Can New Hampshire's Newbie Video Game Industry 'Level-Up'?

Oct 2, 2015

Inside Game Assembly, New Hampshire's new video game development hub in Manchester.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

A group of game developers is looking to build a place for New Hampshire in the future of video games - and it starts with the new development hub known as Game Assembly.

If you want to understand where New Hampshire’s video game industry may be headed, talk to Calvin Goble. He’s showing off a homegrown arcade cabinet that features one of his games, a fantasy action game called Upsilon Circuit.

"There’s only one server in the whole world," Goble explains. "There’s only eight people in the whole world ever playing at one time, and when you die in Upsilon Circuit you can never play the game again."

There’s only one problem with this demo, and it’s kind of an important one for a radio story: the sound won’t work. Goble clicks away at his keyboard to bring it back, to no avail. "Standard development procedure," he jokes. 

Goble and his wife, Alix Stolzer, run a company they named Robot Loves Kitty. It’s one of three companies headquartered at the downtown Manchester offices of Game Assembly, New Hampshire’s new video game development hub. The coworking space only opened in June, and it looks it - there are lots of folding tables; wires and cables are everywhere. Full-time members pay $150 a month for access – a great deal for developers used to paying considerably more in Boston, but a price which, as Stolzer notes, doesn’t leave much money for rugs and other décor.

“It kind of looks like we raided a child’s room," she says, laughing. "There’s dinosaurs, there’s a rocket ship – we wanted to add some color and those were the most affordable rugs we could find.”

But those rugs are minor considerations for those who work here. Game Assembly is aimed at turning the handful of local video game developers into a real community. Take that arcade cabinet that was showing off a soundless version of Upsilon Circuit a moment ago. 

“Our actual goal with the arcade cabinet," Stolzer explains, "is to have it go on tour eventually... There used to be arcade cabinets in bars and in restaurants - I remember a Pizza Hut I used to go to, [that] had Pac Man Junior or something in it. [You could] leave it there for a little while and people can discover it and realize, ‘oh, these games were made in New Hampshire.’”

You’d be forgiven for not knowing video games are made in New Hampshire. While the state has a rich history when it comes to games – Ralph Baer, known as “the Father of Video Games,” lived and worked for decades in Manchester - the state hasn’t made much history in recent years. 

The number of full-time game developers here is about 15 - by comparison, building a big game franchise like Call of Duty or Madden NFL takes hundreds of developers. The industry’s estimated $90 billion in annual revenue goes to game production hubs such as Boston or Montreal – not New Hampshire.

But Game Assembly co-founder Dave Carrigg says there are people who want to work here - he’s one of them.

"I personally have family in the area," he explains. "I grew up in the Lakes region... I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, in the middle of the desert, for a handful of years. I've visited Seattle and San Francisco, also two huge game development hubs, and had job offers at both locations and just never wanted to move out there. I always wanted to be here in New Hampshire." 

That's one of Game Assembly’s goals - to strengthen the local industry so that developers who want to live and work in this state can do so. The space's other co-founder, Neal Laurenza, says the talent pool here is growing, thanks to the game development programs at Southern New Hampshire University and New Hampshire Technical Institute.

A development screenshot from Bacon Man, a game from Neal Laurenza's company, Skymap Games.
Credit Courtesy of Neal Laurenza

"I see all of these really bright kids coming out of school," he says. "I can go down into Boston and compete not only on price but also be chasing the top talent, or I can snag them right out of school, have them grow with our company. I’m much more enthusiastic about New Hampshire for that possibility."

Those who know the industry say the growth Laurenza’s describing only takes place once the local video game system has a hub in place. Professor Frank Lee saw this firsthand when he founded the game design program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

He says there are three main elements that have to work together to make a local industry viable: education, government and industry. 

"No one sector will work – Game Assembly cannot just survive by itself as a collection of indie game companies," Lee says. "State government can’t do it alone, colleges cannot do it alone as well. They're all circularly related." 

The state already has two of the elements Lee describes – entrepreneurs and education programs - and the third is getting off the ground as well. Last year the state launched the Live Free and Start initiative to connect small tech companies and startups to business mentors and investors.

"I think the ground is fertile," says Mark Kaplan, who sits on Live Free and Start’s advisory council. "I don’t think we’re going to see New Hampshire on the leading edge of various types of incentives to get companies to do things; I think what we see through Live Free and Start and other work that's being done in the state [is] efforts to support an ecosystem and infrastructure that makes that possible."

New Hampshire’s industry is going to remain small for the foreseeable future. Neal Laurenza sees the launch of Game Assembly as an important milestone, but keeping more of that local talent in-state, and creating more jobs and revenue, will require something bigger.

"We only really need one hit," he says. "One hit generally will be enough to grow a company in the area. If you look at any major successful place where there’s a game industry, there’s a good mix of independent and large-scale, what are called Triple A, games…. It might be from a triple A company saying, wow, New Hampshire's a cool spot, we should go in there. Or it could be from a small company doing really well on a game and taking off and hiring.

"Either one of those would propel us to the next level." Laurenza stops himself, and realizes he's used a video game term to describe the arc of the video game industry. "Next level," he laughs. "Oh god, that was cheesy!"

Cheesy, perhaps, but the developers at Game Assembly are convinced that next level is within reach. Alix Stolzer of the company Robot Loves Kitty says now that Game Assembly is up and running, word is spreading among developers, sometimes called "devs": 

"We are discovering new devs all the time," she says. "You kind of assume, it’s New Hampshire, you’re not going to find other devs, so this is just a little spot where we’re shouting 'We’re here!'"