More Than A Game | Kunal Patel and the Orlando Indie Game Community

By: Eric Wright

Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.

– Actor and Director Andy Serkis
(Gollum, Lord of the Rings, Caesar, Planet of the Apes and Supreme Leader Snoke, Star Wars VII)

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

Nowhere is this intersection of intelligence, creativity and fun more evident than among those who produce video games. But as one looks deeper, beyond the stunning graphics and images of gamers with a level of hand-eye coordination before only seen in fighter pilots, there is a development, or perhaps a movement, changing entertainment, sports and even education.

“People have a primal connection to the basic elements of video games, and this includes the desire to win, the need to gain skills and to continually move to a higher, more challenging level, while also learning from trial and error,” explained Kunal Patel, one of the region’s preeminent voices in the independent game development community. “All of these features are found in gaming, which is why we’re seeing what we call ‘gamification’ happening in so many sectors of our society. Surveys, enrollment processes, training new employees and even shopping are being adapted to a game platform, so what is typically routine and boring becomes entertaining and engaging.”

Patel believes that what many do not realize is there are few technical endeavors more challenging than game development. “You must solve a host of problems at every stage while bringing together a very diverse group of individuals, from computer scientists and coders, to artists, actors and musicians, all working to create this authentic, immersive experience,” he added. “It’s fun, but far from simple.”

A Driver of Innovation

Most technology is created for a certain purpose. The Internet, for example, was intended to be a way to share research between universities but evolved into something completely different and unexpected.

According to Patel, in the earliest days of computers, computer researchers and engineers started experimenting with games, mainly in their free time. In time, gaming became one of the catalysts for significant discovery and the evolution of the technology.

“If all we needed was to produce spreadsheets or monitor gauges, would we have pursued the development of faster and faster processors and increased memory storage at the pace they’ve been progressed?” he asked rhetorically. “The progress was driven largely by the computer gaming industry, which in turn enabled solutions to real-world problems in business and industry, from self-driving cars to image recognition technology and software.”

Within the video game world, Orlando has a growing reputation. It is the home of EA Tiburon, the game development center located in Maitland. The studio is best known for producing the Madden NFL series of games, along with NCAA Football, NBA Live, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour and many more. This success goes along with the modeling, simulation and training industry found primarily in east Orlando around the University of Central Florida, as well as the university’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA), located downtown.

FIEA has been ranked the best video game graduate school in the country by Princeton Review and PC Gamer magazine. FIEA, and the other talent generator, Full Sail University, has made the area a breeding ground not only for these large organizations, but also for a host of indie game development studios.

This is the community in which Patel has been catalytic in uniting and providing opportunities for collaboration and enrichment.

Big and Growing

Aside from the impetus the video game market provides for technology advancements, it is also lucrative. According to VentureBeat.com, the American technology website, and NewZoo.com, which provides market intelligence on the video game business, the global game market will grow to $108.9 billion in 2017. Of that, mobile games will enjoy a $37 billion market share, which may explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen on a $5 million Super Bowl ad for the game Mobile Strike.

Aside from the major publishers like Nintendo, Valve Corporation, Rockstar Games, Electronic Arts, Sony and Microsoft, there is an aggressive and global indie community. Remember where Facebook ($435 billion) and Uber ($60 billion) got started. These ultra creative and nimble small studios are like prospectors panning for digital gold, and strikes are more common than one might think.

Patel is that rare combination of one who is enthralled with technology and science, while also being equally passionate about art and creativity. He grew up in a somewhat depressed area of Detroit, but was privileged to have teachers who were committed to providing every opportunity they could and parents who were hard working and entrepreneurial. His parents later moved to the suburbs, where he excelled academically, and eventually they moved to Florida.

He attended the University of Miami “to become a doctor, like any good Indian,” he said laughing. But medicine just did not have the appeal, and he switched to computer science, which provided a creative power and opportunity that appealed to his imaginative bent and entrepreneurial DNA.

His entrepreneurial inclination took him around the world as a software specialist and consultant. Patel considers this period his on-the-job MBA, first learning and then improving every sector of the businesses he worked in, from process flow and executive management, to corporate psychology and sales strategy.

Landing In Orlando

His dream was always to form a video game studio. One of his best friends from UM, Kenneth Pariser, graduated from FIEA and wanted the same thing. Together they formed Phyken Media, which eventually “morphed” into Orlando Game Space. It was the first in a series of companies Patel would be involved in launching, working with Marco Williams on Hashbang Games and Moody Mattan at BrandVR.

As he and his friends chased their dreams, Patel realized there was a dynamic indie community in Orlando, but it was not connected in any practical way, and the region was basically the farm system for talent that migrated to game companies in other areas. “The best game produced here doesn’t get near the traction of a mediocre game produced in some places in California,” he said.

In 2012, he participated in a startup weekend, a great introduction to the broader entrepreneurial community, and he decided to bring a national game jam event (game creation concentrated into a 48-hour hackathon) to Orlando. Over 100 people showed up, and 10 projects were created at the January 2013 event. But the real takeaway was game developers met other game developers who they did not know before.

Out of that, Patel and a group of individuals launched IndieNomicon, a monthly meetup of game developers and gamers creating opportunities for exposure and meaningful connections between game developers, fans and media. There were 20 people at the first meeting, 30 at the second, then 50. The meetup outgrew one venue after another and eventually moved to the Melrose Center at the Orlando Public Library. Since then, it has consistently drawn more than 100 people every month, while giving both developers and enthusiasts the opportunity to beta test and give feedback on new games.

After one of the IndieNomicon meetups, Patel was talking with friends about how, when he was young, the space industry was so fascinating to him, but somehow it lost its luster and no one he knew was even connected to the Space Center. From that conversation came another annual event, focused on linking thought leaders at the Space Center with the gaming community in Central Florida — the Indie Galactic Space Jam, which will have its fourth reiteration this month.

Patel continues to blaze trails in the world of virtual and augmented reality, while also finding time to serve as director of innovation for the phenomenally successful credit card processing company Fattmerchant. As the gaming and simulation industry grows and diversifies, Orlando, Patel and the area’s game development community are positioned to catch the growth wave of this remarkable industry.

Kunal helped link thought leaders at the Space Center with the gaming community in Central Florida; the result was the Indie Galactic Space Jam, which will have its fourth reiteration this month.

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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  • Wow! It is great to read about the Orlando community’s growing video gaming industry. There are also several board game startups here. Though the board game industry is growing it is still significantly smaller than video games.