Amid the complex shift in Vancouver's game industry economy, many studios' futures remain uncertain, as anchors relocate and new business is diverted by better tax credits elsewhere. Slant Six, developer of three SOCOM titles for Sony and, more recently, Capcom's Operation: Raccoon City, decided it'd be essential to focus on iOS as one strategy to adapt.
Managing director Brian Thalken was one of the co-founders of Slant Six back in 2005; he worked with Radical Entertainment until 1998, and the studio he founded from there, Barking Dog, would become Rockstar Vancouver. "After having been my own boss running a studio for four years and then getting acquired and working for someone else again... I've got an independent nature about me and I wanted to do my own thing," Thalken explains of the decision to start Slant Six.
"We just wanted to make cool games," he describes of the company's initial ethos. Its first project was writing the graphics rendering engine for SCEA's Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror as part of a co-development deal. SOCOM: Tactical Strike for PSP followed, then SOCOM: Confrontation and Fireteam Bravo 3 followed. Operation: Raccoon City was about two years of the studio's time -- that latter game sold about 2 million units.
Things have changed drastically in Vancouver over recent years, but in his view it's not so much imminently threatened as it is evolving: "There are fewer big studios here, but I would guess there are as many people employed, if not more, because there are so many smaller studios," he says. "I think the whole mobile thing is opening up so many more opportunities, and the platforms we're working with are doing things we couldn't do on them a couple years ago, even."
Thalken says the studio had been considering the mobile and free-to-play spaces for a couple years before the transition began in his city's local industry. "We've been trying to learn up on this stuff for quite a while," he says.
The company began work on its upcoming first self-published title, a flight sim called Strata Scavenger, over a year ago with the original intention of bringing it to PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade -- but by the time it got funding approved from the Canadian Media Fund, the teams had decided tablet was a much more viable platform for this particular title. A transition to thinking mobile had been underway at Slant Six for quite some time.
Now, Slant Six has just launched Bowling Dead on iOS, a game about a pro-bowler left behind after the zombie apocalypse, distributed through a deal with Activision. Game director Tuomas Pirinen says the constraints of the app space have been an exciting design challenge. "I was quite stunned when I started looking at what tablets can do," he says. "I think we have a bit of a tendency in this industry to look at hardware, but when you look at something like Nintendo, they are focused on the games, and that's the approach we wanted to take.
"It's just how the industry is going right now," adds Pirinen. "We see what Nintendo's done with Wii U and the touch screen, and I'm very interested to see what happens with the rest of the console manufacturers. I think that the touch screen is really here to stay -- I'd make a wild guess -- for the next ten years."
That means for mid-size and small studios (Slant Six is about 75 strong), learning how to design for a touch screen is "very much required," Pirinen suggests. "It is a little bit outdated a view that you'd only do [mobile apps] when you don't have anything else to do."
If Slant Six had the opportunity to work on big consoles again, Thalken says the studio "would carefully look at it," but mobile will continue to be an essential part of the studio's strategy.
Bowling Dead was the product of an idea jam among the studio staff, where anyone could submit a playable demo. Everyone internally loved the idea of zombie bowling; "I'm a big believer of working with the people's own passions, so when there was such a groundswell of support from the developers, it was natural," Pirinen says.
Reviews for the game have been a little tepid, with both 148apps.com and Pocketgamer expressing that the zombie theme feels tired, oversaturated on the app store. Pirinen is excited about what he describes as the game's "grindhouse style" nonetheless: "I think there's a lot of ability to bring a real artistry to the platform; that comes with the creative freedom," he says. "I think that really stands out as well -- I think the game needs to have a unique look and feel."
Slant Six hopes that production values, like attention to art and fully-voiced dialog, will help Bowling Dead stand out in the challenging app store landscape. "You need to have something that gets people buzzing," Pirinen says. "The traditional media has much less of a role in driving people downloading the game as opposed to the playgound chatter, so to speak."
Alongside its mobile transition, the team is collaborating with Microsoft on upcoming Win8 mobile title Galactic Reign. There's not much the studio can say about that one at this point, besides that it'll be "out soon."
"We're optimistic," Thalken says. "There are probably just as many people working and making games in Vancouver as there were a few years ago before the bigger studios shut down." Microsoft itself is opening a Vancouver location, "and I think that as the mobile market continues to expand, and with the upcoming release of the next-gen consoles next year, the industry here is going to be as busy as ever."
Pirinen cites the old adage of opportunity within danger: "I think it's a super exciting time," he agrees. "We're in a second renaissance now. Developers get more chances to bring new, unforeseen and amazing titles out -- not every one of them will be a success, but that's always been the case."