Indie game developers need Austin’s support amid industry changes

Mark Birkenstock

Last week the games industry convened for one of its biggest events of the year, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. Amid the excitement of the newly announced games and technology, there was also recognition that a paradigm shift is coming to gaming, and the still-young industry may have to suffer some growing pains before it can reach a state of maturity and long-term sustainability. However, this disruptive shift represents an opportunity for Austin to expand its role as a vital growth region for gaming.

Most important among these changes is an inevitable shift of business models away from ultra-expensive blockbuster games and toward smaller, cheaper games. Large-scale games cost so much to create that trying new ideas has become risky, leading developers to create the same product over and over. But eventually, consumers get bored with this, and when they do, studios shut down and hundreds lose their jobs. Junction Point Studios, established by gaming luminary Warren Spector and one of Austin's larger studios, was closed in January after its game Epic Mickey 2 failed to meet sales expectations.

In contrast, small games – usually made by tiny, independent studios – can be made cheaply and quickly, making them ideal spaces for trying innovative ideas that will keep the industry growing and relevant to consumers. Currently, gaming jobs and tax revenues are disappearing from large, muscle-bound studios and moving toward agile indie ones. And luckily for us, Austin has already become a residence of choice for thousands of entrepreneurial indie developers. These developers are extremely engaged with the future of the industry in Austin: They are invited to give talks to students of UT's Game Development Program, and they are very keen to employ talented UT graduates looking for jobs.

The Office of the Governor's Texas Film Commission states that Texas is home to more than 155 game companies, which provide around 4,000 full-time jobs. However, a report by NPR estimates that about 7,000 independent game developers reside in Austin alone. And while larger gaming corporations bring a lot of revenue to our area, they also tend to be fickle, ready to close up shop the moment they have doubts about their bottom line. Indie developers, on the other hand, take pride in calling Austin home. They like the culture and will be happy to stick around as long as it's possible to do so.

It is in the best interest of Austin and the state to provide these gaming entrepreneurs with the support they need to thrive. If they do, our region can be the origin of the ideas that will build the future of gaming. And in gaming, as in all tech industries, money flows to whoever has the best ideas.

This lesson has not been lost on the University: This year saw the first graduates from UT's Game Development Program and the announcement of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, a post-baccalaureate game development program.

However, government support for our indie developers still lags. The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program offers an incentive of up to 15 percent of in-state spending, but this only applies to projects costing more than $100,000. This limit locks out most indies, who generally spend less than $50,000 on their games, according to Jennifer Bullard, the chair of the Austin chapter of the International Game Developers Association.

“Right now most resources are for enterprise or serious software, leaving the creative community out. We are working on a model to create a sustainable system that will be able to support the continually growing independent game development community,” Bullard said. “Without the support of local colleges to provide fresh new talent, tax incentives to draw companies and an incubator to help indies flourish, the game industry will struggle to maintain its health. Right now we face competition from other states (and countries) who are regularly incentivizing game development in their regions,” she added. Southern California represents Austin’s toughest rival in the U.S., and Montreal and Toronto have made impressive gains for Canada in recent years.

John Watson, of the local studio Stoic, also suggested that art grants can be used to support independent game development. Texas and Austin both have art grant programs, but only nonprofit organizations may apply for them. Austin allocated more than $6 million for cultural arts funding for the 2013 fiscal year, none of which directly assisted our games industry.

The games industry represents a key economic opportunity for Austin, and our government needs to commit its full support soon if we don't want to lose out. Introducing an incentive program for projects under $100,000 and setting aside art grants specifically for gaming would be a great step in the right direction, and would show the indie game community that Austin understands the value of creative innovation.

Birkenstock is a linguistics junior from Long Island, N.Y.