Why Montréal continues to win new game studios in the age of remote working

Montréal has a booming job market for video game, visual effects, and animation talent as a working hub for those industries in North America.

The Canadian city has more than 235 video game and visual effects studios, and more than 21,000 jobs across those companies, according to Montréal International, a non-profit funded by the private sector, the governments of Canada and Québec, the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal and the City of Montréal.

Those studios grew up in the city because of its history as a technical hub, its universities, government incentives, and lower costs. But it continues to thrive during the COVID era, even though remote work and online connectivity means that more places are hospitable for video game work.

The industry’s exponential growth was also the subject of a recent study led by KPMG which revealed that between 2009 and 2019, employment in the city has increased on average by 8% every year in the video game industry and by 28% in visual effects. In 2021 alone, Montréal International worked with 12 gaming studios to establish or expand in Montréal for total investments leading to the creation of 1,677 new jobs over the next three years. Since 2016, Montréal International has helped with the realization of nearly 60 gaming and VFX projects (implementation or expansion) in Montréal. That amounts to $1.99 billion worth of investments. Between 2009 and 2019, the gaming and VFX industries in greater Montréal added on average 1,000 new jobs every year, according to KPMG.

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I interviewed Montréal International CEO Stephane Paquet about the growth during the pandemi. And I asked him if, now the city is so successful with games, it might consider offering fewer financial incentives to companies. His answer was interesting.

” We’re all fighting for the same talent, for the same companies,” he said. “If you fight, you need arms. So we won’t disarm alone. Put your gun on the table and I’ll put mine there too.”

In fact, Montréal is ratcheting up its efforts with a first-of-its-kind virtual recruitment opportunity with the Journées Québec Gaming & VFX, targeting elite workers in the United States who are interested in moving to Montréal to join its rapidly growing video games, visual effects and animation sectors. U.S. workers are a target because of Canada’s lower cost of living, strong public healthcare, good schools, and different politics.

More than a dozen studios are actively recruiting as part of the Journées Québec Gaming & VFX effort. The recruitment continues through November 12. Montréal is touting that it is the home of visual effects productions such as The Rise of Skywalker, Stranger Things, Jurassic World, Blade Runner 2049, 1917, and Tomb Raider. And characters such as Ezio Auditore (Assassin’s Creed), Scooby Doo and Batgirl were also developed with the help of Montréal studios.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Montréal International CEO Stephane Paquet.

Image Credit: Montréal International

GamesBeat: So Montréal is still a happening place, I take it?

Stephane Paquet: I was told you came here in 2017, something like that?

GamesBeat: Yeah, I came for a few years in a row to MIGS. I forget when it changed from when Serge Landry was running it. I was there during the Serge times.

Paquet: With the snowstorms and everything.

GamesBeat: Yeah, yeah, we had a snowstorm one year. What are some of the numbers now for Montréal? How big is the game industry there?

Paquet: If you’re only talking about the game industry, not what we call the creativity hub, we’re about 15,000 people now. That’s grown by about eight percent per year for the last decade. It’s still growing. We still get newcomers. The last trend, and I think you wrote about this, was TiMi arriving, but they’re not the only one. We’ve seen the studios from Asia coming in during recent years, but they’re from other places as well. We’re still working with other players, content players, either coming to Montréal because they’re not here yet, or they’re already here but they want to grow faster than they thought when they arrived. We’re working on expansion, but also on new studios arriving.

It’s still pretty big, especially in the last two years with COVID. We knew it was an industry that was going to grow, what with everyone locked up inside. But we really felt it in the last year. We had a record number of new studios and expansion at existing companies. We felt COVID, but in some good ways, along with the rest of the game industry.

Jurassic Park: Alive and Assassin's Creed were made in Montréal.

Above: Jurassic Park: Alive and Assassin’s Creed were made in Montréal.

Image Credit: Montréal International

GamesBeat: How many studios are those people spread across now?

