Mayor Kasim Reed isn’t one to play games. But during a recent tour of Thrust Interactive’s 4,500-square-foot Inman Park office, he tested the company’s just-released iPad title "Boomblastica"—a retro-style shooting game with Japanese anime graphics. His host that day, Jesse Lindsley, thirty-eight, represents a new breed of Atlanta CEO: an aspiring digital entertainment mogul, clocking eighty-hour weeks between rounds of Ping-Pong and Xbox.
The movie and television tax credits that have made film crews a familiar sight around Atlanta have also boosted Georgia’s video game industry. Since the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act passed in 2005—saving production companies up to a third off state income taxes—the number of local video game companies has leapt from about seven to more than seventy-five. The industry employs hundreds of workers and contributed an estimated $50 million to the state economy in 2011.
In 2005 fewer than 100 Georgia college students were studying gaming; now there are more than 4,000. Seventeen Georgia colleges and universities offer related courses or majors. SCAD’s graduate interactive program recently was ranked in the nation’s top ten by the Princeton Review. And each January, SCAD hosts Global Game Jam’s largest local jam, where hundreds of sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled students compete to create a winning game in two days. Georgia Tech even has a doctoral program in digital media, headed by Ian Bogost—whom "Wired" described as the “acid-tongued class clown” of the gaming industry.
The metro area hosts outposts of corporate behemoths like TransGaming (which has worked on franchises like "The Sims," "FIFA," and "Grand Theft Auto"), CCP (creators of the role-playing game "Eve Online"), and, most recently, Tapjoy (whose mobile apps have more than 200 million users). In March, Giant Studios ("Avatar," "Real Steel," "Tintin," "Lord of the Rings") brought their revolutionary virtual production technology and expertise to Turner Studios, a boon for both film and game production.
Even more common here are ambitious start-ups like Thrust, Hi-Rez Studios, Eyes Wide Games, Kaneva, Tripwire Interactive, Crystal Fish Entertainment, Persuasive Games, and Zobee Games. Mowgli, created in 2010 by two UGA grads, produces a social networking game called "Songster" and secured $550,000 from twelve Atlanta angel investors earlier this year. “I think the indie scene as opposed to the big brands is what’s taking place now,” says Asante Bradford, digital entertainment liaison for Georgia’s Department of Economic Development.
In February, House Bill 1027 nearly ended digital media’s tax incentives. But a last-minute compromise limited them to companies with less than $100 million in annual revenue and barred any single firm from claiming more than $5 million in credits (topped at $25 million for gaming overall). Industry insiders are stepping up efforts to prove their value to legislators. “Before this, nobody thought there was anybody working on video games in Georgia,” says Christopher Klaus, CEO of Kaneva. “We’re thinking about making a video game called the 'Gold Capitol Dome,'” he adds with a laugh, “and building a simulator for how our political system and legislation works.”
Image: "Songster" by Mowgli