People don’t often associate West Michigan with video game design, and for good reason.
The sector remains but a speck in the region’s evolving technology development scene, despite the presence of two nationally ranked universities churning out graduates in video game design.
But while West Michigan’s capacity for video game developers may be small, tech firms in the region say graduates of those programs have translatable skills that are helping fill a growing niche for creating virtual reality and augmented reality systems, and for user experience design.
“The general approach that video game design programs follow with emphasis on user experiences is a fantastic match for what we do,” said Michael Carnevale, principal at Grand Rapids-based Carnevale ID LLC.
A user experience design and software development firm, Carnevale ID’s business in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has doubled in recent years, although the owner declined to share annual revenues. The reason: Industries as diverse as automotive and furniture manufacturing and health care providers have ramped up their use of video game technology, particularly VR and AR, he said.
That’s led companies like Carnevale ID to hire more tech professionals versed in video game development.
“We actually seek out developers with a background in game design and game development because they’ve generally been exposed to the types of software that match very closely to what we’re doing,” Carnevale said. “From a talent standpoint, we need the same skills as a VR game developer.”
Carnevale ID’s clients include RockStar Games and Microsoft Corp., as well as Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc.
Indeed, the region’s furniture manufacturers increasingly have sought out virtual reality technology in recent years, largely as a way of showing users how office spaces can be configured.
Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. since 2015 has worked with the Grand Rapids office of Swedish VR firm Configura Inc., which specializes in software development for configuring spaces. Configura said last month its work with Herman Miller led to a partnership with Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technologies Inc. (OST). The collaboration is aimed at expanding “software solutions capabilities for manufacturers and dealers worldwide.”
The partnership makes sense given the current business climate, particularly as companies look for new ways to engage employees and customers, according to Karl Sanford, a senior application development consultant at OST.
“(The question is) how do you make people want to engage with a product to really help your business, and gamification can really help with that,” Sanford said. “It can help change mindsets and make something that would be mundane a fun and engaging experience.”
CREATING THE TALENT
With the demand for VR and AR developers on the rise, companies needn’t look far for talent versed in video game design. Michigan State University in East Lansing and Ferris State University in Big Rapids and Grand Rapids both rank in the top 20 schools in the country for video game design, according to a recent ranking from The Princeton Review.
Each of the programs has been in existence since the early to mid 2000s.
Both Carnevale ID and OST have hired employees who graduated from video game design programs in the region.
“We’ve been pumping out students for a while and we think we’re doing a pretty good job,” said Brian Winn, an associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at MSU. Winn also serves as director at MSU’s Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab.
But for students seeking employment in traditional video game design, they often struggle to build a career in Michigan given the limited opportunities.
“In terms of finding employment, it’s definitely a challenge,” Winn said, adding that he estimates 75 percent of students in the program leave the state to chase opportunities, largely in Silicon Valley where many of the video game development firms tend to be located.
“There is industry in the state, but the companies tend to be smaller,” he said. “It’s a tough industry so companies come and go.”
Private sector sources tend to agree.
“My personal take is that it’s great to have a program producing qualified grads, but until you have an ‘anchor’ company, so to speak, this isn’t enough,” Carl Erickson said in an email to MiBiz. Erickson is co-founder and CEO Atomic Object LLC, a Grand Rapids-based software development firm.
Still, graduates can find opportunities, even if they have to chart their own path and start new companies, according to sources in higher education.
David Baker, a program coordinator at FSU’s School of Digital Media in downtown Grand Rapids, said the university tends to emphasize networking and developing the real-life skills needed to find employment in the industry, whether in West Michigan or elsewhere.
Using that model, a number of graduates have gone on to start their own companies or freelance for large digital media companies like Disney, he said.
“It’s a slow growth,” Baker said. “For us, it’s pretty evident that you have to go out and promote yourself, make the connections. We train our students on how to do that. And we train our students that the world isn’t going to come to you just because you have a degree.”
About 250 students currently enroll in the FSU program, Baker said. MSU’s program has around 100 students.
As challenging as the tech sector is for graduates, it also frequently upends the traditional academic model. The reason: Universities need to plan curriculum in a field where the technology changes faster than it takes students to obtain a four-year degree.
When FSU’s program began in 2004, mobile applications and games barely existed, and now they now account for a majority of the industry, according to Baker.
To deliver a valuable education for students, the university must track where technology is headed, which these days is VR and AR systems, he said.
“We have to think five years in the future,” Baker said. “Our incoming students that are seniors in high school right now, we have to think about what they’re going to do to graduate. We look at projections for virtual reality and the applications (they have).”
The industry also poses key challenges for Michigan’s economic developers, who are grappling with how to encourage corporate growth after the state in 2015 eliminated all tax credits applying to the sector.
Sources contacted for this report criticized the state’s decision to abandon film and digital media incentives. However, given the broad demand for new technology, Michigan-based development companies can still thrive in the absence of tax incentives, they said.
“Game design and digital media: It touches nearly every industry that we talk about, whether it’s agriculture or the automotive industry,” said Jenell Leonard, who serves as director of the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office. “Technology has been driving these industries and that’s where Michigan has been the leader.”
In Grand Rapids, Carnevale believes the continued growth of the sector largely will come from companies adopting video game technology out of necessity.
“Businesses are demanding (this technology) of us, and it’s only because consumers are demanding it of them,” Carnevale said. “Video games have generally been better at providing interfaces for fast decision making and fast display of data visualization. There’s this entire generation that’s grown up with consuming data. … They expect their business environments to do the same thing.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the current name of the Michigan State University department in which Brian Winn works. A previous version included an outdated name.