Lofts, Eats, and Montréal’s Game Industry

Ubisoft headquarters in Montreal (image courtesy of Ubisoft)
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Hailed as a “Mecca” or a “Hollywood” of digital games, celebrated as such by politicians from all sides of the spectrum, Montreal is one of several Canadian cities where the game sector is surrounded by an expansive ecosystem of multinational developers, professional training institutions, and serious hackfests.1Montreal’s extended digital game world includes side-chain supplier studios, technological arts centres, international conventions for game professionals, a videogame music orchestra, a comiccon, and several graduate-level research programmes. The industry is here to stay, and each instance of the official narrative supports this statement. Annual reports systematically stress its unique contributions to the local workforce, and yet the making of games remains a transnational affair, flexibly unstable, shrouded in secrecy and clever worldwide compartmentalization. The enthusiasm on display is at odds with the industry’s tightly controlled outreach and vague accountability to the general public. In effect, the vividly illustrated promotional literature veils highly coercive and intensive production conditions that bear little affinity for their present geo-location.

So what attracted the global game industry to Montreal some twenty years ago? Domestic and foreign cinema and television productions in Canada have been long-time beneficiaries of tax breaks or investments in infrastructure, but in the 1990s something new altogether was proposed. The breakthrough promotional strategy, which drew the attention of global game developers, was conceived by Sylvain Vaugeois, an epitome of the enfant terrible iconoclastic entrepreneur with a cocaine addiction.2Vaugeois was a well-known lobbyist and darling of the Parti Québecois, the sovereigntist provincial political party then in power. When the Québec government began reimagining the province’s vanishing manufacturing industries as an information technology renaissance, he lobbied for a massive tax incentive for the promising New Media sector. Unlike the tax credits or direct investments granted to film and television productions, this incentive was to take the form of a subsidy directly benefiting the labour force, and was intended to cover a huge percentage of workers’ salaries. The rationale was that companies would simply top up the remainder, and naturally, the government would recoup spending by collecting income tax from the new hires. This arrangement would imbricate the workforce directly into the political economy of the industry, reconfiguring the relationship among government, employer, and labourer-voter. Going forward into the new millennium, the Québec government felt it was important to convince workers that it had their backs, at the same time ensuring that guest corporations recognized who was in charge.

The Quebec government rejected the idea as extravagant and uneconomical, but all the same, Vaugeois flew to Paris to speak with Ubisoft’s senior management on his own, proposing the same plan as if it had been formally approved.3Tremblay, Diane-Gabrielle, and Serge Rousseau. “The Montreal Multimedia Sector: A Cluster, a New Mode of Governance or a Simple Co-Location?” in Canadian Journal of Regional Science 28, no. 2 (2005): 299–327. The offer contained several tempting arguments: a generous salary subsidy in a French-speaking North-American city full of qualified human resources and creative talent, a city at the forefront of innovation that would also, and crucially, serve the French firm as a beachhead from which to launch its North American expansion. In due course, Ubisoft agreed to set up shop in Montreal, inciting other big game studios to do the same. Electronic Arts, Warner Brothers, Eidos (Square Enix), and Funcom all eventually established outposts in the city.

Montreal firm acdf* Architecture specializes in retrofitting industrial derelicts into swanky digs. Courtesy of acdf*

Vaugeois’ mission was part of a greater plan to repurpose a disused industrial sector in the Griffintown neighbourhood, which the Québec government had acquired after its foundries closed for business in the early 20th century. The proposed Cité du Multimédia (Multimedia City) would compel the emergence of an IT and New Media industry cluster, and would orient Montreal – a city with 14% unemployment at that time – towards a 21st century knowledge economy. Presentations of this business plan to investors focused on the architectural specificity of the space intended for re-development. Promotional materials for the Cité du Multimédia concentrated not on technology, human resources, or communications infrastructure, but on how the integration of industrial structures would stimulate creativity and success. The morphology of the neighbourhood dictated the form and volume of renovations, emphasizing red brick, spacious courtyards and lobbies, lofts with bridge-like steel or wooden beams, acid-green metal frames and window-walls. The focus on architectural design set the tone for studio promotion for years to come: GameOn, a motion capture and game sound post-production facility, presented itself as “a state-of-the-art studio in one hip, central location on the famous St. Laurent Boulevard. Proudly featuring SSL consoles in a ‘boutique-hotel style’ environment.”4Archival copy on archive.org

