The manager of Black Tusk Studios, B.C.’s newest Microsoft-owned game developer, discusses the health of the industry in Vancouver and the company’s debut blockbuster.
For decades, B.C. has been at the forefront of video game development. Alas, recent years have seen major studios such as Rockstar and Activision shut the doors on their local operations. Earlier this week, however, news came that Microsoft, already the proprietor of two B.C.-based game developers, has officially given the greenlight to a third called Black Tusk Studios in Downtown Vancouver. BCBusiness spoke with studio manager Mike Crump to get the details on why the tech giant believes in B.C. and Black Tusk’s daunting first assignment: dreaming up the next Halo.
Though just officially announced, Black Tusk has been in the works since early 2012. How did you go about putting this all together?
We’ve been quietly but quite aggressively recruiting the top people from the world’s leading game franchises to grow the studio, looking for the best talent wherever we can find it. The average person we’ve recruited to Black Tusk has over 12 years of experience shipping [blockbuster] games. Now we’re entering the next phase of growth. [Currently], we’ve got about 50 people and we want to almost double that in the next year.
There’s a really rich heritage of game development in Vancouver going back decades. Some of the world’s largest game franchises were actually created here, and what that has led to is a really deep pool of experienced talent — really, unparalleled almost anywhere in the world. [Plus], we’re just a three-hour drive from Microsoft’s headquarters [in Redmond, Wash.], which makes it a lot easier to do business. And Vancouver has such an enviable reputation around the world as a fantastic place to live. It’s never that tough to convince someone to move here.
Despite all that, there’s been a mini-exodus of game developers from the city of late, some of which can be traced to more attractive tax situations in places like Toronto. Did that ever give you pause?
Ultimately, our commitment to Vancouver extends beyond tax credits, for the reasons we just talked about — the pool of talent, the heritage here, the ability to attract great talent to [the city itself]. But Microsoft is engaging with local and provincial governments on that issue. We believe very strongly in the potential of British Columbia, [and] we want to make sure there’s a strong tech and gaming industry in Vancouver that goes beyond us.
I understand you've been tasked with a pretty ambitious first project.
I can’t get into a ton of detail, unfortunately; it’s a super-competitive space and we need to make sure we’re not giving away too much too soon. [But] we’re working on Microsoft’s next big entertainment franchise. It’s a AAA game — basically, the video game equivalent of a Hollywood summer blockbuster movie, so we’re talking about big budget, big team, long development timeframe.
The gaming industry, as a whole, is in kind of a transitional period, with new platforms opening up. Even on the consoles, there’s more of a demand for digital content. Is that affecting how you do your job?
We think about digital distribution a lot. And certainly when you look at the industry and where it’s been going over the last few years, the trend is very, very clear— we’re moving toward a model of direct digital online distribution of content. Whether it’s mobile games or AAA console games, you do see that trend happening and it’s something that we’re thinking about.
Your studio is obviously named after a famous local mountain. Why was “Black Tusk” the right moniker?
It’s pretty iconic in its visual profile and we liked having a name that tied us to Vancouver. And it has a name that, I think, [should] resonate with core gamers. It also has a reputation for being quite technically challenging for rock climbers; we kind of like that analogy to what we’re trying to do here.