Creating new worlds of adventure and cooperation in Edmonton

STORY PROFILE TEMPLATE PAGE TEMPLATE

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

Teamwork is fundamental for Jeff Cho. 

He’s an officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He’s also one of the founders of Caldera Interactive, an independent video game company in Edmonton. The studio is working on its first game.

“We want it to be a multiplayer experience, something that you share with your friends,” he says. “It’s a non-violent horror adventure. We want you to play this on your computers in the dark—because it's going to make it scarier—but in conversation with your friends. It's a game that really pushes collaboration and being able to work together.”

Caldera is one of about 75 indie game developers in the city, according to the Edmonton Screen Industries Office. Their games run the gamut of possibilities—from battling cosmic spiders (Only By Midnight’s Curved Space) to finding feline costumes and fighting whiskered rivals (Polar Tabby’s Catlandia: Crisis at Fort Pawprint) to Caldera’s horror adventure.

Cho grew up playing Sonic in Korea and StarCraft in Toronto, but he didn’t think he would ever make his own games. He eventually moved to Edmonton, and, years later, took a Certificate in Computer Game Development at the University of Alberta (U of A). Launched in 2014, the 18-credit course is open to all U of A students.

“As we started getting into lectures about game design, prototyping and testing, I started thinking this is doable,” says Cho. “It doesn't feel so huge and impossible.”

IMAGE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

Four men with game consoles in their hands.
The Caldera crew, from left to right, features lead developer Mickael Zerihoun, sound director Isael Huard, game director Jeff Cho and art director Titus Lo. Courtesy of Caldera Interactive.

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

All different backgrounds

One of Caldera’s co-founders, Shelby Carleton, also took the U of A’s certificate. (She now works as a narrative designer on Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty and lives near San Francisco.) She says the course teaches students as much about teamwork as it does about how to make video games.

“You work with other team members who come from all different backgrounds and skill sets,” she says.  “You've got your artists, your programmers, your musicians, your writers, and you all get to work together. That's such a huge part of game development. It's not only being good at what you do, but it's having those soft skills of being able to communicate, being able to problem solve with other people and work through things together.”

Mentorship and funding

Working together also extends to Edmonton’s indie game community at large. Cho credits several local mentors for helping Caldera get to where it is today. The studio recently received a grant from the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), which allowed three of Cho’s colleagues to go full-time. 

“We've had great mentorship from people in this community,” he says. “A lot of people, when we first meet them, have no idea who we are, but they're willing to sit down with us for hours on end, multiple times, to give us advice, to open their books to us. Literally. So we're incredibly grateful for the support.”

Caldera also received funding from the Edmonton Screen Industries Office (ESIO), set up by the City of Edmonton in 2017. So did Polar Tabby Interactive, the local makers of Catlandia: Crisis at Fort Pawprint. The small team, led by Ryan Bromsgrove, worked on the game for about five years before releasing it in 2020. A sequel is in the works.  

“It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to actually think of all the many tiny things that go into making something so complicated work,” he says. 

IMAGE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

 Animated cats and a bird congregate on a path in a park.
A screenshot from Catlandia. Courtesy of Polar Tabby Interactive.

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

Unique asset

The ESIO is one of the only film commissions in Canada to offer grants to indie video game developers and other interactive media, such as virtual reality.  “Entertainment is constantly evolving and we think it will only get more interactive in the future,” says Tom Viinikka, CEO of the ESIO.

“The video game industry is a unique asset in Edmonton that allows us to participate in where the world is moving. The ESIO is here to help fuel that opportunity that lies within the interactive digital media sector. Edmonton developers are sought out and rank with the best in the world.”

In 2021, Canada’s video game industry contributed $5.5 billion to the country’s economy, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.

 
Anything is possible

Edmonton’s video game industry began, of course, with BioWare in 1995. It’s home to some of the world’s most popular games—such as Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect—and was eventually acquired by the international juggernaut, Electronic Arts.
 
Casey Hudson joined BioWare in the late ‘90s. He launched his own indie company, Humanoid Studios, with offices in Edmonton and Kelowna, in 2021. It’s now developing its first game and recently released some images, set in a sci-fi universe. 

BLOCK QUOTE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

“Growing up here made me feel like anything is possible,” he says. “The fact that a major global video game company was right here in Edmonton got people thinking about the fact that you could do this kind of work in Edmonton.”

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

“Out of all of this, there’s an indie game scene that has come up really well. It’s a very vibrant, positive and supportive community. We know that it’s kind of special that we’re doing this here in Edmonton.”

IMAGE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

A bearded man smiles.
Casey Hudson is one of the founders of Humanoid Studios. Courtesy of Humanoid Studios.

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

Thunderous applause

One of the community’s biggest supporters is GameCamp Edmonton. It’s a networking group for students, hobbyists and indie game creators to meet, work on projects, and learn more about the industry. Meetings are monthly; the group also runs a Discord and Facebook group for online discussions.

“It's great exposure,” says Trent Oster, one of the founders of BioWare.  “It allows a lot of people to come out and see what game development is all about. I think it’s also really supportive. When anybody comes out and shows something off, the applause is thunderous. Everybody shows their support because we all know how hard it is.”


Embracing strengths

Oster now runs Beamdog, one of Edmonton’s largest studios. Launched in 2009, the company is known for making enhanced editions of role-playing games—such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights—for smartphones, tablets and desktops.

He says the secret for Beamdog’s success is simple. “It’s really about embracing each other’s strengths and understanding that we’re stronger as a group than we are individually,” he says.

“I think Canadians, and especially Edmontonians, have this almost anti-superstar attitude. It’s not about the star, it’s about the entire cast. Without them, the production doesn’t happen. That’s the greatest thing about working with skilled and talented people: they take ideas that are sometimes just loose concepts that you have and they flesh them out. The results are so much better than what you have in your head.”

IMAGE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

An animated dragon breathes ice on a kneeling man with a staff.
An image from Beamdog’s enhanced edition of Neverwinter Nights. Courtesy of Beamdog.

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

Adventure and creativity

In April, Beamdog released an original game, MythForce, inspired by ‘80s cartoons. A few weeks earlier, the studio was acquired by Aspyr Media, a game publisher in Texas. Oster says the deal will help Beamdog expand its roster of  original games and grow the 83-person company.

Matt Freedman joined Beamdog in 2021, shortly after he lost his job at another company at the start of the pandemic. He and his wife had just moved from Toronto to Edmonton a few months prior.

As Beamdog’s design manager, Freedman is responsible for the “happiness and productivity” of a team of designers. One of the company’s guiding values is “Embrace Adventure” and he thinks it applies to the city as a whole. 

BLOCK QUOTE PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE

“It's a big part of what Edmonton does,” says Freedman. “I see a lot of creativity, I see a lot of people who go out and get things done. Edmonton’s got this entrepreneurial spirit.

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.

The Edmonton Screen Industries Office also encourages streaming, Hollywood and international productions to film in Edmonton. Learn more on local film and TV.  

TEXT BLOCK PARAGRAPH TEMPLATE.