Organizers of Wisconsin’s first M+DEV conference for professional game developers say they are exhilarated by the outcome.
About 420 people attended the daylong event at the Alliant Energy Center a week ago, with participants from around Wisconsin and neighboring states and speakers who are recognized as global leaders in the field.
“It super-exceeded our expectations,” said Jennifer Javornik, co-chair of the event. She said a turnout of 250 was needed to break even, and organizers were hoping they could reach 300, but attendance far surpassed that.
As they put together plans for the conference, the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) and the Wisconsin Games Alliance created lists and maps of game developers statewide and the results were surprising, said Tyler Krucas, executive director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, formed in 2015.
“Fifty-six shops are putting games out in Wisconsin — a lot more than any of us had identified previously,” Krucas said. They range from Raven Software — founded in 1990, a subsidiary of Activision and developer of “Call of Duty,” with around 200 employees in Middleton — to small, independent developers with one or two employees. About 35 of the game development businesses are in the Madison area, Krucas said.
One of M+DEV’s two keynote speakers was Warren Spector, creator of more than two dozen video games ranging from the “Deus Ex” role-playing shooter game to Disney’s “Epic Mickey.”
Spector, who has been working in the game industry since the 1980s, said his message to developers is to “have a mission, a philosophy that guides them” in their work.
“We have to be more mindful, more self-aware, at least as driven by what’s personally meaningful as by the almighty dollar or even the desire to deliver a ‘fun’ experience for players,” Spector said. “Doing meaningful work is the secret to personal satisfaction, the growth of the medium and even, yes, commercial success.”
Spector, who lives in Austin, Texas, is currently studio director at OtherSide Entertainment.
Javornik, vice president of sales for Filament Games, a Madison educational games developer, said Spector’s philosophy resonated with her. “It was interesting to hear a commercial game designer say, we are making games for entertainment, but really, I come from a pretty soulful place.”
The other keynoter was Tommy Palm, credited with helping to create the hugely popular mobile game, Candy Crush Saga, and now CEO of Resolution Games. Palm and his wife came from Sweden for the event, and said they planned to tour northern Wisconsin and Minnesota afterward.
The Wisconsin Games Alliance holds educational events every quarter but this was its first big conference, Javornik said.
Tim Gerritsen, the other co-chair of M+DEV and studio head of Fantasy Flight Interactive in Madison, said although the Madison area has had game development going on for nearly three decades, it’s still a “hidden secret.
“What I’d like to see happen is that ... the games industry locally gets recognized for the impact it has, and has had, on the regional, national and international game market,” Gerritsen said.
In addition to Raven, whose games also include “Star Wars Jedi Knight,” other high-profile games developed in Wisconsin include PerBlue’s mobile, role-playing game “DragonSoul,” purchased by a Japanese company last year, and independent developer Joel McDonald’s game “Prune,” which was named the best video game of 2015 by TIME magazine. McDonald has since moved to Portland, Oregon.
Spector, a graduate of Northwestern University with a master’s degree from the University of Texas, said he was surprised to see how many game developers live and work in Wisconsin. He said he felt their enthusiasm and strong sense of community.
“I left with the impression of creativity and a desire to make a difference, both locally and in the wider world,” Spector said. “Put all that together and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the industry continue to grow up there in the frozen north.”
Plans already are in motion to make M+DEV an annual event, with the next one set for Oct. 19, 2018.