Toronto's Blot Interactive eyes the return of video game rock stars

Like with film, the makers should matter.


With the Electronic Entertainment Expo running in Los Angeles this week, we’re going to be hearing a lot about the latest alien-shooting, assassin-stabbing, terrorist-fighting mega-blockbuster video games coming out of the major studios over the next year. What we’re not likely to see any of, however, is the other side of games—the small, often tiny indies who are revolutionizing the medium.

I’ve spent the past few weeks talking to a number of these studios around Canada, especially in the indie hotbed of Toronto, for a larger piece I’m working on. I thought it might be fun to devote this week to telling the stories of some of these smaller developers, as a counterpoint to the sensory-overloading circus going on in L.A.

A good place to start is Blot Interactive, a Toronto operation currently working on its first game, Chat Fu. Both studio and game are the brainchild of Justin Kwok, a 36-year-old who shares one trait with virtually every indie developer—he loves games. Indeed, making them is all he ever wanted to do. The problem was, there was virtually nowhere to do it in Toronto when he was coming out of school more than a decade ago.

He ended up moving to Prince Edward Island for a job at Other Ocean Interactive, where he spent three years working on handheld games such as X-Men Destiny. In 2009, Kwok was overjoyed to hear that giant multinational publisher Ubisoft was going to open a studio in Toronto, with the goal of employing 800 people by 2020. While he didn’t necessarily look at the news as a potential job opportunity, he did see it as a positive that would kickstart an ecosystem in the city, the same way the company’s Montreal studio did in Quebec.

Kwok moved home and took a teaching job to pay the bills, but he incorporated a company and applied for government grants at the same time. Last summer, he got the go-ahead from the Canadian Media Fund, quit his job and got Blot rolling with a few friends from Other Ocean. In November, they got to work on Chat Fu, an amusing conversational game for Facebook where you try to get your friends to type words—without their knowing. Here’s the trailer:

The seven-person team is currently in crunch time, with the game due this summer. Despite the deadline-induced stress, Kwok is obviously excited to be so close to releasing his first game. He doesn’t necessarily care whether it’s successful; the important thing is that it’s his very own.

“When I’m 90 years old, I’ll still be making games. That’s what I love to do,” he says. “It’s the essence of the indies. We’re not in it to make a ton of money.”

His optimism about the games business is also clear. For game developers, it’s never been better—there are so many platforms to choose from, from Facebook to the larger web, to online delivery platforms such as Steam, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, not to mention iOS and Android for mobile. While it’s harder to stand out among the glut of games being released across all of these, there certainly has never been more opportunity to do so.

The medium is therefore shifting back to where independent developers are reclaiming their importance, Kwok says. Once upon a time, individual developers such as Will Wright and Sid Meier were household names to gamers, but in the golden age of consoles—which spanned the past few decades—the big publishers hijacked and subsumed that status.

Things are changing for the better, Kwok says, with indie developers such as Jonathan Blow—who is showing off his new PC and PlayStation 4 game The Witness at E3 this week—regaining prominence.

“If I go to a bookstore, I don’t look for a Penguin book, I look for the title or the author,” he says. “We’re now fostering a new breed of studio, in Toronto specifically, but also the industry is. We’re starting to get rock stars again.”