Like a lot of sectors of Ann Arbor tech, gaming software development is very much under the radar for most people. University of Michigan game development lecturer Austin Yarger works and teaches in the gaming development community, even hosts local expos for University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan students after every semester to come play games under development in his classes. And we’ve never heard of any of it. If you like gaming, this is the motherload. Yarger tells us there are nearly 30 Michigan game development studios currently operational.
The key to getting a game from development to market, according to Yarger, is to involve the audience during the dev process. That way, people feel involved, the the dev team knows they have an audience waiting for their product on release. “You don’t want to leave that to chance,” Yarger says, “or depend on the distribution network to find your audience for you.” Part of that is because games can be so niche.
Yarger is co-chair of the Ann Arbor Chapter of the International Game Developers Association. The group meets through Meetup at Spark East in Ypsilanti monthly. He is president of Arbor Interactive, and splits his time between teaching at the University of Michigan and working on games for private clients. Currently, Yarger says he’s developing a game for the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service that deals with white nose disease for bats (video below), and another for a Youtube client with 500,000 subscribers. This game is designed in a Candy Crush style that allows gamers to prepare food for a conveyor belt to go to customers.
“Christina York of Ann Arbor-based AR company Spellbound recently hired several of my students,” Yarger says. That’s because software development in this space can be used for more than games. Augmented reality software development has a lot in common with what Yarger puts into his game development, because companies like Spellbound create products that are very similar to games. “My students love games, but they don’t want to leave for the coast,” Yarger tells us. “I feel pretty good about Ann Arbor incubators opening up and where tech is going.”
It’s great when developers leave for the coasts to get great experience and come back, Yarger says. “It’s great to work on Facebook or the Sims, but nothing compares to that scrappy bootstrap culture.”
How can Ann Arbor or Michigan in general create more opportunities for students in game development? Yarger says again to think beyond gaming. “The studio Bridevue out of Ann Arbor SPARK simulates a wedding space in any venue,” he says. “You can drop it into all kinds of locations.” The tool uses 3D cameras and artists to touch up the final product. Yarger says they have deals with Marriott and like Spellbound, use gaming dev techniques in ways people don’t think of.
Currently there are nearly 30 active gaming dev studios in Michigan, with another gaming community across Lake Michigan in Madison, WI. “Virtual Repetitions is a stealth studio in Ann Arbor,” Yarger tells us. “They provide a tool for coaches to design their own digital playbook that players can play back like a video game.”
Want to play an interactive game that’s totally unique? “Nate Berens just developed Sagebrush by Redact Games,” Yarger says. “It’s a narrative adventure exploring a cult compound in the aftermath of something bad happening.”
We will update on a date for Yarger’s next gaming expo, where students congregate to play games developed by CS seniors and dress up in themed costumes for the event, and also interview other gaming studios to bring you latest releases and gaming events. For now, please enjoy a massive list of gaming studios you might not have known were here in Michigan. If you would like to get in on early testing for games coming out of these studios, Yarger says you can connect with them in their communities or on social media for early release access and be a part of building new tech.
Michigan Gaming and Imaging Studios