People here tend to start in the business for a simple reason -- they love the play and the work. Unfortunately, it can’t be forgotten that passion alone doesn’t pay the bills. Eastman, in particular, harbors fears about what Chicago’s development community will look like in a few years if it’s still forced to support itself from the inside. As rent increases all over, it will become harder for emerging and established independent developers to afford their apartments in, say, Lakeview, Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Pilsen, and Avondale. The city has very few grants available for the industry’s workers, so they’re forced to compete with each other in order to get the financial backing of larger studios and colleges.
Boyes and Lach, on the other hand, have a more optimistic view. Lach is very excited for what the next few years will bring, pointing to the fact that the Chicago arts scene at large is now beginning to get more and more involved with game-making. People with backgrounds in theatre, visual art, music, and animation are now joining up with established studios to bring new perspectives and expertise to the table, thanks to the pipeline that exists from colleges, smaller studios, and events like Bit Bash.
It’s a cycle that feeds itself, with those who have “made it” advising newcomers how best to move forward, and the younger crew later doing the same. The community here is so prolific and varied, if there’s another industry bust, game-makers can come together to prevent the kind of fall that happened in the early 2000s. “When you focus on the roots,” Lach says, “they last generations.”
Mortal Kombat, Gauntlet, NFL Blitz, and Rampage came to life thanks to attempts to innovate and bring something new to the table, with a careful eye towards what worked in the past. It’s likely the Second City will never truly rival San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Japan in terms of gaming dominance, but through sheer grit, determination, creativity, and teamwork, Chicago has established itself as a home for some of the best releases in recent years: Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, for instance, was Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Game of the Year back in 2013, and Season 3 of Iron Galaxy’s Killer Instinct was chosen as a nominee for Best Fighting Game at 2016’s The Game Awards.
Luckily, if you want to break into the field, you don’t have to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans or move out west. For starters, there’s Bit Bash’s February 22 event, “Filthy Pixels,” at Bottom Lounge. There will be booze, pop punk bands, playable adventures like Lesbian Spider-Queen of Mars, and the opportunity to truly see what makes the Chicago video game development scene so special -- its ragtag group of industry veterans, ambitious rookies, and everybody in between.