Grand Theft Pittsburgh | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Grand Theft Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh could have a thriving video-game industry -- if other cities quit stealing the people who could make it work



Looking at Jesse Schell's office from an old, sunken couch -- staring at the pile of board games, DVDs, magazines and video games -- it's hard to believe that this small South Side business could ever represent Pittsburgh's future.

If the 1980s-vintage Mad Magazine board game, or the ancient Atari 2600 game console, make you wonder what kind of future you're hurtling toward, the player piano and two unicycles nearby aren't going to inspire your confidence much.

But looks can be deceiving. The work being spawned in Schell's office is extremely high-tech. It's also just a small part of the $9.9 billion video-game industry, an entertainment business that last year recorded more in sales than did the motion-picture box office.

This is the nerve center for Schell and his 18-month-old upstart game-development company, Schell Games. Here, he and his team of 10 designers and artists work on developing video-game titles. But Schell is also a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a graduate-school program that turns out leaders in the field of entertainment technology, including video-game development.

Every year, graduates of the ETC, and of the Art Institute's Game Art and Design program, set out for a career in the video-game industry. According to Dawn Keezer of the Pittsburgh Film Office, who has been working behind the scenes for a few years to lure video-game companies to the area, an estimated total of 1,000 students at the ETC and the Art Institute are currently working toward degrees in video-game related programs.

Yet the region offers few jobs for any of them.

It's hard to find solid data on the number of future designers fleeing the area. But ask Drew Davidson, director of the Art Institute's Game Art and Design program, how many leave, and he has a ready answer.

"As of right now?" he asks. "It's safe to say most of them."

It doesn't have to be that way, he adds. "This area is ripe for that opportunity because it takes several different skill sets -- game designers, artists, writers and animators -- to make a game. Thanks to the great educational opportunities [here] ... we're turning out highly skilled and highly motivated people in those areas."

But even while video games ascend to the $10 billion mark, this is still Pittsburgh: There's not always an eagerness to latch onto the unknown. Especially when the only mainstream coverage of the video-game industry seems to happen when there's a controversy. It will take a lot of convincing to persuade a region that tried to ride the steel industry for years after it collapsed that the future lies in offices with Rocky and Bullwinkle DVDs on the coffee table.

"There is still a culture of steel in this city," says Andrew Tepper, president of the city's other principal game-development firm, eGenesis, located on Frankstown Road. "In San Jose, game development is a normal, good industry to be involved in. Around here, a lot of the money, a lot of the investors are older, and without studying it and investigating it, think this it's a ridiculous business to get involved in.

"One of the main problems here is how do you convince some old stuffy guy, who longs for the good old days of steel, to invest a bunch of money in the circus?"

Randy Pausch is not shy about how great he thinks CMU's Entertainment Technology Center is.

"We are the number-one school in the world for preparing students for the interactive entertainment industry," boasts Pausch, who co-directs the ETC, founded in 1999, with partner Don Marinelli. "I can say this because two of the largest game companies in the world, Electronic Arts and Activision, have promised in writing to take a minimum of 10 and five of our students, respectively, into their intern program sight unseen.

"We only admit 45 kids a year, so that's 20 percent of a graduating class of kids that haven't even been admitted yet who will receive an internship to one of these companies. I don't know of another program in this country with commitments like that."

That list of commitments grew last week, when game developer Rockstar San Diego agreed to take at least two ETC students into its summer internship program. These internships don't automatically mean full-time work after graduation, but Pausch says they do often lead to post-college employment.

Pausch's high opinion of the ETC is shared by professionals in the video-game field. Tammy Schachter, a spokesperson for Electronic Arts, says her company is well aware of the ETC and its students.

"Randy is very well thought of throughout this company," Schachter says. "We love the ETC, the work they do and the quality of candidates they produce."

What the ETC teaches, says Pausch, is lessons on how artists and engineers can best work together in the interactive-entertainment industry. The program teaches problem-solving across various disciplines to achieve success in any industry. In this case, however, the industry is interactive entertainment, of which video games are a major portion.

Students learn two things in the program, Pausch says: "They learn how to make effective interactive content and, much more importantly, they learn how to work with other people in different disciplines.

"When we talk to people from the major entertainment companies, the first thing they want to know is how we teach people to work across the disciplines, because they have trouble with that themselves. And of course they can't hire enough of our students because they know our people are qualitatively different than those they are getting from other places."

Designing a game takes the talents of individuals from varying backgrounds, says Schell. Getting them to "cross the bridge" to find a common way to work together is the hardest thing.

