The Midwest isn’t known for being a major player in the entertainment industry, especially the gaming industry. When thinking about entertainment, people usually think about places like Hollywood or New York City. Some developers, however, have decided to work in areas that developers might consider remote… perhaps even desolate.
All it takes is a quick look at this map of game development companies around the world to see that the Midwest is rather, well, barren.
So why is that? According to two established game developers, it is mainly because areas such as New York and Los Angeles are known as “entertainment hubs.” Many game development studios are located on either the East or West Coast of the United States. Once people get jobs at companies in these areas they “never leave because it’s easy for them to bounce between multiple employers without uprooting their lives,” according to Ben Jones of Fugitive Games.
Jones has been working in game development for over a decade, and has worked at companies like Sony Computer Entertainment and Electronic Arts. He’s now working at his own studio and has recently released their first title, Into the Stars.
Living in Los Angeles has made life quite easy for Jones as a game developer. He’s got “a ton of resources in Los Angeles that [he] can easily tap into, whether that’s contracted services or simply networking.”
This also makes finding work easier as there’s a large number of development studios in the area. Major game industry events, like the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), take place in Los Angeles, which reduces the amount of travel for Jones to show off his products to the world. In the long run, this saves his company a lot of time and money.
Forrest Dowling is another game developer who has been working professionally in the gaming industry for around a decade. He too has started a game development studio of his own called The Molasses Flood, which is located in Boston, Massachusetts.
Much like Jones, Dowling believes that since the entertainment industry has been built around the coastal areas, people tend to gravitate there when looking for that kind of work.
“Culturally, I think that the coasts are just more exciting for a lot of folks, particularly those who make games,” Dowling said. “Also, being the only studio in an area makes recruiting very difficult. Typically game companies hire people with experience and relocate them. Games are a volatile business, and people can be reluctant to take a job in a location that would definitely require them to relocate if their studio downsized or closed.”
THE BARREN MIDWEST
Relocating is a serious matter for people when accepting a new job. Jones understands that “relocation is costly and difficult, and convincing someone to move to a location that doesn’t offer numerous opportunities is a big challenge.” The Midwest, in terms of game development studios, is one of these locations where job opportunities are few and far between.
The cost of living in the Midwest is much cheaper than on either of the coasts. In fact, a 2015 study conducted by Forbes found that eight of the 20 most affordable cities are located in the Midwest. However, Dowling doesn’t believe that cost of living is the most important factor for people. Based on where most of the jobs are located in the gaming industry, it would seem that many tend to agree with this assessment.
“I think cost of living is only one factor, but isn’t always that important, particularly for people who tend to be pretty well compensated for their work, and tend to be young,” explained Dowling. “It may be cheaper to live in Champaign, Illinois, but it’s substantially less desirable if you’re a 25 year old making $80k a year.”
Dowling also stated that, because he’s living in a large city with a lot of schools nearby, “if we [The Molasses Flood] start ramping up and expanding, there’s a large amount of local talent that we can tap, which can greatly reduce recruiting costs.”
Even developers in the Midwest tend to appreciate the novelties offered by the coasts. For some, just getting in contact with other developers can be a challenge when the nearest major city may be a couple hundred miles away. Ryan Green, a game developer who lives in Colorado, is in such a situation.
Green and his business partner own a gaming studio based out of Des Moines, Iowa, called Numinous Games. Along with other developers working remotely around the country, they have recently released their first title called That Dragon, Cancer. The game was developed by Ryan and Amy Green as a love-letter to their son, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at a very young age. Joel battled terminal cancer for four years until he passed away in early 2014.
During the development of the game, Ryan was working remotely from his home in Colorado and later continued to work on the game in San Francisco, California, while his son was undergoing treatment at a hospital there for two months. While Green didn’t spend a lot of time in San Francisco, it did give him a first-hand look at what the game development scene is like on one of the coasts.
“The brief time I spent in San Francisco, I appreciated how easy it was to connect with other developers,” explained Green. “I made a lot of friends at larger game studios that have been good connections as we move forward in the industry. In the Midwest you are less likely to meet well connected people within game development.”
This also showed Green just how much easier it is to market and obtain press for their studio’s game when you’re in a centralized area for game development and have access to conventions like E3.
“Most of the press we received from That Dragon, Cancer came from events we attended on the West Coast, then other press would follow up after reading some of the articles that came out of the larger events,” explained Green. “Most of our marketing budget for our game was spent on travel to larger conferences on the West Coast.”
Green also believes that the gaming industry will go where the talent is. Working in the Midwest requires a lot of developers to work remotely using services like Skype, Google Hangout, and Dropbox to keep in touch with one another. The team is much happier “when we can be face to face in the same room,” Green said.
A FAMILY LAND
As much as Green enjoyed being on the West Coast and having access to all the resources the entertainment industry offers there, he wouldn’t trade it for his life in Colorado.
“We have all the things you love about the outdoors, plus plenty of sunshine and clean air,” described Green. “The Midwest is a great place to raise a family, and you can make the same rates developing games here, but your cost of living is lower. I love where I live, and my family is pretty established here in Colorado, so we won’t be moving. I love that game development is something I can do wherever I live.”
Dan Rutkowski, a game developer at Sirenum Digital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, echoed many of the same sentiments Green did about the Midwest. It’s difficult to network, expensive to travel, and costs a lot more to market and promote your games, but it’s a great place to live. However, Rutkowski isn’t sure if the situation really would be that much better outside of the Midwest.
“It’s tough to say that the situation would be better on a coast, but it does feel lonely here in Milwaukee,” Rutkowski said. “It’s harder to team up with folks and, truthfully, it’s probably more difficult to network and talk to the right people when we’re as far away as we are. The West Coast has a ridiculous amount of developers between L.A., San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, and so there’s a sense of innovation out there as well. You’re surrounded by opportunities.”
Getting people to actually come out to the Midwest would be a “hard-sell,” laughed Rutkowsi. Aside from the fact that the culture is quite a bit different compared to big cities, the Midwest also deals with radical changes in weather, but that might be a good thing in Rutkowsi’s opinion.
“The cities here have a different vibe for sure,” Rutkowsi said. “People from the region are a little more robust, I think. Maybe it’s the cold winters. We’re willing to put in a lot of effort to see our visions come to life. Half the year is pretty cruddy outside, and so you have more time to devote to things like game development — makes you more focused.”
Rutkowsi and Green both agree that the Midwest is much more suitable to those looking to raise a family and sustain themselves while working in the game development scene. It’s not an idea that’s easy to sell to an industry that’s so rooted in its ways. The entertainment industry is probably always going to thrive in the entertainment hubs of the United States, but Rutkowsi hopes the Midwest will get more attention in the long-run.
“The Midwest does need a conference that Midwest developers can drive to,” said Rutkowsi. “It’s a bit ridiculous that we don’t have a PAX [Penny Arcade Expo], actually. I mean, between Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and Indianapolis, those are extremely important cities to the nation’s infrastructure. Being unable to pack everything we have up into a van, and book-it to any one of those amazing cities in an effort to showcase our work is really sad and does damage to the game development community here.”
Time will tell if the game development industry starts to spread out more across the country, but Rutkowsi wants the industry to know one thing: great ideas [can] come from anywhere; talent isn’t limited to geographic regions.