Columbus Gamemakers Aren't Playing Around

Mary Sterenberg
Chris Volpe, CEO, Multivarious Games

Video games are big business. In Ohio alone, they're $43 million big. Globally, we're talking $91 billion—more than the music and movie industries combined—and growing rapidly.

It's an industry that extends far beyond entertainment games. It includes creative technology such as mobile experiences, virtual reality, eSports, 3D printing and motion capture, and it has the potential to reach into nearly every other industry.

Cities such as San Francisco, Austin and New York City, with reputations as hubs for the gaming industry, draw top talent, add more jobs and benefit from a booming revenue stream.

For the last six years, Columbus-based Multivarious Games has been developing not only games out of its Franklinton office. It also has been developing relationships and the start of a local ecosystem of related businesses that could make central Ohio a major player in the explosive game development industry.

Its newest initiative aims to raise $10 million toward economic and workforce development to add 20 new businesses and 100 new jobs over the next five years. CEO Chris Volpe says he hopes the effort can turn Columbus into what he calls the Silicon Valley of Gaming.

John Bowditch, who teaches game development and design at Ohio University in Athens, shares Volpe's vision for turning central Ohio into a top center for the industry. Until then, he jokes “we've been a powerful, driving force for the economy of California. We would train these excellent students and they would head west immediately upon graduation because there was no opportunity here.”

That reality has prompted OU to invest in recent years to “start helping students create those opportunities here,” Bowditch says. One focus is to develop “an environment of entrepreneurship that makes them want to do a startup company if they choose to.” A Business of Games Summit on Sept. 14 will bring 10 alumni-based studios from across Ohio to campus to show students “what it looks like to start a games studio or a virtual reality studio in the Midwest,” Bowditch says.

“I don't mind taking risks,” says Volpe, who returned from the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco earlier this year struck by Ohio's progress and inspired to build a thriving and nationally recognized game development industry.

Multivarious successfully kickstarted its newest game, No Mercy, with plans for a 2018 release. And Volpe's smart-phone case still proudly displays graphics from his company's previous game, Hatch-It!, which was accepted by iTunes for both iPhones and iPads.

But Multivarious' team of six full-time and five part-time employees also uses gaming technology to find creative solutions for clients such as Battelle, Nationwide Children's Hospital, Ohio State University and MasterCard.

“We're the weird kids on the block. We look at technology as a way of solving problems. We mess around with a lot of stuff that people don't even think about,” says Volpe, Multivarious CEO since 2013.

Volpe brags that the group is probably the best Microsoft Kinect developer in Ohio. Kinect gives applications motion-sensing capability. Multivarious also has worked on projects for a range of clients in fields far removed from fun and games. That helped the company develop a skillset Volpe claims is unique in Columbus.

Games by Many Names

Gamification touches many industries—healthcare, education, finance, retail, transportation—and the list will continue to grow.

“Technologies are becoming ubiquitous. People are starting to think outside the box,” says Volpe, who acknowledges it still can be challenging to paint a broader picture of the gaming industry as he works to generate financial and strategic support for its intentional growth in Columbus.

“I call it the games tax,” says Volpe. “Every time I say ‘games' I see a 20- to 25-percent attention loss.”

But Volpe can point to many examples of technology that began in games. World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game in which players from around the world interact with each other, peaked at 15-20 million concurrent users with in-game electronic purchasing components as well.

That's something few, if any, other databases could have handled, Volpe says. “We (video games) are at the forefront of technology.”

Multivarious has used creative technology to partner with Nationwide Children's Hospital to modify a basic prototype of a game developed by Ohio State University students that provides data on range of movement.

The hospital hosted clinical trials for pediatric patients with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and unsuccessfully tried several ways to measure arm and trunk movement, says Linda Lowes, researcher and principal investigator in its Center for Gene Therapy.

