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Gamescape: A Look at Development in North America's Cities

Games have undergone a Cambrian explosion of growth and diversification, and Gamasutra takes a look at the various talent pools that have collected across North America -- including Boston, Seattle, Toronto, the Bay Area, Raleigh, and Vancouver -- and discover the exotic life forms that have taken root.

Jeffrey Fleming, Blogger

September 15, 2009

38 Min Read

[In the half century that people have been playing games on video screens, the art form has undergone a Cambrian explosion of growth and diversification. In columns originally printed in Game Developer magazine, we take a look at the various talent pools that have collected across North America -- including Boston, Seattle, Toronto, the Bay Area, Raleigh, and Vancouver -- and discover the exotic life forms that have taken root.]

Boston, Massachusetts

Video gaming as we know it today can trace its birthplace to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. During the fifties the university was a hotbed of computer hardware research with large-scale machines like the vacuum tube-based Whirlwind and smaller (though still room filling) transistor machines such as the TX-0 housed at its campus and nearby Lincoln Laboratory.

Splitting off from this research activity, two MIT engineers named Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson formed the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1957 to manufacture cutting edge solid-state computers. Soon, their first fully integrated machine was unveiled -- the PDP-1. A radical new piece of technology, the PDP-1 could perform 100,000 additions per second and came equipped with magnetic core memory, along with a variety of peripherals including a typewriter, a paper tape reader, and a CRT. Although it was housed in a unit approximately the size of two large refrigerators and cost $110,000 (in 1960 dollars), the machine could easily be turned on and off without the help of an engineer. Personal computing had arrived.

In the summer of 1961 MIT became the owner of a PDP-1 and installed it in the university's computer research lab. At that time, a loose-knit group of faculty and students were gathered around MIT's student run Tech Model Railroad Club, drawn together by a love for gear hacking and science fiction. The group began to experiment with the PDP-1 and worked up an ad hoc plan to do something interesting with the computer during its off hours.

Even though the machine was intended for such complex scientific calculations as nuclear weapon simulation, the Tech Model Railroad Club looked at its capabilities and in a tremendous conceptual leap, decided that what it really needed to do was run a space game. The resulting two-player Spacewar! game was completed in 1962. Steve Russell developed the initial version along with contributions from J. M. Graetz, Alan Kotok, Dan Edwards, Peter Samson, and Wayne Wiitanen and the game became a favorite pastime at the research lab.

Spacewar! soon made its way to DEC's assembly floor, where the game was used as the final test on outgoing PDP-1s. Because the computer's memory was magnetic, Spacewar! remained in memory after shut down, lying dormant until the computer was turned on in its new home, which more often than not was a university. Spacewar! spread across the country's higher education system inspiring new groups of young hackers to expand and refine its game play.

Nolan Bushnell was an early convert to Spacewar!, first encountering the game at the University of Utah and later at Stanford. Seeing the enthusiasm for the game that sprung up wherever it was running inspired Bushnell to design his own arcade version called Computer Space in 1971. A year later Bushnell created Atari and with that company's foundation, along with the introduction of Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey in the same year, the video game revolution was underway.


Moving in Stereo

Throughout the seventies, as computer hardware dropped in price and grew exponentially in capability, a cottage industry of game developers flourished. Early in its history Richard Garriott's Origin Systems was a small game development team in Houston led by Richard while his brother Robert who lived in New Hampshire handled the company's finances.

By 1985 Origin Systems had become large enough that it was decided to consolidate its entire operation to New Hampshire in order to complete work on Ultima IV. As the company continued to grow, Richard and the original programming team longed to return to Texas, and in 1988, most of Origin Systems' development crew returned to their home state.

However, several key staff decided to remain behind and form their own development studio called Blue Sky Productions near Boston in Lexington, Massachusetts. Founded by Paul Neurath and Doug Church, Blue Sky's first game would be Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which was published by Origin in 1992. The game was remarkably ahead of its time, and its smooth-running first-person engine combined texture mapped 3D polygons with the immersive role-playing of the Ultima series.

id Software would release its ground-breaking Wolfenstein 3D only a few months later, and the two companies found themselves friendly competitors in the early uncharted territory of first person 3D games (indeed, John Romero worked as a Commodore 64 programmer at Origin for several months at the New Hampshire location and he remained in contact with Paul Neurath after returning to Texas to co-found id). Though very different in tone, Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D would together mark a sea change in video game tastes.

