September 28, 2016

The Video Game Industry in Utah

Video games are big business in the beehive state. While its numbers do not rival those of Silicon Valley, Los Angeles or Austin, Salt Lake City has become a minor hub for game development. Utah is home to 15 game studios, including Electronic Arts Salt Lake, Disney Interactive Studios, and ChAIR, creators of the popular iPhone game, Infinity Blade. Utah’s development houses directly employ more than 841 people (and another 2,221 indirectly). In 2011, the industry added $112.7 million to Utah’s economy.

It’s no wonder the industry is expanding; Utah’s studios have a large talent pool from which to pick. BYU boasts one of the country’s most celebrated animation programs, and the University of Utah recently opened an undergraduate and two-year masters program in Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE). Five years after admitting its first class, the U’s undergraduate game development program is ranked third in the nation by the Princeton Review, preceded only by USC and MIT.

Unique in its curriculum, the program is divided into three sections—engineering, art and production. Many programs at other universities teach students a combination of these three, resulting in graduating students who are not proficient enough in any department to land a job. Graduate students at the U. choose one emphasis, then spend their final year of school collaborating in teams of 10-15 to create a finished game.

Roger Altizer, Director of Game Design and Production at the University of Utah and co-founder of the EAE program, explained, “We do our best to make sure every student graduates with a published game.” The game Minions! is a student-created gama that has sold 26,000 copies.

Smart Bomb Interactive is a Salt Lake City-based development studio.

Smart Bomb Interactive is a Salt Lake City-based development studio.

Salt Lake development house Smart Bomb Interactive paired up with National Geographic to release a massive multiplayer online game (MMO), Animal Jam, geared towards teaching children about animals. The number of educational games on the market is increasing.

Josh Jones, a game programmer at Smart Bomb and chair of the International Game Developers Association Salt Lake Chapter, explained that a team of around forty people could work for a year or more to produce a single game at Smart Bomb. A team is comprised of both programmers and artists, whose collective experience includes a slew of calculus, physics, technology science, design and animation. Jones pointed out that even games that seem simple (think Angry Birds) require a thorough understanding of physics to mimic reality.

What about the stereotype of World of Warcraft addicts who scarcely leave their screens to eat and shower? The video game industry is growing in Utah and nationwide, but the negative effects of gaming must also be considered.

Spencer Buchanan, an EAE graduate student at the U, expressed, “Oreos are addictive. Exercise is addictive. What’s your poison? Anything can be addictive.” He added, however, that in the past ten years game developers have been looking for ways to incorporate games into the real world.

Troy Johnson, also an EAE graduate student, said, however that he believes there is an addictive nature to video games, “It is something that every individual, every parent, has to take into account themselves. It’s about personal self-mastery, and parents have the responsibility to make sure kids are developing into people who will really contribute to society.”