Mario and Lui-siana

Strong incentives and a creative community boost Louisiana's video game industry.
The Louisiana Technology Park opened in 2001 in Baton Rouge’s former Bon Marché Mall at 7117 Florida Blvd. The park serves as an incubator for high tech startups.

Rejoice gamers of Louisiana! Not only is playing video games an actual career option, it’s also a competitive one, thanks to the incentives and support offered to digital media companies by the state government.

The gaming industry has come a long way since arcade halls clanged with “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man.” According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), in a 2015 report entitled “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry,” 155 million Americans claim to play video games, with four out of five households containing a device used to play video games.

Until 2010, personal computers and gaming consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation were the primary delivery formats for this mode of entertainment. Today games have grown beyond the disk and the cartridge; now consumer dollars are increasingly spent on “subscriptions, digital full games, digital add-on content, mobile apps, social network gaming and other physical delivery” according to the 2015 “Essential Facts,” with physical video games accounting for only $5.3 billion of last year’s $15.4 billion sales total, computer games netting just $.17 billion, and the “other delivery formats” termed above taking home $9.9 billion.

Consider the target population of today’s entertainment software industry: far beyond the bored teenager sliding another token into the machine, the gaming population now includes every owner of the ubiquitous smartphone and increasingly popular tablet. (Throw in their tech-friendly kids, too.)

And the market has caught on quickly.
 



STATE OF PLAY

In its 2008 annual report, the ESA outlined the efforts by its government affairs program and advocacy network to promote the development and sale of video games on federal and state levels.

No such activity was documented in Louisiana, with the alphabetical list of state-level highlights sliding from Indiana (where the ESA helped in blocking a bill to regulate the sale of games with mature themes) to Massachusetts (where a bill subjecting the sale of violent video games to the broad “Harmful to Minors” law was rerouted to a study committee).

It’s a different story today.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Digital Media Act into law in July 2009, building on existing digital media incentives by offering a 25 percent refundable tax credit on qualified production expenses and a 10 percent credit on payroll for in-state labor.

Louisiana made the highlights of ESA’s 2009 annual report with news of the enacted tax incentives (along with successfully blocked legislation that would have allowed private action by consumers claiming the sale of inappropriate material to minors).

Said ESA President Michael D. Gallagher in a 2009 statement responding to the new law, “Developers and publishers live and work for years in states where games are created, providing a higher return on investment than any other form of entertainment.”

Still alive in 2015, and currently extending until summer 2018 with no declared sunset date, the Louisiana tax incentives now offer an 18 percent credit for production expenses and 7.2 percent for in-state payroll. The incentives are offered not just to game development companies but to other interactive software development companies as well.

In 2007, Louisiana employed 4,381 people in the digital media industry; last year alone, more than 5,000 new jobs were directly associated with successful project wins by the state of Louisiana in the software development, IT and digital media sector.

“[It’s] the fastest-growing sector of Louisiana’s economy,” wrote Jeff Lynn, executive director of Workforce Development Programs at Louisiana Economic Development (LED), in a recent email exchange.

Even before the Louisiana Digital Media Act, gaming companies looked toward Louisiana. The tax credits, still the strongest of their kind in the nation, have joined LED’s FastStart program, which offers customized workforce development to companies operating in the state, and the Baton Rouge Area Digital Industries Consortium as well-touted attractions for businesses considering a Louisiana hub.

So who’s taken the bait?

 

BIG FISH

Electronic Arts (EA), a global interactive entertainment company based in California, established its North American Testing Center on the Louisiana State University campus in the heart of Baton Rouge in 2008.

Founded in 1982, EA has ably endured the past three decades of industry evolution, with top-selling game franchises including The Sims, Madden NFL, and Mass Effect, combined with a willingness to develop across multiple platforms as well as form strategic partnerships with major organizations like the NFL and the NBA. The company reaped $3.1 billion in 2005, up 6 percent from 2004. “Every five to six years,” reads its 2005 annual report to investors, “the game industry undergoes an evolution marked by a leap to vastly improved technology with better graphics and game play—and, historically—a larger consumer base.”

At the time of that publication, the coming leap included new consoles from Microsoft and Sony (the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, respectively). In 2006, with continued growth in mind, EA reconfigured its game-testing strategy: Rather than a slew of testing facilities scattered across the country, the company planned for one centralized North American testing center. But the location had yet to be determined.

The Baton Rouge Digital Industries Consortium (BRADIC), made up of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Baton Rouge Area Foundation, LSU and Mayor-President Kip Holden’s office, was founded in 2006 in an effort to bring the operations of more established software companies to Louisiana soil. The city already boasted digital media incentives, along with a pipeline to a blossoming pool of programmers and designers at Louisiana State University and a lower cost of living and labor than the larger markets of New York and San Francisco.

