We Got Game
Chances are pretty good that you're a gamer. That is, at one time or another, you've found yourself glued to a tv screen with wires snaking out to an Xbox, Playstation or the new "Wii". Or you're toting a portable like Gameboy, Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. Perhaps you've idled away the hours playing games on your computer, either at home (or ahem, at work). The fact is, you and hundreds of million others are carrying around a game player in a pocket or handbag right now. Yes, it's your cellphone.There are roughly 190 million cell phones in use today (that's the US only, folks), and most of them have game playing features.
The point is that you and nearly everyone you know has been touched by the gaming industry. It's become a permanent part of our culture, as witnessed by the mad rush for next gen hardware and the explosion of game titles in every imaginable genre.
The feature film industry, once our most popular form of entertainment, is now experiencing a convergence with gaming. Video games are being created side by side with their feature film productions, and there are many films that are based on popular game titles, witness Mortal Kombat, Doom, Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But even though these two industries often share the spotlight for a particular title, the gaming industry revenues are leaving feature films in the dust.
"Video game revenues passed feature films a few years ago," says Cris Boyer, owner of Variant Games, a game publishing company here in Detroit. "Games bring in over 14 billion dollars in revenue each year," Boyer said, "and with portable devices taking off, and people downloading games on their cell phones, the number of people playing games is skyrocketing."
When you consider the number of consoles installed across the globe, especially in North America and Asia, and how many are now being hooked up to the internet for online interaction, the future of gaming seems especially bright.
In fact, PriceWaterhouseCooper's "Global Entertainment and Media Outlook" estimates that gaming revenues will top $45 Billion by 2010. With so much money at stake, it's no wonder that many Michigan businesses, schools and individuals are preparing to tap into this game development market.
Bodies in motion
Thad Johnson and Michael Bolden have recently made some moves in this direction. Critical Moves USA is a brand new "motion capture" facility, located on Detroit's Eastside. MOCAP, as the process is known, involves suiting up an actor (or multiple actors), then capturing their human motion data and applying it to animated characters for film, video and games. "This is a world-class facility," says Thad Johnson, partner in the new studio, which is housed in the beautiful, classic Cadieux Stage. We are marketing our state-of-the-art mocap services to game developers and filmmakers all over the country and in Canada. The Midwest is coming on fast and we feel that Detroit has the perfect geographic location to service both American and Canadian companies. We are a great alternative to the West Coast, with a mocap system that is on par with anything at Disney, Pixar and Sony!"
Michael Bolden is partner in Critical Moves, and is President of Dangerous Games, which is also located at Cadieux Stage. Bolden and his team produce their own proprietary game titles and are getting some some interest from larger game publishers.
When asked what was needed to build up a game development industry here in Michigan, Johnson immediately replied, "Incentives. Just like the incentives for feature films, Michigan needs to provide tax breaks or they'll go someplace else. We also must provide unique value to our customers by doing it all in one place and Michigan can do that!" Johnson enthused. "Michigan's auto industry is the foundation of our strong work ethic, our process experience and our technical know-how for handling large amounts of data. We have lots of programmers and talented artists and some great schools teaching all of the skills we need, from animation to IT."
"Think about it," Johnson added, "animation is an abstract skill set of design, and Michigan is already a leader in design and technology. The backbone is there."
A virtual foundation
Part of this "backbone" are some key companies who are veterans in the industry. Matt Toschlog was a founder of the Ann Arbor company Outrage, creators of the multi-million selling "Descent" series. After Outrage was bought out (and eventually closed down) by gaming behemoth THQ, Toschlog went on a three year hiatus to spend more time with his family. Now, he's back, in a new gaming division at Quantum Signal called Reactor Zero. Among the several projects Matt's working on, he's creating a game for Sony and a dedicated gaming engine for the Army to create simulations and training.
"Large complex games are a big part of what I do, "Toschlog says, "but I also like to work on casual games, that my sons and my mom can enjoy. Not just the hard core stuff."
Toschlog believes that Michigan is a great place for the game market to thrive. Ann Arbor is a great place to live, it's cheaper than the Coast and people tend to stick to a company for longer periods. They are more settled here. And with U of M and MSU, we're graduating some great talent to support this industry."
