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New York Video Game Makers Still Playing to Win

March 11, 2009
Until she was laid off in late 2008, 24-year-old Ariele Mason’s fortunes were firmly tied to those on Wall Street.

During the 2½ years she worked as technology consultant with Computer Sciences Corp., her clients included financial firms such as Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan. With the city’s financial pillars crumbling, Mason wasn’t optimistic about her job prospects. So she decided to make a career change and leave the financial world.

Her goal: find a job where she could work on video games.

"The downturn was the perfect opportunity to reassess myself and what I wanted to do," she says. "When I was younger, I always wanted to work in the video game industry, but when I graduated, consulting was what paid well and what was hiring."

Of course, with no experience and or contacts in the industry, it wasn’t going to be easy. Mason knew she was going to have to start at the bottom and earn far less than the $55,000 to $65,000 she earned as a consultant. She found a way in by taking a six-month unpaid internship with mobile video game developer GameLoft.

"I made a list of game companies that were in the city. GameLoft was the first one I contacted," she says.

Mason’s strategy may pay off for her in the long run since GameLoft, like other companies in the video game industry—while not completely impervious to the recession—is hiring.

"I think it’s understood that if I perform well I will hopefully get a position within the company," she says.

Cautious optimism
Industry research seems to bear that out. According to a recent report by research firm NPD Group, U.S. retail sales of games, game machines and accessories hit $5.1 billion in December, up 9 percent year-over-year. Sales for all of 2008 were up 19 percent year-over-year.

While this is less growth than previous years, it’s still growth. Even in New York, where video game publishers and developers are feeling the effects of fewer investors and publishing contracts, they are still busy and growing. That means they’re also hiring.

"I think there’s still cautious optimism," explains Wade Tinney, CEO of Large Animal Games.

"Over the past couple of years we’ve developed a greater sense of community. Folks are definitely hunkering down," says Tinney, who also is the coordinator for the New York City chapter of the International Game Developers Association, a group of 1,100-plus members.

Dante Rinaldi also made a transition to the video game world. Rinaldi, who spent 20 years doing Web design for HBO and Fujitsu, is a user-interface artist with Kaos Studios. While he wasn’t laid off, he said his move into the game development world was for reasons similar to Mason’s.

"Coming from a marketing background, you know that in a downturn the first people to go are in the marketing department," he says. "I wanted to make a change, and there’s a lot of room to grow in the video game industry if you have a strong portfolio and are willing to learn new tools."

Rinaldi’s employer is a perfect example. Kaos Studios is in the middle of a hiring binge, says David Schulman, the company’s CEO. Kaos, which employs 90 people, will add 18 people to its ranks by spring. And Schulman says he’s open to candidates without specific gaming experience as long as they are willing to learn.

Kenny Rosenblatt, CEO of Arkadium—another company that’s currently hiring—agrees.

"We’re getting résumés from Lehman and other companies in the finance sector who always thought they would like to be in the industry," he says. "We’re interviewing them. Will we hire them? It depends on the position, but project management and producing are jobs that translate well from industry to industry."

Media types also have an edge in the hiring process, Rosenblatt says, since game developers—like traditional publishers—create pop culture. "All games have stories. We need people to write those stories," he says.

Scott Stringfellow, a project manager at the Game Agency, a company that produces and develops video games for brands, was able to parlay his storytelling experience as an account manager at Ogilvy & Mather into a new job in the video game industry.

"The biggest change was getting used to the sales cycle," he says. "It can take months and months and months for a client to agree to go forward. If I went right out of school it would have been a harder transition. My experience working with clients definitely helped."