In 2007, BRADIC caught wind of EA’s restructuring and made contact, along with a potent suggestion: Why not Baton Rouge?
 

OFF TO A FASTSTART

Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart initiative was founded in 2008 as a customizable workforce development tool that aims to speedily staff companies at no cost to those eligible. To fit the bill, companies must create at least 15 new manufacturing jobs or 50 new service jobs in one of LED’s target industries, which include advanced and traditional manufacturing, digital media, headquarters and business operations, research and development, and warehouse and distribution.

Upon launching in Louisiana, participating companies can expect a full, thoroughly trained staff prepared for the operations of a particular business.

While the FastStart initiative developed months after EA came to town, the company still turned to FastStart for an innovative training protocol for the facility’s staff.

FastStart designed a series of Interactive Training Modules (ITMs) for EA that allowed new hires to train through a gaming platform. EA later implemented these protocols at company studios throughout the world.
 



Through the summer of 2018, with no declared sunset date, Louisiana now
 offers an 18 percent credit for production expenses and 7.2 percent for
 in-state payroll for gaming and interactive software development companies.


“We don’t just bring value to their immediate location—which is the primary goal, of course—but we’re able to add value to a company’s global operations in many cases. We make them better at what they do,” wrote Lynn.

Paris-based Gameloft was intrigued by Louisiana’s strong incentives but doubted enough local talent could be found to outfit the 150 jobs the studio needed to fill.

FastStart took the challenge, sweeping chat rooms and forums to land 1,700 résumés in a matter of weeks. From those resumes, Gameloft narrowed the pool down to 700 qualified candidates. Skeptics no more, Gameloft opened a New Orleans studio in 2011.

Earlier this year, High Voltage Studio also relocated from Illinois to the Central Business District, bringing 80 new direct jobs and an initial estimate of 116 indirect jobs to the region.
 

THE NEW CLASS

In January 2015, LSU welcomed the first four students to its new Digital Media Arts & Engineering masters degree program.

“It’s the first of its kind in the state,” says Executive Director Marc Aubanel, who relocated from the Art Institute of Vancouver, where he led a similar digital media master’s program of 500 students studying a range of disciplines from claymation and visual effects to programming and modifying games.

“For major companies to take the leap into Louisiana, the state should have a wealth of existing skilled labor,” says Aubanel.

In attracting bigger city recruits—primarily from the Bay Area, where Aubanel thinks Silicon Valley has “priced itself out of the market,” he says New Orleans has an edge as “a trendier location.”
 

LEVELING UP

Out on Baton Rouge’s Florida Boulevard, the former Bon Marché Mall sprawls across 850,000 square feet of capital city soil. Erected in 1960 and shuttered by 1974, the expanse is neighbored by dollar stores and car dealerships. It hasn’t seen shoppers in decades.

But it has recently become a focal point for the future of the city since the Louisiana Technology Park opened in 2001 in the side arm of the old shopping center, now dubbed the Bon Carré Business Center.

“It came out of then-Gov. Foster’s Vision 2020 Plan,” says Stephen Loy, executive director of the Louisiana Technology Park. “That was an effort to diversify our economy here in the state, from oil and gas into technology.”

First, though, Louisiana needed tech companies. “We needed a place where young technologies could start and grow,” says Loy. “We needed an incubator.”

The Tech Park got its own entrée into the growing gaming industry through BRADIC, whose yearly trips to the San Francisco Game Developers Conference piqued the Tech Park’s interest.

“We started to see how most tech companies were different than gaming companies,” says Loy. The Tech Park then aimed to identify the particular resources a gaming company would need to thrive in Baton Rouge. “They need specific hardware like technique tablets, specific software for modeling. And the big thing was that they needed resources and mentors.”

A custom incubator was planned within the Tech Park; the Level Up Lab opened in 2013, with two long tables of computer stations and portable hard drives, a motion capture studio, and a recording room all tucked into one office suite. In the corner, a flat-screen TV is ringed by wizened relics of the 1990s: the Super Nintendo, the N64, and matte gray cartridges stacked high-to-teetering.

Appropriately, the Level Up Lab program is structured into levels, eight tiers that follow the phases of developing a game. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we game-ify the process so these video game guys can really connect with it?’” says Loy.