The US Food and Drug Administration allowed patients to participate in the trials only if they could pass a six-minute walk test. Two brothers, one who qualified for a study and one who didn't, traveled to Columbus from Vermont weekly for two years. Lowes says the boys wanted to talk video games, and it sparked the idea to use Kinect for upper body measurement.

“What they do is hard here. This is at least fun,” she says.

The ACTIVE-SEATED game now also measures change and improvement with drugs versus just decline, and the hospital is working with the FDA to have it approved as a drug development tool.

“Them (Multivarious) being able to do something so medically appropriate is huge. It had to be fun and encourage kids to lean as far as they can when regular games don't get to those extremes. They were in tune with making a game meet those industry needs,” Lowes says.

Lowes says the video game tool now is part of about five clinical trials at the hospital. Lowes says selling it to the research community presents the biggest challenge, though, because using something as fun as a video game to measure movement seems too simple to be medically effective.

Multivarious also helped vision insurance company VSP develop an augmented reality app to send to vision clinics. The app encourages preventive behavior by letting patients on the path to glaucoma or other eye disorders see what it would feel like.

“You can look over at your daughter and see, ‘This is what she would look like.' It's a much stronger emotional resonance than seeing a video on a computer screen,” says Volpe.

Bowditch says game developers at OU are doing similar work.

“Most people, when they think of games, they think of toys or fun time. But we've been doing quite a bit in the medical training virtual reality space. We have a partnership with OhioHealth, and we've worked with Grant Hospital in Columbus. We've actually shot 360-degree video of some trauma events and we're able to use that then for medical training for residents that are at Grant or other hospitals. We're basically able to add gaming technology on top of that to make it interactive.

“In many ways the gaming part is a little misleading because it's really just a tool. There's so many things you can do with gaming technology, and those are only increasing,” Bowditch says.

“If you look at what's going on with self-driving cars, the core technology behind that is driven by tools that were used in the game industry. Video games are playing a large part in making self-driving cars possible,” he adds.

Recognition of the widespread potential for creative technology is growing, with the global eSports market predicted to grow by 41 percent to $696 million in 2017 and virtual reality predicted to increase from $7 billion in global revenue in 2016 to more than $75 billion by 2021. Even economic giant Amazon is getting into games.

Columbus as the Next Silicon Valley of Gaming

Beyond changing mindsets within Columbus, Multivarious aims to create national recognition for Columbus as a top location for game development and creative technologywith its annual gaming expo, GDEX.

The first event in 2013 exceeded expectations by pulling in 750 participants. This year, Multivarious anticipates 4,000 attendees from more than 20 states and multiple countries at the event, set for Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

The conference leans heavily toward the entertainment side of games but welcomes all facets of the gaming community. It will include high-profile industry speakers and YouTube celebrities, STEM education courses, a development day on Sept. 29, higher education sponsors showcasing what their students are working on and developers who are hiring.

“GDEX has been a big mechanism for showcasing people in Columbus and showing what we're doing. It's a jumping-off point to talk to people in the region,” says Volpe.

Strategic partner Finance Fund, which packages public and private money in projects that benefit the greater good, added its support partly due to Multivarious' proven track record.

“They are an established company that has shown they can be sustainable but are at the stage where they want to ramp up,” says lending officer Omar El Hag Musa.

Finance Fund committed $250,000 in financial support, with the potential to scale up to $1 million.

“Today's economy is not built on the old way of doing things; it's about intellectual property, which comes from relationships,” says El Hag Musa. “Multivarious has laid the groundwork and now is building off those assets to grow something in the Midwest.”

The five-year plan shows GDEX expanding to 8,000 participants annually with a national presence that allows it to attract developers worldwide and cement a sustainable spot in the industry conference cycle.

GDEX is one tangible step toward Columbus' ambition to gain Top 10 placement on the GameJobHunter Top Video Game Cities list. The ranking by the industry news and jobs website currently lists 27 cities in the United States and Canada; Columbus is not among them. The Top 10, in order, are San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, Chicago and New York.

