Indie video game developers take Memphis tech to the next level

A fledgling tech industry finds its first local support network with the Memphis Game Developers.

Amber Williams, 21, is an illustration student at Memphis College of Art. Jonathan Schrack, 27, graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in computer science.

If you asked an audience to decide which one of these people is a video game developer, they’d probably pick Jonathan. Truth is, they both are.

Williams currently designing a 3D fighting game called Acknowledgement, in which you play as Williams in a literal battle with her internal demons.

“It’s a metaphor for the internal struggle that people with depression feel,” she said.

She is proficient in illustration and 3D modeling but not programming. That doesn’t deter her, though. “Anybody can make a game. They feel like they can’t, but they can,” she said.

Schrack is a programmer, but he agrees that game development is something that anyone can get into.

“The only skill I think you need to have is the will to learn,” he said. Schrack stresses that video game development isn’t all codes and math. It’s a compound effort by people with a breadth of talents.

“You just gotta pick one thing,” Schrack said. “If you want to do art, do art. Game development is like an ocean you have to swim one mile at a time.”

Devitt Upkins, founder of Memphis Game Developers, explaining Pac-Man ghost patterns via flowchart at a Memphis Game Developers design workshop.

Memphis Game Developers, founded by game designer and programmer Devitt Upkins, wants to afford Memphians with that will to create video games the resources to do so.

Upkins was born in Salt Lake City and moved to Memphis when he was nine. He’d been programming and making games here since he was a teenager. But, sadly, he was doing it alone.

“I knew I wasn’t alone, but I also didn’t know anyone else,” he said. In 2013, he decided to use to find other game developers here in the city. “Really, I needed artists. I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler,” he added. “I couldn’t do it alone.”

What started as a curious meet-up would evolve into a collaborative nonprofit organization with a leadership team and over 200 members. They regularly hold Game Jams, which is a gathering of artists, programmers, and designers to plan and create a game in a short period of time.

If you’re working on a project, you can go to a Show & Tell to gather constructive feedback. If you’re a newbie, the Memphis Game Developers have teamed up with the Memphis Technology Foundation to hold monthly game development and design workshops for beginners at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis.

“There are about five or ten of us who are regulars,” Upkins said of workshop attendance. The discussion in these workshops ranges from the complexity of enemy artificial intelligence patterns to proper game marketing.

Memphis Game Developers recently acquired studio space in the Union Centre office building, located at 1331 Union Avenue in Midtown. The building houses a virtual reality (VR) game development workspace and the appropriate hardware and software for game development.

The interior of the Memphis Game Developers space at at 1331 Union Ave.

Right now, work space is only available to members. “Eventually, we want to rent space to anybody,” Upkins said. He predicts pricing to be somewhere around $45 per month to rent studio space and higher for a space including a key to the building.

Schrack’s involvement in Memphis Game Developers helped him form his own indie game development studio.

Digital Precept was founded in 2014 by Schrack and Craig Herndon. They decided to develop virtual reality games after an experience with the medium at the Penny Arcade Expo East, a popular gaming convention held in Boston.

“We woke up at six in the morning and waited outside for four hours to run to this guy’s booth,” Shrack recalled. “The guy’s like, ‘you ran past Sony and Microsoft’s booth to come play my game?’ And yeah, we did, and it blew me away."

Six months later, Schrack and Herndon bought a VR headset. Two years after that, they debuted their flagship title Kung Fu: Shadow Fist at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. Inspired by 1980s and 1990s arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage, your role in the game is to punch out as many assailants as you possibly can.

It was a hit among the festival attendees and was greenlit by Steam, the largest digital marketplace for PC and VR games. Currently, Kung Fu: Shadow Fist is only available to those who have purchased entrance into the closed alpha test, but the finished product has a projected release in late 2017.

“It’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Why do people move to those cities? Because there’s tech there. Why’s there tech there? Because people move to those cities."

“You hit a point in your hobby where you need to decide if you’re gonna relax or double down and make it a side gig,” Schrack said. “And we doubled down. Everyone who played it loved it. That’s when we decided to file an LLC and make Digital Precept an actual company.”

The video game industry scored $30.4 billion last in revenue last year in the United States, according to the Entertainment Software Association. That’s only about a third of the total worldwide revenue, which sits at $91 billion. $2 billion of that figure belongs to the newest gaming medium, VR.

So, how does Memphis see any of that money? The video game industry’s hub, like any other tech industry, is Silicon Valley. In addition to the hundreds of indie game studios and solo projects, the Bay Area is home to heavy-hitters like Electronic Arts and 2K Games and to the US headquarters of several Japanese developers, including Capcom and Bandai Namco. Most people who want to make games do it there.

Being a game developer in a city that not considered “tech” isn’t without its challenges. Despite that, Schrack is optimistic.

“It’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem,” he said. Why do people move to those cities? Because there’s tech there. Why’s there tech there? Because people move to those cities."

A screenshot from the alpha build of Kung Fu: Shadow Fist, a game created by Memphis-based Digital Precept.

He realizes that Memphis has no big game development companies spurring fresh programmers, artists, designers to the city and because the scene is forced to remain so tight-knit, networking can sometimes feel futile.

Schrack’s solution, though, is simple. “At some point you have to think, ‘okay we can sit here and wait for tech to come, or we can make tech ourselves and act as a magnet for business’, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

“Your game’s gonna cost the same no matter where you live. So you might as well live somewhere cheap.”

On whether or not he believes Memphis can become a game development hub, “It is my goal to make that a reality,” Schrack said.

Digital Precept feels like a proper first step. Schrack made an effort to hire development interns from Memphis universities. Dezmond Gipson, a Memphis native and Memphis College of Art graduate, was hired on to do 3D modeling for Kung Fu: Shadow Fist.

“We’re trying to source locally for two reasons -- to make Memphis awesome, and also we don’t have to pay people who live in California,” Schrack said, laughing.

After a game design workshop hosted last Wednesday by Memphis Game Developers, Schrack, leaned back in his chair, gave a thumbs up to the room and said with sarcasm thinly veiled in pride, “You know, we’ve already had ten sales of our game.”

“Yeah, and how many of those were your mother?” someone responds.

Well, you have to start somewhere.

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