The Game Is All
Catching up with some major players in Austin gaming circles
Because this is Austin, you might know a game developer. You might even be one. And if you are, you were likely among the attendees of the Austin Game Conference.
Who knows exactly how many people develop games in Austin, but in early September, 1,700 people paid for three days of technical talks, panel discussions, keynotes, networking, parties, and a general craft-furthering.
Developers came from all over the world for tracks devoted to Audio, Writing, Casual, and most importantly: Online. At this conference, online games were the point around which all else revolved.
Mayor Will Wynn opened the conference with his now-annual talk about creative cities, Willie Nelson, the use of illegal substances, and how game developers are great for the city.
Michael Dell also gave a fireside chat, which drew a crowd. And they didn't know about Dell's secret dinner party for game-industry VIPs. An intimate, invite-only affair, described as a who's who of PC developers all dozen of them. From all accounts, it was just like that scene where Auric Goldfinger explains his plan to a syndicate of industry leaders.
But the cultural highlights came at night. Particularly when the Austin chapter of the International Game Developers Association took over Beerland and rocked out with a Guitar Hero II competition. Guitar Hero the popular console game where you use a guitar-shaped controller to play rock's greatest hits as they scroll across the screen has an eagerly awaited sequel still in development. But Austin developers have friends at Harmonix, the studio responsible for the Guitar Hero franchise, and they got a beta version. That night was the ultimate mixture of game-dev geeks and good music.
An annual conference is a good place to see a lot of developers at once. People think game developers are hard to get to: They don't want to play. And while devs are always working, there's no reason why you shouldn't be on a first-name basis with Austin's gaming-industry heavy-hitters.
Movin' on Up
A conversation at Aspyr Media can be a rapid-fire exchange as snappy as something you'd hear on Gilmore Girls. Entire exchanges take place in seconds. Leah Heck, the company's marketing director, and Eric Duncan, a product-marketing manager, are interested in taking the ideals they enjoyed as a small company and translating those to a larger organization. They've been doing a lot of soul searching. "One of the things we've found that we really like about ourselves is that we're a company of fans," says Heck.
"We feel we have a piece of that here in the game industry," Heck continues. Being a company of fans, their new Web site features a section titled Game Advocate, where people within the company write down things they really liked about a particular game.
The company, known for taking top PC games and recoding and republishing them on the Mac, has grown to 150 people. With growth, they also publish and develop.
"It's just now that we've got a nice catalog that can prove we're doing more than just Mac," Heck says. With more titles, more people, and triple-digit revenue growth last year, the company plans to move offices soon.
This year marks their 10th anniversary. Heck remarks that the progression of office space is so typical of entertainment companies their age. They started out in founder Michael Rogers' garage, moved to a new office, then a small place on 12th Street, a house off Rio Grande, and finally a Congress loft. Practice sessions at the bar below began daily at 3pm. "We practically worked in a guitar," Heck recalls.
"This was our first jump to a corporate place," Heck notes. Everyone was happy, "because the roof didn't leak." She says it has been fun to watch the company become very process-driven, getting products successfully out the door to excited consumers and growing further.
"And we do all of that, while still having a lot of fun internally." She's most proud of being able to grow while maintaining that atmosphere when you walk through the halls. Aspyr embraces process, because you need that be smart in your growth. "But we've been able to accept it in a way that's fun," Heck says. "That's what I'm proud of."
Someone told Raphael Colantonio there was a place like heaven, but it happened to be across the water on a 747. While he grew up playing games made by Origin the local company which started in 1983 and was finally closed in 2004 and he admired their games, which were renowned for their quality, technical prowess, and workmanship, it wasn't until 1995 that he first visited Austin.
Colantonio, then working for Electronic Arts in England, had a friend who moved from the UK to join Origin. Thinking this was a good opportunity to visit Origin, "I came here and really liked it, for many reasons." He told himself that someday he'd come back to work and live in Austin.
And so he did. In July, the news that Colantonio was opening an Austin game-development studio spread across the Internet. Or, more accurately, a co-development studio an extension of his extremely successful Lyon, France-based Arkane Studios.
The company makes high-end games for the PC and next-gen consoles. Colantonio describes the Austin office, saying, "It's modest in size, for now." One of the studio's objectives is to interact with the American market and American gamers. "And also, we want to do some of the mechanics for our next game here and benefit from the local talents."
The goal, then, is not mere growth. "We really want to leverage the good aspects of both countries," Colantonio says. The main content will be created in France he says their artists and animators are particularly good. Whereas here, "There are specialized online programmers that we're very interested in. And some game design, as well."