Chicago is the only Midwestern city among the larger list of 27 video game cities.

Volpe's vision for Columbus to be a national leader focuses on job creation, adequate financing and home-grown microbusinesses rather than just drawing others from outside the city to come to central Ohio.

He says Columbus' tech infrastructure makes the region uniquely suited, mentioning that it has more IP addresses than any other city.

“Our higher education pipeline is insane in producing really talented people. We have a great vibe and work culture. We're competitive in getting things done, but we still work together. We have talented, passionate people with tech experience. Throw in the money piece, and there's no reason Columbus can't be the place.”

As Volpe pursues the $10 million investment goal, he highlights the game development industry's potential to be a new revenue stream, with up to 20 percent growth expected in the overall industry over the next several years.

“There's a reason Amazon is throwing money into the game space,” he says. “The opportunity is here for Columbus to do something really important. No one else in the Midwest is doing this right now. But like any opportunity, there is risk and a deadline.”

Ross Hersemann, game attorney at Loading Law, is based in Chicago but works with Multivarious and many Columbus developers because of his unique experience in the new and growing legal area of independent game development. Hersemann connected with the GDEX conference and says he was “blown away” by the ambition he saw to bring together talent.

As he looks at cities growing this industry, Hersemann says “the key word is usually collaboration, and after that cross-pollination.” He sees many groups doing amazing things, but in communities such as Columbus, the groups band together to get things moving more easily.

“They become greater than the sum of their parts,” he says.

Hersemann says that from an investment perspective, there is often a bias against new technologies. But video games are more than a fad, he adds.

“People are very ready to invest in games and see them permeate every aspect of our culture, but they're hesitant to be the first one to jump on board.”

A local supporter for growth of the game development industry is Columbus City Councilman Michael Stinziano, who says the field could be an economic driver and help Columbus raise its profile. Stinziano says he supports the Multivarious initiative and that the city's development team is exploring potential resources and financing.

“It continues to show we've got a city that is very interested in maximizing our relationships and the talent that is already here,” says Stinziano.

Others also see the potential. Multivarious' growing list of strategic partners includes COSI, VentureOhio, Taivara and Columbus State Community College.

Ohio University's Center for Entrepreneurship adds another voice in support. “The digital game and eSports industry is experiencing explosive growth worldwide,” Director Paul Mass says in announcing the September business of games summit. “We believe that Ohio University, the state of Ohio, and other parts of the Midwest can be home to innovation, talented entrepreneurs and investment-worthy new business which contributes to this growth,” Mass says.

Building an Infrastructure

Funding raised as part of Multivarious' new initiative would amplify its commitment of brain power to support business creation, expansion and retention in central Ohio's game development industry. Multivarious moved into the Idea Foundry in Franklinton this year, where it earlier opened the Sandbox, the largest accelerator and collaborative space for game developers in the Midwest. Developers can rent co-working space in the Sandbox and be surrounded by other creative minds and shared resources such as costly motion capture equipment.

“We're trying to create a bubble where people can come in and focus on doing what they do well,” says Volpe.

This aligns with the Idea Foundry's goal to encourage people to find their passions and then live them, especially those in the art, technology and entrepreneur spaces.

“We curated a community of people that made extra sense to come out and work here,” says Alex Bandar, founder and CEO of the Idea Foundry. “That's where innovation resides. You don't learn anything if you keep hanging out with people just like you.”

With a background in computer programming, Bandar doesn't see videogames as a frivolous pursuit. He sees the industry as “poised spectacularly for growth” in Columbus because the quality of life is high and the cost of living is low. The city also has a high concentration of people whose jobs are writing software—at companies such as Cardinal Health, Ohio State University and Battelle—as well as many new venture capitalists and people interested in startups.

Many Columbus game developers are among the more than 1,200 members of the Central Ohio Gamedev Group, which meets in the Sandbox. Another goal of the Multivarious proposal is to grow COGG, one of the largest such groups in the Midwest, to become one of the largest nationally.

