Cover Story

Game on! Video gaming industry growing in South Florida

 

eMerge Americas Techweek

What : The centerpiece of eMerge Americas Techweek is a series of summits on Monday and Tuesday that will feature technology and innovation experts on the themes of healthcare, finance, smart cities, education and entertainment. Other events include a Startup Village and Launch Competition, with $150,000 in prizes; the eMerge Game Connection; a Smart Cities Expo; an international pavilion; a hiring fair with more than 50 employers; and the STEM Tech Olympiad for K-12 students.

Agenda and tickets: www.emergeamericas.org.

Coverage : Read the Starting Gate blog on MiamiHerald.com/business for reports on eMerge Americas Techweek.

Fun and Games at eMerge

Games @ eMerge Americas Expo, in partnership with The Game Connection, plus a number of Summit talks on the video gaming industry will be part of eMerge Americas Techweek through Tuesday. Here are a few highlights:

• 30 leading industry experts as speakers/panelists, including John Schappert of Shiver Entertainment; Frank Azor of Alienware and Alexandre Hogagen of Facebook Latin America.

• A dozen major companies participating/exhibiting.

• “Mentor Meet Ups” with industry professionals to receive advice and counsel.

• Opportunities for developers, publishers and top gamers to network.

• “Riot Rumble Powered By Alienware,” a competitive exhibition of “League of Legends.”

• Free play sessions for the public.


ndahlberg@MiamiHerald.com

Tucked inside a Brickell office building, a colorful gaming studio called Skyjoy is buzzing.

The small but passionate team has just launched its first game, Super Kid Cannon, after eight months of intense production. In the game, Super Kid Cannon, a red panda, tries to save his love interest Justine from Khan, the evil snow leopard. Each team member — everyone is a gamer — created at least one character in the free game, available for all devices and in multiple languages.

Artist Mike Oviedo created the character called IQ, a pink brain with a big eye that moves the cannon by telepathy. Isai Oviedo, no relation, created the frog that players hate because he does a very annoying dance when he wipes you out.

Designers and artists and developers huddle around computers, working on ongoing updates to the game, while developers are tweaking performance. Some are tasked with keeping a close eye on user reactions and ratings, currently averaging five stars. Producer Amanda Drewniak, who has a background in film production, keeps the work flowing and makes sure team members are communicating.

CEO Abdulhady “Abboudi” Taher believes Miami is a natural place to launch a creative business, with its plethora of artists, film production people, the music industry and a growing tech community. He thinks the area could become a video gaming hub. “The fact that John Schappert is here now is a great sign,” he said. “He’s a legend in the industry.”

Schappert runs Shiver Entertainment, a new company in South Miami developing free-to-play games that recently relocated from California. Schappert founded and sold Tiburon Entertainment, now an 850-employee company owned by Electronic Arts, and created its Madden NFL football game 20 years ago, still being played today with sequels updated annually. He has also led large teams at Microsoft, EA, Zynga and other companies.

Schappert, now with a team of 30, may be the most recent addition to the small South Florida video gaming industry, but he won’t be the last if the Technology Foundation of the Americas has anything to say about it.

The mission of the foundation, started by Terremark founder Manny Medina, is to promote and accelerate South Florida as a technology hub for the Americas. As organizers planned eMerge Americas Techweek, the foundation’s inaugural marquee event now happening at the Miami Beach Convention Center, they focused on areas of local strength ripe for a tech turbocharge — such as entertainment. Accordingly, the conference agenda includes a number of speakers from the gaming industry, including Schappert, Mike Acton of Insomniac Games, James Vallord Costa of the gaming server company Hypernia and Bruno Schirch of Riot Games.

“Entertainment and gaming are already here — all we are trying to do is accelerate it. We are going to have a very significant number of international gaming companies [at eMerge] for the first time thinking Miami gaming,” said Medina.

“If we are able to associate ourselves with one of the innovative and creative areas of tech — gaming — it will significantly enhance the future of our technological ecosystem overall. [Gaming entrepreneurs] are young and creative, they are ahead of the game, and it will be one of the areas that will spark a huge amount of interest around the world.”

Other industries with roots in South Florida, such as healthcare and finance, are also growth targets and conference focus topics. And eMerge Americas Techweek is just the kickoff of what the foundation has planned, he said.

“We want to create a city that is more conducive to technology. My hope is this sparks a conversation among the leaders of our community. This will be the first of many, many things we do over the next few years,” said Medina, who has talked about developing an innovation village.

