A DePaul University report says that the Chicago game development space once dominated by titans such as Midway Games and Electronic Arts is now being mostly powered by independently owned and operated small to medium sized game studios. These studios are focusing on mobile platforms and social games, and many feature a mix of both industry veterans and newcomers trying to make a name for themselves in the industry while remaining faithful to the area.
"Chicago’s video game history goes way back to the early days of the gaming industry," says Jose Zagal, assistant professor of game development and interactive media at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media. "Pinball is an important part of the history of Chicago, and a lot of the early pinball companies moved into video games, Midway being the most famous. So there is a tradition that has been in this town for a long time now."
Nick Guida, a game developer at Chicago-based Phosphor Games, adds that much of the same talent pool that was there when Midway was still in business remains there today.
"If you go all the way back to Midway Games and all the great gaming history that Chicago has, that’s really never gone away. Even though Midway has exploded and been reincarnated as several dozen different studios, the same talent pool exists here in Chicago, and it’s only growing."
"The greater diversity in games and the platforms on which they are available have allowed new companies to set up shop in new spaces," Zagal adds. "The way that the industry is structured is also changing and opening up in many ways."
The main reason many of these small studios are able to survive is due mostly to the change in how games can be distributed these days. In the old days they had to rely on a publishing partner to bring games to retail. Now multiple platforms both large and small make it a lot easier to simply distribute games digitally.
"The industry is in an interesting place right now," says Travis Hernandez, game designer at Phosphor. "Studios that don’t have a huge financial backing or a lot of name recognition can put out games that they think are interesting, and the world at large can decide what the next big trend will be.”
"We find 95 percent of our staff from within or around the Chicagoland area," adds Phosphor Games Chief Executive Justin Corcoran. “With two ‘Game of the Year’ nominations under our belt, I feel that we are proof that world-class gaming takes place in Chicago."
The report also mentions Chicago-based studio, Barbaroga, who produced "Spore Origins" and "Muppets Dance Party." Despite a shift toward mobile games, Nick Baker, a quality assurance tester at Barbaroga, sees these types of games existing alongside traditional console games and creating more opportunities for the entire industry.
"With the mobile platform expanding, there are many new studios that are forming, but the console market is still very strong," Baker says. "Many people predict that the console market will eventually fade out, but I think consoles are going to stay the same, and the mobile market will expand. Mobile games really appeal to those who didn’t normally play games and are now being included."
"We’re seeing a lot of stuff on the mobile market, with free games coming into their own and sort of dominating the marketplace," adds Hernandez. "It’s really changing the structure of how you make games and what it means to be a studio. We’re in a state of flux right now as an industry, and you can make and release quality games much more cheaply than you could before. It’s a different way to invest your money, and it makes it really cool to be a developer right now."
Ultimately what DePaul University is trying to say that Chicago is still a hotbed for game development and that its university is doing its part to create a new class of game developers that are capable of producing games that do not rely too much on the old model of doing business.