The Signal Goose Byte Montreal indie gaming game games

Navigating the turbulence of the indie Montreal game scene in the 2020s

“If the climate dictates we need smaller, leaner teams to make more quality AA-or-lower titles, the Legault government has chosen an interesting moment to roll back the multimedia tax credit that made Quebec a boon to the industry in the first place.”

Back in late 2022, I accepted a job offer at an indie games studio in Montreal called Goose Byte. I was on tour with my rock band during the recruitment process: doing my interview in Berlin, taking follow-up calls in Brussels and signing the contract in the back of the van on our way to the next gig in Cambridge, U.K. 

I leapt with trepidation into a totally new industry, out of music and into video games. The music biz, for a touring musician, had become very rough. Unless you’re selling out arenas, you’re operating on razor-thin profit margins and constantly rejigging budgets to see what can be cut; a constant question of what we can do with less. I would quickly learn that a lifetime of training under this type of duress would help me in my role of managing an independent video games studio. 

While the pandemic decimated live music and touring, it gave a super boost to video games. Everyone took to gaming as both a way to pass the time without leaving their house, and a social activity. Sales of consoles and games skyrocketed. Microsoft saw record engagement for the period ending March 2021, with profits up by 50% and XBoxes flying off the shelves. In 2020, global gaming sales rose 20% to nearly $180-billion and continued to rise with the release of next-gen consoles in 2021.

What goes up must come down

The Signal Goose Byte Montreal indie gaming game games

Today, in 2024, the sentiment is quite different. The post-pandemic slump, coupled with an increased cost of living, have changed the landscape drastically. The most visible effect came with studio closures and layoffs: 10,000 lost jobs in 2023, and another 10,000 in the first half of 2024. It’s so real, the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page.

Some analysts suggest a re-calibration and post-pandemic correction is in effect, while my armchair take is that game development has been getting too big for its britches. In other words, an expectation had developed that any game that wanted to reach a large audience had to be a AAA beast built by a team of 800. 

All the top-selling games of 2023 came out of AAA studios: Hogwarts Legacy (Warner Bros.), The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Nintendo), Diablo IV (Blizzard), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Activision/Blizzard) and Star Wars: Jedi Survivor (EA).

Harder, better, faster, stronger

We can build quality games with a smaller scope at maximum efficiency. I’m not suggesting mandating industry-wide burnout-levels of work, but smarter, faster development cycles, which is absolutely easier said than done since it requires a magically perfect team to be assembled. A director-level leader coming from a huge AAA studio will struggle to apply their knowledge to a tiny 12 person (or less) team. In short, solving problems at an indie level is fundamentally different than solving similar problems at a corporate one. 

And some of the biggest runaway successes have been developed by tiny teams (generally, 15 or less): take examples like Among Us, Lethal Company, Vampire Survivors and Ultimate Chicken Horse. The smaller the team, the more hats everyone has to wear. 

Indie rock requires radical adaptability, which puts Quebec game studios in a unique position: if the climate dictates we need smaller, leaner teams to make more quality AA or lower titles, the Legault government has chosen an interesting moment to roll back the multimedia tax credit that made the province a boon to the industry in the first place.

The impact of these changes to the tax credit is most severe to smaller teams. Between high salary thresholds and an increased non-taxable amount, general director of the Quebec Video Game Guild, Jean-Jacques Hermans notes that the amendment “…will create more demand for quite rare senior workers,” who command punishingly high salaries, while reducing entry-level opportunities for “cohorts of 900 to 1000 new graduates each year.”

Out of the frying pan into the fire

When I joined Goose Byte, they had only recently started work on an ambitious sci-fi open-world survival crafting game called The Signal. We had a long-term funding commitment from a huge Swedish conglomerate. Seemed a safe bet at the time: back then, the video games business was flush with cash! 

A year later, our funding was pulled as the Swedes divested from several projects, landing themselves at the top of the list of corporations responsible for layoff on the aforementioned Wikipedia page. Once again, I was indie rock.

Maybe this is an advice column for folks wanting to get into the industry, and folks who are on their way out. Whether or not this is by choice, or because you have no choice, there is always a path. My path has favoured risk and adaptability, with my only security being the knowledge that there is always a cool and surprising opportunity around the corner. ■

You can wish-list The Signal on Steam now.

The Signal by Goose Byte

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.