Playing Video Games Is Work For Some

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Inside a nondescript office building, about a dozen young men in their 20s and 30s sit in darkened rooms before glowing computer screens, their workstations covered with superhero figurines, poker chips, cards, empty soda cans and artwork of scantily clad women.
One guy listens to music as he doodles. Another explores the surreal environment of a Sponge Bob Square Pants video game.
The boss, 35-year-old James Wheeler, walks the halls in his usual business attire -- T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops -- knowing that, despite appearances, his employees are hard at work.
Here at AWE Games, work is play.
It's one of a handful of local companies making a living from the nation's growing obsession with video games. The company's produced several based on various toy and movies, including SpongeBob, Shrek and Scooby-Doo. It's a tiny piece of a worldwide industry that rakes in $28 billion a year, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
To many college kids trying to figure out what career path they want to take, these are the real superheroes -- Peter Pans who make a living without leaving Neverland. Wheeler's own story sounds like a fairy tale. He says he started the company without any formal training after making some industry contacts while working at a video game store in a mall.
"I just wanted to make games and have fun," shrugs Wheeler, who started the company in 1997.
While Florida is by no means the technological capitol that is California, those gamers who call it home have reason to be optimistic about the future. Many industry analysts consider Orlando to be poised for a mini-boom.
Electronic Arts-Tiburon, an internationally known creative powerhouse based there that produced Madden NFL, announced plans this year to grow by hundreds of employees. On a more local level, Nival Interactive -- a game company from Russia known for such titles as Rage of Mages, Evil Islands and Etherlords -- just opened a small office in Fort Lauderdale with two employees and plans to expand to 20 by the end this year, says president Sergey Orlovskiy.
Most of the positions will deal with the business end of gaming, and following that, he says, many of their designers will relocate here.
"It will definitely add to the growing value of Florida as (a) high-tech entertainment industry center of attraction," Orlovskiy writes in an email.
Local colleges and technical schools have taken notice of the growing allure of the video game industry and now offer courses and even degrees in animation and game development.
The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale has new curriculum that allows students to design a video game using a software "engine" that brings artwork to life. Miami Dade College started a two-year video game design program this year. Florida Atlantic University has offered an animation track since 2002. Keiser College, ITT Technical Institute and Broward Community College also advertise game-related classes.
Qualified graduates who find jobs in the industry can expect long work hours but also sizable salaries, starting at $40,000 on the art and game design side and $50,000 for programming and production, according to a U.S. survey released this week by Game Developer magazine. Once employees have more than six years of experience, pay can jump to more than $70,000 for creative types and clear $100,000 for the top techies and those who take on executive roles. Women, who made up only 8 percent of those in the survey, made slightly less than their male peers.
"The video game industry itself is huge," says Francis McAfee, associate director for FAU's Center for Electronic Communication, which also offers a master's degree in computer arts and 3-D animation. "And that kind of money generates pretty good paychecks."
A lot of competition, too.
Marc Mencher, head of Fort Lauderdale-based www.GameRecruiter.com and a headhunter for the video game industry, cautions that there are not enough jobs in Florida to place all the students coming out of new video game/art programs. He advises that most graduates still have better luck if they head out to California. The salary survey also notes that, while Florida is growing in its game presence, industry salaries here are lower.
Those working at Shadows In Darkness, a design house located just a few doors down from AWE Games in Sunrise, have decided to stick it out in the Sunshine State. Their office resembles a high-tech cave with snaking wires and life-size game character cutouts lurking in corners. One of the partners, Devon Browne, 28, lounges in a big, black recliner pulled up to his screen. Comfort is important, his co-workers joke, because he rarely goes home.
"As fun as this job is, sometimes it's pure hell," Browne admits, explaining that he recently worked four days straight with no sleep to meet an animation project deadline.
Both Shadows In Darkness, which has been in business about three years, and AWE Games, which has been around for seven, have weathered several ups and downs: projects being canceled, a Miami publisher that fed them work going under and increasing demand for detailed games that are more expensive to produce.
So, how do these two neighboring companies stay afloat so far from most of their peers in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley?
A lower cost of living helps, but not as much as the Internet.
"Having the ability to work remotely makes this possible," says Rick Daniels, 36, who oversees a staff of both local and global freelance artists for Shadows in Darkness. "We have people we work with in Austria, Canada, Germany."
The first challenge facing smaller gaming companies in Florida is finding steady work in an industry that is project driven, where months can lapse between projects. The second is finding talent. Experienced workers from out of state are expensive. Local students, while plentiful, are often unprepared, they say.
"If we get 10 demo tapes a week, nine and a half are pathetic," says Wheeler, who wonders if schools are just trying to make money instead of quality graduates. "You don't want to laugh at the kid, but you can't hire him."
Their advice for game designer hopefuls: Get a broad-based education that stresses critical thinking and artistic skills. Don't focus on one particular computer program or game engine because technology is constantly changing. And before picking a school, check out the professors' resumes to see if they've actually worked in the industry.
Even more important than choosing a good school, Wheeler and Daniels both say, is making video game design a personal passion.
That's what many students attending the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale say drives them.
In a classroom on a recent Friday, students are designing their own video games. One has created a virtual world with crypts, hanging corpses that rattle when shot at, and a headstone that reads, "RIP Jennifer Lopez." Another shows off a character he built: a blonde bombshell in a black bustier, silver thong and knee-high boots.
Near him, a girl with pink hair stands out not only for gender -- she's the only female student in the class -- but for her sunny, Japanimation-inspired cityscape that contrasts with the dark, gritty environments created by many of her other classmates.
"I think it gives me an edge," says Nikol Stein, 22, referring to her style. "(I) have a different perspective."

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