The Co-Optimist Atul Mehra, La Guilde, and the dream of uniting Canada's game industry

If you’re a fan of The Who, the death of Keith Moon draws a pretty clear line in the sand when it comes to which albums are worth remembering and which you should probably forget. It’s not just that the sound of the band changed after Moon’s untimely (though not terribly surprising) demise, but the spirit did too. As a result, most Who aficionados find their later career releases less palatable.

My love of their 1981 album Face Dances, then, makes me something of an anomaly.

On it, tucked between surprisingly upbeat and poppy tunes like “You Better You Bet” and “Daily Records” are a handful of songs that still retain a touch of the seventies — even if they sound a little more like Supertramp than The Who of yore. It’s one of these particular songs that I find myself humming a lot lately, usually after I meet with an indie game maker or small studio that seems completely disconnected from the rest of the industry around them.

“How Can You Do It Alone?”

Roger Daltrey was singing about varying levels of degenerates and the secrets they’re forced to keep, so it’s probably worth stressing that it’s merely the catchy refrain that gets stuck in my head, rather than any sort of damning accusation about questionable morals. And yet, it’s buried in my brain for a reason: if you decide to start your own studio instead of becoming a cog in somebody else’s machine, do you have the skill and knowhow to do everything on your own? And if not, where are you going to learn it?

You see, just like The Who, I’m often left wondering — how can you do it alone?


Earlier this year, I spent some time with Dom and Yowan of Montreal’s Juicy Beast. We spoke primarily about the studio’s history and their upcoming release, Toto Temple Deluxe — but having heard about their success with a unique giveaway at the Penny Arcade Expo “East” in Boston, I was eager to learn more. As it turns out, this year’s PAX East was Juicy Beast’s first, and a new group called Up North Indies was a big player in helping them get there.

11021274_791088817593939_2850428350067213776_n[1]The five word pitch for Up North Indies would probably sound something like “Indie Mega Booth for Canadians.” It’s an initiative aimed at helping steer novice game developers in Canada through the challenging hoops of showcasing at a major event like PAX. To organize something of this magnitude requires someone who’s been through those hoops before, someone who knows the ins and outs. Someone, as it turns out, like Atul Mehra, co-founder of Spearhead Games.

If you were an early adopter of Sony’s PlayStation 4, you’ll likely remember Spearhead’s 2013 co-operative puzzle game Tiny Brains as one of the few games to have appeared on the PlayStation Store just after launch. Nowadays the studio is working on their next title, which they plan to unveil to the public later this month, but Atul seems just as focused on what some might argue is a much more meaningful goal: connecting people.

“The biggest challenge for all of us [as indies] is that we don’t know what to do, when to do, or how to do it. And when you get there [to events like PAX East] you’re pretty much on your own,” Mehra told me in a phone interview. “You have nobody around you, so having a few folks working together so that everybody can help everybody else, and so that you’re not so lonely when you’re there [makes a big difference].”

Montreal's Compulsion Games brought 'We Happy Few' to PAX East as part of Up North Indies (image via Facebook)
Montreal’s Compulsion Games brought ‘We Happy Few’ to PAX East as part of Up North Indies (image via Facebook)

This isn’t Mehra’s first time at a PAX Event. “I’ve done so many PAX’s right now … that I can blindly walk through it,” he says. As a result, he has learned the ropes and built the relationships with the convention that make him an ideal candidate to lead Up North Indies.

After digging a little further, however, something becomes increasingly clear: it’s neither his next release nor his convention confidence booster that he truly wants to talk about today. Atul Mehra has much bigger things brewing.


Before we go any further, I think it’s important to let you in on a little secret. I, Jim Squires of Ookpixels, am a Coworker.

That’s not a little “c” coworker, mind you. I’m not talking about the people in your office gabbing about Suzie in accounting, or shouting “TGIF!” around the water cooler. I’m talking big “C” Cowork. The kind that you may not have heard of, but which is probably taking place around you, right under your very nose. It’s a movement, and it’s everywhere.

Coworking is essentially what it looks like when independent professionals from all walks of life come together under a common roof to build relationships, bounce around ideas, and — more than anything else — get their day-to-day work accomplished. I joined my workspace, Cowork Niagara, in April of this year.

In a word, it’s been life-changing.

Also, I frequently abuse my whiteboard privileges.
Also, I frequently abuse my whiteboard privileges.

