Video Games: Big Business or Big Trouble?--Part II

Wikan addresses the crowd.
Wikan addresses the crowd.

We used to drop quarters by the pocketful just to play them in arcades, but today's video games can cost you $40 or $50. And we're buying them. Americans spend billions each year on games. Whether you love them or hate them, video games are here to stay.

In fact, the industry insiders we spoke with say it's a lot like the movie business. In its early years, people didn't take it too seriously. Now, everybody wants a piece.

If what you picture when you think of video games is something like Pong, Pac-Man, or Defender, think again. They've come a long way over the last three decades, now taking years and millions of dollars to develop. Today, they're big business.

"It's a huge industry," said Mike Wikan, a game designer for Austin-based Retro Studios. "In most respects it's larger than the movie industry. There's tens, hundreds of millions, billions of dollars going back and forth because it's more than a movie. You play a video game, you might have 20, 25 hours of experience, you're drawn into it. Whereas in a movie, you're in and out in under two hours."

Recently, SCAD's inaugural Game Developers Exchange at its Atlanta campus attracted crowds eager to break into the business, including well over a hundred students bussed up from Savannah.

"A lot of us here at SCAD have been playing games since childhood," said game development student Jason Stevens. "It's the only thing we could think of that we could do that would really satisfy us, is to help entertain others with what we fell in love with."

Once thought to be for geeks only, the games business now treats its elders like rock stars. Take Wikan, who was greeted with cheers and whistles when he took the podium to share his experience with attendees. His design credits--Metroid Prime Two, Metroid Prime, Slave Zero, Duke Nukem: Time to Kill, Tiger Shark--are impressive to gamers.

This is the first year out for SCAD's Game Designers Exchange, and organizers say they got close to 500 registrants. What's the big deal? Industry insiders say this multibillion dollar business only has room to grow.

"It's a form of media that is just in its infancy," said Wikan. "And right now it's already bigger than movies. When it really hits its stride, which will probably be in the next five to ten years, when it's a mature form--cause right now we're still a juvenile industry--it will dominate most forms of entertainment media. There's really no stopping it."

"A decade ago or more, you would have had just a couple guys in a basement starting out, but these days, you've got large corporations with billions of dollars going into this industry every year," said Stevens.

Fellow student Nick Otto added, "A lot of places that I've looked--I get a couple magazines that have many places that are hiring because the game industry is getting bigger."

People from as far away as Indiana were among attendees. Helena Hamilton of Atlanta showed up with her son to see about his dream career. "I certainly know it's not something that's about to die out, but instead grow," she said. "So I think it's exciting. He's been playing video games a long time."

These future rock stars of the games business came away fired up. "Got me very interested in the career I've chosen and makes me want to work that much harder," one SCAD student told us.

If you're interested in attending the next Game Developers Exchange, SCAD plans to hold it annually.

Just how big the video game industry is is a matter of debate. The most conservative industry figure puts it at $7.3 billion last year.

And if you want to get into the business, you should know that Georgia's trying to get a piece of that pie. Right now, there's a bill sitting on the governor's desk to attract games companies with hug tax breaks.

Reported by: Charles Gray, cgray@wtoc.com