Aldergrove – As many of you are already aware, the Province of BC announced their new proposed Tax Incentive program for the digital media industry , to be combined with changes to the film industry’s tax credits last week. This is very good news not only for the video game sector, but also for many aspects of the interactive entertainment industry.
Speaking to the announcement, Tim Lewinson, Creative Director of Vancouver’s Massive Bear Studio , stated that “as a rising company in the Vancouver development scene, Massive Bear is happy to see the provincial government recognize the importance of sustaining British Columbia’s position as one of the world’s preeminent game development hubs. By working with government to reinvigorate job growth and investment in BC, we can continue to create some of the world’s best games. There’s too much talent and history in BC’s interactive entertainment sector not to take advantage of the opportunity to work with film, television, and animation industries in building a next-generation digital media hub right here. This announcement is an important first step in getting there.”
Sadly, the film industry is crying somewhat foul in regards to the changes to this program. Shawn Williamson of BrightLight Pictures  was quoted in CBC’s coverage  of the announcement as saying “”What they’ve announced is the increase for video games, which will put money into the pockets of the Pixars and Electronic Arts and large video game companies which are based primarily in Los Angeles,” Williamson told CBC News. “Those companies are likely to invest and be happy. Companies like ours who produce and finance our own productions that keeps the wealth effectively in the province didn’t get a bump on the tax credit.”
While I respect Mr. Williamson’s feelings, he perhaps doesn’t understand the long history of Electronic Arts  in the local game development culture and the important role the Burnaby campus has played in the growth of our local industry. I would like to direct him to an excellent article  in the Georgia Straight. Written by Blaine Kyllo, this article takes a look at BC’s video game development family tree and how the industry has grown since the day Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember released the first Vancouver-developed game, Evolution, in 1982. The global video game development industry, in comparison to the film industry as a whole, is quite young and Vancouver was right there in the industry’s infancy.
For example, the first documentary filmed in Kamloops dates from 1912, and then during the 1930’s, several Hollywood studios began filming their “Quota Quickies” (today’s “B” movies) in Vancouver. One of the first TV series filmed here was the original Littlest Hobo, which was filmed at Hollyburn Studios in West Vancouver from 1963 through 1965. The point I am trying to make here is that Vancouver, and British Columbia as a whole, has had a presence in the early days of not just one creative industry, but in many.
Going back to Shawn Williamson’s comment about the “large video game companies which are based primarily in Los Angeles” – what he neglects to understand is that there are thousands of people employed in the digital media industry in BC – by small to medium-sized enterprise as well as by the bigger studios such as EA Canada , Radical Entertainment  (Activision-Blizzard) and Relic Entertainment  (THQ). Small studios such as Fit Brains , who may employ only a dozen people, and medium-sized studios such as Next Level Games , who employ a few dozen people will benefit greatly from this program. All of the above-named studios were producing product long before there any kind of provincial tax credits available to them. They didn’t stay because of a possible video game tax incentive some time in the future. They stayed because BC has talent.
I do have to wonder if Mr. Williamson has ever sat and watched the credits roll by at the end of a video game; just as in film and television production, there are many talented people employed for a game production beyond those who create the characters, build the environments and write the computer code. There are audio specialists, voice actors, office administration, human resources, marketing specialists, video compositors, musicians, motion-capture specialists, story and technical writers and so many more.
Students who graduate from local (and world-class) post-secondary programs such as those offered by VFS , the Art Institute , VanArts , Emily Carr , BCIT , Masters of Digital Media , SFU , UBC  and all of the other post-secondary digital media programs will now have a better opportunity to find meaningful employment right here at home, because studios will now have a chance at being able to afford the labour costs and hire the necessary talent to see their projects through from concept to store shelf. Many of the teachers involved in these programs are themselves industry veterans who have chosen to pass their knowledge on to those just entering the talent pipeline.
Independent developers – whether they are experienced or newbies, as well as those who are on the brink of creating a new studio will now have better assistance and a chance to chase their dreams. With opportunities for finding seed capital from Venture Capital and Angel Funds – areas of industry which also receive tax incentives, and now with the new labour cost incentives, BC’s digital media industry can continue to develop its top-selling products and introduce new franchises.
