The video game industry generates more than $5 billion in annual revenue and has grown at a clip of 10 percent or better in the past few years. Local officials want to find a way to bring it to Rochester.
The region is home to a nationally renowned school of video game design at Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the foremost centers for electronic game study, the Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games. Local government officials and industry leaders are looking at how to lean on those resources to grow the industry within Rochester.
Some officials see RIT and the Strong center as keys to creating a game development hub here.
This week Rochester played host to a conference of state officials and local industry leaders to discuss how the video game design and development industry could become an economic engine for New York.
Andrew Phelps, director of RIT's new multidisciplinary Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity, said many graduates from the university's School of Interactive Games and Media end up moving to the West Coast for work. RIT plans to do more to keep them here, to start and develop their own businesses, he said.
"The program that I founded in the Golisano College of Computing is producing talent that is driving the industry worldwide," Phelps said. "We send students everywhere in the world, and if I'm having a bad day, I can go to Best Buy and flip over a game and read the names of RIT graduates.
"But they're not here, and part of that is on us. That's why we created the MAGIC center and the Venture Creations Incubator."
Part of the approach will be getting students off campus more, Phelps said.
"It's too easy for a student to come to RIT and not get off campus much and not understand that this is a place where they and their friends can start a business," he said. "We've got a great, vibrant arts community, and it's great for them to see that."
Others see plenty of room for the video game industry to grow in Rochester.
Jon-Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, noted that the video game industry has been growing exponentially in recent years. He pointed to the latest installment of the "Grand Theft Auto" video game, which has surpassed $1 billion in sales in just a few weeks.
As the industry grows, the demographics of gamers have been shifting. The typical video game player once was 26 years old but today is 35.
"We're moving to a point where everyone will be a gamer of some kind," Dyson said. "Not everyone will be playing 'Grand Theft Auto' or 'Call of Duty,' but they might play a game on their phone like 'Angry Birds' or 'Candy Crush.' What you have is continued growth in the gaming industry but with that growth a change in nature."
This change in nature means that instead of being dominated by a few big-name video game developers and games, the industry is filled with countless games coming from a variety of different places.
Instead of the traditional video game hubs such as Silicon Valley and Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan, development is occurring across the country and around the world, Dyson said.
"Once upon a time, the video game industry was concentrated in just a few places, but now with the Internet and the way games are developed, you can do it anywhere," he said. "We have this change and growth in technology that has allowed people to develop games from anywhere, and to borrow a phrase from Thomas Friedman, the world is now flat."
But video game development still tends to be concentrated in places with a few key characteristics, Dyson said. They generally have a highly educated workforce and connection to high-tech industries, often with tax incentives for growth.
These conditions have been met in places such as Toronto, Montreal and New York City, and Dyson sees potential in Rochester as well.
"If you look at these factors, there's no reason why Rochester couldn't be a game development center," he said. "We have a highly educated workforce, and the RIT game development program is one of the top in the industry. Rochester also has a relatively inexpensive cost of living."
Dyson said the connection to ICHEG and the research it churns out on electronic games could help a hub develop in Rochester.
"There is a lot of synergy between what we're doing and RIT," he said. "When I talk with people in the industry, we mention RIT, and a lot of the people they draw in will come to the museum, as we now have the largest public collection of video games in the world."
Ultimately, the video game industry could grow in the same way medical and high-tech companies have been spawned by research at the University of Rochester and RIT, Dyson said. If government funding and incentives were added to the mix, it could put Rochester over the top, he said.
Already a handful of game development companies are blossoming in Rochester, including Darkwind Media Ltd., a game development studio and consulting agency that has an array of clients and has developed several games, and Second Avenue Learning, which focuses on educational games.
"I think it's very possible that Rochester could become a real center for game design and drive job creation," Dyson said.
State Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, brought the state Senate Select Committee on Science, Technology, Incubation and Entrepreneurship to RIT on Tuesday, with about two dozen participants discussing ways to develop the industry.
Golden noted that of roughly 100 students graduating from RIT's game design and development programs each year, most have to leave the area to find jobs.
The local game development companies will be pivotal in growing the industry, said Colin Doody, president and creative director of Darkwind Media. These companies can work together to foster an environment for growth, he said.
The conference already has invigorated local game development companies, Doody said.
"A lot of times at events like this people get really excited and then the next day just go back to work," he said. "But I've already been on the phone with some of the other companies, and I'm impressed by everyone's enthusiasm."
Phelps noted that much of the discussion at Tuesday's conference centered on how state legislation or incentives can promote the video game industry. It may take something like the incentives given to filmmakers to shoot in the state, which acknowledge the unique nature of that industry and cater to it.
"They realized they were losing a lot of film business to Canada and really went to the mat for that," Phelps said. "It was brought up over and over again that the video game industry is a bit different than other industries, and just having a generalized business plan is not necessarily going to be the right thing to make it grow."
Phelps said he was pleased to see willingness on the state's part to investigate the industry, and he praised Golden for his understanding of the video game industry. Phelps said he left the conference optimistic that the state will do what it takes to grow the industry in the coming years.
It will not be a quick process, he said, but he can see great potential for the video game industry locally.
"It's not going to be overnight, not like we're going to see all this crazy growth by this time next year," he said. "But if we are aggressive and the resources are there and we have the right plans and the right people, in five years you could really see something coming together."
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