The video game industry generates tens of billions of dollars yearly. Very few of those dollars find their way to Central Kentucky.
Two guys working in an old radio station on Georgetown Street in Lexington want to help change that by designing games, forging community partnerships and trying to build an army of like-minded techheads with an entrepreneurial spirit.
John Meister and Richie Hoagland, founders of Lexington's newest video game development company, Super Soul, recently released their first commercial game on the Xbox 360 console. Compromised, a challenging sci-fi shooter with old-school flair, is available for download from the Xbox Live Indie Games store.
They're also the brains behind RunJumpDev, a local game developer's group that meets once a month to trade know-how and discuss a range of topics related to making games and selling them. Anyone with an interest in game design is invited to join.
Meister and Hoagland are part of a new wave of developers who recognize the changing landscape. Companies once needed millions of dollars to design a game, negotiate with hardware companies and ship the final product. Now, more and more players are taking bite-size games digitally, downloading them on a range of devices and services, and playing for just a few minutes at a time.
The Entertainment Software Association reports that consumers spent nearly $25 billion on video games, hardware and accessories in 2011. Digital content downloads accounted for about 31 percent of that, or $7.3 billion, according to the firm. Most market analysts expect that percentage to grow.
"It used to be you had to have tons of money to be able to print all those discs to put onto Wal-Mart shelves," Meister said. "Now, instead of a $10 million game, you can make a game with $20,000."
Lexington is ready to take a slice of the games industry, said Warren Nash, director of the Lexington Innovation and Commercialization Center. The first step, besides building small businesses like Super Soul, is to educate the community and potential investors that gaming isn't just for kids — it's big business with a largely adult clientele.
"We want to get them past the point of thinking, 'This is just for teenagers, there's no industry to it, it's just a fad,'" he said. "It's here. It's in your everyday life."
From the trenches, Meister and Hoagland see the untapped potential for Lexington to become a "hub city" for game design, similar to Austin, Texas, home to headquarters and campuses of about 500 game-development companies, including triple-A developers like Activision and smaller, independent groups.
"We see the talent here, and a lot of times these people with these great skills are going and doing other things — business applications and stuff like that," Meister said. "We want to spark the idea in their heads that it's possible to go make games."
Know-how meets vision
Meister and Hoagland started working full-time at Super Soul after toiling on other technology-related projects and jobs for years.
Meister, 31, was programming public housing software when he met Hoagland, 29, at an interactive art exhibit at the Living Arts and Science Center in 2010.
Hoagland, an art major at the University of Kentucky, had created the exhibit as his senior project. The display let users create digital paintings using six sensors, with each sensor controlling a variable such as color or brush size.
Both had considered making games before, but it wasn't until Meister's technical know-how met Hoagland's artistic vision that the they seriously began kicking around the idea of creating a new video game company.
"It was kind of an organic process," Hoagland said.
The two worked part-time from home for a while before moving into a second-floor office in the Black and Williams Neighborhood Center on Georgetown Street, formerly the home to the old WTLA "Super Soul Radio."
They tried to come up with other names for their company, mostly "inside nerd jokes," they said, and plays on words involving math, but none had the same presence as Super Soul.
With the help of dozens of friends, colleagues and interns, Meister and Hoagland designed their first commercial game, Compromised, in a little more than a year using Microsoft's free XNA development tool.
Compromised became available for purchase May 25 on Xbox Live. The $3 game has been well-received critically — it is ranked in the Top 100 games on the Xbox Live Indie Games store, and one or two professional reviewers have put it in their personal top five or top 10 lists of favorite indie games, they said.
About 1,750 people have downloaded it, they said, and they are working to build more awareness of their premier title.
"That's the hard part, is getting noticed," Meister said.
They also are working on free updates to Compromised that will add multi-player modes, and they're creating a version of the game that will run on PCs.
They have developed several smaller, experimental games mostly on Microsoft platforms, such as PC, Windows Phone and Xbox. Some of those games can be downloaded for free from their Web site, SuperSoul.co. They entered a mobile phone game called Amyloid in Microsoft's Dream Build Play contest.
They also still dabble in interactive art. One of their exhibits, Open Source, will be featured in October at the IndieCade festival in California. The project, which they likened to "audio Pong" had a successful showing at the Lexington Art League's Script + Systems exhibition this year.
Wide range of topics
Meister and Hoagland hope that one day, Super Soul will be a household name among game players.
"I'd like to have us find success for our own benefit, but also because it might help other people" by proving game development can be good business, Hoagland said.
That's why the two launched RunJumpDev, which meets every month, usually at the offices of downtown business incubator Base 163.
Most of Lexington's best-known companies are involved, including Frogdice, known for its online, free-to-play games and its exceedingly loyal fan base, and SoJo Studios, which creates social games on Facebook to finance real-world development projects. Then there's Pheeva, which is working on technology to reward game players with real-life goodies, and Gun, which does testing and consulting for major developers and is working with Nash, of the Lexington Innovation and Commercialization Center, to finance a new game.
There probably are others, too, who have yet to establish themselves, people who are serious about making games but don't know where to start.
RunJumpDev meetings cover a range of topics. They do workshops, teaching programming toolsets and sharing tips. They've hosted "game jams," where participants form teams and make a game from start to finish in a single weekend. They also cover business topics, such as how to incorporate businesses with the Secretary of State's office and where to apply for grants.
Big-name players in the video game world have given speeches to the group. Ben Kuchera, the gaming editor of popular technology Web site Ars Technica, spoke about game marketing in November. On Wednesday, Chris Bruser, who has developed games for THQ, will speak about game design at the group's August meeting at the Central Library downtown.
RunJumpDev has caught the attention of several local business organizations, including Base 163, Collexion, Awesome Inc., Commerce Lexington and the Lexington Innovation and Commercialization Center, a partnership between the University of Kentucky and the state's Cabinet for Economic Development.
"When you have a combination of government, private industry, and the education ... sectors all willing to help build the gaming community, that's a lot of support and a lot of power," said Michael Hartman, founder of Frogdice and a member of RunJumpDev.
On Sept. 19, Frogdice, Gun, Pheeva and Super Soul will be featured at the Lexington Venture Club meeting, showing potential business contacts and investors the games they're working on.
The goal, Nash said, is to continue pursuing financial success while educating the public and building partnerships.
As for the billions in revenue that misses Lexington, "I think that's slowly changing, starting with these new companies," he said.