Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2004

Making a game of it

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

At Blue Lava Wireless, project manager Peter Ryu, left, Dean Miyasaki and Alice Tran test out various games on cell phones at Manoa Innovation Center. Local business leaders are setting their sights on the fast-growing industry.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Robert Griffis grew up playing video games. Now the programmer at Blue Lava Wireless helps create them.

Griffis, a University of Hawai'i computer-science graduate, feels fortunate.

"I didn't really think it was going to be possible for me to be a game programmer and stay in Hawai'i," said Griffis, who last spring started working for Blue Lava, a Honolulu-based developer of games for wireless phones.

In Hawai'i's tourism- and government-dominated economy, there are few opportunities for game developers. However, some local business leaders are setting their sights on the fast-growing industry. Helped by popular titles such as Madden NFL and Grand Theft Auto, video games racked up $7 billion in U.S. sales last year. Coupled with sales of consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's Play Station 2, video-game industry sales totalled $10 billion in the United States, according to The NPD Group. That topped movie box office receipts of nearly $9.5 billion.

However, in Hawai'i, movie production still eclipses all other entertainment industries, generating an estimated $80 million in spending last year and several hundred mostly temporary jobs. Meanwhile, video-game-related jobs were estimated at less than 200. While small, that figure was comprised of primarily high-paying, full-time jobs, said Chris Lee, co-director of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa's Academy for Creative Media. Entry-level programming jobs in the game industry paid an average annual salary of $58,400, according to CMP Game Group's 2004 salary survey.

Lee's vision, which is resonating with some state officials, is to broaden Hawai'i's role from a beautiful backdrop for the movie industry into a center for content creation for digital film, television, video game production, computer animation and storytelling.

"My whole thing is to expand people's concept of the entertainment industry," said Lee, a former president of production for TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures. "The growth side of (the entertainment industry) has to do with things we absolutely can be a part of. To limit it to movies and TV shows is shortsighted."

If successful, a digital media industry would provide balance against the feast-or-famine nature of the movie and TV businesses. Optimism for such success comes from advantages Hawai'i may have in attracting video-game companies. Those advantages include: close ties to Asia, a high quality of life and technological advances such as the Internet that allow for near instantaneous worldwide information sharing. That allows game development to occur in a decentralized fashion with employees working from locations they choose.

And it's not like Hawai'i's effort to build a video-game industry is starting from scratch. The state is already home to companies such as Konami Computer Entertainment Hawaii, Blue Lava Wireless, Atlantis Cyberspace and, most recently, game developer Backbone Entertainment established an office in Honolulu.

"They're just as legitimate, if not more so than any motion picture that sets up shop here, especially if you're talking about research and development," Lee said.

Game developers in Hawai'i agreed the state has a competitive advantage because of its attractive climate and lifestyle.

"Why are we doing this in Hawai'i?" asked Henk Rogers, president for two-year-old Blue Lava. "Because we can. It's because we couldn't find a better place."

In February, the company, which sells the popular puzzle game Tetris via wireless phones, recorded its 1 millionth paid game-download. At a price of around $4 a game that translates into about $4 million in revenues for the company, which has 24 employees.

"There's a huge amount of growth that's going to happen in this industry. Hawai'i is in the perfect place to do that," Rogers said.

Helping drive the video-game industry is a broadening audience as the population of people exposed to games ages. Between 1999 and 2003 video-game use in the United States grew nearly 42 percent to 75 hours per person per year, according to MPA Worldwide Market Research. In comparison, Americans on average spent 13 hours each at a box-office movie in 2003, MPA reported.

Among the incentives at the state's disposal to attract the fast-growing video-game industry are technology investment and research tax credits created under Act 221. The tax breaks are considered among the most generous in the nation.

But the key will be building a collaborative relationship between the University of Hawai'i's 776 computer-science majors and the industry, Lee said. That includes efforts such as helping Backbone Entertainment, which doesn't yet have any full-time Hawai'i employees, by putting the company in contact with students and other local talent. Lee also has had talks with Konami over providing internships for UH students. The hope is that local students won't just work for established companies, but create the next generation of local video-game startups.

Universities that cater to the needs of the video-game industry are more likely to attract video-game companies, said Doug Lowenstein, president for the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group for video-game publishers.

"Where you create a talent pool, you can also attract the businesses," he said. "That's one way you can build a video-game industry."

Blue Lava Wireless project manager Peter Ryu talks with quality assurance worker Alice Tran as they upload video games into cell phones for testing at Manoa Innovation Center.
And Hawai'i isn't alone in targeting the industry, said Mark Loughridge, chairman for Backbone Entertainment, which employs about 150 people at offices in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Bay area; Vancouver, British Columbia; and elsewhere.

"I think everyone has their eyes on doing something on this, but I think a lot of them will be off track," he said. "What you want is a tight relationship with companies that are developing products.

"You need a close relationship with the industry."

Backbone, which develops educational and entertainment video-game software for Disney, Universal Studios and Microsoft, wants to create games for wireless phones in Honolulu. Loughridge was attracted to the Islands when his parents lived here in the 1980s.

Another way to foster the video-game industry would be to establish a way for business travelers to fly to the Mainland regularly for a fixed cost, he said.

"There are a lot of creative people that want to live here," Loughridge said. "If they knew they could come here once a month and at a fixed cost — that's magic."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.s