Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Getting into the game

Kedar Bhasker, a student at the University of New Mexico, has always wanted to be part of the next big thing.

A recent meeting with another UNM student has him thinking he might have discovered it.

The find? A video game that teaches people foreign languages.

“Video games – and just technology – are the future,” says Bhasker, a 22-year-old business school student. “This game is definitely going to use the highest technologies of what’s going on right now.”

Bhasker, along with law school student Frank Balderrama and computer science graduate student Curtis Bennett, the game’s creator, hope to see a business idea built around the game win UNM’s first-ever technology business plan competition.

The $25,000 top prize could help Bhasker’s team join New Mexico’s video game industry, a small but growing collection of scientists, artists, business people and educators trying to position the Land of Enchantment as the premier supplier to the country’s growing demand for interactive digital content.

“If you just look at the dollar amounts . . . games are now bigger than the film industry,” says Ed Angel, director of the UNM Art, Research, Technology and Science Lab, or ARTS Lab, a center bringing together all of the players – from entrepreneurs to animators – in digital media production. “Every kid you talk to knows something about games and is comfortable with games.”

According to veteran game developer and video game company executive Jason Bell, New Mexico is ready to achieve greatness in the industry.

“My feeling is that all of the raw material is there,” he says. “You have a great state that’s economical to live in. There’s a tremendous amount of intellectual and entertainment talent. You have a very supportive governor’s office and staff and some of the legislation that’s been passed in the last year really makes New Mexico one of the most attractive places in the United States to start a game studio.”

So what’s the hold up?

“The one thing that’s missing right now,” Bell says, “is a large, high-visibility project.”

Such an undertaking might come from a South Carolina company – Digital Media Group – Bell is a partner in.

Tracking the trucks

Called Gamelan, the project would offer a real-time online communication space to organizations that swoop in to perform disaster relief following cataclysmic events such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

So when the Red Cross shows up to get people help in a place such as New Orleans, it could find out – in real time – what other aid providers are up to by logging into Gamelan. It could also be used for training.

“In addition to just the sheer communication, if we succeed with this, there will be enormous benefits in terms of coordination, and we’ll actually be able to save lives,” Bell says.

Gamelan would run on the video game technology behind massively multi-player online role-playing games, commonly known as MMORPG. Players in an MMORPG – such as World of Warcraft – guide digital characters through digital worlds. They act, trade, buy, sell, communicate and sometimes battle in real-time with other players logged in via the Internet.

“We believe there’s a huge opportunity for this cutting edge technology developed in the game industry,” Bell says. “It could end up being an enormous project.”

Gamelan could have been useful in Ethiopia in 1985 or, more recently, in hurricane-hammered New Orleans, says Tom Gibson, an internationally known expert in finance and rehabilitation of small businesses in developing countries. Gibson has worked in disaster zones around the world.

He recalls a relief agency in Ethiopia trying to deliver supplies with trucks unsuited to the terrain they traversed. A charity had bought better trucks, but the agency never knew of their existence due to communication problems. The ill-suited trucks broke down. The supplies went undelivered.

“There has been many cases of that kind of thing,” he says. “There’s no place where all the parties can go and see what’s going on in real-time. Lord knows, we certainly saw that down here in New Orleans.”

In the Crescent City, coordination struggled when it came to locating trailers serving as temporary shelters, Gibson says.

The problem is not unique. He says disaster relief coordinators often struggle to know – in real-time – who has what supplies, when they’ll be available, how they’ll be delivered, where they are and how adequately they’ll handle the problems at hand.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything out there which addresses this on a real-time basis,” Gibson says. “It’s interesting to me that game technology is so much more sophisticated than what other people, who need that kind of technology, are using.”

Gamelan is not a done deal. It still needs to finalize funding for development, but negotiations are under way, Bell says. He noted a California company gave $400,000 in game creation and Internet software toward the project. Collaboration on Gamelan is being discussed with the UNM ARTS Lab and state government, he says.

Bell’s confident investments will be secured, but a venture capitalist says funding that made Gamelan possible – video game development – is a different story.

Hit or miss

When it comes to making money, developing video games is like producing movies, says Francine Sommer, general partner with Village Ventures, a Massachusetts firm that invests in emerging technology markets, such as New Mexico. Sommer is also a former general partner with a firm that specializes in media investments.

“It’s entertainment, so it’s a matter of just hitting it right, like any sort of content,” she says. “It’s very hard to predict which ones are going to be good.”

That high risk – and the high cost of producing games – deters many venture capitalists from investing in video game development, she says.

The risk could be spread out if one company were able to produce multiple games, she says. A diversity of games would give a company more than one chance to successfully sell a game, and one big success can often pay for all of the failures.

But the games most interesting to venture capitalists – the Web-based MMORPGs – can cost $10 million to $20 million to create, she says, and producing several would be too expensive and risky a proposition for many investors.

Still, given the size of the industry, the New Mexico State Investment Council is beginning to look into video game investments, says council spokesman Charlie Wollmann.

“At this point, we’re just exploring options and looking to see what potential these kinds of investments might have for the state investment council,” he says. “It’s just something that’s going to take a long time before we’re ready to move forward with any kind of investments.”

Bell says the Gamelan project isn’t pursuing venture capital money, but he notes the wider venture capital community’s interest in game, entertainment and communication projects hasn’t been as strong as it is since 1999.

He points out Gamelan could be developed anywhere, but New Mexico’s combination of talent, affordable living, equipment and enthusiasm makes it a strong candidate.

“It’s just an incredibly exciting place to build a new center of expertise and creativity in the medium,” he says. “I think in a few years, we’ll look back at this period as the start of something exciting.”

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