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Could the Valley Become a Hub for Video-game Companies?

Allan Blair freely admitted his understanding of the video-game industry is limited. Or was, anyway.
“I had the simplistic view that gaming meant being frustrated by Angry Birds,” said Blair, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council (EDC). “The fact is, it’s truly a business, a real industry, and not just something to wile away time on. I had no idea.
“But once I got my mind around that,” he continued, “naturally, as an economic developer, I asked, ‘how do we nurture growth in this kind of industry in Massachusetts?’ As I learned about the industry, I came to believe we have in Western Mass. a lot of aspects necessary for this industry to grow and thrive.”
That was the general sentiment among more than two dozen panelists participating in “Digital Games: Playing in the Valley,” a recent symposium co-sponsored by host Hampshire College, the Mass. Digital Games Institute, and the EDC. The event drafted video-game entrepreneurs, professors from several colleges, political and economic-development leaders, and other speakers to discuss the potential of this fast-growing industry to take root and bring economic benefits to the Bay State.
“I am not part of what you would consider the ‘video-game generation,’ but video games encompass more than they used to,” said state Rep. Jim McGovern (D-3rd District). “Few industries these days can project the growth characteristics of the game industry … and those jobs should be in Massachusetts.”

Mike Levine

Mike Levine says Western Mass. won’t reach its full potential in video-game development and related fields until the region is adequately wired for high-speed Internet.

Many already are; the Bay State’s digital-games cluster employs nearly 4,000 people at more than 75 companies, with gross industry revenues estimated at around $2 billion. More than 20 colleges and universities in Massachusetts offer majors or courses in game design and development. And much of that activity is thriving in the Pioneer Valley.
“The Western Mass. region thrives on creativity and innovation, and I want to see these businesses blossom right here, and for these students to stay in the Valley and pursue their passion for video-game design,” McGovern said, noting that game technology has crossed over into other industries, from military training to medical applications, and is likely to expand further. “This is not a bunch of people talking about this in theory; this industry is growing now. And to get the economy back on its feet again, this is one of the answers.”

No Smokestacks
John Musante, Amherst’s town manager, called video games a potential “smokestack industry without the smokestacks. I enthusiastically believe that the gaming industry would be good for Amherst and good for our region.”
He mentioned that the three colleges in his town alone — UMass, Hampshire, and Amherst — include some 29,000 students at any given time, while others at the symposium noted that the 13 colleges in Western Mass. total some 65,000 students, many of whom are enthusiastic about gaming and might be likely to pursue jobs in the industry locally if they exist.
“Creativity and innovation are what our region is all about,” Musante added. “We believe the creative economy is part of our future, and the prominent potential of the gaming industry certainly seems like a perfect opportunity to build upon together, right here in the Valley.”
Take Raf Anzovin, for example. He launched Anzovin Inc., which creates character animation for games and other entertainment, in Florence in 1999 — a time when he was one of only a handful of people in the area doing that kind of work.
“There are both advantages and disadvantages to being in this area,” Anzovin said. “The cost of living is difficult to minimize. I’m not sure we could possibly start a small character-animation studio from nothing in a place where the cost of living wasn’t so low. We’ve also had a good relationship with the colleges; there’s a lot of good talent coming out of them, and that’s been very beneficial.”
Then there’s HitPoint Studios, a game-development outfit specializing in newer platforms such as social and mobile games. “We started HitPoint in 2008 with eight people in Greenfield,” said its founder, Paul Hake. “Now we’re in Hatfield with 37 people, and we’re anticipating growing quite a bit more.
“We’re excited about what’s going on in the Valley,” added Hake, who sees the region eventually becoming not just a mini-hub for the video-game industry, but a full-blown hub.
Musante said the region sells itself, especially at a time when industry professionals are virtually connected across the globe, and no longer have to be located in a major metropolitan center.
“We have a critical mass of higher education and talent. We have space,” Musante said, adding that the Pioneer Valley’s location less than two hours from Boston and less than four hours from Manhattan, combined with that aforementioned lower cost of living, is a major draw, as well as reputable public-school systems and the region’s natural beauty and outdoor activities. “We feel like we have a lot of things to nurture this industry so it can grow right here in the Valley.”
That growth is already happening, said Pat Larkin, director of the John Adams Innovation Institute, an arm of the Mass. Technology Collaborative. “In this region, the market has already spoken,” he argued. “Firms have flourished; they’re able to germinate, be disruptive, do startups, and grow on a sustained basis in this region.”

Ruth West (right, with Terrence Masson from Northeastern University)

Ruth West (right, with Terrence Masson from Northeastern University) says the fact that game development requires both creative and technical skills is a draw for many students.

However, precisely because it’s not New York or San Francisco or even Boston, this “middle-tier” region, as he called it, needs to more aggressively market itself. “We need to work harder, smarter, faster, better in order to build and sustain the critical mass we want to achieve.”

