Seattle Is The Wild West Of Game Design

Sep 20, 2013

One reason the Puget Sound region stayed stronger than some surrounding areas during the economic downturn is because of its tech industry. A particular bright spot is the computer gaming and interactive media industry.

While this industry added only about 1,500 jobs between 2006 and 2011, the total number of companies in Washington state doubled, making computer gaming and interactive media a kind of entrepreneurial powerhouse with lots of potential for new jobs.

Today there are around 300 of these gaming and interactive media companies, with the bulk of them concentrated in Seattle and on the Eastside.

The Puget Sound region is home to some of the biggest company names in the computer game industry: Nintendo, Real Networks, Valve, Microsoft — companies that produce big name games that sell big numbers. Like a Hollywood-style blockbuster movie, it takes big money, big teams and big marketing to create and distribute big core games.

A sample of local gaming companies shows that Seattle is host to an industry that is in a state of expansion.
A sample of local gaming companies shows that Seattle is host to an industry that is in a state of expansion.
Credit KUOW/Kara McDermott

But the gaming industry started to evolve away from the core game experience. Game content and people playing games increased. Even during the recession, some people who used to work for the tech giants started their own companies, and they created a whole new market for computer games.

Scott Dodson is a marketing expert and he has taught game design at DigiPen Institute of Technology. He said that Seattle was one of the first places to expand the market.

“Companies like Real Networks, and then on their heels companies like Big Fish and Pop Cap — said games are not just for 18-year-old males, and they built a tremendous market with a tremendous amount of growth in casual games business," said Dodson.

By casual games he means computer games aimed at a more general audience. One demographic that’s really embraced those games are women over 40. You name it, they’re playing it. From classic games like solitaire and mahjong, to newer games like Bejeweled and Big Fish Casino.

And they’re not just playing on their computers. Today, smartphones and tablets are changing the industry even more. More people than ever have mobile devices, and they’re using them to engage with all kinds of interactive media; not just games, but apps, music, movies and TV. The interactive media industry in our area responded to the demand.

Dodson said a bunch of smaller companies have had some great success in the Seattle area. Companies like Z2Live, Zipline Games and Freakin’ Genius have made their mark.

Kyle Kesterson is the CEO, or “Chief Freak,” of Freakin’ Genius, a company that designs mobile apps that help users make their own content, putting creativity in the hands of the consumer. Their YAKiT app lets a user snap a picture, then animate it to create a short and funny clip to send to others.

"Somebody can build a relationship with their device, based on the content that’s in the device," said Kesterson. "And for me as a creative person it’s still the Wild West; you can still do anything."

For me as a creative person, it's still the Wild West. You can still do anything.

Kristina Hudson is the executive director of a nonprofit called the Washington Interactive Network (WIN). She’s been watching that wild west of gaming and interactive media take shape for over a decade. Her organization is on a mission to make sure the rest of the country recognizes Seattle as the major center of computer gaming and interactive media.

According to the numbers that her organization has compiled, in 2011 the industry generated $9.7 billion in revenue — triple what it was in 2006. Hudson said jobs in this industry skew towards skilled high-wage jobs that not only produce high revenue for communities, but a lot of sales tax revenue for the state of Washington.

Until now, WIN has quietly been working on strategies to help educate the public about the industry in hopes of creating more jobs. One of the local gaming entrepreneurs who’s helping WIN do that is Matt Wilson. He helps mentor new game companies through a program called Reactor, an incubator for new startups powered by WIN.

Wilson got hooked on playing computer games when he was 12 with a text-based game called Lemonade Stand. After playing it over and over, he decided he really wanted a job making video games. Wilson came to live in the Puget Sound region when he got a job at Microsoft back in the 1980s.

He combined his love of playing video games and computer programming into a career that’s led him through a labyrinth of the local industry. He ended up leaving Microsoft twice: once to join a startup that died, the second time to start his own company called Fire Ant Games, which got snatched up by Sony.

Today, he runs a small 14-person company called Detonator Games. Wilson said mentoring new companies through the Reactor program helps unsuspecting new entrepreneurs avoid some of the pitfalls he’s seen happen to others in the industry.

When you start up your own company, especially in the gaming space, you’re starting it up with other people passionate about games. You’re typically not starting it up with business people, financial people, marketing people, that kind of thing. So I think the biggest challenge for game companies is that they don’t have the expertise to run a company.

Wilson believes his own game business venture was successful because an industry colleague mentored him through the process. He said that hosting startups through Reactor helps him pay that forward.

In the meantime, while some interactive media and gaming ventures are just getting started, other companies in the industry are maturing and dealing with growing pains. Casual game companies Pop Cap and Big Fish were once small local startups, but they now employ over 500 workers each in the Seattle area. Recently both companies had to cut some local and overseas workers to compete in a market that’s flooded with all kinds of digital entertainment.

Despite that, some analysts say there still isn’t enough workforce to fill vacant engineering and data analysis jobs in the interactive game space, a local industry that Hudson believes is fueled by entrepreneurial spirit, passion and enthusiasm.

This story is part of The Big Reset, KUOW’s series that explores how the Puget Sound Region has emerged from the Great Recession.