Outspoken developer Denis Dyack absolutely believes in his company, his games and his country. A big advocate and campaigner for the Canadian games business, he recently invited GamesIndustry.biz into the Silicon Knights office to talk about recent developments in the Ontario region (his company is based in St Catherines), following the move by Ubisoft to build a new 900-person studio in the area.
Here he discusses recent lay-offs and upheaval in the games business, how that affects the companies that have survived the last 18 months, and reveals Silicon Knights' ambitious plans to build an institute which could become a world leader in videogames education, training and production.
Q: How has the past 18 months been for Silicon Knights?
Denis Dyack: Like the rest of the industry it's been good and bad. It's been really a rough year and a half for the industry as a whole. There were more announced lay-offs yesterday [at EA's Pandemic studio]. The number of lay-offs in the industry has been staggering. It's been very significant. And at the same time we've had all these great things occur within Ontario which is awesome. With the industry and the way it's been at, as an external developer it's been tough. And anyone who's an independent developer – we incorporated in 1992 but we actually published our first game in 1991 – I actually don't know anyone who's older than us any more. There used to be four or five people I knew of but I feel right now that we're one of the last of the V8s. I've talked to a lot of people and I know a lot of people who have gone out of business. But looking at things that are coming up, the industry has to turn, the economy has to turn.What that means for us is we're really excited because we're going to be able to come out, and the industry is going to rebound and grow, and we'll be one of probably five companies in the world that has any serious business beyond ten years. We're almost 20 years old now. If you're at Silicon Knights for more than ten years we knight you and give you a sword. We've given out around 21 swords here at Silicon Knights and that really speaks to our depth. We're really lucky that way. Before, Ontario was a little isolated, there wasn't a lot of videogame companies here. But that's going to change. With all the positive steps that the government's done – which we were huge proponents off – Ubisoft coming in, that's going to change everything for the better. I'm really lucking forward to that, we're super-excited.
Q: That didn't worry you when you see a company like Ubisoft move into Ontario or EA in Montreal? You didn't think that it's time to lock down your experienced staff?
Denis Dyack: No, not at all. First of all, I'm a patriot. I'm a big believer in Canada, I'm a big believer in Ontario and I want the industry to grow here. When speaking to the government it may have been self-serving that they should look at our industry, but I'm a huge fan of Peter Drucker, and if you look at traditional industry, service-based industry, they are going to remain okay. Manufacturing is in decline. But knowledge based industries where we fit in are going to grow.
I'm a big believer in education and out universities are subsidised quite a bit by Ontario. What the problem is in Ontario is we educate all these people and they leave because there's no employment here. It's really depressing going to [University of] Waterloo to recruit and we see that Microsoft was there before us and took all the best people. The tax payer paid for that education. So we look at it as how can we help the economy? It's a win-win for developers here with companies like Ubisoft, to see Silicon Knights grow and Digital Extremes grow. We'll only make a more fertile ground for us to grow. You don't lose people because big companies come in, you lose people because you're not doing a good job managing those people that come in. If you look at places like the West Coast of California, when you have more companies popping up, everyone wins. And we knew this when we started talking about this seven or eight years ago. We formed committees with Interactive Ontario and we've been in very serious discussions with ministers of the government for a very long time. It's been very successful. Quite honestly Ubisoft is only the first. I expect to see Silicon Knights grow, I expect to see Ontario to be a really good place to be over the next five years and you're going to see a massive change. Wouldn't you love to see the games industry explode in the UK?
Q: It's bitter sweet for someone like me from the UK. It's really inspirational and exciting to be in Canada and experience this growth and rebirth almost, but back in the UK it's still a struggle, and we write something every week about companies going under...
Denis Dyack: I feel lucky that we have some very forward thinking political people in Ontario that listened to us very early on and took us very seriously. They took proactive and aggressive steps to building industry in Ontario. Is it over? No. We've got to balance the playing field and make sure when Ubisoft comes over that everyone is on a level playing field and gets the same care. But you're going to see tremendous economic growth, you're going to see people who are educated in Ontario staying in Ontario, which means more tax money to support what I think is a great health care system and great educational system. These are things that as Canadians we don't want to lose. We're a very socialist country compared to the US and you tend to underestimate the value of those. I travel a lot and go to the US a lot, but knowing that if one of my family members gets sick I won't go bankrupt is something that I don't undervalue. You don't appreciate that when you're 21, but you start to appreciate it when you get to your 40s and you have a family and your parents are getting older. These are the things that are worth protecting. Long term it's going to make serious changes.
