Heartland Series: Q&A with Chris Volpe, CEO of Multivarious
This month, ESA asked Chris Volpe, CEO of Multivarious in Columbus, Ohio, about his experiences in the video game industry, the types of games and technologies his studio focuses on, and why he thinks Columbus could be the next Silicon Valley.
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 bit about yourself and how you got your start in the video game industry?
A: I have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and photography from the Ohio State University (OSU) and then I went back to school for a master’s degree in healthcare. I was in the healthcare industry for about seven or eight years before I started working at Multivarious full-time. I worked at the Ohio State University Medical Center and my job there was to look at technologies. I worked with a lot of businesses and start-ups to see if there was a healthcare application for it. While I was doing that, I wanted to develop a couple app ideas I had, so I worked for Multivarious on the side. Towards the end of my time at OSU, I was working full-time at OSU and full-time at Multivarious. In January 2013, I started full-time at Multivarious. I was employee number one responsible for hiring new people. Multivarious started out as sort of the commercialization arm of our community group, the Central Ohio Gamedev Group (COGG). It was designed to help members of COGG come together to finalize projects and get them out to the market. Both Multivarious and COGG were started before I joined.
Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Multivarious? What kinds of games and technology does Multivarious produce?
A: We have three pillars. First is internal IP; the games and apps that we make that cover a wide variety of games in many spaces, including a game called Hatch-It! which is about three years old now on mobile. We have another game we’re working on right now called No Mercy, which was successfully kickstarted earlier this year and is a scroller beat ‘em up brawler that we’re hoping to have out next year. We’ll also occasionally work on internal projects or websites.
Our second pillar is our client services work where we work with corporations – typically larger corporations like OSU, MasterCard, Nationwide Children’s Hospitals – and in that sphere, we do a lot of stuff in healthcare and communication where we work on platforms, mobile, PC, and lately, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). We try to help others take their products from their inception to the commercialization stage.
For example, we’ve been working with Nationwide Children’s Hospital for over four years on a research therapy app for kids with muscular dystrophy. That app is now in clinical trials all over the world and we are now in the process of getting FDA approval. We are working on an AR vision app for people on the Visual Service Plan (VSP) with visual insurance providers. We’re working on an app that showcases different eye diseases because now people, in their mobile eye clinic, don’t have access to modern technology and often have to deal with cardboard cutouts that are used to mimic eye conditions. They wanted to create something in VR or AR that allows for more feedback. Imagine having a physician talk to you about your eye condition and your eye health with different tips and treatment options you can use. You can put this device on instead of looking at que cards and understand how your condition will affect your eyesight if treatment is ignored, prompting you to look at your child’s face and see the degenerative process that will take place. That app is currently in beta.
Our third pillar is our community. I mentioned COGG, which is something we host, support, and run. Two of the three administrators of COGG are Multivarious employees and we host them out of our office and pay all the expenses to keep that going. That has become a really big group. We’re about to break 1,400 members!
Another thing we do is GDEX, a big gaming and technology expo that we throw. I haven’t crunched the numbers for it this year but we’re probably in the 1,500-1,800 unique attendees range, and at last count, we had people from 21 states and three countries come to GDEX. It’s an all-weekend event that’s designed to allow people to connect, share, and learn about the industry. Last year was year five, we’ve been doing that for a while at the Columbus Convention Center, which gives us over 70,000 square feet of event space. We had over 65 speaking and learning exhibits.
The newest thing we started is called the Sandbox, which is a collaborative space for people who are interested in the gaming and tech space. If you’re an individual or you have a company, you can become a member of this venture. We provide you with expertise, as well as connect you to our small business owners and give you access to our lawyers, give you healthcare benefits, branding, all the kind of stuff you’d need to start up a company. Everybody in our ecosystem gets discounted rates from our business partners. We are also strategically partnered with the Columbus Idea Foundry, one of the world’s largest maker-spaces. It’s about 60,000 square feet and the Sandbox takes up a quadrant of that on the second floor.
Q: It sounds like Multivarious is very active in terms of community outreach. Are there other initiatives you’d like to add?
