The games people play: An investigation of relocation in the video games industry (Re:Locate Magazine)
Posted by Nordicity on Jan 09, 2014

Canada's videogames sector is the world's third largest in terms of employment, and the country's wider information, communications and technology sector is also a significant contributor to the Canadian economy. Mark E Johnson investigates how this is affecting relocation.

Canada can now boast that its videogames sector is the third-biggest in the world in terms of employment; it overtook the UK’s back in 2010. With the global industry likely to be worth US$93 billion in 2013 according to IT research firm Gartner, that’s no mean feat.

Furthermore, while employment levels in Canada’s wider information, communications and technology (ICT) sector have stagnated, those in the games industry are set to continue on an upward trajectory.

The industry has been helped by a steady post-recession economic recovery in Canada. Similarly, the outlook for the next few years is looking quietly promising. While the government is working on restraining spending to tackle its fiscal deficit, it’s also looking to address the shortfall by promoting energy projects and expanding trade and investment links that reduce its dependence on the US.

One upshot of this has been the recent Canada/EU trade agreement, which the Canadian government claims will create 80,000 jobs and boost GDP by 0.6 per cent. The deal removes 99 per cent of tariffs on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as cutting huge amounts of red tape. This, in particular, could have serious implications for relocating transferees as bureaucratic obstacles are removed.

The Bank of Canada recently cut its economic growth forecasts for 2014 and 2015, to 2.3 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively. It expects the economy to return to full capacity by the end of 2015, however.

ICT sector: all change

The wider ICT sector is a significant contributor to the Canadian economy, having added CAN$67.2 billion to GDP in 2011, when it accounted for 3 per cent of employment nationwide. It is, however, in a state of flux.

An example of this comes from one of the industry’s hubs, Vancouver. “The IT business has changed a lot, even in the last few years. Electronic Arts (EA) had a huge presence in Vancouver, and they pulled out. Locally, a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, if EA’s going, what’s going to happen?’ But I think that may have been a lot to do with their static business model. Everyone’s basing it on remote workers. As long as you’ve got an internet connection, it doesn’t matter where you are, and it’s a lot cheaper doing it that way,” said Toby Smith, operations manager for KRP Communications, a Vancouver IT company.

The mainstream tech sector as a whole favours smaller companies and studios. As of 2011, there were around 33,300 companies in the industry, employing 521,702 people (though that figure represented a 1.1 per cent drop from the previous year). Of those companies, 85 per cent have nine employees or fewer.

There’s not a vast crossover between the traditional ICT and games sectors. Although official figures do fold games under the ICT banner, they’re typically perceived as largely separate from one another. “There’s some crossover with the film and visual effects industries, and I know some of my co-workers have experience in both, but generally I’d say the games industry is pretty well insulated.

“Other big companies, like Autodesk, Google, Facebook and SAP, have offices in Montreal, so it makes it a pretty lively IT hub,” said Dan Lowe, senior animator at Ubisoft Montreal, one of the largest games studios in the country.

Sana Huq, an international mobility specialist also working at Ubisoft, said crossover happens “not as much in the technical category but more so with management positions from the film and television industry”.

The highly particular demands of many ICT jobs mean it’s often necessary for tech companies to hire from outside Canada. “On the tech side, I’ve been working with a couple of Bulgarians, a Sri Lankan, a couple of South Africans and a couple of Canadians,” said Toby Smith. “The products I work on are pretty specialised. It would take me 12 to 18 months and up to CAN$20,000 to get someone trained up properly.”

In contrast to the wider ICT sector, the games industry is still structured, to a large degree, around the big studios necessitated by expensive AAA games such as Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and EA’s FIFA football series.

With new consoles launching from Sony and Microsoft this year, the demands of AAA development are only likely to increase.

While 88 per cent of games companies are classified as small (from five to 99 staff) or micro (up to four staff), the remaining 12 per cent of companies employing 100 or more staff actually account for 68 per cent of games sector employment.

Employment hubs and relocation trends

In total, there are currently 329 games studios in operation in Canada. That’s down 5 per cent from 2011, but the total number of employees has actually grown 5 per cent since 2011, to 16,500.

