Irish gaming giant Keywords acquires Ottawa’s Snowed In Studios in $4M deal

Studio’s co-founder has ‘been dreaming’ of bringing a bigger player to Ottawa’s gaming sector
Jean-Sylvain Sormany
Jean-Sylvain Sormany is the cofounder and president of Snowed In Studios.
Editor's Note

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Snowed In acquisition as giving Keywords its first Canadian location. It is the firm's first Canadian engineering location.

One of Ottawa’s up-and-coming studios has been acquired by an Ireland-based gaming giant in a move the firm’s co-founder says could elevate the city’s entire industry.

Snowed In Studios, a 30-person firm co-founded by Tim Vito, Evan Hahn and Jean-Sylvain Sormany, was acquired earlier last month by Keywords Studios in a deal valued at $4 million.

Keywords is a heavy hitter in the gaming industry, despite not producing its own games. The 5,000-person IT services firm has made a name for itself supporting other studios’ development over the past decade. Traded on London’s AIM Exchange, Keywords is valued at more than CAD $1.75 billion.

It’s achieved that growth largely through acquisitions, and has been on quite a tear in recent weeks: Snowed In’s acquisition closed on a Friday and Keywords announced it had bought a Tokyo-based studio the following Monday. The Snowed In deal gives Keywords its first Canadian location in its engineering division.

The Ottawa-based operation, which has supported large companies such as Bethesda and Electronic Arts on various projects, fits into Keywords’ recent efforts to develop an engineering services stream. Talks between the two companies began last December.

“They were really interested in our business because it fits perfectly for what they’re doing,” Sormany tells OBJ.

For Snowed In, the deal allows the local firm to keep growing with access to a few extra resources. The full team is staying on post-acquisition and will continue to expand with the support of Keywords’ global reach and technical team.

“We were at a size where growing would have come with a lot of overhead,” says Sormany, a 2017 Forty Under 40 recipient. “This acquisition allows us to go through that phase with the support of a company that knows how to build 100-person studios.”

Reaching the next level

The deal isn’t just about Snowed In’s success, Sormany says. Aside from building Snowed In, which was born out of the 2008 financial crisis when laid-off Fuel Industries colleagues banded together to form a new studio, Sormany’s goal has always been to grow Ottawa’s local gaming sector.

Snowed In is the anchor tenant of an office on Wellington Street where, last September, five local indie studios started sharing space.

The goal was to create a hub where groups such as the Ottawa Gamedev Collective and Girl Force could host events and where recent graduates from local post-secondary institutions could come to get a sense of Ottawa-Gatineau’s gaming scene. Part workplace, part classroom and part gaming pad, the space has since become a lively home for Ottawa’s indies, with room to expand to two other floors in the building.

While some may raise concerns about an external giant squashing the capital’s indie culture, Sormany believes Keywords’ entrance into the Ottawa market won’t leave other indies under the shadow of a colossus. Rather, he sees Keywords’ presence in the city as a welcome port to the firm’s many international connections.

"Finally there is an international player that can link Ottawa to any company in the world"

While Ottawa has always had a healthy crop of indie studios in town, the local gaming sector hasn’t broken out like Montreal or Vancouver, which have seen big-name studios such as Ubisoft set down roots. In much the same way as Snowed In has sought to be a beacon for indies in Ottawa, Sormany believes Keywords will become the “anchor tenant” that will attract large gaming companies to the capital.

“For me, that’s truly great news for the city. Finally there is an international player that can link Ottawa to any company in the world,” he says. “This is something I’ve been dreaming of for a while.”