Studio attracts game developers in Pioneer Valley
By RICHIE DAVIS
Feb. 20, 2018
GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP) — These guys are not just playing around.
Within a month or so of moving into Another Castle on Olive Street, the team at HitPoint was already at work on "Star Wars: Porg Invasion."
Beginning in October, the 15-member game development factory was under a strict deadline from Disney and Lucasfilm to finish the game for Facebook by December, in time for release of the movie "The Last Jedi."
"We kind of took it as almost a suicide mission . from start from scratch, we created all the assets, the sound, parts, everything else, and it was all approved by Lucas and Disney in this rush to get this game out, and it's received great reviews," says Pat King, the shared space project director.
Here in this piece of prime real estate on a Greenfield side street, in a space that until recently housed the Franklin County Registry of Deeds, HitPoint has moved back to town with a litany of creation credits in mobile and online games. It's also created a shared workspace for other designers of augmented reality, virtual reality and 3-D games.
"We want to have this become a hub for game developers in the Pioneer Valley," says King, who three years ago started the Pioneer Valley Game Developers Group, which today has about 250 members around western Massachusetts — about 50 of whom are in Franklin County. "The location's fantastic."
King joined with game designer Paul Hake at Paul Hake Productions as an audio engineer in 2008 at another collective workspace at 277 Main St. By 2009, it had outgrown that space and moved to Hatfield with about 30 employees, then to University Drive in Amherst before doubling to about 60 workers, including contractors, as they headed to Springfield's Mass Mutual Center to scale up for a planned host of projects geared for Microsoft's Windows 8.
King explains that as it became clear that the expected growth in Springfield wasn't going to come about and the space was too big and not convenient for the half-dozen employees who remained, it was time to move on. They hunted for space around Easthampton, Holyoke, and Northampton before settling on the brick-dominated Olive Street space.
With a $33,000 state grant last fall to Pioneer Valley Game Developers Co-Dev Space, aka "The Dev," the studio has been able to move full circle back to Greenfield, which is more convenient for Leyden resident Hake, Northampton resident King and others in the 15-member team. It was also able to buy virtual reality game gear that will be available, along with phones and other equipment for tenants to use as they develop and test games.
"This saved us thousands of dollars on devices," says Elliott Mitchell, Another Castle member, who with his wife and fellow Greenfielder Julie Bete, run Vermont Digital Arts. "By joining this group, we were able to use their test devices, on which they've invested thousands of dollars, and so immediately it's already paid for our rent. "When iPhone X came out, and our Waggle Words app was number 6 on the app store, we were afraid if we couldn't test on that, it would destroy our ratings and our reputation. Being part of Another Castle, we were able to access it and could test it."
After years of commuting elsewhere, Hake, who is HitPoint CEO, says, "Being back in town has been great. It's nice to be in a downtown location with plenty of food, coffee and other conveniences right in walking distance. Setting up the co-working space for game developers is something we've been wanting to do for a while, and when the space became available and we learned about the grant, everything seemed to align, so we went for it. Having other game devs in the space has been fantastic and now that we feel more established in the space, we're looking for more individuals and teams to join us."
The 4,000-square-foot space at Olive and Hope streets, where software engineer John Tuttle, freelance 3-D artist Creath Carter and others are already at work, and where HitPoint plans to add a couple more members each month, should ultimately have about 15 members, said King.
The former registry space in the building, thoroughly renovated in 2011 by Mark Zacceho with photovoltaic and solar hot water features, was remodeled to provide some locked spaces for members, as well as a projector screen and enhanced audio system for use as a presentation space where events like the PV Game Developers Group's Global Game Jam last month that drew 43 participants to create 10 games over 48 hours. The networking group will continue to alternate monthly gatherings between Another Castle and the Quarter arcade in Hadley.
The next event at Another Castle is planned for March 4.
Last year's state grant also paid for an augmented reality art show planned for some time this spring featuring 3D and animated enhancements to works by local artists.
At Another Castle, the hope is to work with Greenfield Community College to set up workshops in game development, possibly leading to courses and internships, says King, who has been an adjunct faculty member at Hampshire College and hopes to offer the same kind of interdisciplinary game studio here in which students learn to use Unity software to collaborate on developing a game.
"All these are baby steps this year as we talk about setting up this work space," King says, explaining that the focus has so far been on doing outreach, and that marketing hasn't yet begun in earnest.
HitPoint, which merged a little over a year ago with Los Angeles-based Legacy Games, now has its three-member West Coast division as a key link with Hollywood entertainment companies.
In the past year, working with Legacy, HitPoint brought out the "Kody Kapow: Village Defender" app for Apple's new augmented reality platform on its iOS 11, developed for Universal Kids to promote its new cartoon series last summer. The six-month project created a digital board game on which kids 5 to 8 years old can collaborate on moving brightly colored animated characters across a board, with an augmented reality segment that uses a phone to overlay a digital layer on top of the real world so players try to collect flying lanterns all around before the timer runs out.
Mitchell and others at the site say it's a great to have Another Castle in town, which Mitchell says is a hotbed of people "pretty much on the cutting edge" of developing mobile, three-dimensional, virtual reality and augmented reality games.
"We're doing 3-D storytelling," says Mitchell, who moved to Guilford, Vt., a couple of years ago after working on game development in Cambridge. "Cinematography and filmmaking is now, because of the technology available, not limited to multimillion budgets of Hollywood. I could technically just retreat into a cave with the Vermont studio, but it's really nice to have a co-working space and face time with each of the other game developers. When I joined, we were able to share notes on what we were doing, and show tech and trouble-shoot each other.
"Having other people join will give us more connections and collaboration opportunities," said Mitchell, adding that he still is connected electronically with the 1,700-member game developer group he helped create in Cambridge several years ago.
Epidiah Ravachol, who first came to Greenfield from Brooklyn, N.Y., for a game convention organized by his future wife, Emily Bos, and who moved to town a couple of years ago, says, Another Castle provides a nice space to have friends come in to help test early stages of their role-play games.
Also, he says, "This is the first time I've had a space where I have a 9-to-5 capacity with a clearly defined start of my day, end of my day and room to work on things. When you work from home there are 1,000 things you could be doing. I'd often get distracted here, I'm less likely to just fall down a rabbit hole on the Internet. There's nobody here whose job it is to police me, but the fact that there are people here does keep me honest."
Aside from helping to pay the lease, the advantage of bringing a wealth of game developers to Another Castle is a prize in itself, adds King.
"Having that local community, with info swapping, that networking aspect is huge," he says. "Being able to reach out to the talent in this area is super-beneficial."
The different independent developers, each of whom have their own strengths and their own connections — whether in Cambridge or New York or Hollywood — can share their expertise and inspire one another working under the same roof, King adds.
"The benefit of just knowing the other people who are out there is really important in attracting and just keeping people in this area."
Information from: The (Greenfield, Mass.) Recorder, http://www.recorder.com