Winnipeg has recently developed a reputation as an upstart hub of innovation. Pushing the envelope in areas such as health, big data and virtual reality, local companies both big and small are contributing to a digital global landscape that stretches far beyond the Perimeter Highway.
One of the most exciting Winnipeg trailblazers is Complex Games, a game development studio that’s been making some big waves. Recently, I spoke with Noah Decter-Jackson, CEO and Creative Director, about his experiences co-founding and developing a thriving video game studio right here in Manitoba.
Before indie game studios
Noah and several of his friends always wanted to work in the video game industry from an early age, but struggled with the prospect of moving away in order to pursue their dreams.
“We all wanted to get into games, and we had the talents (for) game development,” he says. But unfortunately, opportunities to work in this industry didn’t exist in Winnipeg during the mid-2000s.
“Our options were pretty limited — either move to a city like Montreal, Vancouver or down to the United States to try to get an entry-level position at a studio like Ubisoft, or we could start something on our own.”
“We were young enough to think that we knew better than the AAA studios,” he laughs.
Initially, Complex Games was made up of Noah, his co-founder Adrian Cheater and “a bunch of our friends and volunteers working in each other’s basements,” he recalls. There, they began to develop an idea for a 3D hand-to-hand combat game, which Noah explains was novel at the time.
Some of the team at Complex Games.
“Indie studios didn’t really exist yet,” he explains, “so we built up a team of about 20 people and plugged away at the idea for about eight months.” During that time they focused primarily on the game engine, which provided the core functionality for many of the games that the studio has since gone on to produce.
The engine was so impressive that they were able to raise a small amount of seed funding from friends and family in order to establish the company.
“It was at that point that we went from being some dudes working in garages and basements to an actual game development company,” recalls Noah.
They continued to work on a game called “Dungeon” and pitched the idea on stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the premier conference for game developers and gamers worldwide.
“We didn’t get any traction though,” Noah says, going on to explain that even though their idea was sound and the game engine they had built was impressive, there were a few factors keeping them from investment. “We had no track record, we hadn’t produced any finished materials, and we were from Winnipeg — some ‘unknown’ city somewhere in Canada,” says Noah.
Choosing to pivot
At this point, Noah and his team considered a fundamental question many business owners face: Do we quit now, or keep going and try to figure out how to make things work?
Instead of folding and closing its doors, Complex Games transitioned from a game development studio which focused primarily on developing its own intellectual property (IP), to a company that worked on game ideas for other larger companies.
During these formative years, Noah and his team began doing “work for hire” projects including animation and web app development, and built it to the point where the company was completely focused on producing games for other companies.
Their pivot paid off.
Since then, Complex Games has worked with some of the world’s largest brands and produced a series of hits in the mobile gaming space. One of the first titles they developed was Battle Bears Royale, based on the popular iPhone game Battle Bears.
Noah explains that the original concept for Battle Bears was a simple third-person shooter multiplayer game developed by the company SkyVu, but the company wanted to expand on the franchise and was looking for help. “We did a ton of pitching and design for the Battle Bears games,” he says. “We helped them make it into a more complicated game, and we handled everything from the pitching, design and the full production of Battle Bears Royale”.
The team at Complex Games has worked with other AAA studios to produce mobile games, including Disney to produce a Duck Tales game, and with Nickelodeon to produce the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, TMNT: Rooftop Run.
“We pitched to ramp up and improve the TMNT game,” says Noah, “and our work on that title got the reviews up over 4 stars, which is great.”
Producing local experiences
Recently Complex Games collaborated with the Assiniboine Park Zoo and local film company Centric to produce Arctic Adventures: Bears & Seals, an interactive experience at the zoo’s new Journey to Churchill exhibit.
“Centric handled all of the video aspects of the project and we were brought in to handle the interactive elements,” Noah says, explaining that one of the main goals of the exhibit was to educate visitors about how animals live in the Arctic.
During development, Noah and his team worked closely with representatives from the Assiniboine Park Zoo to make sure they met specific educational goals and conveyed what the lives and ecosystems in the Arctic are like.
“We needed to come up with games that kids can pick up, play for a few minutes and then walk away,” he says. “It was a fun challenge, and it’s a great feeling to see our own games in a local feature where kids can see them and use them to learn.”
Developing their own games
These days, after years of developing titles for other game studios, Complex Games has turned its focus back to developing its own titles. Noah explains there are lots of challenges in working with other studios, especially the creative expectations and restrictions involved in meeting the client’s vision.
“When you’re working with a large publisher, you’re not in control,” he states. In one instance, Complex Games dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to a particular publisher and title, only to have the project cancelled as a result of the publisher’s decision to terminate all of their Western projects.
“That was tough,” Noah admits. “We put years of development into a title that will never be launched.”
However, the years spent pitching and producing titles for other publishers helped establish Complex Games as a respected studio with enough funding and support to begin doing what Noah and his co-founders had always dreamed of: producing their own games.
Currently, Complex Games has released Drop Assault, a mobile game they bought back from the Japanese publisher who originally contacted them to develop it. Noah explains that they wanted to publish it themselves, and since releasing it over two years ago, it’s gone on to see success in the mobile game market.
The team is currently developing two new titles; one called “Ship Out of Luck” that Noah describes as a “jazzy space western action adventure role-playing game” that draws inspiration from TV shows like Cowboy Bebop and Firefly. It’s expected to be released in 2018.
The other project hasn’t been announced yet, but Noah alludes that it’s tied to an existing licensed property. “We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket,” he explains, “so we’re working on a project that’s our own IP and ideas, and another which is attached to a licensed title with an existing market.”
Being a Winnipeg game company
“When we started Complex Games, ‘indie studios’ barely existed, and certainly not in Winnipeg,” laughs Noah. “We’ve been around a long time.”
When asked about his decision to stay in Winnipeg, rather than leave and found a company elsewhere, Noah states simply, “This is where we all were, and where all of our friends and family were.”
He goes on to explain that while he initially didn’t see the value of starting a company in Winnipeg, he’s since come to understand the value of being a Winnipeg-based business. “We were the only game development company in town for a long time,” he says, “and Winnipeg didn’t have a big tech sector, which meant it was easy for us to attract and hire graduates.”
Noah also points to lower costs of living as a boon for a Winnipeg business. “Our costs of living are lower here than, say, San Francisco,” he says, “so as an indie studio we didn’t have to worry about competing with the ‘big guys’ to offer six-figure salaries to fresh grads because the market is less competitive. That helped a lot, especially in the early years.”
The future of Winnipeg’s tech sector
Moving forward, Noah hopes to see more collaboration within Winnipeg’s tech sector with post-secondary institutions in order to produce graduates who can meet the growing demand for developers, 3D modelers, artists and other digital roles.
“We need to work more closely with post-secondary institutions like Red River College in order to ensure that the skills needed for roles in our tech sector are being taught in the classroom,” Noah says. “The institutions are eager, but it can take a while to work stuff into their programs, which can benefit businesses like Complex Games.”
He goes further to describe how the business community and tech sectors can work even more closely together with colleges and universities in order to produce job-ready grads.
“Collaboration and long-term planning are how we’re going to move Winnipeg’s tech industry forward,” he states. “We’ve come a long way and I’m glad that Complex Games has played a role in moving our industry forward.”
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