A: One of the things we realized when we started doing Multivarious as a full-time business is that in Columbus and in Ohio there wasn’t a lot of support for our industry. Columbus is a very tech-driven city, we’re very progressive in a lot of ways, but we’re also a city that’s focused on service jobs and our biggest money-makers, which have always been healthcare, insurance, banking, and big technology companies. So, when we started doing our stuff, it became obvious very quickly that we were not going to get support from the city, the banks, or investors. That started us off knowing we would have to band together to accomplish it. We’ve spent the past six years building out our own infrastructure and things we need to be successful. It’s like “hey, let’s throw an expo.” We’ll bring in industry people who would not normally come to Columbus, allowing us to showcase what we’re working on and it allows me to connect with other people. I go to a lot of the expos. I’ll go to the GDC, PAX, and other shows and my main goal there is to meet people. In Columbus, there aren’t a lot of developers walking around the street. Last year at the GDEX show, we had people from Microsoft, PlayStation, Sony, and Blizzard come, so we had a lot of different people from a lot of different areas. All these people are from conferences I’ve met or come through networking. Our ultimate goal here at Multivarious is to build and grow the industry in Columbus, Ohio.
Q: Have you seen any changes since you created these events? Do you think there is more interest now from investors and the community?
A: I think there is a lot more interest, but our biggest issue is the culture. We are an industry that a lot of people don’t know anything about. So, when I go to GDC and people ask about Multivarious, I say “we’re a game and app company and we’re trying to build this industry.” They kind of already get that but when I walk around Columbus, for example, and explain to people what I do, I need about 15-20 minutes of follow-up to get people up to speed. Those people don’t know how big the games industry is and when I tell them it’s bigger than the movie and entertainment industries, it blows their mind.
I’m 36 and anyone my age or younger kind of already intrinsically understands games, but people who are older and do not have any experience with them do not know how to approach it. Games aren’t as accessible as movies. So, I think we have that accessibility problem in this industry, but there has been a lot of interest in the area. Investors are still slow to get on board, but I work with all the major investment groups in Columbus. We just had the investment tour bus event, Rise of the Rest, come into Columbus last week and they came up to our office and we gave them a demo of what we’re working on and they had interest in following up. We’re also working on a proposal right now for an economic and workforce development initiative working with public and private partners to get a $10 million investment in Multivarious to build out the games and entertainment industry in Ohio.
Q: How did you choose Columbus as your headquarters?
A: I was born in Columbus. My dad was in the military so I lived on the base in the Philippines for a few years. I was in Rhode Island for a few years before coming back to Columbus. I’ve been in the city for the majority of my life. Columbus is interesting and people don’t give it much credit or thought, but it’s the 15th largest city in the country and is roughly the same size as San Francisco by like 20,000-30,000 people.
We also have a very young and creative demographic, we have a lot of people interested in art and music. We have a great food scene here and we have a really strong IT infrastructure. Columbus has the most IP addresses per capita in the country, so we have all of the tech needs you have. We have this insane talent pool I can draw from for Multivarious when other developers fight for them. I have all these people who are interested in the industry, but I don’t have the resources to hire them. Multivarious is six full-time people and five part-time people. I hire maybe one or two people per year because I can’t keep up with the number of people graduating with computer science degrees or animation degrees or audio designers. I think Columbus is well-situated from a talent pool perspective to grow this industry. We’re about a 12-hour drive or a two-hour flight to 70 percent of the US population, so we’re a good option for a lot of people. We have a lot of people who are willing to take risks and do cool things, but our top-level institutionalized organizations are still very risk-averse. This is a very progressive city, but we’re still surrounded by a lot of agriculture and manufacturing, so we still drift back towards those industries and thought processes because we’re familiar with this way of thinking in the state.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the Central Ohio Gamedev Group? What’s its mission and how can people participate?
A: COGG is designed to be a way for people who are interested in game development to come together and learn from each other, share what they’re working on, and get help if they need it. Our typical meetings are typically four or five hours long on the first Saturday of the month and we start out with presentations. Every quarter, I give a state of Ohio’s video game industry talk, walking people through our demographics, our finances, and other things like that, but our talks can be about anything.
