• Edmonton’s explosion in indie game developers fuelled by culture of curiosity, support
    3D Game Development

    Edmonton’s explosion in indie game developers fuelled by culture of curiosity, support

    Andrew Czarnietzki is only too happy to show off physical copies of Curved Space, a 3D twin-stick shooter featuring “transtemporal spiders.”

    It’s the realization of a childhood dream to one day develop his own video game.

    “It was just crazy to unbox this and see this thing made manifest — and real.”

    Czarnietzki is one half of Only by Midnight Ltd., an independent game studio he started with his wife, Jen Laface. Over the past few years the couple have worked jobs, raised their young child, and somehow found time to develop a video game, all from their Edmonton home. 

    “I find that with Edmonton, you get this atmosphere of support, which has been great,” said Laface.

    Alberta’s capital is famously home to game giant Bioware, which planted roots there in 1995 and grew to prominence after a slew of highly-regarded video game blockbusters like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series.

    In more recent years, Bioware has been joined by other well-known studios like Improbable and Beamdog.

    But a scene of smaller, independent game developers has grown in Edmonton’s fertile gaming soil, leveraging a ready talent pool and supportive community to create a space for hobbyists, full-time professionals and everything in between.

    The Edmonton Screen Industries Office estimates there are now around 75 indie game developers in the city.

    Bioware a draw for developers

    It was back in 2015 during a game jam — short events where creators work individually or in teams to create games centred around a theme — that Jace Boechler first started work on the competitive fighting game Little Hellions.

    With a background in web development, Boechler made the jump three years later to work full-time on the project. 

    Like many indie developers, part of the reason he’s stayed in Edmonton is simple: it’s home. But Boechler also sees in the city a culture of curiosity for game development.

    “There are so many people who are hungry to get into game development in Edmonton, and I think that’s largely by the virtue of the presence of Bioware,” he said.

    “But I think that’s just the diving off point — I think there’s so much more that we have here that people don’t actually know about.”

    The main cast of 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, part of the blockbuster video game series by Edmonton-based Bioware. (Bioware)

    Growing the community

    GameCamp Edmonton is a game development organization that aims to connect creators and help them network and learn, something it’s done for more than a decade. Before the pandemic it held monthly meet-ups where it invited local talents to share their expertise. 

    Vanessa Capito, also an associate producer at Beamdog, is one of the group’s organizers. 

    “Edmonton and Alberta, I think they’re special in that we still have a relatively small community, but it’s been very welcoming and open.”

    She says game jams have been a great way for people to collaborate and build up a portfolio. 

    “I love our community,” Capito said. “When I first joined six years ago, I was just a shy student who was just wowed that we had something like this here in Edmonton.”

    A pre-pandemic GameCamp Edmonton meet at Central Social Hall on Jasper Ave., where local talents were invited to share their expertise with other game developers. (Submitted by Vanessa Capito)

    Edmonton’s gaming support system

    The Edmonton Screen Industries Office was established in 2017 to support the development of screen media projects. From its inception, the economic development organization has included video games under its wide-ranging purview.

    “I think we’re seeing continued growth, and I expect that we will continue to do that,” said CEO Tom Viinikka. “Our hope and our goal in our office is to foster that growth.”

    The screen industries office aims to connect creators and offers information and workshops for developers. It provides some granting opportunities — it is currently taking applications for $1,500 micro grants to help with third-party costs during a project’s initial planning phase.

    I love our community. When I first joined six years ago, I was just a shy student who was just wowed that we had something like this here in Edmonton.​​​– Vanessa Capito, Beamdog associate producer and GameCamp organizer

    Viinikka said there are a number of ways that Edmonton is well-suited to the indie development scene.

    “Edmonton is an amazing place to do business in general,” he said. “I think that we have a really entrepreneurial spirit in this city.”

    Bioware’s presence has seen indie studios started by former employees while post-secondary institutions in Edmonton have been forward-thinking, Viinikka said, referencing the University of Alberta’s certificate in computer game development and NAIT’s digital media and IT program.

    “We need to feed this talent pipeline and they’ve done a wonderful job of that.”

    A 2019 report by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada found that Canadian video game companies generated an estimated $3.6 billion in revenue. Despite the pandemic, global video game revenue was forecasted to rise to $175 billion for 2020.