Colantonio has found a good, friendly community. "People are very helpful," he says. "It feels like it's been a while since a few big, successful games have been shipped here," he further observes, adding, "I think it's only temporary. There are a lot of good guys here."
Which is the reason he came in the first place. "There's a very rich ground for games, systemic design, RPGs, and all of the things we're really fond of at Arkane." Which leads to a rich culture of designers, "So that's very good for us."
Having moved his family here, Colantonio concludes, "It's as good as I thought it would be except for the allergies." So what does he miss most about France? Not much, really. Some restaurants. "Oh, that sounds so much like a cliché answer from a French guy."
In Lyon, Colantonio used to play in a rock band. Now that he's in the live music capital of the world, "I'm sure I could find the people if I could find the courage to start again." His consideration is the time he doesn't have.
The Golden Ticket
Retro Studios is a different kind of game company. The best comparison is Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Very few people ever get to go inside to see the inner-workings of the studio. Michael Kelbaugh joined Nintendo in 1988, the first tester hired by the company. He's been there ever since, currently serving as president of Retro Studios, the first-party developer specializing in the Metroid Prime series.
"I really like being behind the scenes," Kelbaugh states. "We let our game do the talking for us." His philosophy is that the glory comes from the work. "We get to work on Nintendo Intellectual Property. We're trusted by Mr. [Satoru] Iwata, the president of Nintendo, to continue to make triple-A titles."
Triple-A is the industry term for high-quality, next-gen games. Michael notes that few Americans can say they've worked on Nintendo AAA titles. "Working here, it's a unique experience.
"We work alongside the same guys that brought you Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda. All those guys are still at Nintendo. They didn't go anywhere," says Kelbaugh. "We work with them every single day.
"There are a lot of hard, hardcore gamers here," continues Kelbaugh. "They're called Otaku in Japan. I've never been associated with a more hardcore group of gamers." And there isn't much turnover at Retro the game industry is know for churn but many people have been with the company for five, six, seven years.
"Just good, hardworking gamers," Kelbaugh says. Employees come from every corner of the globe. Getting a job at Retro isn't easy. "We're super picky. We have positions open for years, sometimes. We'll take a hit on the production side, just to make sure we get the right person.
"Sometimes we'll see just that glimmer in somebody right out of school, and we'll pick 'em up," he says. The company also has people who have been in the industry for 20 years. "Rarely do we hire students with no experience whatsoever."
Kelbaugh tells a story that's the exception. Two students came to Retro on an internship, right out of school, and worked for several months. By the time their internship was over, they were too valuable to let go.
"That glimmer is a combination of their creativeness, their skill-set, maybe a unique attribute that they have," Kelbaugh thinks. Fitting in with the team is also important. You have to be amiable, he advises, "and you have to have a good work ethic."
The studio is currently working on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for Nintendo's Wii console. They work on one title at a time and were responsible for the previous two volumes in the series.
Kelbaugh notes this is a very different marketing approach a focus more on gameplay and fun. "At the end of the day, it's about the enjoyment level of the consumer," he says. And though the console itself it set to grab attention, "Retro's not a company that needs to be in the limelight."
A Game in Itself
Edge of Reality was started by two guys up in Dallas. Rob Cohen and Mike Panoff were programmers really good programmers. Six years ago, a third partner joined the company. Even though Binu Philip functioned as the business guy, he isn't a suit. He actually smiles, laughs at jokes, and enjoys life. Most biz guys prefer an ulcer.
Philip recalls when they were contemplating a move to Austin. "At the time our studio was six people." They rented an RV and drove down to Austin to give everyone a sense of what Austin was about."
"The guy who was driving the RV at the time went to UT in the early Eighties," he continues. After doing a little tour of Austin, the group ended up going toward Lake Travis. On the way there, the driver regaled them with tales of Hippie Hollow. "When we got over there ... it was something quite different." Binu remarks.
But they picked Austin for more inspirational reasons. "I remember driving down 360, turning up on Courtyard Drive, and seeing the Origin building," Philip says. "The monument inscribed with their logo and their motto, 'We Create Worlds.'
"One of the most famous video-game companies in the world located right here in Austin," Philip stresses. "We were just creatively compelled to be in this scene."
Another benefit that Philip saw was that Austin had significantly more people that were tied to console-video-game development than Dallas had. "PC game development and console game development are similar but significantly different."
