Correction added 2/23/17: Jam City was founded in 2016, not in 2011 as the article originally stated erroneously.
CEDAR FALLS — Danny Laudick was interested in the software game development industry. He studied computer science at University of Northern Iowa for awhile. And he grew up here.
Still, it wasn’t until he took a job in a completely different field that he learned the Cedar Valley had its own growing gaming industry.
“I was looking at all the game development companies, in California, Austin, Texas. It never crossed my mind that there might be some local game development companies,” said Laudick, who is now the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber’s director of talent solutions.
But, to be fair, the industry here is just beginning to blossom.
The game development industry in the Cedar Valley started in 1998 with Phantom EFX, which later became part of the international gaming company Scientific Games.
But then it wasn’t until 2012 that a second company Marmoset — a support industry that makes art tools and software used in game development, as well as other industries — expanded into Cedar Falls. Then, in 2016, gaming development company Jam City, followed suit.
“We’re just getting to that point where our stuff is about to go out in the wild, and we’ll see how we did, but we’re all pretty excited about it. It’s always fun to put new games out there,” said Nick Cash, lead software engineer at Jam City.
The Cedar Falls branch of Jam City are all engineers, who have helped put together a mobile game that’s about to launch called Snoopy Pop that is like an already popular Jam City game Panda Pop but uses the “Peanuts” characters.
“I think it’s very surprising for people to know that two of the biggest mobile publishers in the world, basically, have offices here,” said Cash, who had previously been recruited to work at Scientific Games but left to help Jam City launch locally.
He stressed, though, the scale is different. Scientific Games has well over 100 employees; Jam City, at least here in Iowa, has five. But both have room to grow here.
With Laudick’s work now, he knows there are a few ways to grow industries. It’s about a location’s talent pool, the ability to grow and attract more talented people, as well as having the infrastructure.
Silicon Valley, for instance, has a density of engineers, designers and others eager to work in a tech industry like game development. But in 1998, there were four Cedar Falls people interested in going from graphic design to computer game development, and thus, a small, local talent pool formed Phantom EFX.
Jam City started the opposite of its predecessor. Where Phantom grew locally and then became part of one of the biggest game development companies, Jam City was founded out west and then, thanks to local ties, expanded into the Cedar Valley.
But part of why both stay, and why Jam City located here, has to do with infrastructure.
And in game development, that means high-speed internet. There, Cedar Falls has a bit of a reputation. In fact, former President Barack Obama visited Cedar Falls in January 2015 to highlight it as Iowa’s first city to offer 1 gigabit per second internet service.
Cash said from talking to his San Francisco colleagues, it’s abundantly clear they can’t compete with Iowa’s internet. He once tested the difference with a colleague there and learned a software upgrade that can kill half a day at their offices takes about seven minutes here.
“The cost of living compared to LA, or San Francisco, or wherever is not even comparable in a lot of ways, and here, plenty of space, great internet, lower cost of living, great trail systems; there’s a lot of good reasons to live here,” said Cash, who grew up here and went to UNI as well.
Building an industry
Laudick works across industries to make sure the Cedar Valley is a place that can grow and attract talented workers. But in the game development industry in particular, Laudick knows better than most the challenge of raising awareness that high-tech companies exist here.
So, he worked with the Alliance to partner with area businesses to host an event in the Cedar Valley: a sort of speed-game development get-together called Ludum Dare. The event will be held April 21 to 24 at Mill Race in Cedar Falls.
The events usually take place online, and development would still happen using computers, but by holding a live event, they hope to raise awareness about the industry by attracting would-be developers.
“We’re looking for artists; we’re looking for composers, anyone with musical talent; any programmers; any game designers, just whoever it’s going to be, get them in the space, preferably get them to meet each other,” Cash said. “If you’re passionate about games, this is a chance for everybody to kind of get together.”
Cash made clear the event is still in the planning phases, but he said it will be an important event to get game developers throughout the Midwest together to keep growing the industry locally.
“It is a networking event, in that way, but our goal is really mostly to build games and have fun and hopefully meet some people,” Cash said.