Fast Times in Gaming, Part 2: Behind the Orange Curtain

Part 1 of this series explored the changes taking place within the overall video game industry.

The states of California, Texas, Washington, New York and Massachusetts currently have the highest number of video game jobs, according to the ESA‘s “Video Games in the 21st Century” report. Collectively, these areas directly employ 22,279 workers and post nearly 71 percent of the industry’s total direct employment.

California is home to the largest number of computer and video game personnel in the nation, accounting for approximately 41 percent of total industry employment nationwide. Entertainment software companies directly and indirectly employ nearly 53,000 Californians, providing more than US$2.6 billion in direct and indirect compensation in 2009.

“California’s computer and video game companies make an increasingly important contribution to the state’s economy and play a vital role in maintaining the strength of the entertainment software industry as a whole,” said Michael D. Gallagher, ESA president and CEO. “These companies and others around the nation are responsible for generating the creative ideas and innovative technologies that continue to expand the many ways computer and video games improve our daily lives.”

The GameDevMap catalog of game development organizations breaks down California video game company geography thusly: Northern California: 150; Los Angeles: 89; Orange County: 22; and San Diego: 17.

Northern California has San Francisco and Silicon Valley to attract the majority of the state’s game companies. Los Angeles compensates with Hollywood and a hoped-for synergy between game companies and movie and TV studios. Though the idea might seem like a good one, so far films based on games — films like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Max Payne” — haven’t been successful. But the door swings both ways, and movies get made into games, too. The latest “Lord of the Rings” game from Electronic Arts got bad reviews, but it still sold 1 million copies, so the news isn’t all bad.

Television can also get in on the mix. NBC Universal’s SyFy channel and Trion Worlds of Redwood Shores, Calif., a developer and publisher of online games, are working on a traditional TV/online video game hybrid (code name “One World”) designed to take the subscription-based success of online games such as Blizzard Entertainment’s “World of Warcraft” ($1 billion in revenue and 12 million online, paying players) and meld that model with a weekly prime-time TV show that interacts with the game. Players around the world are supposed to become proxy members of the show’s creative team and digital extras on the weekly episodes.

Orange County, Calif.: Polygon Patch

Orange County is one of the hotbeds of the U.S. video game industry, home to video game pioneers and a microcosm that accurately reflects video game industry trends and potential.

Brian Fargo founded OC uber-gamer Interplay Entertainment in Newport Beach in 1983. Today, Fargo is CEO of Newport Beach-based inXile Entertainment, which he formed in 2002. One of the most successful entrepreneurs in the industry, Fargo has been behind some of the greatest game franchises of all time, including “The Bard’s Tale,” “Wasteland,” “Descent,” “Baldur’s Gate,” “Fallout,” “Sacrifice,” “Icewindale,” “Star Trek” and “Battle Chess.” Fargo’s string of hit games continues into a fourth decade — inXile has had critical and commercial success with iPhone and Flash games.

Then there’s Irvine’s Blizzard Entertainment, founded in 1991 by three UCLA graduates, Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce and Allan Adham. With more than 12 million monthly subscriptions in October 2010, “World of Warcraft” is currently the world’s most-subscribed massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and holds the Guinness World Record for the most popular MMORPG by number of subscribers.

GameSpy, in Costa Mesa, has one of the most comprehensive gaming site on the Web, covering games of every genre with reviews, feature articles, game design diaries and more. Dating back to 1996, GameSpy is currently a division of IGN Entertainment. The company’s websites include the gaming portal, created in 1999; the Planet Network, a collection of “Planet” websites devoted to popular video games (such as “Planet Quake,” “Planet Half-Life” and “Planet Unreal”) as well as the genre-related websites 3DActionPlanet, RPGPlanet, SportPlanet and StrategyPlanet; ForumPlanet, the network’s extensive message board system; and FilePlanet, one of the largest video game file download sites on the Web. GameSpy also offers online matchmaking and community software, such as GameSpy Arcade and GameSpy3D, as well as software development kits (SDKs), middleware and back-end online services for game developers and publishers.

“Orange County is actually a pretty vibrant game development hub,” said GameSpy’s Northcutt. “So, aside from the obvious perks that help attract top talent — great weather, lots of stuff to do, increasingly diverse cultural opportunities and close access to beaches, mountains and everything that L.A. and San Diego have to offer — we benefit from having several major studios located nearby.”

In addition to Blizzard and InXile, Foundation 9 Entertainment (F9E), Double Helix Games, Obsidian and Ready at Dawn Studios all call Orange County home. Others on the OC list include Atlus U.S.A., Bandai America,BooHag Studios, Carbine Studios, Coresoft, Javaground USA, Papaya Studio,Point of View, Quicksilver Software, Red 5 Studios, Reflexive Entertainment, SuperVillain Studios and True Games Interactive.

The F9E Microcosm

Irvine-based F9E provides an excellent example of the endless cross-pollination and cross-fertilization processes and interchange of knowledge, ideas and talent for mutual enrichment among game companies as they get created, grow, merge and even go out of business.

Shiny Entertainment, a Newport Beach video game developer founded by David Perry in 1993, created several popular titles such as “Earthworm Jim,” “MDK,” “Sacrifice” and “The Matrix: Path of Neo.” The Collective, founded in 1997, was a video game development company located in Newport Beach.

In 2005, The Collective merged with Backbone Entertainment, an independent video game development company located in Emeryville, Calif., to form a new company, F9E. In 2007, F9E merged The Collective with Shiny to create Double Helix Games.

Today, David Perry is CEO of Gaikai.

“The greatest advantages for a company in operating from Orange County are the beaches, the theme parks, snow covered mountains nearby, it’s all here,” said Perry. “People pay to visit Orange County for vacations.”

Game development culture in Orange County is pervasive, pulling in talented people who want to work with the best the industry has to offer, according to Northcutt.

“We’re not laboring in isolation here,” he said. “We all have peers nearby with whom we can interact and share ideas — or complaints — if we choose.”

Orange County-based U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (CA-47) is a member of the bipartisan, bicameral Joint Economic Committee and an enthusiastic supporter of California’s gaming industry.

“Smart investments in the video game industry and other growing business sectors are going to help turn California’s economy around,” said Rep. Sanchez. “The video game industry is generating creative ideas, innovative technologies and, most importantly, good-paying, sustainable jobs. I’m especially thrilled that two colleges in my local community, the Art Institute of California, Orange County, and Santa Ana College, are helping a new generation of software engineers and graphic designers acquire the skills they need to succeed in this industry. These investments will help boost our local economy and put Orange County families back to work.”

Also on that academic list are the Art Institute, Westwood College and Chapman College, all with game development or design programs. UC Irvine was among the first major research universities to establish educational and research programs in computer game culture and technology. UCI’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds is part of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science. The UCI Game Culture & Technology Lab, launched in 2001, has attracted nearly $5 million in external funding.

Fast Times in Gaming, Part 1: Turbulent Transitions

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