Canada’s videogames sector

A powerhouse within Canada’s technology sector, the videogames industry has emerged as one of the country’s success stories over the last decade and a half. Mark E Johnson looks at the sector’s rise and the measures employers are taking to counteract the talent shortages that are an inevitable result of its stellar growth.

Videogames sector
Canada's videogames sector has produced, among others, the studios behind such blockbusters as the Assassin's Creed and FIFA series for an industry in which a hit can regularly eclipse the best of Hollywood's output in terms of revenue.A recent report from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) found that there were 472 active videogame studios in Canada in 2015, a rise of 143 on 2013's figure. Between them, these companies employed 20,400 staff, an increase of 24 per cent. At a time of economic difficulty for much of Canada, the sector's contribution to GDP jumped to CAD3 billion per year, a 31 per cent increase.This growth, however, means that talent is in short supply. "The increased number of studios translates to a shortage of experienced candidates, who are in increasingly high demand," says Matthew Wiazowski, recruiting team lead in Canada for Ubisoft, one of the country's largest games companies."Finding workers who are qualified and experienced in programming, game design, data analysis, and artistic animation continues to be a challenge as our growth outpaces the domestic supply of talent," adds Jayson Hilchie, president and CEO of ESAC, commenting on his organisation's report."There is an opportunity for both industry and government to find long-term solutions for developing digital skills in our workforce and shorter-term solutions to bring in qualified workers from abroad to impart innovative techniques and skills."The ESAC estimates that 1,377 new technical and creative jobs will need to be filled over the next 12 to 24 months to keep up with growth.

Looking overseas

"We're always short of experienced programmers having shipped AAA and console games, of all specialities. There are shortages of gameplay animators, level designers specialising in world building and world layout, and technical artists," explains Matthew Wiazowski."We have a lot of success at Ubisoft in attracting experienced developers from the UK and France to Montreal."Ubisoft's experience is broadly reflected throughout the Canadian sector, with ESAC noting that, while a large portion of the workforce is Canadian, it draws significant numbers of hires from the US, the UK and Western Europe.Some 13 per cent of the workforce are in the country thanks to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. More than a third of those go on to become permanent residents, while 8 per cent go on to receive Canadian citizenship. The videogames sector is diversifying, too, with smaller studios spinning out of the bigger mainstays. More than two-thirds of companies have existed for six years or less, and half of those have been around for less than three years. Those smaller companies, however, are apparently becoming better established. A majority (56 per cent) of firms are now 'standard-sized' (employing between five and 99 staff), whereas, back in 2013, the sector was largely made up of micro-sized companies (54 per cent), while only a third were standard-sized.It's a factor that has had an impact on hiring. "The process of developing and publishing games is increasingly democratised, so we compete with independents as much as with AAA studios," says Matthew Wiazowski.Still, the big companies have the advantage of name recognition. "Ubisoft Montreal is an uncontested heavyweight in the industry, known for consistently delivering multiple AAA titles annually, so we have a power of attraction similar to a top sports franchise. You know that every game you ship with us has a legitimate chance of being in the industry's top five every year."

Outsourcing and tax breaks

One increasingly common strategy seen in the industry – particularly at Ubisoft – is the outsourcing of aspects of a game's development to other studios."Ubisoft has 30 studios all over the world. With increasingly complex games and a passionate consumer base, we always have to bring the quality of each game further than the last, so having partner studios is handy for collaboration and provides an
alternative in the event that staff demands outweigh studio or recruitment capacity," says Matthew Wiazowski."Collaboration between studios is not solely driven by staffing issues – it allows diversity in our development process and encourages sharing development techniques and technology between studios."Canada is known in the games industry for the aggressive tax breaks offered at a provincial level."From a broader point of view, the incentives offered to the videogames industry in Quebec, Ontario and other Canadian provinces are important job-growth vectors because they are applicable to salaries dedicated to production employees," says Matthew Wiazowski."There are also interesting income-tax breaks specifically for foreign experts that some candidates can qualify for, though they are not guaranteed, as the restrictions on qualifications are tight."The scheme in question is the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Program, a grant scheme that offers tax rebates on the salaries of employees who are working in research and development, particularly in science, but also in technology.Companies operating in the games and visual-effects subsectors can further benefit from a variation on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that negates the need to advertise within the country positions in British Columbia and Ontario, provinces with a significant presence in the industry.It's clear that, while important parts of Canada's economy are in the doldrums thanks to the oil-price crash, the games sector is one that still presents plenty of opportunities.

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