I spoke with Ian Kelso on Sunday, August 29 at Fan Expo 2010, shortly after he was featured as part of a panel addressing the state of the local games industry in Toronto. Ian is president and CEO of Interactive Ontario, an interactive media industry trade organization dedicated to fostering the growth and prosperity of digital content creators within Ontario. We discuss here the role and mandate of Interactive Ontario, government funding opportunities for interactive media creation, digital games as cultural products, the state of games at Fan Expo and industry events like it and how changing models of digital content creation and distribution may encourage more social acceptance of video games as forms of cultural expression.
Brady Curlew (BC): Can you please introduce yourself, your organization and its mandate.
Ian Kelso (IK): My name is Ian Kelso, I’m the president and CEO of Interactive Ontario, which is an association of 250 companies in Ontario working in interactive entertainment, creating intellectual property for digital platforms. These companies make not only video games but also mobile media, online media and e-Learning products.
In terms of our mandate, Interactive Ontario is a non-profit organization and our purpose is to primarily serve our members. Our membership is made up of all growth companies, so a lot of what we are concentrating on is finding ways of accessing public-sector and private-sector financing for them, and we work a lot with the government on programs and tax credits but we’re also trying to train investors and venture capitalists about the industry. We’re also involved with cultivating talent and making sure our schools and universities are putting out the right kind of talent for the industry. Those are the two main functions – we do some marketing, working with the Interactive Ontario brand, going to different markets and shows around the world.
BC: Are you surprised at all by developers who might be unaware that government funding is available to those trying to start a career in interactive media?
IK: Yes and no. A lot of the significant government funding has come around fairly recently in Ontario – for example, the tax credits have only been around for about two years in a form that is really accessible to a lot of game developers. Before that, they were very hard to access, there was a lot of paper work involved, and you had to be a certain size of company to qualify for them. In addition, tax credits were only about 20% [of a developer’s eligible labour and marketing costs] and now they are 40%, so that’s pretty meaningful in terms of the budget for a project. I’m not surprised if some companies haven’t heard of these changes until recently, but more and more are learning about the tax credits as a potential advantage to growing a business here.
There are other funds available too, like the Canada Media Fund, which is a national program. It’s free money basically. It has been up till now a bit of a smaller fund, $14 million a year for the entire country, but it’s given out in the form of capital you don’t have to pay back, unless you’re successful enough to do so.
BC: Are the government funds stable, or are they dependant on whatever government is in place at the time?
IK: [Laughs] They are as stable as any funds would be. The TV and film funding has been around for years and years, in one form or another. I think, since video games are being treated first and foremost as a cultural sector, it bodes well since there has been strong tradition in Canada for funding in that sector. What we’ve discovered in Ontario though is that it isn’t just funding projects and contributing to the cultural space, we’re actually creating the kind of jobs the Ontario government wants to create. Obviously, there are industries like the automotive sector and manufacturing slowing down very quickly and not growing as they once were as drivers of the economy. Jobs in the interactive media industry have the advantage of being high paying, and “green,” for the most part, as well as being net contributors to the knowledge economy. Those are exactly the kinds of jobs that governments around the world are trying to create right now. Building a critical mass in this sector will have a positive impact on the economy. We can see the incentive already – we are seeing companies like Ubisoft moving to Ontario, and they are bringing 800 jobs here, jobs paying an average of $60-70K a year. That’s great tax revenue coming back in the long run, but it also has great spin off effects across the entire ecosystem.
BC: That leads well into my next question. Is the goal of Interactive Ontario to make Ontario see the same kinds of success that BC and Quebec have seen in the game development industry?
IK: Yes, but maybe not the very same kind of success. Ontario has to differentiate itself a little bit, I think it is a different place. Right now we need to grow from what we have, and what we have is a very strong and vibrant independent game development scene. However, as I go around the world, I quickly come to realize that we’re really gaining a lot of momentum in this scene and others. A lot of people are looking at Ontario as a very creative place. It is a great place to make games because of all the different factors, because of the government support and private financing available that contributes to the creative economy here, but also because there has been a rich history of the development of films, television programs, music and magazines centered here, in Toronto in particular. More and more we are seeing games, as interactive media, collide with audio-visual media, with a lot of value created for audiences at the intersection of those two things. For example, take a game like Heavy Rain. On one hand, it’s like a movie. On the other, a video game. Whatever it is, it scored very well critically and it’s certainly done very well in terms of sales. We are going to see more and more of those types of hybrid games, and Toronto is very well situated to create that type of interactive experience.
BC: Changing gears a little bit and addressing what is surrounding us right now, Fan Expo 2010, what do you think these kinds of events suggest about the culture of gaming and interactive media in Ontario and Toronto?
IK: We can see that it is very alive and well… Here in Toronto, you know, there is a huge enthusiasm for the making of video games, alongside comic books, films and all kinds of entertainment. It is a really culture focused town. Just from seeing the room today, for the session that I was speaking on, I was actually shocked: there were so many people trying to get in the room, there is such an enthusiasm to learn about the industry, to learn about how to make video games. I think the ethos is here, we have a very strong ethos around the cultural creation of games. I think that bodes well for the future here.
BC: Because this event’s focus is split among different enthusiast practices, and because there has been some trouble outside with people not getting in even if they have tickets and the line ups have been huge, etc. Do you think Canada or specifically Toronto needs its own gaming or interactive media convention at this point?