The initial stages (“Level 1: Commoner” and “Level 2: Explorer”) take the company through the application process, followed by a face-to-face meeting and a tour of the facility. The real work begins with “Level 3: Gambler,” as the program’s business and marketing team, led by the Tech Park’s Director of Finance Genevieve Silverman, walk a new client through establishing a strong business foundation and strategy. “We make sure that company’s books are up to date, that they’re an LLC, paying taxes, and have all their governance,” says Loy.

The ensuing phases focus on development, marketing, refinement, projections and analytics, and, finally, graduation (playfully termed “Level 8: Deserter.”)

“But there’s no set curriculum,” says Loy. “We can take a company from wherever they are and move them forward.”
 



LSU’s Digital Media Center welcomed its first four students to its
Digital Media Arts & Engineering masters degree program in January.


For a company’s more specific needs, the Level Up Lab supplies referrals. With networks such as the Baton Rouge chapter of the International Game Developers Association offering regular meet-ups, it’s become simpler to find like minds.

“I think we’re starting to realize that there are a lot more of us than we thought,” says Loy. “These guys come to us and it’s like, ‘Where have you been?’ ‘I don’t know, where have you been?’ We’ve been like ships in the night.”

One of the program’s first teams, BitFinity, is set to a release a game later this year. “Tadpole Treble” comes from brothers Matthew and Michael Taranto, who came to the Level Up Lab with a musical background and a strong idea. “They taught themselves with the resources of Level Up Lab,” says Loy.

“Tadpole Treble” is designed to teach a child how to read music, as the main character, a tadpole named Baton, swims upstream and hits notes as she goes. “[The Tarantos] did the original score and all the vocals for the games, too,” says Loy. “They took their passion and love of music and put it in the game.”

Another Level Up Lab client, Cody Louviere, tapped into the Tech Park’s close-knit community to develop the first game for his company, Crow King Studios. “I’ve got Jason Tate [cofounder of Pixel Dash Studios] as my lead programmer,” says Louviere, citing a couple of team members. “And Matthew Taranto [of BitFinity] is going to do the music.”

The high fantasy game, its name to be crowd-sourced, takes style inspiration from the Super Nintendo games of Louviere’s youth. “My goal has always been to make video games, or to write stories for games — just to be a part of it,” says Louviere, who is developing initially for release on computers with releases for WiiU and other consoles to follow.

Louviere isn’t deterred by the market saturation either. “A normal consumer can tell the difference in quality,” says Louviere. “I feel like the market is still perfect for anyone with passion.”
 

READY PLAYER ONE

Like Louviere and “the BitFinity Brothers,” as Loy calls them, independent developer Ethan Caraway turned to video games with a dream in mind.

“Games were always a hobby,” says Caraway, until a high school friend lent him the stealth action-adventure game series “Metal Gear Solid” designed by Hideo Kajima, whom Caraway refers to as “one of the few auteurs in the industry that everyone can agree on.” (Debuting in 1998 for PlayStation, “Metal Gear Solid” has gained an aggregate score of 94/100 on Metacritic and was praised by PlayStation Magazine as “the best game ever made.”)

Mesmerized by Kajima’s work, Caraway saw “that games could be so much more.” At LSU, Caraway majored in computer science with a minor in digital media.

“I didn’t think there was any way to stay in Louisiana,” says Caraway, a Lake Charles native. “I was constantly looking for other places I could go to get a job.”

After a stint at a small startup, Caraway has applied his programming skills to a research position at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. In the evenings, he works on his latest game, Evasion, a multiplayer asymmetric take on Chinese checkers adapted from his friends’ original board game. He shows his games at the annual Red Stick FutureFest and attends the city’s International Game Developers Association pub meet-up; the attendance increases by the week.

Caraway remains enthusiastic about the local interactions. “If you can build a community of developers who stay in touch and are actively discussing game development, that will only make the industry grow,” he says.
 


STAY TUNED

Ranging from music education to motorcycle combat racing, the following are four local games on the horizon.
 

Tadpole Treble (BitFinity) – Educational
Help Baton the tadpole dodge music notes on her upstream swim.
BitfinityGames.com
 

Evasion (Ethan Caraway, Jesse Clifton, Elijah Cohen, James Krause, and Ryan Travis) – Strategy
An asymmetric take on Chinese checkers calls for fast-paced thinking. Strategy.
Look up “Evasion the Game” on Facebook.
 

Road Redemption (Pixel Dash Studios) – Combat/Racing
The latest from the Road Rash series, featuring combat, crashes and destruction.
PixelDashStudios.com
 

TBA (Crow King Studios) – High Fantasy
A ragtag adventure game with a Super Nintendo aesthetic.
KingCrowStudios.com

 

 


Categories: Technology, The Magazine