Picture yourself in the most sweltering, unwavering, suffocating heat you can imagine. The sun’s beating down mercilessly, completely unobstructed by clouds. Everything farther than an arm’s distance has melted into perpetual shimmering heat waves. You’ve stepped out into the depths of Norfair without your Varia Suit. If humans could become raisins …
Phew! Back inside the office. Man that’s a long 20 feet from the car. Hey, did someone turn the thermostat down again? It’s freezing in here.
So, what’s it like to be a game developer in America’s desert? There are plenty of perks, but one of the most commonly cited is affordability. “The main draw that pulled me out here was cost of living,” said Kyle Pulver, who co-founded the independent studio Retro Affect in Arizona back in 2009. “I mean, we started out our studio from a home office in a giant two-story house in an awesome neighborhood that we were renting for dirt cheap by most standards, and I felt like people wouldn’t even believe that we were ‘indie’ if they saw the place.”
Ddavid Koontz, developer and professor at the Art Institute of Phoenix, agrees and said, “The low cost of living and workspaces coupled with a large supply of fresh graduates from local tech schools means that a small studios can produce games very inexpensively.”
The abundance of schools offering degrees in game development is another unique resource in the Phoenix region. It’s proven immensely valuable to local companies. Jason Moore, owner and co-founder of social game developer Broken Bulb Studios, affirms this in a recent interview with Social Games Today. “We get a lot of our talent here from schools; we’ve got great contacts with the local schools,” he said. “We find awesome talent that way.”
The wealth of educated youth and inexpensive lifestyle are certainly an ideal petri dish for cultivating new studios, but there are slighter, subtler effects the area has on the mind and creative spirit. “Phoenix is still eccentric and inspiring,” Ben Ruiz said. Ruiz has been art director at Tempe-based development company Flashbang Studios since 2007. “It doesn’t have the density of a typical large city, so you still have to take a few steps in any direction to connect with other devs, but when you do, you stumble across all kinds of weird people doing cool things, which ultimately serves to keep a creative invigorated.”
I myself have lived in the Phoenix region for almost two years now and still find much of the landscape surprisingly breathtaking. There’s a liveliness in the land here, a variety of thriving plants and creatures that a non-desert dweller might not expect to see. On an off day, a hike through Arizona wilderness can be incredibly refreshing, both physically and mentally.
And many local devs agree.
“You can drive 30 minutes in any direction and be in the desert,” Ruiz said, “so you can camp and do drugs and draw pictures or just be by yourself.”
When the Phoenix branch of the IGDA started about a year ago, a curious thing happened. A community was being excavated from the sands and scorching pavement of the Phoenix streets. Developers — many for the first time — realized that there are others in the area who share that passion and have developed their own expertise. Kinships started to form.
“The best thing about Phoenix is that we already have a burgeoning community of game makers who demonstrate impressive technical chops as well as great design sense and openness,” said Ara Shirinian, senior designer at THQ Digital Studios Phoenix. “These people are in it because they genuinely love making the best games they possibly can and are continuously interested in improving the practice. You can feel it when you talk to them, and it rubs off in subtle and important ways.”
We’re lucky to hold meetings every month filled with individuals who love making games and share a strong passion for it. This may be most readily apparent at our game jams (48-hour-long game making competitions). The spirit of collaboration and creativity reaches an all-time high as jammers strive not only to do the best on their games, but to help everyone around them do the same. It’s an incredibly energizing environment.
Pulver believes the people themselves are one of the area’s greatest perks.
“The spirit of the game development community here shines as bright as the sun when it’s beating you into the ground during a blistering 120 degree fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk day in July,” he said. “Seriously, what were you doing outside anyway? You should be indoors working on games.”
Being a game developer in Phoenix has its challenges. The climate isn’t for everyone, and the number of game development companies in the area is still fairly small.
“Though Phoenix has a good number of independent developers, very few large game studios exist in the area,” Koontz said, “which makes for an incomplete ecosystem and a general drain of talent as people move elsewhere.”
Even this can be flipped on its bright side, though. Entrepreneurial ventures stand a much higher chance, the independent development community is thriving and the established game companies in the area find themselves presented with a unique situation, which some have turned advantageous.
“The great thing about being a game developer in the Phoenix area is also the challenge,” said Robert Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Broken Bulb Studios. “There really aren’t very many others here. In the gaming industry, you’re incredibly isolated here, which helps keep you innovative and creative. There’s no concern for what the developers down the street are doing because there are no developers down the street.”
Local developers see a bright future for the Phoenix area — and not just literally.
“I believe that over the next several years Phoenix will be increasingly viewed upon as a major hub of game development,” Shirinian said.
“The game dev community in Phoenix has been a constant inspiration for me,” Pulver said, “and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”