Some power circles are so well-established you can’t imagine how they came about in the first place. They seem like they’ve always been, that the men behind the curtain have had their hands on the wheel for so long, you forget the world once got by without their leadership. The shadow bankers behind the Fed, for example, with their arcane understanding of the ways money flows from the poor to the rich, or the lascivious Hollywood power elite couch-casting their way between the legs of the most beautiful women in the world.
How did these bankers, these producers, establish themselves as the point men of their respective fields? How did they claim their stakes within the power structure? At what point did they stand up and declare that no financial transaction, no film, would be put forth without their tacit approval? We may never know.
Yet sometimes, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can get lucky and catch a glimpse of such a power circle in its nascent stage, when it’s little more than a glimmer in some crafty entrepreneur’s eye, when its future power brokers are still working out the details of their global domination. I’ve gotten a look inside one such power circle in the making, and I’m here to tell you it will soon dominate a part of the entertainment landscape about which you care very deeply. Also, it’s not really a circle, but a triangle.
The Luminous Triangle
Deep in the heart of North Carolina, a “triangle” of three cities has evolved over the years into a cultural, technological and, yes, gaming hub of growing importance. In addition to playing host to many of the world’s foremost technological and research companies (including IBM, Cisco and Nortel), North Carolina’s “Triangle,” generally defined as the area between the three focal points of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has recently emerged as one of the fastest-growing hubs of game development talent, not only in the United States, but the world.
“The Triangle has one of the largest concentrations of game development companies in the U.S., with more than 30 studios and over 1,000 game industry workers in a metropolitan area of around one million,” says Alexander Macris, CEO and Publisher of The Escapist and President of the Triangle Game Initiative (TGI), the region’s rapidly growing cadre of videogaming power elite.
“Gamers will recognize the vast majority of local North Carolina companies … that support TGI,” says John Farnsworth, Studio Director of Atomic Games (and a Director of TGI). “EA, Epic, Red Storm Entertainment, Emergent, Vicious Cycle, Insomniac, Atomic Games, Virtual Heroes, Lockheed Martin, Nvidia, IBM, American Research Institute and Applied Research Associates, [and] there are many more companies starting up.”
With all the attention on San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York as “centers of industry” in games, it makes sense that a little, out-of-the way hub buried deep in the tall North Carolina pine trees has escaped notice. But if the TGI has its way, that won’t last. Frankly, one wonders how it could.
According to Macris, the Triangle offers great weather, abundant local talent, a surplus of higher education opportunities, a strong IGDA chapter and “close access to world’s best game engine providers, including Epic, Emergent and Vicious Cycle,” all of which combine to serve as a giant lightning rod for videogame companies looking to expand – or start up – in a region already burgeoning with talent. And TGI will be there to greet them when they arrive.
“Our region was voted ‘Number One Next Boom Town’ by Business 2.0, ‘Number Two Best City to Live, Work and Play’ by Kiplinger’s, and ‘Number One Best Place to Live in the U.S.’ by MSNBC. In short, we already had all the elements to emerge as a major game industry hub,” says Macris. “We have an infrastructure of support services familiar with the game industry, including legal, accounting, marketing and customer service firms. We are a low-cost, high-quality-of-life region with home prices that are less expensive than comparable hubs such as Austin, Seattle, Boston or San Francisco.
“The Triangle is also the world capital in game engines, with three out of the top five game engines developed in our region. We’re also the market leader in serious games and advanced learning technology, developing new interactive applications for military training, medical assessment and education – not to mention traditional development of first- and third-person shooters.”
In other words, the pieces were already in place for the Triangle to become a world-class power center for videogames. All that remained was putting the points on a map and drawing a line between them.
Ninety Degrees of Separation
A few years ago, the heads of all of the major Carolina-area game companies had a simultaneous realization: Nobody knew they were here. Naturally, this concerned them.
John Austin, Vice President of Emergent Game Technologies (and VP of TGI), describes the beginnings of the TGI as almost accidental. Somebody at Emergent suggested holding a local career fair, partly out of frustration, but partly just to see what would happen.
“At the time, virtually all of the local companies were hiring, and we didn’t want to just steal each other’s people,” says Austin. “The career fair was held in November 2007 and succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. At that point, we knew were onto something and organized the Triangle Game Initiative.”
The founding members of TGI included Epic, Emergent and Destineer Studios on the game side, NC State University representing the region’s higher-education infrastructure and Themis Group, publishers of The Escapist. Before long, TGI managed to attract the attention of Wake Tech, another prestigious local school, and Wake County Economic Development, aka “the government.” That’s when the wheels really started turning.
