Game on, Columbus: Videogame and app developers make up part of the city’s growing tech industry

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From the August 15, 2013 edition

Over the last few years, Columbus has been nationally recognized for its growth in the technology and innovation sectors. In 2010, forbes.com ranked the city as the No. 1 up-and-coming high-tech city in America. And a study by Praxis Strategy Group, an economic-development consulting firm, found Columbus to be the eighth-best city for tech jobs in the country in 2012.

While most of this recognition is due to the large tech-innovation companies and institutions in the city, a smaller group of innovators are generating interesting projects in the videogame- and app-development fields. It’s currently a fledgling industry with various levels, from startups and independent contractors to a longtime successful company.

Will Columbus become a hub of technology innovation and startups? Maybe not, but anything is possible in this industry. And those making inroads now have plans to help the local industry grow in the future.

THE START SCREEN

Columbus has a larger videogame-and app-development community than most are aware of. No, there’s not huge underground industry that’s been overlooked, but it’s a growing sector with potential for advancement.

Fresh Games was founded in 2002 by Stephen Smith, who ha an extensive background in the software field. After working in retail, Smith started publishing, funding and marketing videogames. The actual programming is done externally, with Fresh Games fine-tuning the product.

“A rock group will go into a studio and they have a producer who tweaks [to] get every sound, every nuance correct,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re good at — spotting talent or coming up with ideas.”

Fresh Games has released a number of successful videogames, beginning with PC and Mac then moving to mobile-formatted versions in the mid-aughts. You may have downloaded one of their games (the “Cubis” and “Ranch Rush” lines are popular) and never knew it was from Columbus.

Steve Castro, co-founder of ClickShake Games, is a leader working to foster local videogame development. He’s trying to unite the community because he believes it’s substantial, but also disconnected.

“I started a game development meet-up about three years ago and the very first one there was 20 to 30 people,” Castro said. “These people are out there; [they] don’t necessarily know there are other people who are interested.”

Castro also founded both the Central Ohio GameDev Group and Ohio Game Developer Association to organize videogame developers. He’s also partnered with fellow local game-development company Multivarious Games for an event toincrease Ohio’s role in the videogame industry by building a community.

The inaugural Ohio Game Developer Expo on Sept. 14 will feature speakers and presenters — industry leaders from around the state — as well as the opportunity for attendees (both novice and pro) to showcase their games while networking and learning from others.

“We’ve been using two words: excite and empower,” said Christopher Volpe, COO of Multivarious Games. “We want people to not only get excited about videogames, but also leave with a sense that they have the basics to go get started.”

THE INDIE SCENE

While Fresh Games represents an established business venture in the game and app industry, most operations in Columbus are independent. ClickShake Games takes contract work — developing the IOS puzzler “Escape the Titanic” with Fresh Games — to earn income to fund its own videogames, like the award-winning “The Ballads of Remus.” Castro said he only takes contracts in game development because that’s his passion, but also because not constantly working on game development means falling behind.

“It’s all about the games,” Castro said. “I don’t want to transfer [the skills]. I want to make games at any cost.”

A pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude has led to Castro’s success. By having functional, playable product online and in its portfolio, ClickShake has produced videogames for Comedy Central and Sports Illustrated for Kids.

“I think being independent means you have to create the opportunities,” Castro said. “I encourage everyone to be entrepreneurial; that’s kind of the state of employment in general.”

Multivarious Games is a group of about 20 individuals with an array of skills — programmers, designers, artists and writers — developing a handful of videogames. Everyone on the team is donating their time, working nights and weekends after their day jobs or attending college, to develop games.

“We have a lot of people … we’ve collected from the gaming groups that we’re organizing into different projects and things, but there isn’t a stable mechanism for employment here,” Volpe said.

There are ways Columbus could become a viable videogame-development industry, but none are sure things. An indie company or developer could create a game that becomes a massive hit. It would put the city “on the map” in terms of large gaming.

“Say one of these games … at our conference becomes an ‘Angry Birds’-size hit,” said Devin Moore, CEO of Multivarious Games. “It’s going to make Ohio, especially Columbus, seem like the place to make games.”

But there’s no real way to predict how or why a videogame becomes a hit and attempting to create one is assuredly a fool’s errand. Smith said it takes a convergence of factors for a hit to happen, and luck is part of it.

“For everybody who’s had a successful game it comes down to never thinking it would be that big,” Smith said. “They’re just passionate about making a good game. It’s not for the money.”

That sounds like Castro’s mentality, too. After he’s completed a round of contracts, he plans to spend time adapting “The Ballads of Remus” for IOS compatibility.

“We haven’t released our own iPhone-specific videogame just yet, but that’s the future for us,” Castro said.

APPS ON APPS ON APPS

Mobile-device apps have drastically changed the landscape of videogame and software development, and Columbus has seen an uptick in local startups reflecting this. Videogame developers are eager to release apps, but it’s still a venture into the unknown.

“It totally disrupted everybody — Nintendo, EA, you name it. Every company that thought they were sitting on top had the rug pulled out from under them,” Smith said. “And it’s the Wild Wild West; everybody struggles because it’s still a market with no cookie-cutter way to make it.”

Producing a popular app is just like catching fire with a hit game; it takes a number of factors, the most important being placement in the iTunes App Store. Getting in iTunes App Store’s Featured or Top Charts is key, which is also unpredictable.

