Seattle's Crew of Gaming Companies are Considered All-Stars on the National Scene. But Locally, this Important Industry is Relegated to the Sidelines.
By Sam Machkovech
Despite minimal lead-up or promotion, when Video Games Live came to the Paramount Theater in downtown Seattle last January, it drew a near-capacity crowd and caused a Seattle nerdgasm. The concert series, which features full orchestra playing gaming theme songs, has been touring the world since 2005—and in 2009, its world tour premiered at 9th and Pine.
Nerdgasm at The Paramount.
That night, event host and games music maker Tommy Tallarico thanked the crowd for helping build the concert series. After all, in 2005, Seattle was just the second city VGL had ever visited, and the huge crowd at that debut helped catapult the series to international success.
The throng at last January's VGL concert held up its end of the fandom bargain. Dozens of grown men and women dressed up as their favorite characters: Super Mario leaned against the food stand, and a trio disguised as the Team Fortress squad posed by a stairwell. Some fans wore T-shirts covered in Zelda logos, while others pounded on joysticks and Guitar Hero controllers at kiosks. Even non-costumed attendees revealed their true colors, as teens, college students, and adults hummed themes from games like Metal Gear Solid before the show began.
Real-life gaming stars dotted the crowd too. Gabe Newell, founder of Bellevue's Valve Software (maker of international smash games like Half-Life) was in the audience. Larry “Major Nelson” Hyrb, the public face of Microsoft's Xbox Live service, stood close by with a video crew to cover the concert. The guys who make bestseller Halo sat next to the folks from Wizards of the Coast who developed the latest Dungeons & Dragons. And of course, the folks who run Penny Arcade, a gaming webcomic that has built a local empire through merchandise, video games, and the nation's largest public gaming fest, the Penny Arcade Expo, were on hand as well..
The madhouse showing was hardly a surprise to anyone who follows Seattle’s gaming industry. In 2006, Sperling's BestPlaces ranked Seattle America's top gaming city, calling us “the center of the interactive entertainment universe for both console and PC gaming.” A 2007 study conducted by enterpriseseattle.org, meanwhile, identified more than 150 video game makers in and around Seattle that collectively contribute over 15,000 jobs to the region—an upward trend.
The Seattle area is home to the American headquarters of Nintendo and Microsoft, makers of over half the country's video game systems. It's also the home base of major “tabletop” games companies—companies that focus on board and cards games—including the nation's largest, the aforementioned Wizards of the Coast. We're also a dominant market for “casual” video games—Seattle hosts America's largest casual games convention, possibly because PopCap Games, the makers of mouse-clicking hits like Bejeweled, are based in downtown Seattle
“If you take Wizards, Nintendo, and Microsoft, just those three represent so much of the industry,” says hometown Sony designer Lane Daughtry. “You'd be hard-pressed to find any place geographically that matches up to Seattle.”
The list can keep going—and boy, it does—but the local industry has plenty of happy, backslapping profiles. So it's unclear why events like January’s Video Games Live (and this week's Penny Arcade Expo) are such rare blips of activity for local game fans and makers alike. Why does such a thriving and important piece of the county's $22 billion gaming industry enjoy so much prosperity—while simultaneously languishing in obscurity locally?
The answer, fittingly, is a double-edged sword. Our local game designers make up a two-degrees-of-separation nerd network that is the busiest in the nation, and that spider web of friendly, studio-swapping industry vets has helped our region gradually grow into national dominance. Problem is, that same formula of informal cross-pollination and busy networking can also look like crippling fragmentation. If game makers and local governments alike don't stop twiddling their joysticks and take notice during a down economy, our disorganized industry might kiss its growth potential goodbye.
It was 15 years ago that John Scott Tynes stumbled upon his golden ticket in Seattle. The tall, mossy-haired Memphis native grew up surrounded by hardcore tabletop games, from World War II battles that spread across kitchen tables to all-night basement benders with Dungeons & Dragons. He went on to make these kinds of games himself, forming a modest tabletop games company called Pagan Publishing with the few college buddies he knew who shared his interest.