Game studios compete for prestige by foregrounding the architectural design of their offices. Courtesy of acdf*

By its nature, a tax incentive is attractive to those who are already economically comfortable: foreign investors and local entrepreneurs; real estate speculators and studio owners. But the game industry works hard to presents itself as friendly to common workers as well. For example, organizations such as the Consider Canada City Alliance (CCCA), which represents the economic interests of major Canadian municipalities, or the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) regularly publish reports that emphasize “anticipated recruitment,” “average salary per job category,” and the “likelihood for temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents.” Such workers emigrate to Canada in large part on the basis of promised work-life balance and high wages, yet encounter the industry’s extremely high demands on labour, resulting in company cultures characterized by “a very particular kind of resentful subservience.”5Dickinson, Kay. Off Key: When Film and Music Won’t Work Together. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

For the multinational corporation, the temporary foreign worker offers a next-best alternative to outsourcing. Ubisoft proudly declares that 20 per cent if its workforce consists of “international talent.” This scheme is applied right across the sector: “Do you live outside of Canada?”—Eidos-Montreal coaxes—“If we hire you, we will help you obtain a work permit. We believe that no border should hinder the international mobility of talent!” Square-Enix’s promotional materials present Montreal in the role of a “host to a growing community,” in a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multilingual city with “a unique personality, at the crossroads of North American and European influences. . . . To top it off, Montreal cuisine, which taps into a whole world of cultural influences, is universally renowned.” Fine dining and luxury boutiques are the focus of this genre of recruitment advertising, aimed at an imagined community of highly educated international job hunters.

“Doors are always open (we don’t even have closed offices) and instant communication promote collaboration. Our approach is to continually find new ideas and solutions in a relaxed atmosphere”-Behaviour Interactive, image courtesy of acdf*.

Over time, the promotional strategies of various game production studios in Montreal have shifted their emphasis away from architectural design and location. This had been an important initial tactic, essential for new companies to attract attention and build up a critical mass of local and regional partners, but eventually displays of architectural chic and hipster glam have become inconvenient for those aiming to compete globally, as outsourcing to lower-priced regions becomes a threat. Now, nearly ten years later, GameOn’s promotional approach is terse and to the point. This mid-sized Montreal studio no longer strives to acquaint you with its personable CEO and his studio hands, an ensemble formerly presented as a closely-knit professional family you can trust. Today, GameOn’s demo reel and website consist of flashy stills showcasing its facilities, clips from recent AAA titles, and a few bullet points drawing attention to its highly specialized services and expertise that a potential client (usually another, bigger studio) might expect. There is no discussion of its physical location or appearance. As big developers increasingly transfer work towards new areas, local companies strive to remain in the game by highlighting their mobility and placelessness.

The interests of local labour and those of multinational corporations are enmeshed with the government’s tax incentive in a conflicted relationship. Public funds place an uncomfortable leverage upon the multinational entity by requiring accountability and transparency, especially when it comes to local employment. A show of concern for local employment presents the State in a favourable light with the voter, but not with the multinational, who struggles to prevent its host State from micromanaging labour-voter relations and interfering with its bottom line. Local labour benefits from the multinational for exposure and prestige, but is under constant threat of being replaced, while at the same time hopeful local entrepreneurs struggle to push international competition out of the way. Across the industry’s self-promotion and recruitment propaganda, these anxieties are rendered as fantasies of cosmopolitan allure, while the very particular conditions that initially formed the game scene in Montreal are tucked away out of sight.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Montreal’s extended digital game world includes side-chain supplier studios, technological arts centres, international conventions for game professionals, a videogame music orchestra, a comiccon, and several graduate-level research programmes.
2. Vaugeois was a well-known lobbyist and darling of the Parti Québecois, the sovereigntist provincial political party then in power.
3. Tremblay, Diane-Gabrielle, and Serge Rousseau. “The Montreal Multimedia Sector: A Cluster, a New Mode of Governance or a Simple Co-Location?” in Canadian Journal of Regional Science 28, no. 2 (2005): 299–327.
4. Archival copy on archive.org
5. Dickinson, Kay. Off Key: When Film and Music Won’t Work Together. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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