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Video Game Industry Booming In Northeast

By Ron Davis (God of Thunder (videogame) by Adept software, 1993) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

  I don’t know much about video games. I’m not much for playing them. But I nodded my head as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute sophomore Jon Ota described to me the video game he and his fellow classmates created.

I’m seriously impressed by Ota’s game, called Hangeki. It was designed and developed from scratch as part of his studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences program, and Ota’s team was showing it off to me before RPI’s annual Entrepreneur of the Year awards ceremony.

"It's rabbit-fast-paced action to get through the level as quickly as possible," Ota said.

According to the latest data from the Entertainment Software Association, 58 percent of Americans play video games, more than half of American households have at least one game console—be it XBOX, Playstation, PC or smartphone—and last year, the video game industry worldwide raked in a whopping $20.8 billion.

Industry estimates forecast exponential increases in revenue over the coming years. So the demand for games makes developing them a lucrative career choice. Many students who have graduated from RPI’s gaming program have gone on to careers designing and developing video games.

"It’s something I’m definitely interested in going into," says RPI senior Ian Kettlewell.

Kettlewell's game, “Heist,” won an award for excellence in 2D gameplay at RPI’s gamefest last year. He and his classmates are so dedicated to the craft that it’s almost convincing me that I want go into game development. Kettlewell’s teammate, fellow senior Ethan Richards, says if you want to get a job in the industry, the Northeast — not Silicon Valley — is where it’s at.

"There are a lot of resources here," Richards says. "The Northeast is definitely a hot place for game development, and definitely Troy specifically with vicinity to Vicarious Visions."

Vicarious Visions is a video game developer in the suburbs of Albany. And it’s huge. A billion dollar company that produces some of the hottest games on the market: Guitar Hero. Transformers Cybertron. Marvel Ultimate Alliance. One of its games, Skylanders: Giants, was one of the top-selling games worldwide in 2012. Through a unique technology, the Skylanders series of games combine on-screen gameplay with collectible toy action figures. (A new game, Skylanders Swap Force, is debuting this weekend.)

"In the game, toys come to life," says Vicarious Visions co-founder Karthik Bala. "It’s a game that’s launching on all the major game platforms and we’re really excited about it. There are a lot of kids who are clamoring for it."

Karthik is one of two brothers who cofounded Vicarious Visions, and an RPI alum. I caught up with the brothers at RPI as they received the school’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award. He and his brother Guha started out making games in their basement when they were teenagers. Just about two decades later, they’re going gangbusters. I wanted to know their secret. How do they come up with the ideas for these great games?

"You know a lot of times the ideas that we have for new types of games came from fantasies we had as kids," Guha says. "Karthik and I used to build our own toys when we were kids and so the notion of being able to mix and match and build your own and bring that toy that character to life, it seemed like the prime opportunity to do that."

Elsewhere in the region, digital game production in Massachusetts employs more than 2,000 people, who make an estimated $240 million. Governor Deval Patrick was in Montreal in October to meet with Canadian game developers to bring even more of the industry home.

But if you ask any of the students I talked to, it’s not about the money. It’s the love of gaming. And students like Jon Ota are about to level up.

"There’s ten levels," Ota said of his game. "We’re working on an eleventh secret level right now."

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