While Seattle has its benefits for the games industry culture — such as relative stability and plentiful job opportunities — its quirks include a surprising lack of personal connections among industry employees in the area.
Those were some of the takeaways as four veterans of the video game industry got together at the annual GamesForum conference in downtown Seattle this week to discuss the advantages and disadvantages for games development in the area.
The panel discussion, “Seattle as a Global Hub for Game Development,” featured Travis Baldree, former president of the late Runic Games (Torchlight) and current CEO of Double Damage Games (Rebel Galaxy); Brian Fleming, founder and producer at Sucker Punch (the InFamous and Sly Cooper series, and the upcoming Ghost of Tsushima); and Alison Stroll, ex-producer at 343 Industries and Microsoft. The discussion was moderated by ex-Microsoft VP Ed Fries, one of the team leaders on the original Xbox project.
The basic benefits
According to the Washington Interactive Network, the greater Seattle area is home to roughly 400 video game developers, representing around 23,000 jobs and over $28 billion in annual revenue. This causes, in Fleming’s terms, a “critical mass” of opportunities and talent; Seattle is “a place where people who want to make games are comfortable.”
Compared to other up-and-coming hotspots for games development, such as Boston, this lends Seattle a certain sense of stability. Even if an employee comes to the city and their games job doesn’t work out, there are a lot of other options in the local tech industry, not least of which are Amazon and Microsoft.
“This is part of the reason why Seattle does well with indies,” Stroll said. Bigger companies, both inside and outside of games, provide what she calls “anchor economies,” providing a lot of options in case a new employee’s games-industry job doesn’t work out. That’s an advantage that Seattle has over other big cities in the games industry, such as Boston, and which Stroll cites as a reason why Seattle “took over Austin’s spot” as the place to be for developers.
“There are a lot of game studios here,” Baldree said, “and lots of people stay around and in the system. You can catch them easily if a studio closes down. It sounds a lot like ambulance chasing, now that I say it.”
Bellevue in particular is slowly becoming a hotbed of activity for game developers, featuring companies such as Bungie, Valve, Sucker Punch, Harebrained Schemes, tinyBuild, and Niantic Labs. “Ten years ago,” Fleming said, “downtown Bellevue felt alien and unwelcoming unless you shopped at J. Crew. It’s improving. It’s not amazing, but it’s more diverse and welcoming now. Bohemian, in a good way.”
A lot of the video game industry in North America has traditionally been headquartered in California, either around Los Angeles or San Francisco. While Seattle features a lower cost of living and comparatively affordable real estate, it can still be a tough sell for prospective hires who’d otherwise be headed to somewhere in California.
This is particularly troublesome if you’re in a position like Fleming’s, competing directly with Hollywood for special-effects talent. The cold weather in Washington state can be a positive, particularly for prospective hires who are interested in winter sports, but it can be a hard sell when compared to California sunshine. “Some people want to live at Muscle Beach,” Fleming said, “and this isn’t that.”
Stroll said that Seattle has a reputation outside the state as “a place people go to run away from things.” It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of other big cities in the video game industry, which can and has caused her to get into “bidding wars” over employees.
The rising cost of living in Seattle itself is also beginning to cause problems. Fine artists in particular are being driven out of the city, with the last artist in Stroll’s acquaintance having just moved to Florida. You need places to live that are “funky and cheap” to attract the right kind of artists, Stroll said, and those have more or less vanished in Seattle.
The lack of connections, or, the ‘Seattle Freeze’
The most interesting answer of the panel came in response to a question from Fries, regarding how the local members of the game development scene meet up and get connected. “How connected are you?” Fries asked the panel. “Should we be more connected?”
“We do an absolutely terrible job of this,” Fleming said. There are any number of meetups and events, many of which are coordinated by Seattle Indies, but founders and senior employees don’t go to them. Nearly all such events are exclusively attended by new recruits, graduates, and the occasional garage developer.
“More creative industries offer ways to curate their startup culture,” Fleming said. “The goal isn’t recruitment; the goal is to create a community as connective tissue. If your game gets cancelled, then we can get 20 people who just got laid off a new job right away through the community.” He cited a regular event held by SpryFox — at which several studio heads get together for dinner on a regular basis — as an example of the sort of community-building that the local scene desperately needs.
He pointed out that particularly in Bellevue’s development scene, where local companies such as Bungie or Valve will frequently earn multiple industry awards, you would never have known about it from the way the rest of the studios in the community reacted.
“We need to have civic pride in our local development community the way that Silicon Valley is proud of itself,” Fleming said.