Pittsburgh starts to earn name in video training circles

| Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010

Jessica Trybus' company is trying to revolutionize the way the construction, energy, manufacturing and health care industries train their workers.

But Trybus and the 14 other employees of Etcetera Edutainment Inc. don't work in any of those industries -- their background is in video games.

"The next generation of the workforce coming in, they learn differently. So how do we transfer all this on-the-job knowledge from 30-year veterans?" said Trybus, founder and CEO of Etcetera Edutainment in the Strip District. "It turns out that the systems of good game design parallel very nicely with how people learn."

Etcetera Edutainment and a half-dozen other video game companies in the Pittsburgh region are small, but growing, entrepreneurs say. Many local companies are carving out a niche by applying video game technology to education or job training instead of simply entertainment.

"The market has finally gotten to a level where serious games are being accepted more and used in education now," said Kris Rockwell, CEO of Hybrid Learning Systems Inc., a Downtown company that develops learning tools for use on mobile devices.

The company was founded in 2003 and has revenue of about $600,000 a year, Rockwell said. It has eight employees and is planning to hire more after buying rights in early August to two games developed by another Pittsburgh video game company, ImpactGames Inc.

"We hoped to keep the content in Pittsburgh and keep that growth happening here," he said.

Austin, Texas; Los Angeles and San Francisco are primary cities for the video game industry, but Pittsburgh may be gaining status as an industry hub, said Chris Klug, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center.

"Pittsburgh is almost at the point where it's going to be viewed as a secondary city where video game development is being done," Klug said.

The Pittsburgh area is home to seven of nine video game companies in Pennsylvania listed in a study by the Entertainment Software Association, a Washington-based trade group for companies that develop video and computer games. The study found the video game industry added $43.2 million to the state's economy in 2009, compared with $29.5 million in 2005.

Pennsylvania's nine video game development companies employ almost 300 people at an average compensation rate of $83,335 per employee.

Companies started by graduates of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center -- including Evil Genius Designs Inc., Etcetera Edutainment and SimOps Studios Inc. -- are helping build the city's profile in video game development.

"There's such an explosion in the industry now where people are understanding that gaming isn't just consoles and 17-year-old males sitting in their houses," said Tracy Brown, CEO of Evil Genius Designs, a game design company founded in April 2009. "The industry is starting to be open to applying game techniques in areas where it hadn't been seen."

That trend has helped companies like Etcetera Edutainment, founded in 2004, market game-based training programs to clients including Westinghouse Electric Co., Alcoa Inc. and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Trybus said.

Etcetera Edutainment totaled nearly $1 million in revenue each of its first few years, Trybus said, predicting the company would continue to grow.

Companies can use an online system called Wild Pockets developed by SimOps Studios in the South Side to design 3-D games and training materials, said CEO Shanna Tellerman. Thousands of people have registered as developers on the system, which brings in revenue for the 12-employee company through micro payments.

"We created a very open, easily accessible interface for people to create scenarios for training," Tellerman said.

SimOps Studios is not breaking even or making a profit yet, but revenue has been growing since the company was founded in 2006, Tellerman said.

While most area video game companies employ fewer than 25 people, Schell Games Inc., founded in 2004, has more than 50 workers in its Pittsburgh office, said senior game designer Shawn Patton.

The city has an active chapter of the International Game Developers' Association, which helps to unite the video game community, said Patton, who is chapter president.

"The community is kind of reaching critical mass," said Sabrina Haskell, secretary for the association and a game designer at Schell Games.

"At a certain point, you have enough professionals in the area that companies are attracted to the area because you have talent here."

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