Video game development on the rise in Arizona

Arthur Griffith (left), CEO of Desert Owl Games, talks with a University of Arizona business partner about a new video game created for mining safety, called "Harry's Hard Choices," in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 5, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service
Arthur Griffith (left), CEO of Desert Owl Games, talks with a University of Arizona business partner about a new video game created for mining safety, called “Harry’s Hard Choices,” in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 5, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service

The video game industry is leveling up in Arizona.

The number of video gaming industry employees in the state increased by 11 percent in Arizona from 2009-2012, according to the latest report by the Entertainment Software Association.

Developers say the state is ideal because of the low cost of living and it is less expensive for companies to hire employees compared to California or Texas.

The video game industry’s value to the state economy increased 8 percent in 2012, from $60.6 million to $65.6 million, according to the ESA’s 2014 annual report. The Arizona game industry employs 1,337 people.

“We want to put Arizona on the map,” said Ben Reichert, founder of Game CoLab in Phoenix. “There is a lot of potential and we are doing cool stuff.”

Game CoLab is a collaborative office space, which supports local video game start-ups with business and project management. The aim is to take an idea for a game and make it long-lasting, Reichert said.

“Many developers have an idea and need to take it to the next level,” Reichert said. “There is a puzzle to connecting talent and getting developers early exposure.”

Game CoLab hosts networking events, video game demonstrations, writes press releases and markets local talent to recruiters and studios, to facilitate opportunities for growing start-ups.

According to the ESA’s 2014 annual report, two new software developer locations opened between 2009 and 2012 bringing the number from 13 to 15. The website GameDevMap shows that currently there are 16 video game companies in the state.

Justin Fleecer, co-founder of Desert Owl Games, works with some computer code for a video game in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 4, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service
Justin Fleecer, co-founder of Desert Owl Games, works with some computer code for a video game in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 4, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service

Nine new video games are being released this month from Arizona video game companies, including Spikey Fish Games and Broken Window Studios. Games are being made for devices like Xbox and for mobile, Reichert said.

Releases include “Sketchcross” for PlayStation Vita, “Dwell” for Mac and PC, and “Grave,” for Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Intel partners with Game CoLab, and Phoenix funds an incubator program through Game CoLab that fosters networking and pitches events for video game development.

Additionally at least six colleges in the state have gaming programs, Reichert said. Gaming educational programs in Arizona include Arizona State University, which offers a certificate program. The University of Advancing Technology offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. The Art Institute of Phoenix and Devry University each offer Bachelor’s degrees. Mesa Community College has an Associate’s degree program.

Game developers possess transferable “21st Century” skills, Reichert said. Technologically educated people can work across the digital media field.

Game CoLab educates the community about the psychology behind keeping an audience engaged in a game or “gamification.”

Gamification takes an advertisement and adds a game element. One example of this is websites that have a game on their homepage. Visitors are inclined to stay on the website longer, Griffith said.

“Gamification is taking psychology and applying it to motivate people,” Reichert said. “It is a way to get through something and make it more entertaining.”

Social causes are beginning to use gamification to promote their efforts and boost engagement. For example a game about energy conservation, or a game in which the player is an “evil senator” gerrymandering the best he can to win an election, Griffith said.

Robert Nelson, a video game developer who works with Game CoLab, teaches start-up developers how to launch their game with a minimal budget.

Nelson’s company, Broken Bulb Entertainment, has grown by 50 percent since the Scottsdale company started in 2009 and it now employs 30 people, Nelson said. Broken Bulb serves 3 million monthly players around the world.

According to Nelson, video game companies have advantages starting in Arizona. It is less expensive and employees stay with one company longer, Nelson said.

“It is easy to find good staff,” Nelson said. “Employees are more focused on their company instead of looking for their next job like they do in California.”

Video game developer start-ups often grow to 1 million users in one year, Nelson said.

“It is a rapid growth business,” he said.

The larger the tech “ecosystem” or tech, high tech, or software development there is in the state, the more demand there is for infrastructure, housing and small businesses like coffee shops, Nelson said.

Arthur Griffith (left), CEO of Desert Owl Games, and Justin Fleecer, co-founder of Desert Owl Games, sit at their desks designing video games in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 4, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service
Arthur Griffith (left), CEO of Desert Owl Games, and Justin Fleecer, co-founder of Desert Owl Games, sit at their desks designing video games in their new office in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, May 4, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News Service

 Different spaces are popping up every month, fostering the    developing gaming industry in Arizona, Nelson said. THINKspot and HeatSync Labs are open in Mesa.

Nick Going, a competitive “Street Fighter” video game player from   Tucson, says spaces are easy to find for playing video games. Gamers frequently utilize the Gaming Zone center in Phoenix.

  “Everyone plays video games that have a sense of community and a    competitive nature,” Going said. “There’s a place to do that.”

 People don’t want to stay in their room on the Internet, Going said.     The most popular games are social in nature.

“Gamers get creative,” Going said.

Groups of gamers meet at a coffee house or university campus to play together, Going said. Gamers from Gilbert, Vail, Tempe, Mesa and Tucson also compete against each other for money.

A lot of skilled people are involved in the development of video games, said Desert Owl Games CEO Arthur Griffith, based in Tucson.

 “Gamers and small developers are getting more prolific,” Griffith said. “There is not one specific fan base.”

 Digital distribution is now common. The Desert Owl Games computer game PoxNora has a fan base in the United Kingdom, Brazil, China and Saudi Arabia, Griffith said.

“The pie is getting bigger and there is more room to make money,” Griffith said. “People who work in gaming are totally high tech and the government wants them around.”

Erin Shanahan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at erinshanahan@email.arizona.edu. 

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