JP’s video game biz

June 12, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

City promotes industry that has local foothold

Video games, the great artform of the new millennium, have millions of players. The video game industry has its own kind of players, too—states and cities hungry for a slice of its multi-billion-dollar pie.

The City of Boston got into the game earlier this year, kicking off a “PoweringUp” program to draw more gaming companies to the city. Meanwhile, new video games were being designed right here in Jamaica Plain at the locally based software firm Infrared5.

“We like being here in Jamaica Plain,” said Infrared5 founder and JP resident Chris Allen, speculating whether more gaming companies could be drawn to the neighborhood. “It will be interesting to see if other companies come down here. The rent is a little cheaper than in [Cambridge tech mecca] Kendall Square.”

Among the games made by Infrared5 at its 2 Harris Ave. office is “iFly,” an Apple iPhone game that is a “flight simulator using a paper airplane,” Allen said.

JP is also represented on the game industry committee of CreateBoston, a city arts-industry development program established by Mayor Thomas Menino. JP resident George Fifield, head of the Boston Cyberarts Festival and a gaming expert at the Rhode Island School of Design, is one of the CreateBoston advisors who sug-gested a focus on digital media and gaming.

“It has the potential to be huge,” Fifield said of the local game industry, which is already estimated by the city to pump $200 million a year into the regional economy. In some ways, it already is. Cambridge is home to Harmonix, inventors of “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero,” two of the best-selling games in history.

“It’s a huge industry,” said local City Councilor John Tobin, who heads the council’s Committee on Arts, Film, Humanities and Tourism. “It’s not just kids who play video games.”

“I haven’t played a video game since Atari. The last thing I need to do is get addicted to one of those things,” Tobin said, referring to the groundbreaking 1970s video game console. (Atari is still a major video game developer.) But, he added, the economic impacts are obvious, and he praised the city’s industry-boosting effort.

Menino kicked off the program in March at the offices of FableVision, a software company that moved from the suburbs to the Fort Point Channel downtown. While the Gazette suspected that the mayor might be a secret SimCity addict, spokesperson Nick Martin said that Menino’s interest in video games is not personal.

“He doesn’t play the Wii at night,” Martin said, referring to a game console known for controls that du-plicate the player’s body motions.

PoweringUp is largely a business recruitment effort for now—including an industry conference planned for next year—though Menino indicated there will be other forms of city support for new or relocated gaming com-panies. The public face of the program is an industry web site at PoweringUpBoston.com, which features a company directory, jobs listings and industry news.

In this early stage, the web site outreach appears spotty. Infrared5 was unaware of the city’s effort, and the web site appeared unaware of Infrared5, which opened last year, as the Gazette reported at the time.

The web site also makes no mention of perhaps the biggest local ambassador of video gaming—Curt Schill-ing, the famous former Boston Red Sox pitcher, an avid roleplaying-gamer who runs his own video game com-pany, 38 Studios, in Maynard. His company is working on a large-scale swords-and-sorcery fantasy game.

“38 Studios is well aware of Boston’s new initiative and greatly supports it,” said company spokesperson Andrea Schneider, while adding that 38 Studios has no plans on moving to the big city.

In any case, networking is a good move for an industry already prone to it, Allen said, noting that soft-ware developers are constantly conferring about the ever-changing advances in technology.

In fact, Infrared5 organizes an annual event of its own—Flash on Tap, a “cross between a technology and arts festival and a beer festival,” Allen said. The latest one just happened last month.

Flash, a brand of multimedia software, is Infrared5’s specialty and the basis for many of the games it makes for cell phones and web platforms. A current effort is a poker game built to work on the popular web site Facebook. Allen said he sees those forms as the future of video gaming.

“I think our company, Infrared5, is on the cutting edge,” he said.

Infrared5 may be on the cutting edge in terms of locations as well. Modern technology allows software start-ups to operate in a city neighborhood as easily as in a strip mall or industrial park. Infrared5’s office is just a stone’s throw from the Sumner Hill home of Chris Allen and his wife Rebecca Allen, the company’s creative director. Allen said that employees and clients alike praise the beauty and convenience of the urban neighborhood location.

Fifield noted that a key effort will be building a “hip workforce of people who have the digital chops” here in Boston, not only in the suburban beltway area that is the historic home to many software giants.

He and Menino both noted Boston’s wealth of universities as a major asset. Fifield aided Northeastern University in developing its new game design program, just one of several growing efforts. The importance of such local impacts is already obvious—the founders of Harmonix came out of Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Like all new media, video games are often stereotyped and demonized—a potential hurdle in boosting the industry.

“I’d still prefer to see people reading books,” Tobin said, but added that video games shouldn’t be looked down on. “I don’t think we can afford to turn up our nose at it,” he said.

He also noted the ever-widening influence of video games on all aspects of culture, such as TV camera angles in sports coverage duplicating those seen in sports-themed video games.

Fifield agreed when the Gazette noted the convergence of video games and other forms, such as increas-ingly computer-graphics-filled movies.

While he wants to boost the industry, Fifield said, the boosters shouldn’t forget the astonishing art-istry at its core.

“I’m not a game developer. I’m a curator of new media,” Fifield said. “My focus here is the intersection of art and technology.”

In the modern world, he said, “There’s no more powerful medium, and certainly no more powerful interac-tive medium, than video games.”