The annual Games + Learning + Society Conference took place more than a month ago, but co-director Kurt Squire is still feeling giddy.
Maybe it was the standing ovation the event’s keynote speaker, legendary game developer Brenda Romero, got when she waxed poetic about the way forward for female game developers — and female game players — in the bombed-out wake of the ugly #Gamergate brouhaha that saw angry male gamers harassing female developers online. Maybe it was the several hundred academics and developers who converged on Madison to talk about their shared passion for games for learning.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that the future of game development in Madison has never looked brighter than it does right now.
The question of whether Madison would become a national game development hub has been burbling for more than 15 years. Back in the early 2000s, it looked as though Madison would clone the success of Austin, Texas, with triple-A developers Raven Software and Human Head Studios leading the way. At the start of this decade, nimble local mobile developers like PerBlue (Parallel Kingdoms) and games for learning shops like Filament Games (iCivics) and Games Learning Society (GLS) — also one of the world’s oldest games-for-learning research programs, housed in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery — seemed poised to take the city to another level. But while each of those players remains a successful and vibrant part of the current local landscape, there’s still something missing. To put it bluntly, Madison still lacks a defined game “scene.”
The catalyst to finally create one could be coming next week, when a significant and sizable part of Madison’s gaming community — potentially more than 25 companies, large and small — comes together with GLS and reps from groups like the national Entertainment Software Association (the gaming industry’s Washington, D.C., lobbying arm) and Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) at a meetup that’s been staged to take advantage of this year’s Forward Festival, Madison’s annual tech and entrepreneurship conference (See story, page 9) .
“We want to get everyone in a room to talk about everything that’s here — what are the market opportunities?” says Michael Gay, MadREP’s senior vice president of economic development. “What we’re trying to do is build this cluster. It doesn’t exist — it hasn’t existed.”
The model Gay would like to see Madison’s gaming sector adopt is the same one deployed by Milwaukee’s Water Council, a hugely successful partnership between that city’s business and higher education constituencies that now includes more than 150 water technology companies and has raised the national profile of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.
What he’s talking about is making Madison a center of gaming excellence.
“We have very big national players here,” says Gay. “This is a very intriguing time to have this discussion.”
Around the same time Gay was discovering, through a MadREP-backed sector analysis of information technology, that Madison was rife with gaming companies that touched everything from cybersecurity to digital health care, Constance Steinkuehler, GLS co-director and Squire’s spouse, was having a different sort of personal epiphany.
Constance Steinkuehler: “We have all the building blocks [to become a national hub for gaming]. It seems like it’s never been coordinated.”
For most of her academic career in game studies at UW-Madison, Steinkuehler has focused on national policy and the university setting. She spent a year as President Barack Obama’s games czar and is currently serving as the executive director of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance (HEVGA), a professional organization of videogame programs that includes 76 academic game programs at universities across the country. The local game-development ecosystem simply hadn’t been a focus.
But when faced with potential seismic shifts in university culture wrought by Gov. Scott Walker’s $250 million cut to the UW System, Steinkuehler and Squire found themselves facing a choice.
“We were like, look, we can leave because of what the governor is doing, or we can dig in and build here,” she says. “We did a lot of soul searching — but if there’s something missing, we have to build it. We need a better ecosystem. We have all the building blocks. It seems like it’s never been coordinated.”
It’s not that people haven’t tried. Madison has its own chapter of the International Game Developers Association, but its social media presence dried up last spring. Ex-Raven developer Aaron San Filippo, the co-owner of Flippfly, makers of the 3D flying game Race the Sun, has been running the Madison Indies group, an informal meetup of the city’s indie game developers. The Entertainment Software Association had approached Steinkuehler about the possibility of creating some type of umbrella organization in Madison, like a local version of HEVGA, to promote local collaboration and the scene as a whole. That’s a key first step, and one of the things helping to drive next week’s meeting.
But Squire and Steinkuehler know Madison’s game-development future could benefit from something that’s already in their wheelhouse: a formal video game design program at UW. The GLS program has exploded over the last five years to feature four full professors, a director of game development and a business manager — and an annual waiting list of more than 200 students for its modest list of class offerings. Madison College, Herzing University and Madison Media Institute — MadREP’s Gay calls the latter a “quiet but important” player on the local game scene — have healthy game-development degree programs and waiting lists of their own, but could also benefit from collaborating with a program featuring the UW and GLS’s cachet and national profile. Given the obvious demand for training and the number of local game companies eager to expand their employee rolls, the stars seem uniquely aligned.
It won’t necessarily be easy. Steinkuehler says they’d first have to finesse the UW’s level of comfort with hiring professors with professional game-development experience instead of Ph.D.s. (“I got tenure for papers I wrote, not for things I built,” she explains.) The other major question is which department would house it—the School of Education? College of Letters and Science?
“It’s not ‘Can we do it?’’’ she says. “It’s ‘What is it through?’”
Squire agrees that there’s no time like the present.
“It’s time that we recognize that we might have a critical mass that can compete with the coasts,” says Squire. “All of us, all of the time, wonder, ‘should we move to a coast?’ Because we pay a real tax for being in the Midwest. But we like it here. Maybe we could do things that would help each other.”