John Scott Tynes: "I thought, 'My God!'... Seattle really was a gaming Mecca.'"
In 1994, after Tynes graduated college, an offer came from Seattle's Wizards of the Coast to work on their card game smash, Magic The Gathering. Getting a call from Wizards was like the major leagues calling up a farm system prospect.
Tynes remembers walking down the Ave in the University District during his first week in town and seeing a discarded Magic card wrapper. After years in Memphis, the thing looked to him like a shiny Wonka wrapper.
“It just stunned me!” he says. “To see this wrapper for a card game like that... it was in the street like a used condom. I'm thinking, ‘My God! This is a city where you just see booster pack wrappers lying in the street?’ Compared to my experiences, Seattle really was a gaming Mecca.”
The roots of this geek Mecca were locked into place long before Wizards, Tynes argues, by our region's previous defining industry: Boeing and aerospace.
“We think of Boeing in terms of machinist jobs and factory jobs, but there's also a gigantic nerd culture here going back pre-Microsoft with all the engineers,” Tynes says. “All these white-collar dweebs with pocket protectors crunching numbers, looking at blueprints and diagrams all day... That's the ideal market for people to play board games, role-playing games, and computer games. Tech-savvy, literate, indoor-dwelling nerds going back to the '50s, '60s, and '70s: The culture in the Northwest was primed to explode.”
Makes sense, then, that Peter Adkison, a former Boeing engineer, was the driving force behind Wizards of the Coast when it started up in the early 1990s. The company went on to cement its gaming supremacy by saving Dungeons & Dragons from bankruptcy with a buyout. It also incited local interest with its Game Center in the U District between 1997 and 2001.
Adkison wasn't alone in developing the region. In 1979, Microsoft moved to Bellevue, and in 1982, Nintendo opened an American office in Redmond, a perfect location to coordinate business between the States and Super Mario's HQ in Japan. Before the PC games explosion of the late '90s, the nation's once-leading PC games maker, Sierra Entertainment, moved from California to Bellevue in 1993. (Sierra has since dissolved).
Nintendo and Microsoft are considered the nation's top gaming dogs these days, but unlike Boeing with its 747, they didn't come out of the gate with a signature industry product. The industry evolved a different way.
To wit: Nintendo never made its big Mario and Zelda games in Redmond, and Microsoft didn't debut its Xbox until 2000. The local industry had to percolate somehow before reaching its modern dominance, and it did so because these two companies made unsexy, under-the-radar moves to build America's gaming culture.
In Microsoft's case, Windows 95 wasn't as hot as a big, new game, but it was the first major OS to support Internet play and the “DirectX” 3D architecture, now industry standards. Nintendo of America's impact was even more severe, because in the early '80s, home video games were a huge flop. Nintendo did everything to convince retailers to give their untested NES a shot in 1985, including an alliance with that year's hottest toy, Teddy Ruxpin. Their business savvy paid off.
As a result of such foundation-building moves, our region serves a massive paying games audience, comprising 70% of American households. Those 15,000-plus local designers have to sell to somebody, right?
Jeff Kalles' career is a byproduct of local gaming—specifically, the local industry’s defining feature, the two-degrees-of-separation family tree that maps out its success and growth. Now 37, the mop-headed Puyallap native was trudging through community college in 1994 when he got a call from an old friend. Work with me at Nintendo, the friend insisted, and you'll get paid to play games and give tips over the phone at the “Game Counselor” center.
Jeff Kalles: He too joined the local gaming fraternity.
“Being a local kid, realizing that 20 minutes down the road I'd be able to play games and get paid. ... There's more to it than that,” Kalles says, “but that's what was in my mind at the time.”
Kalles stayed with the company 11 years, eventually producing games like Geist and 1080 Avalanche. By then, he too had joined the local gaming fraternity, reaching out to the guys who write Penny Arcade. They'd poked fun at Nintendo, and Kalles responded by inviting them to the Nintendo Employee Store.
