The need for people to stay home hasn’t hurt Other Ocean, an indie video game company.
When a public health emergency forces billions of people to stay home, it’s inevitable they’ll be on the lookout for something to occupy their time.
For video game fans (also called gamers), that meant more time with their consoles. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) recently released a study on Canadian gamers in 2020. It found that while there have not been loads of new people coming to video games this year, gamers themselves are playing them more often during the pandemic. That was the case for about 58 per cent of adult gamers and 80 per cent of teen gamers. It even found playing games made them feel better about being stuck home —65 per cent for adults and 78 per cent for teens.
For a relatively small indie developer like Other Ocean, that’s been rather fortuitous. In February of 2019, the company launched a new original title called “Project Winter,” developed initially at its St. John’s studio with support from the Canada Media Fund. The online multiplayer game involves co-operation, but also deception. As the group attempts to survive in an untamed wilderness, among them lurks traitors, known to each other, but not the other players. Their goal is to sabotage the efforts of the other survivors without outings themselves as traitors.
As Ryan Hale explains it, there have been popular board games built on this sort of premise, but for online video games, it hasn’t been explored much beyond some electronic versions of those board games. Communication is an important component of the gameplay. Part of the fun is ultimately deducing who amongst the group is working against it.
“The game itself is extremely social,” explained Hale, product director for Other Ocean Group. “It’s a really good outlet for folks that are stuck at home. They can’t go over to their friend’s house and have a board game night or a social gathering, so instead, they hop online and do it in the virtual space instead.”
In the second half of 2019, the game attracted a noticeable fan base in Japan, with some popular online game streamers — gamers with massive online followings who attract millions of viewers — giving props and exposure to “Project Winter.” That excitement moved west to China, a country that now accounts of 29 per cent of all sales for the game. The United States has embraced “Project Winter,” accounting for 17 per cent of game sales, and Russia and Brazil also represent strong markets.
“Really, it’s a worldwide game, not just at home,” Hale said.
Hale acknowledges there was a sales spike as countries entered lockdown. Sales figures for the game in 2020 are just about 10-times what they were for all of 2019.
The fact “Project Winter” is an original IP (intellectual property) is very important, according to Deirdre Ayre, head of Canadian operations for Other Ocean Group, which also has a studio in Charlottetown. Aside from the fact this type of game allows staff creativity to soar unencumbered, a successful original IP is more profitable for the company than games using licensed IPs. Today, it stands as Other Ocean’s most successful original IP to date.
“The majority of our work over the years has been third-party contract work with major publishers,” Ayre said, highlighting Other Ocean’s past work on games linked to noteworthy brands like Minecraft for Nintendo 3DS and cartoon series like “The Simpsons” and “Rick and Morty.”
“We’ve worked on very big-name titles, but this is our own. That’s what’s really special about this. This is the effort of the team we’ve built in St. John’s and in Charlottetown … and it’s very difficult to have success with a licence that nobody has ever heard of when you’re competing with the Disneys of the world or EA or all these titles and licences that are so incredibly well known.”
Ayre, an ESAC board member, cannot definitively say for certain whether the COVID-19 pandemic helped the game reach new fans, noting it was already doing well and gaining traction pre-pandemic. But she’s also fully aware it’s a game that suits the times we’re living through.
“It’s hard to know. We don’t know what would have happened without the pandemic,” she said. “But it is the type of game … that has probably done better because people are home and looking for ways to engage and socialize with each other and interact.”
Other Ocean Group employs more than 75 staff. The company has hired close to a dozen new employees since the start of the pandemic and is advertising for more positions presently. While it has no intention of abandoning its lucrative work with partners on licensed IPs, “Project Winter” has wet Other Ocean’s appetite to produce games that can build on that success.
“We have two new projects that we’re still planning out that we’re hoping to start in the new year,” Hale said. “Now that we have experience in this and we know the shortcomings that we’re had with ‘Project Winter,’ we know how to make it better … We’re a lot more prepared to move into 2021 with a brand-new project and hopefully see it succeed.”
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John’s.