Professional game developers struggle to turn profit

By Eric Zimmer

It’s about six in the evening, and a group of high school freshmen were at a Chipotle close to school after band practice. They’re clustered together, noses buried in their phones as they go back and forth about the new apps they’ve discovered.

“Hey, download this,” one says. “I’ve been totally addicted all week.”

Upon discovering that the game would cost a dollar up front, she turned her friend down. The only apps that were worth discussing had to be free. Games were downloaded, given a few minutes at most to make an impression, and deleted immediately if they didn’t impress.

In the modern day, app culture has become so ingrained into daily life that many people don’t give a thought to who creates the multitudes of free programs that can be downloaded on a whim. Most assume that development happens exclusively at foreign software conglomerates or think tank startups. While this is often the case, the widespread availability of resources has made app and game development possible anywhere, and Kentucky is no exception.

For example, take Hitcents, a creative agency founded in 1999 located in Bowling Green. The tech company started as an internet ad agency, but has since grown into a multi-faceted software house. The company has put out multiple successful games, won so many awards that they have a wall to shelve them, and branched out internationally, with an office in Shanghai, China.

Their office space, downtown next to the Bowling Green Ballpark, is as modern as one would expect. Cubicle free work stations and glass-walled meeting rooms created an air of openness. The break room has a ping pong table, and several Nerf guns were piled in a corner, foam bullets peeking out from under desks. A motorized skateboard was sitting on one side of the office, allowing quick travel to the other side for anyone daring enough.

“We’ve got free breakfast on Mondays. Almost anything you could want for breakfast, we’ve got it,” Hitcents Marketing Director Laura Gay said while passing by the fully stocked kitchen. “We make a point to make sure our people like coming here.”

Matt Bitner is a Senior Game Designer at Hitcents. A Western Kentucky University graduate with a major in English, Bitner taught himself how to program after college and joined Hitcents in 2012. A fan of video games since childhood, the opportunity to make games as a living was a sort of dream job for Bitner.

“At the end of the day, I’m making something fun for other people to enjoy, and I get paid to do it. That’s pretty great,” Bitner said. “Being a part of Hitcents gives us resources and exposure to make a caliber of game that I couldn’t make on my own.”

However, it isn’t a perfect world. The business realities of developing games to earn a profit doesn’t allow for a complete realization of the team’s creative vision, he said.

“We’re still trying to make money; people need to get paid,” Bitner said, describing changes made to one of the company’s games, Draw a Stickman: Epic 2. The game was released to critical acclaim, but because the game asked for $2 up front rather than being free at the start, it was not profitable.

The team had to rework the mechanics so the game would urge players to make in-app purchases to make a profit rather than charging them for the full product. Other games had to be reworked to be more aggressive in encouraging in-app purchases.

“We tried to sorta be relaxed about it, not cram it down your throat every three screens,” Bitner said. “But the game just didn’t make any money that way.”

But the creative freedoms that need to be sacrificed aren’t enough to turn Bitner off.

“We’re doing really cool stuff, like, now and in the future,” Bitner said. “The talent I get to work with here, it’s a unique experience, especially for this region.”

Jason Mize has a somewhat different story. The Lexington resident is one half of Really Big Spiders, a game development studio founded with his partner Sherman Adelson in 2005. There’s no office with free breakfast and ping pong where he goes to create games for a salary; he runs a local coffee shop to pay the bills and does all of his developing from home.

“Desk, laptop, and two monitors,” Mize said, describing his home workstation. “I do a lot of my thinking with just a drawing pad for notes and sketches.”

Really Big Spiders doesn’t have the budget or resources that a larger studio like Hitcents has. Both developers have to take on a number of jobs, many outside of actual development, to try and make their games a success. Mize isn’t just half of Really Big Spiders’ development side; he’s half of the marketing team as well.

“The disadvantages are all in the difficulty in marketing a game on a small budget,” Mize said. “There’s so much noise in the game world that it can be hard to get the attention of press and players as a small studio.”

