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Inside Canada's Talent War

Under the skin of a development utopia, where staff poaching happens on a weekly basis

Nothing is rotten in the state of Canada. The skies are blue, the trees are green, the mountains are capped with snow, and, if you're in the business of making games, the tax credits flow like a babbling stream.

Over the last ten years, Canada, and Quebec in particular, has been portrayed as a sort of Shangri-la for developers: research and staff costs are just two of the numerous subsidies available to creative industries, and as long established communities like the UK crumble under the strain of rising production costs, Canada goes from strength to strength. Or so it would seem.

In the last five years Eidos, Funcom, THQ and Warner Bros. have established major studios in Montreal, with Ubisoft expanding its substantial presence in the region with a new facility in Toronto. These five companies alone have created around 2000 new jobs, most of which have yet to be filled. The competition for available talent has always been fierce, but with every new opening and expansion the lack of mid-level and senior candidates becomes more apparent and more problematic.

For James Schmalz, who founded the Ontario-based studio Digital Extremes in 1993, talented applicants haven't been so difficult to find since 2005, when the jump to the current generation of hardware caused the size of development teams to double, and in some cases triple.

Right now, very locally, it's impossible to hire people

James Schmalz, Digital Extremes

"We could not hire anybody in 2005 and 2006, because anyone who had any credentials and any talent - including people who arguably didn't have enough talent to be in the industry, but had some credentials – were getting snapped up to fill places on these massive teams... That really affected us when we were making Dark Sector. We had positions that went unfilled because we simply couldn't find the people to do the work."

The same thing is happening now. Intensified competition from Quebec and Ubisoft's arrival in Toronto has created overwhelming demand for talent, and independent studios like Digital Extremes are likely to suffer the most. "Right now, very locally, it's impossible to hire people," says Schmalz.

The same may not be true for Ubisoft, but, if the comparison with the early days of current-gen development is accurate, the general standard of acceptable applicants will be in decline, and many projects will be under-staffed. Nevertheless, Schmalz is a fervent believer in Ubisoft's potential to inspire the same growth in Ontario that it did in Montreal, even if the short-term impact is decidedly more ambiguous.

"Take a look at Montreal, take a look at Lo Angeles – you need big, anchor industries to locate here," he says. "I think I would have done it a little differently if I had masterminded it, but I congratulate them for landing that deal and bringing Ubisoft in... Right now, they've taken a few of our employees, and a few employees from every developer in Ontario, but other people will come back. There'll be a healthy exchange."

Others are less diplomatic. Every developer we talked to could see the long-term gain for Ontario, but the $263 million incentive offered to Ubisoft by the local government has been more difficult to swallow.

"Ubisoft said we're gonna hire 800 people in Ontario over the next several years, and the provincial government said, 'we will give you $263 million,'" explains Donald Henderson, general manager and COO of Toronto-based Bedlam Games. "That's a lot of money. I like to call it a quarter of a billion dollars."

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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