Not playing around

As Madison strives to rebrand itself as a technology hub, the local electronic games sector is helping lead the way.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Even if video games, like Trix cereal, were ever really just for kids, those days have long since passed.

According to the 2017 Year In Review Report by SuperData, a market research firm focused on the electronic games’ industry, the gaming industry saw global revenues of $108.4 billion in 2017. The U.S. video game industry’s share of that was a record $36 billion in revenue in 2017, up 18% from 2016, according a separate report from the Entertainment Software Association and The NPD Group. The U.S. video game industry is also one of the nation’s fastest growing economic sectors, providing more than 220,000 jobs.

Madison has been consciously remaking its image as a technology hotspot not just in the Midwest but nationally, and the local electronic games industry is at the forefront of those efforts.

With at least 25 game design studios in Greater Madison, and more peppered across the Badger State, the Madison Games Alliance rebranded itself the Wisconsin Games Alliance in 2017. The renaming makes strategic sense, according to Jennifer Javornik, executive director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance and head of sales for Madison’s Filament Games. While the group’s membership is still primarily local, developers from cities like the Wisconsin Dells and Green Bay often participate in meetups and other gatherings.

Last fall, the Wisconsin Games Alliance held its first formal conference, M+DEV, the Madison Game Development Conference, to provide a gathering place for game developers in the state, the region, and beyond to discuss and share the latest information on the science, art, mechanics, and business of making games.

Local game developers note Greater Madison has been a major player in the gaming industry for decades, and is poised for continued growth for the foreseeable future with companies offering a diverse array of content across all platforms.

“Madison is highly connected to the global game development community,” says Tim Gerritsen, head of studio for Fantasy Flight Interactive. “The tools for releasing games to your audience allow you to do so globally, either directly or through partners. Raven Software is part of Activision, the largest game development publisher in the world. Human Head Studios is working with partners in Canada, China, and Japan. Fantasy Flight Interactive is part of Asmodee, a global gaming company out of Paris.

“Beyond that, you have smaller teams able to sell their wares directly to customers around the world through digital distribution systems like Steam, Good Old Games, the Apple and Android app stores, and directly via their own systems if they so choose,” Gerritsen continues. “Nobody working in games in Madison is doing so in a vacuum, and we’re all part of the global games community.”

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The local game developers IB spoke with all grew up with a love for various forms of gaming, but they also share another bond — none of them quite expected to land a career developing video games.

In Neverland: Lost Adventures, from developer Lost Boys Interactive, players are free to world build and make mischief as Lost Boys.

Gerritsen was a Russian linguist in the U.S. Navy and has a Russian language degree from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. He also graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in history and a film minor from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Dan Norton, founding partner and Chief Creative Officer for Filament Games, never seriously considered game development as a career path. A lifelong gamer, his original plan was to get into a graphic design field.

Michael Beall, the director of Gear Learning at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, had an atypical path to a game development career, which he believes is a strength. Before his career as a game designer, he was a U.S. Marine, a welder, a boat builder, and a cabinetmaker.

Shaun Nivens, CEO of Lost Boys Interactive, went to the university for computer science, and his career took him on a bit of a diversion through IT and product management, mainly in the broadcast industry, before he circled back to his earlier ambition of working in the gaming industry.



What’s trending?

Madison’s game makers run the gamut from the platforms they operate — from console to PC to mobile — and they agree that in spite of the size of the industry, each platform still has room to grow.

“The only truism of games is that the current trends will be yesterday’s news before you know it,” says Gerritsen. “People assumed that console gaming was on the way out when the newest generation launched a few years ago, but on the contrary console games are doing better than ever. PC gaming is in the middle of a renaissance, and mobile gaming continues to grow but is facing the challenge of ever-increasing customer acquisition costs.”

That said, Gerritsen believes true game innovation is happening at the independent level. “The barrier to entry into the industry has never been lower, and there are teams of talented new designers all around the country creating new games and putting them in front of audiences to check out,” Gerritsen says. “There are so many avenues to put your games in front of players now than never existed before, so these smaller teams doing innovative new things is where I am most excited.”

Developers and game designers are hard at work creating the latest learning games in the Filament Games offices located at 316 W. Washington Ave.

“My head of marketing here at Filament had some nice insights,” adds Norton. “Mobile gaming, I think, has had a pretty huge effect on reward and monetization systems across the other devices. So while mobile hasn’t necessarily shrunk those other devices, they’ve definitely expanded the gaming market, and many of the genre conventions and monetization strategies that have been honed on mobile have migrated to PC and console gaming.”

In particular, the advent of the smartphone was a seismic shift for the gaming industry, says Nivens. “For the last decade, publishers and studios alike have moved toward mobile games in a stampeding, gold-rush fashion,” he says. “Though mobile is an exciting platform to work in, it certainly isn’t the only place we should be making games, and is often not even the best medium for most types of games.”

The rush to mobile has opened up space in the PC market and even more in the console market, Nivens explains. “These are still great markets with huge audiences, but there are fewer studios focused on developing games for them,” he says. “That has definitely opened up a space for smaller independent studios like Lost Boys Interactive to work and thrive.”