Still, Mize seems content with where his studio is at. Their game, Tales From The Strange Universe, is a subscription based sci-fi game made with $10,000 raised on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform. While the player numbers aren’t outstanding, Mize expressed satisfaction with the community surrounding it.

“We have a small but loyal community,” he said. “A number of our players have been with us for five plus years and live in every part of the world.”

More than anything, Mize made it clear that his drive to develop comes from a passion for the medium.

“There’s something beautiful in looking at a lot of games you love and admire and seeing if you can add to the collection,” he said.

This sentiment of passion is a running theme throughout the Kentucky game development scene as well as a desire to see the industry here grow. One of the best places to see this desire is in a side room of LVL1 (Level One) Hackerspace, an open community workshop for all things tech. Every other Sunday, a group of local game developers gather for a meetup called Game Dev Lou.

The atmosphere of the meetup is overwhelmingly friendly, a sense of comradery via vocation pervading the room. Casual conversation flows from one table to the other, accompanied by the clicking of keys on the multitude of laptops.

There isn’t a set goal; two developers are troubleshooting some bugs in their game, two others are bouncing new ideas off of each other, and one spent a good chunk of the event browsing social media, only coming to the event to check in on her fellow designers and talk to them as friends. One spent most of his time silently prattling away at his laptop, only to share the new prototype he had been working on that whole time with the rest of the group in the last few minutes.

It seemed like a general celebration of game design and the people who immerse themselves in it, a vibe that event organizer Eric Lathrop seemed to be shooting for. Lathrop is part of a two man studio alongside Alex Bezuska based in Louisville, Two Scoop Games. Nearly all of Two Scoop’s output is free browser games, which don’t bring in any revenue.

“We actually had a negative profit this year because of a bunch of fines we had to pay for filing our taxes wrong,” Lathrop joked.

Lathrop says he’d like to be able to make a living off of developing games, but the studio hasn’t put out any games lately. They’ve been choosing to work on building an intuitive engine for web browsers to build games on, hoping to license it out to other developers for a price.

This business strategy coincides with a big goal for Lathrop and Two Scoop: growing the local dev scene and helping to foster talent that might have no other way to get into game design.

“Me and Alex are the type of people who don’t want to wait to ask for permission, we just want to do it,” Lathrop said. “I call Kentucky my home now, and I don’t want someone saying I can’t be a game dev just because I don’t live in LA. I’m not going to wait for anyone else.”

Alongside organizing the meetups for Game Dev Lou, Lathrop and Bezuska are also the driving force behind Louisville Makes Games, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education, resources and opportunities to aspiring and established game developers in Kentucky. This includes providing a dedicated space called Warp Zone for developers to use as an office and event space, teaching classes to children about coding, programming and game design, and hosting more events like game jams, meetups where developers collaborate to build game prototypes in a limited time.

“When I moved to Kentucky, I thought I was alone, that there wasn’t anybody else that knew or cared about the stuff that I did,” Lathrop said. “I want to make it so anyone who’s even remotely interested in game design knows that there’s a community of people right here that care.”

Lathrop’s enthusiasm echoes around the state. There are other active development groups similar to Louisville Makes Games, most notably Run Jump Dev in Lexington. Individual studios are getting national attention, like Gun Media, the makers of the upcoming Friday the 13th game. And perhaps most importantly, more people are coming to events, making prototypes, and expressing interest in game design. Every new face has the potential to create the next big thing.

“We’ve got a lot of talent right here in the state, and I think the resources are getting to a place where we can tap into it,” Bitner said.

“I think that we’ve got a lot of people in the community with a wide range of talents and abilities. We’re light years beyond where we were,” Mize said.

When six people are all crowded around a laptop at the end of Game Dev Lou, talking excitedly about a prototype and discussing how to make it better, this optimism was palpable. Lathrop distilled the sentiments and ambitions of his peers into an easy to understand concept: whether it be for profit, to build a community, or even just for personal growth, there is a passion to create amongst these individuals.

“Even if I didn’t make a single dime off any of this, I’d still do it because it’s what I do. I love it.”

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