Interview: ESA Canada’s Julien Lavoie

59 per cent of Canadians identified themselves as gamers, i.e. they played a video game in the last four weeks, in the ESAC’s 2011 Essential Facts survey. (ESAC)

Gamers love numbers. We love our high scores, our Achievement or Trophy counts, our killstreaks, star tallies, and most of all our review scores. Almost as popular as the last one there are the numbers used to tout the gaming industry – video games make more money than Hollywood, employing thousands and growing exponentially.

But what exactly do those numbers mean? That’s what Canada’s Entertainment Software Association, or ESAC is here for.

ESA Canada is a trade organization that commissions original research into the current state of the videogames industry in the country. It positions itself as an advocacy group “to ensure the legal and regulatory environment is favourable for the long-term development of Canada’s video game industry.”

Some of the ESAC’s most recent data, released on their Twitter account over the course of E3 2012, include:

  • The average age of Canadian gamers is 31 years old.
  • Canadian gamers are 54% male and 46% female, a shift from 2010 when males accounted for 62% and females 38% of overall Canadian gamers.
  • Canada’s video game industry is estimated to have $1.7 billion in direct economic impact on the economy.

For some more insight into those numbers, we spoke with Julien Lavoie, the ESAC’s director of public relations. We also discussed what the recent closures of video game studios in Vancouver, notably Radical Entertainment and Rockstar Vancouver, mean for growth of the industry in Canada overall.

Julien Lavoie - ESA Canada
Julien Lavoie – ESA Canada director of public relations

Dork Shelf: Where does Canada fit in the video game industry?

Julien Lavoie: Canada is doing fairly well. The growth rate is anticipated to be somewhere in the double digits over the next couple of years – 17 per cent to be more precise. So if that holds, we’re on track to continue to grow and to be a dominant player in the next little while.

Anecdotally, at E3 there were a tremendous number of Canadian games that were presented, and they were kind of the showcase pieces (Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed III, WB Games Montreal’s Batman Arkham City: Armoured Edition for the WiiU) of many of the companies, some of the largest titles for console gamers are made here in Canada, but also some of the most beloved mobile or casual games are also made here. So it’s not just about the big console titles, but we also have some strength on the mobile side as well too.

DS: What kind of popular mobiles games are made in Canada?

JL: There are literally hundreds, so it’d be hard to go through the list. Some of the big publishers are also not just doing console games, but they’re also doing mobile games. For example EA produces some of the largest console sports but it also has a studio in Montreal which produces a lot of their popular mobile titles – Tetris and Monopoly and Scrabble and other games.

There are also a lot of other smaller companies; Capybara is one of example. They’re not a member of ours, but they’re a good example of a company doing smaller games on smaller budgets, but are being recognized internationally nonetheless.

DS: How is ESA Canada associated with the ESA in the U.S.?

JL: They’re our sister organization, but we have our own board and make our own decisions here in Canada. But we work closely with them on certain issues of common interests in the North American market. We have strong ties and the ESA was instrumental in the founding of the association, but in terms of how it’s run and where the decisions come from, everything is still done here in Canada.

DS: What do the closures in Vancouver [Rockstar Vancouver, Radical Entertainment] mean for the industry on the west coast?

JL: There are a lot of factors. Some of these companies are part of larger corporate groups. One thing that’s important to mention is that we have a pretty successful Canadian video games industry, but that’s not to say that it is wholly Canadian-owned. Some of the largest studios in Canada are headquartered in the U.S. or France or other places. The games that are made here are not made for a Canadian market. They’re made for a worldwide market. NHL is not only played in Canada, it’s played all over.

The industry is in a transition period right now. It’s always been risky to make big budget console video games, which cost millions of dollars and take upward of two years to make in some cases. Those are huge investments that companies have to make, and if those games aren’t successful and they can’t recoup costs, then it makes it unsustainable to continue to make games in the same way or to take huge risks on new types of games or different things that haven’t been done in the industry before.

DS: As for Radical’s last game Prototype 2: Is the mainstream console market too big for these studios?

JL: I wouldn’t say that … There are still games similar to Prototype 2 that are still being made with roughly the same size and expertise all around the world. But perhaps they’re working on other titles that might be more successful than Prototype or fits in their corporate strategy in a different way.

ESA Canada - demographics breakdown
ESA Canada – demographics breakdown

DS: How do the tax incentives for different provinces fit in this? There have been a few migrations to Toronto/Ontario, and there are some articles that mention its incentive is more generous than in B.C.

JL: Yeah, the tax incentives are definitely one factor that comes into play when these companies make decision on where to locate certain projects or where to invest. But it’s not the only factor. Really, talent is number one. Because you can have all the tax credits you want, if you don’t have anybody working for the company it’s pointless.

Having a highly trained workforce, people who are ready to work in the industry, having proximity to education facilities that can train new graduates – these are all factors that are extremely important for companies when they decide to set up shop. Quebec has a generous tax credit as well, but we’ve seen some intense competition for talent in Montreal so we’re seeing that talent is so crucial to the success of any team.

DS: Is there a risk at all for a change in which province offers the best tax incentives – through changing governments for example – to make these studios less “rooted?” As in, every few years you might see them just move to whichever province or city best suits them?

JL: There’s a certain possibility to that. I would just caution by saying that video game companies are fairly mobile. It’s not like a factory or manufacturing where we have equipment and a factory in place where you can’t really move that. But a video game company is fairly nimble; the infrastructure isn’t that onerous that a company couldn’t just pick up and go somewhere else.

I think companies do establish roots within an area and people who work in these companies aren’t necessarily willing to move across the country just because the company decides on a whim to move. So as I think we’re seeing in Vancouver, not all the people who were laid off there are moving to Toronto in droves. They’re starting up their own shops or companies and working on new projects with other companies.

DS: You mentioned video games caters to a global market. Is there any indication of how much CanCon there is in games made in Canada? I.e. Canadian characters, themes or subject matter? Is there a market for this?

JL: The Canadian market for games is, I think, three per cent of the worldwide market. So, I would say no, there isn’t a market for Canadian games with Canadian content in the global space. Games are created usually for a worldwide market, and are always trying to find an appeal that will cross borders. For example characters that will resonate with various cultures and people around the world.

So there’s not that much Canadian content in games, but we’re very different from the TV or music or movie industry that produces things with a Canadian audience in mind. Our audience is usually the world. So it’s a very different proposition.

But then again, that’s not to say that you can’t find Canadian-ness in a lot of games. Deus Ex: Human Revolution features Montreal prominently, and Vancouver is featured prominently in some games as well. Mass Effect games have all sorts of references to Edmonton [where Bioware is headquartered] and to other Canadian things.

DS: Your latest Essential Facts study stated that 59 per cent of Canadians are gamers. When you did the survey, do people identify with the word gamer or were they just people who said, “yes I play video games”?

JL: The question was asked in a fairly neutral way. We didn’t ask people if they were gamers because that has a connotation of identity and it’s not what we were asking. We were asking people whether they played a video game in the past four weeks, and that was our metric for identifying who’s quote-unquote a “gamer.”

DS: The gender gap between male and female gamers seems to be closing. But you’ve also included a breakdown of the different genres that men and women prefer to play. Is there any insight we can gather from this data?

JL: I guess it all depends on where you’re coming from. We did see that the gap between female and male gamers has really dropped quite significantly. In 2010, the last time we measured that stat, it was 62 per cent males and 38 per cent females.

In 2012, the gap was 54/46. So much closer to 50/50 than in previous years. That was quite a climb in term of the number of women who reported having played games proportionately to men.

DS: Is that indicative of just more people playing video games overall or is it more of a zero-sum increase-decrease?

JL: I think the industry is growing in terms of the number of people that are playing video games and who is playing games as well. It’s not just more men playing games, it’s more women – and older women – playing games.

I think mobile gaming and social gaming have changed how people perceive games, and have brought the access levels to games down. Console gaming has always been a challenge to certain segments of the market. So other types of games that are a little easier to get into, like a Facebook game or a mobile game that you can pick up whenever, those tend to have a broader appeal and have grown the videogame market as a whole.

DS: There’s been a discussion about the possible gender divide in the industry. Basically, there are still fewer women making games than there are men. Do you have any data on that topic?

JL: No, I don’t have numbers for within the industry, although I would say you’re right in your impression that it’s still a male-dominated industry. But anecdotal evidence would suggest that’s changing.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Silicon Sisters, which is a studio in British Columbia that started about two years ago now. It’s made primarily of women and they make games for women as well. That’s just one example, and it’s not really representative, but it’s one example of women in the industry saying, “we need more games for women by women.”

DS: Where do you see the Canadian games industry going in the next five to ten years?

JL: That’s a very difficult one to answer. The industry changes so rapidly that it’s hard to put your finger on any kind of trend. The next technology that’s just around the corner could revolutionize games once again.

There’s a couple of trends that maybe I can talk about. One is that in terms of delivery of games, we’re seeing that more and more people are getting their games through digital means. So downloading games or playing games through Steam or Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, or the App Store. So these are all ways to get games. So it’s not just going into the games store to get the newest title.

Another thing I’d add is the connectivity of games. So someone who plays FIFA on their console can port some of their results onto their mobile device and manage their teams while they’re on the bus, and when they get into work they can share their results with their friends on Facebook, and go back home and get back to their game exactly where they left off.

That’s not to say all games are going to be like that – you’re not necessarily going to have a Solitaire game that you’re also playing on your console. But for certain types of games that have a built-in fanbase, we’re going to see a new way to play them in the future.

DS: Thank you for speaking with us.