Gaming Industry Emerges On North Vancouver Island

Raphael Van Lierop | BCBusiness
Hinterland’s Creative Director Raphael Van Lierop at his Cumberland home

Developers and designers return to Vancouver Island to raise families and build creative, socially conscious games

Scattered north of Nanaimo, a group of seasoned developers who grew up with controllers in hand and an itch to create games have made the trek back to the Island to raise families and pursue personal, small-scale projects inspired by the rural beauty outside their screens and studios.

Hinterland Studios in Cumberland is roughly halfway towards its goal of raising $200,000 on Kickstarter to produce The Long Dark, a first-person post-disaster simulation game. In Port Alberni, Agog Labs has licensed its dedicated game development script, SkookumScript, to Vancouver games-maker United Front Games. Both Agog founder Conan Reis, and Hinterland creative director Raphael Van Lierop, spent years building blockbuster games for mainstream studios.

“It’s an intense, competitive and nomadic way of living,” says Van Lierop. “You spend a lot of time away from family and friends. After a while, I was asking: Is it worth it?” But for Van Lierop, the idea of building games remotely is something he’s been looking forward to for his entire decade and a half long career.

The industry has fragmented, opening up opportunities for independents, says Reis, a software engineer who moved his young family back to his native Port Alberni. “We can make a quality product with a triple-A team, but with a ‘family-first’ model,” says Van Lierop, who works with a team stretched across North America and Europe.

According to a 2007 study, Vancouver Island’s technology sector north of Victoria generates $660-million in spinoffs annually and employs 4400 people. Innovation Island is one of the more prominent industry organizations in the region. In the spring the group held a symposium on game development in Qualicum Beach that attracted over a hundred attendees.

“We were surprised,” says Paris Gaudet, Innovation Island’s executive director, “it’s an emerging sector in the Island’s economy though it’s fragmented and isolated.” Reis says the Qualicum Beach symposium “was a real eye-opener, to see so many other people working on games around here.”

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Reo Prendergast is one of those. He’d just completed work on the summer blockbuster Elysium before deciding to return to Vancouver Island. Prendergast says that the move back to the Island was a conscious decision to find a saner life after years in the Los Angeles game development scene. Now a contract artist on The Long Dark, he’s also helping develop virtual reality software.

For Prendergast, working on The Long Dark offers him an opportunity he can’t get at a major studio fixated on the blockbuster market.. “It’s attempting to have a social dialogue about a non-sustainable future. What do you as a person place value on today? How do you respond to impermanence?” All grown up and raising children, Van Lierop says that he believes his generation of gamers is looking for more than the easy thrills of guns and ballistics.

The symposium in Qualicum Beach gave the scattered North Island game industry a much-need chance to connect, says Reis. There’s even been talk about larger collaborations. “You can do everything virtually,” says Reis, “but there is still huge value in doing the face to face.”

Updated October 2