Paquet: It’s 200 game studios. A few years ago it was still 150. At some point we cracked 175. But it’s 200 now and growing. For the big recruiting push that’s underway, we’re working specifically with 17 key studios, 12 game studios and five VFX studios. Some are new studios and some that have been around for a while. Basically, the message is, “Come and live the expat life. It’s cool!” You can come, pick a project, and after two or three years decide what to do. Many people decide to stay, and we’re glad about that. Others take their experience and a bit of acceleration for their career and that’s fine.

GamesBeat: Do you think this is the most concentrated city in the world now for the game industry?

Paquet: There are different comparisons you can make. I’ve talked to people in the industry about this. We’ve always said we’re among the top five in the world. It depends on whether you only count the triple-A studios. If you look at it that way we’re top three, top two, maybe even number one. But there are different ways to count it. It’s not as if we’re in competition with other cities. I like to say we’re among the top five. I used to be an economic reporter, and when I say things I want to make sure they’re backed up. When I say top five I know that’s right.

Above: Ezio and others were born in Montréal.

Image Credit: Montréal International

GamesBeat: What other cities are close comparisons? San Francisco and Los Angeles, I assume?

Paquet: Those would be two, yes. Tokyo is another one. London could also be up there.

GamesBeat: Comparing to the other aspects of the creative side, are games still the biggest piece of that?

Paquet: Yes, games is the biggest thing in creativity, where we also fit in animation and VFX and things like that. It’s a bit more than double than what we see in animation and VFX, which make up a bit more than 6000 people. But we started building in VFX much later. I was in London in 2012, 2013, and 2014, first when we announced Framestore and then Cinesite. They arrived in Montréal in those years. Since then we’ve seen a big uptick. The growth we’ve seen in the gaming industry took 20-something years to get to where we are. We’ll do the same in VFX much faster. VFX is going just crazy with all the new platforms, the streaming platforms, and their need for content. It won’t take as long to arrive at the same size.

GamesBeat: How have you learned to navigate the politics around this over the years? There always seems to be an element that wants to criminalize games.

Paquet: Criminalize, or just–go ahead and play, but don’t play too much.

GamesBeat: In China they’re limiting the kids to a few hours a week. That probably wouldn’t be a great thing to have in Montréal if you guys are all politically aligned. But how do you educate the public and the politicians about how all of this is not only good economically, but good for everyone?

Paquet: Yeah, good socially and all. I don’t know if you’ll like my answer very much, but my job–I have lots of respect for people who put their face on a big poster and say, “Elect me.” They’re the ones making decisions on those types of things. We could have an interview about cannabis and whether we attract cannabis growers, and my answer would be the same. There’s a government that decided this was legal, so starting from there I can work with that. I still read lots of media, although I’m not a journalist anymore. I’ve not seen a big debate here about the government limiting the number of hours that children can play. It’s more or less a matter for their parents to deal with, rather than the legislature. Up until now that’s what I see.

Above: A snowy view of downtown Montreal from Playtika’s office.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: It feels like Canadians are more mature about this than some people.

Paquet: Do you still have this debate on the west coast?

GamesBeat: Yeah, occasionally we see our broadcasters bring it up, whenever they feel like they can instill some fear into people. A more benign version of it is when you see people have a sort of science-based conversation about addiction. Maybe that’s the more modern version of what, in the past, was more like a moral panic. That still happens here in the U.S. And watching China, I see the concern isn’t limited to the U.S.

But I do see the spread of games everywhere, the spread of game-making to all countries and almost all cities, as the ambassadors of the game industry helping people better understand just how important games are, what kind of role they play in culture and society, and why it’s good to have these businesses providing jobs to communities everywhere. It feels good to see certain cities recognizing that value and doing what they can to support that growth.