In 1992 Blue Sky merged with Ned Lerner's (creator of Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer) development studio and became Looking Glass Technologies (later Looking Glass Studios). The combined studio created a follow up to Ultima Underworld called Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds and in 1994 set up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the outskirts of Boston.

During its almost ten-year run, Looking Glass would create some of the most evocative 3D games of the modern era. The company built a reputation for designing games that were thoughtful, original, and emotionally resonant. Titles like System Shock (1994), Flight Unlimited (1995), Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri (1996), Thief: The Dark Project (1998), and System Shock 2 (developed with Irrational Games in 1999) all carry the distinctive imprint of Looking Glass.

Unfortunately, in 2000 the company ran into financing difficulties and was forced to shut its doors. Because Looking Glass was home to an incredible stable of talent, its developers would become key figures in many of the high profile companies and games that we see today.

Among the many alumni of Looking Glass are Seamus Blackley who would later spearhead Microsoft's Xbox project, Warren Spector, who went on to create the beloved Deus Ex, and Emil Pagliarulo, who became the lead designer on Fallout 3. Of the founders, Paul Neurath remained in the Boston area, forming Floodgate Entertainment, Doug Church moved on to California to work on Tomb Raider: Legend and Boom Blox, and Ned Lerner joined Sony Computer Entertainment's Tools and Technology group.

Planet of Sound

MIT has always been an engine of new ideas and talent for the Boston game development community. In recent years, two researchers from MIT's Media Lab, Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, brought about a radical shift in the game industry with the creation of Guitar Hero.

When they formed Harmonix Music Systems in 1995, their goal was to bring the interactive music making research that they had been doing at the university to a wider audience.

After creating Frequency and Amplitude as well as several titles in Konami's Karaoke Revolution line of music games, Harmonix teamed up with RedOctane to produce the guitar peripheral-based Guitar Hero.

Since its release in 2005, Guitar Hero has become a cultural force, forever changing the audience for video games.

Leaving the Guitar Hero franchise in the hands of Activision, Harmonix has since moved on to create the Rock Band franchise, further expanding on its mission of bringing the joy of music creation to non-musicians.

Dirty Water

In 1997 a group of Looking Glass developers including Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier split off to form their own studio called Irrational Games. Irrational's first effort was a co-production with Looking Glass on a System Shock sequel. Released in 1999, System Shock 2 revisited the deep space horror of the original game with improved graphics courtesy of a new engine based on the work done for Thief.

Over the next several years Irrational would open a studio in Canberra, Australia, create Freedom Force and its sequel, a new Tribes game, as well as a new entry in the long-running SWAT series. In 2004 Irrational revealed plans for a new game called BioShock that would be a return to the themes and style of the great Looking Glass games of its roots.

By 2006 Irrational had joined Take-Two Interactive and its studios were renamed 2K Boston and 2K Australia. With the release of BioShock in 2007, the studio made good on its promise and delivered a game that was as intelligent and mature as it was visually striking. BioShock's overwhelming critical and commercial success was telling affirmation of the design principles first described by Looking Glass a decade earlier.

The Sprawl

In years past the Boston area was home to Infocom, the creators of Zork and numerous other classic text adventures, and later Papyrus Design Group of NASCAR Racing fame. Currently the city hosts a new generation of studios that cover the gamut of the industry. Blue Fang Games, creators of the Zoo Tycoon series, Turbine, the developers behind The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, and Tilted Mill Entertainment, designers of the city building games Children of the Nile and SimCity Societies have all established studios in the region.

Baseball legend Curt Schilling's newly-formed 38 Studios, which is working on a MMO with design contributions from R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane, is also located in the Greater Boston area.

Rockstar New England is based just north of Boston in Andover. Formerly known as Mad Doc Software, the studio picked up development on Jane's Attack Squadron after Looking Glass was forced to shelve the project. Since then it has worked on Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna, Empire Earth II, Star Trek: Legacy, and Bully: Scholarship Edition.

Contract work is an important part of the game industry and Boston area's Demiurge Studios is making a name for itself as Unreal Engine experts after work on BioShock, Mass Effect, and the Brothers in Arms series. Also near Boston is Orbus Gameworks, a company that produces metrics gathering middleware as well as metrics consulting

In addition to MIT there are a number of higher education resources in the Boston region that provide game development related programs. The Berklee College of Music and Northeastern University are both located within the city while the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University is in nearby Waltham and Worchester is home to the Polytechnic Institute.