"In the beginning of the process you have writers, artists and engineers," Schell explains. "They come from completely different backgrounds and have no idea how to talk to one another. All they share is the common goal. We teach them techniques that will help them work as a team so they can complete their task."

One of the more famous exercises at the ETC is the Building Virtual Worlds program. The program takes several teams of four students who are given the same set of tools and told to build a virtual world in two weeks. When that cycle ends, the teams are scrambled and the task is completed again -- four more times. Regardless of who is on what team or what disciplines are present, the students must complete the task.

But ETC students aren't being groomed to design a better way to beat up a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto. Their projects have been educational games such as the training simulator HazMat Hot Zone, which helps train first responders in dealing with emergencies.

But the biggest innovation to come out of the project is the game Peacemaker. In Peacemaker, you play as the Israeli or Palestinian government and your goal is to achieve peace in the Middle East and win the Nobel Peace Prize. You learn to solve the crisis with conversation, not bloodshed.

"The goal," says Schell, "is to get this game into the hands of as many high school students and young Israeli and Palestinian students as possible. The more people who start playing this at a young age, the better chance we have of better conflict resolution in the future."

"The idea," says the Art Institute's Davidson, "is to get students to push the envelope, to get them to do something new and innovative that hasn't been done before."

In any video game, the goal is to take the power you've accumulated in previous levels and use it to conquer the next set of tasks. If creating a skilled local workforce is one goal in the game of job creation, the next has to be establishing a cluster of development studios -- companies that can utilize that talent.

That's what Jesse Schell and Andrew Tepper have started to do. Their firms are the only Pittsburgh-based companies currently making commercially available video games. Both companies have worked primarily on large-file downloadable games -- games that can be purchased online for less than store-bought games, but which are more elaborate than most Internet games that can be had for free.

Schell is a former "Imagineer" for Disney, and his game company, Schell Games (, has already created a few titles for Disney's online gaming sites. These include Goofy Speedway for Disney's Toontown Online and Pinball Palace for Disney Games Park. Schell's future projects include Crisis Team Simulator, a medical-training system that functions as a 3-D game allowing for multiple players. In the simulator, doctors and nurses learn to work together and practice saving lives. Schell says the company is also working on other downloadable games, but is unable to discuss specifics.

In addition, in what could be a major move for the company, Schell's team is also working on an as-yet-undisclosed title for the Nintendo DS. A prototype for that game could be finished as early as March. If it succeeds, it could be the first major title for a major gaming platform to come out of Pittsburgh.

For Schell, working as an academic in a field he loves and operating his own studio -- both at the same time -- is a dream come true. He says he always wanted to teach, and after the birth of his child decided that Los Angeles could "be a hard place to raise kids." He contacted Pausch, who he met when Pausch spent three months working at Disney. It didn't take much convincing to get Schell to Pittsburgh.

"My time here has been great," Schell says. "There is absolutely no place like the ETC in the world. I'm able to challenge students on a daily basis and it feels good to watch them rise to those challenges each and every time."

Schell's emphasis is on large downloadable multi-player games, an area that isn't being widely tapped in the industry.

The Schell Games mission is "creating games that will be both interesting and innovative," Schell explains. "We're not doing this to make millions -- of course, that would be nice. Our goal here is to challenge ourselves, to go places that other people aren't going."

That's exactly where Andrew Tepper went when he designed his first title at eGenesis in 1998. He and friend Josh Yelon started the company with one game, A Tale in the Desert. The game was a "massively multi-player game," in which a large number of players can interact with each other over the Internet. Tepper and Yelon funded Desert on a shoestring, and distribute it from the eGenesis Web site (

Desert is a thinking-person's video game: There are no enemies to kill or battles to fight. Instead, it's about people working together to solve the problems confronting them. The idea was to create an innovative game that allowed players to develop characters and work as a community.

Some players serve as leaders, others act as followers. There's no score kept, but there are tasks you must complete, and you earn different status along the way. In the game's opening stage, for example, your first goal is to become a citizen and get off an island. You become a citizen by learning different skills, from carpentry to brick-making. Success doesn't come by learning high-flying martial-arts moves, or through how many space creatures you annihilate: You succeed by helping the community and the people you encounter. If you work as a mentor, helping other players, the hope is that they will build a shrine to you. All of this for helping your fellow online citizens.

"The skills and choices you need to survive in this game are the same ones you need to survive in the real world," Tepper says. "The great thing about this game is that some of the people who are true leaders in this game, their real lives are train wrecks.

"The purpose of this game is to reveal character. It shows that people with real leadership skills and a lot of talent are being wasted in the real world for stupid reasons."

Although independently distributed, the game has received strong reviews from several industry media outlets, including Gamespot and IGN.

