Carlsbad Levels Up: City Wins its Place as Ideal ‘Sandbox’ for Game DevelopmentJuly 18, 2019
The city of Carlsbad is an attractive destination for those who love to play with seven miles of pristine coastline, 13 community parks, and Carlsbad Village – an eclectic mix of downtown eateries and boutique merchants walking distance from sunsets over the Pacific Ocean . With all of these fun features and a reputation as “the place for creative people in tech,” it’s no wonder Carlsbad has emerged as a mini-hub for an industry dedicated to entertainment and play.
Carlsbad has become a hotbed for video game development, which, on a global scale, is expected to generate more than $152 billion in revenue in 2019. The console market soared in the late 1990’s following the release of Sony’s PlayStation and later, Microsoft’s Xbox. Big publishers and studios descended across the region and North County was booming with game development. Like other tech industries, gaming faced a series of market shifts. Through it all, a tight-knit community of developers and entrepreneurs emerged, many of whom remain in Carlsbad and continue to advance the future gaming.
Carlsbad welcomes the energy and ingenuity that game companies bring to the city and considers their presence a beacon for up and coming tech professionals.
“Having a mini-hub of gaming adds a creative dynamic to our diverse tech profile,” said Christie Marcella, Carlsbad’s Economic Development Manager. “Gaming companies are an exciting way to entice students and young professionals to consider a Carlsbad tech future, which can then serve as a door to opening their eyes to the breadth of technology careers available locally.”
Location Contributes to Work/Life Balance, Culture and Recruiting
Last year, Carlsbad was named one of the top 20 game-changing places to live by Sunset Magazine, which recognized West Coast cities beaming with innovation, opportunity, and a better way of life – the same qualities that attract video game companies to the region, particularly those that value work/life balance and a more relaxed company culture.
Shane Nakamura, who heads Carlsbad’s Jam City studio as VP of Creative Development, appreciates Carlsbad’s laid-back “beachy” vibe and central location, both of which he considers advantageous when courting and retaining talent.
“Carlsbad is pretty much the perfect central location for our (gaming) studio’s employees, many of whom are North County-based,” he said. “But we’ve also got folks coming down from Orange County and up from as far south as Chula Vista, so Carlsbad is a great middle point. And the fact that the city happens to have excellent beaches, great food, and a strong tech/gaming community makes it even better.”
With South Carlsbad State Beach Campgrounds, 67 miles of hiking trails and numerous miles of bike paths, Carlsbad has a lot to offer outdoor enthusiasts and those seeking an active, coastal lifestyle. In fact, the city has committed to preserving nearly 40 percent open space, more than any of its neighboring North County cities.
These qualities make Carlsbad an attractive place for young tech professionals seeking a slower-paced, better quality of life. Carlsbad’s location within Southern California also allows game companies to tap into the creative LA market.
“San Diego’s North County is very attractive,” said Peter Della Penna, CEO of High Moon Studios. “We get a lot of people who just don’t want to be in Los Angeles or Orange County. Carlsbad has a lot to offer and people really want to come here.”
Ready to see what your career could look like in Carlsbad? The city’s Life in Action LinkedIn page explores companies, careers, and the Carlsbad lifestyle. For a deeper dive into the city’s gaming companies, read on as we highlight the corporate culture and achievements of this creative industry.
High Moon Studios Is Riding 17 Year Wave
High Moon Studios (formerly Sammy Studios) was founded in 2002 and develops action games for console and PC. In 2006, the company was acquired by Vivendi Universal Games and now operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Activision Blizzard.
Best known for its Call of Duty and The Bourne Conspiracy titles, High Moon operates independently under Activision Publishing, which handles the production and distribution of video games from its development studios. While High Moon does collaborate with other Activision studios, it functions autonomously.
In 2007, Della Penna was plucked from the publishing side of Vivendi and appointed CEO of High Moon Studios. “I’ve worked in LA, NYC, and Seattle, and Carlsbad by far is the best place I’ve ever lived and worked,” he said. “Carlsbad offers a better quality of life. It’s a friendly, active environment and isn’t nearly as constrained as other places I’ve lived and worked.”
High Moon wants its people to be happy and creative, and to feel at home while at work. The studio provides catered lunches and puts a lot of thought into the type of food and snacks it makes available to employees. In addition to an on-site gym, High Moon offers yoga classes and weekly massage therapists to contribute to the wellness of employees.
The studio also takes full advantage of Carlsbad’s great parks and abundant outdoor space. “We host two company picnics a year in local parks and people really enjoy that time together,” Della Penna said. “We participate weekly in a frisbee football league and we have a number of surfers who bring their boards to work and hit the water in the morning or at lunch. We work very hard to maintain an active lifestyle and family-oriented culture and being in Carlsbad contributes to that effort.”
In an industry with a reputation for being male-centric, High Moon’s employee roster is refreshingly diverse. While cognizant of the importance of diversity, Della Penna said the work and creativity have always come first and the company’s diversity has evolved rather organically.
“We have always maintained an open culture and there is value in assembling teams with different experiences and viewpoints,” he said. “Our studio’s diversity is really the natural result of following our core passion to do good work and hire the very best people.”
Below we take a glimpse of other local gaming studios and how they have found success in Carlsbad.
Jam City Settles in at MAKE
Founded in 2010 by MySpace co-founder and CEO Chris DeWoulfe and former 20th Century Fox executive Josh Yguado, Jam City has become a force in mobile games. The studio is best known for its match-3 puzzle game Cookie Jam, which has surpassed 100 million mobile downloads and was recognized by Facebook as 2014 “Game of the Year.” Headquartered in Los Angeles, the company employs more than 700 game developers, artists, data scientists, narrative designers, engineers, and marketers across eight locations.
