Region Specific: Frontier Spirit

Region Specific: Frontier Spirit

Region Specific: Frontier Spirit

Last July, Texas governor Rick Perry stood behind a podium at EA BioWare’s North Austin offices – flanked by two chuffed EA executives – and announced that the publisher would be expanding its operations in Texas. The plan is expected to create 300 new jobs in the city, spanning across programming, art, and customer support. EA Sports will also be setting up a new branch to complement its teams in Orlando and Burnaby. And with at least 167 game development outfits already in the state, employing nearly 5,000 people, Texas is currently surpassed only by California in terms of industry presence.

Even that seat of influence is shifting in Texas’s favour, as evidenced by EA’s efforts in recent years to reduce staff levels in its California headquarters and focus growth on places such as the Lone Star State, where the cost of doing business is far lower. In 2007, the company employed about 2,800 people in California, according to EA president Frank Gibeau, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 1,700 at present.

“Low-cost development is certainly an issue,” says EA Sports COO Daryl Holt. “We look for ways to supplement our high-cost locations for things that make sense in terms of where we find talent. Austin has that ready-made gaming talent.”

The incentives don’t hurt either. Back in 2007, Texas was one of the first states in the US to roll out a videogame incentive, recognising the quality of the jobs – technical and well-salaried – that fuel game development. The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, operated by the Texas Film Commission, became an even more attractive prospect for developers last August, when the incentive cap for videogames was raised from five per cent to 17.5 per cent – now on a par with the cap enjoyed by the film and television industry.

The Texas State Capitol building is located in Austin, Texas. 

Other states in the US have rushed out similar incentive programmes, but Texas maintains a key advantage. “[With] the states that try to dive in, the money’s going to be attractive,” says Evan Fitzmaurice, director of the Texas Film Commission. “But videogame companies and publishers that are thinking about setting up brick-and-mortar operations that have longer lives [aren’t] going to respond solely to incentive dollars. They need to know that they’re moving to an area where they can hire people, because this is sophisticated work. You can relocate some people, but you can’t basically flip the switch and overnight create an industry where there’s never been a history or foundation laid.”

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Texas has had on videogames, too. Rewind to 1979 and you’ve got Richard Garriott selling his seminal Akalabeth RPG in Ziploc bags out of the computer store where he worked in Clear Lake City, like some kind of tech-narcotics dealer. He would go on to found Origin in Austin, create the Ultima series and lay the D&D-engraved cornerstones of the videogame RPG genre. In stealth action, Deus Ex would be developed down the road at Ion Storm’s Austin offices under the leadership of Warren Spector. Today Texas is the home of everything from BioWare’s MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic to indie projects such as Semi Secret’s Canabalt and Tiger Style’s iOS hit Spider: The Legend of Bryce Manor. A collective called Juegos Rancheros has even popped up to keep Austin’s indie community in closer contact.

The most commercially successful genre on ?the planet today, the FPS, has its birthplace and Mecca just 200 miles north of Austin in Dallas. Here, id Software changed the gaming world forever with Doom’s release back in 1993, and QuakeCon continues to offer the largest LAN party in North America to id-worshiping pilgrims from around the globe. Dallas’s shooter legacy carries on to this day with developers such as Gearbox continuing to fly the banner next to their elder statesmen. Demonstrating the tight-knit solidarity of the Dallas development community, Gearbox even came alongside Triptych – the remnant of the developers who worked on Duke Nukem Forever at 3D Realms – and helped ?them ship the famously beleaguered project.

A scenic view of Houston’s skyline from the riverside.

Although Houston enjoys less notoriety than Austin or Dallas, its limited AAA studio presence – Section 8 maker TimeGate Studios operates out of nearby suburb Sugar Land – is complemented by a thriving serious games scene. Petrochemical companies in the area, such as BP and Exxon, ?are exploring the use of virtual environments as collaborative tools, and Archimage has received numerous grants from the National Institutes Of Health and the Center For Disease Control And Prevention to develop games to educate youth about nutrition and disease prevention. The presence of the renowned Texas Medical Center and surrounding universities has also sparked lots of game development in the educational sector.

Texas prides itself on the quality of education being delivered to the next generation of game developers. The University Of Texas at Austin has recently added a game development specialisation to its nationally ranked computer science department. The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University developed its curriculum in 2003 hand in hand with the leading lights of the Texas game industry to create arguably the most respected graduate game development course in the nation. University of Houston has woven outstanding games coursework into its computer science degree programmes, resulting in the best record among US universities at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup. “Working with motivated students with strong computing skills has provided us with a competitive edge” says game development instructor Dr Chang Yun.

True to its enduring cowboy iconography, Texas has an aura of frontier spirit that suits the wide-open possibility space presented by game development. “When people think about Texas as a cowboy culture,” says Aaron Thibault, Gearbox’s VP of product development, “I’d say what that’s really about is that we’re not afraid to take risks and be innovative and put ourselves out there.” With such promising emerging talent, and experienced developers to nurture it to maturity, the momentum of Texas’s game industry seems about as unstoppable as a Longhorn stampede.