Aug 20, 2015

A great place to work at play: Madison game developers aim for critical mass to compete with the coasts

Excerpted from Isthmus

By Aaron Conklin

The annual Games + Learning + Society Conference took place more than a month ago, but co-director Kurt Squire is still feeling giddy.

Maybe it was the standing ovation the event’s keynote speaker, legendary game developer Brenda Romero, got when she waxed poetic about the way forward for female game developers — and female game players — in the bombed-out wake of the ugly #Gamergate brouhaha that saw angry male gamers harassing female developers online. Maybe it was the several hundred academics and developers who converged on Madison to talk about their shared passion for games for learning.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that the future of game development in Madison has never looked brighter than it does right now.

The question of whether Madison would become a national game development hub has been burbling for more than 15 years. Back in the early 2000s, it looked as though Madison would clone the success of Austin, Texas, with triple-A developers Raven Software and Human Head Studios leading the way. At the start of this decade, nimble local mobile developers like PerBlue (Parallel Kingdoms) and games for learning shops like Filament Games (iCivics) and Games Learning Society (GLS) — also one of the world’s oldest games-for-learning research programs, housed in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery — seemed poised to take the city to another level. But while each of those players remains a successful and vibrant part of the current local landscape, there’s still something missing. To put it bluntly, Madison still lacks a defined game “scene.”

The catalyst to finally create one could be coming next week, when a significant and sizable part of Madison’s gaming community — potentially more than 25 companies, large and small — comes together with GLS and reps from groups like the national Entertainment Software Association (the gaming industry’s Washington, D.C., lobbying arm) and Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) at a meetup that’s been staged to take advantage of this year’s Forward Festival, Madison’s annual tech and entrepreneurship conference (See story, page 9) .

“We want to get everyone in a room to talk about everything that’s here — what are the market opportunities?” says Michael Gay, MadREP’s senior vice president of economic development. “What we’re trying to do is build this cluster. It doesn’t exist — it hasn’t existed.”

The model Gay would like to see Madison’s gaming sector adopt is the same one deployed by Milwaukee’s Water Council, a hugely successful partnership between that city’s business and higher education constituencies that now includes more than 150 water technology companies and has raised the national profile of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

What he’s talking about is making Madison a center of gaming excellence.

“We have very big national players here,” says Gay. “This is a very intriguing time to have this discussion.”

Around the same time Gay was discovering, through a MadREP-backed sector analysis of information technology, that Madison was rife with gaming companies that touched everything from cybersecurity to digital health care, Constance Steinkuehler, GLS co-director and Squire’s spouse, was having a different sort of personal epiphany.