Against the Pixel: Chicago’s Video Game Past, Present, and Future
[The following is a story I wrote on Chicago's independent video game scene in November, 2010]
It started with wooden boxes: colorful countertop games with flippers and pinging rings of metal. Today, it is a multi-billion dollar industry, featuring space marines, deadly one-on-one fights, and malleable, interactive fantasies unlike any medium ever before.
Video games in Chicago have come a long way.
Chicagoan companies made the first successful pinball machines: “Baffle Ball,” by D. Gottlieb & Company, and “Bally Hoo,” by the Bally Manufacturing Corporation, both released in the 1931. Seen as entertaining distractions from the Great Depression, pinball machines became a hit, and Chicago soon became a hub for aspiring pinball machine companies. Today, however, only one pinball company is still afloat. As computer technology increased in power and usage, a new media began to emerge: a virtual, interactive story known as a video game. Chicago has been home to many influential video game companies, such as Bungie Software and Midway games. However, true to its pinball past, many video game companies in Chicago have kicked the virtual bucket or have moved onto greener digital textures. Despite this, Chicagoan independent game developers find a way to beat the boss known as “Bankruptcy,” and stay alive through troubling financial times. So, who owns the strategy guide to success in the video game industry? Who knows Chicago’s secret cheat code to survive in a highly competitive industry? In a city where most of the bigger video game developers have faltered (or left Chicago entirely), independent video game developers are setting new high scores by taking risks that bigger companies are too afraid to take and fostering a sense of community. In an era where video games are becoming more and more popular and bigger companies are stagnating in sequels and tired ideas, independents are going against the grain. Or, if you will, against the pixel.
There is no question that video games have turned mainstream. No longer a stereotyped pastime just for basement-dwelling social outcasts, video games are appealing to a broader and broader audience each day. Nintendo’s Wii console, for example, mainly appeals to families, with exercise games like top-selling Wii Fit and innovative, motion-based control schemes. Video game publisher Activision aired commercials for its popular Call of Duty: Black Ops game featuring celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel and Kobe Bryant during primetime television. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the computer and video game industry contributed $5 billion to the U.S. economy last year, and from 2005 to 2009 had an annual growth rate of 10 percent—seven times the growth rate of the entire U.S. economy. Christian Arca, studio director of Chicago-based video game developer Toy Studio, believes that through gaming products aimed toward a large demographic, such as Microsoft’s own motion capture technology Kinect, the Wii and the iPhone, video games are gaining a larger audience. “With Generation X and Y becoming a part of games, it will only get better until 50 to 70-year-olds start looking forward to a game like” – Arca pauses for a moment to come up with a suitably ludicrous video game title — “Bulletstorm VII,” Arca says.
While “Bulletstorm VII,” sadly, does not exist (although video game publisher Electronic Arts is, coincidentally, releasing a game titled Bulletstorm in 2011), there are plenty of games to fill gamers’ hunger for gun slinging and awe-inspiring explosions. One of the best examples of an action-packed shooter game comes from a developer that began in Chicago in 1991, a developer that started in a basement with only two members, a developer with a surprisingly unthreatening name: Bungie Software.
“Bungie” is, by their own admission, a weird name for a software company. In fact, the company treats the origin of the name like a closely guarded secret, a mythical truth that only shamans of the studio know. “There are… penalties leveled at those who reveal the deepest secrets,” Bungie’s website says, in reference to its peculiar name. It is no secret, however, that Bungie became one of the most successful video game developers of all time after creating the Halo series for Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. The story of a super soldier named “Master Chief” and the forces of Earth fighting against a threatening alien race and other foreign unknowns, the series revolutionized the first person shooter genre with its lightning-fast gameplay and became the Xbox’s first “killer app” (that is, a game that causes many people to purchase the console just to play the game). According to Microsoft, the first game in the Halo series, Halo: Combat Evolved, sold 1 million copies in four months after its release, and was named “2006 Xbox Game of the Year” by influential video game news and review site IGN.com. According to the NPD group, total sales of the Halo franchise have broken the $1.7 billion dollar mark, and Bungie’s latest Halo game, Halo: Reach, sold more than 3.3 million copies in its first month after release. Halo: Reach received universal critical acclaim from nearly every video game aggregate, and is considered to be in the front-running for many Game of the Year titles. To call this franchise a juggernaut would be an understatement: Halo is now a household name, a title held in reverence amongst names like the Rockstar Games’ violent, parental shocker Grand Theft Auto series and everyone’s favorite Italian plumber, Nintendo’s Mario. However, just a few months before the release of the first Halo game, Bungie moved to Redmond, Washington, leaving a plasma-grenade-explosion-sized hole in the Chicago gaming scene that few companies have been able to fill.
