The birth of Philadelphia's video game scene - Technical.ly Philly

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Aug. 6, 2009 4:03 pm

The birth of Philadelphia’s video game scene

Video games are a good industry to have around. They have a two-to-three-year production cycle, and bring high-skill, high-earning employees.

THE SUITORS: (L-R) Damon Alberts, Mike Worth and Hardik Bhatt of the Videogame Growth Initiative are trying to talk officials into making Philly worth game developers' while. (Credit: Mark Stehle)

Note: As part of a content sharing agreement, this article first appeared in today's Citypaper and has been republished with permission.

The members of the Videogame Growth Initiative Philadelphia (VGI) are buzzing around a seventh-floor conference room high above Broad Street. The group has two hours to convince representatives of state government that it’s worth creating new incentives to lure video game companies to Philly.

Audio engineer Mike Worth along with local video game executive Damon Alberts, Drexel professor Frank Lee, lawyer Dennis Manning and developer Hardik Bhatt, churn through slides, charts, spreadsheets and game screenshots at a rapid-fire rate as representatives from state government and city economic groups look on.

At first, the guests’ gazes are empty, and energy level low. But the high-octane presentation soon has them interested.

“There’s no reason Philadelphia can’t be the Hollywood for video games,” Bhatt says.

Recently, municipalities have begun clamoring to attract video game studios by offering tax rebates, credits and other incentives (as they previously did for movie productions). Savannah, Ga., even offers free rent for an entire year to studios willing to relocate there.

The reason? Video games are a good industry to have around. They have a two-to-three-year production cycle, and bring high-skill, high-earning employees.

And the timing is right. Forty-eight out of 50 states have incentives to attract film productions, but only eight have video game-focused incentives, according to VGI’s research. Pennsylvania (and Philadelphia), the group argues, can be among the first wave to attract the industry and establish an entrenched video game sector.

Philly might be an ideal city to take advantage of this opportunity. Currently, many video game studios are based out of Silicon Valley, Boston or New York. Philly’s comparably low cost of living is attractive. What’s more, says Worth, Philly has the infrastructure for the industry in the form of our universities. The University of Pennsylvania has the only Ivy League game development program in the country, and graduates are routinely poached by large West Coast-based gaming companies such as Electronic Arts.

Bhatt, 24, would know. He graduated from St. Joe’s in 2007 and wanted to work in video games, but found his options limited in Philadelphia.

“If I had the choice to stay here and work at a gaming company, I would,” he says. “I want to have that choice, and that’s what motivates me [to bring the industry here].”

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After graduating, Bhatt earned a degree certificate in digital media at Drexel University where he helped develop “Maxwell’s Demon,” a game that can be played without a typical controller, using only sensors on the head and neck.

He was then invited in March to present the game at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. There, he noticed that several municipalities had booths on display trying to entice video game studios.

Cities such as Austin are offering a 5 percent to 7 percent rebate on cash expenditures, while Boston is planning a 25 percent tax credit. Other states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Connecticut offer similar tax incentives.

“Then this conversation happened where [Mike and I] wondered, ‘Why isn’t Philadelphia prevalent in this industry?'” Bhatt says.

“We saw places like Toronto and Georgia that had booths attracting all of these places to open up satellite studios there, and we didn’t see Philadelphia. So we took on this mission to put Philadelphia on the map.”

Worth and Bhatt spoke to a few friends in the industry, presented their thoughts at Bloblive, an “open mic night for entrepreneurs,” and networked with Innovation Philadelphia and Select Greater Philadelphia, who helped organize the meeting with the governor’s Action Team.

Unfortunately for VGI, free rent and new tax breaks aren’t that appealing to a state with no budget and a city in fiscal crisis. Instead, the decision-makers suggested, the city, state and VGI could work together to market already-existing business incentives to video game studios. City Paper called the Governor’s Action Team for further comment, but didn’t hear back by press time.

The current plan is to compile marketing and incentives into a one-page Web site that VGI can present to people in the industry who have expressed interest in moving to Philadelphia. VGI already has scheduled a meeting between the state and prospective new studios.

The team is trying to look at this as the first step in a long process.

“That’s still not enough, it’s not like other cities don’t have these kinds of incentives,” Bhatt says. “I’m hoping it doesn’t take a studio to look into the city and decide to go somewhere else for them to change their minds.”

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