Utah Game Developers: Building A World-Class Industry

By David Wise

When gamers think of the people and developers behind their favorite games, the most prominent studios in California, Seattle and Montreal usually come to mind. However, here in Utah, the game industry has blossomed over the last 20 years. The growth of the Utah game development field shows no signs of slowing down as more and more industry veterans choose to relocate to the Beehive State and bring along their trade.

At Salt Lake Comic Con 2014, Troy Leavitt, game director at Disney Interactive; Chris Diller, designer at Eat, Sleep, Play; Geremy Mustard, technical director at Chair Entertainment; Brad Butler, Art Director at XacFAQ; Brad Moss, president of React Games; Tony Evans, lead designer at Smart Bomb Interactive; and Zac Truscott, lead designer at Smart Bomb sat down for a panel to answer the question: why Utah?

“There’s a lot of talent here locally,” stated Leavitt. “There’s Evans and Sutherland. The University of Utah has a great computer science program. Brigham Young University has a fantastic art and animation program. I think there’s a great talent pool in this Salt Lake City, Utah area that we’ve been able to pull from. There’s a great history of gaming in Utah and a lot of great talent in Utah.”

“I’m the relative newcomer to Utah,” chimed in Evans. “Most of my career has been in California. The reason I decided to move Utah is that I found it offered a better work-life balance. It’s more family-friendly than most of the places I’ve seen and lived in California. The cost of living is reasonable; you can actually buy a house in Utah. I’ve been very impressed with the people coming out of the university here [the University of Utah]. They have a very comprehensive game design program and from what I’ve seen it does a good job of simulating what it’s like to work in a game studio.”

As to whether life in Utah affected the type of games these developers produced, Evans replied, “I work on Animal Jam, a non-violent game geared towards kids. I love it. It’s a change of pace from working on bloody, gory RPGs [role-playing games] like Dragon Age II and Knights of the Old Republic. Another great thing about being here is that Animal Jam has a near infinite pool of young play-testers.”

Leavitt weighed in on his experience with game production in Utah. “I think, for one thing, the LDS [Latter-day Saint] and family-friendly environment makes Utah a great match for Disney,” said Leavitt. “But before we were Disney, we were Avalanche, we worked with Eidos on a game called 25 to Life. We were protested by Mark Shurtleff, who was the attorney general about nine or 10 years ago, because it was a cops-and-robbers game, which meant you could shoot cops. What was interesting about the studio at the time was that there were some folks on the team who wouldn’t work on 25 to Life, and that was respected. That’s okay, if you don’t want to work on that type of game, you can work on one of our more family-friendly games. Once Disney bought us, our games were all family-friendly.”

For Butler, variety and innovation separated Utah developers from the better-known studios and publishers. “The game industry is, in all reality, 30 years old,” he explained. “Sure, there have been games before that, but in terms of hitting mainstream culture it’s only about 30 years old. If you compare that to Hollywood, we would still be in the black-and-white era. As we mature and hit the color stage for video games, I think that there’s a lot more room for expression and more room for a wider variety of games.”

Butler continued, “One thing that has been impressive, in terms of the game studios here, is that the studios have been very willing to explore new areas and be very innovative. Some of the West Coast gaming culture [publishing and development] and some of the East Coast publishers are very much stuck in the last generation of business models and the genres they choose. They fall more into the ‘summer blockbuster’ category, whereas everything we’re doing here falls into every other category. I think that’s amazing for Utah and Utah’s gaming culture.”

An audience member asked whether the Utah state government had been supportive of the game development industry. Butler offered his insight on the matter. “Utah has been a very strong supporter of Hollywood. There have been so many films shot here, so they definitely have seen the value of the entertainment industry,” he answered. “We’ve been working with the state government for the last several years to try to enlighten them on the benefits of gaming. As you can see here, there are a ton of game companies here in Utah who are hiring more and more people and thus are becoming a bigger factor. They aren’t on board yet with huge tax breaks, per se, but that will be coming I’m sure. They’re starting to catch the vision for the size of the business in general and what it can mean.”

Besides the affordable housing, great talent pool, family-friendly environment and innovative game production, Evans found another compelling reason to work in Utah. “One of the great things about Utah studios, from what I’ve seen, is that they really encourage that work-life balance,” he said. “You can maintain the 80-hour work weeks for the first couple of years, but if you really want to work in this industry more than a couple of years you really need to master the art of letting go, to quote Frozen.”

The panel of industry veterans only represents a small percentage of the booming game industry in Utah. The state has proven successful in both attracting outside talent, as well as fostering top-tier, home-grown game developers. While Utah game developers aren’t nearly as famous as their counterparts in California, Seattle and Montreal, they continue to leave their imprint on gaming culture worldwide.

David Wise is an Official Salt Lake Comic Con Blogger.

Check out David’s other work on Twitter and DogFaceNoSpace.com!

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