Utah’s Digital Entertainment Industry Levels Up

Salt Lake City—The 10th annual Governor’s Utah Economic Summit provided attendees with the opportunity to hear from innovators and leaders from an array of industries. Among those industries was Utah’s digital entertainment industry, including leaders from the Utah Digital Entertainment Network (UDEN), Wildworks, The Void and chAIR.

While Utah might not seem like the place to go for digital entertainment, UDEN Founder Jon Dean said the industry is alive and well in the Beehive State.

“The number of people engaged in interactive entertainment, digital entertainment in Utah, and the world leading quality they produce would probably surprise you,” Dean said. “Few people inside or out of the state even know how well or how much we do it here.”

UDEN is a non-profit trade group run by volunteers with a mission to be a voice for the digital entertainment industry and help startups get the support they need to become established. After Dean helped establish a studio in downtown Salt Lake City for Electronic Arts about six years ago, he said he realized that there wasn’t much help available for newcomers in the field—a vacuum he hopes UDEN will fill and help Utah’s digital entertainment sector sustain and grow.

“It’s highly competitive and in the United States … and other countries are competing to attract this industry. The skills needed are high tech, well paid and are a mixture of creative and technical business,” Dean said. “Utah has some of the leading experts in this field, as we’ll be finding out today, as well as some of the best educational programs that create work ready graduates for these sectors.”

A skilled workforce is something Wildworks, a digital media company based in Salt Lake, needs to build and maintain products like Animal Jam, said Clark Stacy, co-founder and CEO of Wildworks. More than just a hit game that adds somewhere between one and half to two million players a month, Animal Jam is also a social network for kids. The popularity of games like Animal Jam is on the rise, Stacy said, and that brings some challenges.

“Our biggest impediment to growth is finding the qualified technical and art talent that we need,” Stacy said. “One of the reasons for that is that now the most sought-after programming disciplines in games are also the most sought after in banking and healthcare and every other sector that’s trying to move itself into the cloud.”

Growth and the need for talented employees was a theme that continued with Ken Bretschneider, co-founder and CEO of The Void. With a commitment to grow and build his company in Utah, Bretschneider anticipates the company will grow by 500 employees over the next three years, and more than 1,000 in the next five. His company is pioneering a new form of digital entertainment.

“We like to call The Void ‘hyper reality,’ where we take digital stages and a virtual world and map them both together, and put human beings into that world where they get to basically step into another existence,” Bretschneider said of his new medium. “So in a sense you get to live a movie. It takes a lot of technology to make that happen.”

Utah’s ability to produce and attract talent was reaffirmed by Donald Mustard, creative director and co-founder of chAIR Entertainment, who saw the potential for videogame companies in Utah after graduating from BYU’s early digital animation program in the late 1990’s. Mustard said he saw all of the talented people had to leave the state after graduating to pursue opportunities in their field. Having worked with the likes of Steve Jobs and JJ Abrams on digital entertainment projects, Mustard’s work in the field of digital entertainment is well vetted. Mustard said he has made Utah not only his home, but his place of work, and has helped to create opportunities here for those with the right technical skills.

“There’s awesome stuff happening in Utah,” Mustard said. “In the last 10, 15 years Utah has become not just a viable place to be in the entertainment industry, but it’s one of the places to be in the entertainment industry.”