How Toronto’s game ecosystem is on the rise | Jason Lepine interview How Toronto’s game ecosystem is on the rise | Jason Lepine interview
GamesBeat is excited to partner with Lil Snack to have customized games just for our audience! We know as gamers ourselves, this is an... How Toronto’s game ecosystem is on the rise | Jason Lepine interview

XP Gaming drew more than 700 people to its 2024 XP Game Developer Summit in Toronto, Canada, last week to hear talks about intellectual property and game development.

I went to the event and moderated a panel. It was good to listen to talks and talk about what it takes to keep game communities — like Canada’s local game ecosystem — going strong at a time of layoffs.

The event had a lot of indie game companies as well as some triple-A veterans as well. With the common topic of intellectual property in games, the speakers include Michael Schmalz, former president of Digital Extremes, maker of Warframe; Kate Edwards, CEO of Geogrify; Xalavier Nelson Jr., founder of Strange Scaffold, publisher of games such as El Paso Elsewhere and Stranger Things VR; Jason Della Rocca, founder of Execution Labs; and Daniel Posner, CEO at Finish Line Games.

I moderated a panel with Amir Satvat, director of business development of Tencent Games; Christine Kev, board member at Women in Games France; and Kim Gibson, program consultant at Interactive Digital Media Ontario Creates. We talked about Satvat’s game job resources and upholding game communities at a difficult time. Satvat recently noted that game job seekers who use his resources are 84% more likely to get a job than those who don’t. But still, 92% of those seeking jobs, over 12 months, will not find a role in games.

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I visited Niagara Falls on my visit to Toronto.

That’s a tough stat. Still, I was impressed with the growth of Toronto’s game businesses. Jason Lepine, CEO of XP Gaming, told me that there are more than 300 game companies in Toronto, which compares favorably with a lot of cities in North America — though it is still smaller than the 500-plus companies in Montreal.

Lepine sarted out at Enthusiast Gaming, which hosted Canada’s consumer video game convention, EGLX, which drew more than 30,000 people. He focused on a dev conference within that event, and then left the company to build XP Game Summit back in 2019. Then the pandemic hit and Lepine had to do virtual events for two years in a row. In 2023, the event was held in person, and this year was the second such show on June 13-14. About 250 game companies showed up at the event. I interviewed Lepine about the event.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Jason Lepine is CEO of XP Gaming.

GamesBeat: How did you get started with XP Gaming?

Jason Lepine: I started at the end of 2019. Our first XP Game Summit was supposed to take place in 2020. The pandemic canceled that. The reason I started, I used to work at a company called Enthusiast Gaming, where we hosted EGLX. It was Canada’s largest video game convention. It was a B-to-C event in Toronto. We had 30,000 guests. As I was building the programming for that event and growing it, I was trying to attract the industry. I noticed that the industry wasn’t interested in coming to a B-to-C event, though, developers and indies.

As I was digging into why, I learned that the needs were different, of course. One year we piloted a developer conference on top of EGLX that was limited to 300 tickets. We sold out the pilot. I saw a lot of potential there. That’s why I left the company to build on my own and start the XP Game Summit, which was originally called the XP Game Developer Summit. We made it a little shorter. Through sheer willpower, through the pandemic, I just continued iterating and learning and listening to feedback. That’s where we are today.

GamesBeat: The first event was all virtual, right?

Lepine: Yes. In 2020 we streamed it on Mixer. It was a very basic–I don’t really count that one. In 2021 we did a full virtual conference. We had some online meetings. We had talks. Then in 2022 we did a hybrid event. Everything was both online and in-person. Last year was the year we hit the vision I had for the show. It was through that event that we showcased what we could do.

Indies showed off games at XP Gaming.

Shortly after, we won the opportunity to do MIGS in Montreal. This year was the first year we had to now build a conference that didn’t compete with MIGS, but complemented it. That’s why we went with the theme of IP this year. MIGS is very B-to-B. It attracts a lot of international attention. It has an identity, even though it’s changed over the last 20 years. I saw that there was an opportunity to talk about IP and video games here in Canada that no other conference really touches on as a focus. That’s what we did this year.

GamesBeat: How did the attendance change over the years?

Lepine: Coming into my own company, I had a lot of relationships with the academic side, the schools. Our first year, our biggest partner was a school. We had a lot of students. It was more of a junior crowd. Over the years we’ve managed to bring in more decision makers, business leaders. We’re still in a phase of–we attract an equal amount of decision makers and developers. But this year we have far fewer students. That was by design. We didn’t have a student ticket sold publicly this year. It was also our most expensive year for tickets. We had a VIP ticket and a conference pass as the only two options we had.