Stopping the Talent Drain

Forty percent of the $10 million Multivarious aims to raise, the largest percentage, would go for seed money and advanced funding of businesses focused on innovation, creative technology and interactive design.

“Stopping that drain of talent and creativity is huge,” says Volpe, noting that Multivarious would be eligible for $1.4 million in funding if it moved to Toronto because Canada considers video games an art form. Canada boasts three of the top cities in North America for game development.

“Look at what we've accomplished over the past five years with zero dollars and no investment,” says Volpe.

The new funding would help expand the existing infrastructure and add 100 new jobs to the 610 current Ohio video game industry employees as reported by the Entertainment Software Association.

It would help Multivarious grow a network of organizations to provide legal, accounting, healthcare and benefits to these companies at discounted rates, and create a national investor network for ongoing support that brings external capital into Ohio.

“I tell investors, ‘If you're looking to change the world and do something awesome, this is a place for you,'” says Volpe, who is committed to building a sustainable model.

Local developer Evan Todd worked for a year at a small studio that made iPhone games before he started his own game development company.

“Columbus is a good city for getting the most bang for your buck with a strong game community and low cost of living, but almost all developers who seriously want to get involved in AAA high-quality games feel they need to move away.”

Todd says funding and support for the industry won't happen unless people see there is an opportunity here. He participates in COGG and GDEX and sees these as “ways we're trying to bootstrap ourselves and show there's interest.”

Growing the Education Pipeline

The Multivarious proposal also earmarks funding for educational initiatives and partnerships so that students wanting to pursue game development have strong opportunities to train locally and then remain in central Ohio to fuel the pipeline for a growing industry.

Multivarious currently works with educational partners at the middle school, high school and college levels to ensure students gain the skills necessary to be the top talent in the industry. It partners with Game-U, an after-school program, to teach all aspects of development to kids ages 8 to 18, and also works with local colleges, including OSU, Columbus State Community College, OU and the Columbus College of Art & Design.

“As a state, we're in the 60th percentile for game or coding degrees,” says Volpe. “So how do we create a really strong system where we can all come together?”

Ohio State ranked 19th in The Princeton Review's Top 25 Graduate Schools to Study Game Design this year and offers a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering that trains programmers interested in the gaming industry. Spokesman Ben Johnson says OSU is also at the very beginning of a process to consider curricular changes that would enable academic units to offer courses or programming in the area of eSports and gaming.

OU offers a new master's program this fall in communication media arts, building on its 12 years of game development education.

CCAD, Franklin University and Columbus State also offer degrees, minors and concentrations in different aspects of gaming such as art and animation, mobile design, illustration, and interactive media.

Henry Bawden is an assistant professor and lead instructor for interactive media, video game art and animation at Columbus State. He built the curriculum for an associate's degree that creates “a direct pathway straight into the workforce,” which he says can be harder for larger programs with more degree and general education requirements to consider. Students can pursue a degree in video game art and animation or video game development.

“We've been able to do something I'm really proud of. Students show up for two years and leave with seven to nine games under their belt in their portfolio and a required internship, so they're much more successful in getting jobs,” Bawden says.

Bawden's students connect with the COGG community group and volunteer for the GDEX conference to build relationships in the industry and gain experience beyond the theoretical.

He sees graduates leave Ohio for cities with the “AAA culture” or because they simply can't find a job locally. He says funding more small and startup studios would help retain talent.

Bawden also owns Bawden Studios and develops games with one employee, but says more funding support would allow him to hire four more people to finish his current project much sooner.

“If Columbus could get the right investment funds and people saw Columbus was a hot spot with growing studios and low cost of living, it would attract the interest of larger studios while continuing to grow internally,” Bawden says. “We're still growing without that support. But if people can see the vision, it would grow that much faster.”

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.