ON THE RISE

The growing video gaming market is massive — and not just for kids. DFC Intelligence, a research group that follows the video game industry, estimates there are 1.4 billion gamers worldwide. According to Gartner, a technology research firm, the worldwide video game marketplace — including video game console hardware and software, online, mobile, and PC games — is expected to reach $111 billion next year, up from $79 billion in 2012. Mobile games are the fastest-growing segment of the market, with revenue set to nearly double between 2013 and 2015, from $13.2 billion to $22 billion.

Can Miami become a business and development center for the video game business? “It’s not a crazy idea at all,” said Mark Marion, a tech industry veteran who has been helping eMerge Americas research and plan the conference video game sessions. “Miami already is the media and entertainment capital of Latin America, and Latin America is the second-most heavily penetrated market for video games in the world.”

Costs of running a business are also lower here than in some cities known for gaming, such as New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley. A review of job boards found video game development jobs in Florida carrying salaries ranging from $60,000 to $100,000.

Marion said these points have not been lost on the industry. “Gaming industry leaders want to know how our local ecosystem can help them develop and publish new and existing game titles into Latin America,” he said.

So what will the visiting gaming elite attending eMerge find in South Florida?

If South Florida’s gaming industry has a mothership, it is Alienware, the maker of high-end gamer computers and peripherals that started in a Hialeah garage in 1996. Dell bought Alienware in 2006, but Dell kept the Alienware division oversight in South Florida, said Frank Azor, Dell Alienware’s general manager.

“We’ve had a phenomenal success out of Miami, and it’s a city we love and we care for very much,” said Azor, who was hired as Alienware’s fourth employee in 1998. “We’ve seen [Miami] struggle when it comes to technology, and for no good reason — it should be thriving. … It is just not well known who is in the area, where the talent pool is, what folks are working on. Everything is kind of unorganized, and eMerge is trying to pull all this together.

“I also think eMerge will bring awareness that this is a real city. There is a superficial perception of South Florida as being all about beaches and parties … but there is also successful entrepreneurship and creative innovation that is taking place — and that doesn’t get the attention,” he said.

Azor said Alienware is developing its first console called the Alienware Steam Machine, similar to a Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation 4, that it plans to launch later this year.

“It may be pretty surprising that a company out of Miami is working on something like that, and we actually have a very high probability that we will be as successful or more successful than Microsoft or Sony with their devices,” Azor said. “We have a content partner that has more customers on its platform than Microsoft or Sony have on their platforms. This is pretty big news.”

In the past, Alienware had focused on Asia’s emerging markets, Azor said. Now it is turning its focus to Latin America — particularly Brazil and Mexico.

Also based here is ORIGIN, an independent high-end gamer computer manufacturer started in 2009 by three former Alienware executives, Kevin Wasielewski, Richard Cary and Hector Penton.

Located in West Kendall, ORIGIN’s 50 employees custom-build high-performance desktops, workstations and laptops for hardware enthusiasts, graphic artists, companies, government agencies and, of course, the most hardcore of gamers, and provide 24/7 support.

ORIGIN launched several new gamer PCs and peripherals at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early this year, and its computers are available in more than 10,000 configurations. The company is also coming out with its own version of the Steam Machine later this year, Wasielewski said.

Moving north, Intergi Entertainment in Deerfield Beach may be “the biggest South Florida company you probably never heard of,” said founder and CEO Jayson Dubin. But if you are in the global video game publishing and advertising industries, you have.

Intergi, an ad rep firm for video game publishers, attracts an average of 72 million monthly unique visitors in the U.S. and 200 million worldwide. “We are the largest aggregator of gaming content and entertainment probably in the world,” said Dubin, who ran the media division of theglobe.com before starting Intergi.

In the first quarter of this year, 430 million ads were viewed and 2.8 billion minutes of video were consumed through its platform. The company, founded in 2007 and now with 65 employees worldwide, also has offices in London, New York and Los Angeles. Locally, it employs 45.

Out of Intergi grew subsidiary Playwire, a platform for video publishing, which is becoming a bigger part of the business, Dubin said. Also part of Intergi is GameZone, a content site for video gaming, and other sites.

South Florida is a largely untapped resource for the gaming industry, Dubin said. When he was launching Intergi, everyone told him he had to be in New York, he had to be in San Francisco. “But by being in Florida, that’s what kept us in business. We kept our overhead lower than our competitors,” he said.

A sampling of other gaming companies that call South Florida home include:

•  Darkside Game Studios and Shadows in Darkness: With a team of 42 people recruited from around the country and internationally, this game developer and art outsourcing studio in Sunrise has produced art and/or development for Call of Duty, Borderlands, Bioshock and other game franchises for PCs and consoles, said CEO Rick Daniels, a Florida native who has worked in the South Florida video game industry since 1995. The art outsourcing shop Shadows in Darkness opened in 2002, and the development company Darkside Game Studios opened in 2008. The management team also includes Hugh Falk, Nick Schreiber and Devon Browne.