I can’t describe the amount of hometown pride I felt when I saw the trailers for Tron: Evolution and True Crime come on the screen during the recent SpikeTV 2009 Video Game Awards, or the feeling that comes from seeing shelves full of newly released made-in-BC games on display behind the counter at an EB Games store – and knowing that my friends are doing what they do best – creating a product which is going to be consumed by eager gamers around the globe.
There are also many, many companies based in BC who work on the outer-fringes of the video game industry, adding after-market value or aiding in their development. Companies such as The Game Net , which develops social community sites for many of the top game franchises in the world – not just games developed in BC or Canada. Then there are companies like digital distribution specialist Yummy Interactive  and value-added software distributors such as AnnexPro  who offers services to not only the video game industry but also the film, visual effects, animation and music industries. The “outer-fringes” list could go on and on, from the IT folks to the printers who make up the game swag and packaging, but I’m sure you get the idea.
These tax incentives will lend aide to every aspect of digital media creation – video games, animation, visual effects, web-based products and the film industry. There are many major award-winning development studios in this province, and not just those who are on the Oscar podium (or who hope to be). They are not all owned by international publishing houses. As shown in Blaine’s “family tree” there are plenty of home-grown studios here, just like BrightLight Pictures and others in the film industry.
An important factor to remember when thinking about the video game development industry is that it’s not just about games any more. There are many components of the knowledge-based economy we see developing around the globe which are direct off-shoots of the video game industry and its technology. One does not need to look very far to find a myriad of examples where video game development and its innovation has had an effect in other fields such as medicine, science, education and even the military and security sectors.
The leaps and bounds which have been made in the video game industry over its young life are nothing short of amazing. From the pixelated characters of 8-bit graphics to the 3D wonders of Avatar, the video game industry has constantly pushed the envelope of interactive entertainment and creative knowledge, constantly amazing consumers with what they do as they seek to expand the immersive, interactive digital world.
“The B.C. video game industry sees the announcement as an important first step in creating a next-generation digital media hub and retaining our province’s preeminent position on the world video game stage,” stated Howard Donaldson, Chair of the BC Interactive Task Force and Vice President Studio Operations with Disney Interactive Studios . “We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the B.C. government as we finalize the details and implementation of this important new program.”
“British Columbia is home to many of the world’s most popular video games and home to many of the most talented, passionate game developers on the planet,” continued Donaldson. “With this announcement, we’re hopeful we can continue to nurture and grow this cornerstone industry.”
The entertainment world is no longer solely dependent on the film, toy and cartoon industries to develop their own progressive Intellectual Property. Instead, we see many corporations crossing over and blending these lines to drive consumers to purchase their products, and with the huge popularity of the consumer experience as it pertains to video games, we now see companies such as Disney, Warner Bros. Interactive, Hasbro, Lego and more claiming territory in the video game industry.
Yes, there are many local companies (video game, visual effects and film companies alike) who are ultimately controlled by a foreign corporate entity, but they are still employing local talent. Local talent who lives in British Columbia, and in all likelihood, grew up and went to school in British Columbia. What a great boon to our children for them to know that the digital media industry has a future in this province, because these huge corporations are supporting local industry and local talent.
Wendy Boylan, the PR and Marketing Manager for Ubisoft  Vancouver and a member of the BC Interactive Task Force agrees, stating that this new addition to the tax incentive program is a “positive step for both industry and the government. Both sides worked hard in the past few months to create a plan that will not only sustain the industry, but with further partnering can create true growth and lead to a thriving digital hub in BC.”
The provincial government is deserving of praise in this move towards the new tax incentives for our industry. Elected officials have taken the time to tour through our studios, to meet the artists and technicians, and to find out what the industry’s concerns are and to learn about the clean technological processes under which they function. I commend both the government and the members of the BC Interactive Task Force for the amount of work, research and time they have spent in developing a plan for the future. We all know what is at stake, and I appreciate the efforts being taken to keep our talent in BC. This program may only be a first step, but is that not how all journeys begin?
In my opinion, it is wrong for the film industry to say that the proposed changes to these tax incentives will benefit only the video game industry. There are so many opportunities for cross-platform and cross-media franchises, and the BC Government has obviously been willing to sit down and visit ways to assist local studios from all areas of the industry. It’s time that the provincial creative industries as a whole began learning to work together to attract more of these possibilities instead of staying in their own playgrounds and calling foul.