In a year’s time, Big Huge Games, Impossible Studios and, soon, Zynga East will all have closed.
On Monday news surfaced that Zynga will shutter its Timonium office, otherwise known as Zynga East and open since 2009, as part of a broader consolidation effort “to leverage resources as we focus on creating franchises and driving profitability,” wrote Zynga’s COO David Ko on the company blog.
Where does that leave the Baltimore video game industry?
That move, while discouraging, isn’t entirely surprising. Zynga has been described in the past as more an analytics company than a gaming company, which, for a social media-gaming enterprise, makes sense to a point. But success in social media game development relies on attracting eyeballs, something that can be easily outsourced to algorithms that just identify what people are clicking on. Eventually delivering games becomes less about delivering new, challenging entertainment and more about delivering a steady stream of new content. As interest in social media gaming waned, so too did the San Francisco-based company’s stock price.
But earlier this month news broke that Impossible Studios too was closing its doors. After eight months, the Hunt Valley-based wing of North Carolina-based Epic Games (creators of “Gears of War 3”) — the studio that brought on board a number of former Big Huge Games staffers after that company went belly-up in May 2012 — is kaput.
Not much more than 20 years ago, MicroProse, with headquarters in Hunt Valley, released “Civilization,” the revered turn-based strategy game developed by Sid Meier. Now the way forward for the Baltimore region’s gaming industry seems muddled.
One avenue is for independent game developers to set up shop and reclaim some of the game-development “glory,” suggests BaltimoreGamer.com founder Gabe Pendleton in a blog post about Zynga East’s closing.
The rise of indie developers isn’t entirely new. Big-name studios guarantee less today in the way of job security. What’s more, as “digital distribution” has made it easier for developers with talent to release their own pet projects, there’s less a need for game developers to stick with big-time studios just to satiate their passion for creating video games, something Ars Technica noted in 2011 in a piece about indie game development.
In Baltimore, it’s the smaller studios that are making headway, specifically in mobile and tablet gaming.
- There’s Pure Bang Games in Highlandtown, which has created several jigsaw puzzle games for the Nook.
- The recently opened gaming division within Catonsville-based Mindgrub Technologies is another group working on mobile gaming. Its iTunes game “TAG” received a gold ADDY award last spring.
Still, while the advent of relatively new mobile-gaming startups in the Baltimore area is encouraging, it’s not a panacea for a local industry that has been rocked by three significant closings in the last year. Before it even set its eyes on mobile game development, Mindgrub was profitable from making other mobile and web products. Pure Bang Games makes its money creating websites and mobile games for clients, as founder Ben Walsh told Technically Baltimore in December, not quite from the sales its own game pulls in.
As for the money the indie studios could use to hire top talent coming from defunct, large studios? It’s not yet there, or at least not competitive with what larger studios could afford. Investment in indie game studios is lacking as well. In short, there is a net loss in video game industry jobs with all of these closures.
“You have to prove you can monetize, then worry about audience,” Walsh has said of the investment climate in Baltimore. “Games aren’t something they’re comfortable investing in.”
So despite the rise of independent game developers being a trend in the industry as a whole, efforts in Baltimore are nascent by comparison.
Not all new developments in the Baltimore region’s gaming industry have been bleak.
- In late January, Day 1 Studios, which has an office in Hunt Valley, was acquired by online game developer Wargaming to work on a yet-to-be-announced console game.
- Brian Reynolds, chief game designer at Zynga East, left his post earlier in February and has hinted at plans to start a mobile gaming company based in Baltimore County.
- And, lest anyone forget, the studio that claims “Civilization” creator Sid Meier as director of creative development, Firaxis Games, charges on in Hunt Valley, and originally set up shop in 1996. Read a profile of Firaxis by the Sun from October here.
Grassroots efforts to laud indie game development in Baltimore city, like the annual Gamescape event at Artscape, also do their part to bring attention to the history — and the new growth — of video game development in the Baltimore region. And local universities, among them the University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art, have programs geared toward teaching game design.
But the gaming industry in the Baltimore region appears to be ripe for a shakeup.
As Pendleton writes, game developers in this region can “either sit around waiting for the slow metamorphosis of the industry to begin or regain the entrepreneurial spirit we left at the company door.”
Presumably, developers do that by walking out the company door.
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