Hemanshu Chhabra, the creative director at the small Austin indie studio Triple-I Games, used to work on huge video games such as “Star Wars: The Old Republic” for companies such as Electronic Arts-owned BioWare Austin and for Amazon Game Studios. After about a decade in the “AAA” high end of game development, he went indie for a few years.
In September 2015, he and two other game developers started their own company.
“I wanted to make games that were very personal to me,” Chhabra said. “They’re highly interactive games, but they have a philosophy they’re trying to explore. What I found in AAA is they’re not taking many risks. If they’re taking risks, they’re very safe risks.”
Even the name of the company, “Triple-I,” is a nod to the difference between a large corporate studio and an indie one striving to make smaller, high-quality games that sell. It won’t be available until 2019, but Chhabra said he is excited about the first game from his studio, “Hindsight 20/20.”
“The game is about mistakes you have made in the past. What if you had the ability to go back in time and fix those? I’m a very self-critical person,” he said. “This is what I wanted to explore in the game.”
Chhabra is a prime example of the state of the Austin video-game development scene, where large game companies work alongside tiny studios and much of the talent in the space has the option to work in either world, both, or somewhere in the middle.
While leaders of several Austin game companies say the sector is in a time of unusual stability − a period without major layoffs at established game companies or a raft of studios shutting down − many also said that a key strength is the diversity of what kinds of game companies exist here and the ways talent can move among them.
According to Austin Game Devs, a volunteer organization that puts on programs and provides resources to developers, the region has about 135 game studios.
But those studios represent a wide range of game genres and platforms, along with the types of talent they employ. On the AAA side, game companies with a large Austin presence include Electronic Arts, Blizzard Entertainment, ZeniMax (which owns Arkane Studios) and Amazon Game Studios, which has a team here working on Lumberyard, a set of game-development tools.
Some of the jobs at these companies are in tech support, sales or marketing, but many are high-end positions such as graphic artists, programmers, project managers and game producers. Some of these companies employ anywhere from 50 to 200 people in the area, while others who are reluctant to give exact figures might employ as many as 500.
On the indie side, Austin also has a wealth of mom-and-pop studios made up of just a handful of game developers. They’re buoyed by a support system that includes Austin Game Devs, regular meetups of showcases such as Juegos Rancheros and Fantastic Arcade, an annual event spun off from film event Fantastic Fest.
It’s a scene that also includes mobile app game developers such as PlayStudios, as well as companies such as Cadillac Jack and Multimedia Games that work on casino games.
Frank Coppersmith, CEO of game company Possum Entertainment and chair of Austin Game Devs, said Austin typically ranks behind San Francisco and Los Angeles as a game development leader in the country, but ahead of Seattle and Portland.
He says Austin’s indie games scene, paired with activity in San Antonio and Dallas and the talent coming out of area schools, make Central Texas an ideal place for game development.
“Notwithstanding the doom and gloom, Austin continues to do pretty well,” Coppersmith said. “We still have a very strong labor pool in Austin.”
However, Coppersmith said, the rising cost of living in Austin is making it harder to claim that game companies can survive at half the cost than they would in San Francisco. And the game industry itself is changing, with costs and development times rising to make AAA games and risk-aversion taking over in some genres.
“It’s still a hit-driven business and it’s still really hard to make money,” Coppersmith said.
Optimism among industry vets
Much of Austn’s veteran game development talent continues to have roots in Origin Systems, one of the most influential game studios of its time. Origin created several beloved franchises such as “Ultima” and “Wing Commander” from 1983 to 2004.
Developers who led that company continue to work on new games and to loom large in Austin’s gaming spheres. They say 2017 has been calm, without major layoffs or shakeups in the local games industry.
Richard Garriott, who co-founded Origin and now heads up Portalarium, where he’s working on a role-playing game called “Shroud of the Avatar,” said the current stability doesn’t address a larger problem with Austin’s development scene.
“When the industry has natural rises and falls, Austin does not weather these times as well as California as most headquarters that fund development remain outside Texas,” Garriott said. “We need to attract more publishers to Texas and give Texans exit opportunities that keep their (headquarters) in Texas.”
He said that while large publishers are largely playing it safe, new innovations are likely to come from smaller indie houses.
“The risk, of course, is that these will be acquired by the same old giant out-of-state publishers, and the instability cycle will repeat,” he said.
Portalarium is one of several Austin studios that has taken some of that control into its own hands. Over the summer, it offered a $2 million round of equity investing for “Shroud of the Avatar” through a company called SeedInvest, in addition to $11.3 million the studio previously raised through Kickstarter.
As far as making the games themselves, Garriott says he’s excited about off-the-shelf tools such as Unity making some aspects of game development easier and the evolution of artificial intelligence to allow for deeper, richer gaming experiences.
“This will open the door to far better games,” he said. “Not the bells and whistles, but true depth, the relevance to the human condition, the responsiveness to the individual player.”
Warren Spector, who previously headed up Junction Point Studios under Disney, is now working in Austin on “System Shock 3” with Boston-based Otherside Entertainment. He says Austin currently has quite a few game studios with 100 to 200 employees, but that he’s most excited about up-and-comers in the 10- to 50-employee range.
“There are lots of those and they’re doing interesting work in the traditional space, in multiplayer, in mobile, and in virtual reality,” Spector said. “In terms of budget and team side, that’s precisely where my new studio is living. We’ll max out at about 25 people and work with a budget smaller than I’ve had in the past. I’ve done the 200-person studio thing, and you know what? It’s not much fun.”
John Henderson, an industry vet who is program coordinator of the Game Design & Development Lab, a program to help get people into the games industry, says that it’s been a long time, since the Origin days perhaps, that people outside Austin cared which games were developed here.
