Officials consider Vermont as video game industry hub
BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Students in Champlain College’s game design program graduate with one of the most sought after degrees in the industry. But seniors often head out of state, lured by jobs that promise “steak money” — a big payoff.
Jennifer Carlin, a 22-year-old Champlain senior, was snapped up by Insomniac Games in Burbank, California, months before graduation. She’ll be designing 3D art for Marvel’s Spider-Man video game platform for Sony.
“This is the best place in the world. I’ve never been anywhere I like so much,” Carlin said of the Burlington area. “If there was a sizable studio, I’d stay or come back.”
While independent startups exist in Vermont, there are no mid-to-large-sized companies building or publishing games in the state.
Tech industry professionals, as well as current and former students, said there are obstacles for startups to grow into companies that would keep more skilled game designers in Vermont.
Vermont could do better in a portion of the tech sector of the U.S. economy that provides well-paying jobs for skilled workers.
Wages for tech workers were more than twice the average U.S. wage in 2017, of about $55,000, according to census data.
Jobs for software developers are projected to grow 31 percent in nationally over the next decade, according to the 2018 report by the Computing Technology Industry Association, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Software development in Vermont is projected to grow 2 percent in the next five years according to Vermont’s Department of Labor.
Video games, including the digital free-to-play title Fortnite and related media, earned $119.6 billion in 2018. The numbers dwarf the $43.4 billion in revenue generated by the American film industry.
“A lot of people don’t view games as a serious industry, because it is not making a serious product,” said Seven Siegel, the executive director of Global Game Jam Inc. who made Forbes 30 under 30 games list for 2019.
Siegel, a graduate of Champlain College who teaches the business of game design at Northeastern University, said that Vermont has a cluster of very small companies “doing some amazing work.” But gaming hotspots are typically generated by large companies where employees gained experience before leaving to form their own small businesses, according to Siegel.
Vermont’s population and skilled labor workforce are shrinking, according to labor and Census data, and Vermont continues to export young professionals after graduation.
Vermont was ranked in the bottom five states for tech employment by the Computing Technology Industry Association in 2018, despite Burlington’s description as a ‘Smart’ Green Tech Hub, in The New York Times in 2016.
To stave off the brain drain, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has created initiatives like The Stay to Stay aimed at luring young active professionals to Vermont, as well as the $10,000 incentive to get remote workers to relocate in the Green Mountain State.
Education initiatives also exist to capture students’ interest in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — and construction and health care jobs before boomers retire and leave large gaps in the workforce.
The gaming students say they wanted a place to work where they can use their training to design games and find affordable rent that would allow them to pay their student loans without going broke.
Brennan Howell, 21, a senior at Champlain College who was courted by several companies outside Vermont for his environmental design skills, joked that a friend told him he’d be making “steak money,” but he was thrilled for the chance to use his training professionally.
“We are all passionate about what we do,” Howell said of the game designers he knows and works with.
Ryan Huggins, 24, a Champlain graduate and co-founder of Sundae Month, said he’d like to see more local “hobbyists” commit to full-time game design.
Marguerite Dibble, 29, founder of Game Theory and her business partner Shannon Mitchell, 24, both Champlain graduates, said Vermont’s strengths were also its weaknesses: The distance from other game designers and producers helped give games a certain edge of weird whimsy.
“We are cut off, so we have to pave our own way,” Mitchell said of Vermont’s nascent game culture.
Amanda Crispel, Champlain College assistant dean for Game Development in the Division of Communication and Creative Media, said that co-working spaces specifically dedicated to game design would be a boon. She added that, in general, many tech-sector jobs could be brought to rural areas if broadband access was improved across the state.
Jonathan Ferguson, an assistant professor at Champlain, explained how scaling a startup with independent contractors, such as freelance short-term skilled workers, is typical of technology startups. Companies need workers with certain skills for a window of time to fill a specific niche who then take their expertise to another company or job.
Crispel said Vermont laws governing independent contractors were unnecessarily complicated, providing a disincentive for the type of temporary workers that many tech companies need.
“Vermont’s current labor laws are a often a problematic roadblock for young companies to navigate,” Crispel said regarding Vermont’s strict freelancing statutes.
Ferguson recognized that current laws were made to protect a traditional labor force against exploitation by big companies, but wondered if there could be some flexibility for small businesses that have yet to turn a profit.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has been attempting new strategies to address some of the needs brought up by students and designers.
ThinkInnovation Grants announced in March by the agency will fund, among other things: rural technical training, maker spaces and feasibility studies for broadband expansion.
Nick Grimley, director of entrepreneurship and tech commercialization at the agency, said the Champlain community was growing the game sector naturally and building a network of graduates, but growing an industry will take time.
Grimley said Dealer.com, a successful Burlington-based tech company that sells digital marketing platforms to auto retailers, took over 10 years to take off.
“That wasn’t an overnight success story,” Grimley said.
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com