July 7, 2015

Madison Region Claims a Winning Position in the Gaming Industry

A Q&A with Games Learning Society's Kurt Squire, Co-Director, and Brian Pelletier, Director of Project Development & Creative Director 
Q: Can you explain what Games Learning Society (GLS) Studios is all about? How do you relate to UW-Madison and Learning Games Network?

A: GLS Studios is really an informal placeholder structure that we set up to communicate to partners that we have a learning games studio on the UW-Madison campus. Most (but not all) of the game developers are employed through Learning Games Network (LGN), a non-profit focused on games for learning that does a number of sub-contracts to UW. LGN is kind of a unique structure. It's a non-profit we started a few years back to help academic projects maximize impact. Academic centers aren't set up to make commercial quality learning games or to really get games out of the lab and into people's hands. LGN is set up to do both.

LGN currently has offices in Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC, which is really helpful for us, being based out of Wisconsin. The Cambridge office is very connected to the learning technologies investment and development communities in New York and Boston, and the DC office has great connections to federal agencies. It's all really designed to help us get ideas and projects out of academics and into the world.

As an example of how it works: we might get a federal grant going to the UW-Madison to build a game on environmental issues. LGN has a sub-contract in that grant to build out key parts of the game. LGN staff in Boston and DC have strong relationships with textbook companies and investors, and are able to begin pitching deals for offshoot products.

In this case, the copyrights are all owned by UW faculty, since the work originated at UW. We're in the process of establishing licensing arrangements right now for those properties. Recently, the East Coast LGN offices have generated projects that they contract development to in the Madison office. We're really excited that we'll be getting our first revenue generated projects that will help underwrite the entire research and development enterprise here in Wisconsin. We're still working out the bugs as we go, but so far, it's been a really great way to leverage what we have in Wisconsin (a robust R&D center) and to make up for some of the "penalties" we take being removed from the coasts.

Q:  Can you describe your experience going through an accelerator program in San Francisco?

A: The co.lab is an accelerator for educational technology companies, particularly around games. It’s located inside Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco. We learned a lot about the strengths and limitations of our product, as well as the current state of the market. One thing that became clear (and we could learn from locally) is that having a robust community made up for many of the deficiencies of being a small, grant funded team. They were tremendously helpful with interface feedback, quality assurance, and generally giving a critical take on the product. We think Wisconsin would benefit tremendously by having similar services.

Q:  How would you describe the gaming start-up scene in the Madison Region?

A: The gaming start-up scene in Madison is nascent. On the one hand, it's more robust than most any in the Midwest (or anyone not on the East or West Coast), and you can point to successful companies like Filament, PerBlue, Flippfly or Candlelight Interactive as interesting, diverse companies. Two big reasons for that are anchor company Raven Software and the UW -- which have both been tent poles in attracting talent and springboards for launching companies.

On the other hand, we lack many of the formal and informal networks that larger cities have. The indie scene thrives on informal, grassroots events, and I think that only now are we beginning to realize that we have the critical mass to sustain such a community.

Q:  Have you or any of the companies involved with your organization benefited from any resources or programs offered to start-ups in the region?

A: We've benefited tremendously from folks like Rock Mackie & Sangtae Kim, who are involved in the Wisconsin Angel Network. On a few occasions, when we've had an opportunity to go after a big project, we've had members of this network help us do things we couldn't any other way. Former post docs, students, and staff have had companies supported by individuals in that network as well.
But most importantly, regional resources and programs are VERY big for us in terms of attracting talent and projects. Without them, we'd be at a real disadvantage in terms of convincing partners that Wisconsin is a worthwhile place to invest in.

Q: Do you see gaming companies experiencing workforce and/or capitalization challenges in our region?

A: From my perspective, being in the gaming scene in Madison for over 22 years, I see many challenges in this regard. The workforce challenges are multi-faceted involving experienced and new talent. I have recruited and hired over 45 people while at Raven Software and LGN. When recruiting for Raven, Madison lacked local experienced talent due to the limited number of game companies in town that would otherwise create a talent pool to draw from.

My nationwide searches brought talent in from outside the state, but it was often a tough sell due to the limited well-funded companies in town. When a prospect viewed Madison when deciding whether to move their family here, they wanted security with other options in town if Raven didn't pan out for them. There weren't any. It was a big risk to make that move and many turned down the offers sighting that there wasn't a robust gaming sector in Madison. However, many moved to Madison to get away from the high priced coasts to settle down and buy a house they could afford in a city that Money Magazine has listed many times as one of the best to live in.

As for new talent, we have four excellent higher education schools in the area that graduate many aspiring and highly skilled students. The challenge for students is the lack of gaming companies in town who can hire them. These high-tech jobs are found out of state and thus we struggle with brain drain. The other issue being these highly trained and skilled workers take low skilled jobs out of their field of study or only as short term contract gigs that ultimately can't support them in the long term.
The capitalization challenge from my knowledge is there are very few gaming companies who are seeking out investors in Madison for funding. I can only assume there are investors willing to fund this proven lucrative business sector, but with little movement from companies seeking funding, the opportunities are missed.

More local support to help educate the many independent gaming companies in Madison about growing their business could help create a more robust gaming scene. Games are now a part of human culture. According to Lewis Ward, International Data Corporation's research director of gaming, "Games downloaded to smartphones/tablets worldwide will nearly double to more than 60 billion between 2014 and 2018.” These download numbers fuel the increasing game revenue numbers as reported from research firm DFC Intelligence, predicting the worldwide game software market would reach $100 billion by 2018. Games can be independently published and distributed worldwide from anywhere. Why not Madison? With the recent swell of independent gaming companies in Madison, there is the potential for huge growth in this high-tech, high-skilled gaming sector. The challenge is in educating and supporting the Madison indie game developers.

Q:  How are you involved in putting together the GLS Conference in Madison?

A: We are now on the 11th annual GLS Conference, which brings together hundreds of leaders in academics, industry and government in Madison to chart the future of the sector. We've grown from just a few dozen folks to a vibrant international network. We see it as a real accelerator for the region.

This year GLS conference attendees can rub shoulders with gaming industry leaders like John and Brenda Romero, as well as researchers and faculty from top tier game programs like Carnegie Mellon University, University of Southern California, and Rochester Institute of Technology which fuel the industry. In fact, it's fun to look back at the program and see where many of the folks ended up. As an example, our first year featured sessions with Doug Church, who is now working on Virtual Reality at Valve and spearheaded a major initiative at Electronic Arts with Steven Spielberg. Cory Ondrejka, who led programming on Second Life and then went on to be VP of Mobile at Facebook was also featured the first year.

For a few days in the summer every year, we bring some of the brightest minds in technology and gaming in the world to Madison in a fun, accessible, relaxed atmosphere. It fosters lasting relationships that we hope will help position Madison as a leader in these sectors for years to come.