GamesBeat: About how many people did you draw to each one over time?

Lepine: I won’t count the virtual events, because I can’t confirm who actually logged in. Our first hybrid event, we started at about 400 guests. Last year and this year we had similar numbers. I don’t know the final count right now. We had about 750 last year and it looks like it will be similar this year.

GamesBeat: Are you drawing people from outside of Toronto, outside of Canada?

Lepine: Absolutely. Last year I think it was something like 40% from outside of Toronto. This year, I know we have more than 10 countries represented. We did draw more international attention. We had a very different partnership with our venue. There are many more rooms being booked here, which shows we have a lot of travelers. A very healthy portion of our audience is from abroad. We’re happy to see so many people traveling for this event.

Community panel at XP Gaming. Dog included.
Community panel at XP Gaming. Dog included.

GamesBeat: What does that tell you about how developers want to gather?

Lepine: When I set out originally, my ambitions were–I wanted to have a GDC on the east coast. I pitched it that way to people. I don’t say that anymore, because GDC is massive. It’s 30,000 people. What I’ve learned is there’s an appetite, a strong desire for the industry to connect at smaller events. Our event is 750. MIGS was 1,200 last year. I want to keep our events to that size. Between 700 and 2,000 is a sweet spot where you get a lot of business done and meet a lot of great people, but the event is able to create and curate a more intimate experience, rather than, “Here’s a jungle. Try and find a way to do business here.”

GamesBeat: What have you learned about the makeup of Canada’s game studios?

Michael Schmalz is former president of Digital Extremes.

Lepine: I can only speak to Toronto and Montreal so far. They’re very different. Montreal is home to most of our triple-A studios here in Canada. That’s where they cluster. When we’re doing a B-to-B show there, of course we get a lot more discussions and business around triple-A studios. In Ontario and Toronto we have a very strong independent scene. I think we have more than 300 studios here. The needs of the studios here are very different.

It’s not exclusive, but while I see indies in Montreal that need funding too, I see much larger deals being negotiated there. Outsourcing partnerships at those levels. Here in Toronto it’s a lot more small studios looking for funding, looking for partners, looking for publishers, looking for knowledge to share with each other. How are you building your company? What strategies work in 2024? The content and the makeup of who we invite is different between the two.

Jason Della Rocca leads a panel on fundraising.

GamesBeat: How many studios and companies do you have at each show?

Lepine: At MIGS we have more than 500 companies attending. I’m sure there are far more in Quebec. I think it’s around 30 triple-A studios. Here, last year we had more than 200 companies. When I checked last week we were over 250 registered this year, and we always see a spike in registration at the end. I wouldn’t be surprised if we passed 300 this year at XP.

GamesBeat: Ubisoft has a studio here. Do you have other triple-A studios here in Toronto?

Lepine: We have Ubisoft. That’s the big one. Certain Affinity established themselves here in 2019. Then we have some larger mobile studios. We have Zynga. Rockstar has a small studio. They’re very quiet. We don’t get the chance to hear much about what they do. Sledgehammer recently opened. And Behaviour Interactive also has a satellite office here. We’re seeing more triple-A studios opening offices here. It’s on a growth trajectory.

GamesBeat: Does it feel like Toronto is pulling in people from elsewhere, the same way Canada is in general?

Can you get game funding from a bank?

Lepine: In terms of setting up new businesses? In Ontario and Toronto there’s very healthy tax credit support. The number is somewhere around 40%. What’s interesting is there’s a lot happening in Quebec right now. Quebec also had a very healthy tax credit, but there’s a new law announced a couple of months ago that will see the credit reduced over the next five years. That’s going to impact the landscape of the gaming industry in Canada.

The best tax credits we see are on the east coast right now, in Nova Scotia. Every province has a different offering. Toronto is an international hub for Canada, so there’s a lot of opportunity here. Traditionally for games there weren’t opportunities like the XP Game Summit for people to come and do business, but we always hear good things from people who travel here. “Finally I have an excuse to come to Toronto.” It’s very accessible by train, plane, all of that.

GamesBeat: Have you followed the debate around that move to reduce the Quebec tax breaks?

