PEI, and the livin’ is easy … especially for local game developers

Prince Edward Island’s GamePlan — an economic development strategy targeted at the island’s gaming industry — is helping local game developers score big in the little island.

Launched by the PEI government, GamePlan offers a combination of tax and labour credits for businesses and ties with local schools.

The program has slowly but surely made headway in developing PEI’s fledgling computer game industry, and could be stemming the tide of young talent migrating away from the island, according to local business owners.

At a time when Canada’s digital media industry is strapped for funds, PEI’s gaming sector is flourishing.

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“Gaming industry sales are up despite the economic downturn, companies are interested in Atlantic Canada, and we’re attracting many young people,” said Deirdre Ayre, studio head for Other Ocean Interactive .

The Charlottetown-based company owned by her brother Andrew, created the hit Super Monkey Ball game for the iPhone, and is also the company behind Ultimate Mortal Kombat for Nintendo DS and Ten Pin Alley 2 for Wii.

Other Ocean’s newest educational game scheduled for release next month is Puffins: Adventure Island for Nintendo DS and has a definite Atlantic Canadian flavour.

For starters, the Puffin is the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador; the original score has been composed by Alan Doyle of the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, and artwork is based on the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland.

Ayre commended the keen attention those spearheading GamePlan have placed on local culture and economic realities. That emphasis, she said, is a key reason for the development strategy’s success.

“The planners really did their homework by studying the engineering culture in Atlantic Canada and focusing on the need to retain talent here,” said Ayre.

When GamePlan launched in 2003, its stated goal was to create 500 new jobs in the game sector within five years. Today, PEI has four development studios and one testing facility.

About 150 people are employed in PEI’s gaming industry.

That’s a fairly big number “considering PEI probably has a population of around 130, 000,” said Ayre.

Other computer game developers on the island include Telos Production Inc., makers of the games Shadow of the Panopticon and City of Sinners and Saints; Longtail Studios; BightGames, a mobile game developer; and Sculpin QA, a video game testing and quality assurance studio.

Getting good video game programmers is very hard, according to David LeBlanc, chief of the computer science and information technology at the University Of Prince Edward Island (UPEI).

“The IT industry here is small compared to large centres, but quite significant for our size,” he said.

The three main thrusts of the industry are traditional IT, IT support, and video game development and testing,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc, who developed the four-year Specialization in Video Game Programming course for the university, said interest is high and expects steady enrolment.

The program is unique in the east coast and one of the very few of its kind offered at the undergraduate level in Canada.

The University also offers a general undergraduate degree in computer science, which is accredited by the Canadian Information Processing Society.

Holland College, a community college in PEI, offers a two-year diploma in video game art and design program. It collaborates with the University on several projects, and both institutions work with local companies to determine and develop student skill sets that will be in demand by the industry.

The arrangement enables instructors to train students in skills that will help them land jobs that aren’t just relevant to local employers but also in demand elsewhere in the world, said Chris Shapley, an artist and designer in the gaming industry, and an instructor at Holland College.

“By offering career opportunities to PEI’s youth, we hope to keep people on the island if they truly wish to stay,” he said.

LeBlanc echoes these sentiments.” PEI is different from most small places I have been. Young People here generally want to stay here if they can. The trick is to provide them with work opportunities that they find interesting.”

Shapley says key attractions for employees in PEI are “the low cost of living, lack of traffic jams, and availability of high tech jobs in such a relaxed environment.”

“Employers move here because of the low cost of renting, ease of locating a business in a small and friendly community, and the tax breaks.”

For example game companies extending operations to PEI may be eligible for the island’s Innovation and Development Tax Credit or IDTC.

This performance-based incentive provides businesses with a rebate against eligible production labour, such a programmers, artists and producers.

A Specialty Labour Tax Credit also enables eligible staff members of a PEI game company to claim a rebate for their share of provincial income taxes.

Companies relocating or expanding to PEI are also encouraged to take up leasing space at the Atlantic Technology Centre (ATC) in Charlottetown.

ATC is a corporate office and media production complex with a rental incentive program that provides eligible companies with a $10 per square foot rebate on the base lease cost.

Companies can avail of up to a maximum of $50,000 rebate over a three-year lease.

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