Unlike Seattle and San Francisco, even Austin and the D.C.-Baltimore area, Philadelphia has never been home to a large video game studio. The University of Pennsylvania is the only Ivy League school with a graduate program in game programming, and Drexel University has a top-ranked game design program, but many who graduate with degrees in game development must go elsewhere to find work.
Recently, new technologies have allowed a nascent independent video game development scene to take root in the city, and local efforts to nurture that industry are emerging.
Leaving for 'more fertile ground'
Brothers Mike and Tim Ambrogi have been developing video games together since they were kids, playing around in their parents' home office.
The brothers knew back then they wanted to start their own video game company, but they also knew they would have to leave Philadelphia after they graduated from college to do it.
"When it came time to go into the game industry, there were literally no jobs in the game industry in the Philly area at that time," said Tim Ambrogi, "so I was forced to leave for more fertile ground."
Industry insiders say that is common in the city.
"Historically we haven't had a video game industry in Philadelphia," said Chris Grant, the Philadelphia-based editor of Joystiq.com, Huffington Post's video game blog.
"For cities our size, if you were to look at the game development presence versus size of the city, we're an anomaly,” Grant said. "We don't fit in with any of the top cities in the country at all."
Philadelphia has never had a big "triple A" studio, as large studios with big marketing budgets are called in industry parlance. But in the past few years, smaller companies have been able to make a go of it. Grant said they thrive on selling lower-tech, cheaper games online for gamers to download directly to their computers or smart-phones.
"You don't need to buy a $60 game from the store. You can download a $1 dollar game on your way to work,” Grant said.
Birth of an indie development scene
In the past handful of years, new online distribution models likened to Amazon.com for games, and software that allows developers to do more with fewer people, gave birth to a viable indie development scene. It was a game changer in Philadelphia.
"It means that, despite the fact that we don't have a large developer or publisher in the city, we're actually able to still participate in the game industry as legitimate players," said Tim Ambrogi.
In 2009, after saving up enough money from their studio jobs in San Francisco, the Ambrogi brothers moved back to Philadelphia. Driven by nearby family—and, they say, the sandwiches—they started their company, Final Form Games, with business partner Hal Larsson. Their first release, "Jamestown," hit the market in June.
The $10 game for PCs is an 80s arcade-style shooter, with Sir Walter Raleigh as the protagonist in 17th century British colonial Mars.
Jamestown became the first game from Philly to be distributed on Steam, the largest online distribution platform. It was voted one of the 10 best independent games of 2011 by Pax, a large gaming festival.
Facilitating future growth
Now, a new non-profit in Philadelphia is hoping to nurture companies like the Ambrogis' and the dozens of other developers in the city.
"Let's bring together all the people doing really neat stuff in games," said Nathan Solomon, co-founder of the newly incorporated Philadelphia Game Lab. "But also let's bring together all the creative people and all the tech people, from universities, from the general community, let's bring all that together, see what we can do to keep moving things forward."
Efforts have been underway for years to bring a large studio to Philadelphia, spearheaded by the Videogame Growth Initiative, which has been pushing for legislation that would give tax incentives to studios. But Solomon thinks attracting smaller companies is a more realistic goal.
He plans to open a collaborative workspace at the beginning of next year where up to 12 teams will be able work in the same building, networking with established names in the industry, giving each other feedback on games, and Solomon hopes, attracting the attention of potential investors and publishers.
"We have heavy support from the game industry, a lot of support here from people in creative initiatives," Solomon said. "It seems like the right time and the right place for it."
Solomon said much of that support is from industry types, some of whom, like the Ambrogis, would have stayed in Philadelphia had they been able to find work here.
If all goes according to plan, the incubator will open by the end of March in Northern Liberties.