Not all fun and (video) games

Big Huge Games in Timonium closed last May, taking nearly 100 jobs with it. Nine months later, a local studio that was launched from the ashes of the video game-maker shut down, too. And Zynga, which created FarmVille and Words with Friends, closed its Baltimore County office several weeks ago.

So why aren't local game developers freaking out?

They're used to volatility — not this much, but quite a bit. And even with big game-makers facing tough competition and multimillion-dollar costs, tiny independent studios are popping up locally to take advantage of new opportunities in mobile and online gaming — and new ways of raising money to get games made.

"The industry moves really quickly," said Brian Reynolds, who co-founded three studios in Baltimore County and is working on funding to launch a fourth. "Things come and go. ... The technology's evolving, the platform is evolving and the market is changing for what kinds of games you do. Fortunately, it's broadening — you can make games for more and more people. But it's a turbulent industry."

Todd Marks thinks it's being turned upside down — here and elsewhere. He's got a newcomer's perspective: His mobile app and Web development company, Catonsville-based Mindgrub, launched a games division a year and a half ago to exploit the rise in mobile gaming.

Demand is growing, he said, and Mindgrub Games now has more than a dozen employees. He predicts market shifts will not be kind to the more traditional studios making big-budget "AAA games" for consoles and computers.

"That market got so terribly disrupted with mobile that they're on their way out," said Marks, Mindgrub's CEO. "It's now an indie market. ... But give it a couple years — when that market matures, companies like Mindgrub Games will be the next AAA studio."

It's not an easy market to forecast, given the speed of technological changes. Even measuring its current size is tricky.

Market-research firm NPD Group estimates U.S. consumers spent $14.8 billion last year on video games, including smartphone games, and says that represents a 9 percent drop from the year before.

But game developers insist the count fails to capture all spending because new growth areas, including mobile games and online game downloads, are so hard to track. A separate report from the consulting firm PwC suggests that global sales of console and PC games have fallen in recent years but growth in online and wireless game sales is more than compensating.

PwC predicts that console-game sales will partially rebound when the next generation of consoles comes out. (NPD says gamers might have "a case of 'console fatigue.' ") The PlayStation 4 is due for release before the end of the year.

As squishy as the sales numbers might be, the local economic impact of the industry is even murkier. Though Baltimore leaders believe the region has the largest game-development cluster on the East Coast, no one can say with certainty how many people work in it — let alone how that compares with the past.

The most recent attempt to measure the industry was three years ago. A report for the state Department of Business and Economic Development said digital media, including but not limited to games, employed about 32,000 people in Maryland.

Plenty has changed since then.

Big Huge Games closed in May, a victim of the implosion of parent company 38 Studios. The Rhode Island firm, started by former major league pitcher Curt Schilling, went belly up after reportedly running out of money — despite a $75 million economic-development loan guarantee from that state.

North Carolina-based Epic Games quickly launched Impossible Studios in Hunt Valley to take advantage of the suddenly out-of-work talent, assigning a team of 40 to work on an iPad game. But that arrangement proved short-lived.

"It was a bold initiative and the Impossible folks made a gallant effort, but ultimately it wasn't working out for Epic," company founder Tim Sweeney said in a blog post in February, announcing the closure.

Later that month, social-game firm Zynga — which has struggled with concerns about its revenue model — said it shut down its Timonium studio as part of a broader consolidation. Zynga's stock price closed at $3.36 a share Friday, well off its peak near $15 a share about a year ago.

Whether market disruption played a key role in the closures is unclear. Some local leaders don't see it that way.

"It's not a sign of a great sea change," said Matt Firor, president of ZeniMax Online, which opened in 2008 as the multiplayer online game arm of Rockville parent ZeniMax Media. "It's just that things happen in this industry."

But the shakeout reduced Baltimore County's sizable studios to three, all in or near Hunt Valley:

•ZeniMax Online, which is several years into a project based on the popular Elder Scrolls universe and employs hundreds — the company won't give an exact number.

•The approximately 100-employee Firaxis Games, perhaps best known for its Civilization series, whose co-founder Sid Meier helped launch the local game industry in the 1980s.

•BreakAway, a 40-person shop that focuses on instructional multiplayer products such as medical training and crisis management.

Less sizable but growing is the local operation of, maker of the World of Tanks online game. Wargaming bought a local studio in January to enter the console-game market.

The company, which has its headquarters on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, employs about 15 in Hunt Valley and is expanding, said Denny Thorley, general manager of Wargaming's offices there and in Chicago.

And then there are the indies. A variety of small game-development startups have launched locally in the past few years — some full-time efforts, some evening-and-weekend labors of love.

Among them: Twofold Secret, a two-person shop whose fifth release will be a strategy game set in a summer camp "straight out of an '80s horror movie." There's also Discord Games, a four-man operation turning to funding website Kickstarter to raise money for its in-development computer game about a soldier trapped in a mining town. And there's Pure Bang Games in Highlandtown, whose nine full-time employees have found a market making social and mobile games for clients — including other game-makers.

Discord Games founder James Petruzzi lives in Owings Mills. The rest of the gang is elsewhere: Pennsylvania, Texas, Brazil. They make it work with Skype, the Internet call service. And they hire out on contract when necessary — their poster artist lives in New Zealand.

"It's just crazy to think we're working with people all over the world," said Petruzzi, who left a computer-programming job — not at a studio — to pursue his dream of game development in 2011.

Advances in technology are driving indie growth in other ways, too. While console games can run into the tens of millions of dollars to make, high-quality mobile games can be produced for tens of thousands, said Ben Walsh, head of the three-year-old Pure Bang Games.

"Mobile is an equalizer," said Walsh, whose company's My Pet Rock game on Facebook amassed 50,000 likes and attracted more than half a million players. "If your game can go viral, you can totally be successful on your own, just as a small team."

The downside to fewer jobs at larger, established studios is fewer jobs with health insurance and 401(k)s. Some of the developers laid off last month have left town — San Francisco-based Zynga relocated about half of its Timonium employees.

Gabriel Pendleton, president of BaltimoreGamer, a website for game developers and players, worries about a brain drain to San Francisco and other places that have more big-name studios.

But optimism seems to be in larger supply than anxiety.

"I know quite a few people who are still in limbo now, especially after the Zynga closing, but I don't hear from many of them a sense of unease about their future," said Marc Olano, director of the computer-science game development track at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "In fact, some of them are talking about, 'Well, maybe now is the time to start an indie game.' "

Don Goddard, CEO of indie game-maker UFO Studios, calls this the most tumultuous period in his 20 years in the industry. And he's jazzed about it. He thinks the market shifts are custom-made for small, nimble developers.

"It's a phenomenal time because it's the classic American thing, which is opportunity," said Goddard, based just north of Baltimore County in Stewartstown, Pa. "I think Maryland will actually double its quantity of quality game developers."