Like other struggling states, Massachusetts is looking anywhere it can for jobs and cash — including the virtual world of video game technology with its mix of fantasy and rabid fans.
While Boston is home to top gaming companies like the developers of the hugely popular “Rock Band,” “BioShock” and “The Lord of the Rings Online,” it’s just fourth or fifth on the list of top video gaming clusters behind locations like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin, Texas.
Political leaders like Gov. Deval Patrick are hoping to move the state up in the ranks by coaxing more companies to Massachusetts.
The lure is understandable. While other sectors of the economy are slashing jobs, video gaming companies are thriving as eager investors pump in millions to help develop the next generation of games.
If you’re thinking “Pong” or “Space Invaders,” think again.
Today’s games, especially the so-called massively multiplayer online games (MMORPG), can take a company years to create, with development costs topping $100 million — an endeavor akin to the production of a major Hollywood movie.
One company with expertise in the labyrinthine online games is the 15-year-old Westwood, Mass.-based Turbine Inc.
During the past year the company has added almost 50 employees and raised $40 million in new venture capital after the success of “Lord of the Rings Online,” an MMORPG allowing players around the globe to enter into a fantastical world inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Creating and maintaining the game’s online environment requires a small army of artists, computer programmers and support staff, according to company spokesman Adam Mersky, who said video game technology is a growing industry, and a fiercely competitive one.
“We see potential, but it is a tough business,” Mersky said.
The business can also be phenomenally lucrative if a company hits on just the right mix of technology, interactivity and playfulness.
In nearby Cambridge, Harmonix Music Systems struck gold when it invented a game that struck the right note by combining the hyperactivity of old-fashioned arcade games with the age-old pastime of would-be rockers: air guitar. The result — “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” — are two of the most popular video games of all time.
Building the company in the Boston/Cambridge area, home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University and other colleges, ensures a deep well of talent, according to Harmonix co-founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos. The Boston area had another big plus — a thriving music scene centered on local clubs and the Berklee College of Music.
“Massachusetts is a natural fit for video game technology,” Rigopulos said.
Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, an avid online gamer, is also getting into the game, creating one of the area’s newest companies — 38 Studios, based in Maynard, Mass. The company has been open two years and employs 67 people, including Todd McFarlane, creator of the popular comic book franchise “Spawn.”
Brett Close, president and CEO of 38 Studios said the company is building its own massively multiplayer online game, code-named “Copernicus.”
Close said the rise of video games is due in part to their ability to take advantage of new mobile and Web technologies — technologies that demand expertise in software, design, animation, audio and music. Successful games can also be branched out into ring tones, toys and other forms of merchandising.
“You want to give the audience as many platforms of technology as possible to touch this world and interact in this world and be the hero in their fantasy fiction world,” Close said.
States are taking notice.
In Massachusetts, video gaming companies are a bright light in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. The 60-65 companies here employ about 2,000 people, with up to 100 jobs open at any given time. To lure even more businesses, a bill coming up before lawmakers this session would extend existing moviemaking tax credits to video gaming companies.
All of which explains why Patrick, who confesses to being not much of a gamer, was on the West Coast last week pitching Massachusetts as an East Coast gaming mecca. The trip included a visit with executives from Redwood City, Calif.-based video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc.
“Publishers know we have this depth among the developers,” Patrick said.
Local colleges are jumping into the game.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute was one of the first to offer an undergraduate major in interactive media and game development, according to Robert Lindeman, an assistant professor of computer science.
While the idea of a college degree in video games may seem odd to some, Lindeman points to the range of skills needed to develop a successful game.
“Any kid who goes to college is going to be sitting around playing video games,” Lindeman said. “The hard part is building them.”
At MIT, video gaming innovators reached halfway across the globe to form a partnership with the government of Singapore.
Philip Tan, U.S. executive director of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, said his lab is like any other research laboratory, but instead of papers, his students publish prototypes of video games.
The lab started in 2007 and has drawn students from MIT, Singapore and nearby colleges including the Massachusetts College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Terrence Masson, director of game design for Northeastern University, which is starting dual video game majors this year, said technology developed through video games can be applied in other contexts — like creating “medical avatars” to help patients being discharged from hospitals.
Mike Cavaretta, who helps run the MIT Enterprise Forum-Interactive Entertainment Special Interest Group, a kind of trade organization for the gaming community, said gamers can trace their routes in Massachusetts back to a primitive “Dungeons & Dragons” game developed at MIT in the 1960s.
He also said video games are proving largely recession-proof.
“It’s a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment and in times like these people tend to spend more time at home,” he said.