POSTED ON APRIL 17, 2013:
Not a Token Industry
Local video game developers dream big
The next few months will be crucial for Bonozo, the Tulsa video game company founded by Matt Harmon.
"We're finally going public with our stuff after a year-and- a-half," said Harmon. At 32, he's an industry veteran, having worked at well-known gaming companies like Activision and THQ.
He doesn't lack self-confidence, but he can't predict the future of his fledgling company: "This is like a big moment. I don't know exactly where it goes."
The same might be said of the entire industry. Headlines trumpet layoffs at game studios in larger cities, and console wars have become a distant memory. Apps for smartphones and tablets at once opened up gaming to a new audience while the hard-core gamer market seems to be straining under the weight of big-budget sales expectations.
It's a shift that Harmon said he welcomes.
"This is actually a really awesome time in gaming, if you know what you're doing. There's a whole leveling of the playing field." Harmon said.
Now, with low cost a key to game development, a place like Tulsa can become a hub for game makers, said Roger Mailler, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Tulsa.
"I do think there's opportunities, but there's risk, too," Mailler said.
Mailler's pushing forward with the first ever Heartland Gaming Expo to be held April 27-28 at TU, with college students from around the state showing off games of their own design.
In Tulsa, "I think there could be a viable industry, but I think it takes some level of commitment by the university and by the city to create that," Mailler said.
Tom Kudirka, 50, shows the video to practically everyone.
"Hello, Tulsa," says the bearded man, his face recognizable to any movie fan of the last 30 years or so. It's Steven Spielberg, offering a message of encouragement to Kudirka's team of video game developers in the early 2000s.
Kudirka beams when describing the moment -- an era, really. An entrepreneur who viewed video games as entertainment, he got into the industry in his 30s, starting a company called 2015 after earlier developing speech recognition technology and becoming friends with a talented group of game designers at Id Software in Dallas.
That group developed Doom, considered a video game classic, and helped Kudirka land his first big break in the industry when the studio referred Spielberg's representatives to Kudirka.
Men of Valor
PHOTO COURTESY OF 2015.COM
The connection led to Kudirka and his team working on Medal of Honor, a game based on the Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan.
Kudirka's team developed a version for the PC (personal computer, as opposed to console). It was a hit, winning awards. But success led a big segment of the team of 25 or so workers to be lured to Los Angeles, working for a studio known as Infinity Ward, which developed the enormously popular Call of Duty game franchise.
"What's unknown to a lot of people is that Tulsa has been instrumental, enormously instrumental of the first person shooter cinematic video game," Kudirka said.
He went on to assemble another team and produce Men of Valor, a Vietnam-era wartime game.
For both projects, Kudirka said he flew in many talented game developers into Tulsa from larger cities like Los Angeles and even around the world. Kudirka said the low-cost of living and lack of traffic could be enough of a lure, along with the excitement of the specific projects.
"We really, really were successful because of Tulsa," Kudirka said. "We were high-tech, bringing in the most high-tech video game developers in the world, at the time, because we were Tulsa. Because we were able to provide a way of life."
Men of Valor was developed for the PC and also for Xbox.
"It was a good game. I think it could have been better, and it sold very well but it was not Spielberg's Medal of Honor," Kudirka said.
Burned out, Kudirka decided to retire from the gaming world in 2005 -- only to again get the itch three years later, forming a new company called Tornado Studios focused on more family-friendly titles, including a fashion game for Nintendo Wii based on the TV series Project Runway.
Though it certainly hasn't always been the case, now women play more games than men, Kudirka said.
His next project was a mobile game titled Fun with Death. Kudirka enthusiastically described how the game involved controlling a Grim Reaper character to manipulate levels similar to the classic board game Mousetrap.
The fun came with eliminating the right people -- mafia members, lawyers and other bad guys -- while saving the virtuous, including nuns, for example.
"It sold pretty good, but it just never caught on. And that's what's just so difficult about mobile games, is you can have a fantastic game, but if the world doesn't know about it, it just disappears," Kudirka said.Garage games
Kudirka hired Harmon in 2009, bringing him to Tulsa from California to work at Tornado Studios.
Harmon said the industry had already begun to shrink -- and he was prepared for the worst.
"I started to experience that firsthand, from, I want to say 2007, maybe a little earlier, you started to see studios being closed more. By the time of Tornado, I'm already thinking, this studio is probably going to close," Harmon said.
Did it have to be this way?
Harmon said the mentality of gamers has contributed to industry instability.
"The customer, the hard core gamers, I believe the demands that they wanted is actually what started the process. They wanted bigger, badder, better." Harmon said, describing how the ballooning budgets led to a focus on the bottom line and the corporatization of the industry.
In 2011, Tornado Studios was effectively put "on the backburner," to use Kudirka's term.
Kudirka said he's now putting together an effort to take his Men of Valor work and translate it into a mobile game.
