Wisconsin becoming a bigger player in video game development

Software Innovations

Madison-based Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, has long been a crucial player in the creation of the “Call of Duty” franchise.

Though Wisconsin is not traditionally a place known for video game development, the industry has been leveling up in the state, with a goal of becoming a bonafide hub.

“There are a lot of video games that are made here,” said Jennifer Javornik, vice president of sales for Madison-based Filament Games LLC and co-chair of the Wisconsin Games Alliance. “In the last few years, there have been some really big successes.”

Alyssa Finley, a video game industry leader and former creative director of Telltale Games, delivers the Endnote Speech at the M+DEV Midwest game developers conference at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison on Oct. 19.

Brian Pelletier, current executive director of the WGA and senior artist at Madison-based Human Head Studios Inc., said there are now more than 70 registered businesses in Wisconsin whose primary focus is game development, a number he estimates has doubled in the past decade.

“We’ve been seeing this growth since 2010,” he said. “Our focus is to continue to grow and support game development here in Wisconsin.”

To that end, this October will feature the third annual M+DEV conference for professional game developers. The conference, hosted by the WGA, is now supported by the Madison Region Economic Partnership and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., and it showcases people and companies from all over the Midwest region who work in the gaming industry.

Javornik, a co-chair of M+DEV, said the conference was established as a way to work on the challenges Wisconsin and the Midwest at large have in getting recognition in the industry.

“In terms of big games conferences, there hasn’t been much in the Midwest region,” she said. “We really wanted that to be a beacon to industry that there is a viable resource here.”

Like in so many other industries, game development studios from all over the country are competing for talent. In many ways, that talent has clustered on the coasts. In a place like Wisconsin – or Madison, where much of the state’s gaming industry is based – part of the way to grow the industry is to tell its story.

“We’re all really interested in bringing more business to Wisconsin,” said Javornik, who mentioned interest in trying to lure investment from the Apples and Microsofts of the world to the state. “If we can talk about ourselves not just as individual studios but as a region, that gives a lot of investors and publishers a better sense that they’re not investing in a couple of guys in the middle of the state, that there’s actually a whole industry that’s supporting them.”

Over the past few years, through the conference and WGA and its partners, silos are breaking down, and people working in gaming are talking more often, working to connect the dots from otherwise disparate parts of the industry. They’re getting better aligned, with studios small and large working in concert with higher education institutions and forging a more knit-together community.

“We’re really focused on awareness,” Javornik said. “We have to change our talking points to not just talking about our studios, but what’s happening here so publishers are aware. As studios put out world-renowned games that have a high level of awareness, I think that helps get the word out.”

One of those world-renowned games Wisconsin has helped bring to the world is perhaps the most popular video game franchise of all – “Call of Duty.”

That’s because of Madison-based Raven Software Corp., which will celebrate its 30th year in business next year. The game studio now employs more than 200 people, and in addition to being a major contributor for “Call of Duty,” it has helped build big-name games like titles for “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and Marvel, among many others.

Raven was founded by Brian and Steve Raffel in 1990 and was acquired by Activision Publishing Inc. in 1997. It was the first studio acquired by the now-juggernaut game publisher. When the acquisition happened, more studios began to grow around Raven, and several spinoff companies now have sizable operations in their own right.

Madison-based Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, has long been a crucial player in the creation of the “Call of Duty” franchise.

Brian Raffel said this “Raven effect” is proof that game studios can thrive in a place like Madison.

“They saw that it could be done in this area, it could be done by Midwest people who had a passion and didn’t have to go to L.A. or Seattle,” he said. “And I think Madison has always been a real positive environment to do business in with all the university and state support.”

In many ways, Raven’s success is why the industry has the foothold in the state that it does.

“Raven is the real reason there’s a lot of game companies in Madison,” said John Bergman, founder and CEO of Wauwatosa-based Guild Software Inc. and Raven’s first-ever employee. “A lot of that is the way things work. One particular company will grow and be successful and have hundreds of employees and then they’ll kind of pollinate out in the local area.”

Raffel said Madison has always been a positive environment in which to do business, and he is pleased to see the focus on growing the gaming industry take shape in recent years.

“Now we’re seeing, particularly in Madison, they’re trying to attract gaming talent,” he said. “I think they’re seeing the positive impact on the economics of the area. With mobile games and online games, there are so many more opportunities for gamers to get their games in front of the customers in different ways.”

Bergman said he considers being in Wisconsin to be a “great asset” for his company, and for companies in the game development industry.

“The low cost of living, the availability of competent tech people, there’s definitely a lot of talent around here, more than the coasts are usually aware,” he said. “The only thing that’s kind of unfortunate is we produce so much talent and we don’t have enough of an industry to keep them all here and we send them out to the coasts and some other places that are better known for development at this time.”

And though the game development industry feels the “brain drain” issue the way many industries in the state do, particularly in tech, Madison and Wisconsin have seen a nice run of success stories in recent years. In 2015, two games created in Madison made Apple’s top 25 best games of the year for iPad, including the No. 1 game, “Prune,” which was made by Joel McDonald, a former Raven employee. Madison studio PerBlue Entertainment Inc. sold its “DragonSoul” game in 2016 for $35 million, and has since landed on Disney’s short list of mobile games developers. Major publishers like South Korea-based Bluehole Inc. and North Carolina-based Epic Games, which makes the hugely popular “Fortnite,” have opened satellite offices in Madison. It’s all further proof that what’s happening in the game development industry can happen here in Wisconsin.

Worldwide, the video game market is booming, having grown to a global value of about $138 billion, up 13.3 percent over the past year, according to industry research firm Newzoo, with projections putting it at more than $180 billion by 2021.

And make no mistake, Wisconsin is already a part of that growth. But with more awareness of what’s happening here and more alignment among the players here in the state, gamers in Wisconsin could soon be expanding into new worlds.

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Dan Shafer
Dan Shafer, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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