A couple of local companies aren’t exactly looking to take the world by storm with their apps …yet. They’re focus is exclusively local — for now — as the concepts could function nationally.

Columbuslocalmusic.com is a website dedicated to promoting local music. It initially started as a Pandora-like radio service featuring only Columbus bands and musicians.

It was eventually launched as an IOS app, and there’s an upgraded version coming soon. The customized radio will use a more-advanced algorithm to understand user’s interests users can also select preferred genres and an in-depth event calendar will compile shows as well as feature songs from bands on the lineup.

“A big part of where we want to go with the app is push people out to shows,” said Shawn Price, co-founder and developer of columbuslocalmusic.com.

The new version is designed to help devoted local music followers find new bands — Price is a local musician who found his new favorite act, Deadwood Floats, through the app — while giving the less-experienced a place to start. Once it’s been refined locally the plan is to branch out; the domain clevelandlocalmusic.com has already been purchased.

“We envision a nationwide network of these local music sites,” Price said. “A band in Los Angeles books a show in Columbus and they’ll start showing up in the Columbus radio, making it easier for touring bands to find people in the areas they’re going.”

Hostd is a recently launched and locally based IOS app attempting to simplify online dating. By requiring only base information (name, age, location, profile picture, what you do for money and fun) and no cost, its goal is to get people meeting face-to-face as quickly as possible.

“We created a service that allows people to create a profile in 30 seconds, set up a date, meet somebody and decide if you like them or not,” said Hostd co-founder Matthew Roesch. “Not waste all that preliminary time online.”

Users can message others for private dates or pick a place and time and see if the Hostd community is interested. If more than one is, the user can choose a favorite. Roesch feels Hostd is different from other online dating programs because of these aspects, and it could garner nationwide usage.

PRO TIPS

Another attendee at Ohio Game Developers Expo will be Brent Zorich, who’s worked for some of the most prestigious gaming and animation companies in the world. After working for EA Sports, LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic and others, Zorich returned to Columbus and began work on his own program.

As the culmination of everything he’s learned in the industry, Zorich’s BZP PRO could revolutionize the way modern animation (for gaming or other mediums) is produced. The program drastically reduces the time it takes to create 3-D animated figures by automating the skeletal frame — called rigging — the figures’ movements are based on.

“One of the most time-complex things that can be done in animation pipeline is rigging,” Zorich said. “That process at the level of George Lucas typically takes 110 hours. We’ve automated it into between 10 minutes and an hour with code and pipeline that I’ve written.”

Zorich obviously knows his trade well, and the Columbus-based BZP PRO LLC he co-founded could draw outside attention here. But he feels the city needs to take proactive measures if it wants to become a player in the tech industry.

When Zorich premiered BZP PRO at SIGGRAPH, “the world's premier conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques” according to the Anaheim conference’s press release, he was “aggressively recruited by government employees from around the world” to set up a studio. He thinks Columbus should take the same approach.

“Take the aggressive recruiting approach the [Ohio State] football team has and go after these companies,” Zorich said. “Wine and dine [a company] in Columbus to see if there’s potential opportunity to set up shop.”

Zorich pointed to TechColumbus, a public/private entrepreneurial program funded by the state that is currently working with BZP PRO to grow and develop the project, as an invaluable resource — especially for a local startup.

“We offer advisory mentoring services, capital access and different services to technology and high-growth startups,” said Matt Pieper, Venture Acceleration Associate at TechColumbus.

TechColumbus assist in other area as well. The program’s Dublin Entrepreneurial Center facility acts as a decto home for videogame and app development. The site is the meeting place for the monthly Central Ohio GameDev Group, where Multivarious Games convenes and a number of other game and app startups are tenants.

BUILDING YOUR OWN WAY FORWARD

While TechColumbus is giving startups a much needed boost, money is still the deciding factor. Investment capital is what most in the industry are after, but it’s a difficult get.

Most investors don’t see Columbus as a viable option compared to the West Coast or other areas of the country. Having interacted with some potential investors, Moore views it with mixed results.

“One of the things a venture capitalist told me that really struck home was, ‘Just being honest, when I think of technology and innovation development I don’t think of Ohio. I fly right over to New York, Atlanta, Houston, California — Ohio isn’t even on my radar,” Moore said.

But Moore is encouraged that investors are even willing to consider Columbus startups, and he believes investment will happen soon.

Dan Rockwell, who works at Ohio State’s technology commercialization office, which oversees intellectual property coming out of the university, said the local ecosystem for startups “gets better every six months.”

“There’s starting to be a good pool of people investing in these young startups and keeping them in Columbus,” Rockwell said. “That’s one of the things we’re working on — how do we take hot, young minds coming out of Ohio State, CCAD, Columbus State or anywhere and give them the resources to stay here and create a company in Ohio.”

No one within the industry is certain how the Columbus-based startup scene should proceed toward the future. Is it generating buzz through a strong community? Or developing a universal product that everyone wants? Keep being entrepreneurial, knowing the work will get noticed? Or get the city and taxpayer dollars invested? All good questions with few knowable answers. But no matter. For many videogame and app developers in Columbus, they simply know there’s a future in the industry, and they’re trying to make it happen here, one step at a time.

Photos by Meghan Ralston