Lepine: I let our partners in Quebec, La Guilde, do the work of advocacy there. They’re definitely representing the game industry and fighting for these credits. I’m trying to work with the government to show them that maybe the consequences of these decisions are not what they intend. There’s discussion happening. There may have been a disconnect between what the government intended to resolve with that reduction versus the consequence. From what I hear, it’s going to impact a lot of small businesses, small studios, and not just in the video game industry. It’s across visual effects, special effects as well.

When you look at a city like Montreal that’s been known for its creative culture for so many decades, to have that red flag of the government saying they won’t support it like they have, it really throws that industry into the unknown. What’s it going to be like in the next five years?

Met Mark Chandler of TIGS on his home turf.

GamesBeat: What effect has remote work had on companies deciding where to put employees, where to put hubs? It feels like some of the policies that were in place maybe don’t work anymore if everyone is all spread out.

Lepine: Remote work wasn’t around when these policies were developed 10 or 20 years ago. When you have the option of remote work and you have these tax incentives, not just in Canada, but around the world–we’re seeing places in Australia, cities and provinces, doing a lot of incentives for the industry to set up there. I don’t have the answer. I don’t know how it works. To my understanding, you still have to set up a studio. If we’re working at the same company and there’s a ludicrous tax credit in, say, British Columbia, I would still need to register the company there. You’d have to be an employee there. I think you’d have to live there. There are some challenges. It’s not as easy as just throwing people where it seems best. But a conversation with people who are more familiar with it than I am could explore how that impacts things.

GamesBeat: Does there still seem to be a flow of game companies from the U.S. into Canada? Or does it feel like that’s not happening as much anymore?

Lepine: I don’t have too much visibility into that. The sentiment seems to be that people will work where they want to live, ultimately. It comes down to quality of life and style of life. Not necessarily in gaming, but in the content creator space, for example, we have a lot of famous content creators originating from Toronto who live in California now. You don’t have winter at the same level there. They get to bond with other content creators in Los Angeles and places like that. There are lots of companies that can bring creators to special events and activations. There’s an incentive for that industry to go there.

Xavalier Nelson Jr. of Strange Scaffold talks about making seven games at once.

When you look at game studios, it comes down to where the people–I know someone who was working at Riot Games over on the west coast. He was very successful. He left because he said, “If I can do that at Riot, I can do it with my own studio.” He moved to Waterloo, Ontario, about an hour away from here. When I asked him why he came here, it was just a matter of life choices. The tax credits helped, but it really came down to–his team is all remote. He’s working with folks in Texas, in California, here in Canada. It’s a very modern way to do business.

GamesBeat: What’s next on your mission road map? What are some of the things you want to do?

Lepine: I always tell everyone that XP Gaming–we’re not an events company. We just happen to make good events. The mission for the company is to connect the video game industry. We started where I live in Toronto. We expanded to Montreal. Later this year we’re expanding to Vancouver. We have other plans in 2025 to cover another area, although we’re not ready to announce. From that point, Canada will be well-connected in my eyes. But really, our vision is to work around the globe, in other countries, and create that connection.

Jason Lepine wraps up XP Gaming’s summit in Toronto.

Events are a great way to create connections, a great way to run into people, to make introductions. That face to face, as we saw through the pandemic, will never be replaced. But we’re also looking at other platforms and technology. How can we connect people outside of events? What partners do we need to help make those connections better?

We just announced the Game Caviar partnership, which will kick things off at MIGS. That lets us connect people in another way. Right now, today, anybody can go on the Game Caviar platform and connect with a developer looking for a service provider. If I’m a service provider I can go there and find some people. That’s essentially what happens at our events. Game Caviar does that year-round. But again, it’s not the same as working face to face. That’s where we saw an opportunity to partner and leverage our strengths to create more of those deal flows.

GamesBeat: Does XP Gaming qualify for a tax credit itself?

Lepine: We don’t. We’re not seen as making games. I say we’re not an events company, but in the eyes of everyone else we’re an events company. We get no credits. We fall in a strange space. We’re a for-profit company, so we don’t get access to the grants that support initiatives like this. But we’re not a game studio, so we don’t get any of those credits either. We fall in between all the government support.

GamesBeat: Do any government groups sponsor what you do, though?

Lepine: Yes, that’s true. The city of Toronto is one of our sponsors. They’re strong supporters and believers in what we’re doing. We’re attracting more eyes, more people, more businesses to the city. Over time they’ve definitely seen this investment pay off. They hope to attract more businesses here and further nurture the game industry.

Disclosure: XP Gaming paid my way to Toronto, where I moderated a panel on communities in gaming.

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