'Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP'

This year's third annual Canadian Video Game Awards, taking place in Vancouver on Apr. 21, have all the makings of David versus Goliath. Or, more accurately, it's David versus several Goliaths as tiny independent studio Capybara Games takes on some of the world's biggest multinational publishers for the title of Game of the Year.

Toronto-based Capybara's quirky iPad game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is up against Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Electronic Arts' FIFA 12 and Fight Night Champion, and Eidos' Deux Ex: Human Revolution, all of which are multimillion-selling console titles.

"I would be really arrogant to think we could win that," says Kris Piotrowski, Capybara's co-founder and creative director. "It would be a huge shocker."

The top award is voted on by fans, which puts Sword & Sworcery at a disadvantage, Piotrowski says. While the game has been a hit on the iPad, selling more than 350,000 copies, it's nowhere near as well known or popular as the big franchises it's competing against.

"It really is an honour just being nominated."

Piotrowski and his friend Nathan Vella started Capybara in 2003 and have grown the studio to 22 employees. Despite its small size, the studio has racked up an impressive 11 nominations this year.

Sword & Sworcery, an adventure game that puts players in the shoes of a character known as the Scythian as he searches for a book called the Megatome, leads all titles with nine nods. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, a downloadable strategy game for several platforms, garnered Capybara a further two.

The other 11 award categories - including audio, writing, graphics and technical design - are voted on by a panel of judges (disclosure: the author of this story is among them).

Besides the Game of the Year award, the big publishers also dominate the other categories. With Ubisoft based in France, Electronic Arts in the United States and Eidos in the United Kingdom, that might make it easy to wonder just how Canadian the awards are.

Victor Lucas, host of The Electric Playground television show and one of the event's organizers, says it doesn't matter where the big companies are based because their best work is being done in Canada.

"The economic headquarters for these companies may exist in other countries, but what we celebrate is the actual development that's going on," he says. "It's really fascinating that Ubisoft's best work is out of Montreal, so far. EA's biggest studio is EA Canada and they've produced some of the most pivotal game entertainment in the industry's history."

'Assasin's Creed'

With more than 16,000 employees, Canada's video game industry is the third largest in the world, behind only Japan and the United States. Some of the biggest-selling game franchises in the world, including FIFA, Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell and Mass Effect are designed primarily in Canada.

Moreover, the production system currently being used by big companies around the world began in Canada back in 1991, Lucas says, when California's Electronic Arts acquired Burnaby, B.C.-based Distinctive Software and rechristened it EA Canada.

"To a large extent, the studio model that the industry has adopted has its roots at EA Canada," he says. "It's still a surprise to many players and consumers. They're surprised by how much stuff gets made here. There's a lack of understanding and appreciation."

For their part, the big publishers say multinational operations are part of the reality of the global video game market. Canadian developers often need the deep pockets of publishers to get their games the biggest distribution and marketing possible.

"If you're going to be successful on a global stage, you really need to be working at a global level," says EA Canada spokesperson Colin McRae. "While there are opportunities for smaller Canadian companies to self publish, to do that in the context of big intellectual properties and entertainment franchises, that can obviously be a challenge."

Piotrowski says that while it used to be inevitable for independent Canadian studios to get gobbled up by bigger publishers as a way of expanding their reach, that's not necessarily the case anymore. Indie companies such as Capybara and fellow nominees Drinkbox Studios, Alien Trap Games and Hothead Games now have a host of online distribution options with which to reach audiences.

"If you're already working with Apple or Sony or Xbox Live or Steam, there is absolutely nothing a publisher can do for you," he says. "Getting acquired by some larger publisher wouldn't help us reach a larger audience at all. I actually think it would hurt us."

The shift toward online distribution could lead to future iterations of the Canadian Video Game Awards becoming even more Canadian, or at least more cases of David versus Goliath, as indie developers are able to stand toe to toe with big publishers.

"The magic of game development is now available to anyone with ambition and an internet connection," Lucas says. "It democratizes the way cool content is going to be created and consumed."