WRITTEN BY TYLER A. MCNEIL | PHOTOS PROVIDED
When he’s not working at a Clifton Park dental clinic or tending his family in New Lebanon, the developer is producing a role-playing video game with friends. His start-up, Midnight Game Studios, has only crowd-sourced $25 since launching a fundraising effort in April.
But Westervelt remains hopeful the now-self-funded four-man venture will eventually funnel enough cash flow to cover promotional, studio, and overhead expenses. Long-term, he dreams of Midnight Game Studios sustaining a presence in the Albany metro area.
“I gotta wait,” Westervelt said. “It’s a long journey ahead before that happens.”
Such dreams have been lived, especially in recent years as more and more firms — from independent ventures to patent-driving corporate operations — tap into the Capital Region’s digital gaming ecosystem.
Buoyed by co-working spaces and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Downtown Troy is one of the so-called cluster’s densest hubs. It’s an inconspicuous scene, too. Many of the larger studios lack visibility. A number of the small indies operate exclusively from home.
“It’s just all online,” said Claire Thomas, co-founder of Pine Drake Games. “It’s just all hidden behind the curtain.”
Here’s what you should know about the Capital Region digital gaming cluster:
THE INDUSTRY ISN'T NEW
Coleco Industries, Inc. began producing video games out of the Mohawk Valley in 1982, briefly adding 1,500 jobs in less than a year. So optimistic was a Coleco spokesperson, he told United Press International that the area could eventually rival Silicon Valley.
It didn’t. The toy manufacturer overestimated the market, took a hit, and then redirected resources towards its signature line of Cabbage Patch Dolls before filing for bankruptcy.
Having far outlived Coleco’s stint in the video game business is Colonie-based Blizzard Albany. Called Vicarious Visions until an April merger, the studio is known for developing franchise hits such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Skylander, and Guitar Hero.
Activision acquired Vicarious Visions in 2005 after 14 years in business. Co-founding brothers Karthik and Guha Bala left to start Velan Studios in 2016.
In its early years, Vicarious Visions advanced from the Bala’s Rochester home basement to RPI’s former Business Incubator program as undergraduates. Computer science alumni were often before gaming-related degree offerings in the mid-2000s.
“There were folks making games and coming through the Incubators that were starting companies well before there was a formal academic program,” said Ben Chang, director of RPI’s Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program. “And one of the humbling things I’ve learned as a teacher is that oftentimes students are doing it first.”
Later launched were RPI start-ups Agora Games in 2003 and 1st Playable Productions in 2005. With the addition of nine other studios, the so-called digital gaming cluster formed some point between 2016 and 2018, according to the Center for Economic Growth.
THE CLUSTER HAS A 'COMMON DENOMINATOR'
While still focused on serving a wide net of customers, Jahnel Group’s 40 recent openings cater mostly to a growing list of digital gaming partners. The Schenectady enterprise-level software firm has been building up that roster since Madglory, acquired by South Korean publisher Bluehole in 2018, handed off some clients.
Jahnel Group’s then-chief operating officer Jon Kellar was about a year removed from working at Madglory at the time. A spate of former workers from the Saratoga Springs firm went on to fill industry roles and build studios across the Capital Region.
Enter Brian Corrigan, founder of now-PUBG Madglory.
“I feel like he maybe has brought the game industry here through Madglory,” said Jessie Zweigenthal, director of employee engagement at Jahnel Group. “And just for everyone that I know who was involved in gaming, he seems to be like the common denominator.”
Corrigan worked in an executive post for the Saratoga County firm acquirer until March to take what his website described as “a short break from full-time employment.”
On the side, he still has his hands in the local game industry as a member of Wolfjaw Studios’ board and an advisor for Velan Studios. A venture capitalist, Corrigan has poured investments into local start-ups Powerspike and Rushdown Studios.
In discussion for years, former PUBG Madglory employees Kirk Becker, Andy Polidore, and Richard Hall launched Rushdown Studios last October. Between investment and growth opportunities, seizing on the industry’s momentum became increasingly difficult to pass up.
“It was tough, though because it was like, ‘Hey, I’m getting married this year so I could wait a year?’” Polidore said. “But it just felt like the right time.”
Now numbering around ten employees, Rushdown Studios hopes to bring 20 more onboard within the next year and move office functions out of Becker’s Ballston Spa house.
It’s not certain that Rushdown Studios will remain in Saratoga County.
Either way, Polidore wants the environment to recreate Madglory’s vibrant office culture.
“I think it helped both keep people happy, but also helps bring out new people,” Polidore said.
NOT ALL THE JOBS ARE LOCALLY-BASED
Salaried workers, interns, contractors, and volunteers combined, about 60 people are involved in the Capital Region’s indie gaming subsector. Development is often based out of co-working spaces such as the Tech Valley Center of Gravity, or remote.
Now remote, Queenship Game Studio founder Muse en Lystrala has been based out of London near the home of her lead artist for two years.
DANG! has two formerly local employees now working from Portland, OR and Queens, respectively. The Boomerang X creator consists of five friends from RPI, three of which occasionally work at the company’s Troy office.
“When we meet in person, it isn’t someone we discovered online,” Caulkins of DANG! said. “But making the switch to doing some people full-time remotely and seeing that it’s very doable and very manageable definitely opens up the possibility of hiring people anywhere in the world.”
