It was supposed to be a six-month “COVID project” that ended up launching Jonathan Williams’ career in a whole new direction.
Williams founded A-Game Studios during the first wave of COVID, when the film and television industry in which he worked in Toronto basically shut down. He was looking for something to keep him busy through the pandemic and allow him to work remotely. Developing a video game seemed to check all the boxes.
“It was something that I always kind of dreamt of doing and I had a bit of a computer science background myself from way back,” Williams told OBJ. “It was also something that kind of got me out of Toronto and allowed me to come back to the Ottawa area, which is where I was born and raised.”
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Three years later, the “COVID project” has grown to a three-person studio set to debut its first game, Star Salvager, at the annual PAX East gaming convention in Boston at the end of March. The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) attracts thousands of gamers from all over the world and has become a popular destination for fans of video games, board games and anime.
“PAX East is special because it is a very fan-facing event,” Williams said. “There’s some that are more business opportunities for meeting publishers, but this is all about the fans and they’re very enthusiastic, very passionate communities that show up at these events.”
Star Salvager is a space-themed game with retro-style graphics. Players take on the role of a salvager, tasked with exploring derelict spaceships and salvaging resources that they can then use to upgrade their own equipment and weapons.
“It’s a hybrid of some 2-D arcade action-style games and also some falling-block puzzle games. So, kind of a Galaga meets Tetris,” Williams explained.
The game has a strong overarching narrative. “The player has crash-landed in an asteroid belt that is kind of like the Bermuda Triangle; it’s filled with the wreckage of other spaceships. And so, the mystery is, why have all these ships crashed here? And your mission as a player is to kind of salvage the materials necessary to repair your ship and get out of there,” Williams said.
Williams has more than 20 years experience in the film and television industry, where he worked as a cinematographer, lighting technician and screenwriter. He wrote and directed the film The Portal, which spawned the award-winning Riftworld Chronicles web series.
“It became a comic book and then it became a mobile game, so I really tried to push the boundaries of interactive storytelling,” Williams said of the series.
Generating fan interest is the immediate goal for A-Game, he added. Star Salvager is set to launch on the Steam gaming platform in the next three to six months and is pre-approved for launch on Xbox later this year.
“Then we’ll probably go to the market to other platforms like Nintendo Switch, PlayStation and even mobile,” he said.
In the meantime, A-Game Studios has a second game under development; a colony simulator game for the whole family. Williams has recruited his wife, a digital gaming scholar, as producer on the project and says it will incorporate ethical gaming practices like age-appropriate content, inclusivity and accessibility.
Ottawa has a relatively small number of gaming studios. Snowed In Studios is a full-service game development studio that specializes in console, PC and mobile game development. Breakfall is an indie game development studio that has created several successful titles, including Starwhal and Pizza Titan Ultra.
Williams says he relocated to Ottawa to be closer to family but says he also saw a business opportunity in starting out in a smaller community known for technology, but not necessarily for gaming. “Toronto is very oversubscribed and competitive,” he said.
He never imagined his “COVID project” would last three years and take his career in a new direction. “It’s kind of like COVID,” he joked. “It was supposed to be over in six months.”