HB Studios an International Success in Smalltown Nova Scotia

first_imgImagine a place where “rush hour” means a session with a surfboard after work. Imagine a beautiful, historic community where young people can still afford to buy their own homes. Imagine a time when finding a balance between work and play is not a dream but a way of life. The 74 people who work at HB Studios, a progressive electronic entertainment company in Lunenburg, don’t have to imagine those things, it’s reality. “We’ve brought people from everywhere in Canada as well as other countries,” says CEO and creative director Jeremy Wellard. “People have moved here from out west. They’ve tried out west and not really liked it that much.” In the video game development industry, out west usually means Vancouver or California where there are large concentrations of such companies. “I’ve got one guy from England who tried it out west,” Wellard says. “He’s got two young kids and they came here because they’d heard it was good. They’d never been here before, and they just adored it. Then they’ve had friends who have come to visit and now they’re going to move here.” Wellard says the Lunenburg area has a fantastic natural appeal. There is sea kayaking, golfing, mountain biking, music festivals, historic architecture and charming pubs. Even snowboarding is just 30 minutes away. And he understands how strong that appeal can be. Originally from the U.K., he met Anne-Marie, his Nova Scotian-born partner, at a Canadian university while on exchange. After graduation, she moved to London, England for four years to join him. The hectic pace of life there proved to be too much. “She basically decided she needed to come back then or she never would,” he recalls, and then laughs. “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I was working in the video game industry, had a good position with a really big company, but I had to stop all that. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do once I got here.” The couple bought a house in Lunenburg County in 1999; Anne-Marie is from the neighbouring Queens County. Wellard started HB Studios the next summer with $1.1 million in capital, about half of which he, his family and friends contibuted. Wellard also used the money he received from his first contract with Electronic Arts (EA), a California-based video game publisher. Wellard had already made a name for himself by the time he landed the EA contract. He developed his first game when he was in his teens. Before coming to Canada, he was a producer at Codemaster, one of Europe’s biggest video game developers. What really impressed EA, though, was the fact Wellard had previously developed a cricket video game that outsold their own. Wellard also presented himself as someone with a keen eye for developing video games for sports like cricket and rugby. These games may not be especially popular in North America, but have huge followings in Australia, India, Pakistan and Europe, thus giving distributors like EA better positioning in those markets. Looking back, Wellard knows he made the right decision setting up HB Studios in Lunenburg. The proximity to Halifax means he and his employees are only an hour from all the urban amenities they could desire while they still enjoy the beautiful setting and balanced lifestyle they had sought in the first place. “There’s no way I could have done this anywhere in Britain or anywhere else in Canada,” he says. “In Britain, the costs are crazy and the staffing would have been very difficult. I would never have ended up with the standard of people I ended up with here, and that probably would have been the case elsewhere, like Vancouver or Montreal. “It’s hard to get the talented people to an unheard-of start-up. If I would have been in Vancouver paying the rent out there, I don’t think we would have survived.” HB Studios has done more than survive. Many of its games have achieved top-three status in several countries. In the U.K., for example, Rugby 06 debuted at number one on PlayStation 2 and reached number two on Xbox. While the company started its growth by enticing people from other areas of Canada and overseas, these days more of its workforce is local people. Seventy-seven per cent of the staff are from Nova Scotia and, of that, 24 per cent are from the South Shore. “That’s been the nicest thing for me, to see that progression of picking up people from the local area and knowing that they saw us here a few years ago and thought it’d be great to stay and work here,” he says. “There are a lot of talented people here in Atlantic Canada, especially in Nova Scotia, who are committed to their careers and really interested in their personal development.” For those who have already left to work out west, Wellard says, they now have the ideal opportunity to come home again. In addition to the mix of come-from-aways and Nova Scotians, HB Studios’ video game development staff is 23 per cent women. Gender equality in the industry is a passion of Wellard’s. The company is an active participant in Techsploration (www.techsploration.ca), a program designed to increase the number of women working in science, trades, technical and technology related occupations in Nova Scotia. “I’ve worked in too many places where it’s all guys and it’s just a totally different atmosphere when it’s mixed,” he says. Wellard’s reasons aren’t completely about personal politics, either. After all, he is running a business. “Everyone still thinks video games are for 15-year-old boys playing in their bedrooms all night; there’s a wider market than that,” he says. “The more we get this half-and-half industry, the more we’ll be taken seriously.” -30-last_img

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