Game Development and Community in Chicago

Josh Tsui

Did you know that three major iOS games have been released in the last three weeks by three Chicago area game studios? Fact is, we didn’t know about the other developments either and that bothers me.  

My studio, Robomodo, last week released “In Time The Game”, a tie-in to the Justin Timberlake movie opening this Friday. The week before was“Scribblenauts Remix” by Iron Galaxy Studios and “Dark Meadow” by Phosphor Games Studio. All three are considered major games for iOS. How did that happen without us knowing about it? 

This brings up something that has been a concern of mine for some time, the idea of community and transparency. A lot of us in the Chicago game community know each other pretty well yet there is very little sense of community outside of some bar meet ups and the occasional IGDA meetings. These meetings are great to socialize but not a whole lot of meat to them. People are under NDAs and such so that is understandable, but people are very reluctant to discuss ways they have improved or solved certain issues that we all encounter.

I have been making the rounds lately talking to various tech companies outside of games and the personality seems very different. There tends to be more of a sharing of ideas with different companies. Granted, they are not giving away their secret sauce, but that’s not what is important. What is important is the idea of a person putting stuff out there and be willing to share some thoughts. That creates great energy to others which comes right back.

My “world tour” of Chicago tech really exposed to me how old school thinking a lot of us game people here are. I attribute a lot of it to the fact that many of us came from the old Midway Games days where teams within the building did not even know what the others were doing.  The world has changed in the games industry, especially with independent studios on the rise. Here in Chicago we are not competing with each other, we are now competing against places like Montreal where they can pour in people by the boatloads thanks to government subsidies. We need to find a way to look at our various resources and not be afraid to ask others for some help that can be returned later on. I have been to a couple of tech incubators and see how they share various resources and it is really inspiring. I am not expecting some hippy commune of game companies, but really just trying to set some ground rules that allows us to open up to each other better.

So I guess the big question is, what are the next steps? What practices have you all implemented with your “competitors” to help each other out. If I hear crickets, we’re doomed.

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Peter Bennett
I’m excited to hear that this is going on. Although the industry nights and kickball tournaments are great for comradarie, they are mostly social events. To me, these events are helpful if you’re interested in networking or just making friends with local developers. For developers with significant others, children or important responsibilities, there is less incentive to attend. 

Up until a few years back, there used to be a steady stream of Chicago game developer discussion panels hosted (mostly by local colleges and some by the IGDA). I always felt that these were the best events to attend because there was a high chance that you would learn something new or just hear about a cool game in development. Every single panel discussion that I’ve attended stimulated my mind in some way. I usually had 10-15 questions to ask after the panels ended, which naturally lead to networking and socialization. None of these panels ever reached the size of a GDC presentation, but the consistency was more important. In fact, these panel discussions have been more influential to me than the majority of GDC lectures I’ve attended. I seems like the closest thing we have is the Indie City Games meet-ups.
Josh Tsui
John, got great feedback from people and I think we have a great idea. Let's get together sometime next week. My email is [email protected]
John W Ostler
I'm throwing the flag in air.  We'd like to host the first event!  Josh/Jared, hit me up to work the logistics, website, name this mutha!  We (Eight Bit Studios) have a large space at 815 W Weed st (corner of Clybourn/Halsted/North) that's been begging for something just like this!
Josh Tsui
I think we missed a big opportunity by not coordinating with Idea Week and Tech Week,Could've easily piggybacked. Will not make that mistake again
Jared Steffes
A local game developers event has been a dream of mine for a while. I have looked into getting existing events to come here and most are afraid of the horror stories with Unions and costs. I would love to do something on a smaller scale.
Philip Tibitoski
I would definitely get behind a local GDC or even something as simple as a Dev Community forum or mailing list that had limited access to only developers so we could just talk about recent industry happenings.
Daniel Loane

One of the biggest problems I see is simply in Logistics.  Studios are spread out in the city and throughout the suburbs which makes centralized get-togethers a real problem.  In the case of the kickball tournament it's a once a year deal and it's a big enough production that we can peer pressure folks into coming.  A lot of us commute to the suburbs thus making it difficult to get out to events that aren't near our preferred modes of transportation home.  I know for me going to industry night means that I have to take a cab to the train after it's over.  


