Georgia's got game
State's role in electronic, Internet diversions is growing
Marcus Matthews grew up playing video games. As CEO and co-founder of Blue Heat Games — one of the country's largest, independent mobile-game studios — he's still playing. Blue Heat has developed 30 games for cellphones and wireless devices.
Marcus Matthews launched Blue Heat Games in Atlanta in 2001 after working in California. The company designs games that can be played on mobile phones, such as "MLB Slam" (above left).
"I learned how to program a computer in middle school [in 1981 or 1982], and the first thing I tried to write was a game," Matthews said.
Game-development programs were nonexistent, so he got his industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech in 1992. He worked at IBM and Turner Broadcasting System before following his passion to San Francisco.
"I wanted to do games. I had this basketball game I'd developed, and, when I called Sega of America, they said, 'Come on,' " Matthews said.
As senior producer and head of Sega Sports, he was responsible for the launch of Dreamcast, which included the games "NFL 2K" and "NBA 2K."
Cheaper housing costs, the Internet explosion and his Georgia Tech buddies lured him back to Atlanta, where he co-founded Blue Heat Games in his basement in 2001.
"Mobile gaming was starting to take off in Japan, and we thought we could get in early," he said.
It was easier to start a mobile gaming venture, because the games required only several thousand dollars to develop, compared with $5 million to $20 million for console games. Mobile games are just one niche of this fast-growing market.
"Games are the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry right now, and the Internet has opened new doors for people to play games online anywhere in the world," Matthews said.
Video games are now mainstream and big business. Although it's not well-known outside of industry circles, Georgia is poised to be a major player.
"Computer and video games sell from $10 [billion] to $13 billion a year in the United States, and the South is becoming a more important part of this industry," said Clinton Lowe, chairman of the Georgia Game Developers Association (GGDA) and CEO of C. Allen Lowe and Associates, an Atlanta entrepreneurial executive management team. "More and more schools offer game design programs, and graduates of these programs are finding work here, instead of having to leave for California."
Andrew Greenberg started Holistic Design Inc., an Atlanta company that develops adventure and role-playing games, in 1995. He said that Georgia is looking at "good, strong growth in the industry."
"The skills have always been here," he said. "There's a good mix of colleges teaching the technical and artistic skills it takes to create games, and now the venture capital is starting to come in."
The skills come from Georgia colleges such as Georgia Tech, Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia State University, the Art Institute of Atlanta, American Intercontinental University and others.
"About 50 [percent] to 60 percent of Georgia colleges offer courses in interactive media design or game development," said Bill Thompson, division director of the Georgia Film, Video and Music Office of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
His office recently hired Asante Bradford to serve as a digital entertainment liaison to focus solely on the gaming industry. His presence increases Georgia's support: The state already offers entertainment tax incentives to attract new gaming companies and projects to the state.
Will Armstrong, lead alpha tester (left), and Ryan Burke, technical lead at GameTap, test computer games designed by the company, which is part of Turner Broadcasting System. Both are Georgia Tech graduates. Armstrong earned a degree in science, technology and culture; Burke's degree is in computer science.
"[Bradford] has been identifying resources. He's been meeting with companies, developer association members and colleges to get to know all the players. The next stage will be to pull the industry together, through a series of networking events, to exchange ideas and work together," Thompson said. "When you have a baseline of companies within an industry working together, it tends to attract more."
His figures show $56 million in economic impact to Georgia since the entertainment tax incentives were put in place in 2005, but his office tracks only large projects (costing at least $500,000) that are eligible for the incentives, so he estimates that the impact is triple that figure.
More small companies are starting up. There are about 150 members in the GGDA. The association will host Georgia's first significant game conference Oct. 5-7. The Southern Interactive Entertainment and Game Expo (SIEGE) has attracted strong presenters and national industry leaders, Greenberg said.
There are about 2,000 full-time employees working in the industry in Georgia, and another 2,000 college students are preparing for it.
