Building Communities Free Enterprise Staff  | September 8, 2016

Level Up: The Rise of Baltimore’s Video Game Sector

In some ways, starting a company is like playing a video game: They both require individuals to be resourceful, smart and quick on their feet while navigating increasingly difficult situations. Only difference is, the stakes are generally much higher for entrepreneurs.

In Baltimore, there’s a growing presence of innovators who have mastered both.

It’s hard to think of a better setting for a video game industry hub than Baltimore, a city working hard to overcome a steep decline in manufacturing and shipping by encouraging startups to call the area home.

In a city still working to rebuild its economy, gaming has emerged as an important sector within the local technology industry. And while Baltimore’s video game entrepreneurs and startups may not receive a ton of national attention, they have turned the city into one of the most successful metro gaming areas in the country, according to a 2010 report produced by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.

The metropolitan area is one of the top five in the country for gaming and video simulation, slightly below established tech hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, the authors of the study found. Meanwhile, a 2010 study by the Maryland Department of Economic Development found the state’s digital media industry, which includes computer and video game work, was a $5.5 billion industry that has generated $15 billion in economic activity.

Building on the success of the city’s gaming industry, a number of local colleges also offer gaming and animation programs. The University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art provide classes and programs that prepare students for a career in video game development, ensuring that the local industry has access to a continuous pipeline of talented workers.

Baltimore’s presence as a hotbed for gaming entrepreneurship isn’t new, according to Gabriel Pendelton, founder and editor-in-chief of BaltimoreGamer, a digital magazine about video game culture and local gaming. A company called Avalon Hill, which specializes in board games, launched an office in the city back in 1959. Although, the industry suffered a short-lived downturn in 2013, when Zynga, the company that created Farmville, and developer Impossible Studios, which worked on role-playing game Infinity Blade: Dungeons, among others closed their local offices shortly after the Great Recession.

As it turned out, the setback created new opportunities for local entrepreneurs, Pendelton said, noting that the city was able to bounce back because it is so rich in local talent. Today, Baltimore is home to the award-winning indie studio Pure Bang Studios. The startup has worked with major brands such as Riot Games, a popular California-based video game publisher that is primarily known for producing the online multiplayer game League of Legends.

“Baltimore has gone through ebb-and-flow periods, ups and downs, over the years, but recently you’ve seen more independent startups that are starting their own thing—independent of the big studios—because you have people here who can make quality games,” he said. “When I moved here about six years ago, there were three or four major companies. Recently you’ve seen all this growth and there’s more opportunity because of that, which brings in even more money and talent and pushes the city to the next level.”

Samuel Batista is one of the talented gamers who moved to Baltimore to advance his career. The programmer relocated from Sugar Land, Texas five years ago and now works at a video game company called Firaxis Games. The area’s reputation as an innovative hub for video game development—and the lower cost of living compared to other startup hubs—lured him to settle permanently in Charm City.

“People love it here—that’s the only explanation,” he said about the number of professionals who leave established markets for Baltimore. “There’s a lot of work in California and Texas, obviously, but the fact that all of these talented individuals choose to stay here is a testament to the city, local community and increasing job opportunities.”

Ben Walsh, founder of Pure Bang Games agrees, and can’t see himself running his gaming company anywhere else right now. The expertise of the local gaming community is one perk, while the lower cost of living allows him to put more money back into his business.

“We’ve thought about moving, but there are pros to staying here,” he explained. “Baltimore is a smaller market, and so the cost of living is much lower. There’s also a talent pool here because of the concentration of universities that teach design.”

Going forward, Walsh believes the gaming industry will stay strong well into the future. If so, he argued, that’s not just good for the industry—it’s good for the city, too.

“The gaming industry is evolving and there are more people in it, thanks to mobile [technology] reducing the barrier to entry,” he said. “More developers [in one place] is good for the gaming community, and the money generated is directly put back into the city. That’s been pretty significant.”