Not all fun and (video) games

Md. developers see opportunities, disruption as mobile broadens player base

March 31, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Big Huge Games in Timonium closed last May, taking nearly 100 jobs with it. Nine months later, a local studio that was launched from the ashes of the video game-maker shut down, too. And Zynga, which created FarmVille and Words with Friends, closed its Baltimore County office several weeks ago.

So why aren't local game developers freaking out?

They're used to volatility — not this much, but quite a bit. And even with big game-makers facing tough competition and multimillion-dollar costs, tiny independent studios are popping up locally to take advantage of new opportunities in mobile and online gaming — and new ways of raising money to get games made.

"The industry moves really quickly," said Brian Reynolds, who co-founded three studios in Baltimore County and is working on funding to launch a fourth. "Things come and go. ... The technology's evolving, the platform is evolving and the market is changing for what kinds of games you do. Fortunately, it's broadening — you can make games for more and more people. But it's a turbulent industry."

Todd Marks thinks it's being turned upside down — here and elsewhere. He's got a newcomer's perspective: His mobile app and Web development company, Catonsville-based Mindgrub, launched a games division a year and a half ago to exploit the rise in mobile gaming.

Demand is growing, he said, and Mindgrub Games now has more than a dozen employees. He predicts market shifts will not be kind to the more traditional studios making big-budget "AAA games" for consoles and computers.

"That market got so terribly disrupted with mobile that they're on their way out," said Marks, Mindgrub's CEO. "It's now an indie market. ... But give it a couple years — when that market matures, companies like Mindgrub Games will be the next AAA studio."

It's not an easy market to forecast, given the speed of technological changes. Even measuring its current size is tricky.

Market-research firm NPD Group estimates U.S. consumers spent $14.8 billion last year on video games, including smartphone games, and says that represents a 9 percent drop from the year before.

But game developers insist the count fails to capture all spending because new growth areas, including mobile games and online game downloads, are so hard to track. A separate report from the consulting firm PwC suggests that global sales of console and PC games have fallen in recent years but growth in online and wireless game sales is more than compensating.

PwC predicts that console-game sales will partially rebound when the next generation of consoles comes out. (NPD says gamers might have "a case of 'console fatigue.' ") The PlayStation 4 is due for release before the end of the year.

As squishy as the sales numbers might be, the local economic impact of the industry is even murkier. Though Baltimore leaders believe the region has the largest game-development cluster on the East Coast, no one can say with certainty how many people work in it — let alone how that compares with the past.

The most recent attempt to measure the industry was three years ago. A report for the state Department of Business and Economic Development said digital media, including but not limited to games, employed about 32,000 people in Maryland.

Plenty has changed since then.

Big Huge Games closed in May, a victim of the implosion of parent company 38 Studios. The Rhode Island firm, started by former major league pitcher Curt Schilling, went belly up after reportedly running out of money — despite a $75 million economic-development loan guarantee from that state.

North Carolina-based Epic Games quickly launched Impossible Studios in Hunt Valley to take advantage of the suddenly out-of-work talent, assigning a team of 40 to work on an iPad game. But that arrangement proved short-lived.

"It was a bold initiative and the Impossible folks made a gallant effort, but ultimately it wasn't working out for Epic," company founder Tim Sweeney said in a blog post in February, announcing the closure.

Later that month, social-game firm Zynga — which has struggled with concerns about its revenue model — said it shut down its Timonium studio as part of a broader consolidation. Zynga's stock price closed at $3.36 a share Friday, well off its peak near $15 a share about a year ago.

Whether market disruption played a key role in the closures is unclear. Some local leaders don't see it that way.

"It's not a sign of a great sea change," said Matt Firor, president of ZeniMax Online, which opened in 2008 as the multiplayer online game arm of Rockville parent ZeniMax Media. "It's just that things happen in this industry."

But the shakeout reduced Baltimore County's sizable studios to three, all in or near Hunt Valley:

•ZeniMax Online, which is several years into a project based on the popular Elder Scrolls universe and employs hundreds — the company won't give an exact number.

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