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Sparking inspiration for Wisconsin’s video game industry

April 6, 2022
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Video game developers will be coming to Madison throughout April–virtually–to hear from some of the top talents in the industry.

The Wisconsin Games Alliance (WGA) Pro Series: Game Dev Talks is the first organized event for the game developers’ organization since 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since then, attempts to hold another live conference have been repeatedly postponed under the persistent shadow of the pandemic, so WGA leaders decided to gather people online, instead.

The goals of the Game Dev Talks are to promote education and networking and to highlight the important role in the game development industry that Wisconsin and the Midwest have played for more than three decades.

“We have huge stars with connections to Wisconsin, and many people don’t know these nuances,” said Eric Bauman, co-vice president of the WGA and founder of Madison-based Clinical Playground, a game-based health care education collaboration.

The Game Dev Talks will feature four speakers in separate, weekly sessions in April, the first of which took place with a keynote speech from Brenda Romero on April 6. Successive sessions will feature Sarah Spiers, April 13; Nina Cammarata, April 20; and Sir Ian Livingstone, April 27.

  • Brenda Romero is an award-winning game designer, Fulbright scholar and author, and is currently CEO at Romero Games in Galway, Ireland. She received a special award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2017. Her husband, John Romero, co-founded id Software, which was based in Madison early in its inception, in 1991-92.
  • Sarah Spiers is a senior producer at PUBG, Madison. She was named to the Forbes 2022 list of 30 under 30 in games. She is interim executive director of the International Game Developers Association Foundation.
  • Nina Cammarata is a senior environment artist at PUBG, Madison. In addition to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, she has worked on mobile games that include Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat X.
  • Sir Ian Livingstone brought Dungeons & Dragons—the role-playing game founded in Lake Geneva—to Europe. A fantasy author and entrepreneur, Livingstone is a founding partner of Hiro Capital, a venture capital fund in the UK.

It’s no accident that three of the four presenters for the Game Dev Talks are women, even though the vast majority of people who work in the gaming industry are men. “One of the things we wanted to do as WGA is showcase diversity. There’s a growing number of women game developers out there,” said Brian Pelletier, WGA director and senior artist at Roundhouse Studios in Madison.

Spiers and Cammarata also represent parts of the gaming industry that are less visible. “We hope people who are listening in will hear a side of the industry that they may not know much about,” Pelletier said. “We hope the talks are inspirational—to show the successes (the speakers have) had, and the successes that came out of Wisconsin.”

More than 30 years in the making

Wisconsin’s game development industry owes its start to Raven, the Middleton company started by brothers Brian and Steve Raffel in 1990. Purchased by Activision in 1997, Raven is part of the team that produces the highly popular “Call of Duty” and “Star Wars” games.

A host of video game companies sprouted since Raven made it big. Some were started by former Raven employees; others are large companies that recognized the fertile grounds for employees and relatively favorable cost of living and opened branches here.

The state’s higher education institutions also are helping to train game developers and graphic artists, with special programs at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Madison, Stout and Whitewater, as well as technical colleges in Madison and Milwaukee.

A survey has shown about 70 game development companies are located in Wisconsin—primarily in the Madison area—with about 1,700 employees.

The larger, locally bred studios are Raven; PerBlue, whose games include Disney Heroes and Parallel Kingdom; Roundhouse Studios (formerly Human Head Studios), with games such as Rune and Prey; and educational game developer Filament Games.

More recent arrivals include South Korea-based PUBG; id Software, of Richardson, Texas; and Epic Games, based in Cary, North Carolina.

“Ten years ago, there weren’t a lot of studios, and many of them would do a project, finish it and then lay off employees,” Bauman said. “Now, the market has changed, and people are working to hire and retain employees—as opposed to the gig economy, project to project.”

Industry pay can be attractive. An entry-level position at a larger Madison game development studio can pay $30,000-$40,000 a year, and that amount can double with five years in the business, Pelletier said. “If you make it 10 years in, you’re approaching six-figure salaries” for those who excel or get into management, he said.

Industry growth

The video games industry has not slowed down. According to the Entertainment Software Association, nearly 227 million Americans play video games. The average age of a video game player is 31, and 45% of players are female.

As the COVID-19 pandemic restricted people to their homes, video games became a way to roam free. “People from all walks of life reached for video games to find joy, connection and a sense of belonging when it was needed the most,” said Stanley Pierre-Louis, ESA president and CEO, in the organization’s 2021 report. Among families, 74% of parents played video games with their children at least once a week, up from 55% in 2020, the report said.

The gaming industry was expected to generate a record $180 billion in 2021, up 1.4% over 2020’s total, according to Newzoo analysts. About half of that came from mobile phone games. Three billion players worldwide were driving the revenue, a 5% increase over 2020.

Over the years, local studios have attracted growing interest from national and international companies, and that continues to bode well for building Madison’s gaming ecosystem, Pelletier said.

“There’s a lot of great history here in Madison in the games industry, from the very earliest,” he said. When Activision bought Raven in 1997, it was the first studio that Activision acquired. Now, Microsoft is proposing to buy Activision for $68 billion. In 2021, Microsoft bought the parent company of both Roundhouse and id, ZeniMax Media. Now Roundhouse is part of Microsoft’s Xbox division, and id’s 2020 release was Doom Eternal. Meanwhile, PUBG’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Epic’s Fortnite have been among the most popular games played worldwide.

Wisconsin is not quite a national hub for developers yet, but with top-tier studios and projects, “we are getting close to being this epic center of gaming,” Pelletier said.

WGA is planning a full-blown, in-person M+DEV (Midwest developers) conference this fall, at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, with hopes that it will attract a broad audience. “Our goal is: We would like M+DEV to be like SXSW (in Austin, Texas) but in the Midwest,” said Bauman. “We’d be tickled to have people from every continent in the world join us.”

For now, WGA’s focus is on the Game Dev Talks. Registration is required, and the cost for the series is $20. Presentations will be recorded, but there will be a live question-and-answer session after each one. The program will be produced by Mediasite, Madison-based Sonic Foundry’s video platform, and archived for six months.

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