Sometimes people talk about the types of projects they’re working on and showcase it for feedback. Other times we’ll have special guests talk about something and we’re looking to include virtual presentations. Through GDEX, I’ve met tons of people who would love to give presentations, but aren’t in Ohio, and this would give them a good option to do so. We’re starting to work on Skype presentations with industry leaders as well. After that, meetings turn into meet-and-greets offering attendees the chance to talk about their projects and get feedback. If you go to the COGG website, you can get more information. Every second Friday of the month we host a Prototype and Play event where people come and set up their stations with games for beta testing to get feedback on their games. We also host Franklinton Fridays. Franklinton is a traditionally economically-depressed area the Sandbox is located in, offering opportunities to businesses trying to build up the area.
Q: Can you tell us about your involvement in the Ohio Business of Games Summit?
A: The Ohio Business of Games Summit is something we’ve been talking about for a while and Ohio University decided to spearhead the event. This is the first iteration and moving forward we’re looking into moving it to spring, but it’s going to be that thing where all the industry thought leaders in the industry in Ohio will come together to plan how to grow the industry. This year was the first year to open the door and get it going, but we want to continue it and make it our summit to make the industry stronger.
Q: What is your advice for aspiring developers who want to have a successful career?
A: I’ll give two pieces of advice or maybe three. Number one is just keep making stuff. A lot of times people get caught up thinking they need to make the perfect game the first time, but don’t focus on that, just make stuff. If you have a full-time job or are a student, carve out some time after-hours to make something and work on a project either by yourself or on a team and it can really be simple. Do tick-tac-toe, do checkers, do chess, do all those kinds of games. Use other people’s app creators to get your games done as quickly as possible. Just keep learning and keep creating, don’t focus on creating a game that sells millions of copies. Starting out, your goal should be to learn as much as possible as quickly as you can.
The second thing is go to conferences and events like COGG. Go to expos and conventions. Go to places where you can network and meet people and I realize that is not always easy. I’m an introvert and most nights would love to go home and stay on the couch and I think game developers in general tend to be more introverted but you can’t just sit in your room and create your game expecting that to be it. You have to network and keep meeting people, which will save you a ton of time. The larger part is once you grow your network making new friends, they’re going to be able to help you beta test, give you solid ideas, and help you with marketing and branding. You can get in touch with influencers on YouTube who will promote your game when it’s ready. You can’t get that done when you’re sitting in your room only making your game. Even just going to a couple conferences a year is enough. Find something near you. No matter where you are, within a two or three-hour drive, there will probably be a conference or expo you can spend a weekend at and start to make friends and learn about stuff.
Q: What is your favorite video game of all time and why?
A: My favorite game is Chrono Trigger. I played that a ton and have probably put more hours into that game than any other except maybe The Witcher 3, which took forever. In 1995, I was 14 or 15, I fell in love with the game and I played it on Super Nintendo constantly and actually went back to play it on the PS Vita a few years ago and I think it’s just a fantastic, charming, and well-designed game. It’s starting to get a resurgence, which is awesome, but I think a lot of the younger audience is asking “what is this Chrono Trigger I keep hearing about?”
Q: Tell us what you like best about your job.
A: I think our job is awesome! I think whenever you start something, it’s awesome. I’m speaking from a purely start-up, entrepreneur aspect of video games companies because we don’t have AAA companies here in Ohio, so your experience may be different where you live, but for us, having the ability to work on whatever we want is amazing.
Also, on our client development side, we get approached by clients all the time who want to do really weird, interesting stuff, so Multivarious has become known as the place to go when no other dev shop wants to work on your project because it’s so weird or they don’t have the skillset to do it. That’s especially true in the healthcare space and it’s cool because a lot of our projects are things no one’s ever done before. Right now, we’re working on an AR sandbox for a client and like literally there’s one other group, which is a university, in the US that has made something like this. You kind of just have to jump in. We’re constantly learning, constantly using new technology, and are always exploring and learning new things, asking for feedback. It’s just a lot of fun to be in that position but it’s not for everyone. Owning your own business is a difficult and scary endeavor and you need support systems in place to help you out along the way. This is not a nine-to-five job, it’s full of long hours and is something that requires your full attention, sometimes going until 10 or 11 p.m. each day and you work on many many Saturdays and Sundays because that’s what you have to do. If you learn those skills and become more efficient to make you a good entrepreneur, there’s no telling what you can accomplish. It’s pretty cool too, I was coming into work the other day wearing a t-shirt for our game No Mercy and realized most of my wardrobe comprises of clothing with our branding or projects on them, which is really cool and is certainly not something you find working at other places.
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