Game On: The Greater Seattle Gaming Cluster

9/11/08Follow @gthuang

The Seattle area is known for many things. But right up there with the coffee, the weather, and the music scene would have to be the gaming community. If you’ve ever played a video game like Halo on an Xbox console, or a multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft, or an online “casual” game like Bejeweled, then you’ve almost certainly got a Seattle company (or connection) to thank. Everyone knows Microsoft and RealNetworks are here; lots of people know about Nintendo of America, Sony Online Entertainment, and PopCap; but there are also dozens of smaller, indie studios cranking out all manner of computer games and development tools.

In just the last two months, downtown Seattle has hosted two of the gaming industry’s largest expos, which we’ve covered: Casual Connect, a conference around casual games as opposed to traditional “core” games that tend to be more time and cost-intensive; and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), which drew an estimated 50,000 people in a celebration of all the latest in gaming tech, business, and culture. It’s the kind of trend we at Xconomy pay close attention to, because it says something about how innovation happens and its impact on society and the economy—on both a local and a global scale.

According to a report by enterpriseSeattle, an economic-development research organization, there are some 150 game-technology and interactive-media companies in Washington state, which employ 15,000 workers and contribute $4.6 billion in direct revenue to the state. Those are the hard stats, but there’s also something intangible about Seattle’s unique blend of artsy creative types, storytellers, hackers, and software developers—not to mention a fierce competitive spirit—that has made it one of the world’s top centers for gaming.

Not that it’s all growing without limits. Just yesterday, Seattle mobile-gaming startups Mobliss and Reaxion announced they are merging into a new company called PressOK Entertainment—a sign of the consolidation that’s been occurring in the mobile-game industry. And I haven’t been hearing of as many new core gaming studios being formed lately. At the same time, though, casual game development costs are falling, Web-based tools are more plentiful, and it has become easier for small, dedicated teams to build games and distribute them to a sizeable audience.

So we wanted to provide a definitive guide to the gaming companies that are making it all happen. Following in the footsteps of our Xconomy Boston site, which has highlighted clusters of innovation there in music technology, Internet video, robotics, and Health 2.0, we now bring you the greater Seattle gaming cluster— the top companies, big or small, based locally or having significant local operations, that are pushing the state of the art in game technology, development, and business.

For this list, we looked specifically at game companies, not organizations. So no Penny Arcade (gaming website and comic), University of Washington (with its huge computer science program), or Digipen Institute of Technology (which offers courses in game design), though such entities play important roles in the gaming community. We drew the line at companies focused on game development and publishing—so we didn’t include software companies that fall more on the graphics, simulation, animation, or visualization side of things. And geographically, we focused on the immediate Seattle area—in part because Portland, OR, and Vancouver, BC, have their own clusters of gaming companies that number in the dozens.

Looking at the list, a few trends are apparent. Out of the 45 companies in our initial list, I would classify 24 of them—roughly half—as focusing more on core games, and 21 as casual. (This distinction is getting blurrier every day, however, as most companies—and players—are doing both.) Many of the core-game studios were formed in the 1990s, while the casual and mobile startups, not surprisingly, tend to be from the past five years or so. In terms of geography, nearly two-thirds of the companies (29) are based on the Eastside versus Seattle proper, which is probably influenced by the locations of Microsoft and Nintendo. All of that said, this is not a comprehensive list. If we’ve missed somebody, please leave us a comment or drop us a note at editors@xconomy.com.

Without further ado, here’s our fine 45:

5th Cell (Bellevue, WA)
Developer of casual games for mobile devices (Full Spectrum Warrior) and Nintendo platforms (Lock’s Quest).

Amaze Entertainment (Kirkland, WA)
A division of Foundation9 Entertainment, founded in 1996. Develops mainstream casual and core games like those based on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars.

ArenaNet (Bellevue, WA)
Online game network formed in 2000. Makes role-playing fantasy games like Guild Wars.

Big Fish Games (Seattle, WA)
Founded in 2002 by Paul Thelen from RealNetworks. Develops and publishes casual and online games for PCs, mobile devices, and consoles (Mystery Case Files, Hidden Expedition).

Boomzap (Seattle, WA)
Publisher of casual games headquartered in Singapore, but has had a Seattle office for U.S. distribution and marketing since 2006.

Bungie (Kirkland, WA)
Developer of the bestselling Halo franchise, bought by Microsoft in 2000, and divested by Microsoft in … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Billy Zane

    Thank you for this!