Boston occupies a unique space in the history of game development. Talent has always been drawn to the city, lured there by educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. And wherever smart people gather to do interesting things, someone will surely make a game of it.

Seattle, Washington

The Microsoft corporation stretches far across the game development landscape and the root of its $230 billion mountain lies in Seattle, the childhood home of its founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Although formed in New Mexico in 1975, Microsoft relocated to the Seattle area in 1979.

Two years later Microsoft introduced MS-DOS for the 8086 family of processors and the software was such a success that it became the default operating system for the vast majority of PC games released over the next ten years. Late in 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95 with a revamped interface and soon after the company made a serious commitment to game support with the introduction of the DirectX APIs.

Although Microsoft had previously funded game development with titles like Flight Simulator and Age of Empires, the company knew that it would need to invest heavily in first-party development talent when it decided to enter the hardware business with the Xbox console.

Known for making thoughtful and visually ambitious games for the Macintosh, Chicago-based Bungie seemed like an odd fit for Microsoft's new console. Joining the company in 2000, the studio packed up and moved to Microsoft's campus.

As work progressed on what would become the genre-defining Halo, the studio chaffed under the Microsoft corporate structure and eventually moved to its own location in nearby Kirkland. Days after the release of Halo 3, Bungie became an independent studio again although Microsoft retains a minority stake and the two companies continue to have a close publishing relationship.

Over the years, many ex-Microsoft employees have started their own companies in the Seattle area. The founders of Valve Corporation, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, cut their teeth on OS development at Microsoft before forming a game development studio in 1996.

Influenced by Ultima Underworld and the new wave of first-person shooters that were hitting computer screens in the 90s, Valve created a sophisticated mix of action and narrative in Half-Life. Since then the company has become a major presence on the game development landscape, producing critically acclaimed games and developing its Steam digital distribution platform.

Leave Luck to Heaven

cities_noa.jpgLike Microsoft, Nintendo of America (NOA) did not pick Seattle as the initial choice for its headquarters. Founded in 1980, the fledgling arcade machine company first set up shop in New York City but soon found itself falling behind the curve as it waited weeks for cabinets manufactured in Japan to be shipped across the Pacific, only to be delayed even longer as they made their way across the continent to the East coast.

Seattle was quickly decided on as a new head office because it had the advantage of being a port city, had a lower cost of living, and was home to a large pool of skilled workers from which to hire.

Unfortunately, NOA was saddled with a huge inventory of unsold Radarscope cabinets. While the game was a hit in Japan, it had flopped badly in America and NOA was stuck with a warehouse full of unsellable machines. Desperate to recoup its mounting losses, NOA begged Nintendo Japan to send them a new game on circuit boards that could be retrofitted into the Radarscope cabinets.

It was sent an oddly titled game called Donkey Kong that had been developed by an apprentice designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. A test machine was set up in a local bar and within days people were lined up to play the new game. Donkey Kong had saved the company. By 1982 Nintendo had outgrown its Seattle warehouse and a new a headquarters was built in nearby Redmond.

In the decades since, Nintendo of America has largely acted as a publisher and distributor, although the Nintendo Software Technology development group (Metroid Prime: Hunters) makes its home at Nintendo's Redmond campus, as does the DigiPen Institute of Technology. Originally founded in Vancouver, Canada, the institute partnered with Nintendo in 1998 to open the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Nintendo's office building.

Its graduates have gone on to work on a long list of games throughout the industry, perhaps the most famous example is the Narbacular Drop team, which after being noticed at a job fair, was tapped by Valve to develop Portal.

Coffee House

When PopCap Games' Bejeweled was released in 2001, the game's phenomenal success ushered in a new era of casual games, not as a genre but as a bonafide industry. Since then Seattle has become a major hub for casual and mobile game development. RealArcade, Big Fish Games, Amaze Entertainment, Big Top Games, Sandlot Games, I-Play, Mobliss, and WildTangent all make their home in the Seattle area.

UIEvolution, previously supporting Square Enix's mobile games division and now independent, is based in Bellevue. The Casual Games Association, which is also headquartered in Seattle, helps keep the industry linked and informed through its Casual Connect Magazine and yearly Casual Connect Seattle conference.

Of course, the Seattle area is home to core developers as well. Arena.net, the creators of Guild Wars is based in Seattle and Supreme Commander developer and Square Enix partner Gas Powered Games is located in Redmond. Working out of Kirkland, Monolith Productions has produced a diverse catalog of shooters including Shogo, F.E.A.R., and No One Lives Forever as well as developing its LithTech engine.