Peter Weishar, dean of film and digital media, who oversees the department of interactive design and game development at SCAD, said he hardly can keep up with the growth. The number of film and media students grew by 10 percent to 13 percent last year, which means he needs about 10 more professors. He has about 280 students enrolled in bachelor's and master's programs in interactive design and game development.
Weishar is proud of the reputation of his program, which is considered one of the nation's best.
"Companies come here to recruit from all over, and our students go to some of the best places, including Lucas Arts, Electronic Arts, Pixar and Rhythm & Hues," Weishar said.
Electronic Arts even set up a research and development lab at SCAD, where students are paid to work on real game projects for the company.
It takes a team of as many as 200 people to create a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), such as the popular "World of Warcraft." The team includes programmers, conceptual developers, modelers, level designers, script writers, game designers, animators, simulators, and lighting and texture specialists.
"You can still break into the industry in 2-D games, but most game development isn't happening in garages anymore," Weishar said.
That makes game development a good career path with many opportunities — and starting salaries in the $40,000 to $70,000 range.
"Game companies often sprout up around college campuses. Georgia has those, a great standard of living, and we were one of the first states to put in tax incentives for game development. Georgia has a good future in gaming; the potential is great," Weishar said.
New companies are emerging, the talent pipeline is deep, tax incentives are in place and "the governor [Sonny Perdue] has said that we need to think outside the box, and video games are an important part of our future," said Christopher Klaus, CEO and co-founder of Kaneva Inc.
Online social networking, rich media and virtual worlds are just beginning — those are growth industries, he said, citing the enormous success and value creation of YouTube, which Google bought for $1.6 billion.
"This is an exciting time for the game industry. The opportunity is growing for companies taking advantage of more sophisticated technologies and the Internet," Klaus said.
The Internet pioneer — who sold his company, Internet Security Systems, to IBM in 2006 for $1.3 billion — founded Kaneva, a virtual entertainment world that unifies
2-D Web with 3-D experience on the Internet, in 2004.
"With the creation of virtual worlds, we're seeing a paradigm shift. It's no longer just about a game; it's about millions of people coming together to socialize and share experiences," Klaus said.
Launched only in a beta version to date, Kaneva already has 350,000 members. In Kaneva, residents extend their real lives and share rich media. They create 3-D personas (avatars) and homes, with TVs, picture frames and music players. They can seamlessly watch YouTube videos together on their virtual TV screens.
"We are redefining how online videos can be consumed and demonstrating our mission to embrace the Internet as a virtual hard drive for our community to tap into," Klaus said. "Friends can say, 'Here's my favorite music, videos, pictures of my honeymoon.' We wanted an environment that doesn't get old — a way for people to express their interests and connect with others. We're on the cusp of something great. No game has ever integrated something like YouTube before."
As a social entertainment company, Kaneva is attracting a new audience that hasn't played games before. Some are small companies that want to build awareness of their wares.
The gaming audience is growing, according to Stuart Snyder, vice president and chief operating officer of the Animation, Young Adults and Kids Media division at Turner Broadcasting System. Turner launched GameTap in 2005 and saw 20 million games (more than 54,000 a day) played in 2006. In May it expanded its broadband entertainment network to feature enhanced subscription play, a digital retail storefront and a free-to-play advertising-supported section with 30 to 50 games.
"There's something for everyone, and our audience is aged 18 to 49 and slightly skewed to males," Snyder said. "Many households have multiple PCs, and we have whole families signing up and playing each other."
Always a forward-thinking company, Turner got into gaming to leverage its core competencies, Snyder said.
"We have always been an aggregator of great content and able to repopularize it, as we did with MGM movies and Hanna-Barbera, which was the launching pad for the Cartoon Network," Snyder said. More than 2 billion games were played through www.cartoonnetwork.com in 2006.
"The Internet, the digital side of gaming, is the new frontier, and we've become leaders in broadband game distribution. We're clearly vested in the gaming industry, and we believe it will continue to see substantial growth," Snyder said. "Georgia is making all the right moves to encourage entrepreneurs to work here, to develop here and to grow the industry."