After a friend of mine visited New Orleans, he didn’t come back with much hope for the city. His stories were full of desolate spaces submerged in three feet of water, the poor being marginalized and tourists clogging the inhabitable areas like cholesterol in an artery. What’s worse, much of what plagued New Orleans before Katrina stayed put. The legal system is still run by the good ol’ boys. Police officers accosted young coeds in broad daylight and sat drunk in outdoor cafes in the French Quarter. And since much of the police force was concentrating on things other than fighting crime, the areas more damaged by hurricane Katrina have become third-world refugee camps.

He also said the food was amazing, and he can’t wait to go back.

There’s a certain breed drawn to the city, despite the graft, despite the crime, despite the fact it’s under water. They’re what’s left of the cowboys, suffering nigh-equatorial weather and corruption for the sake of reviving a fallen city’s culture. And they build. Not just collapsed houses, but businesses and industries.

I spoke to one such builder, Ben Lewis, recent LSU graduate and marketing guy at Yatec Games. He’s got big ideas, both for Louisiana and for gaming.

***

The Escapist: What is Yatec? What does the company hope to accomplish?

Ben Lewis: Our main goal is to help build the entertainment industry in Louisiana. We’re trying to build a film and game industry. For the company, we wanted to start off in casual games to kind of build up. We’re looking into some boutique MMOGs and some bigger projects later on, in a few years.

TE: You’re based in Baton Rouge, and you formed up post Katrina. Were you guys planning on making a game company before the hurricane?

BL: I think it was a combination of things. Dean Majoue – he’s the President of the company – he was looking to branch out a little bit. Then, after Katrina happened, he really wanted to get involved in bringing permanent jobs back into Louisiana. And the digital media tax incentives we have here in Louisiana will give developers 20 percent tax credits on every dollar they spend – same thing for film.

TE: Are you involved in the community at all?

BL: Yeah, a bunch of us are members of the IGDA, and we’re working with other companies like Turbo Squid and GameCamp, trying to set up a kids’ camp in Austin and Louisiana. Trying to partner up with some new people and get the community thing going again. There’s a couple more conferences coming up in Louisiana, the Red Stick Animation Festival and another one in Lafayette, and we’ll have a presence there, just trying to get the message out.

TE: How is that going so far? A lot of people must have scattered after the hurricane.

BL: It’s kinda tough, since there really is no industry here, there’s a lot of people enthusiastic about getting into the industry. But there was really no studio here before for people to go to, so a lot of people would just go out of state. There is enthusiasm there, [though].

The IGDA chapter shut down a couple years ago. Now that there’s a couple companies here building it up, hopefully it should be going pretty well by the end of the year.

TE: What is Louisiana’s appeal?

BL: The tax credits offer a lot. The word is slowly getting out. I know Austin and Georgia are also doing tax incentives. It’s really tough. Development communities are really already there in Austin and Seattle, so that’s been our biggest focus. Trying to bring people in with incentives. It’s a good, low-cost place to live and work. Like, Lafayette for instance – a lot of people don’t know what a really high-tech, driven city it is. It’s a slow process, but the state does have a lot to offer, especially if you’re doing any type of digital media.

TE: The company’s about page says you’re currently hiring and trying to ramp to team up to 30 in the next couple years. Do you plan on growing slowly?

BL: It’s in line with the vision that we’re staying casual for now, and as we get bigger, we’re going to be adding more people. Say we’re going to be doing an MMOG within the next year or so … we’re definitely going to need more than we have right now. Eventually we do intend to grow the team quite a bit. We’re actually building a new office right now to fit more people.

TE: Do you plan on working on one game at a time with the larger team, or do you want to have multiple teams doing multiple things?

BL: You have to split it up. We have three projects going on right now. The great thing about casual games is small budgets, quick dev times. You can’t have 12 people working on a game at once. You’ll have art styles clashing against each other and everything. So we break it into smaller teams. It’s usually two to four people per project now. Our last [project] took about five months.

I wish I could talk [more about what we’re doing], but we do have a couple projects that are in the early stages. One of them is a boutique MMOG kinda thing. Actually, that would be blending an MMOG and an [alternate reality game], but the casual stuff would be separate. The casual stuff is a stepping stone for us.

TE: The whole office recently got addicted to PopCap’s Bookworm Adventures Deluxe. They really did something interesting by merging more traditional gaming elements into a casual game. Is that something you look at and say, “That’s what we want to do”?

BL: Every time PopCap puts a game out, we say, “Wow, they nailed it.” One of our things is whenever we try to figure out, how should this sound, how should this look, it’s like, “Well, what would PopCap do?”

They’ve never put out a blatantly bad game, but their budgets are pretty crazy, because they can afford it. They’re bringing in millions a year. … There’s no way we would spend two years getting a casual game just right, because we don’t have the budget for it. … But, man, if we had the budget, we could really do something like that. It’d be great.

TE: Yatec has one game out now, Enchanted Gardens. Could you tell us a bit about it?

BL: It was our first foray into the casual gaming space, so we were looking into themes [to see] what we could do to really resonate with the people who play these games. We were at Casuality in 2006, up in Seattle, thinking up ideas. We had gotten the game mechanic down; we were already prototyping it back at the office. And we remember seeing that the top five interests of … the core, female audience … were pets, shopping, arts and crafts, gardening, and travel. Alright, well, gardening, OK.

So we built in the Garden Builder. Every five levels, depending on how well you did – it’s kind of like a Diner Dash model – if you get all five gold medals in five levels, you go to this high-res garden, and you can add new upgrades, and kinda tweak things, and get a better looking fountain, and stuff like that.

As we were making the game – it’s mostly guys in our 20s – so it’s really hard to figure out what women over 35 really want to get in these games. When we were making the game, it felt like a fun little diversion, but when we went to beta testers, [garden building] was pretty much their favorite part of the game.

TE: You say that casual games are a stepping stone for Yatec. Are they fun to work on, or are you guys grinding now to get to the fun stuff later?

BL: It’s actually really fun. It’s surprising. Except for Heather, our lead artist, it’s all guys in their mid-20s. … A lot of times we’re just sitting there, like, “What is the player going to do?” It’s kind of like the Wild West for us. It’s just, like, games that we don’t really play, so it’s a new area for us to get into.

TE: As the core gaming group gets older and they start getting married and having kids, do you think the casual space is going to grow, and they’ll demand different types of games?

BL: Xbox Live Arcade helps that a lot. I know guys that are younger than me and they play Zuma and … they’re excited about [Eats]. There’s people looking forward to the casual games on Live Arcade more than the hardcore demos that come out there. It’s driving younger players to get used to casual games. Live Arcade is really helping the demographic find casual games. I’m 25, and I’d like to think of myself as a hardcore gamer, but you’re right, I don’t have time to play them anymore. … I think by the next generation, casual games won’t be called casual games anymore. It’ll just be people playing games.

TE: Thanks for your time, Ben.

BL: Thanks a lot!

***

When I first heard about Yatec Games and their goal of bringing the gaming industry to southern Louisiana, my first response was one of bemusement. Why in God’s name would a bunch of computer geeks ever wish to move to a place that’s one more natural disaster away from Beyond Thunderdome? But after speaking to Lewis, I think I know why. New Orleans and the places around it are a mass of potential, waiting to be shaped into something new. It’s a blank slate waiting for new inhabitants to make their mark. Who better to build a world than the people who create them for a living?

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne’s World and Dr. Strangelove more often than what can be considered normal.

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