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Alumni Engagement

Game changers: RRC grads help build digital media industry at Ubisoft

January 13, 2020

Red River College grads Spencer Marr and Ibrahim Shahin have total recall of the day global digital entertainment giant Ubisoft announced it was opening a video game development studio in Winnipeg.

“When the news of the studio came out, all my friends and my family called me,” says Shahin (shown above, at left), who has since landed a plum job as a technical artist at Ubisoft Winnipeg‘s Exchange District studio. “I applied the same day it was announced.”

Marr (shown, at right) was already in celebration mode when he heard the news.

“The studio was announced randomly on my birthday,” says the 30-year-old team lead programmer. “As soon as it was announced I was looking into it, trying to find all the information I could, and I started preparing my resumé to apply for it that day.”

It’s fair to say Ubisoft’s arrival was a game-changer for the local industry. With brands like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch_Dogs, the company boasts it has the world’s largest in-house game development staff, with more than 17,000 employees in 40 studios on six continents.

The Winnipeg studio has a unique role as the only one focused on developing tools and technology to build better games. Lured in part by Manitoba’s Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit, the company had hired 25 employees by the time it officially opened in October 2018. It plans to create 100 jobs over five years and so far, at least 10 RRC grads (many shown below) have signed on in various capacities.

“The best part is the people I work with,” Shahin says. “It’s crazy how well everyone gets along and how much care and effort is being put into building the team.”

Games have been a major part of Shahin’s life from an early age, but he’s always been more interested in making them than playing them. He says it helps that the skills he picked up at RRC are directly applicable to his job.

“All the stuff that we learned, all the tools and programs that we used there are industry standard.”

Red River College grads employed at Ubisoft WinnipegA long-time programmer and a 2017 graduate of RRC’s 3D Computer Graphics program, Shahin, 31, credits good timing and good luck for his new career, but he is a classic example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

“When I was working as a programmer, I had worked with a lot of RRC grads from the 3D program. I was always very impressed with their skills and what they could do and when I was considering my options I thought, ‘Why not marry the tech and the art together?’ It was a good fit,” he says.

“With the experience and education I got from Red River, and the opportunity of Ubisoft coming to Winnipeg, I got to stay in Winnipeg, because at the time I was considering moving somewhere that had a larger gaming industry.”

Shahin notes that Ubisoft Winnipeg’s lead artist, Kent Wilson, had done just that to further his career. A 1998 graduate of RRC’s Interactive Games Designer program, Wilson (shown above, at centre) has worked in the video game field for more than 20 years, including nine years with Ubisoft Toronto. In a company video, he says coming back to Winnipeg has been an emotional experience, particularly since he flew in last year on his mother’s birthday and surprised her with the news he was home to stay.

Staying home is by far the best option for Marr, who’s been passionate about promoting and supporting a home-grown industry since he graduated in 2009 from RRC’s Computer Analyst/Programmer (now Business Information Technology) and Application Development programs.

His RRC experience gave him a well-rounded foundation for his multi-faceted career. A web designer and software developer, Marr has been an active and eager participant in the city’s gaming community. Cool Math Games reached out to license a puzzle game called Beastie Blocks that he developed as a hobbyist, and he relishes the opportunity to make a career of finding new and exciting ways to improve game development.

Marr joined Ubisoft Winnipeg as a tool programmer and has already been promoted to team lead programmer. The company’s focus on research and development means there’s a lot of freedom to pursue innovative ideas and to work in a creative environment with people who share his passion.

“It’s the most challenging work I’ve done so far, and the most rewarding,” he says.

Ubisoft has opened up a new world of possibilities, and Marr says the more that post-secondary institutions focus on developing skills and building a strong local workforce, the more likely it is that other large companies will want to set up shop in Winnipeg.

Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)