Paquet: I appreciate that you see us like that, because it is an important industry in Montréal. It’s part of the creative image that we like to project. And not just project. It’s what we are, what we really are. We have the circuses. We have the singers. We have the cinema. But we also have the video game industry that’s part of our unique culture.

Above: The gaming map of Montréal.

Image Credit: Montréal International

GamesBeat: How often are you making those sorts of publicity efforts, to become part of a conversation with politicians or the public?

Paquet: It’s a given, but for Montréal it’s an important industry. What we’ve seen in recent years–sometimes in Quebec, as in many other places, you have the big metropolis and the smaller cities around. There could have been a debate about the Montréal industry versus the rest of Quebec. But what’s happened in recent years is that yes, you have the studios in Montréal, but they’ve also opened smaller branches. They started with Quebec City, and then they’ve moved to places like Saint Jean. If you like snow that’s a nice place to go. And you have others close to the U.S. border in Sherbrooke. What could have been a debate about the Montréal industry versus the rest of Quebec hasn’t happened, because of those studios that are now disseminated–not necessarily everywhere around the territory, but in smaller places besides just the big metropolis.

GamesBeat: How do you also think about support over time? The equivalent of subsidy over time, how much that should be. Do you have discussions about whether all the financial support that has attracted this industry still needs to happen, now that it’s so big?

Paquet: To be honest, the debate happens from time to time. Up to now, the general answer has been that we won’t unilaterally disarm. Most other jurisdictions offer the same type of tax credits. So why would we, just by ourselves, reduce that? If you look at the figures, we’re not actually the most generous. Some other jurisdictions offer more than we do. If there were a trend, if there were perhaps 10 jurisdictions talking about reducing, it might happen. But we’re not there yet, and I don’t know if we ever will be at any point.

GamesBeat: I like the word “disarm.”

Paquet: We’re all fighting for the same talent, for the same companies. If you fight, you need arms. So we won’t disarm alone. Put your gun on the table and I’ll put mine there too.

Above: Made in Montréal

Image Credit: Montreal International

GamesBeat: As far as how you win, how you’ve been successful, what are companies telling you about what mattered most to them?

Paquet: One word: talent. That’s why we do this. Not only do we have a good talent pool, but we have colleges and universities that make sure the talent pool stays alive and grows. But also we need to go abroad to get the best talent. The ones who say they will, who want to grow their careers, who want experience in another country working on a great project. We have the natural talent pool. We have an easy immigration process for people from outside. We have the universities and colleges that help us.

That’s the reason. You can talk about money and location and cost of living for employees and things like that. But if companies were just looking for places that were cheap, they could go to many other places. It’s not just a matter of cost. It’s the quality of the talent pool you get for the cost you pay here. That’s what Montréal is all about.

GamesBeat: Was anything in particular causing this renewed push that you have going on right now?

Paquet: We’ve worked with some of these studios recently on a mission abroad to bring in talent. But those missions weren’t specifically devoted to VFX and gaming. What’s particular with this one is that we went to the studios and said, “You’re invited. Do you want to come?” We’re doing it because we know the market is growing. The industry is growing. We want to still be in the top five when we talk to you again in two or three years. We need to get the best talent wherever they come from. So we go fishing. We’re going to catch some big ones.

Above: Basilica Notre-Dame de Montréal.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: You had an interesting innovation here with Eidos Montréal going to a four-day work week. It sounds like a first. Has anybody else followed suit that you know of?

Paquet: To my knowledge they’re the first studio to do it. I personally enjoyed the four-day week in my previous life as a journalist. I can assure you it does make a big difference. People love it. I was reading the article where they announced it yesterday. They talked about productivity. In my personal experience as a journalist, we lost the four-day week to a five-day week at some point, but I’m not sure our employers gained a lot in productivity. But the mindsets are changing. That’s one way to say, “I care about my employees. I think that they deserve this.” We’ll watch them and see. I know they have some very intelligent people. But to my knowledge they’re the first one to adopt this here.

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