The Canadian government is known for providing generous tax credits to games and film-related digital media companies, with Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario leading the charge. Provincially, Quebec has the largest concentration of sector activity, with much of it focused around Montreal. Ninety- seven companies employ 8,750 staff. That’s followed by British Columbia with 67 companies and 5,150 total employees. With its more recent introduction of tax credits, Ontario is the third-biggest province, with 96 companies and 1,850 staff. As the numbers suggest, the Ontarian industry is made up predominantly of small and micro-sized firms focused on the booming casual and mobile games markets, though the tax credits are beginning to draw in larger companies.

The games industry workforce is predominantly male (84 per cent), with the average age at just over 30 and the average salary being CAN$72,500. The overwhelming majority has been educated to university/college level.

International transferees already make up a significant component of the workforce. “Around 25 per cent of Ubisoft Montreal employees come from other countries, and the top three regions of origin are, in order, France, UK and the US,” said Dan Lowe.

That trend is set to continue. A recent report from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada notes, “As our industry grows, we face an increasing shortage of experienced talent across all job categories. Deepening the pool of domestic talent and having timely access to the best international talent are both critical solutions to ensure the videogame industry can continue to succeed.”

Despite these issues, a report from Nordicity states that positions for junior staff requiring recent graduates are relatively easy to fill. The majority were made up of local hires in 2012, though 15 per cent came from other regions in Canada. Just 4 per cent were hired from abroad. At the senior level, however, positions are more difficult to fill and many staff are recruited from outside the country. The report identifies immigration processing times ranging from seven weeks (for the USA) through 11 (in the UK) up to 13 weeks (for Western Europe) as problematic.

Sana Huq noted that the situation was improving and that “there weren’t many school programmes adapted to the game industry ten to 15 years ago”. The Nordicity report further indicates that demand for intermediate staff is likely to grow significantly in the next 12 to 24 months, with a predicted 853 roles needing to be filled. There are likely to be 640 senior positions to be recruited for. Overall, the sector is likely to fill approximately 2,200 roles over the period.

A common thread among British developers working in Canada is having been forced to look elsewhere following studio closures in the UK. “In recent years, job prospects in the games industry have been slim in countries like England and Australia, and US visas can be difficult to get hold of because there’s a limited allocation,” said Dan Lowe.

The critical mass of companies in Canada provides a draw, too. “I felt there was a potential for me to become settled here without the upheaval of relocating once again if, for some reason, my job didn’t work out,” said Chris Brooker, senior level artist at Warner Brothers Games Montreal.

Salary is also an issue. One developer recalled that he was offered double the salary he asked for. “On top of that, they paid out an incredibly generous relocation package.” That’s not an isolated occurrence. “When I entered my new job of a similar level here in Montreal, [my salary] had almost doubled,” said Mr Brooker. “Until UK developers can offer a competitive wage, I doubt I would ever consider returning.”

A vibrant industry

The Canadian games industry is thriving and generating new jobs, compared with its UK counterpart. “It’s a troubled industry in the UK. Multiple developer/publishers are shutting down year after year. In contrast to the UK, just the other week there was news of Ubisoft in Quebec expanding their studio to create 500 new jobs. Then, only a week or so later, there was news that Warner Brothers (also in Quebec) was expanding and creating 100 new jobs. In both cases, it was partly due to the government providing support to the industry,” said Adam Capone, environment artist at Longtail Studios.

While Quebec is the only province in which French is the majority, and official, language, the clustering of games companies in the region can make the language barrier a problem, particularly for the families of transferees. “The language barrier can also be especially difficult on partners and families who move with you. While the games companies don’t require their employees who work on productions to speak French, most other companies do, so it can often be difficult for your partner or spouse to find work.

“Also, recent laws in Quebec have made it difficult for non-French speakers to remain in the [province] as permanent residents, so it’s expected for you to learn the language, and some people have a hard time with that,” said Dan Lowe. Many companies, such as Ubisoft, do offer free French lessons, though.

Despite drawbacks centred on language and immigration processes, however, the influx of foreign transferees into Canada looks set to continue.