•  Magic Leap: This still-top-secret startup in Hollywood was founded and headed up by Rony Abovitz, a co-founder of Mako Surgical, a medical robotics and device company that sold last fall for $1.65 billion. Magic Leap has garnered $50 million in venture funding, but few details about the new company have been released. The company is working on its trademarked Cinematic Reality, a wearable technology, and has hired some high-profile talent in the video gaming and film industries. Stay tuned.

•  Moon Spider Studio: After 11 years of working for other video game companies in France, Loris Malek wanted to create his own games. After briefly considering San Francisco and Los Angeles, Malek decided to base his new startup company, Moon Spider Studio, in Key Biscayne in 2011; he now has 10 employees. Moon Spider’s first game, Harold, a downloadable game for PCs and Xbox 360, will be released later this year, said Malek.

•  Singular Social Games: This Spain-based company plans to move to Miami this summer and launch its first video game, TheOne, in the United States. The company expects to grow to eight team members in Miami by the end of the year. Singular will continue to keep part of its production in Europe for awhile but eventually intends to move the entire team to South Florida, said Gustavo Medina del Rosario, CEO. The next games will be developed in Miami, he said.

EDUCATING THE TALENT

All these companies need talent, and South Florida’s universities are gearing up to train it.

While many local universities offer some some courses useful in design or programming for games and have more planned, the University of Miami’s School of Communication Interactive Media Master of Fine Arts program has earned a No. 24 ranking on The Princeton Review’s 2014 list of the best graduate schools for studying video game design. Also in the top 25 were two other Florida institutions: The University of Central Florida at No. 2 and Full Sail University at No. 18, both in the Orlando area.

Clay Ewing, assistant professor of interactive media and games with experience in game design, was the first professor hired in UM’s new master’s program started last fall. UM is also planning to offer an undergraduate track in video gaming that may include offerings in game design, coding, 3D modeling and sound, he said.

“I see games as this generation’s film and it is a growing art form. Now, having a game design program is the same as having a film, music or any other arts education program,” Ewing said. UM’s program, he said, specializes in social impact games.

Currently, Central Florida is most known for its well-developed gaming industry, boasting such large players as EA Tiburon with its 850 employees. Most of the 70-plus Florida gaming companies hail from the Orlando area. But that doesn’t faze South Florida’s company leaders, who believe the market is big enough for everyone.

Taher of Brickell Avenue’s Skyjoy Interactive said his 11 employees include FIU and UM students plus artists from Nickelodeon and Marvel Comics. “A lot of people say there is not enough talent in South Florida. Not true. We can attract that talent and keep the talent that grows in Florida here,” Taher said.

The studio’s first game, Super Kid Cannon, is localized in 15 languages including Japanese, Russian and Arabic. It’s free to consumers to download; the company makes money through upsells, such as new costumes for characters or “power ups” to get to the next level, within the game. So far, the game is attracting downloads in all age groups, but the sweet spot is 13- to 35-year-olds, more women than men.

Skyjoy has partnered with Seeds, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in Africa through microfinance assistance, and Skyjoy will give 25 percent of its profits to the cause, Taher said.

Other games are under development. “We are heavily inspired by Nintendo and Disney. One of my idols is Disney,” Taher said. “We are trying to create something that Disney would be proud of.”

At South Miami’s Shiver, Schappert is keeping his game strategy under wraps, except to say that he plans to be a major player in free-to-play games — such as competitor-made titles like League of Legends and World of Tanks that can be played on a smartphone, tablet or PC. “My son is 10; he plays games on his tablet. As he grows up, I want him to be playing Shiver Games. I want Shiver to be the next iconic gaming company.”

Shiver Entertainment has partnered with Nexon, a large Asian gaming company. “They invested in us and they are also a strategic partner in a multi-game, multi-year deal,” said Schappert, adding that Shiver’s first game will be out within a year.

Shiver, which means a pack of sharks, is now a team of 30 software engineers and programmers, artists and designers. With a Silicon Valley-like benefits package — including equity and free catered lunches daily — Schappert plans to double the size of his company and move into a new 16,000-square-foot headquarters in the former Virgin Records space at the Offices at Sunset Place by the end of the year.

“The reality is in gaming, you can be anywhere as long as you make a great game ... We have the funding, we have the experience, we have the knowledge and the ideas, now we just need more great people,” Schappert said. “Maybe you are a programmer working on enterprise software for the last 10 years, aren’t games more fun?”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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