When most people think about Edmonton’s game industry, the name that usually pops into their head is BioWare, the Electronic Arts-owned maker of blockbuster role-playing games. But Alberta’s capital also has a small but bustling independent game development scene, and one of its longest running members is XGen Studios, which has successfully designed, built, and launched more than a dozen games, including Super Motherload, Defend Your Castle, and Stick Arena Dimensions, a decade-old web game that has accumulated more than 100 million plays.
After years of simple games with addictive and quick feedback loops, the XGen team decided in 2014 to try something new: A story-driven point-and-click adventure called The Low Road. Founder Skye Boyes and XGen art director Scott Carmichael came up with an idea for a gritty, darkly comic story set in the murky world of automotive corporate espionage in the 1970s. The pair tapped veteran sound designer Eric Cheng to create a period perfect soundtrack and then brought in playwright Leif Oleson-Cormack to sculpt its narrative.
It was an ambitious project for XGen. And everything was on track – until Boyes’ sudden passing in October of 2015. The company’s founder left a gaping emotional and creative hole in the centre of the project. The studio was left to his wife, Kaelyn Boyes, and while she’d been involved with XGen’s business operations for years, her understanding of the technical aspects of game development were minimal.
“I had two choices: to continue everything or slowly let the company end, and let the company’s launched products sales slowly trickle off,” says Kaelyn. “The second choice was never a consideration. Skye was an incredible leader and he often mentored me informally with business advice and was very influential in my decision to take the risk of continuing to develop this game. I also especially had to do it for him and to continue his XGen legacy.”
So the team soldiered on, each working from their homes, with Kaelyn in Vancouver pursuing academic studies for a large part of the project. She took on the role of producer, keeping a tight watch on deadlines, deliverables, and milestones while facilitating communication between team members and ensuring everyone had everything they needed.
“The trust and open communication the team and I placed on each other has been one of the biggest contributing factors to the successful upcoming launch,” says Kaelyn.
The team continued to benefit from Skye’s careful pre-production planning and financial foresight, too.
“Skye had given us a large advantage,” says Kaelyn. “He already had some crucial resources in place, such as Canada Media Fund funding, console and Steam marketplace partnerships, the grant application and design document, and an incredible team with a lot of potential.”
But in the absence of its founder XGen’s surviving team has had to take initiative ensure the company remained healthy and viable. They’ve applied for funding in new government programs such as the Alberta Media Fund, and they’re working on ways to leverage their existing catalogue by bringing games to new platforms. They’re even thinking about what they might want to work on in the future – potentially another point-and-click game, if The Low Road is received well by players.
For now, though, their attention is still squarely focused The Low Road. And they’re pretty happy with what they’ve managed to create – even if it isn’t exactly the game that Skye initially envisioned.
“I very much believe we have managed to accomplish what we originally set out to do,” says Kaelyn. But she also notes that it’s evolved into something beyond even what Skye thought it would be. Her team kept the initial themes, flow, structure, and even some important in-game puzzles designed by her husband. But the overall design also shifted slightly to represent the people who were making it.
“We used [Skye’s original work] as a guide for the rest of The Low Road’s development and were able to rely on Scott Carmichael to keep the creative direction of the game in line with Skye and Scott’s initial vision for the project,” says Kaelyn. “We were able to expand and improve upon those design ideas as we continued development after his passing.”
As the game neared completion Kaelyn moved back to Edmonton, where she reunited with the team — now four staff and five contractors strong operating out of a downtown co-working space called Homestead, on Jasper Avenue in the city’s downtown. With the game’s immanent release on July 26, the whole team is working together and anxious to see what the world makes of XGen’s first narrative-driven point-and-click adventure, the final legacy of the studio’s founder.
“The Low Road is a product of the collaborative effort of incredibly talented individuals,” says Kaelyn. “And though we definitely faced some obstacles that I know Skye would have been able to foresee, these challenges helped us to continue to grow and gain the confidence we needed to succeed.”
What is The Low Road?
XGen is best known for its simple and addictive web games, which have amassed literally hundreds of millions of plays. But with The Low Road the team wanted to create something fresh. They needed to leverage their existing skills and talents, but they also sought to challenge themselves with a game focused on narrative and puzzles. Founder Skye Boyes and art director Scott Carmichael realized they were perfectly suited to developing a stylized point-and-click adventure game.
“The Low Road is inspired by some of our favourite 1970s television shows and movies,” says Carmichael, “like The French Connection and The Conversation, along with the original Mission Impossible television series. There’s a certain level of grit and texture in those works which contrasts with the slick style of popular spy action movies.”
The team used gouache painted visuals and an original, pulsating rock and roll score to capture the feel of the era, but they also allowed their own modern influences seep in order to retain a modern edge.
They populated the retro world they created with a cast of conniving antiheroes. These characters lie, emotionally manipulate, and blackmail their way to their objectives. “The spies in The Low Road aren’t your typical heroes,” says Carmichael. “We thought that presenting the characters in this way would be a unique take on the genre and give the player a new experience as they participate in the dark side of corporate espionage.”
The XGen team focused their efforts on delivering a powerful and memorable story, but the game stitches together its narrative scenes with puzzles and mini-games that Carmichael says were inspired by acclaimed games like Papers Please and Surgeon Simulator.
“These mini-games help give the player a sense of accomplishment for the progress they’ve made exploring the environments, explains Carmichael. “The first-person perspective encourages the player to empathize with the character they are playing, which makes the challenge of the conversation puzzles feel personal.”
Could Edmonton become Canada’s next indie game hotspot?
XGen has been around for more than 15 years, establishing itself as one of Alberta’s top independent game companies along the way. But in order for XGen to keep growing – and for other indie shops to experience a similar level of success – a little government help might be needed.
“City and provincial high-tech job initiatives would definitely have a positive impact on our studio and business operations, especially if it provides a bigger talent pool to draw from,” says XGen studio owner Kaelyn Boyes.
While her company has benefited from Canada-wide programs and takes advantage of the Federal and Provincial Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax initiative, she thinks there’s room for the local government to help with new programs like the Alberta Media Fund.
“We would love to see more government initiatives and opportunities as a means to foster growth within our industry.”
XGen’s operations director Jordan Dubuc agrees.
“What we believe can help the situation and provide a better environment for a healthy local games industry is if the government can help shoulder some of the risk – and participate in the reward – as well as help reduce the fixed-costs associated with running a game studio,” says Dubuc.
He also thinks that it would be beneficial for independent studios without much business experience to have access to resources that assist in making the most of the government grants and programs that are already available, along with mentors that can help fledgling game companies in areas like investment and fundraising.
“A healthy local game development industry gives Edmonton an opportunity for huge international exposure,” says Dubuc. “There are many games being made in Edmonton that have been well received and played by millions of fans situated all around the world. The game industry in Edmonton potentially has more power than many other industries to promote the city as a tech center and a place in the world that is doing great work and making cool things.”