Whereas Bungie moved from Chicago before they could reap the benefits of the Halo series, some companies stayed in Chicago only to feel the sting of a “Game Over.” EA Chicago, a substudio of major video game publisher Electronic Arts and developer of boxing game Fight Night Round 3 and rap/fighting crossover game Def Jam: Icon, only lasted three years before EA pulled the plug. Chicago-based developer Robomodo was hit by layoffs after poor sales of its installments of the Tony Hawk skateboarding video game series. Aside from Bungie, the biggest presence in the Chicago video game scene was Midway Games, a pinball and amusement machine manufacturer (in fact, it was acquired by the Bally Manufacturing organization in 1969) turned video game publisher. Midway brought popular Japanese arcade cabinet games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man to American shores to great success in 1978 and 1980, respectively. These games helped spark the boom of video game arcades across the country. “As a child of the ’70s, Midway represented an icon from the golden age of gaming, when you went to arcades like Dennis’ Place for Games under the El at Belmont and Sheffield or Games Galore in the basement of the Evergreen Plaza at 95th and Western with a fistful of quarters and hoped to get as many minutes as possible out of them in the scary/dark/neon/loud/smoky confines,” DePaul College of Digital Media lecturer Chauncey Hollingsworth says, “Midway’s name used to be on half of those machines’ start-up screens, from Tapper to Defender.” These were the golden years for Midway; however, as arcades themselves began to fall out of favor, so did Midway. Despite the success of newer titles like over-the-top football frenzy NFL Blitz and the shockingly vicious Mortal Kombat series — a series so known for its gruesomely violence that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan mentioned it during the oral arguments of Schwartzenegger v. Entertainment Merchant Association, a case that will determine the legality of a proposed California law that would prohibit a minor from buying violent video games that are potentially harmful to a minor’s development – Midway filed for bankruptcy in 2009. “Midway’s demise comes along with the demise of an entire culture of gaming that we don’t have anymore, one that Chicago used to be at the center of,” Hollingsworth says.
Hollingsworth notes that “Chicago was the pinball capital of the world, and the companies that made pinball machines, like Midway, transitioned into making video games,” Hollingsworth says, “Chicago was a big city for video games… but no longer.”
With Bungie’s move to the west and Midway’s bankruptcy, there is little major video game publisher presence left in Chicago, creating a unique atmosphere of almost solely independent game developers. Hollingsworth sees Chicago as a city that’s great for incubating talent until it is ripe and having a “goliath entertainment company” pull out its checkbook. Citing Chicago’s many successful musicians and video game companies like Bungie, Hollingsworth says, “Chicago’s always been a talent producer. So maybe that’s our contribution? We’re like a really good orphanage, and the big companies on the coasts adopt our babies.”
