When Joel McDonald’s Prune was named Apple Inc.’s 2015 Game of the Year for the iPad and Time magazine’s Best Video Game of 2015, it spotlighted the growth of the independent game development community in Madison, which emerged around anchor companies like Raven Software, Filament Games and Human Head Studios. It should be no surprise that independent studios—like Flippfly, co-founded by Aaron and Forest San Filippo and best-known for a flying game called Race the Sun—have emerged in Madison.
The region has long been known for its tech-and innovation-oriented businesses (nearly one in four jobs in the region are STEM related), as well as the cutting-edge programs offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other local higher education institutions. Building on those strengths, the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) brought together stakeholders in the local game development community two years ago to launch the Madison Games Alliance (MGA), which aims to further grow the industry and raise its profile, both nationally and internationally.
“Games development is a substantial part of the Information Communications Technology industry in the Madison Region,” said Paul Jadin, president of MadREP. “We developed the Madison Games Alliance because we feel it is important for the industry leaders to collaborate in order to continue thriving in our Region.”
According to Jennifer Javornik, vice president of sales for Filament Games, a design and development shop that focuses exclusively on learning games, an “immediate win” for the MGA was simply getting to know each other as studios.
“Now that we are all communicating to each other there have already been several examples where we have loaned people to other studios and have had people loaned to us to fill short production gaps in each of our schedules,” Javornik says. “Employees now feel a greater sense of security that if there is a gap in one studio we are working together to fill a peak in another studio.”
More importantly, though, one of the main goals of the MGA initiative is to “put ourselves on the map as a premier hub for game development,”Javornik says, and attract investment for game development.
“To create and grow a game development industry, an area needs the right blend of technical and creative talents and access to capital. Not a lot of places have that specific mix,” says Tim Gerritsen, business development director at Human Head Studios, noting that Madison has an abundance of both technical and creative talent. “In the coming years, [MGA] hopes to bring more attention to the games industry in Madison, and improve our prospects for attracting more investment.”
Code for Success
As part of that effort, MGA will launch a Madison game developer conference in 2017, bringing best-in-class speakers and session leaders to town “so they can be exposed to some of the best talent in the world here in Madison,” Javornik says. MGA also wants to help attract and build the talent base so local companies will have the pipeline of talent they need to continue to grow. As part of that, MGA has begun working closely with both K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning.
“The goal is to make sure that those organizations are training their students appropriately for the games industry,” says Dan Norton, Filament’s chief creative officer. “Obviously the schools are very interested in making sure that their students are finding placement in game industry jobs.”
Aaron San Filippo of Flippfly notes the region has quite a bit of development talent, but he sees in the coming years more artists and designers coming out of local schools. San Filippo notes that he is a graduate of the “fantastic” computer science program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“From a game development perspective, the studios here offer a different culture than our coastal counterparts,” Javornik says. “Midwestern values play very nicely in the local game industry.”
“It’s not just that Madison is a cool place,” offers Norton. “Our opinions about making Filament a sustainable place to work probably hold true at the other Madison companies. We are part of a thread of making work a part of your life, not your entire life.”