Victoria’s gaming industry surges during pandemic, spurred by house-bound players

Throughout the pandemic, they have been an escape from daily bouts of bad news and a respite from boredom, yet video games have done more than provide digitized enemies for slaying and lead couch-bound adven­turers on quests.

They’ve played a major role in growing part of Victoria’s high-tech economy, which has managed to keep itself rolling and thousands employed.

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“People are not suffering in this industry — it’s a good place to be,” said Clayton Stark of Victoria-based Kixeye gaming studio.

“The COVID bump came and went and we went back to normal for the most part, and generally speaking, the industry has remained very strong and unaffected over the last year or so.”

The “bump” Stark refers to was the massive increase in the number of players and time spent playing, seen globally when the world went indoors last March.

Stark, chief executive at Kixeye and chief technology officer for Sweden-based Stillfront, Kixeye’s parent company, said the bump lasted for several months, all while other industries saw devastating losses amid pandemic restrictions.

The NPD Group, a U.S.-based analytics firm, reported total consumer spending on video gaming in the U.S. alone broke a record last year at $57 billion US, a 27 per cent increase from the previous year, with increases in all gaming categories.

Worldwide, video-game revenues could top $160 billion US this year.

Mobile gaming led the way in 2020, with a 12 per cent increase in play on tablets and cellphones compared with 2019.

NPD noted there were 303.7 million mobile users in the U.S. and Canada last year.

Tim Teh, chief executive of Kano Apps, a Victoria-based developer, said at times last year, his company was breaking revenue records every month.

“We definitely saw the lift and I think most did. I heard that through the first quarter last year, companies were seeing a 30 per cent lift year over year,” he said. “It’s tailed off from that initial boom, but it’s still strong.”

Teh said he also heard that Kano’s social games — played on social platforms such as Facebook — played an important role in building social connections. “That was what they were craving and missing so much.”

Dan Gunn, chief executive at the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and ­Entrepreneurship Council, said it’s no surprise people have turned to tech products for connection, productivity and entertainment, resulting in local tech companies continuing to thrive even in the face of the ­uncertainty and economic impacts of a global pandemic.

The most recent economic-impact study of the Victoria gaming scene, in 2014, pegged it at about $25 million a year, but Stark said that figure is likely way out of date and only a fraction of the impact it’s actually having.

Loc Dao, chief executive of DigiBC, the association representing the industry in the province, including more than 600 game studios, visual-effects studios, animation and virtual-reality companies, said the industry is healthy, though continuing restrictions on social gatherings mean the future is still uncertain.

“The small upside of the pandemic for B.C. is that those companies who had games in the market did well, but challenging for those small studios with games in development, as the normal way for making deals is through big in-person events, which aren’t happening,” he said.

Dao said that companies might not be able to grow fast enough due to a lack of available skilled workers.

Teams for both Kano Apps and Kixeye are working from home, though a few may pop into the office on occasion, which has left both companies wondering if they need large studio spaces post-pandemic, or if remote work will continue to play a large role.

Stark, who has 70 employees in Victoria, suggests the ability to work remotely may be helpful in situations where skilled labour is in short supply.

“We have long had offices in different regions and had to learn to work remotely years ago — now the rest of the world has caught up,” he said.

“So if I need new employees, they don’t have to be in Victoria. It definitely makes it easier to recruit.

“We’re now thinking about people five time zones away the same way we think of people who are next door.”

Teh, who has 30 employees but expects to expand to 40 by the end of the year, said it’s unclear what the company’s physical makeup will look like post-pandemic.

“I know some big studios in Vancouver are going fully remote and we are wondering what our space will look like going forward,” he said.

He is sure of a couple of things, however — that gaming’s resiliency through the pandemic is likely to mean increased investment in the industry, and that there are several habits people are likely to keep when the pandemic is over.

“Lockdown has expanded people’s experiences,” he said. “From watching people play video games online [esports] to being comfortable making online purchases. People will keep what has become part of their lives post-pandemic.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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