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Local mobile-game developers have thrived in hyper-competitive industry

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Winnipeg mobile-game developer Complex Games has decided its future is in the palm of your hand -- literally.

Noah Decter-Jackson and Adrian Cheater formed the company 11 years ago with nothing but their own expertise and passion. It now has 30 employees and is recognized as a top-tier mobile-game developer.

"We spent a few years floundering, trying to figure things out, but over the past couple of years we have really focused on delivering mobile games," Decter-Jackson said. "The future is mobile and we want to be a leader."

Complex Games has grown its way out of two incubators -- it was one of the first clients of the now-defunct Fortune Cat studios -- and has recently graduated out of the Eureka Project at the University of Manitoba's Smartpark.

"It's been going really great for about a year now," said Decter-Jackson. "We're really proud about what we've accomplished."

Even though it might have taken a while for their parents to be able to confidently brag their kids were the developers behind Battle Bears Royale and Battle Bears -1, these are mobile games that have each been downloaded about four million times.

The games were developed on behalf of a Nebraska-based game publisher called SkyVu and Complex Games is currently the sole developers of a couple of top-secret games for Disney and Zynga.

Complex Games, the largest video-game developer in Winnipeg, and Project Whitecard, the second-largest, will both be featured in the Telefilm Canada Video Game Showcase at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco this month.

After years of tireless networking and doing all sorts of projects for all sorts of clients -- such as a curling game for the Canadian consulate in California for a previous GDC -- the company has outlasted and outgrown many former peers in the hyper-competitive market.

With annual revenue in the seven figures, Decter-Jackson believes it is not unreasonable to expect it will double in size during the next two years. "We went from having 30 friends and family investors to buying them all out a couple of years ago and now just having a small ownership group," he said.

That includes industry pros from Montreal who became shareholders in the company in the past year.

Complex Games built its industry credentials producing popular work on behalf of name publishers, but Decter-Jackson knows the company's future depends on developing and owning its own titles.

Last year, it received a $500,000 grant from the Canada Media Fund to help cover the costs of developing its own game called Iron Skies. It was one of the only Manitoba companies to ever receive that kind of support.

Gary Brownstone, the executive director of the Eureka Project, said there are millions of independent game producers working in their basements wanting to release games for the likes of Sony or MicroSoft of the Wii platforms.

"But it's a catch-22," Brownstone said. "The first thing they ask you is 'What have you published.' "

The company moved into the Eureka Project just before Fortune Cat closed and just as the company was ready to properly hit the commercial market.

It is now firmly on its feet with a diversified revenue stream and so many employees that it had to move into its own space about triple the size of the 1,200 square feet it had at the incubator.

"They've done it the way it was designed," Brownstone said of the incubator model.

It has grown through the last decade along with the industry, which internationally is now bigger than the music, movie and television industries combined. Even New Media Manitoba, the digital-industry support group, has only been funded and staffed for seven years.

Kevin Hnatiuk, the executive director of New Media Manitoba, said, "Complex Games represents a true new media success story in the province. They have been really good nurturing relationships with the top-tier publishers to develop properties for those companies. Battle Bears, for instance, has done exceptionally well in the marketplace."

Hnatiuk is taking about 11 Manitoba companies to the GDC and he said the 100-plus game developers in the province are starting to get a name for themselves.

A former Winnipegger, Alec Holowka, won the grand prize at the 2007 Independent Games Festival, and consultant Adrian Crook, who's done some work in Manitoba, has noted, "Winnipeg boasts more talented game developers than you may think."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 B6

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