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Madison video game industry booming with major titles coming out of local studios
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ENTERTAINMENT | VIDEO GAMES

Madison video game industry booming with major titles coming out of local studios

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Though they likely don’t realize it, hundreds of millions of video game players around the world have spent countless hours exploring worlds and fighting battles created, at least in part, right here in Madison.

Launched in 1990 by brothers Brian and Steve Raffel, Middleton-based Raven Software is a cornerstone of the Madison area’s video game industry, creating multiple games in the Call of Duty and Star Wars franchises.

Many video game developers in Madison credit Raven Software, which is a subsidiary of California-based Activision, for launching the steady rise of the video game industry in the area.

“It has been great to see Madison become sort of the Midwest’s gaming hotbed of growth in the last decade or so,” Brian Raffel said.

But Raven is far from the only company in the area developing video games. PerBlue makes mobile games, including Disney Heroes; Filament Games designs educational games; PUBG, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, has a studio in Madison; and several independent studios are also developing and launching their own games.

“These are the games you see commercials for,” UW-Madison Game Lab director and professor Krista-Lee Malone said of some of the titles. “They’re making millions of dollars. Those are big players, and some of those are starting here or being developed here.”

As the number of studios increases in Madison, the existing companies are also growing. Raven, PerBlue and PUBG each said they plan to expand their staffs in the next year.

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To help the companies attract developers, designers and other talent to create video games, some in the industry formed the Wisconsin Games Alliance. The organization works with government agencies and other organizations to incentivize companies to stay in the state and to attract skilled workers, co-vice chair Arthur Low said.

Launching an indie studio

Low, who recently founded his own studio, Basementmode, said the legacy of studios and the connection to several top-tier companies has created a “snowball” effect. Along with Raven’s connection to Activision and the PUBG studio, local company Human Head Studios was bought by Bethesda — creator of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises. It has since been renamed Roundhouse Studios.

“It attracts talent, whether locally or nationally,” Low said. “Then those people go on in turn to have their own ideas and start their own businesses.”

Wisconsin game developers look to broaden their message

Low decided to form his own studio with his wife, Julianne, after working for close to a dozen years at other development studios so he could pursue his own creation. Later this year, he hopes to launch the company’s first game, Rise Against the Invaders — a game based on building a settlement and defending it against aliens.

Growing up, Low played many text-based games and games like Age of Empires, which has some historical elements. Before he graduated from Westfield High School in 2005, he took a programming course that convinced him he could become part of the industry.

“I had a lot of fun in those worlds, and it inspired me to want to create my own worlds,” Low said.

Mobile gaming half of industry

For the co-founders of PerBlue, which makes mobile games, the company started off in 2008 as a “fun project with friends on campus,” chief operating officer and co-founder Forrest Woolworth said. After graduating in 2009, while smartphones were still just gaining popularity, the founders decided to pursue the company full time.

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PerBlue now has 65 employees, and is hiring, to keep up with what is now a massive market in mobile games — making up nearly half of total video game industry revenue, according to analytics company Newzoo. Woolworth credits that in part to the ubiquity of smartphones.

“There’s definitely pretty dedicated gamers, but it also opened up the market a lot to more casual (players),” Woolworth said. “It made games more approachable and accessible to a broader market.”

PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, launched in 2017, was developed by South Korea-based PUBG Corp., which set up offices around the world, including opening an office in Madison that year.

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The game, which is an online battle royale where players around the world can compete to be the last person standing, was an instant success and maintains a massive fan base.

“We hit pop culture in a way that’s pretty unique,” creative director Dave Curd said, and the company knew it would need to expand in different locations.

Economic impact

With hundreds of workers in the Madison area working in game development, these jobs have a significant impact on the local economy as well.

The broader video game industry was forecast to reach nearly $175 billion in 2020 — up 19.6% over 2019 — and is expected to grow to $217.9 billion in 2023, according to Newzoo.

“Not only is it a job, but it’s a good job,” Malone said. “If you look at the average salary that you could expect getting a job in the game industry as a designer or developer, we’re talking about good, solid, middle-class jobs.”

Some of the company leaders in Madison expect that the area can become an even larger hub for the industry. While maybe not as renowned as San Francisco or Los Angeles, it could reach the level of Austin, Texas, Curd said.

