As the doors open for the seventh iteration of the East Coast Game Conference (ECGC) in downtown Raleigh this afternoon, I can tell you what I know about the state of game development in the Triangle.
It’s solid. And evolving.
I’m always going to have a soft spot for gaming. It was gaming that got me interested in computers in the first place, and while I’ve never considered myself the ultimate coder, the skills I’ve picked up have been invaluable in building products, systems, and even companies.
I’ve studied local gaming startups since my first introduction to the scene (not counting Epic) back in 2009, via the very first ECGC, then known as the Triangle Game Conference.
In 2011, when I first founded ExitEvent as a network for all things startup, I wanted gaming to be a big part of that network. There’s camaraderie in gaming that the entrepreneurial community would do well to emulate. I wanted to bottle that.
Since then, I’ve noticed two trends. One, the numbers and noise around Raleigh as a gaming hub have seemed to shrink every year. Two, the gaming community seems like a closed system, and while it’s easy to go to gaming events and hang with game developers who couldn’t be nicer and more accommodating, I could never get them integrated into the larger Triangle tech startup community.
In 2015, I’ve learned that there are valid and important reasons for both of these phenomena.
I’ve known Troy Knight since the very first East Coast Game Conference. Troy has played a big part in ECGC and the Triangle Game Initiative, all while spinning up his own company BLDG Twenty-Five, which brings together gaming, education, and design under a services and platform agency.
“Back in 2010, 2011,” Troy said, “we had about 40+ game companies. It’s about the same number today, but they’ve downsized.”
Part of the reason for this downsizing is that the barriers to entry are dropping quickly, and the companies that remain are becoming leaner.
“Smaller entities smaller teams. It’s so easy to get a concept out there. It doesn’t cost much money. Then they go out and build their next levels and versions off whatever royalties they’re getting.”
This is starting to sound a lot like tech startup, where recent advancements in mobile and cloud dropped the barriers to entry at such a rapid pace that a good coder could spin out a Minimum Viable Product in weeks. But instead of raising seed or angel money to build a better mousetrap, the gaming startups go right to market.
“It doesn’t take as much investment,” said Troy. “And it doesn’t take as much time to get stuff out.”
So as it becomes easier and cheaper to go from idea to release, the big AAA companies, who are still making multi-million-dollar games with half-million-dollar trailers, spin out smaller shops. Those shops, as they grow, spin out even smaller shops. And those folks probably have an idea or two up their sleeves as well.
“It’s fragmenting, but not in a bad way,” said Troy. “Spin-outs are happening more and more. In fact, Boss Key is going to talk about why they left Epic – and it wasn’t that they didn’t like working there -- it’s that their interest changed. They like smaller companies. They like the opportunity. They want their voices heard.”
As for the second trend, I’ve realized that gaming startups aren’t that similar to tech startups after all.
Essentially, tech startup entrepreneurs and game startup entrepreneurs do a lot of the same things, have a lot of the same issues, and they both have a similarly painful crash-burn-succeed loop that they live by.
The main difference between the two endeavors, it seems, is in the result. Gaming entrepreneurs build things to entertain us, while tech entrepreneurs build things to solve our problems.
That difference in final product, as nutshell as I’ve put it, is huge. Or rather, the passion that drives the entrepreneur to produce that final product is huge.
Gamers don’t want to build marketing apps or eCommerce platforms. They want to build games. In fact, they don’t want to do anything else.
Finding those who don’t want to do anything else is key. After spending a day with my kids at last year’s Tilt Expo, I wrote:
There are essentially two ways to bring new gamers into the fold: Be welcoming to non-gamers and be kid-friendly.
Troy and ECGC have taken a page out of this book with a new Community Day, which opens the conference. They found that a lot of parents (me) and a lot of schools want to bring their kids out. In fact, my seven-year-old is already begging me to help him get a summer internship at a gaming company. Any gaming company.
“From a conference perspective, this doesn’t cost a lot,” said Troy. “It’s been a pretty good response, and kids who don’t have a lot of money get an opportunity to come and see what’s going on, talk to the professionals. It helps with the education of the parents too – let’s them know what kind of opportunities are out there. And there are a lot of colleges that have great programs. “
And gaming will continue to evolve as this new blood gets an earlier look at exactly where the opportunities lie, whether that’s in coding, design, narrative, even audio. Technology has made a career in game development accessible to anyone. Now it’s time to bring everyone into the fold.