Snowed In Studios’ Jean-Sylvain Sormany on Helping Make Massive Games and Ottawa’s Development Scene

Published On: 27 March 2024Categories: Featured StoriesTags: , , ,

Starfield. Madden. Forza. Dead by Daylight. 

These are just some of the many massive games that Snowed In Studios has worked on. Since 2009, the Ottawa-based developer has made a name for itself for being a capable support team on all kinds of AAA games while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance. 

To coincide with the team’s recent 14th anniversary, The Lodgge sat down with Jean-Sylvain Sormany, the studio head of Snowed In, to learn more about how the team balances all of that, continues to land big-name titles and Ottawa’s robust gaming scene. 

Congrats on your 14th anniversary! Looking back on that time, what have been some of the biggest highlights for Snowed In?

Sormany: There’s a lot. We’ve been in operation for 15 years, so there’s so much that has happened. One of my proudest moments was really when we we finally started being able to deliver AAA quality as a studio. The first project with this was Deus Ex: Human Revolution where we did the Director’s Cut edition, and we were the studio responsible for that project. That really helped put ourself on the map. Then, a few years later, in 2013, we released our first original IP, which was called Windforge, a game entirely made at our studio, created by our studio, our vision.

And we proved at that point what we were able to do – a successful Kickstarter and a successful project that brought revenues to the studio and something very interesting. We later on pivoted a little bit more towards service [work for clients] because it was still a better business model for us. And in 2018, when we joined Keywords, it was a big moment. We had done several years of servicing for the industry, working with Ubisoft, working with Eidos, working with Bethesda. And at that point, it was time for us, in order to accelerate our approach, to join the organization that was able to provide us with with all the support – we needed an HR, IT, [you] name it. So in 2018, that was a big moment. And then we had very accelerated growth. We were 26 [employees] – today, we’re 200 employees, and we’re still growing. And last year, with the release of Forza and Starfield, we were able to prove that we were able to play amongst the most anticipated games and [make] a significant contribution [to] those games.

A lot people don’t appreciate how difficult game development is, especially given the amount of people that work on games, both at the lead developer, and then support teams like yours. What does that work look like for Snowed In on these massive titles, and how does that vary depending on the project? Are there any differences between working on Canadian games like Deus Ex versus American ones like Starfield?

Sormany: Any of those projects requires a collaborative mindset and this is what we’re looking for when we’re hiring staff. We’re looking at people that have the skill set in order to jump on someone else’s code base and being able to support what they do. We are known for this; our clients trust us. They want to work with the right partner and often, this is what we share. To build that, we usually take small mandates and we grow those mandates, and we take leads in areas at the beginning that the clients don’t want necessarily to tackle. That’s our way in, and eventually, they trust us so much that they want us to help them in every area of their games. And this is what we call the ‘land and expand,’ where you’re landing deals with the current clients, the client learns to love us and eventually, we expand those projects to larger [clients].

I would say the AAA industry is a worldwide industry and I wouldn’t say that there’s a big difference between working with Canadian and U.S. clients. Both of them are quite similar; they use the same technology. They have the same market. They have similar objectives. So when we we’ve been working with Ubisoft Toronto [Far Cry 6] or working with Turn 10 [Forza] in Seattle, for us, there’s not that much difference. I wouldn’t say it’s not different if we were to work with an Asian market where the gaming culture is quite different. But in North America, it’s pretty unified. So fom my perspective, there’s not a lot of change between the region where we’re working. 

What influences more is the genre of the game, or the type of games we’re working [on] – that stuff has much more impact on the workplace. For example, we’ve worked on sports titles and these catered much more to very specific audiences that expect to see the same thing year after year, and there’s less flexibility for large change, because we were trying to cater to an experience that people are expecting.

You get to play in so many different gaming sandboxes. What’s the appeal in getting to jump between each one of them? 

Sormany: Some of those titles really speak to the team. If you’re working on an RPG, some people live and breathe for RPGs, so for those people, having the chance to work on such titles is an amazing, tremendous opportunity. Others may prefer other types of games, so each project has its own sets of fans in the studio. Some projects will gather more interest than others so we try, as much as possible, to cater our business towards those projects, because we want to please as much as possible.

Game developers are passionate people – they are going into that industry because they love games. And usually, you try to give them the project that they like. There’s symmetry between any projects. Every game is based on the same components – rendering engines, physic engines, an AI component, and there’s some learnings that are transferable no matter the project. When you’re working on the rendering, you’ll probably need it on any project, but some rendering will be more difficult. If you’re doing a 2D Match 5 game, it’s absolutely not the same challenge as if you’re doing a 3D game with special effects and all those elements. So yes, each project speaks to different programmers in a different way or different developers in a different way.

A lot of the discussion around the Ontario game development scene tends to focus on Toronto, but Ottawa is obviously another prominent city in the province. What’s it like for Snowed In to be in the nation’s capital and what makes that a great place to make games? 