A lot of the site you’re reading right now was crafted utilizing the advice and influence of my coworking peers. Other projects I personally have on the go, too, have benefited from working alongside a group of similarly motivated go-getters.

But what does my experience with Coworking have to do with Atul Mehra?

Nothing, and everything.


While there are numerous organizations in the Montreal gaming scene that provide education, community, and support — MRGS, Execution Labs, and IGDA Montreal in particular get shoutouts from Mehra on our call — he feels strongly that there’s a void of unity amongst studios the size of Spearhead Games.

“The AAA studios are there…[and] they have the bandwidth to buy pretty much anything they want. Expertise, people, skills — whatever they need,” Mehra says. By contrast, independent studios can quickly find themselves struggling to solve a variety of problems. “How do I know when I’m talking to a publisher if it’s a good publisher? How do I know if a contract is a good contract?”

Whether it’s fighting to get a better deal on tax credits or negotiating for health insurance, smaller studios have endless challenges to overcome. And if it’s your first time tackling these kinds of issues, you may not know where to start.

This is why, along with the founders of four other studios (Borealys Games, Sauropod Studio, Affordance Studio, Momentum) and his co-founders at Spearhead Games, Atul Mehra is creating La Guilde.

la guilde

“A lot of these burning issues were coming out, so what we decided was to poke the world around Montreal and see if people would be interested in having a co-op,” said Mehra. And the response, at least initially, has been overwhelming. Like Up North Indies, the idea for La Guilde only began to germinate in early 2015. Yet, when I spoke with Mehra in mid-June, he said there were already 57 different studios that expressed an interest in joining. Since that time, they’ve even had their first Annual General Meeting, whereat 58 different studios — including Minority Media (Papo & Yo), Kitfox Games (Moon Hunters), and Tribute Games (Mercenary Kings) — formally became members of La Guilde. Mehra believes it will only grow from there.

And it’s not just developers that are welcome to join, either. Mehra says their doors are open to artists, analysts, public relations firms — any and all walks of life that self-identify as being part of the Quebec games professionals community.

“The end objective is [to] make better games, more high quality games, as well as have an infrastructure around you so that if there is something you need there are people you can easily and quickly reach,” Mehra elaborates. “The objective of La Guilde is to foster collaboration, so that independent studios can piggy back on each other’s expertise…that is La Guilde.”


When I joined Cowork Niagara this past April, I didn’t have any such nobile aspirations. I wasn’t looking to collaborate. I wasn’t looking to network, improve my skill set, or find solutions. I was just lonely. As nice as it sounds on paper, working from home has a pretty steep downside to it, too.

This is a story that sounds eerily familiar to Cowork Niagara’s Trevor Twining.

trevortwining

“I had been doing it [freelancing] since the early 2000’s, and remote work was a big part of my portfolio at the time. I had clients who were in London, San Francisco, LA, New York City — basically all over the world.” Like me, though, Trevor was doing the majority of this work from his home office. He describes his feelings at that time as “isolated” and “stir crazy,” but until business needs put him on a flight to San Francisco in 2007, it had never dawned on him that there might be a better way.

Twining spent a week in the city to help a client kick off a new project, and while there, found himself working out of Citizen Space — the first formal coworking space in the world that had opened only a year prior. “It was awesome. It was wonderful… I came back totally invigorated and charged. ‘We absolutely have to have this in Niagara!'”

It would be seven more years before that idea became the physical space wherein I’m typing these words now.

Photo courtesy of Cowork Niagara's Alison Smith
Photo courtesy of Cowork Niagara’s Alison Smith

While it ultimately took some time for the idea to  get off the ground during the facility’s launch period in 2014, there are few members who would doubt Cowork Niagra’s value today. We’re just shy of 70 members, and for many of us, Cowork Niagara is more than just a chance to get out of the house; it’s become our support system.

“We are all independents, we like to do things our own way, but we can share that experience with others and in the process not only help others, but help ourselves… our mission is to improve the quality of life for independent workers in Niagara, because independent workers everywhere are often treated like shit. We have nobody to look out for us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look out for each other.”

Not pictured: me, because I was in Montreal meeting with Juicy Beast!
The Cowork Niagara family. Not pictured: me, because I was in Montreal meeting with Juicy Beast!

La Guilde’s mission seems to exemplify that same cowork spirit, and in a lot of ways they may even have a leg up. By focusing on the independent producers in one industry rather than the more generalized freelancers you’ll find in a space like Cowork Niagara, it becomes easier to focus on more initiatives that benefit each member of the group.

