Leveling Up New York City’s Video Game Industry

| April 6, 2012 4:00 AM video

The days of 8-bit Pac-Man are no more.

Today’s generation of video game consoles, with high-definition resolutions of 1080p, boast motion sensing cameras that track your movement (Xbox 360 Kinect) and wireless controllers that serve as virtual ping pong paddles and tennis rackets (PlayStation Move and Wii-mote). Multiplayer online role-playing-games, such as World of Warcraft, provide players with opportunities to partner with others from all over the world in a fight to save their planets. And mobile games, like Angry Birds (with more than 700 million downloads across all platforms), are available anywhere, anytime, for anyone who uses a smartphone.

Tiny Mantis is a for-hire video game developer currently based in a 500-square-foot-room in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Tiny Mantis.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a trade group that serves the needs of companies that publish interactive games, cites that 72 percent of American households played computer or video games in 2011. That’s a huge market, but New York State’s share of the video game market is small: only 5 percent of companies directly involved in the video game industry are based in New York, according to the ESA’s “Video Games in the 21st Century: The 2010 Report.”

California is the largest hub for video game activity with 40 percent of video game operations taking place in the Golden State. From 2005 to 2009, the industry in New York State grew by a real annual rate of only 5.37 percent, with  5,474 people directly and indirectly employed by the video game industry in New York.

That doesn’t mean that New York start-ups aren’t itching to get in on video game action. One such company, Tiny Mantis, an independent video game developer founded by Nik Mikros in 2005, operates out of a space that fits its name: a 500-square-foot room. Despite minimal elbowroom and no heat, the space in a building in Dumbo, Brooklyn, works well for Tiny Mantis, which has two full-time employees and several freelancers.  Its portfolio contains more than 50 games, ranging from flash banner games on websites to large apps for the iPad. Its clients are companies with ideas for video games but who cannot create them in-house. Past clients include Facebook, LEGO, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central and most of the games developed by Tiny Mantis are free of charge to players.

Gameplay of Spongebob Delivery Dilemma, developed by Tiny Mantis and Nickelodeon.

 

A May 2008 report by Center for an Urban Future identified 30 game development companies in New York City, and another 55 firms involved in some aspect of gaming, in New York City.

The road to success for New York City’s tech start-ups remains anything but easy.  Real estate is expensive, and for video gaming companies there is a lack of programmers and few tax breaks to soften the financial burden. Tiny Mantis is following the adage that making it in New York means it can make it anywhere. And New York is where it chooses to be.

In 2005 Tiny Mantis started in an office inside a law firm in Chinatown. A year and a half later, the company left its Chinatown space and bounced from office to office, until settling in a space it would share with Templar Studios, an independent game developing company.

During this time, Tiny Mantis experienced growth and prosperity, with eight full-time employees and a contract for a full year of work for a French video game company. But when the French company unexpectedly pulled out of the deal, Tiny Mantis, on the brink of bankruptcy, was forced to downsize.

Shortly thereafter, in 2010, Tiny Mantis opened its doors in Dumbo, where it joins trendy boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants in a locale that now has a mere 2 percent vacancy rate for offices.

“I love this neighborhood,” said Mikros. “Across the street is Brooklyn Roasting, the best cup of coffee you’ll ever have.”

And good coffee is not the only thing New York City has to offer. A large population of illustrators means game developers in New York City are never short on freelance artists, who provide illustrations for games.

The independent video game developer creates games for companies that do not have the technology to develop their own games in-house. Photo courtesy of Tiny Mantis.

“In New York City, there’s a huge pool of potential employees,” said Harry Bogosian, an artist at Tiny Mantis. “There are so many talented people in New York City who want to work.”

Mayor Bloomberg, whose push for technology has spurred the construction of Cornell’s Technology Campus on Roosevelt Island, also sees the potential in New York City’s population.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation provides affordable workspaces to small start-ups who need office space. Tax breaks are also available, but only for newly emerging technology firms.

For older start-ups, Bloomberg will promote New York City as a growing technology hub in an effort to attract programmers and engineers, whom game developing firms often have a hard time sourcing.

“Lack of programmers is not specific to New York City,” said Paul Dix, a freelancing programmer who co-founded (and has since left)  Movable Ink, a New York City start-up, in 2010. “But larger firms in Silicon Valley and finance companies in New York lure fresh graduates more so than start-ups.”

 

Ellen DeGeneres demonstrates the  Xbox 360 Kinect, a motion sensing camera that tracks a player’s movement, while playing Dance Central.

 

At Tiny Mantis, junior employees quickly acquire valuable skills and are essential to the team. This sense of importance to the firm’s success increases job performance and overall satisfaction.

“We gain a lot of hands-on experience at Tiny Mantis,” said Jordan Trańa, a freelancing junior programmer at the company. “California firms are often larger and so most of the entry-level positions there entail a lot of busy work.”

And with few large video game firms creating a foothold in the mobile gaming industry, New York City firms are using mobile technology to create a niche for small companies to thrive.

“New York City mobile game companies are beginning to establish a major presence in the field of serious video games,” said Tara Colton, former Deputy Director at the Center for an Urban Future, in in the center’s 2008 report. “Several award-winning serious games focusing on everything from education in Haiti to the conflict in the Middle East have been developed in New York.”

New York City’s entertainment companies, such as VH1 and Nickelodeon — subsidiaries of Viacom that have worked with Tiny Mantis  — are increasingly incorporating games into their portfolios and New York start-ups are taking advantage.

Tiny Mantis has no plans to leave the city in the near future.

“The people, the city, and the transportation make New York City a great place to be,” said Bogosian. “You can go to a town with amazing tax breaks for video game companies, but you won’t get the people or the talent that you find in New York City.”

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.


 

 

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