50 Years in the Making - The State of the Massachusetts Video Game Industry
This article was written with VentureFizz Staff Writer Colin Barry.
Picture this: It’s the early-60s in a meeting for one of MIT’s student-ran organizations—the Tech Model Railroad Club. There’s a group of students hunched over a large, white box-like structure that features a bright screen and game with rather primitive graphics. It appears to be two spaceships going at it—not unlike the dogfights seen in Star Wars, but on a much, much smaller scale. Those students were playing a game programmed by Steve Russell, a member of the club and lifelong computer enthusiast.
This is Spacewar!, the first digital video game, and to many video game/technology historians out there, the first true video game.
And to think, it all started here in Boston.
Aside from being a birthplace for the medium, video games and the Boston area are kind of like peanut butter and jelly—their fates are tied to each other. And since then, there has been a neverending influx of video game developers and publishers into the area.
“One reason [Boston’s success building its video game scene] is that Boston can claim a share of the birthright, with games coming from MIT,” said Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (Mass DiGI) Founder and Executive Director Timothy Loew, referring back to Spacewar!. “It’s something folks from our neck of the woods have been involved with from the get-go. More importantly, I think it’s our academic and cultural institutions that help make for great game development.”
Loew isn’t just talking about game development today, either.
For example, the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios was originally based in Lexington and Cambridge (made up of a significant number of MIT graduates), and was responsible for some extremely significant games, including System Shock and Thief. Other examples of significant locally-developed games include Guitar Hero & Rock Band (Harmonix), BioShock (2K Boston, now Ghost Story Games), Zork (Infocom), Zoo Tycoon (Blue Fang Games), and many others.
“There’s been a lot of stalwarts in the industry and games are a bit of a spikey one, but those veterans have seen them all,” Loew said. “Without Looking Glass, what would our local game industry look like, but more importantly, what would the game industry look like globally?”
“Video games, as a medium and as an industry, has never stayed still. In Boston, we started out with Infocom, later on Looking Glass and then Irrational, and now we're getting a mix of things. It's not atypical for companies to go in and out of business,” said Ichiro Lambe, a 25-year industry veteran who is both Founder and President of independent game studio Dejobaan Games.
Many video game studios (like Blue Fang Games, Infocom, and Looking Glass Studios) no longer exist, and others (like Ghost Story Games) are now vastly different from the companies they used to be. As lifelong fans of the medium, fellow VentureFizz Staff Writer Colin Barry and I have been thinking about doing a deep dive on this industry for quite some time. What kind of studios exist in our backyard? And moreover, how does the game dev scene here compare to where it used to be? Those are the questions we aim to answer.
Throughout our research and interviews, we spoke to a number of local developers and community leaders, and we found two attributes that define the game dev scene as it exists today: the rise of independent developers and the community that connects all of them.
Press Start... to go Independent
There are many, many people developing video games in the Greater Boston area today. While there are certainly a number of large companies with a presence in Massachusetts, they are often smaller subsidiaries (like Rockstar New England, SEGA’s Demiurge Studios, and Warner Bros’ Turbine), and a number of the once-giant studios are operating at a smaller scale than they were some years ago. The lion’s share of developers, now more than ever, are the independent ones.
Some studios are one person striking out on their own, some are working with small teams from one of the area’s many universities, and many are fully-staffed companies—some of which have been developing games as long as I’ve been alive. One potential explanation for the rise of indie studios might be the ever-increasing access to development tools, which allow companies to make great products with a smaller team.
“There's been a huge democratization of technology for people to get involved, so companies like mine don't necessarily need an entire engine team to deal with developing products,” Zapdot Founder Michael Carriere said. “You can use tools like Unity and Unreal to be able to quickly develop really high-quality games with a smaller group. Because of this, studios now have the ability for smaller teams to be very successful and maintain a consistent stream of work either doing their own projects or working with clients to build interactive experiences.”
