The Gamechangers

Video game developers are builders at heart. At the Independents’ Day Festival in Franklinton this September, a group of them recreated a digital version of the Columbus skyline in a shipping container using Microsoft’s RoomAlive technology. And then, of course, they released a marauding horde of aliens to destroy the virtual city—after all, it was a video game—but it was all done in the spirit of “gamifying” charity fundraising through a partnership with a local crowdfunding startup called Billion.

The construction of the ambitious interactive experience, which allowed participants to defend the city and compete for high scores on behalf of worthy causes, was representative of the game development community. They are collaborators and creators—of characters, levels, stories, landscapes, entire worlds even. But now they’re aiming to take their passion projects and build them into businesses. It’s perhaps their greatest constructive challenge: can they make video games into a mainstay of local commerce?

“Asking people to build an industry where you have to leave your job, do it fulltime, make virtually no money, you know, and hope your family’s cool with it—that’s a hard way to start an industry,” Chris Volpe said. He would know; he’s the president of the Ohio Game Developer Association and the CEO of Multivarious Games, a local development company that worked with Billion on the Franklinton project.

Though there’s plenty of money to be made in the video game industry as a whole, the Midwest has been underdeveloped so far. The big companies, big jobs, and big games are mostly located on the coasts, especially to the west. Volpe and others like him hope to change that and turn the city into a hotbed of gaming. He thinks Columbus’s combination of youth, creativity, and tech-savvy residents make it a perfect fit for becoming the primary Midwestern development hub.

The current crop of talent began to coalesce around the Central Ohio Gamedev Group, or COGG, which was founded in 2009 by Steve Castro, who went on to form ClickShake Games the following year. COGG has brought together hobbyists and professionals at monthly social gatherings that provide a chance to share members’ games, give feedback, network, and help build the community. Now sponsored by Multivarious, the meetings typically attract 30-60 people and the website lists 800 members total.

When Volpe first became involved with the scene, Multivarious was basically an extension of COGG, a semi-formal collective for gamers to support each others’ efforts, but it didn’t attempt to release any products. Over the past three years, Volpe has pushed the company to become more businesslike, focusing on developing the games with the best shot at getting finished and going to market. Seed capital and funding have been practically nonexistent in Columbus so far, and Volpe said that the future of the local industry boils down to which companies can make a hit game.

“The thing I realized many years ago is the only support we’re gonna get is from each other,” he said. “Banks aren’t gonna support us; city and state governments aren’t gonna support us. Investors—we’re not what they’re looking for here in Ohio. So we have to find the best ways we can to keep building together.”

Other local developers have produced video games from side businesses or fledging companies. One- and two-person studios like Smiling Cat, NeverNull, and Open Realms have created a variety of games for computers, web browsers, and mobile devices. Game developer Evan Todd used to work for Sidebolt—a Dublin-based company that mostly builds slot-style mobile gaming apps—but he broke off to pursue designing his own ideas fulltime. He released his first-person parkour game called Lemma in May. Like many smaller studios, he spends as much time as he can on his own projects, and then he takes contract work to make ends meet, focusing on outside game development work as much as possible. He agreed that Columbus is well-positioned for success but needs a local company to make a hit, and he also pointed to the model provided by Chicago, where some game-industry funding comes from grants and universities.

The city is also home to a couple established gaming endeavors. The most venerable company is Tracermedia Interactive, helmed by arcade aficionado John Geiger. Tracermedia has been making games for nearly two decades, though its expertise centers on developing “serious” varieties that deal with education, training, and marketing.

In 2002, after correctly predicting the next wave of technology would lean toward downloadable software, Stephan Smith transitioned his successful CD-ROM software company into Fresh Games. The company creates puzzle games, word games, and games of skill for smartphones and tablets, where Smith sees the most potential growth for the industry. Though he said the market has grown very tough and competitive, he feels it’s an opportune time to get into development professionally because the startup costs are so low and it’s possible to go from zero users to millions in a month.

“The barrier to entry for gaming is a $99 developer kit that you buy from Apple or get from Google, and it’s totally democratized,” Smith said. “The beauty of it is anybody can do it, and anybody can distribute globally all over the world.”

“The thing I realized many years ago is the only support
we’re gonna get is from each
other. We have to find the best ways we can to keep building together.”

Volpe pointed out that games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, Fez, and Rogue Legacy all have sold at least 1 million units, and each was developed by a team of only two people. The shining example is Minecraft, which was created by a Swedish programmer in his spare time. Minecraft eventually moved 70 million copies with no marketing budget, and creator Markus Persson sold his company to Microsoft for $2.5 billion last year.

There’s opportunity beyond the indie gold rush, though. Perhaps the greatest potential lies in applying developers’ talents to other industries, the gamification of business. For example, Battelle has asked Multivarious to help pick a game engine—the development software for creating video games—to drive a robotics project.