It’s unclear how many distant remote employees work for larger studios within the region.
“It’s our understanding many of the large studios continue to prioritize hiring talent that lives in, or will move to, [sic] the Capital Region,” CEG Spokesperson James Schlett said in an email.
Jahnel Group began offering remote opportunities as early as 2015, long before many white collar employers in the region did the same. While hoping to drive local growth, Kellar said that the company won’t rule out candidates interested in living elsewhere.
“So if somebody wants to move to the area, we would absolutely encourage that and help them do so,” said Kellar, president of Jahnel Group. “But if they want to stay put where they are - where they built their life and career where they stand - we’ll meet them there as well.”
WB Games New York, acquired Agora Studios in 2016, The studio’s website promotes Northeast Corridor living and also states it’s “open to hiring for remote work anywhere in the United States.” WB Games New York didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Large studios within the region collectively boasted 460 jobs as of early 2022, a 5.5% increase from last year, the CEG reported in March. The 2021 survey indicated 16% growth.
Guha believes that the aggregate slowdown in job growth may be fueled by turnover.
“At least when I talk to my peers about it, a lot of it has to do with does a company really have much of a culture?” Guha said. “Does it have a sense of belonging and are so many people added that are remote that don’t have any strong interpersonal links?”
MULTIPLAYER IS 'WHERE WE LIVE'
Rushdown Studios is currently working on online battle arena games, role-playing games, and party games. All titles share at least one element in common.
“So obviously, they’re all multiplayer,” Polidore said. “Yeah, because that’s kind of where we live.”
He’s referring to the rise of multiplayer gaming resulting from World of Warcraft’s popularity in the mid-2000s. Notable is the massively multiplayer online subgenre, which includes Capital Region-assisted titles such as Skylanders, Vainglory, and League of Legends.
Polidore’s former employer has exclusively focused on providing backend services for multiplayer PUBG: Battlegrounds since acquired four years ago. It’s the fifth best-selling game and the fourth highest-grossing mobile game of all time at $12.65 billion.
Bluehole in January switched PUBG: Battlegrounds to free-to-play, an increasingly popular gaming style reliant on in-app purchases for revenue.
Also embracing free-to-play is Velan Studios, intent on splitting from multiplayer action hit Knockout City’s publisher, Electronic Arts, come June.
“We’re really building out publishing capability ourselves so we have the ability to go to market directly as well and that allowed us to take more creative experiments direct-to-consumer,” Guha said.
GAME DEVELOPMENT HAS A NUMBER OF USES
Chang of RPI believes the digital gaming boom could lead to opportunities for building so-called smart communities. The latter term, mocked by some as a buzzword, refers to the integration of sensory immersive, sustainable and wireless infrastructure to bolster area quality of life.
“The kinds of things that we do in games have to do with taking large amounts of data and then making them into something that the user can understand and interact with very quickly and very intuitively,” Chang said. “So I think there’s a lot of potential for a kind of crossover right there.”
A few start-ups already apply industry skills beyond traditional development. RPI-born Eco Resilience Games last fall released an aquatic habitat simulation game, which directs users to find solutions against harmful algae blooms. Schenectady-based Catapult Games plans to release a virtual reality police de-escalation training tool in under 10 months.
iPACES, a locally developed tablet game designed to treat cognitive ailments, is undergoing what’s hoped to be the last in a decade of clinical trials. Union College neurologist and project lead Cay Anderson-Hanley plans to bring it to market should results prove fruitful.
Pedaling through maps originally developed by contractual partner 1st Playable Productions, users are given tasks and challenged to retrace their steps. This process is designed to connect body and mind.
“We’re not promising that people are going to improve in their cognition,” Andersen-Hanley said. “But these studies focus on that slippery slope for a very slow drop off like an airplane pulling up the wheel so that we all live longer with the best [mental] capacity] we have.”
Andersen-Hanley doesn’t expect trouble attracting older audiences to embrace the technology. While thirty-somethings remain the industry’s most active demographic, an AARP study found 10 million new 50-plus gamers between 2016 to 2019.
“We have people who think it’s totally a novel experience to people who are really intense gamers are trying to jockey their position,” Anderson-Hanley said.
COLLEGES ARE BANKING ON ESPORTS, VIRTUAL REALITY
Nine regional colleges are involved in four esports conferences, respectively.
“The teamwork, the execution — it’s just like the huddle you see on the court in the NBA,” said Michael Leczinsky, founding director and head coach of UAlbany’s esports program. “It’s just like the huddle you see in traditional sports.”
Boasting the largest co-ed roster with more than 140 players, UAlbany is one of two schools with teams for all eight games offered by the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference.
More than 600 students applied to join the league when it started out of Draper Hall on the downtown campus in 2019. Now ranked nationally, UAlbany vies to upgrade into a 4,000-square-foot space within the ETEC building by 2023.
Game development classes have been facilitated out of the uptown campus building since the discipline in the study within the informatics program last August. A minor is also in the works.
Sharing ETEC with startup booster Innovate 518, Leczinsky hankers to widen the industry’s local pipeline — a pipeline long dominated by RPI. (SUNY Schenectady and Capital Region BOCES also offer digital gaming programs)
“Maybe we have this discussion a few years down the line and we can say, ‘Wow, look at these great startups coming from our area,’” said Leczinsky.