    Shift to digital distribution

    When Kyle Kulyk lost his job in finance during the 2007 financial crisis, he went back to school to study game programming at NAIT before starting his own video game company, Itzy Interactive.

    Opportunities for smaller indie studios have been made possible by a global shift in video game distribution in recent years — digital platforms now offer the chance to get more games out to the masses.

    WATCH | Indie game scene on the rise in Edmonton:

    Edmonton’s growing indie game development scene

    Alberta’s capital is famously home to big game developer Bioware but many smaller, independent studios have also made the city their home. 2:33

    Game engines — software frameworks for games — were previously the purview of big studios, but Kulyk says they’ve become more user-friendly and reasonably-priced. At the same time, major console-makers like Sony and Nintendo opened up their digital distribution platforms to indie games.

    “Things turned around the last console generation, over the last 10 years or so,” he said. 

    Itzy Interactive started in mobile games but has since turned to console and computer platforms. In May it published its fourth title, the co-op arcade shooter Mad Devils.

    Funding can be challenging

    Kulyk readily admits that the reality of the industry can be harsh for indie game studios vying for attention in a more accessible market.

    “It’s certainly not for the faint of heart in terms of the commitment that it takes to get there,” he said.

    “We wouldn’t exist right now if it wasn’t for the Canada Media Fund.”

    The fund develops and finances Canadian content across audiovisual media — one funding source for projects that can require long, irregular hours without any guarantee of a pay off.

    Alberta previously offered a Digital Media Tax Credit, which was viewed as a major boon for the game development industry, but the provincial government eliminated the credit in 2019.

    Kulyk’s small indie studio has still managed to grow from just him and his brother-in-law to a team of four full-time employees, resulting in a collaborative creative effort he finds rewarding. 

    “To put these ideas out there to my team and then to see where we end up at the end of the day is so much more to me than selling mutual funds ever was.”

  • Can Chinese Edtech Regulations Stifle a Culture of Striving?
    Personal Tutoring

    Can Chinese Edtech Regulations Stifle a Culture of Striving?

    Chinese classroom
    A school in Baixiang County, China. Photo by jianbing Lee / Shutterstock.

    Mini Hu is weeks away from delivering a daughter. The new mother has a lot on her mind.

    The 29-year-old lives in Beijing, where she leads a team at an education company that develops English curriculum for kindergartens and schools across China. Hu wonders: Will her upcoming maternity leave disrupt her career?

    It’s been barely more than a year since Hu met the man who is now her husband. Will he continue to be as supportive of her as their family grows?

    And in China’s pressure cooker capital city, can Hu be the kind of parent she aspires to be: One who does not succumb to social pressure to set expectations unreasonably high for her first child?

    “On one hand, I really want to respect cognitive development, and on the other hand, I also dream to be a proud mom,” Hu says. “I think that will be a huge problem going forward.”

    That tension between wellbeing and prestige may shape the future for Hu’s daughter in ways more powerful than Hu can foresee. Because as her due date approaches, her country is also feeling labor pains. Policies issued in July by China’s government restricting the country’s massive tutoring industry may aim to give birth to a new era of education in China, one that eases pressure on kids to excel at all costs and diminishes the power of edtech companies.

    For some people, the policy shift had immediate consequences, as fortunes fell when stock prices for China’s giant edtech companies crashed. Joey Jiao, investment vice president of Blue Elephant Capital, has been sharing sweets with entrepreneurs and investors to calm their nerves.

    “We do a lot of boba tea, stuff like that, to boost our emotions,” he says.

    For others, the new restrictions have so far mostly raised questions. Kali Yan, a tutor who works independently, wonders whether the rules might even benefit small-scale operations like hers, by driving the tutoring market underground.

    “You just do it secretly,” she says.

    Yan, Jiao and Hu are Chinese young adults whom EdSurge interviewed in the week following the edtech crackdown. With their advanced degrees and English-language skills, they represent a selective set of perspectives. All three of them are 29 years old, on the cusp of a new decade of life—and at a stage when the government seems to hope they’ll start families.

    They have differing theories about what the news might mean for China. But with their careers and personal lives intertwined with the education sector, each of them stands to benefit or lose from the changes sweeping their country.

    As Jiao puts it: “The entire private sector of the China education industry has witnessed some sort of very destructive forces.”