In the world of Gear Learning at UW–Madison, the biggest trend in game design is in collaboration between subject matter experts and game designers, says Beall. “Thanks to the foresight of Diana Hess, dean of the School of Education and Bob Mathieu, director of WCER, Gear Learning is positioned to have tremendous impact in the field of games for learning. As part of the UW–Madison campus, I am in regular meetings with some of the world’s foremost experts in areas like astronomy, pharmaceuticals, women’s health, astro-botany, and others. Through games, we bring together amazing people, all of whom seek to leverage the power of games to engage and educate.

“In the last decade, we have seen steady growth in games for learning in both public and private sectors,” adds Beall. “Because of the measurable impacts of well-designed games for learning, we are starting to see much larger development budgets than in previous years.”

From a technical perspective, virtual reality and augmented reality are interesting new avenues, but they haven’t had the success yet in gaming that Gerritsen thinks they eventually will.

“We’re still bound by limitations of tethering the headset to your computer or limited hardware capabilities on mobile systems,” explains Gerritsen. “I think we’re about five to seven years from having a true breakthrough in these promising technologies, but from a personal perspective, I always view technology and the platform you deliver a game on to be just tools. The real focus is the actual game play, and while technology influences that and allows new forms of play to happen, it is the design not the tech that makes that possible.”

Norton, quoting science fiction writer William Gibson, notes the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. He says the high-end VR devices such as the Rift and Vive offer pretty amazing experiences, but the market is so small that it’s hard for developers or publishers to feel confident in committing to a big investment. The industry’s current play seems to be trying to graduate the users who got a Google Cardboard for Christmas into slightly more robust VR users (e.g., a paired remote or a dedicated hardware headset) to grow the market of users who are ready to consider the higher fidelity of VR available on the fancier equipment of today.

“It’s important to remember that running a Rift or Vive isn’t just a matter of cost; it’s a matter of cost, technical skill, and physical space to accommodate the setup,” Norton adds. “It’s a tall order, and the market will likely stay ‘enthusiast’ for a few more years.”

Opinions are more mixed on the progress companies are making with augmented reality (AR).

“I believe AR will revolutionize how we train people for all kinds of tasks, and it will affect us all both professionally and personally,” states Nivens. “Even today we find a lot of tasks that used to require an expert — car maintenance, plumbing, small engine, and electronics repair — can be taught to wide audiences via video. To expand that experience to an augmented training session, where the work or task can be simulated and practiced, and where trying again and again, failing, and getting better can be done without consequence — or even just cleanup and resetting the stage — that alone will be a huge step forward for every level of society.”

“You’ve caught me on a grumpy day,” quips Norton. “I’m actually fairly skeptical about AR. Often, location-based interactions are as much a liability as they are a benefit, and often AR feels like ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ However, I’m also comfortable being wrong, so maybe we’re just one more Pokémon Go away from seeing our new glorious AR overlords!”

When designed well, AR can be extremely impactful, notes Beall, but in the educational games space developers are still looking for that one innovative game to really break through. “At Gear Learning, we think AR needs to focus on enabling creation and development versus just being a consumption device.”



Sweet home, Madison

According to Norton, whose Filament Games was among the founding companies of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, one of the first things that blew his mind was just how many games companies call the Greater Madison region home.

Gameplay from The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Interactive.

“We have a pretty interesting cross section of AAA studios, indie mobile, and serious game development,” notes Norton. “Wisconsin has pretty much every facet of the games industry represented by some real talent, and that’s cool.”

“Madison is certainly a hub for game development, and in my experience it is by far the most potent hub across the Midwest,” concurs Beall. “With the University of Wisconsin as a major driving factor, the Greater Madison area is filled with innovative and creative folks. With local organizations fostering [game] making, entrepreneurship, and broader economic development, Madison is stronger than ever.”

Nivens says Madison’s gaming scene is definitely growing. “The more studios and gaming-related businesses we can bring to Madison, the more outside talent we can attract,” he reasons. “Because the games industry is very specialized, it’s important that a city have diverse options for employment, otherwise those in the industry will be hesitant to move here knowing that there will be few options for future advancement or placement.

“Right now there is a talent shortage in Madison,” adds Nivens, “but not because good candidates aren’t coming from the universities. There’s a shortage of senior talent that needs to be attracted and imported, and over the long term grown locally.”

Beall agrees that one of the biggest challenges for local game companies is finding good local talent. While there are many talented artists, audio engineers, coders, and writers available in Madison, finding people with additional critical skills, like the ability to work well in teams and strong communications, is more difficult.

Gear Learning is tackling this issue head on by actively engaging with UW–Madison students, as well as students at Madison College. “We hire talented students as interns to help give them the critical project-based experiences needed for success in the game development industry,” Beall explains. “It’s a true win-win.”

Ultimately, what makes Madison particularly attractive as a game development center is the combination of a well-established creative community and a well-established technology community, says Gerritsen.

“Games are intensely interdisciplinary and require a combination of great sound, music, programming, art, and writing,” Gerritsen adds. “That’s a uniquely diverse set of skills and experiences, and Madison is a great hub for all of these skill sets.”

Read more about the Greater Madison gaming industry and the concept of gamification here.

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