Jam City opened a Carlsbad office with its 2013 acquisition of mobile game developer Mob Science. Today, Jam City’s 85 local employees operate from MAKE, a sprawling 175,000 square-foot creative campus that blends indoor and outdoor workspaces (think amphitheater, fire pits, and outdoor showers) with first-class amenities that make work more comfortable and fun. It’s an environment that inspires the type of work/life balance that is so important to Jam City.
“The MAKE campus has excellent perks and amenities for our team,” Nakamura explained. “It offers free access to a state-of-the-art gym with workout classes and fitness instructors, bike and surfboard share, and it happens to be a stone’s throw from the beach. Our office and its location are perks in and of themselves.”
While the majority of Jam City’s employees reside in Carlsbad or North County, there are a handful who use the Coaster to commute. Just last month, the City of Carlsbad approved a “first-last mile” program, an app-based shuttle service that will take people from the Poinsettia Coaster train station to their jobs, homes, or other destinations. The service, which is scheduled to launch in August, will be free of charge to day or monthly Coaster pass holders.
Jam City also likes to keep its employees happy and well-fed, catering lunch three days a week and featuring fully stocked drink fridges and snack cabinets. To further encourage employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance, the hip gaming company also offers unlimited paid/personal time off (PTO).
The greatest advantage of working at Jam City is the family-like culture. “We are very protective of our culture,” said Nakamura, who refers to his colleagues as family. “Our culture is friendly, highly collaborative and team-oriented, and we strive to bring out the best in each other and do our best to create successful products.”
That also means respecting employee’s need for personal time and prioritizing work/life balance. “We do everything possible to maintain a healthy work/life balance and try to be as family-friendly as possible,” Nakamura said. “I have seven kids at home and I look forward to spending as much time with them as I can, and I want my team to have that same privilege.”
Redemption Games Readies to Deliver Sweet Escapes
Redemption Games is a mobile app game developer founded four years ago by Michael Witz and Daniel Lin, both of whom hail from Carlsbad-based success story Mob Science. They were part of the team that helped develop Cookie Jam, one of Jam City’s flagship products.
Witz recalls a time when big console developers like Sony, THQ, and Midway all had a strong presence in the region. “That laid the foundation for the close community of talented game developers that remain here today,” he said. “Many of us are interconnected – just about everyone is one or two degrees separated from each other.” When people come to Carlsbad, they tend to stay, he added.
Witz and Lin chose to set up shop in Carlsbad for an obvious reason, they both live there. “We love everything about the city- the environment, the beaches, and the overall lifestyle. It is one of those places where it is hard to find anything to complain about,” Witz said. “The studio’s coastal location is also a big bonus for those who surf. When the waves are big, co-founder Lin is likely surfing South Ponto Beach, one of the county’s few underdeveloped beaches and a popular destination for surfers.
In 2018, Redemption Games received a $5 million investment from Supercell, a Helsinki-based giant in mobile games and creator of the popular Clash of Clans mobile strategy game. This summer, Redemption Games is preparing to release their first independent project titled Sweet Escapes, a puzzle game that pushes the boundaries of art and story integration and targets female players who love to play casual mobile games. Despite the prevailing perception that most gamers are men, women represent 45 percent of the player demographic.
According to Glassdoor, the national average salary for a game developer is $101,932 per year, with compensation ranging between $66,000 – $148,000 depending on position and tenure. Having a strong video game community in Carlsbad translates to quality jobs, homeownership, and a prosperous economy.
“I would love nothing more than for Carlsbad to continue to develop into a thriving game community because it benefits us all to have more talent and investment here,” Witz said. “Because most of the game development jobs are high paying and the people are innovative and creative, it is a great industry for Carlsbad to attract.”
Other video game and entertainment companies that call Carlsbad home include:
MEGAFANS is a competitive mobile gaming platform and eSports engine whose mission is to improve the mobile gaming platform and make better for developers and users alike.
NTN Buzztime is an interactive entertainment company whose Buzztime platform (formerly known as the NTN Network) delivers competitive trivia, sports, and card games to a network of 3,900 bars, restaurants, casinos, and senior living communities in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Buzztime also connects and supports a network of 10 million trivia players via its mobile app.
Rockstar San Diego (formerly known as Angel Studios) is a video game developer for the console and PC platforms. The company, which is one of 10 subsidiaries of Rockstar Games, is best known for its Midtown Madness, Grand Theft Auto, and Red Dead titles. RAGE Technology Group, the division responsible for the development and maintenance of Rockstar’s proprietary game engine, also operates from the Rockstar San Diego location.
Stormloft Studios is a newer (2018) game developer targeting the mobile market. The company was founded by industry veterans from Zynga, THQ and Midway Games.
Zynga is a global leader in interactive entertainment with a mission to connect the world through games. Zynga’s games are available in more than 150 countries and are playable across social platforms and mobile devices worldwide. To date, more than one billion people have played Zynga’s franchises including CSR Racing™, Empires & Puzzles™, Merge Dragons!™, Words With Friends™ and Zynga Poker™. Founded in 2007, the company is headquartered in San Francisco with eight locations in the U.S., including Carlsbad, as well as offices in Canada, U.K., Ireland, India, Turkey, and Finland.
Click here to view a map of all these companies!