11 Jul Can Madison become a video game Mecca?
Madison, Wis. – Can Madison, perhaps even Wisconsin, make video games the state’s next big export?
While the establishment of two successful game developers – Raven Software and Human Head – hardly represents a critical mass, the Capital City does host a nationally known Games, Learning, and Society Conference. It also offers a quality of life that even the young and restless, who game developers rely on for labor and creative energy, often find superior to that of major cities.
These are ingredients that could represent the beginnings of a game development nexus in the style of Austin, Texas in the mid-1990s. However, Madison and some of its institutions of higher learning have a few positive steps to make first, according to one interested observer.
“It may well be that digital technologies and media connected to games will be a new bio-tech, a new growth high-tech industry,” said James Gee, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a researcher on the educational properties of video games. “Madison is cheaper than L.A. and could certainly do more in the games area, especially with support from the state, city, and university.”
Birds and brains export games
Madison was active in the video game market as early as 1990, when brothers and Verona natives Brian and Steve Raffel founded Raven Software. Since its inception, the company has grown to over 100 employees and been responsible for the development of groundbreaking games such as “Hexen,” “Soldier of Fortune,” and “X-Men Legends.”
When they were acquired in 1997 by Activision, Raven chose to remain in Madison due to a more relaxed atmosphere than larger gaming cities like Boston and Seattle. Steve Raffel said that Madison has a strong “mod” community of people who build additions to existing games, and those people are frequently interested in working for Raven.
Additionally, multiple employees are referred to Raven from around the country, and once they move past the obvious obstacle of Wisconsin winters, it is fairly uncomplicated to sell them on Madison. “California is kind of a cutthroat area – people jump from place to place. We seem to be able to retain people here,” Steve Raffel said.
The gaming scene in Madison expanded in 1997 when seven of Raven’s employees decided they wanted to get back to the small company feel, and formed their own gaming company dubbed Human Head. The company has since expanded to 35 employees and has produced titles such as “Dead Man’s Hand” and “Rune,” with its latest title “Prey” debuting this week with high praise from multiple gaming magazines.
Human Head’s founders chose to remain in Madison largely due to the high quality of life, according to co-founder and lead level designer Ted Halsted. Software companies are typically businesses that hire a younger group of employees, and Halsted estimated 40 as the oldest age at Human Head. As a college town, Madison is excellent real estate for that group.
“The city offers a lot to younger people. It’s big enough to attract a lot of bands, arts, and theaters and provide a vibrant social scene,” Halsted said. “Living here is easy relative to large cities.”
Both these companies, according to Gee, do an excellent job of raising Madison’s profile as a gaming center. “Raven is a top company, one of the best in the country. They can stand with anyone in the industry,” Gee said. “Human Head has not had the wide fame of Raven yet, but `Prey’ has gotten tons of publicity and looks great, and may well move Human Head solidly to the top as well.”
Game development doesn’t stop at Madison. In Green Bay, the gaming company Frozen Codebase Productions, which also has attracted staff from Raven Software, recently opened with a staff of six programmers and designers with a mission of “game development in the frozen tundra.” NEW Capital Fund, a private equity limited partnership, recently announced that it plans to invest $270,000 in Frozen Codebase and its efforts to design, program, and license video game software to the video gaming industry.
In Milwaukee, Guild Software’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) known as “Vendetta Online” continues to attract gamers who enjoy competing in large, multi-player environments.
Making Wisconsin gamer-friendly
State government has shown an interest in keeping them here. In the last legislative session, Gov. Jim Doyle signed Senate Bill 563, which offers tax credits to companies involved in the production of electronic games, television, and broadcast advertisements. Companies certified by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce will be able to claim a credit of 25 percent of wages paid to company employees for services rendered in Wisconsin.
Although neither of Madison’s existing video game companies have taken advantage of the law, both Raffel and Halsted said their respective companies are aware of the credits and may incorporate them into their financial planning.
“Beyond the immediate financial reward, it’s good to see the state thinking that way,” Halsted said.
The state also has expanded from entertainment games thanks to the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, which brings educators and game designers to Madison to discuss the educational and training potential of video games.
Publicity like this would help Madison and Wisconsin, Gee said, in establishing it as a hub for games used in commercial entertainment and niche markets such as learning, health, and advertising. “This is a niche that is just starting,” he said, “but will someday be a major economic factor.”
Madison has at least one roadblock to becoming a nexus of the gaming industry, according to Gee. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has typically not been supportive of these gaming ventures. Gee said that the university is behind Madison Area Technical College in game-related areas such as graphics and programming, and both Raven and Human Head said they hire more of their new employees from MATC than UW-Madison.
“I have met with political leaders of other states on this issue, but never heard from any state or university official here with any follow up,” Gee said. “In fact, in the years in which I have done games and learning at UW – now along with six other faculty – I have received a letter of support only once, from a secretary at the university.”
Gee said that with appropriate university support, the gaming industry in Madison could grow much larger, with possibilities like an incubator for companies that want to use digital media in entertainment and non-entertainment fields, and a cooperative arrangement between UW campuses and technical colleges.
Without this support, the university could be in danger of losing the academic capital it has built through researchers and the GAPPS (Games and Professional Practice Simulations) program. There have been other interested universities that would offer “more support and less punishment from colleagues,” Gee said.
“The university needs to realize these gaming methods will be applicable in the contemporary world,” Gee said, “or we will soon lose the games and learning scholars we currently have.”
While a lack of university cooperation may keep the gaming industry from growing further in Madison, its existing game companies are doing just fine with the current levels – and fortunately have no plans to leave the state.
“We like having it all to ourselves,” Raffel said.
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