“We’re using technology that literally you can do anything with a lot of these game engines—anything,” Volpe said. “A lot of these games have millions or tens of millions of concurrent users at any given time. So you’re talking bank-level security with that kind of interaction, and all these systems can do that.”

Multivarious already brings in 60 to 70 percent of its revenue from the healthcare industry, according to Volpe. One such project is called ACTIVE-Seated, a game created in collaboration with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to help kids with muscular dystrophy. It aims to track and encourage trunk and arm movement in kids dealing with the effects of the disease. Cody Starcher from Multivarious said that children look forward to playing the game all day, which improves patient engagement.

Games That Move You is another local startup dedicated to therapy gamification. The company was founded by a team from Ohio State and Nationwide Children’s to help get a game called Recovery Rapids to patients who have suffered a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or who have MS. These patients benefit from constraint-induced movement therapy, but almost no one is receiving it because it’s expensive and only offered at a small number of clinics. So the team developed Recovery Rapids, a far cheaper and more accessible version of the therapy that patients can play at home. The game utilizes an Xbox Kinect—a motion-sensing device that allows users’ physical actions to dictate gameplay—to encourage patients to use specific arm and hand movements to complete tasks and paddle a kayak downriver. CEO Roger Crawfis, who teaches video game design at OSU, said that in early clinical trials it has proven as effective as CI therapy at improving patients’ range of motion and arm speed, and it actually encourages them to do more movements per hour than they would in clinics.

The company’s first home was at Lumos, an ultramodern art gallery and incubator for tech and gaming companies founded by Nate White and Nick and Garrett Davis, who also works as a programmer for Recovery Rapids. Crawfis—a Lumos board member—said that the incubator offered Games That Move You some initial business strategy and a workplace as it got underway. The original Lumos location, now closed, was only a proof of concept, and Nick Davis said that the full-scale, 31,000-square-foot version will open near downtown in the summer of 2016. It will be like a North Market of tech, he said, featuring art, food, space for startups, and technology labs for consumers to interact with and purchase new products.

He hopes that Lumos will one day be a central hub for local gaming companies—as well as many other tech entrepreneurs—where they will have access to mentors, collaborative opportunities, and hopefully the all-important godsend of startup capital. He said that investment for gaming companies has been slow to materialize in the Midwest because venture capital firms here stick to traditional industries.

“And that’s just a cultural thing,” Davis said. “We have to get to a point where we not only have the capital but people are willing to make small bets on the newest and most cutting-edge technology—not just coming out of a university, but in all areas of wearables, or virtual, or gaming.”

Multivarious also plans to open its own incubator, dedicated only to video game projects, at its current headquarters in the same building as Tracermedia Interactive, a former grain mill on King Avenue. Volpe said it will be smaller, about 1,700 square feet, but he’s received positive reactions to the plan from members of COGG, which could provide a natural source of tenants. The space will likely be ready in December or January, but first Volpe and his colleagues have another monumental task at hand—hosting the Ohio Game Developer Expo at COSI from November 6-8.

“Some city is going to become the next city for game development,
and they’re gonna end up having a lot of successful titles and
make a lot of money. I want
it to be Columbus.”

The expo started in 2013 after Steve Castro (now a developer for Fresh Games) was inspired by the collaborative spirit of the indie gaming scene in California. He decided to tap into that energy by creating a local event where game developers could connect with consumers for feedback, while also networking for opportunities. He founded OGDE along with Volpe, Jim Pickett, and Wesley Adams—Multivarious’s cofounder and chief design officer—and it’s currently the most visible manifestation of the push to turn Columbus into a gaming capital. OGDE will feature speaker presentations, panel discussions, workshops, competitions, game demonstrations, charity-based tournaments, and a multimedia concert in COSI’s planetarium featuring animation from OSU visionary Chuck Csuri and music from the composer of games like GoldenEye and Donkey Kong 64. As of mid October, Volpe estimated there would be about 70 exhibitors and 2,500 people in attendance, both considerable increases from last year. He said that this year’s expo will likely be the largest in the Midwest.

Volpe envisions OGDE existing in the middle ground between PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo intended for gaming enthusiasts, and the Game Developers Conference, the marquee national event for those in the industry. It’s the continuation of Castro’s original vision, and Castro asserted that for Columbus to get to the next level, local developers need to take more artistic and entrepreneurial risks.

The way Volpe sees it, the opportunity is there for the taking. “Some city is going to become the next city for game development, and they’re gonna end up having a lot of successful titles and make a lot of money,” he said. “I want it to be Columbus.”

Bonus Level: A portion of every OGDE ticket sold (ohiogamedevexpo.com/register) will go to two charities—Able Gamers, which provides access to gaming for people with mental and physical handicaps, and Extra Life, which benefits the Children’s Miracle Network and provides funds to hospitals like Nationwide Children’s. Like the Facebook page for Games That Move You to get updates about Recovery Rapids, which is scheduled to begin distribution this month.

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