Frank Lee: The Man Who May Bring the Gaming Industry to Philly

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Will Philly be the site of the next mobile gaming craze?

Professor Frank Lee, who founded Drexel’s Game Programming & Development Program, has been turning heads lately with his new initiative to bring the gaming industry to Philly. Working with the government to create economic incentives, his goal is to transform Philadelphia into the nation’s hub for mobile gaming. I had the opportunity to chat with Frank Lee, where we touched on everything from Pac-Man to game testing: When did your passion for video games start?

Frank Lee: Personally, I’ve been playing video games all my life. I was born in 1969, so you figure I was ten during the late 70’s, early 80’s — which is sort of the peak of what they call the golden age of arcade… That’s when, for example, games like Asteroid and Pac-Man sort of ruled the landscape. There is a rule of thumb in the game industry which basically says: ‘If you were born before 1965, you don’t really play games, but if you born after 1965, you’re playing games more-or-less forever.’ You grew up on games. So if you actually look at the demographics, each year the average age of people playing games is getting older, mainly because people like myself, who were born during that period — after 1965 — we grew up playing games. But we continue to play games when we’re 30, 40; it doesn’t really matter. We still play games. So certainly, games are deeply embedded within the DNA of my youth and the time that I grew up in.

Now, more from the academic side, I graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science from Berkeley and Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie-Mellon. My research that I did focused on how people learn in complex environments. Certainly gaming at that time was purely playing. So in grad school I played, in undergraduate I played… But I got interested in games as part of my research, trying to look at how people are able to learn in these very complex environments. So I wanted to use gaming environments as a platform to test my ideas about how people learn. But somewhere along the line I became more interested in the game portion of it, versus the psychology portion of it. I was interested in what makes a game fun, what makes a game interesting, and so on — what people sometimes refer to as the psychology of play…What makes some people a game, or some people not enjoy a game? Those are the questions that I’m interested in, and I sort of pursued gaming when I began creating gaming classes at Drexel, when I came here in 2003. So all throughout 2003 and onward I developed gaming classes, like experimental game development. But I got really serious when I partnered with my colleague, Professor Paul Diefenbach, who is a faculty member in Digital Media, which is the digital art side of Drexel. He and I confounded the Drexel game program, as it exists now, in 2008. It’s a collaborative program between the Computer Science department and the Digital Media program… What are the advantages to basing a gaming company in Philadelphia?

FL: It’s strange, this whole endeavor to try to increase or grow the gaming industry of Philadelphia came from this disbelief of why Philadelphia isn’t a powerhouse in gaming. And the reason is [that] we have all the raw materials for a great game community, great game industry. So, Philadelphia region itself… has one of the highest concentrations of colleges and universities. You have great places like Drexel, Penn, Temple, but also Swarthmore, Villanova. We’re just a mecca of great colleges and universities. Drexel has a very strong game design program, as I mentioned. Certainly Penn also has a very interesting and great game program as well. So, why aren’t we a great game location? Why isn’t Electronic Arts and Ubisoft knocking the doors down of Philadelphia to try to set up shop here? And that was the mystery. You have been heavily involved with the Pennsylvania government’s initiative to bring gaming companies to Philadelphia. Can you talk a little bit about that process?

FL: It makes perfect sense geographically, in that you have the heavy concentration of the west coast, — you have a strong game concentration in Los Angeles, in Seattle, and so on. And that makes perfect sense, because if you look at the game industry, you have the two big companies — Sony and Nintendo — are Japanese companies. West coast is closest to Japan. Its a five hour flight versus a twelve hour flight… That has started this whole endeavor of trying to work with local game entrepreneurs who also believe strongly in Philadelphia and want to bring and grow the game industry in Philadelphia, along with nonprofits like Select Greater Philadelphia and local city and state officials, to try to make Philadelphia a very attractive place for the game industry. And its been hard work in that, initially, we tried to look at bringing in a large player to the city. So, for example, someone like Electronic Arts… to have them establish a branch in Philadelphia. And that wasn’t working really well. One, because they are looking for, essentially, money. They want incentive to come to Philadelphia. And certainly Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania in general, is in a tax crunch. So there has to be a strong drive and push from the state to try to create an interesting package for such a company to move.

One example of that is in Louisiana. Louisiana’s government office provides a huge incentive for Electronic Arts to create a Q&A facility with a partner with University of Louisiana, I believe. So they built a massive Q&A facility there. So you can do it that way, which is what I consider the ‘top-down’ approach… You have the government involved, trying to track down companies… But that didn’t seem like it was happening. So the other way then is to try the ‘bottom-up’ approach, trying to grow local companies and have them succeed and stay in Philadelphia. That became more plausible since 2008, with the rise of the mobile and social games.

We are looking specifically at educational games. If I ask anybody to name me an education game company, I’ll get nothing. So I think there is a potential for a strong niche market that’s dedicated to educational games in the mobile space. Where do you see the gaming industry headed? Is there any specific direction?

FL: For the past three or four years, the console market has been shrinking. People are buying less console games. But I think that that is largely due to the fact the consoles are getting old. X-Box came out 7 years ago. The next generation is coming out either next year or the year after… Then you will see an uptick in the console market. But that market is fairly mature; people who have consoles will replace the consoles. You’re not going to have a huge influx of people buying new consoles that didn’t have new consoles.

The biggest growth, and the most interesting space for the industry, is in mobile games. Mobile games as we see it now did not exist before 2008. In 2007 the iPhone came out; in 2008 the App Store came out. There was no mobile game market before the App Store. From almost zero revenue in 2008, this is a multi-billion dollar industry now, and it’ll only grow… In 2010 only about twelve and a half percent of the adult population had smartphones. In 2011 that doubled to 25 percent. But that aside, that still leaves 75 percent of the population without smartphones. That’s where you’re growth will come from, with mobile games. With mobile games, you’re not physically limited to fiscal distribution, meaning that I don’t have to go to Gamestop to buy my game for the iPhone. It is all electronic distribution. Because it is electronic distribution, you’re not limited to a regional market… My market is the entire world if I have a mobile game. So that’s a realization that most people in the industry have come to accept, that the mobile is going to be the most important area for gaming for any foreseeable future. On the subject of working in the industry, how would someone like myself go about getting paid to test video games for a living?

FL: That is basically Quality and Assurance. It is not as easy as you might imagine, because its not like you’re being paid to play games; you’re paid to find bugs in games. So you’re basically doing the same thing over and over again — playing the same level over and over again — for eight hours a day, five days a week. Probably, my suggestion is to check out Gamasutra, which is the main game developer website. That site will list different [available] positions. And that is typically the entry-level position. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, you mostly start with Q&A in testing, and then work your way up. As a lifelong gamer, what are your top 5 favorite games of all time?

FL: Tetris, Bejeweled, the original Half Life, BioShock, and Pac-Man.


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