Years ago, Willie Stevenson worked in the film and TV business for Salter Street Productions. He was a producer on the popular fantasy series Lexx. Eventually, the compromises of that world started to get to him.
"I always wanted to get into this sector," he says, but wondered if it was a viable thing, an independent videogame company in Halifax. His wife and business partner Colleen Shannahan did some research and spoke with a few consultants and other indie gaming companies, discovering that it was doable. Along with two computer science grads they created Silverback Productions, until last year run out of their Dartmouth home. Now, with their hip Charles Street office and 14 employees, not counting local freelancers and suppliers—in the fields of programming, distribution, sound recording, music and more—the company is planning to go huge.
Silverback's flagship game is called Ben and Kranky. It's an adventure-based, non-violent story for kids, about a dog who has to rescue his boy, full of magic and artifacts in a gorgeously rendered environment. It's expected to debut in the coming months, depending on the interest of what Stevenson calls "big American fish" who are interested in partnering up with Silverback. Also on deck is a game Silverback is developing with the help of First Nations communities across Canada, called Project White Calf, expected to hit the PC/ Xbox market at an indeterminate point in the future.
Available right now is Mr Jones' Graveyard Shift, the company's first casual game—an easy to download, easy to learn, rapidly addictive genre of gaming aimed at women—which, at the time of this writing, is the 10th most popular time management game on the enormously popular bigfishgames.com.
"We have this great distributor," Gogii Games, out of Moncton, "who gives us crazy market penetration around the world, but we can't sell it ourselves," says Stevenson, explaining the intricacies of video game regulation. "If you want a half-a-million people playing your game, you're not going to do it yourself."
Silverback's loft-style office space is full of wide Mac monitors and dedicated designers, creating environments that will be explored by gamers internationally. Silverback joins a community of Halifax-area digital animators, game and web specialists which has really taken off over the past few years. There've been a few key changes in that time.
"Bandwidth," explains Stevenson, "And people's trust of e-commerce. Three years ago if you wanted to be anybody, you could do your thing online and have a tiny percentage. Now we can create our own mojo and slowly build it up. And we have an excellent team, mostly Dal graduates, computer science. Those guys are really good, like a little ninja squad."
Stevenson, originally from Ottawa, needs no prompting to sing the praises of Nova Scotia and why he and his wife chose to set up shop here, starting with the good people at Nova Scotia Business Inc., who helped secure tax credits for the gaming industry, as well as networking opportunities with other local software businesses.
"I find most governmental organizations built around this stuff to be useless, but NSBI has been really effective. First of all they solicited all of us, little game companies like this, to get a roundtable together and say, 'What can you guys do for each other?' That's how we met TeamSpace," a Burnside-based web development company now working with Silverback. "It's not like TV where everyone is fighting for the Telefilm dollar and networks are forced to buy Canadian shows...there's demand. NSBI, for instance, sent us to San Francisco to a major trade show. A very good taxpayer investment. With that we made sales."
And what of being physically located here in Halifax? What does that do for Silverback?
"You've got awesome brains and creativity. Colleen and I can just come up with ideas and we don't need to go anywhere else. People all over the world are buying that game and they don't care where it's from. But you're watching TV and you click through the channels and go 'Canadian show.' It looks it. It just wasn't fun" working in that business. "Whereas in this industry, there are no borders."