Georgia a hotspot in video game development

Video game fans of everything from Mafia Wars on PS3 to Farmville on Facebook, listen up -- the next big explosion in digital entertainment could come out of Georgia.

In fact, if you play Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, Global Agenda or Kaneva  -- all created by Georgia companies -- you are already contributing to the state's shot at becoming a gaming powerhouse, state and local economic development leaders say.

Over the past two years, Georgia has snagged hundreds of jobs in game development -- from graphic design to software engineering to the atmospheric music that builds a game's tension, and more are on the way, the economic leaders said.

The state's point man, Asante Bradford, and others are traveling the country and the globe to bring video game development to Georgia.

Companies are coming to Georgia because of the tax incentives the state offers the entertainment industry, which includes the fast-growing digital segment, the leaders said, and the plethora of courses dedicated to digital entertainment at the state's institutions of higher learning.

"If you are a game company, you've got 20 colleges and universities that have game programs here," said Nick Masino, vice president of economic development for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. "That's huge."

The strategy is showing results. The economic impact was $68.9 million in 2008, and currently sits at $49.9 million for 2009, a number leaders expect to double once productions that have not yet filed for their tax incentives complete the paperwork.

And there is room to grow, said officials with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which has led the charge to build the state's video game industry or "interactive entertainment" as they call it.

They point out that the video game industry was estimated to be worth $9.5 billion in 2007, and many say it brings in more money than Hollywood. States that invest in the industry can expect to rake in millions.

About 70 companies affiliated with video game production operate in Georgia today, the department said.

"These are mostly small- to medium-sized companies with very educated workers who are very highly-paid," said Carol Henderson, director of interactive entertainment and digital media for the state department of economic development. "A lot of the companies are start ups."

Companies include Hi-Rez Studios, TransGaming, CCP North America, Tripwire Interactive, Kaneva and Blue Heat. One of the industry's major players, Cartoon Network, also is based here and GameTap, a leader in online gaming, was born in Atlanta.

To lure companies, the state offers video game developers with a minimum investment of $500,000 a tax credit of 20 percent. They can get an additional 10 percent if they embed the state's logo in the game.

The growth in video game development has exploded because it's evolving,  said Matthew Maloney, associate dean of SCAD Atlanta's School of Film and Digital Media. It's about more than consoles like the XBox or the Wii. It's about online, mobile phones, cable TV, apps, and social media like Twitter.

That has led to increased interest in video game development as a field, he said. Five years ago, the school's game design program had 14 students. Seventy-three signed up for it in Spring 2010.

Not all the companies that have come to Georgia as part of the video game development initiative are about fun or social interaction.

Meggit Training Systems in Suwanee uses the video game platforms that are the basis of the industry for serious training of military and law enforcement, said spokeswoman Kendra Hathway.

The company uses real weapons that have been modified to shoot lasers at a CGI screen, but have the feel and response of actual guns. The training helps law enforcement learn through simulations how to say negotiate a hostage crisis properly, Hathway said.

Clinton Lowe, president and co-founder of the Georgia Game Developers Association, said while Georgia has made strides to bring the industry here, there are issues to be addressed.

The most pressing, he said, is to educate the state's venture capital and angel investor communities about the industry. The small companies that have started here will need infusions of capital to continue to grow.

"It's not just about getting them here, it's about supporting them after they've relocated," he said.