Squire cites a recent effort by the Dane County Arts Commission to bring Jordy Schell, a key creature animator on big-ticket Hollywood franchises like Avatar and Star Wars, to Madison as an example. GLS and Madison’s Raven Software teamed up to keep him here for three days, lecturing and visiting with budding game developers.
“If we all banded together, we could create a scene that would get the 22-year-old who wants to get into games and not leave Madison,” says Squire. “I’ve got that kid in my classes right now. The kids are thinking, ‘I’m going to graduate. I want to be a game developer, I need to leave.’ We need to say ‘No. Don’t leave. We want you here.’ We need to find a place for him to work, a community.”
Nick Heindl is one of those kids who would stay if he could.
Like a lot of undergrads these days, he just wanted to make games when he signed up for Squire’s Games, Learning and Society class.
It took the soon-to-be-fifth-year computer science major until his sophomore year to realize that game development was a legitimate career option. Once he did, he got to work, spending a summer working with the UW’s mobile games incubator and taking GLS classes. After being part of a student-based Game Jam event on campus co-sponsored by Raven Software two years ago, Heindl landed an interview for a summer internship with the Middleton developer. He ended up making the difficult decision to pass on the hometown shop and intern instead at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle.
This spring, Heindl again found himself weighing summer internship offers — a second offer from Raven and one from Riot Games, the Los Angeles-based developers of the popular multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends. This time, he opted to take an internship with Raven, which he just finished.
“I actually got to work with games, and that was incredible” he says.
Having experienced life in a large city with a more defined and bustling game-development scene — in addition to Amazon, the Seattle area’s home to the corporate headquarters of both Microsoft and Nintendo — Heindl’s thinking he’ll need to head out of Madtown to pursue his post-graduation career dreams.
“One of the big problems with comp sci kids staying in Madison is that tech companies do a lot of their recruiting in October, but game companies aren’t always in position to do that,” says Heindl. “I would like to stay in Madison. But if something were to happen with one of the companies here, where else do I go? There’s a big community, but it’s loose.”
Heindl shares Squire’s opinion that Madison’s gaming scene could benefit from collaboration.
“It’s totally here,” says Heindl. “It’s been here — it’s not some hidden thing. Maybe if we pass this to the UW, everything will come together.”
Forrest Woolworth, PerBlue’s chief operating officer, says the future of game development in Madison comes down to talent.
“If we can build a pipeline of talent — and we’ve done that here with tech and computer science — if we can establish that in games, that’s beneficial. That gives local companies a nice path to grow,” he says.
From several key perspectives, Madison remains as attractive as ever in terms of bringing in and retaining game-development talent. Woolworth points to a couple of recent high-profile hires in which his company was able to lure talent from Seattle and San Francisco.
“The videogame industry thinks more highly of Madison as a videogame hub than Madison does itself,” he says.
The persistent obstacle isn’t Madison’s quality of living or a desire to collaborate, but something much more concrete: space. What Squire would like to see is a space that pairs a UW academic games program with Madison’s for-profit development communities, a sort of natural mentorship ecosystem that could also provide a fast-track path to commercialization.
The foundation for that may already be happening organically. A number of local game development companies are moving or poised to move into spaces near each other — Filament Games is ensconced in the renovated AT&T building on West Washington Avenue, while the Madison branch of the SEGA-owned shop Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) is set to move in shortly. PerBlue and Sector 67, the collaborative tech development space, are scheduled to move into the still-in-construction Starting Block space on East Washington Avenue sometime in 2016. Other game-related companies could follow suit.
“Everyone says we want innovation — we want student startups and companies,” says Squire. “We want incubators and accelerators, but we don’t have a strong tradition of those activities at UW and no real support for them. The university doesn’t have or can’t provide a big open space that allows that activity to happen. We could easily fill a building with grant and contract work, and classes with eager students who want to learn these skills. To some extent, we’re a victim of our own success.”
GLS has proved particularly adept at landing federal grants — more than $10 million so far to fuel research and games like Citizen Science, a PC offering that teaches players about the linkages in a local lake’s ecosystem. GLS also worked with the New York Hall of Science to create an interactive table that teaches users to build circuits, which then was adapted into a tool for medical school anatomy classes. Through a corporate partnership, they hope to generate more passive income for GLS and become independent from grant support.
A defined Madison game scene won’t develop overnight on the strength of one group discussion. As MadREP’s Gay is quick to point out, Milwaukee’s Water Council took seven long years of planning to come to fruition, but it’s clearly a key part of whatever ends up evolving. He’s hoping the effort will attract the attention and support of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) — the business and industry division, not the part that’s gotten a black eye for giving out bad loans — to fund an effort to take the sector analysis of game development in Madison and extrapolate it to other IT sectors in other parts of the state.
For her part, Steinkuehler is fine with focusing on formulating a Madison scene.
“I don’t want to have to go to the coasts to see what an indie game company is doing,” says Steinkuehler. “Having a lively ecosystem of big and tiny companies with discussion and critique will directly improve my work. There’s a window of opportunity here. We just have to talk it into being.”