Edge of Reality specializes in making big-budget, summer-blockbuster action titles. They recently announced Cipher Complex, an original game already getting buzz. Previous games have sold somewhere north of 10 million boxes. And that's pretty good when you consider that a game is $50 instead of the $7.50 you pay for a movie ticket.
Development aside, "Dallas is kind of a giant, paved parking lot," Philip says. "Generally, it's flat and uninteresting compared to Austin. Austin is just more eclectic, a larger variety of people. It's art-based; it's technology-based. Makes for a really interesting mixture of people."
Although there have been purchase offers involving a move out to California, Philip enjoys the Austin lifestyle more. "There are plenty of direct flights to L.A. and the Bay area," he adds.
The games they're working on now will come out on next-gen consoles, like Sony's yet-to-be-released PlayStation3. Alan Johnson, the studio's art director, talks about the difference between playing these games and watching digital movies: "This is as close to Sin City as you can get with the consoles." So it's like a lucid dream? Johnson laughs. "You could say that."
"One of the really nice things about next-gen technology is the ability to really push the artwork, to push the visual quality, to push the cinematics." Those cinematics are done in the game's engine and look stunning.
The Final Fantasy computer-animated movie took 1,200 computers 778 days to render. While Cipher Complex will be a similar technical world, it will be rendered in real-time. Johnson concludes by saying they've got some talented guys. "And I'm continually stunned by the quality of stuff they're doing."
Running a studio, Philip concludes, is like a game in itself. He firmly believes the future for both Edge of Reality and that of Austin game development are very promising. "I look forward to seeing what the next 10 years has to hold."
You have to start with Bono. The rock star who started a venture fund called Elevation Partners with another partner named John Riccitiello. He left Electronic Arts, where he'd been president of the largest video-game publisher in the world. Then they bought two of the most respected independent developers in the world: BioWare and Pandemic. That merger was valued at $300 million. Then BioWare announced an Austin office headed by Gordon Walton and Rich Vogel, who specialize in massive multiplayer online games and did the Star Wars MMO for Sony Online Entertainment. Insiders knew about it, but it became public knowledge in March. No one knows what they're working on not even the usual industry insiders.
"We're here to build a BioWare MMO," says Walton. But that's all he says. He does mention when you make entertainment, fun is more important than anything else. Does this mean their game will be fun? "Well, that would be the goal. The goal would be [for] the game to be fun."
Despite a dry delivery, Walton has juicy views on the subject of art and entertainment: "If you're going to make entertainment, the first thing you better do is entertain." If you've ever played a game that was less than entertaining, you understand how important such an outlook is for developers.
You can make a structurally sound game with everything, except for the magic. "It's the magic that makes it work," Walton says. "The magic comes from alchemy it doesn't come from a formula."
Part of what goes into the formula are the people who make games. And one of the things that makes BioWare unique in the Austin developerscape is the number of Canadians working here. About 20% of the local industry, in fact. That's because the original BioWare Corp. is up in Edmonton, Canada.
"Edmonton is a sister city of Austin, actually," Walton points out, adding that they're much the same. He describes a city with a large university, a similar size, very laid-back, the most liberal place in a conservative province, a province of beef and oil.
Walton believes the challenge for the city remains the same. "We're trying to be a bigger hub of game development in a business that is dominated by the coasts. ... We run the risk of being out-gunned and out-maneuvered on all sides by Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A."
Can we take the uniqueness that is Austin, bringing forth the combination of creativity and high tech, to make things which really appeal to a lot of people? "If Austin game developers make hits, we'll be a major hub of game development. The game development future here will be determined by our results," Walton says. "Austin has a good shot at being the major gaming hub of this century. And the things that we have to do to make it happen are mostly just execute. The people here who are making games need to make great games."
The Lights Go Down
Just less than four weeks ago, there was an announcement that the Austin Game Conference, in a deal brokered by Sherman Ventures LLC, was sold to CMP Technology, a subsidiary of United Business Media, for a cash consideration of $1.15 million.
And while that sounds businesslike, and possibly ominous, it simply means that the same staff responsible for the Game Developers Conference will oversee the Austin Game Conference next year. GDC is the largest industry event, five times the size of AGC.
It's natural to think that things are going wrong, that the night goes on and on. But with games, this simply isn't true. Austin is positioned to release hits. Games are becoming mainstream. The next generation of consoles will launch on Nov. 17.
And our developers are hard at work on the full spectrum of genres and platforms, developing for Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation3, Nintendo's Wii, the high-end PC, and online, as well as for handhelds such as Nintendo DS and cell-phone games.
And as a city of games, Austin will continue well into the night.