Here are just a few of the studios making games in Massachusetts:
“In 2012, we [the Proletariat founding team] were all at Zynga’s Boston studio,” said Proletariat Founder and CEO Seth Sivak. “The five founding members, including myself, had worked together for quite some time, and have always thought about starting a company together.” After Zynga’s Boston studio shut down in October of that year, Sivak and his friends at Zynga were given the opportunity to take the plunge and form their own independent studio.
Since its founding, the company has experienced a surge in talent growth, and in 2015, Proletariat received $6M in a Series A funding round led by Spark Capital.
Sivak also teaches classes at Northeastern for students majoring in game design or are just interested in learning about the topic.
Dejobaan Games was originally founded by Lambe in 1999 when he had just left the first company he Co-Founded, Worlds Apart Productions, two years earlier. “I wanted to strike out on my own and create games that appealed to me,” Lambe said.
That company, Dejobaan Games, originally made games for Palm PDA devices and old computer operating systems before transitioning to making the games they’re better known for today.
Some of their developed games include AaAaAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (I played the mobile version, by the way—it’s great), Monster Loves You!, and Elegy for a Dead World (with Popcannibal Games).
Zapdot is a video game developer that develops games for a variety of clients and circumstances. Founded by Michael Carriere in 2007 when he was 19, Zapdot primarily makes games as a studio-for-hire, shipping games for cultural awareness training, scientific research, converting tabletop games to online digital counterparts, and more traditional games for both established brands and new ones.
“We help bring game development to a wide variety of clients, and that's where we shine. We have a really great team that embraces challenging and ambitious work, which has allowed us to apply our design and development chops to a bunch of different industries.”
They also sponsor local meetups and developer events, and mentor aspiring developers.
Disruptor Beam was founded by longtime developer Jon Radoff in 2010 with the ambitious goal to, as Radoff explained, “bring deep storytelling and immersive game experiences to emerging platforms.” By emerging platforms, Radoff refers to Facebook and mobile devices.
”We knew there was a great opportunity to bring these types of deep game experiences to platforms like Facebook, but also mobile," Radoff said on the founding of the company. "We envisioned the mobile market growing more sophisticated over time and ultimately were excited by the idea that these rapidly evolving smart devices can become a conduit for emotion and storytelling.“
The Framingham-based company has multiple games under their belts, including Star Trek Timelines (Steam, Facebook, iOS, Android), The Walking Dead: March to War (iOS, Android) and Game of Thrones Ascent (Facebook, iOS, Android).
The Deep End Games is a Boston-based studio that includes several former Irrational Games employees that worked on the Bioshock series. This past May, they released Perception (PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch), a crowdfunded first-person horror game about a woman who perceives the world via echolocation. They also just announced their next project, Dark Web, at PAX East 2018.
“Player 2 has joined!” - Collaboration and Community
“If you are in the game industry or looking to break into the game industry, you can pretty much find an event in the Boston area every single week to attend to learn more or connect with others,” Radoff. said “That is definitely a strength—there are numerous platforms for people to engage with and connect with like-minded individuals.”
Just about every person we talked to for this article had something similar to say—that in Boston, there are many ways to connect with others, and that the local industry is nothing if not a big community.
“Compare now to 1999, and then earlier than that, there was nothing for indies back then. There's always been things like Boston Post Mortem, but we have more now than ever. With Boston, everything is hugely vibrant,” Lambe said.
If you are an independent game developer in Boston—or even if you just love video games and maybe want to make one someday—the resources to get involved are nearly bottomless. Here are some of them:
Boston Indies is a community of game developers from Massachusetts (and the surrounding area) that hosts a monthly meetup, done in order “to talk about the art and craft of making video games, and to share our work with each other,” the website says.
Boston Indies is led by Zapdot Founder Michael Carriere, Cybereason Director of Partner Marketing Caroline Murphy and Lead Developer at Subaltern Games Seth Alter. Carriere explained that he wanted to support community that supported him.
“Boston’s indie game community is one of the main reasons why Zapdot exists today, and why we want to support the local community. When I was at Harmonix, it was so riveting to see everything that was being developed in the area, and that gave me the confidence that I could step up and do this on my own.”
