Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It was a look at an economic forecast for 2012-13 that changed the course of Meagan Byrne’s career.
While working a variety of creative roles in live production and theatre lighting, Byrne, who is Âpihtawikosisân (Cree for Métis), thought she had found what her career path was going to be.
But the worldwide economic recession in 2008-09 hit many arts industries hard, and Byrne, like many, was dealing with cyclical layoffs, an uncertain future, and broken promises of full-time work.
“It was a very hostile space to enter because of how bad the recession had been to theatre,” she said.
In the economic forecast, Byrne saw video game design listed as one of the top up-and-coming industries. She decided to give it a shot. She had earned a degree in English Literature from McMaster University, but decided to go back to school, enrolling in Sheridan College’s new Game Design program. She graduated in 2017.
“I just really took to [game design] right away,” she said. She’s now the co-founder of the independent development studio called Achimostawinan Games.
Byrne said a key draw to the video game industry was how she’d be able to interact with her audience of video game consumers.
“I’d always been a storyteller, but this was the first time I’d worked in something that gave me freedom of the space to play with my audience,” she said of her early experiences with game design.
“I could tell a story but I didn’t have to tell it at them. I could tell it with them.”
Byrne has recently been selected to work as a Creative Lead on the UK-Canadian Co-Production Programme for Immersive Storytelling, a project that combines virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) technologies and focuses on talent development.
A team of 24 participants, 12 each from Canada and the UK, have been selected to participate in the virtual program over the next year.
Funded by a variety of sources, including the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Film Centre, the project is still in the early stages, with a pitch deadline of March, and full projects scheduled to be completed by November 2021.
Byrne is looking to use her game design and theatre experience to focus on what she calls ‘user-centric design’.
“What are [the user’s] expectations when they’re told to do something and how do they play with that? People want to break the rules and see where the limits are,” Byrne said.
Byrne’s current project with Achimostawinan Games is the creation of a detective-mystery game called Hill Agency: PURITY/decay, slated for release in 2021.
Set in the year 2762 and designed from the perspective of a pair of female, Indigenous private investigators, Byrne said it’s an “opportunity to explore Indigenous identity in a future world.”
What sets Hill Agency apart from other mystery games is the continuation of the storyline without the game forcing the user to necessarily play the same scenes over again, said Byrne.
“You won’t always know if you have the right answer,” she said.
The game is in development for PC, Mac, and the Nintendo Switch. Byrne says they’re also exploring putting the game on newer consoles, such as Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, if possible.
Byrne admits that it hasn’t always been smooth sailing in seeing her creative visions come to fruition, describing the development of the studio as a ‘labour of love’ while aiming to keep AAchimostawinan Games’ development team majority Indigenous.
Byrne says that some of their staff have moved on to larger projects with a more stable financial foundation, as many of the roles at Achimostawinan Games were in addition to other full-time work.
“That’s not unusual for indie games to go through that process,” she said. “There’s definitely those kind of hurdles to jump through in terms of development.”
Despite the financial and logistical challenges, Byrne said she always encourages her employees to pursue other opportunities as they come up. “It’s not worth it to go broke on a game,” she said.
Byrne also acknowledged that she and other employees have faced sexism in a traditionally male-dominated industry, particularly when trying to get financing for projects.
“There are systematic problems where there’s a lot of belief that women in tech can’t do it, or not even that they can’t do it, but that they need so much more experience than their male counterparts in order to get the trust [from investors and studios],” she said.
“This industry very much privileges a middle-class and higher working person because those are the people that can afford to take the free internships or take a summer with their friends to just work on their prototypes. They don’t always have to take on a job to pay their rent,” Byrne said.
For more information on Hill Agency and Byrne’s work at Achimostawinan Games, visit the studio website here.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.