Silicon Delta

The gaming industry is hot, and New Orleans is building a solid place in it.

New Orleans is known all across the world for its food, music and unique cultural traditions, but it’s also building a reputation as one of the country’s biggest tech incubators. Last year, multiple local companies made high-profile — and high value — exits, culminating with the sale of the analytics company Lucid for roughly $1.1 billion, landing the city its first unicorn. Within the tech industry lies the video game sub-sector, which, thanks in part to incentives from the city and state, as well as the success and support of other tech companies, is on the rise as well.

Many people may not realize how long Louisiana has been in the gaming business.

“I’ve been part of the video game industry in Louisiana since 2006, when I worked for Nerjyzed Entertainment,” said Jason Tate, CEO and co-founder of Pixel Dash Studios, a game developer in the city known for big hits like motorcycle combat game “Road Redemption,” which has sold more than 1 million copies across platforms like PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch. “They were one of the first companies to take advantage of the digital media tax incentives from Louisiana.”

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Tate said he’s watched the local industry grow over the years, most recently in New Orleans, where acquisitions have brought major companies like Microsoft and Keywords into the region. That’s no accident. Organizations such as Louisiana Economic Development (LED) and Greater New Orleans, Inc. (GNO, Inc.) have been working to entice more tech companies to come to Louisiana and encourage the ones already here to stay and expand.

Benefits such as the digital media tax — which provides companies with a 25% rebate on their software payroll, a tax credit that GNO, Inc. helped to write — are examples of deliberate and targeted strategies that have helped grow the video game tech sub-sector. And it’s working.

“There has been quite a push from organizations such as LED and GNO, Inc. to bring more companies to Louisiana,” Tate said, “and I believe you will see this continue as the industry in our region matures.”

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That support extends beyond initiatives and incentives, too. The city and state are striving to create an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming, hosting events such as Game Fête—a networking event that not only showcases New Orleans but also the existing video game industry.

“GNO (Inc.) and LED help support the industry in a number of ways,” said Jessa Carlson, New Orleans studio head and senior art producer at High Voltage Software, a Keywords studio that has been making games for almost 30 years, for every console, since 1993. High Voltage has created more than 100 games. “Game Fête is one, but they also assist with recruiting and promoting companies to help broaden awareness.”

In another recent example, LED announced a partnership with Unity — a digital platform for creating and operating real-time 3D content — to help area schools train and certify students in real-time 3D skills. Students learn software that allows creators to build and manipulate 3D images without having to wait for a computer to render the images in high resolution, essentially allowing creators to visualize high-fidelity 3D objects in real time. Even if you don’t fully understand what that means, what’s certain is the partnership will be another big boon to the industry, expanding the pool of homegrown potential developers.

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That also means more Louisianans are training and finding jobs in a cutting-edge and ever-expanding industry — and they’re staying here to do it. The state of Louisiana is making an investment that will pay off as the digital world continues to grow and as video game technology continues to develop and become more and more popular.

“This partnership with the state has been incredible as it allowed us to hire more people locally and invest in other more experimental projects,” said Dan Clifton, founder and creative director of Top Right Corner, a company that makes game engine solutions for private industry, government entities and educators—developing them for training and educational purposes. “So many local companies have taken part in programs like this across the region and these investments in the tech industry are going to set it up well for the future.”

Top Right Corner is a pioneer of what’s called “extended reality,” or “XR,” the umbrella term that covers virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and other immersive technologies that can merge the physical and virtual worlds.

“We believe that the future of how we learn, train, educate and facilitate will largely depend on programs developed in a video game environment transposed over the real world,” Clifton said.

He added that the success of larger companies like TurboSquid, InXile and High Voltage — all of which bought in to the region’s incentives early and accelerated the local developer talent pool — has allowed new tech companies and startups to take root and grow.

“Over the past five years, a company like mine has been able to exist in their slipstream, hiring employees who have formerly worked at those companies,” Clifton said.

“Right now, you probably have around a dozen companies that are growing and hiring, and it feels like an exciting place to be.”

In the video game industry, New Orleans may currently be a medium-sized pond, but the region recently landed a whale. At the end of last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards and video game executive Jeff Strain announced the launch of Possibility Space, a game development studio that will design and build large-scale games for a global audience.

Strain is the CEO and co-founder of Prytania Media, an independent, family-owned game development label headquartered in New Orleans and focused on the curation of groundbreaking new games.

“Within our two development studios — Possibility Space and Crop Circle Games — we work to meet the growing demand for innovative games that promote cooperation, positivity and community on a global scale,” Strain said. “We currently have about 50 developers working on new games located in New Orleans and worldwide, on the way to around 200 over the next year.”

Strain is no mere studio executive—he’s a legend in the video game industry. He worked as a programmer for Blizzard Entertainment — the company behind games that have become household names, such as “World of Warcraft,” “Diablo” and “StarCraft.” Strain created the “StarCraft” campaign editor, which was wildly popular, and served as the lead programmer and team lead on “World of Warcraft.”

“I got started in games back in 1996, before video games were considered a ‘real’ profession,” he said.
After years of working for Hewlett-Packard during the day and staying up all night coding his own games with some friends, Strain said his wife, Annie, sat him down and said that if he was going to be up all night doing it, he should make it a career.

“Two weeks later I’d resigned from HP to take a job at Blizzard Entertainment working on a little strategy game called “StarCraft,”” he said, “and here I am 25 years and four startup studios later, making a new generation of games.”

Strain said the pandemic accelerated trends he was already seeing at video game companies. “Distributed development,” which basically means people can work wherever they want to work, was already taking hold in the industry well before the explosion of videoconferencing software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. He feels that cities like New Orleans — that have a reputation of being a “cool” place to live — will benefit the most from this shift in the industry.

“Our developers, probably for the first time in their lives, have the ability to choose where they live simply based on where they want to live, rather than to be close to a specific job or industry hub,” Strain said. “Annie and I are the best examples of this — we chose to live in New Orleans and build our business here simply because we love the city, the people and the living here.”

And while he admits New Orleans must continue working on public safety, infrastructure and schools — essentials for maintaining a healthy city — Strain said the support and incentives provided by the region, coupled with the city’s musical heritage, historic architecture, artistic curation and general spirit of joy and pride and gratitude means the people coming here will be coming for love, rather than necessity.

“If you have the rare opportunity to just pick a place to live for no other reason than it’s where you want to go, you’re not going to pick Cleveland,” Strain said. “Shout-out to Tennessee Williams.”


DID YOU KNOW? Louisiana has been in the gaming business for more than 15 years.

 

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