Wisconsin game developers to hold their first regional conference in Madison

Games are not just for fun.

They are a creative, educational, money-making, jobs-producing industry that is putting its imprint on Wisconsin and beyond.

That’s the message organizers of a regional conference — scheduled for this fall in Madison — want to deliver. And they want the message to resound, not just here but across the country.

The Midwest Games Development Conference, or M+DEV, will be the first time game developers from around the region will gather for a daylong summit to be held at the Alliant Center on Oct. 27.

“One of our big initiatives is to promote Wisconsin as a premier hub for game development,” said Jennifer Javornik, vice president of sales for Filament Games and co-director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance.

The Wisconsin Games Alliance, formed more than two years ago, is staging the conference in cooperation with the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP).

“This conference will showcase the games development industry in the state and help developers learn the latest industry tools and share best practices,” Javornik said.

Game developer gatherings were staged the past two years in conjunction with Forward Fest, the eight-day celebration of entrepreneurs and technology, held in Madison in August. That was, in large part, due to the efforts of Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire, who led the Games + Learning + Society Center at Wisconsin Institute for Discovery until they left, in the past year, for the University of California, Irvine.

Steinkuehler, Squire and MadREP “were so instrumental in kicking this off,” Javornik said.

She said people in Wisconsin have become aware there are studios as big as Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision that has worked on games such as the blockbuster “Call of Duty” and “Star Wars Jedi Knight” series, as well as independent developers like Joel McDonald, whose game “Prune” was declared the best video game of 2015 by TIME magazine.

Courses relating to the game industry at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison, Stout and Whitewater campuses, as well as at some private colleges, have helped feed the demand for graphic artists, animators and software developers, Javornik said. But, as with other tech industries, it can be challenging to keep skilled employees here.

“We want to create national and international awareness that Wisconsin has global level talent … to make world-class games,” she said.

Filament creates educational games and has 40 employees. Among its latest projects in development is a virtual reality experience for Oculus featuring famous female scientists to be played on the Samsung Gear VR with controller.

Capital’s role growing

Forrest Woolworth, chief operating officer of PerBlue Entertainment — whose mobile role-playing game “DragonSoul” was purchased by GREE International Entertainment last year — said he thinks Madison is becoming known as a game development hub.

“Much of that growth has happened under the radar over the prior decade or so, and only in the last few years have local studios begun to work together more on ways to improve the local game development scene. The M+DEV conference is a direct result of that collective work,” said Woolworth, who also is among the confab’s organizers.

Game studios are popping up in other parts of the state, too, including Milwaukee, said Timothy Gerritsen, also co-director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance.

“Game development has grown by leaps and bounds in Wisconsin,” and numbers more than 30 companies, he said.

M+DEV is expected to draw at least 300 people to discuss the “technology, art, science and business of games development,” Gerritsen said.

“We’ve already received commitments to take part in M+DEV from studios in Chicago like Wargaming.net and Iron Galaxy and companies as far away as North Carolina such as Epic Games and technology companies like Nvidia,” he said.

Gerritsen’s latest career move could be seen as a reflection of the growing respect for the game development industry here.

Co-founder and business development director of Human Head Studios, Gerritsen’s been named studio head of a new division being established by tabletop game publisher Fantasy Flight Games/Asmodee North America, of Roseville, Minnesota. The new studio will be based in Madison and will be called Fantasy Flight Interactive — and, said Gerritsen, will be looking to hire employees.