Google taps into Montreal’s rich gaming industry for Stadia content

By Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press

Sebastien Puel has seen Montreal evolve into a game development powerhouse over the past 17 years, and the new general manager of Google’s first game studio says there are “no limits” on how much the industry in the city can still grow.

“It has evolved incredibly. Everything you need to make a game exists in Montreal, whether this is people doing tools, people doing engines, big publishers, small developers,” Puel said in a recent phone interview with The Canadian Press. “I think it’s absolutely incredible to have it in the same place and I think it’s pretty unique in the world.

“And maybe the only thing it was missing was a first-party (studio).”

Puel will look to add that element to Montreal’s gaming ecosystem as he helps lead Google’s studio, which will be tasked with developing exclusive content for the tech giant’s new cloud-based Stadia gaming service. Google’s foray into creating its own games is being led by Jade Raymond, a Montreal native and prominent game producer and executive.

The Montreal studio is in the process of hiring its team, and Puel said on Google Canada’s official blog that the company has received “thousands of applications for a limited number of job openings.”

Puel knows first-hand of the city’s earned reputation as a developer of high-budget or “triple-A” titles through his involvement with the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise. Most titles in the popular series have been primarily developed by French developer Ubisoft’s Montreal studio, starting with the 2009 release “Assassin’s Creed II” on which Puel served as producer.

Major developers Square-Enix, Bethesda, EA and WB Games all have a presence in Montreal. Behaviour Interactive, creator of the best-selling survival horror game “Dead by Daylight,” has its headquarters there.

“There is still this notion that games are done in Japan or maybe on the West Coast, but honestly when you start looking at the numbers then you realize Montreal, especially in terms of producing big triple-A games, Montreal is the place,” Puel said.

Jack Buser, Google’s director of games and business development, said Montreal ranks as one of the world’s top-five game development cities, along with Tokyo, London, San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He said the city’s reputation for drawing top talent and producing successful products made it a sensible choice for Google’s first development studio.

“A number of factors were at play there, not the least of which is Montreal’s rich heritage in game production,” Buser said in a phone interview. “It’s world-famous as a city that has created some of the world’s most beloved interactive entertainment, and we couldn’t think of a better place to get started with our first triple-A studio.

“There’s a tremendous amount of talent there and we’re very familiar with the city, and it just seemed like the logical choice for us.”

Puel said the gaming industry had a small footprint in the city when he arrived from France in 2003, but it has grown significantly due in part to colleges and universities providing a path for young people who want to break in.

McGill and Concordia both offer a video game focused bachelor of computer science degree, while Universite de Montreal has a post-graduate program in game design. Ubisoft and Concordia have recently partnered on an online game design course.

“In 2003 when I arrived, studying for gaming didn’t exist. You learned it by yourself,” Puel said. “Today you can find maybe some of the best classes in Montreal. So we have junior people who are truly exceptional here.”

It’s a marked change since Puel switched into video game development after starting out in marketing.

“At the time you had to take a salary cut if you wanted to be in games,” said Puel.

Puel said working on the “Assassin’s Creed” games allowed him to combine history and gaming, his two passions. But he’s not interested in re-inventing the wheel at Google’s Montreal studio.

“I’ve moved on,” he said. “I’ll create the space for the team to do what they want, and what they love. It’s not up to me now to say this is what’s passionate to me and I want to build that content. So I think the games will reflect more the teams we recruit than what my own interests are.”

Stadia launched last month with mixed reviews. The impressive tech behind the service, which allows devices from phones to HDTVs to stream games in high quality, was largely applauded. Less so the launch content, which featured 22 games, all but one already available on other systems.

“My belief is that those constraints will disappear after months,” Puel said. “It’s not only a product, it’s a service, and with a service you keep progressing all the time.”

Game consoles have thrived on having content you can’t get anywhere else – think “Mario” and Nintendo, “Gears of War” and Xbox or “Uncharted” and PlayStation. Puel said the task ahead for Google’s Montreal studio will be to create exclusive content that connects gamers, developers and the Stadia service.

“Content is king, and will continue to be king whatever technology you build. And even more than that, communities are kings,” Puel said. “We’ll try to compete against the magnificent (intellectual properties) and games being created by Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and also publishers.

“But at the end of the day what you are really trying to do is build a community of interest, build a universe where people come and want to stay. It’s a bond you’re building between the creators, the platform and the players.”

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