Monolith's subsidiary Touchdown Entertainment utilizes a branch of the LithTech technology that it develops separately and markets as the Jupiter EX engine. Surreal Software (The Suffering) works out of the area as does 5th Cell Media, creator of Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts. The Seattle area is also home to several military sim developers including Zipper Interactive (SOCOM), and Zombie Studios (Spec Ops, America's Army).

Toronto, Ontario

Toronto, Ontario is home to a remarkable assemblage of independent game developers, most of who work alone or in small groups, driven by a passion for their art and free from the compromises so often associated with corporate life. We asked Nathan Vella of Capybara Games and Raigan Burns of Metanet Software to help us take the measure of Toronto's game development geography.

Do It Yourself

"So far there isn't a big studio presence here, especially since Pseudo shut down," Burns told us. "Koei's around and there's a branch of Rockstar out beyond the suburbs. There are other companies, but they tend to be located outside of Toronto for economic reasons. And they're less fun," he added. "Other than that, it's mostly small or medium-sized groups, focusing on PC and mobile rather than console. There are a lot of people making games though."

Vella agreed, telling us, "There is a virtual ton of talent in Toronto, but the fact that there is almost no large-scale game development in Canada's largest city is one of the major reasons why the indie scene does so well. You have a massive talent pool of people who really want to be game developers with nowhere for them to work. In our case, we did the only thing we could -- start our own company and make an opportunity for ourselves."

Capybara Games, the developer of Pillowfight and Critter Crunch, had its origins on the Toronto IGDA forum. "At the time there were lots of people in Toronto who loved and wanted to make games, and almost no gaming companies in the city for them to work for. After the thread on the forum, we started meeting at our local IGDA chapter meetings, then moved to meeting at a crappy bar every Monday for beer and game development talk. From there, we decided to try our hand at making our own games," Vella told us.

"We all had other fulltime jobs in enterprise software or television or something else remedial, and would work evenings and weekends developing Super Shove It and S.M.A.B.U.," Vella said. "We got our first deal developing Cars for Disney/Pixar. We quit our day jobs, got an office and started making games for a living."

Metanet Software is also one of Toronto's many self-starters. Comprised of Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, Metanet used Flash to create the freeware gem N in 2005. As N's audience grew, Metanet made the decision to keep itself small and manageable by partnering with Slick Entertainment to produce an expanded version called N+ for Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and Xbox Live Arcade (see the postmortem in the September 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine).

cities_toronto.jpgHelp From Above

The Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), an agency of Ontario's Ministry of Culture, plays a significant role in the Toronto arts scene by providing local book, film, and music producers as well as game developers with grants and tax incentives.

"The OMDC has made a huge difference for us -- both in terms of helping us get our ideas off the ground through financial and business support, as well proving to us that the Ontario government actually cares about the videogame industry," Vella told us. "Their funding also helped us get ideas off the ground that never would have seen the light of day had we needed to go through the traditional publisher green light route."

"However, it's not like they simply hand out money -- it's a highly competitive pitch-like process. The upside, and reason that the OMDC does make a big difference, is that they treat us indies on equal footing with the larger more established companies when it comes to competing for grants," Vella added.

"Metanet would probably not be around if it wasn't for their support -- the OMDC allowed us to afford to go to GDC when N was in the IGF!" Burns told us.


Perhaps more than anything, Toronto benefits from having a community of developers who are committed to helping each other out and are determined not to allow their nascent scene to fizzle. The Toronto Independent Game Development Jam (TOJam) organized by Jim McGinley of Big Pants Games (Hold me closer, Giant Dancer) brings together local developers to collectively bash game ideas into complete form over three days of intense coding.

TOJam has seen the emergence of a number of developers who have gained a wider recognition since. Jonathan Mak of Queasy Games created TOJam Thing at the 2006 event and has since released Everyday Shooter for PlayStation 3 and Windows. Shawn McGrath of ][ (right square bracket left square bracket) whose game Chain3 is currently available for iPhone, built the award-winning a game about bouncing at TOJam 2008. Now in its fourth year, the next TOJam is set for May 2009.

The Artsy Games Incubator is another significant boost to Toronto's indie scene. Headed by Jim Munroe, the creator of Everybody Dies, along with help from Metanet and Queasy Games, the Artsy Games Incubator provides a guided framework for creating independent games. Operating as a combination lesson plan, manifesto, and hands-on workshop, the Incubator has helped bring to fruition such games as Benjamin River's Snow and Miguel Sternberg's Night of the Cephalopods (see Game Career Guide 2009).

