By Matthew Horwood
A local video game and interactive media development company hopes its decade of success can be proof that “high-quality, world-class games” can be made in Ottawa, and that Canadian game developers don’t have to move to Montreal or Toronto.
On February 11, Snowed In Studio, located in Hintonburg, celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
“We have a relaxed and friendly vibe, and you could really feel that at the party, with people going from table to table and socializing,” said Natasha Dobson, the company’s office manager who added that several past employees joined a celebration at Vimy Brewing Company.
In addition to developing nearly 20 games and porting several to different platforms, Snowed In Studios has done project support for over a dozen titles, including The Sims 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dead by Daylight and We Happy Few.
The majority of Snowed In’s employees are computer programmers who code, fix bugs, port games to other platforms and develop new modules. Jean-Sylvain Sormany, head of Snowed In Studios, said the studio recently added a localization quality assurance team, who spend their time “testing languages in games to see if translations work”.
He said the studio works to foster a “fun and relaxed environment”, and one of the ways it does this is by having a strict “no crunch” policy. This means the studio won’t force its employees to work long hours to complete titles by the set deadline, a grueling practice that has become all too common in the game development industry, Jean-Sylvain said.
While he acknowledged this policy can sometimes be a challenge when clients are pressuring the studio to deliver, Jean-Sylvain said the employees appreciate it and it allows the company to have a high staff retention rate.
Snowed In was created following Fuel Industries’ collapse in 2008. It grew slowly in size in its first eight years, reaching 25 employees at the end of 2016. That was until a $4 million acquisition by gaming giant Keywords Studios in 2018. Since then, the studio has ballooned to 85 employees, and is expected to add 35 more by the end of 2020.
Jean-Sylvain said the acquisition by the IT services firm allowed his studio to immediately hire 12 more game developers, and has opened doors to a new network of clients.
“If today we are working with EA and Microsoft, it’s because of Keywords,” he said.
Jean-Sylvain wouldn’t talk about the games currently under development by the studio due to non-disclosure agreements. He said most of the titles are “really large, triple-A games that pretty much everyone knows,” but it will likely take another two to three years of development before the studio can attach their names to the projects.
Jean-Sylvain said 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for Snowed In as they will be adding a second office. The studio’s new quality assurance team will be moving to the second floor of 250 City Centre Avenue in mid-April, while their game development branch will remain at their current location.
They chose City Centre Avenue because of its close proximity to Snowed In’s current location, but also because of the studio’s fondness for the surrounding neighbourhood, he said
The 5,000 square-foot space will include a kitchen, locker room, several meeting rooms and a large shared space, which will allow the company to run town halls and host industry events, thus giving them a larger footprint in the region.
Jean-Sylvain doesn’t anticipate a slowdown in the company’s growth, and expects it to employ 250-300 people within three to five years. At that point, he believes Snowed In Studios will have become “a beacon for the game development industry in Ottawa”.