When the Penny Arcade Expo debuted in 2004, it was the sum total of industry pals chipping in. Kalles, now buddies with Penny Arcade's creators, contributed as a panelist, as did other developers who were similarly chummy. It was a “gamers first” kind of expo, different from the industry-and-press games shows of years past, and its first iteration was a hit—the result of word of mouth and game-makers' cameos, not an industry-wide effort to build a massive event.
“Microsoft was one of the very first exhibitors, too,” Kalles points out. “A couple of high-ranking people loaded up some [unreleased games] and televisions, and they set them up on tables. That wouldn't have happened if [MS] had to fly somebody out.”
Two years later, Kalles joined the Penny Arcade as its sales manager, and PAX has since grown tremendously. This year's Expo was the first to sell out in advance with over 60,000 attendees, dwarfing all other American shows of its kind.
When Kalles calls Seattle “the only city that has hosted anything like [PAX],” he means that only Seattle's tightly knit industry could do it right. Many hometown developers still chip in at the panels and the exhibition floor. Our gaming scene's little fries get big exposure, from indie game makers at the PAX 10 design contest (particularly game makers from Redmond's massive DigiPen Institute of Technology) to import shops like Pink Godzilla.
And tabletop gaming enjoys a dedicated annex building at the fest, reflecting local hobbyist stores like Gary's, Uncle's, and Blue Highway (not to mention hometown tabletop game makers like Privateer Press, Assa, and Bucephalus).
Tynes will attend this year's PAX as well, though not under Wizards' watch, nor for any of the small local studios he has worked for over the past 15 years. In 2009, he's representing his latest boss, Microsoft, where he heads their Games Studio Live team to develop smaller, budget-priced titles for the Xbox 360's online store.
That he gets to amicably switch gears within the local games field is typical, he says. “We all end up working for each other at one point or another. We bounce around. A lot of the products [around Seattle] are done by very small companies, and those tend to die. So it's like, 'Well, I'll go someplace else.' We end up getting married to each other, end up at each other's birthday parties. It's a very blurry social business.” (No kidding: Tynes' wife is another former Wizards employee.)
Those two-degrees stories are only the tip of the iceberg. After one look at Microsoft's list of connections, you'll think Bill Gates is local gaming's version of Kevin Bacon. Valve was the first major success to result from an MS spin-off, and their successes have been as much with big games as with developing the world's largest digital distribution platform—remember that when Best Buy goes away and we get all our entertainment via downloads in the next ten years.
The rest of the MS spin-off list is full of asterisks and arrows, signifying things like buyouts, closures, moves to neighboring cities, and staff swaps. And it's in that respect that the local industry's criss-crossing wires may cause a short circuit.
The busy, nearly incestuous cluster of game makers and publishers around town seems like a utopia. Surely, for example, they must hang out on the weekends for barbecues, D&D all-nighters, and gaming brainstorming sessions.
But not if traffic over the bridge is a nightmare. I’m only half joking. Fragmentation is a major issue for local games development, and geography is perhaps its mildest symptom. The enterpriseseattle.org study from 2007 found that roughly 78 percent of the area's game makers work outside Seattle city limits, clustering in the cities of Redmond, Bellevue, Renton, and Kirkland.
What the study didn't mention is that these 100-plus studios in the region had not joined forces as an organization or lobby of any kind. There is no combined effort to conduct industry-wide events that focus on the Seattle area, whether as a celebration for fans or as a breeding ground specifically for developers. The cross-pollination that has bred the industry, unfortunately, is a weak scaffolding for any greater political or promotional efforts.
The casual sector has an exception with Casual Connect Seattle, the largest annual North American convention of its kind, but then, that convention is itself a fragmentation, isolated from other game makers. And while PAX is a major event, drawing local fans and developers alike, it has caveats: PAX focuses on the “hardcore,” dedicated gaming sector, just about the opposite of CCS's, and its developer involvement is a result of the local industry playing catch-up—they're showing up to meet the crowd halfway rather than building their own events.
