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The rise of Baltimore's independent video game developers

Joel Haddock and Chris Klimas regularly have, what they call, a "date night." No dinner. No movie. Nothing like that. To them, "date night" is working on a personal project — Twofold Secret, an independent gaming studio the two founded in 2010.

It consists of huddling at the kitchen table at one of their homes, hammering out issues and planning a week-by-week game plan for whatever project they're working on.

The co-founders met as undergraduates at Washington College in Chestertown when the two were neighbors in their college dorm, and discovered they both had an interest in games.

"The idea of creating a game was something the two of us had been bouncing back and forth since our college days. Unfortunately, it was a lot of talk and not a lot of accomplishment," said Haddock, 35.

It wasn't until nine years later that the video game business idea became a possibility. Klimas was working on a project for a graduate program at University of Baltimore, and decided to make a game in JavaScript. Haddock got involved, adding simple art, and together the initial sketches of their first piece, "Where We Remain," was born. After putting the sketches on a Flash games marketplace, the duo received a sponsorship deal from Armor Games, a Flash game portal.

Now the work of Twofold Secret is displayed in "Where We Are" an exhibit at Current Space, on view through March 30. The exhibit, presented by ICA Baltimore, showcases Twofold's five games and highlights the expansion of game development. Visitors can play any of the five video games via projector or flat screen. "Where We Remain" will be on display, with an in-game installation to record how many people play the game.

And while Twofold Secret has grown over the past four years, it is just one of the many companies in the ever-growing local industry. A 2010 study publicized by the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore found that the Baltimore-Bethesda region ranks among the country's biggest metropolitan areas for gaming and simulation employment. In a series of interviews, conducted via email, leaders in Baltimore's gaming community and independent developers agreed that independent game studios are driving growth in the scene.

"The local industry probably employs about 1,000 people. It is one of the top areas in the country, particularly on the East Coast," said Tim Train, 44, the chief operating officer at Baltimore-based video game studio SecretNewCo. "I think the combination of low cost of living and good schools help make the area very attractive, particularly for experienced talent with East Coast roots."

These days, Klimas and Haddock handle Twofold Secret from their homes in Owings Mills and Timonium, respectively, on the side. Both have full-time jobs; Haddock works as a project manager for investment research company Stansberry & Associates, and Klimas, 34, is a web developer for University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. When the two aren't working together in person, they're collaborating via the Internet. All expenses, typically for equipment at shows or software, come straight out of pocket. They recently added their first intern.

Though there are many variations of what one thinks an independent gaming studio is, the concept is fairly simple: a studio with a small staff (15 to 30 at the most), with the ability to incorporate concepts and work on self-made deadlines without reporting to an outside boss. The marketing, the public relations and any potential sponsorship for the game release? The company's own responsibility, all on a self-decided budget.

Baltimore has long been a haven for video gaming studios, dating to the 1960s when gaming company Avalon Hill came to town. In the 1980s, Microprose, a video game publisher and designer, started up in Baltimore. It sparked a movement. Baltimore was seen as an appealing city for many video gaming studios hoping to start a location on the East Coast. As the video gaming community grew, larger studios and independent studios worked side-by-side.

But the local industry has gone through shake-ups in the past few years, with many large studios leaving the area, making way for new start-ups and independents.

Big Huge Games, a Timonium-based video game development studio (Train was a co-founder), was shut down by parent company 38 Studios in May 2012, firing a staff of almost 100 people. Soon after, North Carolina-based Epic Games created Impossible Studios in Hunt Valley, snatching up many Big Huge Games employees looking for work. Epic Games quickly died, however, closing up shop nine months later in February 2013.

Zynga, creator of "Farmville" and "Words With Friends," downsized the company the same month as Impossible Studio's shutdown, closing its Zynga East studio in Timonium. The studio tried to accommodate staff, giving a job to any Baltimore employee willing to relocate to another city, though all but one location was away from the East Coast.

Despite many developers losing their jobs, the shift made way for new start-ups hoping to break ground in Baltimore.

