The game is on

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Video game industry flourishing on P.E.I.

Special to The Guardian by Margaret Magner

Holland College’s video game art and animation instructor Tiffany Baxter helps ensure graduates like Josh Arenburg (‘11) are well prepared for challenging, well-paying jobs in P.E.I.’s flourishing video game industry. Submitted photo

If a son or daughter huddled in a room playing video games once instilled dread in P.E.I. parents, they now have ample reason to soften their judgment and celebrate.

Prince Edward Island’s burgeoning video game industry is globally recognized for innovation, skill and team work, enticing industry leaders to the province.

Rapidly expanding educational and professional opportunities abound for those eager to join the vanguard of video game development, drawing a variety of fields — including programmers, animators, designers, artists and producers — and offering a path to lucrative careers.

The average P.E.I. game development salary is more than $56,000 and can be significantly higher for senior positions. The prospects are as multifaceted as the next young entrepreneur wants to make them.

Gone are the days when those working with computers were labelled socially isolated “geeks.” Video game development is at the forefront of the entertainment industry, generating more revenue and buzz than Hollywood itself.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out, an enormously popular Electronic Arts mobile video game conceived and developed in P.E.I., has netted more than $100 million in life-to-date digital revenue and been consistently among the Top-20 iPhone-grossing games in the U.S. since August 2012. The free-to-play game allows participants to rebuild Springfield after Homer Simpson accidently causes a meltdown at the nuclear power plant.

All this makes Stuart Duncan very happy. Formerly CEO and Founder of Bight Games, recently acquired by industry-giant Electronic Arts and seminally involved in The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Duncan brought the first video game company to P.E.I.

“We moved to P.E.I. in 2005 because of the opportunities presented. The province clearly had a vision. If not, we wouldn’t be here.”

The personification of many creative individuals attracted to the field, Duncan studied sculpture and installation practice at the Ontario College of Art, combining kinetics and robotics with computer programming. He relishes the combined role art and business play in the video game sector.

“Video games are not IT in the traditional sense. We’re in the entertainment business. We employ as many artists as programmers, and deal with original intellectual property, as well as patents. And, we make more money than Hollywood.”

Duncan sees Electronic Arts’ recent acquisition of Bight Games and Other Ocean Interactive’s P.E.I. studio as testament to the Island’s industry. He intends to pursue future opportunities in P.E.I., knowing he’ll be able to attract the top talent he requires.

“This is the trajectory of my career. I never thought P.E.I. was the place for it to happen, but the province took a gamble on me, and we’ve been highly successful.”

Since 2004, six video game companies have been attracted to P.E.I. which has a comprehensive Game Plan strategy. With the industry growing at such a rapid pace, there’s a heightened demand for skilled and qualified workers.

Industry-related programs at UPEI and Holland College help train students for challenging, well-paying jobs.

At Holland College, the two-year video game art and animation diploma program prepares students for a career in the art department of a video game developer. UPEI’s Department of Computer Science and Information Technology offers a specialization in video game programming, ensuring these students graduating with a B.Sc. degree understand how to create video games from initial concept to finished product.

Recent graduates looking for the next step in their P.E.I. careers can participate in government and industry’s recently launched IT Garage incubator, providing paid internships, studio space and industry mentors to help them develop a business application and/or a video game for mobile devices.

Junior and senior high school students have access to Game Force after-school programs to understand the basics of video game development and career paths in P.E.I.’s video game culture.

Fred Irving, instructor of the Game Force program since 2006, knows it’s still a “hot commodity.” Registration for summer camps is filled by 10 a.m. on the days advertised, and parents are thrilled to see the program’s impact on their children.

“Students aren’t just playing games,” says Irving. “They’re applying academic skills to something they’re passionate about. It’s cool, but it’s hard work, too. They already see the opportunity and imagine their role in it.”

It might just be time to put on your t-shirt and jeans, sit beside your kids, and join the fun. The game is clearly on.

Margaret Magner, Ph.D., is a freelance journalist in Charlottetown (www.magnerink.com).

Organizations: Holland College, Ontario College of Art, Electronic Arts Game Plan Department of Computer Science and Information Technology IT Garage

Geographic location: P.E.I., Prince Edward Island, Hollywood U.S. Springfield Charlottetown

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  • Been there
    December 09, 2013 - 08:26

    I've actually worked payroll and HR for one of these companies. The starting salary is actually pretty accurate for all positions but art. They start a bit lower but nothing significantly IMO. The video game industry has been good for pei. Perhaps a bit of bitterness from the other posters because things didn't work out as planned? And Bight was here first.

  • Candace .C
    December 08, 2013 - 17:25

    This whole article is complete rubbish. The starting salary on average is between $32 to $34k. The only way you might a salary even close to/past $56k would be if you became a manager/producer. So unless you are exceptionally talented with modeling, drawing concept art, digital painting, or programming- best to take a business course if you are looking to make enough money to live comfortably. Also, if memory serves right, the company that was bought this year, Other Ocean Interactive, was the first company on Island, followed by Tellos and then Bight Games.

  • Howard Duck
    December 08, 2013 - 16:51

    HAAHAHAHAAHAH omg, I can't stop laughing. I've worked at several of these companies and I can tell you $56,000 is a complete lie. A senior might get 50. Juniors right out of school will get 30 if they are lucky. And that is only going to go down. There are far more people then jobs, and the college grads do not have the skills to hack it in the industry. This article is all lies and PR. If you do want to make money in games, don't go to Holland college, go get bachelor of computer science.