Taking The Pulse of Toronto’s Indie Game Scene

Power Up Game Bar is a neon white cellar off bustling Wellington Street in Toronto. If you’re walking too fast down the strip on a frigid January night you’ll probably miss it, mistaking it for one of the regular above-ground pubs or restaurants.

But if you do happen to walk down the steps and enter the space below, you may feel like you’re on a holodeck soaring out of the downtown core. It’s not just the white walls and blue neon aura all around the bar that make you feel like you’re on the set of Tron – the usual gruntled pub banter is also tamped down by more directed, strategic chatter. The crowd isn't sprawled, rather segmented with clusters around screens playing through a few rounds of Mario Kart here and crunching through the campaign of an Xbox game there.

Power Up patrons. (Photo courtesy of http://powerupbar.ca)

Power Up patrons. (Photo courtesy of http://powerupbar.ca)

Opened in 2016, Power Up is one of the touchstones for Toronto’s indie gaming scene. Dressed to the nines, it fights the nerd and geek tropes of gamers while also doubling down on it. I spent several minutes at the bar considering ordering a Capital Wasteland, despite my lack of an affinity for any strength of liquor, purely out of obligation for the chunk of my life spent wandering the nuclear ruins of Washington, D.C.

Despite my ability to follow along with what the space was trying to do I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider. For me, games were primarily an isolated hobby. Growing up with a large age gap between myself and my siblings, I spent a great deal of time on my own. My obsession kicked off with Nintendo Power magazines before I even got my hands on my first console. I had vivid memories of picking apart reviews of Majora’s Mask and Castlevania religiously before ever getting a chance to dive into those worlds on my own.

When I finally did get a shot at exploring those worlds it was in the corner of my locked room, away from the noise of reality. Buckling under the weight of the great stories of the Nintendo 64-era and guided along by my Power subscription, I learned how to become a gamer on my lonesome. But I knew there was a community waiting for me somewhere out there with open arms. There were sprawling conventions and tournaments, a myriad of nerd festivals – millions, billions of other people just like me. But from my tiny corner of Brampton, Ontario, that was still way out of reach.

A community after my own heart

Power Up is the type of institution that a decade ago would have only ever been able to find real estate in the back corner of a strip mall or in the basement of a comic book shop. Today it’s front facing Wellington in the cities posh, east-side entertainment and design district. For one of the first times in my life I found myself in the midst of a community I’d been studying for a decade. I was desperately anxious not to be singled out as a hack with nary a sense of belonging.

That night, a crowd from Toronto’s indie scene was there to specifically swap war stories. Bonus Stage, an event co-hosted by local community group Eat Play Mingle and local studio 13AM Games, happens once a month. It always goes down the same way: a theme is picked and spots are given, open-mic style, to anyone from the community who has something to share.

Despite Eat Play Mingle’s mandate to help anchor Toronto’s scattered and sometimes isolated indie scene, Bonus Stage outright bans business cards or gameplay demos. Its intention is to provide a refuge from the grind of studios and anxious buzz surrounding normal networking nights.

“I think it’s important for all of us to have a spot we can go to mix and mingle with each other without the pressure of networking or trying to find a job,” notes Meagan Budgell who founded Eat Play Mingle.

“That pressure is so real all the time.”

Each iteration of the event focuses on a specific theme. January’s looked back at lessons learned by speakers in 2017 that should be picked up by others in 2018. All the speakers worked or studied in Toronto’s industry. Talks ranged from project scope to defeating procrastination, from punching up in ambitions to designing games as art. Spencer Winson recalled the story of his difficulty in getting his game Monumental Failure to be played by enough people when he launched it with high hopes in January of last year.

In 2014, while working for The Toronto Standard, I reported on the final iteration of Gamercamp, a festival which served as a much-needed anchor for Toronto’s spread out indie scene, co-founded by game developer and writer Jaime Woo as well as developer Mark Rabo. While the festival, with its public arcade philosophy, helped to build up the culture in Toronto in its six-year run the money simply wasn’t there in the long-run to keep it going.

The shadow of triple-A (or lack thereof)

For years, plagued by the lack of a major triple-A studio, Toronto’s scene, despite developing inline with the cultural capital present, grew in segmented pockets that still exist to this day. While organisations in the city advocate, provide programming, teach the craft and develop work, a through line that keeps them all together is clearly still vacant. Like many of the other arts scenes in Toronto the indie gaming community finds itself fractured.

“We’re very split,” notes Budgell, “into all different, separate communities that are all really great for each other but none of the communities really talk right now.”

When scenes lack the mechanisms to come together common issues can be diagnosed. The five speakers at Bonus Stage alluded to a few. Proof-of-concept can alleviate a lot of pain when planning projects. Collaborating more can enhance the quality of projects that studios can tackle. Different voices, and different perspectives coming together to share ideas are needed to make the scene work. As it stands however, particularly within the hole left behind by Gamercamp, only small groups like Eat Play Mingle are creating avenues for that to happen. Their February iteration, scheduled for the 20th, is focused on industry members teaching the audience something in five minutes.

There is also a notable gap in media coverage when it comes to Toronto’s gaming scene. Even if the mainstream arts sections in Toronto considered gaming on par with the city’s other art forms, publication sections dedicated to arts and culture are still shrinking, focusing their little resources on big-box, A-list projects, leaving indie scenes across the board in the dark. This is a blow to any community, let alone one still seeking to find its footing in the city’s cultural headspace. It’s a key reason I wanted the Unaffiliated Press to enter these spaces and dig deep.

That’s not to say there is a complete void. One site looking to stitch the gaming community together and provide a valuable source of information is Toronto GameDevs, a site looking to keep track of news, events, jobs and contact info for all the studios operating in the city. Stephen Crane, a digital marketer and life long gamer originally started the project on Twitter with the general philosophy that people want access to local gaming. Like many of the other institutions looking to prop up indie games in Toronto, the site is grassroots and was built and maintained by a passionate fan with a day job.

While there is plenty of work to do to see the community thrive and meet its potential, one undeniable trait of the scene is the sense of optimism held by the people who make up the community for the people who make up the community.

“It’s a pretty healthy scene – I don’t get the vibe that people are in it for themselves, everyone kind of wants to see it grow,” said Crane.

When Bonus Stage wrapped up I wandered across the bar to the seat I had held up on before the talks started. I did the work of getting some contact info and recording the notes I needed to tackle this piece. I was stuck suddenly by the same impostor syndrome that had stuck me before. This was a gathering place for devs and serious gamers. Someone just looking to write it up should probably do their job and simply make room. With that feeling I started to pack up my bags and prep for the biting cold of downtown Toronto that night.

A patron who had sat a few seats next to me and who had been immersed in the bar-mounted Switch all night held up a controller in my direction. “Hey man want to play through a couple rounds of Mario Kart?”

“Can’t say no to that,” I replied as I sat back down.