"This is mirroring trends in the broader industry. It's a brutal time, but the creative destruction is resulting in a lot of new opportunities," said Train.

These new opportunities have even led to companies teaming up to collaborate on projects. Just last fall, Mohawk Games and Oxide Games planted ground in Baltimore, with financial backing from Michigan-based Stardock's Strategic Investment Fund. These two independent studios have been working together, with Mohawk Games looking to have its first game use Oxide's Nitrous Engine, a graphics design system for PC and console strategy.

But for Twofold Secret, the biggest appeal of independent gaming studios is freedom. "We are not bound by release schedules, sales targets or shareholder demands. We pretty much have free rein to create what we want, when we want," said Haddock. "Now, the flip side of that is that a lack of that kind of structure means you have to force it upon yourself to actually get things done, but that's something we're willing to do."

Twofold's latest release, "Camp Keepalive," was released in August 2013, with the mission of the game to save the campers from a mob of monsters, using the assistance from counselors who possess special powers. Each player makes his or her own decisions on how to move throughout the game. This element is a theme in all of their games, allowing the players to create their own storyline. Twofold's first three games were created on Flash, and the most recent, "Sought" and "Camp Keepalive," were produced on downloadable PC and Mac platforms. Each game has a unique storyline, with some based on stories Haddock and Klimas made up, and others based off other games or movies. "Where We Remain" was created in the style of "The Legend of Zelda," whereas another game, "Sanctuary 17" was inspired by television show "The Night Stalker."

"The people in the local industry here are friendly and supportive, and everyone is always ready and willing to try something new. For an indie studio, Baltimore has a lot to offer that other cities just can't," said Haddock.

But for those who choose to bypass the appeal of independent studios for a larger one, the job search might be more difficult.

"The only way to break into the industry is to gain and demonstrate skills necessary to make great games. If you are a programmer, you need a killer demo. If you are an artist, a killer portfolio. If you want to be in management, you have to demonstrate great communication skills and pattern of good decisions," said Pure Bang Games founder, Ben Walsh, 37, of Towson.

Walsh credits his ambition to work in video gaming to his interest in "alternate worlds" that are featured in many video games. He began inventing worlds when he was 10 years old, creating different universes with different themes and species.

During college, he began designing levels for multiplayer real-time virtual worlds. He took up designing and programming games as a hobby, but game management as a career. After serving as a producer for Big Huge Games and Bethesda Softworks, he decided to start his new venture, Pure Bang Games, a social gaming studio devoted to developing social media games for all ages. His first game My Pet Rock, launched on Facebook in early 2011.

Baltimore colleges have fostered interest in the gaming industry, offering classes and programs to help prepare students looking to break into the video gaming business. The University of Baltimore offers a simulation and digital entertainment major , allowing students to study basic game design, 3-D modeling, computer programming, and animation.

Maryland Institute College of Art offers a game arts studio concentration as well as a joint video gaming class with the John Hopkins University. John Hopkins also offers a few separate video gaming classes, as well as a gaming lab where students can work on various gaming related initiatives at the school.

Video gaming is so popular at University of Maryland Baltimore County that the school received an honorable mention on Princeton Review's "Top Schools to Study Video Game Design for 2012." UMBC currently offers a concentration in animation and interactive media under the visual arts department, or a concentration in game development under the computer science major.

"Some students do go on to the games industry, but others continue to graduate school or into other industries where they can use the same skills. These are exactly the skills the game industry needs." said Marc Olano, UMBC's computer science undergraduate program director.

Haddock and Klimas hope their studio will continue to grow. The two are in the planning phases of their newest piece, which will be their sixth.

Many, many date nights have been scheduled.

"We would love to be doing this full time, and we'll keep doing what I can to make it happen," said Haddock. "In the meantime, there are still games to be made no matter what."

If you go

"Where We Are: Twofold Secret" is on view through March 30 at Current Space, 421 N. Howard St. Admission is free. For information, go to currentspace.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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