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How Moving To Austin Energized Starhawk

May 13, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

It isn't often that an individual -- let alone an entire studio -- packs up and moves from a quiet, conservative place like Salt Lake City straight to a liberal out-all-night party town like Austin, but that is exactly what Dylan Jobe and his entire team at LightBox Interactive -- the team behind Sony's just-announced Starhawk -- did. And astonishingly, they managed to pull this off in the middle of delivering milestones, without losing a single employee, and with only 48 hours of network downtime.

"We got really, really lucky," LightBox president and founder Dylan Jobe tells us. He sounds tired -- we're not sure if the media tour to announce the game, which took him from Austin to London, is wearing him down, or if merely recalling the logistics of the move is mentally exhausting him all over again.

"If we were bigger we probably would have lost more people, but we were a very tight group."

LightBox Interactive spawned from the remains of Incognito Entertainment, a company founded by Scott Campbell in 1999 to work on the Twisted Metal series for Sony. Pleased with the studio's output, Sony purchased the studio in 2002, and put it to work on games like War of the Monsters and Downhill Domination.

Incognito's biggest product would be its last -- Warhawk, a third-person, online multiplayer combat sim that incorporated simultaneous on-foot, in-vehicle, and in-the-air combat with up to 32 players online. The game was an early show-off title for Sony's then-new PlayStation 3; specifically, it was chosen to introduce the capabilities of the system's Sixaxis motion-sensing controller. If you happened to catch Sony's press conference at E3 2006, that was Jobe flailing the controller around on stage.

At the conclusion of the project, Campbell left to found Eat, Sleep, Play with longtime contributor David Jaffe to, again, work on the Twisted Metal series. Jobe, who acted as artistic director on Warhawk, was also looking to go independent.

With a team of only 10 people, LightBox was formed, and its first project was close to home: still on good terms with Sony, the studio developed expansion packs for Warhawk, all the while trying to find a new home.

"We knew we wanted to build a good triple-A studio, and we didn't feel like Salt Lake was the right match for us," Jobe recalls. "We very much wanted to be in a city where there was more nightlife, more bars and clubs, and music, and more sports, and all of that stuff."

Austin was on the short list of possibilities: not only for the nightlife, but for its development community.

"There are an enormous number of games studios in Austin, and part of our business plan required us to have very aggressive growth," he says, saying that it was difficult to recruit talent in Salt Lake -- the engineers and artists he tried to recruit "wanted to work in LA or other places, something that might match their lifestyle a little bit more."

If our conversation with LightBox's exciteable lead designer Josh Sutphin is any indication, it didn't take much to convince the team to make the move.

"Ah, it's amazing," Sutphin tells us over beers at Austin's famous Alamo Drafthouse. "I love Austin so much. That was the best decision ever.

"There's a creative vibe here. There's a little game development community and a small creative community in Salt Lake City, but it's totally dwarfed by Austin."

Plus, the bars are better, right?

"Oh my God. Bars at all! Beer with alcohol in it!" He pauses. "I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't denigrate Utah."

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Joshua George
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Shouldn't we be promoting the spread of the gaming community, instead of the "let's all congregate to Texas,LA, or Seattle" method?

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Jakub Majewski
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Not necessarily - or indeed, definitely, very strongly - no. The film industry in the US is concentrated in one area - and it's a model that other countries are imitating. I think it's good for games as well. The job-finding issue Dave Smith mentioned here is important. In my career, every job change so far has involved moving from one city to another. Mind you, I work in Poland, not the US - we have less game developers in general, and there tends to be just 2-3 in any given city. But then again, that's probably the case for most places in the US, with a few exceptions like Austin, LA and the like.

Anyway, while some people might not mind moving cities every time you change jobs (hey, it's always a nice change and all that), it does get troublesome once you go beyond the "young adult excited to be working in gamedev" stage. Once you have a family and start thinking about buying a home, you come to realise that having to move three hundred kilometres every time you change jobs is very, very inconvenient. Ultimately, it's easier for someone to relocate even thousands of kilometres once, at the start of his career, than having to relocate a smaller distance every two or three years.

Evan Bell
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I grew up in Utah and live in Austin now. I understand their reasoning. Getting people to relocate to SLC is difficult. People have a lot of misconceptions about Utah. It gets tiring answering "No I only have 1 wife" and I'm not even LDS. For me my biggest problem with SLC and the Wasatch front is the air pollution. It is absolutely out of control and they lack the political will to do anything about it. Sad because it really is a beautiful state with a lot to offer. Especially if you enjoy winter sports.

Joseph Gonzalez
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Joshua, I agree that seeing game industry growth outside of its traditional centers is important to the longevity and success of the industry, but there are reasons why these development centers exist. Iíve spent 8 years working in the game industry in Utah and I can tell you that itís not for everyone. Right now Itís very hard to convince top talent to relocate to Utah for various environmental and social reasons. This may change soon as the Governorís Office of Economic Development has recently decided to make a massive push to recruit digital media companies to the state, but this is going to take time to accomplish.

I had the privilege of working with Josh Sutphin here in SLC. Best designer I ever had a chance to work with. If they thought he was excitable about the move to Austin, they should have seen how excited he gets about game engine tech and design tools. Heís spot on though about the bar and club scene in SLC. Things are getting better though, now that the local business community has been pushing to ease the liquor laws and grow the local nightlife industry.

Even with the environment as it is, we still have a decent sized development community here. EA has recently established a studio in downtown Salt Lake, only blocks away from where Disney Interactive has two studios. Scott Campbell and Dave Jaffeís Eat, Sleep, Play studio is only blocks from them. Epic Gamesí Chair Entertainment is only 30 miles away in Utah County. These studios anchor about 15 smaller independent, casual, educational, and mobile game developers such as Ninja Bee Studios, Wahoo Studios, Smart Bomb Interactive, React Games, and Big Finish Games.

Congrats to LightBox on their success and best wishes on their future ventures.

Adam Romney
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I'd like to know how many of the initial 10 staffers had families to relocate. For me, the most discouraging aspect of working in game development is the non-family friendly culture. I'm married and I own a home and I would like to have children someday. My very limited correspondence with folks in the industry and data from Game Developer Magazine's industry survey regarding home owner's by location does not paint a pretty picture. To be fair, 50% of gamedevs in Washington are reported to own homes, so that's a little encouraging. On the other hand, the associated average salary of those who owned homes was $100k, which makes me scratch my head.

I brought this up just because Jobe mentioned 'family' as an inspiration.