This past Wednesday and Thursday saw the inaugural edition of the annual Triangle Game Conference (TGC) in Raleigh, NC. Inspired by the success of GDC Austin in positioning Austin, TX as a video game hub, TGC is noteworthy as much for what it represents as for what actually occurred.
According to Alexander Macris, CEO and President, Themis Group, Inc., and President of the Board of the Triangle Game Initiative (http://www.trianglegameinitiative.org/), the conference is another step in the growth of video games and simulations in the area. “It’s worth noting that the seeds of the game development industry in the Triangle area go all the way back to the graphics programs at NCSU and UNC in the 1960s. Those graphics programs created talent and companies that focused on computer graphics. Several of those companies, such as NDL (started at Chapel Hill) and Virtus (started at NC State), saw an opportunity in video games. They were early innovators in 3D graphics and game tools.” With more than 1,200 employees at game-related companies, the area has reached "critical mass" as the pool of workers and expertise grows, and the new conference is an expression of that growth.
The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as the Research Triangle, is now home to more than 30 game development companies. The Triangle is also home to the most commonly used video game engines, Unreal and Gamebryo. Recently announced company expansions and relocations include:
– Destineer Studios
– Electronic Arts
– Emergent Game Technologies
– Epic Games
– Vicious Cycle Software
– Insomniac Games
– Spark Plug Games
"The Triangle region has an ongoing supply of entry-level staff available due to the local colleges." said Macris. "What it does not have is a large surplus of highly experienced game industry vets. Experienced game developers generally become available when a game studio lets them go. That works when some studios are growing and some are shrinking. But since all of the local studios here in the Triangle are growing and none are letting people go, the area is importing talent. We’re adding about 200 jobs per year." I've found only one Triangle company that has recently laid off employees, Funcom, but that resulted from the lack of success of Age of Conan, and they are now hiring again.
Why has this growth occurred?
A couple years ago Jerry Heneghan of Virtual Heroes explained a major advantage: he can hire someone for less than they might make in California, but that person can buy a house in the Raleigh area rather than an apartment in California. Companies have been moving to the South for decades to take advantage of lower costs of living and labor costs.
Many people from the eastern US also prefer to live in the east, nearer to relatives, than in California. Consequently it’s not uncommon for west coast game developers to move to the Triangle. Further, the area is often cited as one of the best places to live, and to conduct business, in the United States. (See http://raleigh-wake.org/games/ for Wake county's recruiting pitch and specific examples.)
And those who have tired of making "entertainment" can work on games that matter, "serious games" and simulations. Ft. Bragg, near Fayetteville and about 50 miles south of the Triangle, represents a big consumer of computer simulation capability, the US military. Heneghan's company Virtual Heroes is the major support for the well-known "America's Army" game. Fayetteville Technical Community College has established a simulation/virtual reality facilities and programs for training "simulation technicians".
The Triangle is home to three major research universities and 15 other post-secondary schools, and support specifically for game development is coming from local community colleges and from NC State in Raleigh. The NC State computer science and industrial design departments have "concentrations" in game-related topics, and host the Digital Games Research Center. Duke University has the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), the Southeast’s only fully enclosed virtual reality environment. UNC's computer graphics program is renowned. Several community colleges offer art, design, and programming instruction in a two-year "Simulation and Game Development" degree. The School of Communication Arts, a trade school for games and other media, has over 500 students enrolled.
Meetings of the Triangle IGDA chapter (http://www.igda.org/nctriangle/ ) are usually attended by more than 200, which causes venue problems–not many company premises or schools can cope with such numbers.
This growth in games occurred despite an absence of tax incentives to game companies moving to the Triangle; a bill is in the legislature to provide such incentives, but is unlikely to pass in the current economic climate (the NC constitution requires a balanced budget).
Quality of life is an important part of the Triangle's attraction. This is a continuation of what has been happening in the Old South for decades: costs of living are lower in part because labor is less expensive (and there are almost no unions), there's lots of room for those who want to live "in the country", and the very warm climate is attractive thanks to that blessed post-WWII development, residential air conditioning. In the larger cities of North Carolina you're as likely to hear some variety of Northern/Midwestern accent as Southern accents.
When I first came to the Triangle (from Michigan) in 1973, the quality-of-life advantages were obvious, though the area population was about half the current 1.5 million. Area college basketball boasts three NCAA champions this decade alone. The NC Symphony, based in Raleigh, is one of about 50 full-time symphony orchestras in the US. As a rule-of-thumb measure of growth, since 1973 the area has acquired a AAA baseball team (the once-low-minors Durham Bulls of movie fame) and one major league sports team (2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes), with the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats less than three hours away in Charlotte. Raleigh has also unfortunately become large enough to suffer the blight of the commuter, regular rush-hour traffic jams.
Although NC is the tenth most populous state, there is plenty of room. The ocean is three hours to the southeast, the mountains five hours to the west. It’s possible for a person who is willing to commute for an hour to the Triangle to live in a large house on several acres, on one of the many man-made lakes, for less than a quarter million dollars.
It's easy to see why area leaders believe the Triangle will continue to attract video game creators, and become the "hub of East Coast video games."
To return to the conference, TGC was preceded in recent years by NC Advanced Learning Technology Association’s (http://ncalta.org/) annual conference and Walter Rotenberry/Wake Technical Community College’s annual Digital Game Expo. Macris said, "there are certainly close ties between Wake Tech, Walter Rotenberry, and TGC. Walter is a member of Triangle Game Initiative and has been one of a handful of leaders who has guided Triangle Game Conference forward . . . the show would not have happened without Walter and DGXPO."
The two-day conference included two keynotes and 40 presentations/panel discussions, with an overall theme of “Innovate or Die.” The conference temporarily outgrew its Marriot/Raleigh Convention Center facilities as the Wednesday keynote by Dr. Michael Capps of Epic was “standing room only” for perhaps 250 listeners, with more watching an external feed. We'll report on two of the panel discussions separately.
You can view a map of the area game development companies at http://www.trianglegameconference.com/media/misc/TriangleGames_Map.pdf