Ottawa a city of gamers, conference spokesman says

Most people still think of Ottawa as a city of civil servants. Kyle McInnes has a different view, one that might be surprising.

 “The way we see it, Ottawa is more of a gaming city than a government town,” says Mr. McInnes, spokesman for the Ottawa International Game Conference, which kicks off its third edition on Sunday. “It’s the up-and-coming industry, and we want to showcase that.”

After debuting two years ago as a one-day event, this year’s conference is a three-day affair that is expected to draw up to 500 attendees to the National Arts Centre from Sunday to Tuesday.

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Mr. McInnes says the event’s growth mirrors the expansion of the city’s gaming industry, which now includes more than 150 interactive digital media companies. In the past year alone, local video game developers have raised more than half a million dollars through crowdfunding, led by Conatus Creative’s haul of more than $217,000 on Kickstarter last fall.

“The real goal of this conference is to promote Ottawa and show that Ottawa is an incredible city for gaming talent,” Mr. McInnes says.

Keynote speakers include renowned game developer Howard Scott Warshaw. Now a psychotherapist, Mr. Warshaw was the brains behind two of the most innovative titles of the early 1980s, Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But those accomplishments have since been overshadowed by perhaps the biggest flop in video game history. After spending big money – $25 million – on the rights to the video game version of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial in 1982, Atari gave Mr. Warshaw just five weeks to build it, at a time when no one had finished a similar project in less than five months.

The result was a spectacular failure. By Mr. Warshaw’s own admission, the game was awful, and sales tanked.

To get rid of the thousands of unsold cartridges, Atari buried them in the New Mexico desert. They remained hidden there until just last month, when a crew funded partly by Ottawa’s Fuel Industries unearthed them as part of a documentary it is producing.

“Fuel discovered the location of the fabled buried cartridges and decided to create a documentary about discovering them,” says Fuel’s Sean MacPhedran. “And once we found great partners with Lightbox and Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios, they jumped in with incredible energy and resources, bringing everything together.

“I think people are going to love the result,” says Mr. MacPhedran of the documentary, which is being directed by Hollywood screenwriter Zak Penn.

Tuesday morning, Mr. Warshaw will tell the conference about his experiences making the game and discuss the evolution of the industry since then.

“In terms of the game industry, it’s a really kind of inspiring talk of here’s what to avoid and here’s how bad things can go,” says Mr. McInnes. “Obviously, the best way to learn is to learn by mistakes, and what better mistake to learn from than one of the biggest flops in history?”

Other speakers include Gavin McInnes, who has made millions as co-founder of Vice magazine and ad agency Rooster NY, as well as many local developers.

Game producers ranging from indie startups to giants such as Microsoft and Ubisoft will also be showcasing their wares. “We’ve got the whole gamut,” says Kyle McInnes.

The conference is organized by a consortium of Ottawa game developers and business organizations, including Magmic, Fuel, bitHeads/Playbrains, Snowed In Studios and Dirty Rectangles. For more information and a full lineup of events, go to the conference’s website.


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