Brad Wardell started Stardock by creating the popular "Window Blinds" desktop software for the PC. A veteran of 13 years, the Plymouth-based gamemaker is currently the only Michigan game developer selling products on the retail market. This includes their titles, "Galactic Civilization" and "Political Machine," a game where you can run for President against the computer or someone online.
"One benefit to creating games in Michigan is once you've built a team here, your employees are more likely to stay. Turnover is a big issue in this industry, but Michiganders tend to stick," Wardell says. "The people who come here and take jobs also tend to settle down more than in other states. Also, since there aren't many competitors, you don't get the pilfering of talent that takes place in cities like Dallas and elsewhere."
Gaming the system
Education is a large part of the preparation taking place. Michigan State University has established a full spectrum degree in game development, and many area schools are providing their students with game design programs to give them the tools they need to enter this market.
The International Academy of Design Technology (IADT-Detroit), located in Troy, Michigan, has recently created a complete track for game design. Kimberly Callery is the Dean of this new department.
"We built our game design program here in Detroit after seeing great success at other IADT campuses around the country," Callery said. "Many young people are interested in this market, so it will always be competition for jobs, even as the market grows. To be successful, they'll need an edge. I feel that networking with leaders in the industry can give them that edge. The local game design industry may be small, but we have a few heavy hitters in Stardock, Reactor Zero and a few other small startups. More and more, we're communicating and getting together at events, like those sponsored by the local International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Group and the SEMAFX Network. That's the first step. Next, we need to invite experienced game professionals to come in and share their real-world knowledge with our community."
That's the focus of IADT's InterFace 2007 event on July 28th, which will connect young people with game designers from all over the industry. "The people in game design are the most helpful, supportive and sharing people I've ever met!" smiles Callery. "At GDC this year, Cliff Bleszinski, the lead designer of Gears of War shared precious tips and strategies and he stayed after to answer every question. We need more of that."
Detroit's College for Creative Studies is well known for their quality graduates in the industrial and automotive design, animation and graphics industries. Many CCS alums are working in the field today. And while many have followed the siren call and moved away to California and elsewhere, some have remained here in the Detroit area, working in animation, gaming and design at various creative studios, including Critical Moves, Stardock, Armstrong-White and others. Kim Callery is also a CCS graduate.
Keeping and atrracting young people in Michigan is a top priority for the state. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has initiated a huge Youth Marketing campaign to encourage young professionals to make roots in Michigan. Eric Cedo of BrainGain Marketing is developing Michigan's web portal that promotes the youthful lifestlye that Michigan offers. "The website is written by the young people all over the state. Video, blogs, photos and news will be submitted by local contributors, so it will be their website," said Cedo. "Stopping the "brain drain" of Michigan's young people is critical."
The game design market is a perfect match to the young, computer savvy professionals demographic. The product of this industry is expanding to create games for the well known "consoles", including the XBox, Playstation and Nintendo's new Wii platform. Another hot market is mobile gaming. According to a study done by the market research company Telephia, mobile phone game revenues grew by $151 million in the fourth quarter of 2006. That's up 61% over the same period in 2005. The study also found that 17.4 million mobile games were downloaded in the quarter, up 45% from the previous year. Interestingly, 65% of mobile game players are women and young professionals make up 40% of mobile phone game players.
Once upon a time, PONG was the pioneer in a field where no one could anticipate the current level of quality, revenues and creative opportunities. Today, Michigan creatives have begun to claim their stake in this industry.
As Brian Winn, MSU's Director of the New Media Center, says, "it's more fun to play a game than design a game. But given the opportunities this market has to offer, it's definitely worth being in the game."
Scott Paul Dunham is a freelance writer living in Grosse Pointe Park. He contributes to metromode, Rapid Growth and is Co-founder of the Creative Energy Alliance and the Center for Creative Technologies.Photos
:Studio at Critical Moves USA
Scene from Galactic Civilizations
Suiting up for human motion data capture - Critical Moves USA
Character in Galactic Civilizations
Spaceship in Galactic Civilizations
Mac laboratory at Center for Creative Studies - Detroit
Pong screen circa late 1970's
Photographs and renderings courtesy of Critical Moves USA, CCS-Detroit and Stardock