"The Toronto scene is a pretty tight community," Vella said. "We help each other out where possible, mostly just through having a network of talented and successful people to talk games with. The success of local indies really fuels the scene and help us all believe that we can be successful as independent developers in Toronto. Honestly, it's hard not to be encouraged by games like N+ or Everyday Shooter getting the recognition they deserve."

San Francisco Bay Area, California

The California Dream of gold dust, celluloid, and silicon has a magnetic pull. Mystics and capitalists of every stripe find themselves drawn to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they often meet with astonishing success or spectacular defeat. Frequently both.

Atari Is Go

As a student at the University of Utah in the mid-1960s, Nolan Bushnell spent his time studying philosophy and the FORTRAN programming language. His downtime was spent immersed in Spacewar! battles on the school's mainframe. During summer he worked the midway at a local amusement park learning how to entice players into "just one more try" at the games.

After graduating, Bushnell moved to the Bay Area to take a job at the Ampex Corporation. In his off hours he began work on a version of Spacewar! that would run on low-cost components rather than the exotic computers on which it had been designed. In 1971 he partnered with Ted Dabney to form Syzygy Engineering and the two created the Computer Space arcade machine for Nutting Associates. Unfortunately, while the game was popular with college students, the complicated controls made it a hard sell at working-class pubs.

Despite the failure of Computer Space, Bushnell and Dabney incorporated Atari in 1972. The first developer hired at Atari was Al Alcorn who quickly set to work on Pong, completing the first version of the game in less than two weeks. When the location test machine broke down within a day because it had been jammed with too many quarters, they knew things were going to happen quickly for Atari.

Following the success of Pong, the arcade scene began to bloom not only for Atari, but also for its competitors. After a string of coin-op titles including Quadrapong, Space Race, and Gran Track 10, as well as the Kee Games-distributed Tank, Atari created a home version of Pong in 1975.

Encouraged by the success of the home Pong console, Atari began work on a far more ambitious cartridge-based machine named Stella. Principally designed by an Atari-owned firm called Cyan Engineering along with assistance from Jay Miner and Joe Decuir (who would later help design the Amiga for Commodore), Stella was released in 1977 as the Video Computer System, also commonly known as the Atari 2600.

Getting the VCS to market was a costly endeavor for Atari and in order to keep on solid financial ground Bushnell sold the company to Warner Communications with Bushnell remaining as chairman. Despite a slow start, the console soon found favor with consumers and would go on to sell more than 25 million units over its 14-year lifespan.

During its formative years Atari had the reputation for being a somewhat loosely run operation were it would not be unusual to see business meetings conducted through a haze of joints and beer. However, with millions of dollars pouring in from the VCS as well as its thriving arcade business, Atari under Warner became a much more stable and corporate environment. The relationship between Warner and Bushnell began to sour, and by 1978 he was removed from the company's board. As for Bushnell, he was already looking toward a far more lucrative world where cheap pizza and animatronics beckoned.


The Gang of Four

While Warner's steady hand kept the wheels of commerce turning for Atari, the developers who were creating million-selling games for the company began to wonder why they were still being paid starvation wages.

Initially a group of Atari programmers, including David Crane, Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, and BobWhitehead approached the company with a proposal for a standard contract that would give creators design credits and royalties on the games they developed. Dismissed by management, the Gang of Four left Atari and took the bold step of forming Activision in 1979, the first independent development and publishing company for home consoles.

Despite Atari's attempts to derail Activision with lawsuits, the company brought its first games Dragster, Fishing Derby, Checkers, and Boxing to market in 1980. Activision was soon riding high on the crest of the VCS wave. Standout games included Crane's Grand Prix and Pitfall, Kaplan's Kaboom!, Whitehead's Chopper Command, Miller's Starmaster, Steve Cartwright's Barnstorming, and Carol Shaw's River Raid.

It was a golden time for the VCS with Atari, Activision, and a host of smaller companies reaping huge profits from the console's popularity. However, by 1983 the ride was coming to an end. Costly duds like E.T., a poor port of Pac-Man, and a profusion of shovelware from fly-by-night publishers had done much to erode consumer confidence in the VCS. Atari's next-generation machine, the 5200, was introduced in 1982 but struggled to gain a foothold, and was poorly supported by the company. With nothing compelling on the horizon, players began to lose interest, and sales dropped.

