Winnipeg Envy

This week is the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which I, sadly, am not attending.  An unfortunate side effect of being a poor grad student is the fact that I have to pick and choose which conferences I’ll be attending.  While a week long trip to San Francisco certainly sounded appealing, I decided that I didn’t have the funds to take a week off work and put myself up in a hotel.  I soon regretted my decision when I discovered that the Winnitron 1000 would be making an appearance at the event.  San Francisco is a bit of a trip, but it’s a lot closer than Winnipeg.



The Winnitron is an old arcade cabinet that has been refurbished and set up to play a number of games created by some of the independent game developers who live in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  It was created by the Bit Collective, a group of local game developers, including Alec Holowka of Aquaria fame.  I don’t exactly know why or how Winnipeg became an important hub of the indie game community, but it certainly boasts one of the most active and tightly knit communities of game developers in the world, as evidenced by projects such as the Winnitron.  In fact, their enthusiasm is contagious, as a second Winnitron has been constructed in the Netherlands, while a third is in the works in Australia.  I consider Winnipeg’s indie game community to be one of the biggest success stories of the independent game movement.  In fact, I wish more cities had such active groups of indie developers, especially Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City has a surprisingly long relationship with videogames and computer graphics.  Apart from being one of the first four nodes of the Internet, the University of Utah boasts a long list of tech-savvy alumni.  Among these are Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, and Ed Catmull, who started Pixar when it was still part of Lucasfilm, and John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems.  Salt Lake has also had its share of independent and third-party game development studios over the years.  Many of these studios struggled and died, while others, like Avalanche Software and Chair Entertainment have been acquired by big name industry types.  At one point or another, a fair amount of talent has passed through the valley.  Local businessmen and politicians are starting to catch onto this and have begun a fairly aggressive campaign to bring more talent in, setting up their own booth at the GDC and dubbing northern Utah the “Silicon Slopes.”

Urban Space SquirrelsIn addition to the growing number of industry veterans who float about the valley, a lot of new talent is emerging in the area.  Once again, this is mostly due to the University, which launched its first videogame development program a few years ago.  This program, which originally only offered undergraduate degrees, has already created a number of game projects (one of which, I was fortunate enough to work on), two of which made their debut on Xbox Live Indie Games last year.  The program’s most successful game, Urban Space Squirrels, received very positive reviews and has sold reasonably well.  I don’t think I realized how well the game had done until earlier this year, during a presentation I was giving at a local middle school.  I showed some footage from the game to talk about animation techniques in videogames.  One of the students raised his hands and exclaimed “I have that game!”

With the success of their undergraduate program, the university began offering a masters program this year.  In their first semester, they created some amazing stuff, which they showcased in December.  Now the masters students have formed two groups of developers.  The first is creating a survival horror game, while the other is doing some sort of pinball game.  I know a few of the programmers and designers on each team, so I’m fairly excited to see what they manage to create.

So with all these talented game developers in the area, why isn’t Salt Lake more like Winnipeg?  Maybe there’s simply more job opportunities for young designers, who get funneled into the industry system.  Maybe the larger population of Salt Lake (and it’s surrounding area) makes it harder for developers to form the close connections that those in Winnipeg share.  I don’t know the reason that there isn’t a more vibrant indie developer scene in Salt Lake, but I do have hope for the future.  As people with money and influence have started noticing the potential of the “Silicon Slopes,” more opportunities have opened up for the local tech-geek community.  Last year marked the first Pushbutton Summit, which endeavored to connect entrepreneurs and technological innovators, and the second Gaming and Electronics Expo (GEEX), featuring a 24-hour game development competition.  Both of these events went a long way toward bringing the game developer community together, and hopefully this trend will only continue.

Now the only question is what are we going to call our arcade cabinet?  The Saltron?  The Utron?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…just a bit.

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