Visions of Quebec City may summon images of its densely-populated neighbour, Montreal.
But while the Quebec province’s capital covers a much wider stretch of land, its population is less than a third of the size, at 537,859 as of 2014. But despite this, the city’s tech sector is booming.
The local games industry employs more than 1,200 staff across just 22 companies. Currently, annual revenues are near $100m (£67m), but this should rise significantly in the next year following the release of Ubisoft Quebec’s blockbuster title Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
The region also has specialised educational programmes in six institutions, including Laval University, Bart and O’Sullivan Colleges, Cégeps Sainte-Foy, Garneau and Limoilou.
Perhaps what’s surprising for newcomers to the area is just how tightly-knit the local games industry is. Walk around any corner in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood and you’ll likely be on the same street as a company that works in games. It’s common for studios to share stories and best practices with each other, and some employees are also able to find a new job just across the road from their old workplace.
“Part of the reason why I enjoy working so much in Quebec City – because that’s where I’m from – is the mood of the city,” says Beenox creative director Thomas Wilson.
“Quebec City is one of the nicest cities I’ve been to. The people are super nice and very friendly, and it’s a beautiful city as well – it’s not too big. If you like big cities, you can always go to Montreal. But even when I worked for six years in Montreal, that’s still something I was kind of missing: the human touch of a city like Quebec City.”
Quebec City’s most prominent studios include Ubisoft Quebec, which houses just under 400 staff, Call of Duty: Black Ops III Xbox 360 and PS3 studio Beenox, and Chariot developer Frima, which has 350 employees.
Ubisoft Quebec was founded in 2005, and the initial goal for the publisher was to invest $75m (£50m) in the office over ten years. Come 2015, Ubisoft has already pumped some $241m (£161m) into the studio and doubled its original target of 200 employees.
Ubisoft MD Nicolas Rioux says the studio is the biggest development house in Quebec City. That’s not just down to Ubisoft’s investment, but the support of local organisations and the provincial government backing regional growth.
“AC Syndicate is a concrete result of this investment over the last ten years,” says Rioux. “And not just Ubisoft’s investment; investment from the government of Quebec also had a big role in this growth and the results we have here right now.”
Even when I worked for six years in Montreal, that’s still something I was kind of missing: the human touch of a city like Quebec City.
Ubisoft has formed close ties with companies in the area, many of which are just right around the corner in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood. The majority of studios really are within a ten- to 15-minute walk at most.
When recruiting, Ubisoft had one new staff member experience a special 48-hour house-warming that saw him jump out of a plane and appear on-stage at a local concert, thanks to a partnership it set up with the organisers. It’s also worked with local companies like animation outfit Squeeze Studio on the Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry trailer, which came up with the concept of, and filmed, the entire trailer.
The potential for collaboration is what attracted Belgium-based Divinity: Original Sindeveloper Larian Studios to recently expand its operations to Quebec City. Currently housing 13 staff, the studio plans to recruit as many as 40 employees during the next three years.
“There’s not that many studios in Belgium, but here there’s potential for a lot of collaboration,” says Larian Quebec studio director Edgar De Smet. “Not necessarily only for video game studios, but also animation studios, sound studios and so on.”
Though tax breaks were clearly a major reason for its move – incentives that De Smet says will become a big part of the company’s business plan – it was also due to the wider support offered for new studios in the area.
De Smet says economic development agency Quebec International helped prepare “nearly everything” for their arrival, from providing temporary work space to finding a location and setting it up. It also took advantage of a special grant to help kit out its new office.
“We started at Le Camp, which is a location typically for start-up companies,” he says. “This really helped because we were with other start-ups and other small companies, with which we could share our questions and issues. They helped us connect to the neighbourhood and all the studios here.”
Le Camp is a technology incubator and accelerator that helps game studios and other companies grow. So far it has supported Larian and other start-ups such as Peak Media, Budgeto and Laserax. It offers a working space for start-ups, as well as connecting them with other local businesses and investors, helping them with their big pitch to attract funding.
It’s very important for people where they’re working, and they want to show off. They identify with their job. That’s not so present in Belgium.
As well as helping start-ups, it also aims to make Quebec City a more attractive proposition for external investment and foreign businesses.
“We have a soft-landing offer here,” says executive director Isabelle Genest. “Before companies from abroad get in their real office, we offer them a place here. They’re part of the community and we have access to their network, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Publishers and studios interested in setting up shop in the city need to be aware of cultural differences. The province is a French-speaking nation and, while most inhabitants can also speak English, it’s something to certainly keep in mind for potential movers.
Wilson says Beenox offers French-speaking classes to new employees, and believes it’s key to settling in in the area. He says that not learning the local language can prove difficult for both new staff and their families.
There are also some differences in the way business is conducted, as De Smet explains.
“As soon as our employees started working for us, they wanted swag,” he recalls. “They wanted T-shirts with our logo on it. Because here it’s very important for people where they’re working, and they want to show off. They identify with their job. That’s not so present in Belgium.”
AC Syndicate is a concrete result of this investment over the last ten years – and not just Ubisoft’s; investment from the government of Quebec also had a big role in this growth and the results we have here right now.
The indie challenge
While Quebec City is well-known for its large studios, it’s surprising that it hasn’t spawned a hotbed of indie activity. Jean Simon Otis of Chainsawesome, which is developing multiplayer Steam Early Access title Knight Squad and last year won $50,000 from local competition Catapulte, says the community is small – especially when contrasted with a close neighbour.
“It’s pretty cool because everybody knows everybody – but I feel like it’s a bit harder than in Montreal, because there’s a lot of indie studios over there,” he says.
“I feel we could gain from having more studios here so we could share more.”
In an effort to help generate a more vibrant scene, Nine Dots Studio CEO Guillaume Boucher-Vidal, whose studio recently received a $1m (£0.67m) grant from the Canada Media Fund for open-world RPG Outward, planned a meet-up for games makers in October, and aims to do more in the future.
He was motivated into organising his own event by the lack of other get-togethers for developers in the city.
“We just want to mingle because, in terms of activities, there’s not a lot happening with the scene outside of the studios,” he says. “Since no-one is doing anything I just thought: ‘I’m going to do it myself’. It’s kind of that mentality that indies have, or else they wouldn’t be indies.”
Quebec City’s industry may only have a handful of studios, but many of its companies are well-known on the world stage.
While the indie scene still needs time to grow and more done to nurture it, with a close community of developers, those generous tax breaks and a host of support plans in place for new studios, whether local or foreign, Quebec City’s games industry is one to watch.