One of my earliest, most memorable interviews was with Monty Sharma, who at the time was a co-founder of Vivox, an audio services provider for online games. I still clearly remember how he was on-the-edge-of-his-seat excited about Vivox’s potential, anticipating a need just as it was emerging, months before company after company started signing on for their services. Fast forward several years later, and Monty is working with the Massachusetts Digital Games Initiative and is as excited to bring new ideas to the table for both students and game developers alike. Could there be as much foresight for a need in gaming this time as there was when he and I first sat down for a chat? That’s what we will find out through this interview.
GamersInfo.net: Monty, thank you for taking the time to take an interview from me about Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI). What’s your background in the games industry, and what led you to explore this new role in the business?
Monty Sharma: Before MassDiGI, I was a founder and general manager for Integrated Services for Vivox. We worked with some great game companies around the world from Sony Online to World of Tanks. Working with such a large number of developers, I began to notice a few things. The first was the great ideas that developers had but could not get into production due to the risk to schedules. This was the idea behind the Reverse Sabbatical program — this is a way for developers to test an idea with a team of students who can show the value of the idea without risks the schedule.
The other big thing I saw was the constant demand for talent. Now every tech company is looking for talent, but gaming is different. Technology moves so quickly, and every developer is trying to make something that is bigger and better than what went before. This means that new graduates need to be trained in what is happening in the industry right now. The only way I can see to do this is to have industry and academia work closely together.
Looking at what was happening to my friends in the industry, joining MassDiGi seemed like a great opportunity to do some good. It also gives me the chance to work with students and every company in gaming; it is a blast!
GI.net: What does the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute aim to accomplish, and why should it be of interest to current and aspiring game developers?
Monty: MassDiGI is primarily focused on making the life of developers better by working with academia and government to build programs and conduct research. We believe that by working closely with game developers we can help them and, with the guidance of industry, help the academic community, specifically students.
MassDiGI acts like a buffer between industry and academia; we work with multiple companies and bring the benefits to all of the schools with which we work. We also simplify working with multiple schools by dealing with the various policies, deadlines and presenting a simple model for industry. This makes everyone’s life easier.
GI.net: What are some of the more unique services MassDiGI offers professionals and students?
Monty: The Reverse Sabbatical Program gives game developers a chance to work with a team of students on a new concept or project. We are currently working with Simon and Schuster and students from Becker College to bring minigames and game elements to their language training program. This is a whole new field for Simon and Schuster that allows them to test ideas with the student team before making a major investment. We are also working with an unannounced MMO and students from Becker College and the Rhode Island School of Design to build out new content areas. This title is being developed by some big names in the gaming industry, and I can’t wait to talk to you about the details.
We are launching a Game Challenge that will help aspiring game developers build and launch a game.
The Summer Innovation Program gives students a chance to work on a game project from the ground up. They are not just interns in a big company, but part of a team that is doing the work. They are supported by a group of professional mentors who help them achieve production quality.
The Virtual Production Lab we are developing will give all students access to the latest in game development technology. It will make life easier for every school since they won’t have to deal with campus IT every time a new tool becomes available or software upgrades are released. We also hope to simplify the life of tools developers who have to work with many schools and systems to get their software in the hands of students.
GI.net: How is MassDiGI partnered with Penny Arcade and the PAX East show? How will this partnership benefit the regional game development community?
Monty: PAX is a huge win for the region as it gives the game development community a chance to connect with the fan base. This is of particular benefit to smaller developers who don’t have the money to mount a major show on the West Coast. The additional profile and exposure for the local community will pay off and help local developers grow.
GI.net: Is Massachusetts, reportedly the fifth largest state for game industry employment, at risk of losing ground to other states if there are not more state or local government business incentives to drive new start-ups and expansion of game studios?
Monty: Game development at its core is a talent-driven business, and with the huge number of educational institutions and graduates Massachusetts, is a natural place for gaming to grow. One universal truth is that everyone hates moving which may lead to students establishing roots and helping build the gaming sector in Massachusetts.
Tax incentives do help in attracting major studios and struggling indies. In general, a strong game development sector can be a self-supporting and resilient industry spinning off new studios. Remaining competitive on a global level is important for the region.
GI.net: Do you feel there any challenges gaining access to the games industry facing students and aspiring developers on the East Coast — in Massachusetts specifically — that are not facing students in larger development regions on the West Coast?
Monty: No, I think the problems are universal. Looking back two years, Unity was just emerging as a solid environment and it is now it is. For academic programs, creating content for different technologies is hard and time consuming which leads to a lag in an industry that is always on the leading edge. From what I can see, the only solution is a close relationship with industry which allows students to work closely with mentors on the latest tools and techniques.
GI.net: What initiatives do you plan to work on with Massachusetts Digital Games Institute in 2012? Why should gamers pay attention to what you are working on?
Monty: One of the biggest things we have planned is the MassDiGI Game Challenge running April 13-15. This is a chance for any aspiring game developer a chance to jump out of the gate and launch a game. Unlike most game challenges, the competition is just the beginning; winners are provided with a team of students (under our Summer Innovation Program) to help them finish the game. We will balance the team to help the winner fill in skill gaps. In addition to the student team, we have mentors from a number of development studios who will lend their experience to help build a winning game. Finally, we have built a support network that will help launch these games into the market. Winners will be invited back to our panel at PAX East next year and show their game in our booth.
A chance to meet and learn from leaders in the industry, support from a team of aspiring game developers and help in launching and marketing your game at PAX; this is a great opportunity for any aspiring game developer on struggling indie.
GI.net: Looking ahead and speculating, what do you conceive the games business and player community could look like in Massachusetts around 2020?
Monty: Massachusetts and the New England area as a whole are on the verge of becoming a major center for game development. I think over the next few years we are going to see a few more major studios locate in the area, and we will see some break out hits. Harmonix spent years under the radar before the broke out, and I am sure there are dozens of others.
What every game developer wants to see in the region is a large enough base of developers to ensure the resiliency of the sector. That means that there is a large enough talent base to draw from and nurture and provide options for developers who want to move to a new company or try something different.
We hope that with what we are doing at MassDiGI we can help develop the natural pool of talent in the region and with events like PAX East we should have an excellent showcase for developers.