    The Rise of Private Tutoring

    In China, millions of families participate in “shadow education,” or private tutoring that supplements the teaching students receive in schools. More than 75 percent of students, according to a Chinese study from 2016, spend their evenings or Saturdays with tutors, studying core subjects, or English, or learning sports, coding, or music, either in person or online, one-to-one or in groups. Some parents pay the equivalent of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars a year for this instruction.

    billboard for tutoring
    A Tutor ABC billboard ad in Shanghai, China. Photo by Andy Feng / Shutterstock.

    The practice has grown popular for several reasons. One is cultural, says Yong Zhao, author of the book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.”

    “In China, you have a hierarchy where people are always trying to compete to be better than you,” says Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Kansas and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. “This competition has existed for thousands of years.”

    Another may be the way China’s past four decades of economic growth have lifted many families from poverty to comfort—and perhaps changed their aspirations and personal narratives.

    “My generation’s parents, they didn’t have enough food when they grew up, all of them. And now they live a rather extravagant life, some of them,” Hu says. “Mostly it’s because China is a very fast train, and you are on it. You live a very good life, a much better life than yours used to be. Most of them, they didn’t think through that. They thought it was because they tried really hard, they worked really hard. They want that for their kids, too.”

    The popularity of the private tutoring industry may also be a response to how educational—and therefore economic—opportunity is awarded in China. High-stakes entrance exams determine which students are admitted to the top high schools, then the top colleges, then the top jobs in cities that citizens view as “first-tier.”

    Parents push for intense studying out of the belief that even a single point on these exams can make a difference in their child’s fortures, Hu says.

    “One point,” she notes, “can probably cut 10,000 people behind you.”

    Parent Pressure

    Hu’s life has been shaped by this competition. Growing up, she participated in seven extracurricular programs each week, she estimates, “just to keep my leading positions in school.”

    And Hu’s credentials influenced even more than her academic and professional trajectories. When, to her chagrin, her family and coworkers started nudging her about her “relationship status,” she signed up for an elite dating website, where the fact that she has a master’s degree from an Ivy League university made her a compelling suitor.

    “Most of the candidates have very prestigious education backgrounds and are living and working in first-tier cities,” Hu says. “I found my husband there.”

    So a directive from Beijing to decrease academic competition could change a lot about life in China. That’s the official rationale the government offered for its new policies, the latest in a series of efforts to rein in private tutoring. State-sponsored news sources say the new rules should “ease the burden of excessive homework and off-campus tutoring” by imposing time limits and curfews on tutoring sessions, prohibiting tutoring during certain times of the year and restricting extra paid instruction about core curricular topics.

    Additional mandates call for schools to add after-hours, on-campus programs for families. Zhao sees these moves to shore up public institutions and check private providers as consumer protections, similar to efforts to regulate for-profit colleges in the U.S.

    “These companies are running a business, they are not doing real education,” he says. “In many ways, they are distorting education.”

    kids playing
    Children playing sports in school in Xingtai City, China. Photo by jianbing Lee / Shutterstock.

    Other observers read between the lines and discern another motivation. Perhaps the government, worried about population trends, wants to make it more appealing for more people to have more kids.

    “In Chinese culture, parents provide as best they can for their children,” says Nicolas Huang, co-founder of Lonely Reader, a digital platform that teaches liberal arts. “Young people think the burden is too heavy for them to have a child, so the birth rate is declining very, very fast.”

    With a child on the way, Hu feels that squeeze. In China’s capital, she says, people regularly work 10- to 12-hour days. They pay large sums to live in housing zones that guarantee their kids entry into strong primary schools. They hope to replicate their successes through their children.

    “Being able to provide for your own family and being able to have a child in a city like Beijing, I think takes a lot of courage,” Hu says. “Many people, they work their asses off to get into universities in Beijing.”

    Hu and her husband agree: They won’t set standards too high for their daughter. They won’t treat her differently based on her performance.

    Yet the pressure is already hard to resist.

    “Recently, I noticed that I was very anxious when [seeing] my kid’s results: how big is her head, how much she weighs. I think that’s a natural peer pressure that really puts you in an anxious state,” Hu says. “You care about your kids, and as a result, you of course will want the best for them when they grow up.”

    Investor Angst

    Learning is big business in China. The country’s tutoring companies are worth about $120 billion, according to analysis from Reuters. Several of them are “unicorns”—private companies with a valuation over $1 billion—per a HolonIQ report from July.