Boston Post Mortem is the Boston chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Like Boston Indies, the group meets monthly to network and discuss the artform that is video game development, typically through talks given to attendees. Some of their recent meetups have included “Following The Money: Breaking Down Video Game Costs,” “Tips for Submitting to the FIG Digital Showcase,” and one that Colin and I both saw and very much enjoyed, “Rock Band™ VR – Audio Design Post Mortem.”
The Boston Festival of Indie Games (BostonFIG) is a non-profit that (among other things) organizes a festival every year to celebrate New England’s independent game development. The next festival is going to be on September 22 this year at the MIT Johnson Athletic Center.
The Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) is a campus-based organization located at Becker College that fosters entrepreneurship, academic cooperation and economic development within the regional game industry. Founded in 2010 by Loew, MassDiGI works with independent developers, established studios, and students across New England and the US. The organization also provides an incubator of sorts for those up-and-coming startups.
The impetus for MassDiGI came out of a conversation at Becker which was ranked one of the top schools for game development in the country (it still ranks near the top, along with MIT, Northeastern, Hampshire, and WPI...all in the state), and he realized there was (and is) an opportunity to build that competency into momentum for the local industry.
And then there’s the Indie Game Collective, which is a somewhat different kind of community…
Located near the Cambridgeside Galleria, the Indie Game Collective represents a group of studios that all work under the same roof, including Zapdot, Dejobaan Games, Popcannibal, and others.
The Cambridge-based coworking space exists to foster a community of collaboration and discussion between studios. Here the various studios talk to each other, solicit feedback, and mentor younger or less-experienced developers.
“It is a group of several game studios that work together, and it serves as an advisor and mentor to the community. We have people in every Friday who come in just to talk to us. Sometimes they ask us questions about their game or their Kickstarter, or students ask us about how to get into the industry—things like that, and we try to increase the knowledge sharing that happens in the community, as well as resource sharing and making sure that everyone is as successful as they can be,” Carriere said.
A number of games have even been co-developed and released by two studios working in the space together. Elegy for a Dead World, for example, is a product of co-development between Dejobaan and Popcannibal. Jack Lumber, meanwhile, was made through collaboration between Zapdot and Owlchemy. And it doesn’t stop there.
Lambe said during our interview that Greater Boston’s game dev scene has an excellent spirit of collaboration, but he added that it could be even greater.
“I think that we could be even more cohesive than we are now. I would love to see even more happening. Boston does engineering and development very well. I would love to see us get to become more collaborative and creative and whimsical, just do weird creative stuff like you see on the West Coast.”
“Insert Credit to Continue” - Changes, and What Does the Future Hold?
Over the course of our journey to learn more about the Boston (and Massachusetts) game development scene, Colin and I concluded that this is an area driven by its smaller independent developers. While you might not see as many behemoth sellers coming out today as you used to, more people are playing (and loving) games than ever before.
Sivak suggested that Boston has, over the years, fallen a bit from its place in the overall industry.
“The best way I can describe Boston is having a thriving indie scene,” Sivak described. “Boston used to be a huge spot, but now it feels a bit lower tier. A lack of a major publisher makes it hard to really break out. It’s up to us to nurture the community and help it grow. However, one of Boston’s strengths is our access to world-class talent, especially in regards to engineering.”
Carriere said that although things are different, the industry is nowhere near dire straits, and may even be better than it ever was in some ways.
“While some of the largest game developers downsized over the past decade, several small and mid-sized studios have sprung up in their wake,” said Carriere, also adding, “The continued stability of these teams, and in many cases growth, points to a healthy economy for the industry in the Greater Boston area.”
No matter whether the Massachusetts game dev scene is in a better or worse place than it used to be, the passion of these developers represents an unstoppable drive to create that we saw in every single developer we talked to. Look no further than Lambe, who caught the creative bug two-and-a-half decades ago and never looked back.
“I wanted to create,” he said. “It was like a burning thirst that couldn’t be quenched.”