Three young Clarkson graduates seeking to break into the highly competitive video games industry are doing it the hard way. They have founded their own games company and funded it from their collective savings, rather than bank loans or venture capital.
Even so, they start with an edge over much of their competition; the prototype version of their first game, Snapshot, was nominated in 2009 for the prestigious Excellence in Design award at the Independent Games Festival. “It’s hard to get your game noticed, especially if you are a small independent game developer,” says Peter Jones ’08, co-founder of the group’s company, Retro Affect. “The Festival gave us a really good launch pad.”
The trio has been immersed in video games since childhood. Kyle Pulver ’08 began playing video games when he was two. By age 12, he had created one of his own. David Carrigg ’07 learned to read from video games instruction manuals. After college, he turned down a lucrative offer from IBM, opting instead for an uncertain future in the video game industry. And Jones sees things in everyday life that might serve as the raw ingredients for future video games. One of his nightmares provided the grist for Snapshot.
All three are steeped in the technology that underlies today’s sophisticated video games. Carrigg graduated with a degree in computer science. Pulver and Jones each earned a degree in the Digital Arts & Sciences (DA&S) program. Clarkson’s DA&S program was the nation’s first to demand that its graduates be proficient at both the artistic skills and the computer skills needed in film-making, advertising and video games.
“Our skills are complementary,” says Jones. “When Kyle and I did the prototype for Snapshot, Kyle took care of the science side, I took care of the art. When we wanted to make it a bigger game, the science was beyond either of us. That’s when Dave joined up. While there’s some overlap, each of us has skills that the others don’t.”
“Now we’re talking about how to get 3-D models on the screen,” says Carrigg. “Instead of trying to make something look like a rock, we’re trying to make it look like a rock with water on it, where light bounces off just as it does in real life.” The challenge is to translate the complex artistic vision onto the screen, and that takes the kind of advanced technical skills that Carrigg brings to Retro Affect. “My role,” he says, “is to open the doors for Peter and Kyle to do whatever they want by solving the technical problems.”
In the past, Retro Affect’s chances in an industry dominated by Sony (PlayStation), Nintendo (Wii), and Microsoft (Xbox) might have been poor. But the arrival of high-speed computers and advanced software at bargain prices leveled the playing field for upstart game companies, just as it has for book publishing and recording. Anyone can write a book on their computer and sell it online, and any independent band can bypass the record labels and sell through the Internet.
The scenario is similar for independent game companies. “Making a game is really easy compared to what it used to be,” says Pulver. “There’s lots of software out there. This will encourage more people to take a role in the game industry, rather than just playing the games.”
In this new world, big outfits such as Sony still offer their own games. But for a fee, they also serve as distributors for games produced by small concerns like Retro Affect. Ownership of the games and the profits remain with the independents. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Jones. “The big players don’t have to spend money on the game’s development. And we don’t have to spend money on distribution and advertising.”
In the end, the trio won’t be a cog in a big company that uses hundreds of employees to design a new game, nor will they have sold their rights to outside money men. If they hit it big, they will reap the rewards and the credit.“I didn’t want to spend two or three years making a really cool product, and then have the product associated not with me, but with the investor who financed it,” says Carrigg. “It’s my company. I’m not just another salaried employee. And I want to make this the best game I possibly can, because it’s my game.”