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Video Game Industry Could Keep N.H. Young and Tech-Savvy

Courtesy of Neal Laurenza

New Hampshire is producing young programmers and designers looking to start their own video game business. And the trick is getting them to stay in the state…

New Hampshire is the birthplace of video games. No, really. Just ask 90-year-old Manchester resident Ralph Baer. He is widely credited as the “forefather” of the video game.

“All right, take the hand control. My suggestion is that you do what I do. You hold it up against your belly. Put your hand on the English nob. Forget the horizontal one. It will go just straight up and down because as a beginner you can’t handle three controls.”

We’re playing the original pong game on the very first game console. He thought up the idea of making dots move on a TV screen 1966 while working for a defense contractor in Nashua.

Baer’s biggest legacy though, is helping create a video game industry that today has out-grossed Hollywood with a global revenue of $78.5 billion last year. New Hampshire’s economy, however, has never managed to reap the benefits from his innovation.

Though a new generation of video game developers could change that. Like with a game called Bacon Man.

“There’s some bad guys that are some hamburgers and Bacon Man has a dash ability which is the whooshing sound that you keep hearing.”

Neal Laurenza is 22 years old. He recently graduated from Southern New Hampshire University and started a video game company called Skymap Games. Bacon Man is his first game and it’s still in the late stages of development.

Laurenza says crowd-funding, self-publishing, online distribution and increasingly affordable software, makes small, independent game studios increasingly viable.

He also credits his training at SNHU. In New Hampshire, SNHU, NHTI and Daniel Webster College each offer game design and development programs. About a dozen students at each school are earning video game degrees this year. And the programs are growing every year. But many of those grads aren’t staying in the state.

Credit Courtesy of Neal Laurenza
Concept art of Bacon Man by Ryan Lefebvre of Skymap Games. Beware his Toaster Gun.

“I think there’s a larger talent pool and more people engaged in conversation about game design in Massachusetts. So it’s generally the place you wanna be if you’re starting a game company right now.”

Laurenza ended up moving his business to the Greater Boston area.

And that’s a shame says, Paul Mailhot, the Vice President of Business Operations at Dyn in Manchester. The company is one of the most established internet infrastructure businesses in the state.

“Probably the largest challenge we have at the moment is just workforce,” says Mailhot, “Specifically what I’m talking about there are computer software engineers.”

Not only is the university system not producing enough, but Mailhot says, things like limited infrastructure, and a relatively rural brand can make it a hard sell to convince them to resettle or stay in the Granite State.

But those are challenges that some young video game developers are willing to take on. David Carrigg is the co-founder of Retro Affect, a video game company based in Meredith.

“I grew up in central New Hampshire, right on Lake Winnipesaukee, and then after college, essentially to minimize cost, I moved back up here to central New Hampshire.”

Carrigg and his partner, both in their 20s, holed up in New Hampshire so they could work full time on their company with the support of their families. Last September, they finished their first game called Snapshot.

“So the game that we developed is a 2D puzzle platformer where you can take photographs of objects in the levels, capture them in the pictures and then paste the pictures back into the world and then have the objects fall back out.”

Carrigg says that the game has already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

As their company grows in profitability, Carrigg says, they plan on moving it to the Boston area. Not because of tax incentives, internet access or investment, but because of the huge game design scene Boston already has.

“As far as the community in New Hampshire goes, it’s really, really lacking. The great thing about having a community and the support from other developers is it’s a place to show off games that you’re working on to other game-oriented minds who can look at it, pick it apart and give you advice and feedback and so forth.”

At least 70% of the game development workforce is made up of 20 to 30-somethings, according to the 2010 Game Developer Salary Report. That’s exactly the age group where New Hampshire is forecasting a shortage of workers in the coming years.

“We’re promoting job openings and companies looking for interns and those sorts of things.”

Kate Luczko is the Executive Director of Stay Work Play, a nonprofit tasked with retaining young people in the state.

She says her group supports any efforts to keep game developers in the state.

“But I think it would take someone within that circle who really wanted it, had the passion to make it happen, to make it happen.”

For his part, developer David Carrigg would love to see the state offer more help—maybe build an incubator with office space. Or perhaps New Hampshire could start more simply, by making the “Birthplace of Video Games” part of its brand.

Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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