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Economy & Business

PA Video Game Industry Grows Along With Pittsburgh's Tech Economy

Schell Games
A screenshot of Schell Games' spy game, "I Expect You To Die."

The video game industry brought in $79 million in revenue in Pennsylvania in 2015, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Employment grew at a rate of nearly 5 percent that year and the industry directly and indirectly supported 1,200 Pennsylvania jobs at game developers, publishers and retail outlets.

A new report from the ESA, titled “Video Games in the 21st Century: The 2017 Report,” details growth in the industry nationwide.

Credit Schell Games
A screenshot of Schell Games' spy game "I Expect You To Die."

Total video game software sales exceeded $24.5 billion in 2016 and more than 65,000 people are currently employed by the industry.

Schell Games, which was founded in 2002 by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Jesse Schell, now employs more than 100 people at its Station Square offices, according to Chief Operating Officer Jake Witherell.

Witherell said the company has been cautious about growth, and does things a little differently than other game design companies.

“A lot of those studios will staff up to do a game and then they’ll cut staff after the game is released until they get the next game going. We don’t do that. We’ve never done layoffs,” Witherell said. “When we hire, we’re hiring not for a project, but for all of our projects and for the future.”

Witherell said the bulk of Schell Games’ projects are contract work for other companies, such as Disney, the Fred Rogers Company, Google and Facebook. But they have also developed their own games in-house, including the James Bond-esque game “I Expect You To Die” and the chemistry game “Happy Atoms.”

Credit Schell Games
Schell Games' chemistry game "Happy Atoms" uses both a digital app and a physical modeling set.

Witherell said the company typically has six to 10 projects in progress at any given time, but declined to share sales numbers.

“We’re still a small company, but we feel pretty good about our sales growth as well as our head count growth,” he said.

Schell’s founder also teaches at CMU’s Center for Entertainment Technology, from which Witherell said the company recruits about 35 percent of its workforce.

Rich Taylor, senior vice president of communications with the Entertainment Software Association, said CMU is producing some of the best young video game developers in the industry today.

“Young people are excited about this field and they look for a place to study, they find that place to study and if it happens to be in Pennsylvania or, if you want to talk more locally, in Pittsburgh, more often than not they may have connections and made decide to put down roots right there where they’ve studied,” he said.

Witherell said the growing ecosystem of technology companies in Pittsburgh has been a boon to Schell Games, making recruitment of new talent much easier.

“It’s only gotten better with the addition of tech companies coming into Pittsburgh,” he said. “So as Google and Disney Research and Uber have all come in, I think that makes it easier for people to make a decision to uproot their family and move to Pittsburgh because they see other opportunities here.”