Communication and collaboration could create new systems that benefit everyone. Imagine building a set of tools collaboratively with another Guilde member to solve a problem, and sharing that toolset with the group. “If multiple companies start using the same toolsets to solve common problems, all of a sudden everybody in the cooperative starts benefiting from those efficiencies,” says Twining, “and that allows them to compete in the marketplace by way of their association that they wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”

“This is the benefit of the cooperative business model,” he elaborates. “In those types of approaches you can start to establish structures that resemble the efficiencies you get in those larger organizations, but with a higher degree of agility. The benefit that smaller businesses have is that they can move faster and more nimbly than their larger counterparts. The benefit that larger organizations have is a certain stability, and the benefit of taking effective systems and then making them efficient. Small businesses are usually really good at finding things that are effective, and large businesses are able to take those and make them efficient. That’s how they make their profit. So by taking structures like cooperative businesses, you then provide the opportunity to have the stability that goes along with size, [and] the nimbleness that goes along with [independence]. ”


While La Guilde may serve a similar function to a Coworking group, they’re rather quick to self-identify with the term co-operative instead. On the surface this may seem like a meaningless distinction (and some Coworks, like Cowork Niagara, are co-operatives too). But when you step back and look at the scope of what they’re doing, La Guilde is offering more than just a network of like-minded artisans; they’re offering a sort of collective representation when it comes to dealing with governments and larger corporate entities. Here too, they’ve made significant headway.

“We’ve already started negotiating for tax credits…in the past when companies went for tax credits, they would always [be charged] 20%,” Mehra says, referring to the fee taken by firms assisting game developers in securing governmental benefits. “We’ve brought it down to 10% for everybody in La Guilde. When you are doing, let’s say, [a] $100,000 tax credit at the end of the year, 10% savings is about $10,000, which goes a little long way, you know? And for some companies it’s larger.”

"The good news is we've saved you 10 cents on the dollar. The bad news is you have to spend it on headlights or gardening shears."
“The good news is we’ve saved you 10 cents on the dollar. The bad news is you have to spend it on spark plugs.”

While I’ve spent much of my career writing on a number of topics, the financial world is one of the few things that has always confused me. Heck — that’s why we’ve never moved past the “wouldn’t it be great if?” phase when it came to asking the Canada Media Fund for Ookpixels funding. So while the specifics of the tax credit in question have left my head spinning, it’s not hard to see the value in saving 10% when the stakes are that high. If anything, my lack of knowledge just reinforces how valuable a group like La Guilde is. For any small developers whose brains ache in the same way mine does, it’s of great value to have somebody who knows what they’re doing within arms reach.

Provincial and Federal governments aren’t the only groups on La Guilde’s list of potential co-operative ambitions, either. “Because of the strength of the indie community in Montreal, the AAA studios are actually looking at it [La Guilde] and going ‘hey, wait a minute, maybe we can work with these guys.'”

Ubisoft's Montreal studio has plenty of curb appeal. Old buildings rule.
Ubisoft’s Montreal studio has plenty of curb appeal. Old buildings rule.

With studios like Ubisoft and Square Enix Montreal around, Mehra readily acknowledges that AAA isn’t the enemy; it’s an important part of the overall ecosystem. “We’re not against each other. It’s not the AAA world vs indie…we are already having a discussion with Ubisoft about how we should work together. Ubisoft has a great marketing machine. Is it possible to do something with them? We don’t know the answer yet, [and] there are things to be discussed, but we need to look at [the industry] as a whole…together.”

And besides: if any individual developers at a AAA Quebec studio are thinking of going it alone, it couldn’t hurt for them to know that La Guilde is there to give them plenty of support.


As an initiative that began with a Montreal focus and quickly sprawled out to represent developers in all of Quebec, seeing La Guilde potentially negotiate for Federal tax credits has me wondering if they’ve set their sights on a national approach in the near future.

“We have opened it up for everybody in the province of Quebec right now,” Mehra tells me.”[But] what we are right now discussing is ‘how do we expand outward?’ Because the same deals that we’ve already negotiated, like for tax credits — why can’t people in Ontario benefit from the same thing? Or people in BC for that matter?”

And while Mehra doesn’t rule out the possibility of taking La Guilde national to provide its unique benefits to developers in other regions, it’s not something he envisions the Montreal Guild as being directly involved in. And that, he says, is a good thing.

