industry regionally is a double-edged sword. More critical mass is good,” he adds.

“But when big players move in its hard to compete with their human resources capabilities and so on. We have been able to roll with the punches so far.”
www.silverbackgames.com

theREDspace

Founded: 2000
Headcount: 65
Previous games: Projects for Nickleodeon, MTV, IBM and others
Currently working on: FunGoPlay

BASED IN a sizable studio in the Bedford area of Halifax city, TheREDspace has made an impressive niche for itself creating web games for high-profile clients.

Particularly successful with broadcasters, the company’s portfolio includes work for the likes of MTV, Nickleodeon and even the BBC.

The team isn’t completely blinkered to branded entertainment though, and has an ambitious project of its own underway. FunGoPlay combines real world activity with a sport-themed virtual world, and demonstrates a motivated approach to new gaming forms that could serve TheREDspace well.

“We work in a high growth industry. I anticipate that we will continue to grow at a rapid rate,” says division manager Wes Gould, later adding: “While the economy was in a downturn we were still recruiting and rapidly growing. I think it is safe to say that as long as we continue providing the high quality work that has made us attractive in the past, we will continue to receive more projects and will organically require times of rapid  expansion.”
www.theredspace.com

Longtail Studios

Founded: 2009 (2005 in Québec)
Headcount: 30 (in Nova Scotia)
Previous games: Dance on Broadway
Currently working on: Unannounced projects

INITIALLY FOUNDED by Gérard Guillemot – brother of Ubisoft CEO Yves – in Québec, Longtail set up a Nova Scotia studio in 2009.

Making games exclusively for Ubisoft, the company currently employs 30, but has an enormous working space ready to welcome many more.

“We’re expecting around 60 in the next two or three years, which means more people, with families and more visibility as well,” states Estelle Jaquemard, general manager of the Halifax-based office.

“The video game industry needs highly skilled people, and those people can attract others. Like every industry, I guess, the more you are, the more you can attract.”

The Nova Scotia location compliments not only the Québec outfit, but Longtail bases in both New York and Canada’s Prince Edward Island. Clearly, Nova Scotia’s attributes rival some prime locations.

The studio’s Wii game Dance on Broadway met with great success in the UK in particular, and laid the groundwork for more hits to land on retailers’ shelves.
For now Longtail remains tight-lipped about its current project.
www.longtailstudios.com