Asian fans of League of Legends, one of the world’s most popular online games, probably have no idea that their play is being monitored in a 10th-floor office in Clayton.
They probably don’t care, either. All they want to know is that the game works and that it regularly presents them with new characters and new challenges. And that’s the job of the 40 people who work here for Riot Games, the Santa Monica, Calif., company that created League of Legends.
The St. Louis area isn’t known as a hotbed of video game development, but the industry has developed a mini-hub here.
Riot arrived in 2011. Graphite Lab, which develops children’s games for brand-name companies such as Disney and Hasbro, has been here since 2009 and now has nine employees in its Maryland Heights studio.
Other industry players range from Simutronics, a 27-year-old studio with 30 employees in Maryland Heights, to startups such as Butterscotch Shenanigans, which is just releasing its second game.
In part, the game industry here is a byproduct of the mobile-computing revolution. By creating app stores where any developer can sell — or give away — a game, Apple and Google have democratized the industry.
“The development budgets for these games also are significantly lower, which means the high cost of production is no longer a barrier to entry,” says Walt Scacchi, research director at the University of California-Irvine Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds.
That’s exactly what Samuel and Seth Coster, co-founders of Butterscotch Shenanigans, are figuring. They released their second game, Quadropus Rampage, for Android devices last week and say it will be available in the Apple store this week.
Samuel Coster says the brothers’ development costs are “phenomenally low. You have to eat, you have to pay rent, and literally for Seth and me those are the only expenses we have.”
Scacchi says the game industry remains highly concentrated in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, but he’s seeing more activity in non-traditional places such as St. Louis. “I think we’ll see that kind of growth continuing,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to grow a local game industry than to move into the South of Market area in San Francisco where you have to compete with Google and Zynga and Facebook for talent.”
Some game companies have found plenty of talent in St. Louis, while others say it’s a challenge. Scott Gelb, Riot Games’ vice president for technology, says the availability of engineers is a big reason for the firm’s rapid growth here.
Gelb works in Santa Monica, but he’s a former St. Louisan and was an advocate for expanding here. “I saw that a lot of St. Louis developers were really passionate about what they were doing, but there weren’t a lot of startup-type environments for them to work in,” he said.
Graphite Lab, which has a Play-Doh alphabet game coming out soon for Hasbro, is part of a company that also operates in Springfield, Mo., and Austin, Texas. Matt Raithel, Graphite’s studio director, says he’s found “a growing pipeline” of talent here.
Simutronics founder David Whatley, however, doesn’t think the area talent pool is deep enough. “The schools here have great programs if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, but if you want to be a computer game developer, it’s a wasteland,” he said.
Area educators should pay attention to his words. If they turn out graduates with the creative and technical skills that games require, Whatley and others say, a growing industry is eager to hire them.