Jetsetter: Microsoft backs away from Canada, making the UK the home of Xbox One

Black Tusk

With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true north, strong and free from far and wide! Oh Canada, our dearest friend from above, so close and yet so very far. In the land of Jetsetter, Digital Trends’ weekly column devoted to import gaming and game development beyond these purple mountains’ majesty, we like to keep an eye on our English and French speaking neighbors to the north. When it comes to video games, some of the absolute heaviest hitters and some of the most acclaimed indies are pouring out of its cities.

Yes, Canada has been rocking the video game industry hard for ages, but especially in the past decade. Ubisoft Montreal has become an economic force in and of itself thanks to its signature Assassin’s Creed series. Eidos Montreal is arguably the last great hope for beleaguered Japanese publisher Square-Enix, and next spring’s Thief promises to continue the studio’s upward swing following Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Then there are the smaller operations like Toronto based visionaries like Capybara (Super Time Force) and its associates like Queasy Games (Sound Shapes). Canada’s prominence on the international gaming stage is no small matter. In the world of Microsoft though, it’s a fading light.

Microsoft has never poured too large an amount of resources into internal game development. The company has spent millions over the past 12 years across three consoles, securing exclusives for itself. Microsoft’s most famous properties, however, have largely been made by outsiders. Bungie made Halo, Epic Games developed Gears of War. Sometimes private studios even work on signature series like Forza, made by Microsoft subsidiary Turn 10 Games. Playground Games for example, produced last year’s Forza Horizon.

In the past, a notable if small portion of Microsoft’s internal development ecosystem was based in Canada. Long before Microsoft even made the original Xbox, the company’s signature game was Microsoft Flight Simulator, which was produced at Microsoft Game Studios’ Vancouver offices. In 2012, Microsoft shuttered the Vancouver studio before it could finish work on an unnamed Kinect game.

There was hope for Microsoft’s Canadian force, though. First came the new Vancouver studio known as Black Tusk. Last year Black Tusk studio head Mike Crump said that his studio would make Microsoft’s “next big entertainment franchise,” and a hazy teaser trailer for it was shown at E3 2013. Another Canadian studio was opened in Victoria, British Columbia shortly thereafter, right next door to Black Tusk, relatively speaking. The plan was to hire up to 150 staff members over the next few years to bulk up. Oh Canada indeed.

But now that Victoria studio has also been closed, and all of Microsoft’s staff in the area laid off. Microsoft said in a company statement to Victoria newspaper Times Colonist that the closure was just a restructuring measure. Sadly for the Canadian developer community, the closure may have had more to do with the recent regime change at Microsoft. “I think we all hoped they would continue to expand. Don Mattrick was obviously a massive champion for that office and seeing him go caused us to take notice, but it’s tough to know the inner workings of a large corporate giant like Microsoft,” said Dan Gunn, executive director of the Victoria Advanced Technology Council. “When a head office is in another country and making large corporate decisions, often a smaller outpost can be a victim to a broader strategy.”

But at this point a bulk of Microsoft’s internal development studios are far, far away from the company’s home country. As American as Microsoft is, the United Kingdom is the nucleus of Microsoft Game Studios in the Xbox One age. Rare continues to pump out Kinect games, Lionhead Studios is purportedly working on an MMO of some stripe, and Soho Productions is working on the next Sesame Street Kinect game. Press Play made Max: The Curse of Brotherhood, what may end up as the last internally made Xbox 360 game, and Phil Harrison’s baby, Life London, is working on a plethora of “cloud-based” games.

On the one hand, this is all great. The United Kingdom has seen a series of high profile studio closures in the past few years, especially at Sony. (Rest ye mighty soul, Sony Liverpool. We’re still playing Wipeout in our hearts.) On the other hand, this is a huge loss of resources in the Canadian game development world. British Columbia has a number of indie studios in the area, but Microsoft’s halved its presence now. Jetsetter hates to see Canadian devs lose out during such a fertile era for the country.

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