Could Philly ever be a game development hub? Nathan Solomon says no - Technical.ly Philly

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May 24, 2019 1:58 pm

Could Philly ever be a game development hub? Nathan Solomon says no

Philly Game Lab has been gone for three years, but the nonprofit's founder, who now heads up Blackstone LaunchPad at Jefferson, still has ideas about the local gaming community to share.
In Spring 2012, the first-ever Grassroots Game Conference was held by the Philadelphia Game Lab to celebrate independent game developers.

In Spring 2012, the first-ever Grassroots Game Conference was held by the Philadelphia Game Lab to celebrate independent game developers.

(Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Game Lab)

Editor’s note: (5/24/19, 9:37 p.m.) Wow, a lot of you really hated this story! In all seriousness, I realize now that we — I — missed adding a lot of context here. Technical.ly has been covering Philly’s video game community for years, including most recently things like the Phillytron arcade, companies’ crowdfunding raises and when Philly Dev Night became Philly Game Mechanics. We’ve also brought a whole bunch of local game makers to our own events over the years.

So, yeah, there’s a lot more that could have been said here that wasn’t. This story came about because the author wondered what happened to Philadelphia Game Lab, specifically; it doesn’t look like we covered its 2016 shutdown when it happened. The headline and the interviewee’s responses are meant to represent one (challenging) perspective. Still, the result didn’t do enough to also acknowledge the history and current activity of indie game development in Philly.

I’d love to publish a response guest post or roundup of responses to this story, so if you have strong feelings, please do email me — julie@technical.ly. As always, thank you for the feedback. Seriously. -jz

Update: (5/31/19, 9:53 a.m.) Read Julian Castillo’s response, “Why this game developer thinks Philly is ‘lucky to be an indie culture.’

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For a few years before it shut down in 2016, the Philadelphia Game Lab (PGL) was a hub for those interested in building video games locally.

Originally, the nonprofit — not to be confused with the Philly Game Forge — was meant to be a kind of branch of another organization, the Grassroots Game Conference, before PGL founder Nathan Solomon concentrated on working with university students in game technology and development, which would eventually led to the founding of PGL. It shut down largely due to difficulties with its funding model and university partnerships.

There are a number of indie game development studios operating in Philadelphia right now, including PHL Collective, Cipher Prime, Gossamer Games and JumpButton Studio. But could the city still have aspirations for being a hub for the video game industry? Solomon says no.

Since Solomon’s departure from the game lab, he has become the director of Blackstone LaunchPad at Thomas Jefferson University. While he has not completely detached himself from the gaming community, he’s not a convener of it anymore.

I reached out to ask Solomon about the end of PGL, why the industry isn’t stronger in Philly, and whether indie developers have a chance to grow here. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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For what reasons did the Philly Game Lab shut down?

We shut down in 2016. At that point we had held the Grassroots Game Conference for two years (2012 to 2013), then operated with focus on working with university students in immersive experience and game technology development as the Philadelphia Game Lab for two years (2014 to 2016). I actually started out with the idea that PGL would be a different sort of entity, and organically transitioned to the final model of working primarily with teams of university students and recent grads (about 120 individuals in total), in development of technology, in late 2013.

I can probably best organize the reasons for ending the project into two categories:

[First,] creative technology talent in Philadelphia lies overwhelmingly in universities. We had great relationships with professors and students at a range of universities, including Penn, CMU, Temple and Drexel. Students with whom we worked, especially at Penn and CMU, all loved this city but generally moved on high prestige tech companies on the west coast or elsewhere (unless they stayed here to work at Comcast). We were a step on that path, between university and prestige positions.

The bookend problem to that proposition, which eventually became clear, was that universities have a strong tendency to want to be in the position/role we were taking. We were squeezed between the universities wanting to develop IP/entrepreneurship and the tech companies to which our developers were inevitably bound. This made it hard to see how we could flourish in the long term.