Harmon serves as the visionary for Bonozo, which has the tagline "Fun with Apps."
"Anyone that didn't jump on the phone, I think made an error. And now, really, everyone is jumping on the phone and the tablets," Harmon said.
The company has released an app, Zombie Blaster!, available in the iTunes store, at the Google Play app store and also the Amazon app store. If has revived death, and other apps will be released soon, Harmon said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BONOZO.COM
"I'm shipping like five apps over the summer," he said.
He credits his lengthy history in the industry with helping him crank up Bonozo, but he also described the sacrifice it took in starting as he tried to take on projects for others.
"I charge really dirt cheap; it's embarrassing to mention the number to get it going," Harmon said.
In Claremore, Scott Youtsey works as a freelance illustrator, often working with advertising clients. But his background includes work as a video game art director for a Dallas studio, he said.
"I'm a freelancer. I do a little bit of everything," Youtsey said.
He and a business partner last year picked up a job from medical device company Medtronic.
The company wanted advertising materials including an app game to impress upon doctors the value of a new product.
Youtsey's background in video games doesn't mean he actually programs the games, so he needed someone to take his designs and create the computer interface.
"I've been around enough of these guys, I knew he was pretty talented," Youtsey said, describing how he's had mixed results with other projects when seeking local talent to program a game.
The partnership has since flourished. As Harmon and Bonozo have turned to entertainment, it's Youtsey who developed the detailed artwork for Zombie Blaster!
Such collaborations are commonplace, and Mailler at TU said the university's art and even English departments have developed video game courses since 2009.
"The School of Music actually has a course now in video game scoring, sound effects and scoring. So we're moving more and more towards developing sets of courses for students to take to train them to work in various aspects of the gaming industry," Mailler said.
Youtsey said video games often originate with a basic concept. Artists like him then step up to play a crucial role to "define it in a graphical manner."
"I'll do like screenshots, what the game should look like, developing characters," Youtsey said.
The benefits of Tulsa
Asked about the number of Bonozo employees, Harmon said the company has "from two to six at any time."
Harmon said he could have returned to Los Angeles, but he's come to enjoy living in Tulsa.
It also makes sense from a business perspective, he said, with lower overhead costs and a lower cost of living.
"Basing here in Tulsa is without a doubt one of the most important factors in why I'm succeeding right now," Harmon said.
Mailler also cited the area's low-cost advantages. Through TUs efforts and those of other schools -- Rogers State University in Claremore offers a degree in video game development -- Mailler said there's also enough talent to supply a growing industry.
"We would like to see students have jobs here and stay here," Mailler said.
Youtsey sometimes will travel to Bonozo's office downtown. However, online connectivity means companies can easily be far-flung enterprises -- something Tulsa's local video game developers also embrace.
"I'm hiring a lot of people for remote development. I contract a lot out to avoid a lot of headaches," Harmon said.
It's the model Kudirka used about 15 years ago to get his company started -- and what he's doing now to develop a mobile version of his Men of Valor game.
"It is extraordinarily cost-effective," Kudirka said, describing how he can utilize talent based in Europe or anywhere around the globe.
Such a culture would seem to cut against the idea of Tulsa as a gaming hub.
Harmon said he still thinks industry growth can take place in Tulsa, however. "Infrastructure will matter, colleges will matter," Harmon said.
Kudirka talked about how companies can grow out of other companies, describing how Austin started with having just a couple of studios before the industry took off in that city.
"It is entirely possible for a city like Tulsa to have video game companies here," Kudirka said.
Mailler noted that another video game company, BitForge Studios, opened in Tulsa late last year. Mailler's efforts at TU were praised by Kudirka. "That's exactly what's needed."
Mailler said he expects about 100 college students to attend the expo, and he already has plans for an even bigger event next year.
For game development to bloom in Tulsa, Mailler said he'd like to see more efforts "where there's low-cost offices available with high-speed internet and tax incentives to help companies start up." His long-term goal at TU is for the university to offer a major in video game development.
It may sound like a narrow focus, but the field also can be thought of more broadly than titles like Zombie Blaster!. Harmon said he's also working on technology designed to give sporting event spectators more information as they watch the game. Mailler cited the simulation industry, describing military and health care applications that need the skills of video game developers. "We humans are such visual creatures, in general. Almost all of these simulations have some type of visual representation of what's going on ... This is exactly like a game," Mailler said.
Pursuing a career focused on video games may not offer the job stability of other tech jobs, but "you can get into these niche markets and produce apps and make reasonably good money on it with a small investment," Mailler said.
He added: "It's risky but it's doable, and it's doable here."
The Heartland Gaming Expo will be held from 12-5pm, April 27, and from 9-noon Sunday, April 28 at the Allen Chapman Activities Center at the University of Tulsa. To register as a developer, visit heartlandgamingexpo.com. The public is welcome to attend the event.
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