    Jiao’s job helps fuel that fire. The company in Beijing where he works as a vice president has made early-stage investments in about 90 edtech startups over the last six years. Jiao’s experience and research have led him to believe that China is “probably the best market in the world for education.”

    The largest Chinese tutoring companies are “household names to all Beijingers,” Jiao explains. “You can see the commercials everywhere. Subway stations, TV channels, talk shows—everywhere, you name it.”

    So naturally, it seems like everyone Jiao encounters is talking about the new government rules, he says—“even the taxi drivers.”

    This edtech omnipresence points to another possible reason why the government is targeting the sector as it scrutinizes internet companies more broadly. Officials may view private education companies as too influential, experts say, or worry that their instruction deviates from the government-approved public-school curriculum.

    In tutoring classes, “lots of things being told are not controlled directly by the government, and it is a very dangerous trend,” Huang says.

    Because the new guidelines ban overseas education courses and limit foreign investment in Chinese edtech, Zhao says nationalism may have motivated policymakers: “They are very concerned about the influence of foreign countries on education in China.”

    Read more from EdSurge about Americans witnessing abuse online while tutoring Chinese students.

    Watching industry giants fall has Jiao conflicted. He already suspected that the education market was “overheated,” he says. As a citizen, he sees the value in trying to diminish “unnecessary competition” in education. But as an investor, he wishes the policy didn’t punish entrepreneurs.

    “I’m feeling bittersweet,” Jiao says. “We all have this memory of going to New Oriental classrooms, TAL classrooms, when we were a kid. It’s kind of sentimental,” he adds, naming two of the most popular tutoring companies.

    But the news hasn’t dampened the entrepreneurial spirit entirely. Companies are already pivoting, by cutting off arms of their businesses that violate the new rules or by spinning up alternate services. So as Jiao comforts his spooked colleagues, he’s already thinking ahead.

    “What we’re focusing on is soothing the emotions of the founders and our investors, by telling them what we see from the new policies and what we believe are the new directions—new opportunities,” Jiao says. “We’re trying to learn from the new policies. What are the implications?”

    He predicts several ways for edtech companies to rebound. One is marketing technology directly to the country’s enormous public school market. Another is supporting vocational training, which the Chinese government wants to grow. A third is selling families instruction in extracurricular subjects like dance or art, which so far is still permitted.

    “If students spend less time in tutoring, will they spend more time cultivating their interests?” Jiao asks. “I don’t know, but we will keep on looking for some evidence.”

    Chasing Shadows

    On the second floor of her sister’s shop, Kali Yan coaches children in English grammar, writing and recitation. Their families pay her 200 RMB—about $30—an hour for one-on-one lessons, or less for group instruction.

    Yan says she started her one-woman tutoring business in Guangdong in the south of China more than six months ago. It’s part-time work, but she says it pays better than some full-time jobs. She’s noticed that demand for tutoring seems higher than it did a decade ago, when she worked in the industry part-time while attending college.

    “The parents have more and more—they’ve become richer,” Yan says. “They are willing to invest more in the education of their children.”

    Taking stock of the government’s new stance on tutoring, she draws a distinction between what it could mean for large operations and small providers. She thinks it is “a disaster” for giant edtech companies, noting that “the restriction is very harsh.”

    Yet for independent tutors such as herself, she adds, “This is a thriving chance for them.”

    That’s because Yan thinks many tutors will simply get creative about how they do business. For example, she imagines a scheme at a theoretical bookstore that starts selling textbooks for noticeably higher prices.

    “Why is it so expensive? Oh, when you buy the book, one of our services is to help you read the book,” she says with a laugh.

    Investors, too, will adapt, Jiao believes. If they can’t offer tutoring, they’ll sell education in other ways.

    “Will there be hardware, new e-books and other e-learning materials?” Jiao asks. “We are definitely hoping to see more ventures.”

    The trouble with shadows is they’re hard to catch. And China’s new rules might drive shadow education deeper into the dark.

    It may all come down to parents like Hu, torn between competing visions about what’s best for their children.

    “Sometimes I fear I may rob my girl of the opportunities to have developed capabilities,” Hu says. “Even though I don’t push her, I still don’t want to miss any possible potentials.”