Ann Arbor IGDA branch co-chair Austin Yarger.
Nestled within Ann Arbor's vibrant technology hub, a robust local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)
is creating an essential community support for both expert and novice developers.
"Many people are really surprised by how many game developers are milling around right here in the city," says Austin Yarger, a "game dev" lecturer at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. Yarger, who also serves as a co-chair of the Ann Arbor branch of IGDA, adds, "We are actually in a really creative city with a really big crowd of developers who are eager to create and hungry for knowledge."
Since 2017, Yarger has played a major role in unifying people in the local game dev industry through lively, monthly meetups at SPARK Central Innovation Center in downtown Ann Arbor. The group also includes the local extended reality (XR) community, which encompasses augmented and virtual reality. The chapter has about 1,000 members and about 30% of them are university students. In addition to professional developers, the group also includes hobbyists, professionals, and academics.
Good food, open conversation, and curiosity are staples at every meeting. Meetings usually start with a 60-minute industry tete-a-tete where community members connect through activities like prototype demonstrations and brainstorming. During the second hour, members gain inspiration and practical insight through talks from reputable industry heavyweights. Developers who have worked on the bestselling "Minecraft" and "The Elder Scrolls" video games are just two examples of the caliber of speakers.
"Our mission was to bring all of these people together, to celebrate their love of the field of game development. People didn't necessarily know that they have a large network of other developers that they could lean on for knowledge, or for help completing their projects," Yarger says. "Our networks are stronger now and we've been able to raise the connectedness of our community."
The undertaking is still timely and important, he says, pointing to the Michigan Studios Database
, a new directory of Michigan-based video game and XR developers, which he created and maintains. So far, Yarger has determined that there are over 65 active video game and XR development studios in the state. While that is positive, he says there are challenges.
"The Midwest is not the densest part of our country and we're often separated by a lot of distance. It can be hard to find other people who are interested in the same things," he says. "It can be difficult to share the experiments and the knowledge that you've gained in a way that's going to empower other people in this low-density region."
Playing the long game
IGDA-Ann Arbor co-chair and professional video game designer Corbin Reeves says the group is not just about fun and games, but also about funding and growth. One of his main focuses has been the sustainability of local game studios. Reeves, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and Kettering University, works with local IGDA business members to teach them about viability and what it takes to seek out funding. He underscores that "creating real companies outside of Silicon Valley and the West Coast is a really massive challenge."
In the Midwest, Reeves explains, video game companies don't receive the same support from publishers or venture capitalists. Michigan studios, specifically, don't receive any designated funds from the state government.
"We're treated as an entertainment industry, while not receiving the benefits of entertainment grants," Reeves says. "Grants for film and other entertainment endeavors can't be applied to video games, and grants for emerging technologies can't be used for video games either."
Ann Arbor IGDA branch co-chair Corbin Reeves.
Currently, Reeves has his hands full with an IGDA-Ann Arbor project that's close to his heart: a guidebook on how to raise funding and create a sustainable game studio in the Midwest.
"I've gathered a lot of valuable firsthand information from people in the business and am condensing everything into an actionable plan," he says. "It will be helpful for people who are looking to turn game dev into a profession, or who are actively in the field as a professional."
Yarger says there are already success stories people can turn to, such as Gaudium Studios
in downtown Ann Arbor. The company consists of a group of his former students who connected at a meetup event.
Austin Yarger and Corbin Reeves at SPARK Central Innovation Center.
"Four years later, they're making games together and getting thousands of installs," he says. "So knowledge and ideas get shared, and sometimes that creates startups, and start-ups have the potential to get big."
Regardless of expertise or experience level, anyone who is interested in game dev should join the group, Reeves adds.
"Games are such a huge endeavor requiring cross-disciplinary work, right from the foundations to the moment of launch," he says. "It's a space that needs business people, artists, engineers, musicians, composers, writers, and everybody coming together to make good things happen."
Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.