Getting Wired
The region poses some drawbacks, too — including one very basic problem in many rural communities.
“The Internet is really what made all this possible, in my opinion,” said Mike Levine, president of Pileated Pictures, an online- and mobile-entertainment studio in Shelburne Falls. “Amazingly, up in the hilltowns, many people do not have broadband. I really think this is a crime at this point; it’s like people not having electricity or television. That’s the number-one issue. Everyone should be connected in the state — not just for entertainment, but for public safety and other reasons.”
Hake agreed, noting that “broadband connectivity in Western Mass. is still not where it needs to be.” Another challenge, he said, is the lack of an experienced workforce to staff growing video-game companies. “We have huge amounts of talent coming out of the colleges, but we have a hard time finding industry veterans.”
There’s a sort of chicken-and-egg component to this issue, however, suggested Joe Minton, president of Digital Development Management in Northampton, which represents video-game-development studios; before that, he was president of game developer Cyberlore Studios.
Specifically, he said, the industry needs to expand in the region to attract that pool of available talent. “In San Francisco, you can walk down the street and meet five or 10 people willing to hire you.”
He talked about the importance of building critical mass in the region, forming a kind of ‘safety net’ so that talented designers, programmers, and others will know that, if one opportunity doesn’t work out, others will be available. Building many success stories, he said, “will make it much easier to bring talent here.”
Fred Fierst, a partner at law firm Fierst & Kane in Northampton, has represented video-game companies for 20 years, he said, amassing a strong reputation in the U.S. and overseas. But even he still sometimes encounters a “credibility issue” regarding Western Mass. that must be overcome. “They think if you’re not a New York or LA laywer, you can’t be a good lawyer; even a Boston lawyer is considered second-rate.”
Fierst noted another issue in video-game development, and that’s a pronounced dearth of women in the field. “I am constantly amazed how few women there are, and those who are [in the field] are in marketing and PR,” he said. “But that’s changing.”
Anzovin agreed. “I’d love to see more women in the industry,” he said, noting that he has worked with many female producers, but few artists and programmers — in other words, people on the creative side. “I don’t know that there’s a magical solution to that problem, but it’s getting better slowly.”

Back to School
Hake said colleges and universities are doing their part by recruiting more women into computer science and related programs.
Ruth West, associate professor and director of Computer Graphics at Springfield College, said the field has an appeal that should appeal to a wide variety of career seekers, no matter their gender. “It requires students to use their whole brain. It’s not just creative, but you have to think technically. There’s a whole mechanical side and a visual side, and it gets students to integrate their whole personality.”
It also requires professors to constantly keep up with trends, she said, which is why she and other faculty attend many conferences and continually track the industry in other ways.
“The only thing we can teach them is how to learn, because five years from now, it’s going to be something different,” West said. For example, social-media and mobile games have dominated the field recently. “I learned 56 programs, and they need to learn how to be that flexible.”
Paul Dickson, visiting assistant professor of Computer Science at Hampshire College, said video-game design is a motivator for students to learn many other skills. His program focuses on training students as generalists, so they can adapt to any platform, a trait valued by smaller video-game companies. Students who go on to specialized work — in a certain type of programming or animation, say — may find greater opportunities at larger companies.
“Games are a hook,” said Mark Claypool, professor and director of Interactive Media and Game Development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “We get students coming through the doors passionate about the things they’ve been playing. That’s gold, to get a student who comes to college excited about learning something … not just about the latest game, but the physical calculus, the music, the storytelling. There are lots of elements that have to go into the next great game.”
Or the next great … whatever. “There are many applications outside entertainment,” Claypool said, “and that’s where the real action is going to be; that’s where the real money is.”
McGovern said Massachusetts clearly has the intellectual capital to build on this work and be an innovator in those future applications, adding that state leaders are continually trying to determine how best to invest in those growing industries through infrastructure and research dollars.
“I feel like there’s a renaissance period going on now,” Pileated’s Levine said, noting that, when he was in school, video games weren’t even mentioned as a possible career path. “Now we actually have schools teaching programs, and kids coming out of school knowing game design.
“I think it’s a very exciting time,” he continued. “As a company, we’re really interested in growing our business in this region, and we need young talent who understand mobile and social gaming far more than we do. What we learned was a very different business model. Things are changing very rapidly.”
And because of online connectivity, breakthroughs can happen anywhere, Minton said. “The world is flat, and it’s really exciting what can be done nowadays.”
He cited Rovio, the Finnish maker of the Angry Birds franchise. “This was a small company making a number of games that weren’t very successful,” he noted. “Now they have many, many hundreds of people. It just takes one hit — and there’s no reason that can’t happen here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at b[email protected]

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