Never mind the recession, the Triangle computer gaming industry is booming | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Never mind the recession, the Triangle computer gaming industry is booming 

Appetite for destruction

click to enlarge Gears of War 2
  • Gears of War 2

As video games become an increasingly accepted part of mainstream media, the Triangle is poised to become a major hub for this industry. The inaugural Triangle Game Conference, held April 29 and 30 at Raleigh's Marriott City Center, helped prove this, with nearly double the anticipated attendance and rave reviews from industry veterans and newcomers alike.

With 730 attendees, the conference proved a smash that's already spawned a larger follow-up in 2010. "We overcame the economic downturn, the housing market crash and the swine flu," joked conference programming director Alexander Macris.

The tone of the conference was generally relaxed and friendly, but it became intense when it came to games and the gaming industry. A casual conversation often involved a dozen or so pieces of technical jargon, but suits were rare, and suits with ties were rarer. Attendees ranged from gaming CEOs, including Macris, a co-founder of Durham's Themis Group, to students hoping to break into the game industry, and crowds flowed freely from the exhibition hall to the five tracks of panels and talks held during the event. Panel discussions included a series of talks known as "Game Design University," which offered advice on everything from how to start a company to visual composition and storytelling within a game.

All races, ages, shapes and sizes of both genders were represented; while walking down the hall, overheard bits of small talk included one attendee's profanity filled-boast about hacking his cell phone, and a college-age girl complaining that her ex-boyfriend always wanted her to merely watch a LAN party instead of joining in on the game.

Many of the major Triangle companies were represented at the conference, including Epic Games, Red Storm, Icarus Studios and Atomic Games. Even when a major setback hit Atomic's controversial Six Days in Fallujah, it almost served to illustrate how united local game companies are in helping each other and encouraging growth in the area.

Six Days in Fallujah, a combat game based on the so-called "Second Battle" of that Iraqi city, has been the subject of negative publicity from both veteran and peace groups who feel that it could trivialize the hostilities. In the evening of the conference's first day, word came that Konami, the game's planned publisher, had canceled the release in the wake of the controversy.

Atomic's CEO, Peter Tamte, did not wish to comment publicly about the game's cancelation, but he did speak about the game in his keynote address on the second day of the conference.

Tamte told a standing-room only crowd that spilled into the exhibition room across the hall that Fallujah had grown out of Atomic's work with serious games with the Marines, who wanted their story told. He showed footage of Marines they had interviewed for the game, and compared the experience to war films such as Black Hawk Down.

"This is an event that has shaped our world," said Tamte, who talked about how closely Atomic had worked with primary sources in creating the game, from interviewing Marines, insurgents and war historians to programming the AI with original battle maps. "Movies, music and TV have helped people make sense of the complex issues of our times—are we really just high-tech toymakers, or are we media companies capable of producing content that is as relevant as [those mediums]?"

Whether the world is ready for a game that realistically recreates a current event, Tamte's point about games' content is relevant. Fallujah grew out of Atomic's work in "serious games," games typically used as training exercises. The Triangle is a leading producer of gaming software that has educational or therapeutic application. At the East Carolina University booth, representatives discussed serious game projects that could aid in everything from surgery to helping veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Click for larger image • Inside the capacious Marriott City Center, a Triangle Game Conference panel discussion takes place in a small room. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

The large number of companies in the area—many of which have a relatively small number of employees—has also resulted in a sort of camaraderie. Many companies attending the show raved about their close-knit collaboration with both local universities, and other Triangle companies.

"It's a great pool of talent at the local universities, and it's great to be able to brainstorm with other studios in the area," says Julie Cox, a spokeswoman for Resistance and Spyro the Dragon development company Insomniac Games, which has an office in Durham. Like others at the conference, she believes the Triangle has the potential to become the East Coast hub for game development.

The Triangle's already made great progress. For those who don't know an AI from a MMORPG, the numbers speak for themselves: There's more than 30 game-related companies in the Triangle, a massive expansion from just a few years ago. Along with the acclaimed curricula at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Wake Technical Community College has enjoyed great success with its simulation and game development department, with many companies actively recruiting from these programs.

The area is the world leader in producing serious games, along with leading in development of game engines, which is software used to develop games (one display in the exhibition hall had a designer casually sculpting an alien head covered with gills and reptilian flesh). Games developed here are also becoming pop-cultural tastemakers: The highest-profile company is Epic Games, whose Gears of War 2 sold four million copies and received 117 industry award nominations since its release late last year.

Epic Games president Michael Capps says he's been "amazed" by the game industry's rapid growth. "You could blink and there's 1,000 people here and you didn't see them move in," Capps says. "We kind of hit critical mass about four years ago, and I don't see that trend changing as our market continues to grow."

Like Atomic Games, Epic has enjoyed success in the serious game market, particularly with the recruitment game series America's Army, which Capps recalls was also controversial at first. "We had a hard time selling that to old generals: 'A video game?'" he recalls. But the series became a massive hit, and Capps says he now meets with military figures who are fascinated with Epic's work: "They're going, 'Wow, how do you do all this?'"

Next year's conference is already scheduled for April 7 and 8, with more speakers and a larger part of the center booked. "The game industry is the most important medium of the 21st century," says Macris, "and the Triangle is at the heart of this." Considering how fast the industry has grown in the Triangle, the conference may soon have the entire, capacious convention center to itself.

For more information on the Triangle Game Conference, visit trianglegameconference.com.

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