Indie/dependent: Incubating Indies in Dublin and Montreal

This post offers an introduction to a new comparative research project being conducted by Aphra Kerr and Tamara Shepherd, which started with discussions at Culture Digitally workshops and continued through a Dobbin Scholarship funded research visit by Tamara to Dublin in February 2014. Aphra and Tamara are investigating how policy measures and incubators have impacted the independent game development scenes in Dublin and Montreal and what the term ‘indie’ means to people working in the industry.

In many ways, Dublin and Montreal serve as ideal sites of comparison: they share a similar population size, proximity to a more dominant country in terms of cultural production (i.e., the UK and the US), and dynamic clusters of technology companies.

Both Dublin and Montreal have benefitted from state policies seeking to encourage new tech startups in particular. For example, Dublin’s Digital Hub and the National Digital Research Centre are specialist spaces for digital media companies. These organizations have supplemented funding schemes more generally for high potential startups and have offered lower corporate tax rates. In Canada, both federal and provincial branches of government run programs for supporting startups and smaller ‘innovation’ businesses.

Video game development in Canada has also taken advantage of support for indigenous cultural production through the Canada Media Fund’s Experimental Stream. An interesting contrast here is that Irish game development companies cannot benefit from funding that supports more traditional cultural industries. The Irish Film Board funding is restricted to animation and feature film projects, while the public service broadcaster (RTE) and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland funds television and radio production. Games must instead compete with all other companies to secure funding on the basis of economic, rather than cultural, criteria.

While both Dublin and Montreal offer resources for indies, Montreal-based outfits have the added advantage of proximity to larger game companies, particularly the AAA publisher Ubisoft, which anchors the city’s game sector. With about 8750 people (more than half of all Canadian game employees) working in the games industry in Quebec – over 25% of them at Ubisoft Montreal but nearly 60% at “micro studios” of 1-4 people – game development in Quebec and Montreal in particular has been shaped by aggressive, and perhaps unsustainable, policy incentives such as payroll tax credits of up to 37.5% per employee.

Despite similar concerted attempts to lure larger developers/publishers to the area, the number of game developers in Dublin is still small. Game employment grew from about 400 people in 2003 to 1500 in 2009, but less than a third of these were in development with the majority in localization, community support, quality assurance and middleware. While major publishers like Microsoft, Activision Blizzard, EA, Riot and Zynga now have a presence in Ireland (most in Dublin), they have offshored non-development jobs mostly aimed at supporting their game services in the European market.

A more recent survey indicates that this trend in games sector employment has continued. In 2012 it was estimated that there were 3,344 jobs in the games industry in Ireland but only 280 in development across 40 companies. Most of the smaller developers were working on iOS, browser and PC games, while the multinationals tended not to operate in the same functions or focus on the same platforms. It is therefore not surprising that there are few links between startup ‘indie’ developers, the multinationals and the spinoffs or spinouts. Further, employment is far from stable. During 2012 almost 600 jobs were lost in the industry, mostly in multinational companies, as they struggled to adjust to competitive forces, platform lifecycles and acquisition.

In this sense, Dublin resembles Montreal before Ubisoft headquartered its North American operations there in 1997 (see Della Rocca, 2013). While this means that developers in Dublin are not necessarily subject to the same mass production model that AAA firms instill, where development labour becomes routinized and the intellectual property of devs gets subsumed under non-compete clauses, it also means that Dublin’s games industry is marked, in the main, by micro studios who are undercapitalized and lack business or design experience. Initial interviews would suggest that startup indie developers in Dublin have very different characteristics when compared to their multinational and spinoff/spinout colleagues.

The precariousness of these startup companies has been recognized and there has been some attempt by both public and private actors in Dublin to provide support. One attempt to encourage a more dynamic and vibrant indie game development landscape has been the creation of a games specific version of a government-backed, structured business mentorship and acceleration program for game companies by the National Digital Research Centre. The NDRC GamePad aims to accelerate the startup process by providing three months of business mentorship, funding and office space to a small number of qualifying game companies. The Bridge is another initiative which has brought together companies, a local public college and a business innovation centre to work collaboratively on six month projects in order to ‘upskill’ games, animation and VFX graduates.

Finally, the local games industry association Games Ireland has partnered with a private college, Pulse, to provide co-located office space known as the Gamespace since 2013. The college and company space are temporarily housed on one floor of a building in the financial services district, an area which was particularly badly hit in the recent economic crisis (note the ‘to let’ signs in the image below). This scheme is less structured and relies more on informal knowledge sharing and co-location. It is also in a temporary location and receives no resources other than the space and goodwill. The aim has been to provide a venue for talks and presentations, as well as workspace and the opportunity for Pulse College students to obtain internships. Some companies have emerged from Gamepad and moved into Gamespace.

gamespace Photo: Gamespace is located on the top floor of the Central Exchange building (second building on the right) in the Irish Financial Services area of Dublin

All of these initiatives are relatively new (since 2012), and in our research we will investigate what impact they have had so far on the emergence and sustainability of indie startup companies. The goal behind Gamespace is to create something like the Dutch Game Garden or Montreal’s Execution Labs, underpinned by a firm belief in the value of clusters and incubators in supporting product and service innovation.

Execution Labs, which uses venture capital and Canada Media Fund support to help indie game developers create titles and launch their companies, has also recently invigorated Montreal’s indie scene. Opened in January 2013 and headed by Jason Della Rocca, the incubator hosts teams of indie game producers while they simultaneously develop their games and work to bring them to market. As Jennifer Whitson, Execution Labs’ embedded ethnographer has pointed out, the mix of creative independence and entrepreneurship touted by the incubator is not always an easy marriage of art and commerce in the contested terrain of what counts as ‘indie.’

But an alternate model for game incubators is also operating in Montreal through academic as opposed to industry or cultural funding schemes. The Critical Hit incubator at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Lab positions itself in opposition to the mainstream games industry by supporting people who make unconventional games “that might not get made in a commercial ecosystem.” While Critical Hit thus makes an intervention into the type of games being made in Montreal, another incubator, Pixelles, uses academic funding to intervene in the industry’s gender disparity by holding game-making and mentorship workshops for women.

pixelles Photo: Playtesting in Pixelles 1, February 2013

 The incubator model seems to dominate current attempts to encourage independent games production in both Dublin and Montreal. For our research project, we want to ask, “why incubators?” Is this Silicon-Alley approach useful for game developers, especially in micro startups? How do these incubators channel funds from different kinds of policy instruments designed to support technology startups, indigenous content creation, and games scholarship in Ireland and Canada? What role do incubators play in shaping or intervening in local indie game development scenes? How do developers themselves experience the incubator setting? How might incubators set up new kinds of labour politics, or further entrench existing inequalities? What can a comparative study of Ireland and Canada illuminate about the necessary ingredients for incubators to make an impact?

These questions are guiding the design of this research project, and we welcome any comments or suggestions from the wider CD community on further issues that we should explore as the study takes shape.