[Second,] I founded PGL as a 501c3 in the belief that that structure would both facilitate university relationships, and be helpful in finding additional funding toward our mission. The problems we ran into with this approach were around the reality that our best and most promising funding sources ended up being in commissioned technology development.

We grew from $7,000 in revenue in 2013 to ~$700,000 in revenue in 2014, that went entirely toward paying students and recent graduates in this region — which created a problem unique to nonprofit structure, in that we could take no investment to continue that growth, and that a nonprofit cannot take on a credit line until it has three years of audited financials. The latter meant that every month or so, I had to approach a board member for bridging funds to carry us until we receive payment from a client for the work we were currently doing.

The institutional funding that we’d hoped would be aided by 501c3 status never materialized, for a couple of reasons. The first is that funding for economic development and regional job creation is (quite reasonably) much more focused on the unemployed and unskilled, rather than the highly skilled students with whom we worked — a majority of which were grad students. The second is that much grant funding is also dependent upon a longer history of audited financials.

Do you think the video game industry presence is strong in Philly? Why or why not?

Historically, video games tend to require a set of skills that have not aligned well with those of endemic Philadelphia businesses. Where else are 3D modeling, creative C++ programming and game design needed here? All of those things align well with motion picture/animation, theatrical embedded systems/theme parks, and other areas of expertise that are big in Los Angeles, Central Florida, NYC, etc. In addition to that path, there are locations like Austin and Maryland that have organically grown specifically as a result of game developers who started businesses there during periods of the industry’s greatest expansion.

In a place like Austin, there are a lot of developers, working for a number of game development entities. When one business goes under, a developer can move to another. That’s a much more appealing situation into which to be hired than going to a city where there’s only one game company, so it’s really a big deal to decide to become that sole game company in a city.

The only way something really major in games could come to Philadelphia would be if they parachuted in a fully formed, fully backed team of experts. There’s one example I know of that happening anywhere in the past, 38 Studios, and that did not work out well.

I previously worked with the folks in New Orleans who got a Louisiana tax break passed for game development, and that had negligible impact for them. [Editor’s note: Solomon also didn’t think tax credits would work here in Philly when they were proposed back in 2014.]

Canada does a better job with creating centers of opportunity in game development, largely because of the high quality and low cost of appropriate university training, and also because instead of tax breaks it directly subsidizes industry employees’ salaries. That said, its centers (Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal) also have some of the same endemic industries requiring skills with high applicability to game development that I mentioned previously.

I believe that the best opportunities for something like game development being truly significant in this region are in development of immersive experience. The biggest centers for this in North America are Los Angeles and Montreal. Montreal because it has a nexus of technical and creative talent, not unlike what is beginning to form in Philadelphia. Data shows that one of the best business categories here is live entertainment, so that immersive entertainment is strategically aligned with local opportunity in a way that games never were.

Do indie developers have a chance to grow here?

Absolutely, it’s a great place to live and to exploit one’s own skills and talents. The barriers would lie primarily in the fact that they are highly unlikely to find creative day jobs in the industry here and they are even less likely to find others with depth of experience and skills here.

I should also mention a minor factor that impacted PGL and would likely affect most indie developers starting up: Because there isn’t a base of experienced game industry people here, when you have a game business in Philadelphia that runs into barriers, and go to ask local people for help and resources, they’re unlikely to be able to dive in and be really useful in helping you to next steps. There’s a strong likelihood that you’ll get the response “you’re the visionary; just make this work like you always do!” I got to a point where I didn’t have answers for what we should do next here, and neither did anyone else.

What are you currently working on now?

I’m director of the Blackstone LaunchPad for entrepreneurship at Jefferson University and I also spend a fair amount of time developing immersive works and technology in collaboration with creative engineers and other folks. We just patented a new method for large-scale deforming of physical spaces for responsive experiences, and are working on a few other projects.

I’m also trying to get good enough at Fusion360 to better develop additive and subtractive-manufactured components for installations. I come from cinematography, so my practical skills are largely in optics, light and physical rigging.

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