By ten in the evening, a steady stream of people stand outside the Get Well bar in downtown Toronto, clamoring to get in. The west-end watering hole is home to Torontaru, a new monthly meetup for local video game developers and players, which gathers on the last Wednesday of the month.
Even in the event's three-month infancy, Torontaru has established itself as a meeting place for game developers to discuss fresh ideas or hatch harebrained schemes, but a casual and safe meeting place is at its core.
Kris Piotrowski, creative director at Sword & Sworcery developer Capy Games, says conversations during Torontaru may lead to game ideas, but "maybe it's not intentional."
"It just happens," he tells Joystiq. "This is the kind of environment where things do happen."
The idea for a casual meetup for game makers in Toronto was one pulled from a similar event in Japan. Piotrowski, Marie-Christine Bourdua (Fez, producer) and Renaud Bédard (Fez, programmer) were inspired by a gathering organized by 8-4, a localization team and podcast crew based out of Shibuya, Japan.
"[Marie-Christine and I] went to Japan a few years ago and we were invited to an event called Otaru, which is a gathering of developers," says Bédard. "I guess [the team at 8-4] wanted to have some kind of social evening that they could do every week - every Thursday - where they could drink with friends and bring whoever's in town to be part of it, so you just get there and you talk to people and meet people."
Torontaru strives to bring that safe environment, for gamers and creators to come together, share drinks and stories and help grow an already expanding scene.
Torontaru founders Kris Piotrowski (Capy), Marie-Christine Bourdua (Polytron) and Renaud Bédard (Capy)
Come for the cocktails, stay for the conversation
"I've met people at Torontaru that couldn't go out for weeks because of milestones and long work hours, but that will make an exception for Torontaru," Bédard says. He argues that developers pulling themselves away from work for an event like Torontaru can be important.
"By making [it] as much of a no-brainer as we can - it's free, there's good beer, your friends are probably there, there's arcade machines, it's pretty close to downtown - it helps give those people a break and a way to share a few words, maybe get inspired, or just relax," he adds.
While Torontaru may not have a business focus, that doesn't mean collaborations can't happen. "It may or may not end up being related to business, but it's also an awesome place to get drunk and hug and have a good time, which sometimes does lead to the best of business," says Piotrowski.
Although it wasn't at Torontaru, Piotrowski points out that, "[The idea for] Sworcery did happen while all of us were severely intoxicated." But perhaps the industry's next big thing will be formed between pints in Toronto.
"Nathan [Vella, co-founder and president of Capy] and I actually did a talk in Montreal called 'Beers with Friends', which was specifically about the importance of going out, having a good time, getting drunk and meeting people and that being a very important part of the work that you end up doing," Piotrowski reveals.
In the past, events organized by the Toronto chapter of the Independent Game Developers Association and The Hand Eye Society - a video game arts organization that holds events to connect developers with one another, while also promoting diversity in game development - served as the local industry meet-ups, but those events lacked consistency of the Torontaru's monthly meetup.
The idea of keeping the event pressure-free and accessible to everyone is something that Bourdua, Piotrowski and Bédard decided was crucial for the gathering.
Bourdua and Bédard also had another reason for wanting to start Torontaru. "We recently moved to Toronto from Montréal, where we were well acquainted with the indie game development scene because of our involvement with the Mount Royal Game Society.
"There was no direct equivalent in Toronto, so by making Torontaru happen we hope to fill that gap and provide a monthly occasion to casually meet a wide sample of the Toronto game development scene," the two tells Joystiq.
Toronto's game development scene is responsible for a handful of cherished independent titles, including Drinkbox Studios' Guacamelee, Sound Shapes from Queasy Games, Metanet's N+, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery from developer Capy Games, which is also set to launch two new high-profile titles, Super T.I.M.E. Force and Below.
Major companies have joined the community as well, with Splinter Cell Blacklist developer Ubisoft Toronto joining the scene in recent years.
Though Bourdua says the trio of event creators only expected 30 attendees at its first event, the first Torontaru drew over 70. Over 100 attendees shared drinks at the second gathering.
"The first two meet-ups were more like 'What the heck is Torontaru?' but people are starting to get it and feel associated with it," Bourdua says, recalling social media reaction to the event. "We saw a tweet saying 'Torontaru is todaytaru' which we thought was hilarious, [as well as] people asking their friends if they're coming, and then someone calling out that everybody should wear cat shirts."
Backyard Party Atmosphere
"These kind of events are vital to create that community culture. It gives you a chance to catch up with people you might only see at shows when you're in another city," says Augusto Quijano, concept artist and animator at Guacamelee-developer Drinkbox Studios. "I think this is very important to create that openness in a studio. I think it just benefits everybody."
Andrew Carvalho, front-end programmer on the indie game hit Sound Shapes, says that Toronto is an "incredibly collaborative space" with a major roadblock: "You often don't have the chance to get together outside of a work context."
Making an excuse to meet at least once a month helps the collaborative creative atmosphere in the city flourish.
"By making Torontaru as structureless as it is, people tend to appropriate it, make it theirs. It's shaped by the variety of folks that end up going, and the regular crowd that you know you can expect to see again every month," Torontaru's trio of founders tells Joystiq.
"We think interfering with it by offering talks or round-tables or what have you would break the 'backyard party' atmosphere that it ended up having, which we think is excellent and super inviting."
Torontaru happens on the last Wednesday of every month at Get Well bar (1181 Dundas Street West) in Toronto. The next gathering is on September 25. The event is open to all: game makers and game fanatics, included.
Michael Brown is a writer from the Great White North, also known as Toronto, ON. He has written for 1UP, Polygon, Metro News, Today's Trucking, and more. You can hear him on the Video Game Realness podcast, or follow him on Twitter (@MikeBrown7905).