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Nov. 10, 2011 1:30 pm

Play Eternal could become first AAA video game studio in Philadelphia

Mike Worth and Lou Tranchitella realized the need for a big-budget video game studio in Philadelphia, and in February, co-founded Play Eternal.

The following is a report done in partnership with Temple University's Philadelphia Neighborhoods program, the capstone class for the Temple's Department of Journalism.

Mike Worth and Lou Tranchitella realized the need for a big-budget video game studio in Philadelphia, and in February, co-founded Play Eternal.

Now they’re just waiting for their big break.

The duo, along with more than a dozen other members of their team, have a prototype in the hands of major publishers to fund what could be on Xbox Live Arcade or the Sony Playstation Network. If that, or another of a handful of major projects come through, a nearly three year effort to build out the city’s video game development culture will reach another height.

There are steps to go, but the movement has inched forward since early 2009.

With the growth of Worth’s Videogame Growth Initiative movement and a local technology community here, along with excellent video game development programs at Drexel and Penn, the absence of a “Hollywood-level quality” shop, called a AAA studio, seemed unwarranted to Worth and Tranchitella.

“There are studios in lots of different states, there’s no reason for it not to happen here. Philadelphia seemed like a great place to do this,” Tranchitella said. “The technology is here.”

For now, the Play Eternal team, which numbers at 17, is working virtually, Worth said.

Their major untitled futuristic action-adventure prototype is, as Worth describes it, “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light meets Super Metroid in a futuristic, Blade Runner inspired world.” The team is also currently prototyping a mobile and tablet game and in advanced discussions for two work-for-hire development projects that would have production cycles of 14 months and two years respectively, Worth said.

Videogame Growth Initiative Update

Before Play Eternal was born, Mike Worth was trying to grow the video game development community of Philadelphia.

With others, Play Eternal’s COO had created the Videogame Growth Initiative, a loose confederation of stakeholders, including other freelance developers, to lobby for tax credits, business retention and community support.

Worth made headlines by proposing a bill to Senator Daylin Leach to allow tax credits for video game developers. Similar bills have been passed in Georgia and Connecticut, but no such tax break exists in Pennsylvania for video games.

Worth, who will be presenting to legislation to the state senate in Harrisburg in three weeks, said he believes the bill is crucial to the development and growth of AAA studios in the city. The bill,  introduced about four months ago but still in limbo, would give companies a tax incentive to open up studios in Philadelphia and the surrounding regions, and it would give employment opportunities to a varying number of people.

“Video games employ very talented people. These are people who have engineering degrees, computer science degrees, mechanical engineering degrees and business degrees,” Worth said.

Once tax credits such as Senate Bill 700 are put in place, more people will be attracted to the area, opening up jobs and boosting capital, Worth argues.

“In Pennsylvania, we already have a tax credit program for film production, and Pennsylvania has accordingly become a prime location for big-budget Hollywood productions,” said Zachary Hoover, Chief of Staff to Senator Leach.

Hoover said while the tax credit program for film production has benefited the job market by employing electricians, carpenters and artists, he believes the bill concerning the development of video games, marked Senate Bill 700, will create even better business for not only Philadelphia, but Pennsylvania as a whole.

“Each film production shot in Pennsylvania means business for Pennsylvanians, but when the production wraps, that’s it.  When a video game production company sets up shop in the Commonwealth, it’ll hopefully mean more stable, good-paying, long term jobs in Pennsylvania,” Hoover said.

Tranchitella said the opportunity to employ students from highly developed technology schools in the area is great.

“These are well educated, high quality jobs. We’ll be able to retain students from Penn and Drexel and Carnegie Mellon. These are top schools that are putting out great, young professionals, and they’re going elsewhere [right now.] Lets retain them. Lets keep them here. That’s really part of our driving force,” Tranchitella said.

Instead of hiring concept artists to work as independent contractors for three months, Tranchitella and Worth said Play Eternal would open up more job opportunities than a traditional AAA studio.

“We can have them constantly working because we’ll be in different stages of development on varying games. That’s really what we want to do. We want to employ people full time,” Tranchitella said.

If any of them are funded in a major way, Worth says, he’ll make good on his promise of opening up PlayEternal in Philadelphia. Building that magnet of video game development work, Worth has said, starts with a big AAA studio first. The distinction of a AAA studio is clear.

“What it typically means is that it’s a $50 to $60 game that takes over two years to build. Price is no object. You’ve got dozens of characters or hundreds of weapons. It’s basically the highest level of quality, the largest level of gameplay, they are marketed incredibly heavily, and are marketed like a Hollywood film,” Worth said.

Play Eternal differs from the typical AAA studio in that it aims to produce smaller video games over nine months to a year, available for digital download, as opposed to producing one game for two to three years to be sold in video game stores.

“Our idea was what if you take that AAA idea but break it down to a smaller, bite sized game that might take you five to 10 hours to play, will cost between $10 and $20 and is delivered to you digitally. So, you can download it through Xbox Live Arcade or Play Station Network,” said Tranchitella, the company’s CEO.

Although the two knew that there was not already a AAA studio in Philadelphia, Worth and Tranchitella were not discouraged, and wanted to stay in the city. They turned their efforts away from being service providers to other companies, and focused on starting their own big-budget business.

“Truth be told, it’s like, ‘let’s just do it ourselves and see what happens.’ That’s really how it started,” Tranchitella said.

Both Worth and Tranchitella have high hopes for the company and its success. Worth said he hopes their success will be an example for other studios to start up in Philadelphia, and help the video game community grow. Worth has been involved in lobbying for tax incentives and more to attract a greater development presence here, though other markets battle for those businesses. The Play Eternal team worked with state Sen. Daylin Leach to introduce Senate Bill 700 to offer tax breaks for video game development company, but four months later the bill is still sitting in the senate finance committee [See sidebar].

Although the bill will benefit Play Eternal, being the first studio of its kind in Philadelphia has proved to be a bit challenging.

“When you’re the first, its good and bad. People were really interested in us right away. The bad news is, that because there’s no industry here, nobody knows about the financial and social benefits of it,” Worth said.

Worth stressed because the industry is not as big as some of the current industries, like pharmaceuticals and biotechs, it is harder for people to realize the potential of the video game industry to benefit the capital of the city.

“The hardest thing is educating people about what the game industry actually is. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Once you say that to people, their eyes perk up, like, ‘oh, this actually makes money,’” Tranchitella said.

Play Eternal currently employs around 17 people, said Tranchitella, but they hope to grow to around 50 or 60 members over the next two to three years.

“We really want to be involved in the game community in Philadelphia,” he said. “We want to be a studio that people respect and look up to. We want to be a studio that people want to come and work at.”

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