Earlier this year, TGI held the first-annual Triangle Game Conference, a gathering of the region’s industry leaders, creators and consumers, an event Wayne Watkins, Government Relations Director for TGI, calls “hugely successful.”
“The most critical role that the TGI plays presently is to provide a center of gravity for efforts designed to promote the Triangle’s game development community nationally and internationally,” says Watkins. “By providing a home-base of sorts for key decision makers in the industry, the TGI has been instrumental in helping organize, execute and, most importantly, sustain a variety of regular events and initiatives that are crucial to maintaining the forward momentum generated over the past two years. The Triangle Game Conference, regular industry socials, co-branding efforts at national game development conferences and other evolving partnerships that have been launched over the past two years would have been impossible to achieve without a clearing house for ideas and action that the TGI provides.”
Austin suggests these events, and the collaboration engendered through TGI, are critical for both the region and the member companies. “By attracting companies from outside the region and nurturing new companies formed locally, we grow the market for all of us, and we grow a business ecosystem that has positive economic effects on the state of North Carolina.”
To hear the TGI directors speak of it, the organization sounds almost too good to be true. Traditionally, companies working in the same industry, chasing the same dollars and the same talent, aren’t inclined to cooperate. Why, then, would some of the videogame industry’s brightest minds and strongest companies join forces with, in essence, their competitors?
Macris suggests the downsides to such an association are an illusion. “From a laissez-faire economic perspective, it’s arguably a downside to our overall society that it is necessary to have associations like TGI organize and lobby for the interests of industries and regions,” he says. “But in our mixed economy, such organizations seem inevitable. It certainly is not a downside for Triangle-area game companies.”
In other words, at some level, helping your competition succeed is suicidal – a backward business plan pursued only by those with no better ideas, or who are insane – yet in the world we live in, the craziest plans are often the best. If, in helping the TGI accomplish its larger goals each member company can help itself achieve its own, then it just makes good sense.
“Most industries have large companies that have the resources and funding available to sponsor activities, lobby governmental agencies and publicize their presence,” says Austin. “The Triangle game development community is made up mostly of smaller companies of less than 100 people, none of which has the muscle to exert this level of influence. By working together around shared common goals, we are able to accomplish what each of us individually cannot do.”
It’s a risky plan, since each new member represents another potential competitor, but considering what draws talent and opportunities to a region – a broad assortment of individual companies concentrated in a single area – it’s the only plan that make sense if the Triangle is to grow beyond a few odd companies whiling away their hours beneath the trees.
Taken from another angle, if Warner Bros. suffers from its incidental proximity to Universal Studios, then the constant influx of new talent arriving in Los Angeles via Greyhound bus, suitcase in hand, looking for potential stardom at either company, more than makes up for the trouble of sharing. By working together, the member companies of TGI may be doing themselves a minor disservice at some level, but the potential for shared greatness can’t be ignored. And so far it seems to be working.
“In a short amount of time, the TGI has helped position the Triangle as the recognized industry hub for game development on the East Coast,” says Watkins. “It is hard to imagine this happening as rapidly as it has without the TGI taking the lead in these efforts.”
Go Off On a Tangent
The power brokers of the TGI may be on to something, but it’s not exactly new. Apparently the strategy of making friends out of enemies is an old one, and for good reason: It works.
“Scratch the surface of any regional industry hub and you’ll find an association promoting and supporting the hub,” says Macris. “An example of another organization that has had notable success is Alliance Numérique (AN), a non-profit organization, which has served as the business network for Quebec’s new media and interactive digital content. AN hosts the annual Montreal International Game Summit and has been active in lobbying the Quebec government for tax credits for game development. Likewise, the rise of Austin as a game development hub has to be partly credited to the Austin Game Initiative, which spawned the Austin Game Conference.”
TGI, it would seem, is in good company. And like its sister organizations in Quebec and Austin, its efforts are showing measurable success.
“TGI is all about building a community that will generate the very best games and technology for gamers,” says Farnsworth. “I’ve been in the Triangle area of North Carolina for over 12 years and we find that our local community is doing just that. Look at the top games and engines over the past few years and then trace their origins, and you’ll be surprised how many have strong connections to the Triangle area of North Carolina.”
Farnsworth is referring to games like Unreal Tournament, Gears of War, Ratchet & Clank, Matt Hazard, anything with the name Tom Clancy on it and every game developed using the Unreal engine, like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. All of these games were developed in whole, or in part, in the Triangle. And more are still coming. Everyday. No wonder the Triangle is rapidly becoming the new power center of videogaming.
“In the end, TGI makes an impact for gamers by fostering an idea-generating community that will fill future consoles and computers with unbelievable technology and fun,” says Farnsworth.
That’s an angle you don’t need a protractor to measure.
Russ Pitts is Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist, and an Executive Member of TGI.