“Origin was the only one where people romanticized it being in Austin and being in Austin was a big deal,” he said. Henderson said it’s not unusual for an underground hit such as “The Stanley Parable” to make the rounds without people noticing that it was developed in Austin.
A few years ago no one had any idea who I was. Today the stanley parable has sold a million copies. Thank you. <3— Davey Wreden (@HelloCakebread) October 18, 2014
But that could change with some homegrown studios going higher profile such as Certain Affinity, which plans to release its first original game, “Last Expedition, after years of working on high-profile franchises such as “Halo” and Call of Duty” for other companies.
Game development, Henderson said, is often spread across multiple geographic locations, and many larger developers don’t brand games with a sense of where they came from.
“I don’t think most people who consume entertainment of any form really care about where the people are that make it,” he said. “Here’s my challenge: Make that a mark of quality. Things made in Austin mean they’re great and they have a clear audience.”
Home-grown successes and Switching it up
This past year saw one Austin game studio release a very high-profile game, another find its groove on a new platform, and several others that either land funding or be acquired.
“Prey,” from Austin’s Arkane Studios (owned by ZeniMax), was arguably the biggest game release to come out of Austin this year when it came out in May. It was an immersive simulation with horror and action elements. It earned good reviews and continued a streak the studio has had with its “Dishonored” games, built by teams out of Austin and its sister studio in Leon, France.
Also in May, Owlchemy Labs, a studio that has managed to find a rare hit in the virtual-reality space with “Job Simulator,” was acquired by Google. Several VR studios received funding in 2017 despite doubts about how quickly the market for virtual and augmented reality software is going to grow.
Austin’s popular video studio Rooster Teeth got into game publishing this year, releasing two games, “Battlesloths 2025,” and new versions of “RWBY: Grimm Eclipse.”
The Austin studio Panic Button had a big year, releasing versions of “Doom” and “Rocket League” for the Nintendo Switch as well as co-developing the game “Astro Duel Deluxe.”
Co-owner and general manager Adam Creighton said it was the company’s biggest single year of growth after 10 years in the business.
“It was based on us executing on the company value of making good games with good people, and it’s validating that it directly drives our business,” Creighton said.
He said the company has worked to be plugged into the development scene, attending meetups and encouraging other indie developers.
The surprise success of Nintendo’s Switch console, he believes, will be good for the Austin development scene.
“A lot of big players are scrambling to try to do something with that and make up for lost time and revenue,” he said. “Smaller devs are seeing the success of other smaller devs and trying to figure out how they can be part of that.”
He said he worries that in terms of bringing in talent to feed local game development, Austin could be falling behind.
“For long-time established people, Austin is getting less attractive,” Creighton said. “Austin is growing like crazy and there’s some understandable growth pain, but it adds quite a bit of unnecessary pain as city and county personnel re-invent the wheel from everything from infrastructure to tax incentives.”
He said senior candidates look at Austin and see problems from larger cities happening here. “And they are trying to decide if it’s worth it,” Creighton said.
What’s ahead in 2018
The crowdfunding boom for games has benefited another high-profile game coming out of Austin, the massively multiplayer online game “Crowfall,” which to date has raised nearly $20 million. It’s due out in late 2018.
Gordon Walton, president and executive producer of the studio behind that game, ArtCraft Entertainment, said he’s not sure that indie developers have it any easier than giant studios making huge bets and taking multiple years to make a single product.
“AAA gaming is under a lot of pressure, but indie games inherently have huge discoverability and marketing challenges,” Walton said. “I believe you have to innovate to have any chance of success, though, given the huge array of games available on every platform, no matter the size of company you are in games.”
Great games are being made and released, he said, but it’s not always easy to find them.
There are high hopes that a great game is being made at Austin’s BioWare studio within the sprawling presence that Electronic Arts has in town, which includes work on sports and mobile games. “Anthem,” a AAA action role-playing game due out next year, has been under quiet development for a while.
Chad Robertson, head of technology for BioWare and Austin studio director, said EA has benefited from area resources such as the University of Texas at Austin’s Computer Science Department, which helps studios that are trying to innovate in areas such as online play.
The disparity in size between small and big game studios is a feature, one that allows people in the industry to move among them.
“I think that’s part of the sweet spot for Austin because it allows individual developers to experience game development in so many forms,” Robertson said.
For large studios such as BioWare, he said, there’s a push to make subtle improvements to game mechanics while continuing to wow players with something new.
“I think it’s more challenging as expectations of the kinds of games we make have gone up,” Robertson said. “It forces us to push ourselves and our quality, but it also means if we miss the mark creatively or artistically − something that no one intends to happen, and can be soul-crushing to experience as a developer − we lose that chance to keep our players engaged because they’ve moved on to something else.”
Rich Vogel, another longtime Austin developer, joined Certain Affinity in August as vice president of technology and services. He says he remembers introducing company founder Max Hoberman to the city more than 10 years ago, promising a deep talent pool and lots of support for the industry. Plus, there was that Austin thing.
“We’re not just a tech community. We’re an art community,” Vogel said. “We have great musician talent, film and voice talent. Games is a media that combines all sorts of media, including developing narratives and story-driven stuff. We have a strong art and cultural scene.”
That has continued, Vogel said, and has kept many of Austin’s most talented game designers from heading west.
“We just want to stay here, we don’t want to go to California,” Vogel said. “I think that’s what’s kept this scene alive. We’ll do anything to stay in town; we love it here.”
Cover image: At right, Frank Coppersmith leads a panel discussion on voice-over actors’ involvement in video games with Alexander Brandon, Bonnie Bogovich, TJ O’Leary and Kelley Huston at Capital Factory in Austin on Dec. 4, 2017. Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN