NY-Based Game Developers ‘Level Up’ through NYSTAR Hubs

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New York is in play.

The Empire State is now in the conversation with the Bay Area, Austin, Los Angeles and Seattle as a major player in the digital game development sector, boasting hundreds of game development companies.

Within the state, three regions — all with a Center of Excellence in Digital Game Development supported by Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology & Innovation (NYSTAR) — are making a name as creative and economic hotbeds for game developers. In 2016, NYSTAR designated the three centers, also called digital gaming hubs, at New York University in New York City, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Capital Region and Rochester Institute of Technology in the Finger Lakes region. Those three centers have since assisted in the development of more than 110 games and created or retained more than 120 jobs.

In addition to nationally recognized undergraduate and graduate game design programs, each digital gaming hub offers an incubation program for local game developers to get their ideas in the hands of gamers around the world.

Each incubation program is as unique as its participants. These are just a few stories of how NYSTAR’s investment in game development is making dreams come true while building New York State into a digital gaming powerhouse.


Buckle Up: ‘Airplane Mode’ Gets Off the Ground at NYU

The NYU Game Center’s incubation program typically takes on four to six projects each year. Developers are awarded a stipend to start their companies and cover cost of living while they work on their games. They are also plugged into NYU’s high-powered advisory network, given access to workspace, and matched with a dedicated producer, who helps to shape the project as it moves through the program.

“We are focused on growing a community that is working in and around games,” said Toni Pizza, project coordinator at NYU Game Center. “Every connection strengthens that community, and it’s making an impact on our incubator participants. Their games are going to market — they’re funded, they’re critically acclaimed, and they’re really fun.”

Of the 41 projects that have gone through the incubator to date, 24 are commercially available today.

One of those projects is Airplane Mode by Brooklyn-based independent developer Hosni Auji.

Auji already had the idea for Airplane Mode — a game that simulates being a window seat passenger for the real-time duration of a commercial flight — going into the NYU incubator, but it was “a little worse” and “only a proof of concept” with about 15 minutes of flight time. The game didn’t include experiences such as going to the bathroom, ordering an in-flight meal or suffering random Wi-Fi disruptions — staples of flying toward the rear of a transatlantic jetliner.

At the incubator, Auji worked on foundational coding, learned about the legal implications of publishing his game, and formed an LLC.

Critically, the incubator assigned Auji an executive producer who helped facilitate a publication deal to make Airplane Mode the first-ever video game title released by AMC.

Airplane Mode, which takes place entirely in coach, launched on Steam during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as frequent flyers found themselves grounded. The game gained critical success as a finalist for the prestigious Nuovo Award at the 2021 Independent Games Festival.

“Without the NYU Game Center, Airplane Mode doesn’t get picked up by AMC,” Auji said. “They helped me connect the dots. The incubator gave me the advice I needed to pitch the game and form a business strategy. Now I’m making temporary hires, continuing my work, and contributing to the community.”


After RIT Incubator, Delivery Driver Turns Full-Time Developer

 In Rochester, the RIT MAGIC Center is a key player in the Finger Lakes region’s growing game development community. “It’s very indie — these aren’t household titles — but the density is starting to fill in” with several companies located in a small geographic area, said Jennifer Hinton, associate director of the MAGIC Center.

The MAGIC Center’s incubation program caters to the region’s independent developers who may lack formal game development schooling or funding to get their ideas off the ground. “The ultimate goal is publication of a title. Our job is to create a space for growth and provide the resources to help make that happen,” Hinton said, noting that RIT has an MOU agreement with Blizzard’s Vicarious Visions and is looking to develop others.

Look no further than Dennis McCorry, a self-proclaimed hobbyist who found out about the incubator program through Rochester’s game development community.

As an artist with no formal background in programming, McCorry needed assistance navigating “all the things” for what would become Shot in the Dark, a Western-inspired point-and-click shooter released on Steam in January 2021.