“I think we’ve got the proper kindling,” Curd said. “Now we just have to apply a little bit of time because I really don’t see anything slowing down.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of one of PerBlue's mobile games. The game is called Disney Heroes.]


Shining stars: Meet the Madison area's Top Workplaces

Make no mistake about it: The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have left painful scars. But this year’s Top Workplaces project shows that many employees across the Madison region remain resiliently upbeat and are clinging to their workplace cultures, even from a distance.

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Celebrate the best of Madison’s local employers and hear top executives explain how they create and maintain their cultures of growth.

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This year’s winners run the gamut from dentistry to financial institutions and engineering to software developers and many more.

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Survey feedback from employees is the sole basis for determining Top Workplaces. And that feedback serves as the ultimate test of how employers are responding in the age of COVID.

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This year’s top-ranked large organization, with about 590 Madison-area employees, UW Credit Union has made diversity a priority during the past few years. 

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Exact Sciences, which rose from a small operation to a growing force in cancer diagnostics, thrives on a workplace culture fueled by innovation, teamwork and a common enemy.

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Teamwork, problem-solving and helping agents find success — however they measure it — drive the workplace culture at First Weber Realtors.

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Everyone wants their pre-pandemic lives back, but the crisis revealed the value of Summit Credit Union’s strong culture.

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The ability of Kwik Trip employees to manage change was important to the convenience store chain’s success during the past year, as it expanded, rolled out new product offerings and dealt with COVID-19.

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Here are the other top-ranked large firms in Top Workplaces 2021, rounding out a diverse mix of some of the area’s bigger employers and featuring a range of benefits that employees are able to tap into.

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The Madison-based firm, which develops mass notification software to alert employees at schools, government office and businesses to emergency situations, strives to understand what drives high job satisfaction among its employees.

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WPPI Energy president and CEO Mike Peters says communication is vital to the success of the Sun Prairie-based, member-owned operation that serves 51 local electric utilities with wholesale electric power supply, utility technologies and services.

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Employees at Madison-based Ascendium Education Group have adopted the values and mission of the organization and appreciate the training that keeps them on the cutting edge.

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Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation values humility and customer service in a culture that has buy-in from CEO Steve Jacobson to the newe…

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The disruption and chaos inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic tested the stability of First Choice Dental’s workplace culture.

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The Top Workplaces winners among midsize companies reflect innovative styles to building corporate cultures that their employees embrace. Here’s a look at the other winners in the mid-size category:

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When the pandemic arrived, Horizon Develop Build Manage president and CEO Dan Fitzgerald was certain of one thing: His employee culture, built purposefully and over time, would carry the company through all of the disruption.

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When Jack Koziol started InfoSec Institute in Madison in 2004, he felt that workplace culture was nothing more than a corporate buzzword. Seventeen years later, he knows better.

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In the past chaos-packed year, revenues dipped for the downtown advertising, design and digital agency — a result of the economic mess created by the pandemic — and the agency had its first layoffs in 20 years, while its staff was scattered to complete work remotely.

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Being successful in providing customers with information technology solutions and services starts with a family-centered culture based on fun, gratitude and expertise at AE Business Solutions.

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The Sun Prairie-based company, which specializes in servicing and supplying components for heavy-duty, off-highway equipment through 10 service centers in the U.S. and Canada, strives for transparency.

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Although winners in the small-company category reflect a variety of missions, they share a common characteristic: They have built strong workplaces that provide stand-out benefits and flexibility. Here are the other winners in the small-company category:

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Among this year’s Top Workplaces, employees singled out several companies for their extraordinary efforts in important phases of workplace life, ranging from leadership to transparency.

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Businesses that suddenly found themselves in the midst of a pandemic that shattered conventional ways of working quickly discovered that a strong workplace culture was vital to surviving and thriving during the crisis.

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We have no idea what the extent of these changes will be or whether this whole notion of “normal” will ever find itself back into our lives.

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Jim Nussle, president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association, spoke about what makes CUNA’s culture special.

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Kathy Marsh, co-founder and vice chair of Musicnotes, shares her thoughts on the workplace culture at the Madison-based digital sheet music retailer.

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Larry Barton, chief executive officer of Strang, talks about creating a strong culture at the Madison-based firm. 

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To become a Top Workplace, organizations instill in their team members a variety of values and approaches that keep their businesses thriving in the marketplace, their employees engaged and their communities strong.

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