What should have been a short-term contraction of the market quickly spiraled into a complete meltdown as smaller publishers went out of business, leaving retailers with unsold cartridges. Unable to return the carts, retailers tossed them into deeply discounted bargain bins where they were in competition with full-priced offerings from Atari and Activision. Feeling the Christmas crunch, shoppers turned to the bargain bins for their games, driving the sales of new titles into the ground.

The crash was devastating to both companies' profits. Warner wanted out, and in 1984 the company was sold off to Commodore founder Jack Tramiel. Activision soldiered on, although its founders had all left by 1986. The company diversified into PC games and productivity software over the next several years but the damage from the crash exacerbated by bad management was too great to overcome. In 1991 Robert Kotick bought the company, restructured, and moved it Los Angeles.

Artists United

Trip Hawkins joined Apple in 1978 just after completing his MBA at Stanford. The company had released its Apple II computer the year before and the machine was beginning its meteoric ascent. By 1980 the Bay Area company had its initial public offering of stock and made overnight millionaires of many of its employees.

Hawkins saw first hand how low-cost personal computers from Apple, Atari, and Commodore were being rapidly assimilated into American life. Machines of sufficient computing power were now on the market to support sophisticated game experiences that went well beyond the simple hand-eye exercises that were predominant on consoles.

The time was right for a new computer game publishing company, one that would cater to adults and put video games on equal artistic footing with books, films, and music.

In 1982 Hawkins left Apple and formed Electronic Arts, modeling his new company on the example of the United Artists film studio in which artists maintained creative control of their work.

The company's first games were released in 1983 and included such future classics as Dani Bunten's M.U.L.E. and Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set. The packaging of the games was notable for its hip "album cover" graphic design and most importantly, for its emphasis on crediting the developer.

The company was off to a strong start but fallout from the Atari crash began to undermine Hawkin's original business plan. Although Electronic Arts was focused on PC game publishing, retailers were understandably hesitant. Hawkins responded by cultivating relationships with retailers one by one and building a strong sales team that could deal with each directly. As the eighties progressed, Electronic Arts began developing its sports games franchises with Jordan vs. Bird: One on One and Earl Weaver Baseball. The Madden NFL series saw its first iteration as John Madden Football in 1988 as well.

By the end of the decade the home console was finally emerging from its post-crash deep freeze thanks to the efforts of Nintendo. The Nintendo Entertainment System proved that a market still existed for console games, and Sega was preparing to enter the fray with its new 16-bit Genesis machine. Previously focused on PC titles, Hawkins saw this as an opportunity for Electronic Arts to dive into console publishing. The Genesis utilized the Motorola 68000 processor -- a chip that Electronic Arts was already familiar with from its years of PC development -- making it an easy platform to work with.

Electronic Arts was used to publishing games its own way though, and was unwilling to conform to Sega's restrictive licensing terms. Having already reverse-engineered the Genesis, Hawkins threatened to release games without Sega's approval unless the hardware company offered a more favorable deal. With the Genesis' 1989 North American launch fast approaching, Sega relented to Electronic Arts' demands. The result turned out to be a windfall for both companies, as Electronic Arts was able to quickly turn out quality titles like Syndicate, King's Bounty, The Immortal, Starflight, and John Madden Football, ensuring a strong line-up of games for the Genesis.

By 1991 Hawkins was ready to move on to the next big thing -- 3D polygons and low-cost CD-ROMs. He appointed Larry Probst CEO and ultimately left the company in 1994 so that he could put all of his efforts into creating the 3DO, a machine that he believed would revolutionize the game industry.

Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh is one of a cluster of cities in North Carolina, including Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Morrisville, all located in a central area of the state nicknamed the "Research Triangle." Three prominent research universities define the triangle, North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Much like California's Silicon Valley, the growth of high-tech industries around the universities has resulted in a concentration of talent that exerts a powerful influence on the game industry.

Engines of Creation

Initially based in Maryland, Epic Games got its start in 1991 with a DOS shareware release from Tim Sweeney called ZZT. The game's visuals were spare -- ZZT utilized ASCII character-based graphics to construct its world at a time when finely crafted bit maps were the norm. Despite the basic presentation, players embraced ZZT and began to use the game's ZZT-oop scripting language to build their own creations.

The early years of Epic were focused on creating colorful platformers like Jill of the Jungle and Jazz Jackrabbit. The company also initiated a long creative partnership with Canada's Digital Extremes during the development of Epic Pinball. By 1998 Epic was ready to join the FPS arms race with the release of Unreal. Although Unreal was light-years removed from ZZT's modest visuals, Epic retained the philosophy of making its games open to player modification by shipping the game with the level design tools UnrealEd and UnrealScript.