“Perhaps the best way is to set up the basic infrastructure of what we have, and if the people in say, Toronto, want to establish a Guild, we will help them, guide them, show them how we did it so that they can actually do it,” says Mehra. “But the running of the Toronto Guild? It would be on the people in Toronto then. They have the reins in their hands for their future, pretty much. We don’t want to be the ones dictating things. The ecosystem in Montreal is different than the ecosystem in Vancouver and Toronto, right?”

Bento Miso: Toronto's Gamedev CoWork Space

While there’s nothing quite like La Guilde in Toronto just yet, the spirit of collaboration is alive and well in Canada’s largest city — and much of that happens at Bento Miso. A coworking space used primarily by game developers, web developers, and artists, Bento Miso touts an impressive 160 like-minded members, eager to bounce questions and ideas off one another.

“It works for the super social devs as well as the community-minded mavericks who go off into their own worlds to do amazing work, and come together to play, collaborate, work through problems and support each other,” Bento Miso co-founder Jenny Faber told us. “For everyone, it’s a place you can experiment and fail with support and understanding. That’s shaped the space more than anything.”

The birth of Bento Miso, much like Cowork Niagara, stemmed from Jenny’s own frustrations with the work-from-home motif. “I’m a partner in a small Web development company that’s been around since 1999. When we moved the business to Toronto from Vancouver in 2006, we didn’t get an office, instead turning our dining room into a meeting room and hosting coworkers and clients there occasionally. But it started to feel really isolating.”

After taking some time to identify similar feelings in the community, Faber (along with her co-founders) established a facility in 2012 that has quickly become one of the go-to spots for indie game developers in Toronto.

This is Games With Friends 82 at @BentoMiso.

“Our core service is workspace and we’ve been able to keep our costs relatively low for four years because we’ve stayed focused on the basics,” says Faber. “We have a meeting room that can be booked for free for members, mail service and reception, free coffee and tea. Everything else — office hours, mentorship, video production services, event hosting — happens organically and through the initiative of our members and the broader community.”

And those initiatives are worth talking about. Boss Level, for example, is a community investment program that is helping some of its members cross the finish line on projects that need financial or organizational support, while Bit Bazaar is a bi-annual public showcase of indie games using the space (and one of the few things that can convince me to fight St. Catharines-to-Toronto traffic twice a year).

If you’re interested in learning more (or finding out if the space is right for you), visit bentomiso.com.

If La Guild did manage to take root in cities across the country, it’s doubtless that the day-to-day running  of each Guild would be managed separately. However, there are certain things (such as the aforementioned tax credits) that all Guilds would be able to share in. Similarly, one of the things in which Mehra believes there is huge potential is cross-promotion, and the sharing of new releases to new audiences. Audiences to which you might not have otherwise had access without the help of La Guilde. Such “strategic alliances,” as he calls them, have a certain nationwide appeal that’s not dependent on the local community.

“We can build that infrastructure where the different guilds can cross-promote or can reach out to each other [and say] ‘hey, I’m going to be in Montreal, I’d love to see some people because I am thinking about something,’ and people can say ‘sure, let’s meet up, let’s have a cup of coffee or lunch or dinner’ or whatever works. So we leave the doors open for communication…for knowledge sharing.”

“We [would] share everything.”


Everything, that is, except a home.

La Guilde might be growing quickly, but they don’t yet have a physical space just yet. Their current method of communication is common to most groups without a formal space: they stay in contact via email, Facebook, and regular meet-ups. But while there’s no firm timeline in place (“long-term goal, a year or two down the lane”) Mehra is hoping to give the group a permanent location in the future: Guilde Hall.

Artist's rendering or lazy Photoshop? You decide!
Artist’s rendering or lazy Photoshop? You decide!

“The end goal is to buy a large building and get as many people as are interested to be in a building together, because…when you are really close to somebody, you are much more eager to say ‘hey, I have a couple of things to ask you, let’s go for lunch.’ So the building will help assist that…the building will help people to get to know each other better.” On one hand, there are some very clear benefits to having a space. On the other, Mehra emphasizes that this isn’t a plan they’re looking to implement immediately.

“We would like to buy a building and get a lot of people in it, [but the] short terms goals are to have the Co-op set, [and] build that infrastructure where people can start knowledge sharing.” In other words, they’re not looking to put the cart before the horse — even if key interests like the City of Montreal are already expressing interest. “We have already started talking to the City to help us get a building,” Mehra informs me. “They’ve said ‘hey, this is the way you need to raise some money for it [Guild Hall] so that the City can match it.'”

