Why we didn’t end up opening a shared physical space [PGL-PM]

This is one post in a thread of post-mortem for PGL, but today is timely, since recently Gameforge Philly, which did open a shared space for game development, has now closed its doors. There are several reasons that we never opened a space here, and I’ll try to cover them all. None would have likely convinced me (because I’m just that stupid), had I not fallen ill as we were preparing for launch of the effort, and the wisest person I know told me that I would have to be mad to take on running a physical space and managing projects of the dozens of people we were hiring.

To begin with, we spent a year looking for a location that was both accessible and affordable, alongside a very patient and good natured board member with experience in the area. -This was 2012-2013. When I originally conceived the idea of pulling together a shared space, part of my thinking was that we could benefit from inexpensive real estate in Philadelphia. However, we also needed the buy-in of most extant game dev teams in the city, and some commuted. We came to understand that our location would not work for them if it were positioned more than one transit mode away from regional rail. Also, although it sounds weird now (and sort of was then, too), one team vetoed Fishtown as too sketchy. I spent a year looking for a space that met these requirements, and I know other folks who have pulled together co-working spaces who spent as long in their searches.

By that time, it was already hard to find appropriate cheap space. Also, as I met and spoke with so many people who owned and managed real estate, the scope of the task became increasingly clear. We finally found a space that was cheap enough, and in a great location, on Walnut at 22nd. It was cheap enough because it was owned by someone with vision, who bought into the concept, and wanted this sort of thing in his space. -Not because realistically the space could have been that cheap from a landlord only focused on revenue. Unfortunately, the space that we thought would be ready in two months, still wasn’t ready in twelve, and when we hit twelve months, we were told that Peco was requiring three-phase power to the building that could take another six months before full occupancy was authorized. We couldn’t wait any longer. Neither Peco, nor our landlord really did anything wrong in this, and both tried hard to be helpful, but we had to cancel the lease and start looking again.

This was the summer of 2013, and it was pretty frustrating, but the space we had signed for had begun to seem a bit unsuited for the sort of business model we expected to enable, so we weren’t torn up to be back in a fluid state. In the meantime, we had won a grant for nearly $400k from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that I’ll discuss further in another post. This funding was line-item dedicated to paying recent graduates of regional universities to doing work in game technology development. I had assumed that this would get us more help from others, especially the City of Philadelphia, but it did not. Jim Kenney and Mark Squilla were the only folks in government who seemed to have any interest in retaining graduates of top technical programs in the region.

This takes us to fall of 2013, just before we were to receive the state funding. I’l break here for a moment to describe elements of the shared-space that are difficult to align with game development in Philadelphia.

Shared spaces, like Indy Hall, charge membership rates that are as reasonable as they can possible be, but they are still an additional, incremental cost that one-person businesses cannot find trivial. However, Indy Hall forms an ecosystem that provides members with both a social environment they find compelling, and business opportunities that they would not have otherwise. This is an incredibly hard mix to get right. In terms of the social mix, you either need to be drawing from a potential audience that is large enough that you can find enough members who just fit in, or you need to be so compelling that everyone really wants to be part of this. Once the social aspect is covered, no matter how well that it done, the business logic has to be there. Indy Hall has that, in an organic and credible mix of developers who bring in work and know that they can share it with competent colleagues with whom they are aligned.

My thinking was that we could meet the business need by highlighting the talent of Philadelphia technologists and creatives to the game industry, and helping them to connect to new opportunities by aggregating resources; creating a space to which the industry could be directed. I did run this by a lot of industry folks, and all were supportive, feeling it would be worthwhile.  In retrospect, I don’t think this was a realistic perspective of whether such people could (or would want to) turn themselves around and re-form from other areas of expertise into being game developers. For the social element, we relied on the strong personalities of the existing game development teams

There is effectively no game industry presence in Philadelphia. In an assessment put together a few years ago, this city ranked #25 in per capita presence of game developers, of the 25 largest metro areas in North America. Problematically, if an individual is taking a $300 membership in a shared workspace in games here, it needs to effectively pay back $300, plus have the potential to do more than that. This is a very difficult thing to do in the game environment. If you look at General Assembly in NYC, which launched as the highest profile shared workspace in the world, it did not make the business aspect of sharing space work, instead it pivoted to become an education entity. I think that the people in its space were very interested the high level of credibility of GA, as well as in learning and advancing their careers, but they didn’t really need to be working together.

I would go so far as to say that it is impossible at this point to create a shared space in games in Philadelphia that would reliably benefit developers enough as to allow them to both pay $300 and earn a living. Most game developers here have to work at other jobs to survive. Speculatively, and probably controversially, I’d also say that I think that the time has probably passed when a new community of indie developers in games anywhere could form in such a space. It could happen in Austen, where there are enough experienced and unemployed developers at any point, that they could come together to shared benefit; but the nature of game creation is continually changing, and while app stores and Unity brought a bounty of opportunity for indie teams that will continue to some extent, the opportunity is not growing in that area.

If you look at the real volume of game development in Philadelphia, most of it, shockingly, is from the University of Pennsylvania. I know that Drexel shows up on lists of top game development schools, in large part because it wants to, and Penn really does not. Over the past few years, I’ve worked with well over a hundred students and recent grads from various top programs, and I’m aware of where they have gone after leaving us. Most of the Penn students go on to roles at major entities. -I now know a bunch of great people at places like Magic Leap and Playstation that I met while they were here. A lot of industry executives come out of Wharton; and both Wharton and the Graduate School of Education have top people in games. Drexel has some amazing students too, and the head of Westphal is one of the best people I could imagine. Some Drexel game students do go on to industry roles, but this is a smattering. Periodically I’ll see mention of the Drexel program as a center or bellwether of some sort in games (including in the context of GameForge closing), and it is a dynamic entity but it is not a bellwether, either locally or beyond.

Hence, we ended up pivoting, from being an entity that would bring together people later in their careers, as well as some extant dev teams, and a few students, to being an entity that was about working with the significant university talent base in games. Which brings us back to fall 2013.

In November of 2013, I was told that I had lung cancer, and then I found out that it was large, and then I eventually found out that it was slow-moving and I would have it removed over Christmas week. For a bunch of that time, I didn’t think I was likely to live to see much of the next year. I did, and am fine now, but it added to the stress of what had to be a January 2014 opening for PGL.

In November, Neil, who was on my board, and is both incredibly experienced in startups and kind, had been telling me that it was too big a task to launch a 30-person initiative in January, and also have a space fitted out, and also have members and/or tenants. So, then I had cancer too, which put me over the line; no shared workspace. However, we then had a problem, as we needed a space for ourselves, which put us back looking at workspaces, but now with ourselves as members. I had proposals from several spaces, and on our fixed budget, it was not easy to find an appropriate choice. We had a few proposals, and none of them seemed to provide us benefit or reasonable costs. The exception was from Mike Maher, at Benjamin’s Desk. His was detailed, flexible, and met our numbers. That, combined with knowing Mike, gave me confidence that whatever the issues, he was smart and moral enough to work through them with us. I also needed someone like him, who could work productively with PGL, even if I was not there. Hence, we signed, and I walked happily in to begin work at Benjamin’s Desk, still in bandages, a couple of weeks after surgery.