1999 saw the release of Unreal Tournament, along with a move for the company to its current headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Epic began to license its Unreal technology, and the game engine's first and second iterations provided the framework for a range of games from Deus Ex, which used the original tech, to Lineage II, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, which used its sequel.

Epic's much-lauded Gears of War was released in 2006, and was a proving ground for the newest iteration of the engine. The demand for its Unreal Engine 3 technology has radically reshaped the current generation of consoles' licensed engine market.

In addition to Epic's high-profile success, the game middleware business is home to multiple players, and the Raleigh area houses a variety of engine builders. Arising from research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Davidson College, Numerical Design Limited was formed in 1983 to explore the nascent field of 3D graphics. While its early products Rendition and rPlus provided rendering solutions for modeling software, in 1997 the company turned its attention to games and introduced the NetImmerse engine.

Titles such as Prince of Persia 3D, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Freedom Force, and Dark Age of Camelot all made use of the NetImmerse engine, and in 2003 NDL retooled the technology to create the Gamebryo game engine. In 2005 NDL joined Emergent Game Technologies and Gamebryo has since been utilized in Sid Meier's Pirates!, Sid Meier's Civilization IV, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

D3 Publisher-owned Vicious Cycle Software also makes its home in the North Carolina Research Triangle. From its studio in Morrisville, Vicious Cycle and its family games division Monkey Bar Games, produce a wide variety of games based on licensed properties, along with original titles such as Dead Head Fred and Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard. The studio has also licensed out its internally developed Vicious Engine and the technology has been utilized in the production of Alien Syndrome, 300: March to Glory, and the PSP version of Puzzle Quest. Recently the engine has seen its second iteration with the release of Vicious Engine 2.

Icarus Studios is another Research Triangle area studio with both a game development and engine licensing business model. The studio's post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth is close to its release date while the Icarus Platform on which it is built is being licensed for virtual world development.

cities_raleigh.jpgRaleigh 'round the family

Tom Clancy was long-time tabletop wargamer, and used Larry Bond's Harpoon in the research for his breakout novel The Hunt for Red October. Clancy never lost his fondness for games, and after writing a string of successful techno-thrillers he co-founded Red Storm Entertainment in 1996 to bring his complex military themes to computers and consoles.

For more than a decade, the Morrisville-based studio has been creating Tom Clancy branded games including Politika, Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon. Now owned by Ubisoft, Red Storm and Sinister Games were integrated in 2003 and the combined studio continues to develop titles for the Clancy franchise.

Serious Games are also well represented in the Raleigh. Virtual Heroes utilizes the Unreal engine to create military training sims as well as medical and first responders training software. Notably, the company is home to Takayoshi Sato, whose artful character designs informed Silent Hill's iconic look.

Atomic Games, remembered for creating the Close Combat series of tactical games over a decade ago, has resurfaced in Raleigh with Red Storm co-founder Juan Benito on board. After creating training software for the defense industry, the team worked on the controversial Six Days in Fallujah.

The Raleigh area is becoming an attractive location for expansion studios as well. Burbank, California-headquartered Insomniac has created a series of stand out titles for Sony hardware including the Spyro, Ratchet & Clank, and Resistance series. The company recently formed a new studio in the Raleigh-Durham area to work on an unannounced title. Electronic Arts also established a presence in the Research Triangle with the creation of Electronic Arts-NC, an offshoot of EA-Tiburon. The North Carolina studio has focused on producing NASCAR titles including NASCAR Kart Racing.

In the Pudding

Raleigh and the surrounding area is further proof that where tech research blossoms, game developers and creativity follow and flourish. This is no small lesson for regions looking to bolster their technological footprint.

Vancouver, British Columbia

The Pacific Rim is home to a number of unique game industry clusters and Vancouver in British Columbia joins California and Washington as a major center of gravity for development talent. For almost three decades the Vancouver scene has been dominated by Electronic Arts' massive EA Canada facility and Radical Entertainment's productive studio.

However, in recent years the city has supported a healthy ecology in which the big studios have acted as proving grounds for ambitious developers who have gone on to create numerous start-up companies of their own.

