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Heartland Series: Q&A with SynaptixGames Studio Director Robert Madsen

madsenThis month, ESA spoke with SynaptixGames Studio Director Robert Madsen about the company’s focus on Virtual Reality (VR), as well as its newly released science fiction VR game Day of Destruction.

Edited for brevity not content.

Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the Heartland Series features interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the video game industry?

A: I have been a programmer all my life. I started in 1979, but around 2004, I decided I wanted to do something more challenging than what I had been doing all that time and video games fit the bill perfectly. I have always been a gamer. I love video games and I always wanted to write video games. I decided to make the change and do whatever it took to be able to program video games instead of just focusing on business applications.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of SynaptixGames? What types of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: I started SynaptixGames after I had worked with other game studios in Dallas and Canada, but I wanted to work in Grand Junction, Colorado, where my family lives. I had already been running my own software business for business applications, so it was a slight switch then to begin focusing on video games. I founded SynaptixGames in 2011 and, as a contract game studio, we have written games for just about every platform out there, including mobile, web-based platforms, PC-based platforms, and consoles. Virtual reality (VR) is the latest and greatest thing we’ve been tackling.

Q: You said VR is a new area of focus for the studio. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio’s experience adopting a new technology? What has that been like?

A: It is a two-fold process. When we have clients that are coming to us with their ideas, they tend to ask for a specific type of experience on whatever the new thing is. About three years ago, we saw VR coming as the next big thing, so even before we had clients asking for VR we had already dove in. We started with Gear VR and started making our first game on that, and since then, we have had clients coming to us for VR projects. It was kind of a serendipitous thing because we had the experience and were taking clients who needed VR applications. Over the last three years we’ve created games for the Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive.

Q: Can you tell us more about your recent projects? We saw that the studio is releasing a new science fiction VR game called Day of Destruction.

A: There’s a cool story behind that. When we got our hands on our first Gear VR Innovator Edition about three years ago, there was a contest and we decided to use that as an impetus to get started. We actually created the first prototype of Day of Destruction on the Samsung Gear VR in about four weeks and submitted it for the contest. Since then, we’ve been continuously working on it, keeping in mind that our own projects can’t interfere with our contract projects. So, we spent about 20 percent of our time working on Day of Destruction over the last three years. Ultimately, we decided, because of the visual quality that we wanted, we would continue to develop the game on higher-end systems like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. So, we just released this game on January 17 on Steam (store.steampowered.com/) for the HTC Vive.

Q: What has the reaction been to the game? Did you hear back from fans?

A: Yes, we have! I think one of our biggest gauges of the game’s popularity is the YouTube channels that test out the game for their fans. Across five different YouTube channels, we’ve had over 100,000 views of the game and almost all of the reviews were full of excitement and were positive. So far, the feedback we’ve gotten has been good and we had a review from a VR-focused company that was positive. We have already sold a lot of units on Steam so we’re very excited! For a studio like us, it’s about our efforts to keep going and to get the game’s name out there as much as possible.

Q: You founded the studio with your son Stephen. How do you think SynaptixGames benefits from being a multigenerational family operation?

A: We benefit a lot from this. This is the way I look at it: I have a lot of experience in all kinds of levels of software development and project planning that I bring to the table from a lifetime of doing this. Stephen, who is obviously younger than I am, has much keener insight into the modern gamer. So, when we put these two talents together, we come out with a better product. We’re both coders at heart, so we both program the games and can come to each other if one gets stuck or needs to get through a particular technical hurdle. We’re really good at bouncing ideas off each other to get through that. We work well together and we treat each other as equals, which allows us to accomplish a lot together.

Q: Do you play video games together too?

A: Yes, we do. He’s so much better than I am, so every now and then, he brings his skill level down so dad can enjoy it! Along that line, he has three kids of his own, so very often it’s dad, son, and grandson or granddaughter playing video games together.

Q: Why did you choose Grand Junction, Colorado, for your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to video game companies?

A: The main reason we chose Grand Junction was because it’s where we already lived, it’s where my family is. We moved here from California in 1992. We like Grand Junction because it’s a wonderful place for outdoor activity, for hiking, biking, skiing. It’s really a great place to live. Because of the technology that exists today, it really doesn’t matter where we live as a tech company because we get clients from all over the world and technology allows us to work with anyone without the need to be located in a particular place.

Q: Are there any community engagement projects that the company takes part in, such as partnerships with local schools or building a support system for local entrepreneurs?

A: Yes, and in fact, we just had a tour of our studio for five counselors from the local school district. We reach out to both the high schools and the local university in the area and we want them to know that we have interns at both the high school and college level, who can come in and get on-the-job, real-world experience. We also utilize the workforce center here as a resource for finding technically-skilled people. We are very involved with the community, especially in the educational and technical fields, because we want to send students the message that they can participate and contribute to this industry right here in Grand Junction where they live. The city is not a large metropolis like Denver, but we do have a pretty thriving tech community.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: There are two things I really like. I always loved programming and I like the fact that I can make things and solve problems. Making games is the perfect symbiosis of those two things. Not only am I solving problems, but I’m creating whole new worlds in the process! What I also love about my job is that I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do and create things I can see develop right before my eyes. Another thing I love about games is sharing them with other people. For example, when we show Day of Destruction to people, to someone who’s never experienced VR, there’s this “wow” moment where they’re so excited. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Q: What is your favorite video game of all time?

A: Beyond a doubt, the Halo series is my favorite. First of all, I love science fiction and I think Halo is one of the best science fiction games ever made, but also particularly because I was able to finish it.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: I actually talk to potential students a lot about this at schools. The first thing that people have to understand is that the video game industry is a multi-disciplinary industry that involves technical skills, such as programming; artistic skills, such as 2D and 3D art and modelling; and even social skills. For example, the people who design games often come from liberal arts backgrounds. So, my advice is always learn everything you can about the industry, but then find out which of these three big categories – programming, art, and design – really grabs you or that you have a passion about, and pursue an education in that area. So, if you want to be a programmer, you need to pursue a computer science degree. If you want to pursue art, you need to get a degree in 3D art and modelling. If you want to be a designer, it’s a little harder to nail down, but you should still be pursuing a degree in something in the liberal arts like history of sociology because the key is most companies in the industry want to hire someone with a bachelor’s degree and they want someone with a formal education.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I think the cool thing that we like to let people know is you can make video games wherever you are. It’s a little bit harder for someone who’s just entering the field, and in fact, if you are, you’ll probably have to go where the big hubs are, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin or Boston. But don’t forget you can make games wherever you are. Ultimately, that’s what we did. We decided if we’re going to make games in Grand Junction, Colorado, we’re going to do it on our own. When I worked for different studios, it was hard work and sometimes required long hours, but from all the experience I gained, I was able to take that same amount of work and passion to make games where I lived and wanted to. So, that’s my message. Also, you’re never too old to get started in games. I started at 45!

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