Sormany: First, Ottawa has a reputation – and I think it’s a fact, actually – to be the highest educated city in Canada just because of the numbers of colleges and universities around. So already we have a population that is highly educated and wants to use their knowledge and apply their knowledge somewhere. So that’s great, and it’s a great way to seed an industry. The gaming industry caters to certain type of people. Game developers are passionate, so we want to be able to provide a place for them without having to export themselves to Toronto or Montreal or one of the other major hubs. So the best way is to foster an industry locally and then you can cater to those people. I want to be able to attract the people coming from the Algonquin game dev program or the Carleton University game dev program or the engineering program of the University of Ottawa.

The other interesting thing about our region is its history in games. Without knowing, when I was five or six or seven years old, I was playing games made in Ottawa. There was a game called [B.C.’s] Quest for Tyres that was made by a studio called Artech Studios for Sierra On-Line. And that game was made in Ottawa. I didn’t know, and that studio, Artech, is the foundation of a lot of our studios in town. It closed a couple of years ago but it had a really rich history of 35 years of developments in the gaming sector. 

I remember when I moved here in 2005. At the same time Artech was there, there was Magmic that was a leader for mobile phone games. There was Fuel Industries, a leader in advertisement games. There was Playbrains that was doing console games. And there were a few other small players – we saw indie groups like Dirty Rectangles appearing and gathering the community. There’s a rich history of those things. 

The past few years, unfortunately, saw a couple of those studios shutting down – Fuel has disappeared, PlayBrain [has] their game back end but it’s a bit different. Magmic is still there. We also have new studios. Starfort joined the city a few years ago and now we have a game studio that is developing games. So there’s a few local studios – quite indie, but it’s very representative of Ontario in general where there’s a lot of indies as well as large studios. We’re still the largest one in Ottawa with 200 people.

You’ve been in Ottawa for nearly 15 years now – how have you leveraged provincial funding opportunities like Ontario Creates and the Ontario Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit (OIDMTC)?

Sormany: There are two big leverages we can use with with the provincial incentives. So there’s the IDMF and the OIDMTC. IDMF is the Interactive Digital Media Fund. They are funding new projects that want to kick off. It’s an incredible tool set for people starting studios that want to fund their IPs. It’s probably the best across Canada. We were able to use them three times. So, when we did Windforge… We also used it for a title called Cage Break that wasn’t released, but it allowed us to go out to market analysis and realize that it wasn’t the place. And then we did it in ‘exploration mode’ because we have an experimental stream and we used it to test another IP that we were thinking of developing. And these are great incentives in order for us to build our technology, build our expertise, understand the market, and they were key for our growth.

Then the OIDMTC is a much more permanent type of thing where you can claim a tax credits on or tax rebates on salaries that you put towards games. And obviously this is one of the reasons why our studio size has been growing so fast because it allows us to really invest in our talent – take a little bit more risk, but that paid off a lot of the time. And it allows us to create an industry. So those two elements were pivotal to our future. Nowadays, large studios like us are more using the OIDMTC and leveraging it for growth, but I’m still a big fan of the IDMF and what it can do to spawn studios like ours.

Speaking of growth, you’ve reached 200 people, which is a sizable team, and you’ve still managed to win multiple ‘Best Places to Work’ awards. Snowed In has also been outspoken against crunch (prolonged overtime), which has been a persistent issue in the gaming industry. From your perspective, what goes into creating and fostering a healthy workplace? 

Sormany: For me, it’s an easy question. It’s not only saying that you put employees first – it’s acting on it. For me, every day starts with questioning myself about what we can so our employees are better. I’m always listening to what’s happening on the floor: What are the needs of the employees? Is there something we can do? And it’s front and centre to any decision. I’m not making decisions for necessarily the financial aspects, I’m making decisions to understand what will allow us to succeed with our employees. 

We’re in an industry where everything is about creation and everything is a product of what the people are able to do. If you’re not training your people well, you will quickly fail. So it’s all about how can we improve the workload, the conditions, making sure that everyone has what they want, are they trained properly, do they have career objectives. And, of course, we still always have something to learn. There’s 200 people have different needs. Sometimes those needs are contradictory to each other, so we’re trying to do our best to navigate with that. But the idea is to put your heart in the right place and always wanting to do this for them. So it’s what’s driven me the past 14 years and what I hope will continue to drive me for the next few years.

You’ll be celebrating your 15th anniversary next year, which is a huge milestone. What are you hoping to achieve with the team and your portfolio in the next year and the years to come? 

Sormany: We want to continue to be a place where people can thrive. That speaks to my previous point and that will always be front and centre. In that mindset, we’re right now looking at projects that will be very interesting for our staff that will be allowing them to learn, allowing them to grow and feed their passion. So this year, we’re investing a little bit more in business development, understanding how to find the right partner that help the studio to grow the in the right way and continue to be the place where people want to work in Ottawa.

Contributed By

Bradly Shankar

Content Writer on behalf of CONTINUE