Q: One of the things that has become quite clear from my week in Canada is that talent that went away to the US is starting to return for just those reasons, the comforts of home and family life, better health care...
Denis Dyack: Where I see some more growth for Silicon Knights in the future is I can see a very strong recruiting campaign that will say “come back home to Ontario”. And I won't be surprised if other companies says that too. Niagara is wonderful, it's wine country and it's an hour out of Toronto. If I want to go the US and order buffalo chicken wings it's 45 minutes away.
Q: You want to see Silicon Knights grow – how many staff do you have at the moment and how many would you like to get up to?
Denis Dyack: We're around 100 now. It all depends on projects working on and what we're going to announce, but I can't talk about that.
Q: Sure, I'm just trying to get an idea of how you want to scale up and integrate the company with the local education and government programs. And be on a level playing field with other companies in the region.
Denis Dyack: We've started an undergraduate program in collaboration with Brock University that teaches you how to create non-linear media. We're putting together plans for something called the Institute of the Eighth Art. Not only is videogames an art, it's the eighth artform. Film is referred to as the seventh art form. The first film critic claimed film was a combination of the six previous art forms all put together through the motion picture. Well, we want to create an institute here that's a combination of companies like Silicon Knights , Niagara College, Brock University all in a co-op program where we're all in the same complex or campus so that people live and breathe making videogames and other forms of non-linear creations. So imagine a place where not only will you be instructed about how to make videogames, but you would have people in the industry teaching you.
We already have people at Silicon Knights who teach at Universities, and they don't do it for the money, they just want to have fun and talk to students – we can interact and help form programs that would help us get the right people out of the university systems. And from the universities we've had a couple of professors here who have been collaborating for over ten years here now. We also have a lecture series here. These guys have told me over the past ten years that they're excited to be here because it keeps them current. They get to do leading edge stuff and research where they can apply knowledge and do what researchers want to do. And Niagara College is looking at is as a place with applied programs where people came come out with real work experience. We can bring in these co-ops that are working on real games, you can graduate out of these programmes with the combination of a university degree, a college diploma and actually have a game on your resume. That's our dream.
Q: At what stage is that plan at?
Denis Dyack: We started talking about that recently over the last few months and we're putting a proposal together. You've head of EA having these campuses. This is a real campus. This is not about tennis courts. We're looking to do something that really affects people in a positive way and if you ask me, this is what our industry and our educational system needs. Quite frankly, I think one of the big problems we face with all this new technology that's affecting out lives, is the universities and colleges need to get up to speed with it to. That's my dream, that's what I want to do.
It's at the proposal stage. We're speaking to various members of the government now, we just put some meetings together over the past three or four weeks and hopefully it will happen over the next few years. Everyone seems very excited about it. If you look at all the recent ideas and subsidies in Ontario it's all built around the three pillars of government, industry and academia. This builds upon that whole plan. I would love to see it become a world centre of excellence for videogames. Videogames can happen anywhere so having it here would be fantastic. Where Ubisoft might have a campus of 900 people working on videogames. We'd have a campus of maybe that many along with university and college professors, all teaching students and everyone in a very different environment.
Q: Those students are not only learning in an educational capacity but are almost like employees learning from the business.
Denis Dyack: Yes, a hybrid as close as you can get. There's ideas and course here like a co-op accounting course. You go to be an accountant and learn all the educational stuff, but four or eight months out of the year you do a term at an accounting firm. You're literally working in an accounting firm. It's the same idea. They did things similarly in Detroit at General Motors – programs and universities where you'd come out with experience of engineering for GM. It's not a completely revolutionary idea, it's something that's very practical and achievable and has been done before, just not in this industry.
Q: It sounds a little bit like the University of Southern California's game lab, where they study interactive media and there's sponsorship by Electronic Arts. But it's deeper than that, right?
Denis Dyack: Some of the obstacles those company's have is you need a champion who really, really believes in it. I actually really believe in this. One of the problems with large companies like that is you have someone who starts it and leaves. And it falls by the wayside. I'm rooted here.
Denis Dyack is president of Silicon Knights. Interview by Matt Martin.