PAX and Video Games Live have drawn local crowds and interest, but other recent public events reveal a striking shortsightedness on our cities' behalf. Greg Nickels declared October 5, 2007 “Video Game Industry Day” as part of an international gaming competition hosted at Qwest Field, but the event in question was a flop—under-attended and largely ignored by local media. A year later, Bellevue hosted an international indie-games gallery exhibit from the IndieCade group, and its piddling attendance suffered from the same lack of legitimate awareness.
The regional business community has kept its eye on gaming as a rare golden goose, especially after the booming 2008 Christmas season full of Xboxes and Wiis. But its lackluster Q1 and Q2 numbers are a stark reminder that the region's game makers may not get by with only a mayoral pat on the back and a bunch of Super Mario costumes in the streets.
Seattle is no stranger to geeks who dwell in basements with creative results.
The local music scene is perhaps a clichéd example, but the analogy to local game makers fits. Both industries are strong, rich with history, and successful in spite of natural fragmentation. Both are spread widely across cities and genres, yet they have common goals of promotion and success worth teaming up for.
Looking for political game.
What would Seattle's music scene be without political mobilization? They forced the city to defeat the Teen Dance Ordinance; they successfully challenged against onerous nightlife regulations; they establsed the Vera Project and a music office at city hall to support the industry; and they designed the long-term “City of Music” project.
For local music makers and promoters, the results are more than a photo op for guys like Nickels; they include tangible results like political action, city-endorsed events, and educational services for Seattle kids.
Top of my head, here's a list of local games companies whose names would look impressive spread across the top of a letter to the mayor's office: Nintendo. Microsoft. Sony's three local studios. Bungie (makers of Halo). Valve. Wizards of the Coast. Penny Arcade. PopCap. Big Fish Games (another massive casual games maker in town). Real Networks (Seattle's former video-streaming champs, who now focus on casual video games of their own).
Lucky them, they've got a head start. Our game makers don't have to demand the kind of mayor's office report that music industry activists like David Meinert pushed for years ago; enterpriseseattle.org got about half of that work done. Its 2007 study is loaded with numbers and trends, along with a relatively sexy stat: every game designer job here results in four additional jobs in Washington State.
The study goes on to mention two requests by local gaming start-ups: more tax breaks, and freer access to H1-B visas for foreign workers. But that's it. It drops a fat stack of numbers like a phone book on a toe, but it doesn't pick up the book, flip through, and make the right call.
Local game makers and promoters need to take that next step. Demanding educational services to increase the region's IT literacy and grow its own talent—rather than import it via H1-B visas—is a good start. Local government resources directed squarely at events that celebrate the region's gaming with bimonthly, momentum-building bursts wouldn't hurt, either. (“Board Game Day,” in particular, could be huge for the region's many tabletop stores the way “Free Comic Book Day” is for its respective shops.)
But perhaps the most effective move would be political action toward helping new game companies during their start-up phase. According to the developers I spoke to, these are the companies who would be great at challenging the creative status quo of typical video games, to make the industry's genre-busting, “alternative” hits, if only they could survive the first year-plus of revenue-less development.
Beyond political moves, imagine the possibilities if these big dogs worked together to promote the region's rising stars, similar to our local arts scenes. These ideas are off the top of my head: Make the most of the mobile gaming boom with the Seattle iPhone Singles Club, highlighting the region's best game and app makers in cheap, monthly fashion (and borrowing the idea from Sub Pop Records' “Singles Club,” no less). Or try the 48-Hour Game Race, in which indie programmers get only two days to put together a working video game based on a specific theme, and then the public meets at the end to play and vote for the winner.
I don't throw those ideas out as utter gold (though I like 'em); all those games companies colluding together could certainly do better.
And that, really, is my point.