McCorry entered with a prototype for his game, while the incubator awarded $10,000 that helped pay for programming, music and marketing. McCorry also took advantage of the program’s mentorship component, gaining knowledge of the publication and release processes.

“I really needed a programmer who knew what they were doing with the Steam back end. I also needed help with project management — I had no idea how to get a game to market,” McCorry said. “RIT worked with me to budget and set a timeline. One of the MAGIC Center staff members, John Veneron, served as a producer, and they put me in touch with a local professional, Carly Shields, who helped with marketing.”

Shot in the Dark was nearly complete when he left the incubator in April 2020. McCorry has since quit his job as a part-time delivery driver and is now exclusively working on art- and game-related jobs through the studio he co-founded, Possum House Games.

With his business partner Lesther Reynoso — the programmer he met through the MAGIC Center — McCorry has been fueling the Rochester economy by hiring local musicians, videographers and accounting professionals for their studio’s ongoing projects.

“Yeah, I’m a graduate of the incubator, but I never stopped being in contact with RIT. I still have monthly meetings with the MAGIC Center. They want to see us succeed,” he said. “The incubator was my first experience working in a studio, collaborating with others, not being isolated. It was a super validating experience.”


Tech-Savvy Team Gains Business Fundamentals at RPI

 On the opposite end of the spectrum is the team at DANG!, which entered the Center of Excellence in Digital Game Development at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., with nearly all the tech know-how to develop their own games.

Unlike many others that graduated from the NYSTAR-backed incubation programs, the six-person DANG! team didn’t need much assistance in the way of programming, marketing or even mentorship. They did, however, need help with the foundational aspects of launching a business.

Through RPI’s incubation program, DANG! connected with a lawyer who helped them form an LLC. The staff at RPI also linked DANG! with an accounting firm and got them in touch with the Troy Innovation Garage for much-needed office space.

“Our entire team graduated from RPI. The institution is what brought DANG! together. But finding success was a process,” said DANG! CEO Ben Caulkins.

The project that DANG! worked on at the incubator was ultimately dropped. They pivoted to a new project, Boomerang X — a fast-paced first-person shooter described as “DOOM meets the Matrix” — based on another project that they started at RPI. Their pitch for Boomerang X received significant interest; the studio ultimately signed with Devolver Digital, which published the game on Steam and Nintendo Switch in July 2021.

“We went with our instincts on Boomerang X. And it paid off. Our experience at the incubator put us on solid footing as a business — we were able to make those gut decisions knowing our house was in order,” Caulkins said.

DANG! is poised to be the next big studio in the Capital Region, according to Prof. Ben Chang, co-director of Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences at RPI. Game development growth in the area can be traced back to earlier iterations of RPI’s incubator, through which Vicarious Visions got its start and eventually splintered into Velan Studios.

“Tony Hawk. Diablo. Mario Kart Home Circuit. Some of the biggest games are being worked on right here in the Capital Region. We also have 1st Playable Productions, WB Games New York, and now DANG! making great titles,” Chang said. “RPI has been a core part of the evolution.”

RPI’s incubator program is six to eight weeks. The center provides workspace and resources for participants to further develop their games and companies. There’s also a mentorship component to help with technical challenges, which can be critical when shaping an early-stage project into a game that is hook-worthy to a player and attractive to a publisher.

“There’s a cumulative snowballing effect: developers come up through ranks, form a company, mentor someone who forms their own company, and it goes on,” Chang said. “That’s how the ecosystem grows.”

The digital gaming hubs at RPI, RIT and NYU are all part of NYSTAR’s robust network of innovation assets.

For years, New York State has been investing in and building out its innovation infrastructure through NYSTAR, which oversees a statewide network that provides innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders with access to the support they need to solve challenges and start or keep growing. There are over 70 NYSTAR-backed centers across the state that are actively working to generate technology-driven economic growth.

In addition to its NYSTAR programs, Empire State Development has supported the game development sector in New York — which boasts more than 8,900 jobs — through funding to developers such as Velan Studios and Vicarious Visions.


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