Chicken or the egg: do you build a community, or a space?

“There’s a consistent pattern that happens when a space opens up without a group of people that are already committed to in some way using that space. You basically end up with the ghost town effect.” Trevor Twining isn’t just pontificating here, he’s speaking from experience.

As a member of the space, I found it surprising to learn that the current incarnation of Cowork Niagara is far from the first. Initially Trevor opened a much smaller space, and quickly learned from experience that you need to build the community before you build a location.

“We took the top floor of a house. We had two rooms that we could fill. So we filled the first room, and before we could fill the second, things fell apart,” Twining told me. “It was actually kind of difficult to fill the second room because we hadn’t built the community part first.”

Sometimes community-building requires hats.
Sometimes community-building requires hats.

Rather than give up, Trevor reached out to gurus in the coworking community — all of whom were eager to share their wisdom, helping to see their philosophy grow. In particular, Trevor cites Alex Hillman of Indy Hall in Philadelphia as a huge source of information and influence. “Everything I learned about coworking I learned from him, and people who are working in a way like him.”

And the one message he took away? Build the community first.

Jennie Faber of Toronto’s Bento Miso tells a similar story, though without the initial misstep. “In 2011 we started organizing public coworking sessions at a neighborhood cafe. It was fun, but… the wi-fi wasn’t great, and the furniture was certainly not ergonomic. So we decided to gauge interest in a dedicated coworking space tailored to game devs that hit those basic notes without the frills that make other coworking spaces unaffordable.”

Empty in 2011, Bento Miso in 2012
Empty in 2011, Bento Miso in 2012 (via Flickr)

“We found the perfect spot after looking at dozens of spaces across Toronto, tucked into an old brick-and-beam building just off Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto’s fantastic art-and-design neighborhood of West Queen West, Faber tells me. “[But] the seeds of the community we have now definitely came first; Bento was founded on openness and collaboration.”

Despite the clear trail that a lot of people have blazed in the space, “there are still a lot of people who take the Field of Dreams approach,” says Twining. “‘If you build it, they will come.’ And that’s bullshit. It just doesn’t happen. You have these tumbleweeds blowing through your coworking space, and nobody wants to work in a space where it’s empty, because that’s exactly the same problem that they have when they’re working from home… If you’re the only one there, you might as well be at home where it’s comfortable. In your underwear, or whatever. But not in the coworking space,” he reminds me. “I’m glad that you’ve committed to upholding that rule.”

“It’s really important to us that you respect that rule, Jim. I can’t stress this enough.”

“We want to make a space where you know that in Montreal, on Friday, if you’re in the gaming industry, there should be one spot where you want to be. You want to be at Guilde Hall so that you can all have a beer together and get to know each other and yippity yap a lot more.”

But first they need to build the community. And with 58 studios already involved, it seems like an egregious understatement to say that La Guilde is off to a very good start.


Listening to Mehra speak, it’s hard not to buy into the dream. To feel as if I’m already living in a parallel universe where the Canadian games industry is more symbiotic and interconnected than it’s ever been.

Here in this universe, however, I’m sobered when I remember that La Guilde isn’t Mehra’s day job. As excited as he is about the co-operative he’s helping organize, I get the sense that he’s feeling spread a little thin lately. Ultimately, elements of the La Guilde’s plan like “we’ll get a space down the road,” or “we’ll let other communities build their own Guild,” emerge not only as good choices for the group — they’re good choices for Atul Mehra. After all, as much as he might love La Guilde and Up North Indies, the man has a game studio to run.

Spearhead Games' next project, Arena: Cyber Evolution, is available now in Steam Early Access
Spearhead Games’ most recent project, Arena: Cyber Evolution, is available now in Steam Early Access

“I have the Up North Indies on one side, I have La Guilde on the other side, and I have the company on the third side. It’s a lot of work,” admits Mehra as we wrap up our call together. “Eventually I would like La Guilde to take over Up North Indies,” he says.

In the end, Mehra’s busy schedule sums up exactly why an organization like La Guilde desperately needs to exist. Creative people need to create, not spend their days spinning too many plates, trying to make all of the pieces fit together. With the right members, organizations like La Guilde could plug any knowledge holes indie developers, artists, and passionate game-makers might have — all while providing an ample resource pool of professionals for hire.

The challenge, of course, is straight out of rock ‘n’ roll history: you simply can’t do it alone.

If you’re located in Quebec and are interested in learning more, please contact [email protected].

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