April 1, 2012

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Level Up

Utah’s Video Game Industry Gaining New Dominance

Di Lewis

April 1, 2012

Utah is not known internationally as a video game hotspot. Yet.

If the state government, local universities and Utah-based studios get their way, the state could quickly become a gaming hub.

Video games already make up 41 percent of the $414 million digital media industry in the state, said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell in October at the PushButton Summit. The state wants to make digital media a 3,000-job, $1 billion industry in the next five years, and gaming is key to reaching that goal.

“A surprising number of people in the game industry already think Salt Lake is a good place to be,” says Clark Stacey, CEO of Smart Bomb Interactive. The local gaming company has produced titles like National Geographic Animal Jam and Bee Movie Game, a game for the Nintendo Wii based on the animated Bee Movie.

Strong governmental support has made the state a good place for gaming companies to do business, but Stacey says incentives, like those provided to the film industry, would help lure bigger studios to Utah.

The government is increasingly helpful, says Donald Mustard, founder and creative director at Salt Lake-based ChAIR Entertainment, publisher of the successful Infinity Blade series. The state has a tradition of fostering entertainment and that, combined with a thriving technology sector, is contributing to the success of gaming. “It’s really a great fusion of tech and entertainment,” says Mustard.

“That’s the great thing about Utah,” Mustard adds. “It’s very friendly to those with the entrepreneurial spirit, and a great place to have not just a company but an entertainment company.”

Utah boasts an appealing lifestyle, while offering short, one-hour flights to California—an important selling point for companies like the global powerhouse EA Games, which is based in California but operates a studio in Salt Lake.  

Ben Bell, EA Games executive producer, says the single biggest reason to maintain a studio in Salt Lake City is the talent pool. “There’s a fairly strong pool of talent in Salt Lake, partly fueled by strong game developers in the valley and some of the schools in the valley,” Bell says. “Having great people in the location is really what keeps us there.”

Filling the Talent Pool
Many schools in Utah have started developing programs to help students get jobs in digital media, but none has focused on gaming so well as the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program.

The undergraduate program was launched in 2007, with a master’s following in 2010. The program integrates computer sciences and art students from freshman to senior years. While the two degrees still have many classes separately, the EAE program brings them together for electives and other projects in the hopes that the computer sciences students will gain valuable interpersonal skills that will transfer to the workplace.

“It’s nice when you hear CS students say, ‘My work wouldn’t look half as good without them (art students),’” says Bob Kessler, program director. “They need to know how to make a product, but know how to work with people who don’t think the way they do.”

The university has also formed relationships with many local studios to help students build those workplace skills. While the EAE program is still relatively young, Kessler says it has been successful, ranking second in the Princeton Review for similar programs, and students and graduates are finding jobs.

“The university is giving people a good look at what it’s like in the industry and get to know us as a business. I think that kind of personal investment in faculty in a university program really makes the difference,” Bell says.

Stacey says, “With the program that the U is doing, the talent pool will rise. As that happens you’ll see more startup companies, and that will bring more attention.”

Building the Platform
The future of gaming, particularly in Utah, is bright. Not only is the talent pool great, but the studios in the state are putting out significant work.

“There are also the smaller studios, like Wahoo and Smart Bomb, that are really making significant stuff,” Mustard says. “As people in the industry start to see the quality of games coming out of Utah and the talent that’s available, more people will start coming here.”

Mustard says one of the most exciting things for ChAIR and its parent company, Epic Games, was the development of the Unreal Engine—underlying software that many game creators use.

That kind of innovation will bring more companies to the state, Bell says. The more Utah business leaders and government build a deep relationship with the technology industry, the better the industry will do. He says people want to feel like they are in a place where their career will flourish. Deep ties to business and creative ambition will help create that kind of environment.

“The whole ecosystem could be stronger, and I think that will be great for EA and every other publisher working in the state,” Bell says.

The country is not far away from having a president who grew up playing Super Mario Bros., Mustard says. People are walking around with powerful game systems in their pockets. And Utah is positioned to take advantage of that.

“I think our best days are really ahead of us. The game industry is so young,” Mustard says.

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