Next on the horizon for eGenesis: a game adaptation of "The Tales of Alvin Maker," a series of fantasy books by Orson Scott Card set in an alternate-reality American past. Beyond that, Tepper, like Schell, plans to continue working in the field he loves. And while the two may be the only games in town now, all of that could change.

What will it take for Pittsburgh to become a hub of video-game development? The city already has the workforce and a solid educational system, and that's important, says EA's Schachter. But it will take more than just great people.

The Art Institute's Davidson says a bona fide hit by a local studio would help by drawing the interest of a big company. But that, too, is only part of the equation.

There are two approaches to growing a local industry. One is to nurture homegrown start-up companies, and hope they'll grow over time. The other is to actively court existing game companies, enticing them to invest in the area.

While the topic of turning Pittsburgh into a hub for game development hasn't been debated widely, discussions have been simmering since the ETC opened. The effort to spawn a local game industry has been backed by some in the ETC and the Art Institute, but the charge thus far has been spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Film Office and its executive director, Dawn Keezer.

Pittsburgh's dreams of becoming a film hub have cooled in recent years, thanks in part to competition from cities in Canada. And Hollywood in general is suffering from lagging revenues. But the fast-growing video-game industry, Keezer says, is outpacing film and DVD sales two-to-one. Industry jobs pay an average of $73,000 a year, compared to the current county average of $43,000. Video-game development is another form of entertainment, Keezer notes, and courting those companies is a natural fit for the Film Office.

"A lot of the contacts I already have in the entertainment industry are the same ones I'd work with in the game industry," Keezer says. "On my trips every year out to L.A., I not only meet with film companies, but I make time to drop in on game companies and let them know what Pittsburgh has to offer."

One Pittsburgh-area foundation, which she declined to name, has agreed to conduct a study to test the viability of a video-game industry in the city. And at least one game developer has already visited the city. Whether the company will relocate remains unknown, but the interest gives Keezer hope that the rapidly growing industry could find a home in Pittsburgh.

Besides American companies possibly relocating here, Keezer says, there are possible tenants among overseas companies looking to open North American offices.

But competition is fierce -- and once again, Canada is part of the problem. Already Vancouver and Montreal have become major players in game development. Other cities and countries are also studying how they can get a piece of the pie. Before Hurricane Katrina, Keezer says, Louisiana put together a tax-incentive program to lure game companies. Also recently, the French government announced a new tax-credit system for video-game companies, which it hopes will make French companies more competitive.

"We could bring a cluster of companies here," Keezer warns, "but we have to have an incentives program in place to help draw them.

"We do it all the time to attract businesses. We did it for Toyota, we did it to bring American Eagle to the South Side. We gave away a lot of money to bring businesses Downtown that aren't even there anymore. ... There is a legitimate business here that we have to work to attract, because if we don't, someone else surely will."

EA's Schachter agrees that Pittsburgh has the educational base and workforce to make a difference. But some tax incentives never hurt.

"When a city wants to create a new industry, you generally have to have some level of lobbying from the business community and local government," Schachter says. "They are willing to do what they can to create an environment to bring this kind of economic development to the area."

Tepper, however, favors the more incremental, homegrown approach. While he acknowledges that companies such as EA would be glad to take government tax incentives, he says that's not the best way to go about building an industry. The game industry is growing, he says, and as it grows so will the industry in Pittsburgh, with small start-up companies working hard to turn their talents into revenues.

"If an industry is going to develop here," Tepper explains, "I'd rather government just get out of the way and let it happen naturally, but that's certainly not the culture of our system here.

"I don't think courting large companies is the answer," he adds. "I'm sure a company like EA would love tax credits and other incentives, but overall, I think large companies have a tendency to stifle innovation. Government can't mandate creativity, and creativity and innovation are the tools that will make this industry grow."

Jesse Schell is talking about video games, but his hands keep repositioning the limbs on a small plastic animal that his team must have made at a recent brainstorming session. The creatures are all over the table and as he talks about the future, he can't help but put the animal in several different positions.

The toy might or might not provide a new game concept. But it does reflect a central truth about establishing a video-game industry here, or anywhere else: having people constantly in motion is key. Developing games, and the gaming industry itself, requires people working and moving across different disciplines, rearranging pieces to achieve a final goal.

In the end, whether an industry based in a virtual world can survive in the real world will all come down to the people involved -- and how well they can work together.

"Pittsburgh has a real chance of building an industry here," says Schell, bending back the arm of the red and yellow creature in his hand. "The advantage we have here over other places is the quality of our people. ... Without that dynamic, there is no future here."


Add a comment