Today, the North Carolina Department of Commerce held a Video Game Developers Roundtable at Durham's burgeoning American Underground, a dedicated space for early-stage startups, and home to Joystick Labs, the region's first and only gaming accelerator.
Durham, along with nearby Raleigh and Chapel Hill, anchors North Carolina's Triangle, home to 40+ gaming companies, as well as the East Coast Game Conference, now in its third year. The area boasts a healthy mix of universities and large and small gaming companies, most notably Gears of War
and Unreal Engine developer Epic Games.
Five local heavy-hitters made up the panel, including John Farnsworth (Epic Games), Chad Dezern (Insomniac Games), John O'Neill (Spark Plug Games), John Austin (Joystick Labs), and Dr. Michael Young (founder and executive director of the NC State Digital Games Research Initiative).
Alex Macris, publisher of gaming website The Escapist, moderated the event and kicked off a short history lesson. The Triangle, long a home to Top 10 graphics and AI programs within the university system, got a foothold in gaming with MicroProse in the early 1990s, then progressed with iEntertainment in 1994, Red Storm in 1996, and Epic in 1998.
Dezern, studio director at Insomniac NC, noted that when Insomniac went scouting for its second studio in 2009, it had narrowed a long list of locations down to about a dozen. In the final tally, the Triangle had everything the company needed, not only in terms of talent, but in the quality of life equation as well.
"The Triangle has something to appeal to just about everybody, whether it's the lofts in downtown Raleigh or farmland out near Hillsborough," Dezern said. "It's directly opposite of Los Angeles, a real alternative for people who want to stay on the East Coast. It's an easy place to live, plenty to do, big enough to be inspiring, but not too big so as to be overwhelming. "
Insomniac is working locally on Ratchet and Clank: All for One
for Fall 2011. "We're at 35 developers on that team right now," said Dezern. "It's a small team, with the larger parent company in Burbank. The team here is a mix of a core group of veteran imports and the rest are local."
Farnsworth, Epic's director of operations, added that when Epic was in Baltimore and looking to move, the company appreciated the startup mentality and the innovation it found here. That in turn made for a creative environment, allowing Epic to branch out into other opportunities.
Those opportunities included military simulation. "The simulation and training business is another hub in North Carolina that other states don't have," said Farnsworth, who is also a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve. "Fort Bragg is an hour from the Raleigh area, and it's about to become one of the largest training posts in the country. You've got the Marines with Camp Lejeune on the coast. We can use software to create a simulation environment to allow them to practice convoy operations and other tactics."
Epic's Unreal engine is also branching into the mobile space, including training applications on the iPad and games on the iPhone. The developer is also gaining traction in filmmaking, with previsualizations for sets in a 3D environment. Wilmington, a two-hour drive from Epic HQ, has hosted over 300 features and 10 TV series.
Other business partnerships allow Triangle gaming companies to take advantage of the local presence of tech giants like Lenovo and Nvidia, both of which Epic tap for co-marketing, input on drivers and hardware, and discussion of future possibilities for both sides.
Dr. Young mentioned that local hospital systems Wake Med and Duke University Health Systems have partnerships for building virtual human simulation so doctors can train in virtual environments before working on live patients.
These partnerships are an outgrowth of the general support from the business community which, according to the panel, emanates from the strong sense of helpfulness within the local gaming industry itself. O'Neill, founder and president of Spark Plug, said it's become a reputation thing. "Whenever we travel around the country, and in some cases around the world, to other hubs of game development, this area gets recognized for its helpful community and support system."
That community is fueled by a steady stream of industry-ready graduates including those from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Tech, and upstart NC State, recently recognized by the Princeton Review as one of the Top 15 programs for gaming nationwide, according to Dr. Young.
"A lot of the university work focuses five to ten years out, and hopefully the paths are aligned that in five years time those needs from the gaming industry are met," he added.
Spark Plug has gotten into mobile, serious games, and education, and is doing a lot of work for the State of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System using gaming technology to build interactive training simulators. "It uses technology developed in North Carolina for North Carolina," said O'Neill. "It puts a lot of people to work building fun products to educate kids."
Austin, the managing director of Joystick Labs, spoke to the impact of the universities on research and development. "The games industry isn't like the computer industry in terms of being able to spend a lot on long term R&D. The partnerships with the universities provide those opportunities."
Beyond the traditional customer-based approach, there are new funding resources evolving in the Triangle on the venture and angel fronts.
"VCs are just now starting to look at games as a place to invest," said Austin. Durham-based VC Intersouth Partners recently made their first investment in gaming. Angels also have a lot of interest, including funding in Joystick Labs. "You can build a mobile game for a lot less, in terms of money and time, and that lends itself to Angel investing."
Macris listed a few of the recent local acquisitions. Merscom got picked up by Playdom, which was acquired by Disney. ARA nabbed Virtual Heroes while 3DSolve went to Lockheed Martin.
O'Neill noted that in order for gaming investing to boom, you not only have to build interest in the area, but also educate potential investors in exactly where the opportunities lie. "North Carolina should do more to encourage that education."
Austin noted that he is assisting with a series of seminars to do just that. "Angel is between a hobby investment and a VC-style ROI investment. The angel investor needs to have an affinity for the investment opportunity and they normally haven't grown up with video games."
Finally, all the panelists remarked on how quickly the landscape was changing industry-wide, and how that change is being reflected in the Triangle.
"We have tons of mobile and social one-to-three person gaming companies," Austin said. "There's also a studio locally developing a Kindle game -- that platform is just getting started."
The smaller size and lower barrier to entry is not going unnoticed by Epic. We offer the Unreal engine developers kit for free," Farnsworth said. "It's an opportunity for small shops and students to get started and get into the technology"
The roundtable will be released as a series of videos on the NC Department of Commerce website at ThriveNC.com
[Joe Procopio writes a weekly Tech Culture column for TechJournal South that covers startups and industry trends. He also owns startup consulting firm Intrepid Company. Joe can be reached via Twitter @jproco or via his website at joeprocopio.com.]