However, Ryan Wiemeyer, associate producer of Wideload Games and host of the podcast “Question Blocks” on indiecitygames.com, says that while Chicago does not feel too different from other cities, if anything it feels more tight-knit and stable. “The great thing about the aftermath of Midway, is that you still see the people that really had passion, finding a way to work in the industry,” Wiemeyer says, “There were a lot of start-ups that came from the ashes of Midway, and it sounds like their departure from Midway has lead to more profitable and sustainable businesses.” The challenge now, Wiemeyer explains, is showing the bigger publishers that it was the people that made Chicago’s video game landscape great, not the iconic names. Jake Elliot, founder of independent video game developer Cardboard Computer, compares the current atmosphere to the experimental electronic art of the 1960’s and its overlap with video games. Thanks to online communities like Indie City Games — a forum for independent video game developers in Chicago – “a community of independent game developers is starting to gel here too,” Elliot says, “So I think there’s a lot of exciting potential in that convergence.”
Just because there is an emerging community of independents, however, does not mean it is easy to find a job. Arca says that because most of the video game jobs are on the west coast, it is really tough to get a job in the Midwest. “More backing could be put into Chicago’s independent studios,” Arca says, “The stronger the hub you have is, the stronger it could become. I could see [Chicago] as the next big video game city, but it needs the backing.” Of course, it is not as simple as calling up a publisher and asking for money. “Publishers don’t take risks,” Arca says, “It’s all about ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Even with a publisher’s backing, game development is no cake walk. Wiemeyer says that having a publisher behind you is not a bad thing: you need money to make games. “What stinks is when that’s all you have going for you,” Wiemeyer says. Referring to the layoffs at Robomodo, Wiemeyer says that Robomodo thought they would have Activision’s backing for a few more years, and they were dependent on it. “They didn’t see the carpet was about to be pulled out from underneath them so they weren’t prepared to sustain all those people. It’s a shame, but it happens.” Wiemeyer explains that, while working for someone with a lot of money and holds your fate in their hands is not what people would generally want to do, “it’s how you get funding and it’s the risk of working with a big name and trying to compete in a shrinking market.”
Not every independent video game developer necessarily wants to be part of a bigger publisher, though. Azrael, CEO of Double Cluepon Software, believes that Chicago has the potential to become the “Seattle” of the video game industry. “In the same way Seattle helped spark a musical revolution with grunge and alternative, we have a lot of great underground real indie talent here in Chicago,” Azrael says, “[who are] operating outside of the normal publishing system you see in cities like San Diego, L.A., and parts of Texas.” Operating outside of the normal publishing system is a better idea, Azrael explains, because he predicts that the overall video game market is heading for a crash of sorts, citing the disappointing sales of new games in the popular Rock Band and Metroid franchises. “The larger corporate system has its uses, but… typically innovation is not one of them,” Azrael says, “I think the next wave will be the rise of the indie/underground game developers into a bigger mainstream voice. I think it’s already starting to give the big houses a moment of pause: some of them are trying to set up indie developers, not realizing it’s not that simple. You have to give up some control in order to have true indie houses…and giving up control is not something a stockholder-laden corporation does overnight.” Kevin Zuhn, who graduated from DePaul University in 2010 with a degree in game development acknowledges that it is difficult to get funding, or even just survive, as an independent video game developer. “The big benefit for all that suffering is creative control,” Zuhn says, “You can do bizarre, unexpected, maybe unwanted things with the gameplay, the art, and the story that Triple A titles could never dream of doing. If you want to make a game about a man who eats dirt to grow out his magical back hair, then nobody can stop you.” However, Zuhn says, “corporate support is beneficial, as you will always need to eat,” and that corporations are not always hindering. “Corporations are not blind to the appeal of weird, experimental games, so you can hold on to a lot of creative control if you pick the right audience and the right medium to release the game,” Zuhn says.
The right audience and the right medium are essential to the success of any art form. Although the arcades of the 1980’s and pinball machines of old have gone the way of the Virtual Boy, the new era of independent video games is their rightful heir to the throne of video game innovation. Wiemeyer says that in order to be a contribution to the mainstream gaming sphere, independent video games developers need to counteract the “high cost and low risk” mentality of the bigger companies. “I personally feel that the idea of what a game can be, is stagnating due to the “sameness” of games being developed,” Wiemeyer says.
“So get to work, Chicago,” Wiemeyer concludes.