Distinctive Software

Much of Vancouver's current development landscape is fed by streams of influence that stretch back to 1982 and the founding of Distinctive Software. Distinctive was formed by Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, and was closely associated with the publisher Accolade during its early years. Initially working on a number of PC ports and action games, the studio soon distinguished itself by creating the first entry in the long-running Test Drive series in 1987. Over the next several years Distinctive continued to hone its racing game expertise with the subsequent releases of The Duel: Test Drive II, Grand Prix Circuit, and Stunts.

In 1991 Distinctive joined Electronic Arts, becoming the publisher's first studio acquisition. Renamed EA Canada, the studio was a cornerstone of EA's rapidly growing dominance in sports games. In 1994 EA Canada partnered with Road & Track magazine to produce The Need for Speed for Trip Hawkins' 3DO dream machine. The game took advantage of the new hardware, to raise the bar for future racing sims by including realistic car handling and careful attention to engine sounds, along with race commentary and video clips of its exotic cars in action.

In addition to the Need for Speed series, EA Canada has gone on to produce a variety of sports titles for Electronic Arts including SSX, the NBA, NFL, and FIFA Street series, among others. After leading EA Canada, Mattrick went on to become the president of EA's worldwide studios before moving on to Microsoft in 2007.

Veterans of EA Canada have formed the basis of many smaller Vancouver area studios. Members of Propaganda, the creators of the new Turok, accrued years of experience at EA Canada before starting their own studio. The staff at Deep Fried Entertainment, A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games, Jet Black Games, and Koolhaus Games, have all spent time at EA Canada as well.


Radical Entertainment

Radical Entertainment, creator of Prototype, has a long history in Vancouver game development. Since the studio's founding in 1991, Radical's strategy of developing sure-fire licensed titles such as The Simpsons Road Rage and Scarface: The World is Yours, along with original IP like Dark Summit has enabled it to grow into a major employer of Vancouver game development talent.

Rockstar Vancouver, maker of Bully, began life as Barking Dog Studios in 1998. Founded by developers from Radical, Barking Dog created several games including Homeworld: Cataclysm and Global Operations. Take-Two Interactive bought the studio and brought it into the Rockstar family in 2002. The studio is currently at work on Max Payne 3.

Another Radical alumnus, Martin Sikes, left in 1998 to start Black Box Games. Four years later the studio joined EA Canada and created Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2. Black Box took the series in new directions with Need for Speed Underground, Need for Speed Carbon, and Need for Speed ProStreet.

Spun off as an independent EA studio in 2005, Black Box gave the skateboarding genre a much-needed shot in the arm with the release of Skate three years later. Although Black Box remains an individual entity within EA, the studio has since been moved back into EA Canada's facilities in a cost saving effort. Sikes went on to help form United Front Games in Vancouver before passing away in 2007.


Specialists in real-time strategy, Relic made a strong debut in 1999 with the release of Homeworld. The space combat game took the somewhat moribund genre in creative new directions with a true 3D environment and a minimalist, hard-science aesthetic that emphasized fire and movement over resource farming. Homeworld also featured a sophisticated visual design that harkened to the great work done by European science fiction illustrators of the 1970s.

Following their acquisition by THQ in 2004, Relic released Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and two years later brought the critical smash Company of Heroes to market. Former Relic staff members have since split off to form Smoking Gun Interactive and are currently at work on an unannounced project.

Little Studios, Big Projects

In addition to the major studios of Vancouver, a plethora of smaller studios have found a home in the area. While they may not have the three and four digit staff numbers of the big studios, their projects are no less impressive.

Hothead Games is reinvigorating the adventure game genre with the episodic Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. The studio is also at work on Ron Gilbert's upcoming DeathSpank. Ironclad Games, the co-creator of the real-time strategy game Sins of a Solar Empire, is located in nearby Burnaby. Blue Castle Games, which developed the sports titles Front Office Manager and The Bigs, is currently at work on Dead Rising 2 for Capcom.

As part of the Foundation 9 family of studios, Backbone Entertainment maintains a studio in Vancouver. Next Level Games created Super Mario Strikers and Mario Strikers Charged for Nintendo. Slant Six Games has taken over the SOCOM franchise for Sony and is currently at work on SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3. Threewave Software began by creating a Capture the Flag mod for Quake and has since provided multiplayer content for a variety of high-profile shooters including Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Doom III: Resurrection of Evil, and Army of Two.

By supporting such a range of development activity, both on a large and small scale, Vancouver is well positioned to influence the game industry throughout the 21st century.

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Fleming


Jeffrey Fleming is the production editor for Game Developer magazine.

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