There is no precise data on the number of video game companies in New York. But based on more than two dozen interviews and the survey conducted for this study in partnership with the New York chapter of the IGDA, we have identified roughly 30 game development companies in the five boroughs and another 55 companies that work on some aspect of game production, from animation and ad sales to sound effects and marketing— numbers that represent dramatic growth from just a few years earlier. The industry employs at least 1,200 people in the city.
“When I started six years ago in New York, there was a very limited game community,” says Fortugno of Rebel Monkey. “What’s happened since then is that more and more studios have started to pop up, mobile has gotten a deeper foothold in New York, more casual games studios have come up, and those casual game studios have gotten much bigger. I see more people in the games industry than I have ever seen before.”
A mix of companies responded to our survey, from game developers and publishers to distributors and audio companies. Only two of the companies that replied to our survey have fewer employees than when they started, and several have seen tremendous growth. For example:
• Arkadium Games, a game development and publishing company, started as a husband-and-wife pair in 2001 and now employs 27 people. The company’s revenues reached $12 million last year.
• Powerhead Games, which produces games for the Nintendo DS, started with three or four people working out of the founders’ apartment in 2000, and now has 22 employees.
• Gamelab, the largest casual game company in New York, was founded with two employees in 2000 and now has a staff of 25.
• Kaos Studios works on console games for the Xbox 360, such as Frontlines: Fuel of War. The company began with 15 employees and has since grown to about 90, with plans to add another 30 employees by year’s end.
• Rebel Monkey, a casual game studio, grew from 1 to 15 employees just in the past year.
• Large Animal Games, another casual game company, added six jobs last year, to bring their total to 18 employees, and plans to add another six this year.
By their estimates, the 38 companies that completed the survey have been involved with the development and distribution of more than 1,500 games, with the largest focus on browser-based games, downloadable PC games and mobile games. Chelsea has emerged as the geographic hub of the industry in the city, with at least 10 companies in the neighborhood.
Wade Tinney, co-founder of Large Animal Games, says that New York’s game industry has grown as much in reputation as in size. “I can remember going out to the Game Developers Conference. The first two or three years we went out there, whenever I would meet someone and give them my card, they would see that I was from New York, and say: ‘I didn’t even know there were game companies there,’” he recalls. “That’s definitely changed. Now, I think most folks in the game industry could name at least a couple of New York based companies.”
New York’s video game industry overall may not be as large as other regions, but it has carved out some impressive niches. New York’s largest market share is in casual games, which are typically PC games that are played online or downloaded, often by people who don’t identify as hard-core ‘gamers.’ Casual games can be played in five or ten minute bursts, and can also be ported for play on cell phones or consoles.
New York is home to several of the nation’s largest and most well-known casual game companies, including Gamelab, which created the best-selling game Diner Dash, about an executive who quits her job to run a diner. But casual games don’t just emerge from the well-known companies. Dave Gilbert, founder and sole employee of Wadjet Eye Games, created a PC adventure game called The Shivah, which features a rabbi detective solving a murder mystery. Independently, he developed the game on his laptop, using “anyplace that has a Wi-Fi connection” as his office. Thanks to positive word of mouth and a presentation at the IGDA’s “Demo Night,” The Shivah quickly sold more than 1,000 copies.
New York also has a number of mobile game companies that develop mobile games, and city firms are beginning to establish a major presence in the field of serious games. Several award-winning serious games focusing on everything from education in Haiti to the conflict in the Middle East have been developed in New York, and the nonprofit organization Games for Change, which focuses on serious games, recently received a macarthur grant to expand their work.
Take-Two Interactive Software, best known for the controversial Grand Theft Auto games published by its subsidiary, Rockstar Games, is also headquartered in New York. More than 250 people work in the Take-Two office just above Houston Street, including the 100 employees in Rockstar’s New York studio that do everything from game development and publishing to quality assurance and art design. Rockstar’s games take several years and millions of dollars to produce, so none of their games are created in New York, soup to nuts. But the company’s founders, Sam and Dan Houser, call the New York office home and all games have some input from the New York team. Two other large game companies, Atari and Vivendi, have business offices here, but don’t do any development or design in New York.
Another handful of companies in New York are not gaming firms per se, but incorporate game creation as part of their larger portfolio—including ad agencies and web development firms that design games for clients or large media companies that have video game divisions, like Viacom.
Many in the industry point to New York’s creative workforce as a tremendous asset. “Because we make culture, the cultural diversity of the city and the cultural sophistication of the inhabitants of this city has been a big plus for us,” says Gamelab Co-founder Eric Zimmerman. “We’ve benefited from being in the place that’s the nexus of music and fashion and visual design and the arts and entertainment.”
New York’s video game industry may be best known for casual and mobile games, but most cities have grown gaming hubs around the console game development companies that drive employment and profit within the sector. Seattle is home to Nintendo and Microsoft; California has Electronic Arts; Ubisoft is headquartered in Montreal. In contrast, new York city has only a couple companies working on console games, and just one that has developed a game from start to finish in new York: Kaos Studios, which is a subsidiary of THQ, Inc., a major company with 14 locations worldwide. While Kaos barely approaches the largest studios in terms of size, its potential seems sky high.
In 2001, Frank DeLise, an independent game developer, created a mod to one of his favorite video games, Battlefield 1942, updating the action from World War II-era dogfights to modern-day warfare. A year later, he created his own studio, Trauma Studios. In 2006, THQ acquired the Trauma Studios team and rebranded it as Kaos Studios. The studio, based in Chelsea, had 15 people on staff when it joined the THQ family; in just two years, Kaos has grown to 90 employees, with plans to expand to 110 by the end of 2008. Its first release for the Xbox 360, Frontlines: Fuel of war, was built off of DeLise’s original idea of a “what-if scenario” about the world’s dependence on oil and a future modern-day war. It was released in February 2008 to positive reviews, and a sequel is already under development.
When DeLise founded the company, he hoped it would help draw more skilled workers to the Big Apple. “to be a new studio was a way to attract talent. A lot of people working in the industry in Florida, California and Texas are from new York and they left new York because there was nothing here,” he explains. “I thought that if I started something here, I would be able to get people to come back. That is how we were able to grow. A lot of people want to come to new York. The fact that we were in new York was a big, big draw.”
Kaos’ growth has not gone unnoticed by others in the sector, and many think the success of Frontlines: Fuel of war could help jumpstart new York’s video game industry. “I really hope that game sells its butt off, because that’s the only thing that’s going to make those kinds of [console] companies think it’s a good idea to do business here,” says Peter Mack, president of Templar Studios.