How Ubisoft is changing the Junction’s game plan

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Ubisoft’s Toronto headquarters on Wallace Avenue. YONGE STREET MEDIA.

Maxime Béland had spent almost 12 years, his entire career, working in video game design at Ubisoft Montreal when Yannis Mallat, the studio’s CEO, asked him to make a difficult decision: Did he want to relocate to Toronto to help build a new 800-person studio?

What had started as a summer job testing the studio’s games for bugs turned into a career helping to create some of Ubisoft‘s most successful titles, including Rainbow Six: Vegas and Splinter Cell: Conviction.

“I have the classic story of work hard, smile, and you’ll progress up the ladder,” says Béland. It was also through Ubisoft that Béland met his wife, Rima Brek, so it was with a bit of trepidation that he considered Mallat’s offer.

“I was at a point in my career where I had shipped a lot of games for Ubisoft Montreal, so I felt like I was ready for something new. At the same time, I had invested all this time into Ubisoft, and Ubisoft had invested a lot into me as well, so I wasn’t super excited about leaving the company, either.”

Eventually, he and his boss reached a compromise: Béland would go Toronto, and his wife and Alex Parizeau, a man Béland says he can’t imagine making a game without, would be given the option to relocate as well.

Maxime Beland at Ubisoft in Toronto. YONGE STREET MEDIA.

Maxime Beland at Ubisoft in Toronto. YONGE STREET MEDIA.

 

The studio is now more than 300-people strong and just shipped its first game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, on Tuesday. It goes to show how much can be accomplished in the span of three short years, and not just in terms of making a game.

Located in the heart of the Junction Triangle, Ubisoft Toronto currently occupies the old General Electric plant on 224 Wallace Avenue. It is one of 26 worldwide studios operated by Ubisoft Entertainment S.A., a video game developer and publisher based out of Montreuil, France.

The Toronto studio, which officially opened towards the end of 2009, was made possible when the Government of Ontario agreed to contribute $263-million in tax incentives and subsidies over the course of ten years to help offset the cost starting up a new game development operation.

Worldwide, but particularly in Canada, the business of making video games is a big deal. According to a report published in 2012 by Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), approximately 16,000 individuals are directly employed in the country’s video games industry, making Canada’s game industry the third biggest employer. Developers and publishers contribute an estimated $1.7-billion to the nation’s economy. Additionally, almost everyone involved in creating a game is well compensated; the average annual salary is $62,000.

On a more-local level, the hope is that the company can replicate in Toronto the success it experienced in Montreal. As with its Toronto studio, Ubisoft was persuaded to come to Montreal when the provincial government of Quebec agreed to a generous subsidy plan. Since it was founded in 1997, Béland’s old workplace has grown to employ more than 2,300 individuals, making it one of the largest game development houses in North America.

Béland says the fortunes of the studio’s neighbourhood, Montreal’s historic Mile End district, have changed significantly as well. What used to be a neighbourhood down on its luck is now one of Montreal’s most vibrant. Ubisoft and the individuals that come every day to work at its Toronto office have already had a similar effect on the Junction Triangle.

“When we started, there was nothing. Nothing. We had to invest in a cafeteria and nice coffee machines, because there was nowhere to get coffee,” says Béland.  And with the exception of the Paris Bakery and Starving Artist, he’s right: for a long time the Junction Triangle lacked the kind of notable businesses that people from outside the neighbourhood want to come and see for themselves.

Thankfully, the lack of local amenities did not go unnoticed.

“I recognized that there was a niche I could fill here,” says Daniel Whalen, the owner of Wallace Espresso, a coffee shop that opened up in the area this past January. “People want to drink good coffee, and not just the guys from Ubisoft, but everyone in the neighbourhood, too.”

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Fresh coffee is served at Wallace Espresso. YONGE STREET MEDIA.

Since Ubisoft Toronto opened its doors, the list of notable new restaurants and cafes to set up shop in the neighbourhood include the aforementioned Wallace Espresso, Cafe Neon, and Wallace and Co. The businesses that were open before the studio came, such as the Starving Artist, continue to flourish.

If one extends the list to include nearby Brockton Village, which is reasonable given that the studio is a short walk away from the neighbourhood boundary line of Bloor Street, then the list of new businesses expands to include places such as the Whippoorwill and Brock Sandwich, the latter of which opened as recently as this month. Obviously not all those businesses opened with the express purpose of servicing Ubisoft’s employees, but a workplace that is set to grow to 800 strong before the end of 2019 is going to have an effect on business nonetheless.

Of course, mention a large multi-national corporation moving into the area and the conversation inevitably shifts to the divisive topic of gentrification. For his part, Whalen, who has lived in the area for more than six years, has a pragmatic view on the topic. “I think commercial development—if that’s a synonym for gentrification—is inevitable, especially with the amount of construction that’s happening around Dupont and Lansdowne,” he says. “There’s a lot of new people moving into this neighbourhood, and you need to have commercial services to cater to them; it’s a natural extension of more people moving into the neighbourhood.”

Centrally located and close to the downtown core, the area has easy access to both the TTC and Go Train lines, and with a wealth of quality businesses opening up in the area, people from outside the neighbourhood are coming realize what residents say they’ve know for a long time: The Junction Triangle is a good place to live.

“As is the situation whenever there is a neighbourhood that is under appreciated for a certain length amount of time, it starts to become sought after,” Whelan says. By all accounts, the neighbourhood’s best days are still ahead.

For Béland, he has other reasons to anticipate the future.

“It’s very exciting, because right now the studio is my game. It’s our guys and girls: we interviewed them, we hired them, they came here and brought their families with them, and together we made a game,” he says. “Now that team is going separate into five different projects, I get to see five teams go fly on their own.”
 
Igor Bonifacic is a Toronto-based writer interested in exploring the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship and life. His last piece for Yonge Street looked at how universities are prepping next-gen entrepreneurs.

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