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The Hidden Houston Game Development Scene

The Hidden Houston Game Development Scene
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Houston has got an established arts scene, a growing population, and a strong economy. People come here in droves because it’s a great place to live.

However, it isn’t a great destination for video game development. Our city lags behind Austin, even. Austin has much more talent and activity behind its video game scene than Houston. That town has boasted a massive roster of top-tier developers ever since PC developer Richard Garriot founded Origin Systems there.

Ever since the collapse of TimeGate Studios, most game development in Houston has been been casual or nonexistent.

“Anecdotally, I can tell you I think the commercial game development industry, the entertainment game development industry, has withered away,” said Richard Buday, principal of Archimage, a Houston-based game developer. “It was never strong.”

The biggest problem with Houston is simply that it isn’t Austin. All the good developers go there.

“You don’t have the talent pool that you have naturally aggregating in the west coast, or in Boston, San Francisco, or Austin,” Buday said. “There is some talent, I don’t want to knock Houston, but you don’t have people who are the most motivated to be game-makers walking to Houston because it’s not really on the radar like the other game development centers are.”

One talent group Houston does have is students. Rice and the University of Houston have plenty of computer science students eager to build video games.

“All these universities had some classes that used games, had the students develop games,” said Anthony Elam, a former Rice professor. “You’ve got a potential workforce.”

Unfortunately, this workforce usually goes to other cities upon graduating. Still, Buday believes this talent exodus can prove advantageous for companies that stay.

“If we were in Austin,” he said, “we would be competing to keep our people from being stolen by the people next door or down the street.”

Buday told me Archimage used to share a building with another video game developer that had moved to Houston from Austin to stop other developers from stealing its staff. That neighbor promptly began cherry-picking people from Archimage.

“There are not a lot of morals at work in the video game development industry,” Buday said.

The Hidden Development Scene

What Houston does have is a surprising number of game developers working in areas whose existence might go unnoticed. For example, Buday’s company, Archimage, works with medical groups to create “serious games” that teach kids about diet and physical activity.

“We’re trying to get kids to change their eating and physical activity behaviors to prevent pediatric obesity and childhood obesity,” Buday said. “We’re trying to make a dent in that through game development.”

Houston provides an ideal location for this kind of work because of its large medical community. Archimage partners with these groups to make National Institutes of Health-funded games.

It’s not the only group interested in game-ifying learning. Elam started a consortium of serious game developers that grew to around 250 members.

“There was some good work being done in that area,” Elam said.

Many companies in Houston are interested in non-entertainment aspects of games. Hospitals and doctors are willing to try new methods of engaging kids to teach them about being healthy. Elam says that even oil companies are trying games and simulations.

“I think that some of the other companies… in the oil and gas industry, they are doing things internally,” he said. “They don’t necessarily publish or make things known, but they are using that kind of technology inside their own company to address their own advanced training needs.”

Smaller Companies

Elam also pointed out that you don’t need a major company to do game development these days.

“The development libraries and capabilities are out there so you don’t have to have big companies to create something they could potentially sell,” he said.

For example, consider Zeboyd Games, a small studio known for indie hits like Cthulhu Saves the World. It employs only two developers (one of whom lives in Houston). That’s all they need.

“The competition is fierce,” Elam said, “and marketing your developed game may be more of a challenge than actually developing it.”

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