(I'm not meaning to pick on Industry night in particular mind you, I go all the time and have a blast when I do go, and my kickball counterpart Kyle does a great job organizing it.)


So what's the solution you ask?  Well perhaps more than one big event each year? Multiple locations for the same event?  Maybe a conference of our own ala GDC Chicago with presentations and panels (My favorite solution <--)?  More inter studio communication via email?  I reached out to every studio that I could personally when organizing the kickball tournament, even if I didn't know anyone there ([email protected] anyone?). I will be happy to supply someone organizing an event with everything that I used for kickball.  Including contacts for sponsors and prizes!

Philip Tibitoski
It's fine to keep some cards close to your chest, but without sharing and learning from one another there will be no real growth. At least not as much as there could be. The independent community excels in this and I've witnessed the big guys slowly coming around as well. The future is bright, but there's still a lot of work to do. Good points Josh.
Jared Steffes

Great write up josh. I believe some sharing and collaboration within the video game industry is naturally occurring in the Chicagoland area. There are definitely things that can improve, but it is hard to get people out of ruts!

I tend to think of starting a game studio as being an entrepreneur, because it really is! You are creating a studio to make an idea that no one else has done. A person that considers them self as an entrepreneur is more willing to share ideas, knowledge, feedback with outsiders because it is lonely. I always try to get my colleagues to go to outside of work functions with me because it inspires them to share what they are working on with others and sell the vision/dream of the company.


Maybe we need to have a co-ed dance between studios :)

Kyle: I love the industry meet up nights. Thank you for those.


Josh Tsui
John, it's funny you mentioned that. My studio's first game was a Tony Hawk videogame where we also designed a skateboard for kids to stand on to control the characters. Kids loved it in the same way they love Guitar Hero. Latest version of this is Spyro: Skylanders. Check it out
John W Ostler
Perhaps more importantly, is threading the toy and games community into the game development community (yes they are separate).  If anybody isn't aware, Chicago has a lonnnngggg history for game invention.  You'll get a taste of that at the annual Toy & Game Fair  Now that we're seeing crossover with mobile games, I think there are huge opportunities there as well.
Joe Heuvel

Each developer is going to want to get as much publicity for their new release as they can, especially if its free publicity.  So maybe a common place for Chicago devs to post their announcements?  Or even better, a place that will pull all the RSS feeds from all the Chicago developers' web sites and aggregate them into a single site?  There are several web sites that are good candidates for this already.  

It helps to reply to emails from other local developers, too.  Just sayin'...

David Novak

Working mostly as a freelance sound designer I have noticed that developers on a much smaller scale tend to apply these ideas much more readily and frequently. 


My experience with indie devs, small start ups, and students has shown me that the more we accept that we don't always know everything, and embrace change (especially strange and unique change), the more willing we are to share ideas and communicate openly with others in a beneficial way. 


After all, a fertile creative industry like ours is the perfect landscape for this type of cooperation, communication, and sharing. Especially in a city like Chicago, where we are generally in close proximity with one another. 


I salute your efforts. 

Zenah Khawaja

On a related topic, does anyone happen to know if there is Chicago or Midwest chapter of SIGGRAPH? If so, it would be great to learn about that.


Paige Worthy
This is a community I don't know at all — thanks for the news and good luck competing against the other big players, not one another!
Josh Tsui

Kyle, the industry nights you host are always fun and are invaluable. I enjoy them immensely.

To be clear, my point is to get a sense of collaboration outside of meetups. It's more about getting the community to feel like they can reach out and help when situations arise before, during and after productions.

A great example of this was when Denny Thorley at Day One offered to have me and some of the Robonauts go over to his studio to show his pitch process. Was just a couple of hours discussing things and it was invaluable.


Kyle Kyle

Actually, I knew that all three came out. In fact, I announced all three on the Chicago Game Industry page on Facebook. Also in fact, if you go to industry night, at least in my experience having hosted and gone to each one, I find out a lot about what people are working on as soon as they can tell us.


BTW, Industry night is tonight. I hope you can make it so we can finally meet and talk about what we're working on.


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