IK: Well, that’s a good question. It is very difficult to start a gaming convention. There are a few very big ones in the world. One I was just at in Germany, GDC in San Francisco in March, E3 in LA in June…
BC: And the Penny Arcade Expo next week for the gamers themselves.
IK: Yeah. Industry wise, these events are for one of two things. They are for developers getting together and sharing information or they are for marketing. The ones that are for marketing are more driven by the publishers, and there are no big publishers of note headquartered in Canada to drive the marketing side. But there is a lot more that we can do to bring developers together and create a space for discussion whether it’s for programming, game design, 3D art or the business of games. We’re doing some smaller things on the business side. We run a conference on game financing, which is one of only two or three of its kind in the world and I think we were the first ones to start anything like it about three or four years ago. We are doing things in smaller, but still very meaningful ways.
I would like to think, looking ahead a few weeks from now toward the Toronto International Film Festival opening, that we could one day have a games festival that is on par with something like that. I think that TIFF is a both a great celebration of the art of film as well as a great industry hub of opportunity for people to sell their titles and get exposure and marketing for the holiday season.
BC: Do you have any sense if the people involved in TIFF would be welcoming of any kind of interactive media being presented there one day?
IK: Very much so now, partly because they’ve just built a brand new building called the Bell Lightbox on King Street here in Toronto. In that building, they are going to be hosting a bunch of new initiatives and they’ve hired some new staff, one of those people is a games specialist, so they are very much looking to work more at the intersection of games and film. They are already working with the Hand Eye Society here in Toronto. That is a potentially great opportunity.
BC: You’ve mentioned, over the course of this interview, games as culture. That’s good to hear, given the goals of this digital games, play and culture initiative, not to mention my doctoral research. There are those who seek to legitimize interactive media and games by calling them art, however vaguely defined. In terms of the judgements I’ve come to make out of my career of researching games and their players, I think emphasizing digital games as culture would be the better way to legitimize them. Can you speak to that idea or comment on it?
IK: Games and interactive entertainment in general are unique in that they are hybrids, they are the synthesis of both cultural industries and ICT industries, but I think almost all game developers and publishers would agree that it is the cultural side that really drives the audience. Games are not only now becoming more and more accepted as legitimate entertainment, but also as modes of cultural and artistic expression. We are starting to see auteurs arise in the medium, however games are still somewhat in their infancy in the toolsets and the language that exists for that expression. It is when people like Will Wright come along, or more locally, Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights, who have a vision and want to create a world, but also want to communicate ideas and values as well, that we see what is possible. Ultimately, as we mature the tools that we have to create those environments and the language of the games themselves, it will become more accepted to communicate ideas we don’t currently see in many games. Making games isn’t as simple as putting down straightforward narrative. You have to create the story in the game’s environment. As we start to mature our ability to do that, I think we are going to see games become an even more mainstream form of entertainment as well as a mainstream form of artistic and creative expression.
BC: Applying a very generalized theory that for a pop cultural form to be accepted, respected and to flourish you need it to satisfy three sectors: you need the economics behind it, and certainly the capital is there – companies and investors have been behind games in the past few years. You need positive interaction with the government sector, and, in Canada at least, governments have been willing to invest in game development to bring job opportunities to Canadian cities like Toronto. Finally, you also need to be accepted and respected by the social sector – which is a vague category and an over generalization – but we might think of it as the public’s overall attitude towards the cultural form. It is clear in a lot of respects that video games haven’t satisfied that last sector. What do you think gaming and interactive media in general need to do to capture wider social acceptance? Move away from the boobs and the blood, or change directions in how those tropes are dealt with within the medium?
IK: I think we’ve already started to do that in many ways. One of the biggest factors, aside from the popularization of games into the mainstream, has really been the lowering of the barriers of entry to games development. Being able to make a game almost by yourself – look at Jonathan Mak from Queasy games, he made Everyday Shooter, the whole thing end to end, pretty much on his own. He had a vision and created a game that was atypical. Having the means to express your vision without having to go through the marketing machine, which has in the past been the force that focused on the hardcore, treating the hardcore as the most viable audience. That is why we’ve seen trends that prioritize the “blood and guts” titles and shooter games because they have dependably sold enough product off the shelves. However, in a digital distribution environment the doors are flung wide open. On the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, as well as PSN and XBLA, it is much easier to make a game now, and it is much easier to make a game the way you want to make it. There’s more opportunity to express the vision you have without necessarily conforming to older standards. These developments are starting to and will continue to have major rippling impacts because they create new audiences that don’t just fit into to the narrow slots applied to “hardcore” or “casual” gamers. Sometimes you have to build and cultivate an audience for a new type of product, and where there either hasn’t necessarily been access to or availability of alternative games in the past, we are now seeing that change in many exciting ways. Getting people to play games first, creating that initial market space, is the biggest challenge, but it is something companies like Nintendo has been more successful with recently. Combining expanded markets with more accessible means of expression and distribution for developers should produce big results.
BC: Ian, thank you very much for speaking with me.
IK: Thank you.
The interviews I conduct for Play Till Doomsday usually end with me asking for a game recommendation. Ian’s selection was Hemisphere Games’ Osmos for iPad, which he describes as “soothing and all encompassing.” Check it out!
Interactive Ontario can be followed at http://twitter.com/IOnews