DePaul powers up Chicago’s resurgent video game industry
April 23, 2013
By JoAnna Hernandez and Ryan Johnson
Big changes in the video gaming landscape have given Chicago a new foothold in the industry.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Chicago was a major player in game development. The city was flush with talent, and major studios like Electronic Arts Chicago (“Madden NFL,” “The Sims”) and Midway Games (“Mortal Kombat”) were churning out content for the then-new Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. However, the recession late in the decade saw the end of many local companies as major studios clustered in California, home to 42 percent of video game industry employees.
Now, as players’ tastes migrate from big console games to smaller mobile titles, a host of independent, upstart studios have surfaced in the Windy City, staffed by a mix of newcomers and industry vets from the old studios.
“Chicago’s video game history goes way back to the early days of the gaming industry,” says Jose Zagal, assistant professor of game development and interactive media at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media. “Pinball is an important part of the history of Chicago, and a lot of the early pinball companies moved into video games, Midway being the most famous. So there is a tradition that has been in this town for a long time now.”
Nick Guida, game developer at Chicago-based Phosphor Games, adds, “If you go all the way back to Midway Games and all the great gaming history that Chicago has, that’s really never gone away. Even though Midway has exploded and been reincarnated as several dozen different studios, the same talent pool exists here in Chicago, and it’s only growing – especially because schools like DePaul are rooted in Chicago and bring in new talent every day.”
Indie studio explosion
“The greater diversity in games and the platforms on which they are available have allowed new companies to set up shop in new spaces,” Zagal notes. “The way that the industry is structured is also changing and opening up in many ways.”
Now that game distribution can be done digitally, many new avenues have opened for indie studios to get their foot in the door by marketing products directly to consumers.
“The industry is in an interesting place right now,” says Travis Hernandez, game designer at Phosphor, which develops games for cutting-edge platforms like the Xbox Kinect and the new WiiU, as well as the recently released mobile adventure “Horn.” “Studios that don’t have a huge financial backing or a lot of name recognition can put out games that they think are interesting, and the world at large can decide what the next big trend will be.”
Chicago’s role in new industry
“We find 95 percent of our staff from within or around the Chicagoland area,” says Phosphor Games Chief Executive Justin Corcoran. “With two ‘Game of the Year’ nominations under our belt, I feel that we are proof that world-class gaming takes place in Chicago.”
Another successful Chicago-based studio, Barbaroga, has produced award-winning games including “Spore Origins” and “Muppets Dance Party.” Despite the huge shift toward mobile games, Nick Baker, a quality assurance tester at Barbaroga and a DePaul alumnus, sees them existing alongside traditional console games and creating more opportunities for the entire industry.
“With the mobile platform expanding, there are many new studios that are forming, but the console market is still very strong,” Baker says. “Many people predict that the console market will eventually fade out, but I think consoles are going to stay the same, and the mobile market will expand. Mobile games really appeal to those who didn’t normally play games and are now being included.”
Adds Hernandez: “We’re seeing a lot of stuff on the mobile market, with free games coming into their own and sort of dominating the marketplace. It’s really changing the structure of how you make games and what it means to be a studio. We’re in a state of flux right now as an industry, and you can make and release quality games much more cheaply than you could before. It’s a different way to invest your money, and it makes it really cool to be a developer right now.”
DePaul’s contributions to Chicago’s success
Much of the talent powering Chicago’s gaming scene comes from DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. Since 2004, the school’s game development program has been teaching students how to succeed in the industry, and many of them have found homes in up-and-coming game design companies.
Corcoran has hired several Phosphor Games staff members from DePaul. “It’s very important to find a school like DePaul that has very current tools and teachers who know the industry,” he says.
“To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t gone to DePaul,” Hernandez says. “It sure helped that I played video games since I was a kid. But on top of that, DePaul showed me what programs that I would be using, how to program and how to do the little things that I need to prototype or build games on a day-to-day basis, not to mention that the job that I got here was because of the professors that I knew at DePaul. It was great that we could work with people who were in the industry and tie our education to the careers we wanted to be getting into.”
“DePaul has lots of people who have worked in the industry,” adds Joey Manso, software engineer at Phosphor. “You get the technical skills, but you can learn those at a lot of different places. The difference at DePaul is having those people who have worked at Midway or worked at EA, and you can ask them specific questions, because any work environment is different than school environments.”