Hake in the Heartland

What a guy! Reprinted from the Heartland Series: Q&A with HitPoint Studios CEO, Paul Hake

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) spoke with CEO Paul Hake about the advantages of being located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and how his studio leverages the surrounding talent pool to focus on the technologies of the future.

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: My father was a computer programmer for a financial company and he brought home a sweet IBM PS/2 and introduced me to programming when I was in junior high. We programmed games together, and throughout high school and college, my plan was to start a game studio. I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) specifically to design my major around starting a game studio. I took computer science classes, art classes, and business classes. After college, I worked for Hasbro Toys in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in their visual studios department, editing toy demos and commercials and used that as a jumping-off point to work for Tiger Electronics which was based in Western Massachusetts. There, I started designing and developing all sorts of handheld games, plug-in TV games, and eventually PC games. So that’s how I got my start in the video game industry. That allowed me to build a portfolio, which led to more deals. Then in 2008, I basically took my studio, which was about eight people at the time, and merged it with another studio that was also in western Massachusetts to start HitPoint Studios.

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

A: When we started HitPoint in 2008, we were mostly working on PC download games. We did a lot of games with Big Fish Games, WildTangent Games, GameHouse and iWin Games, which were in the casual game space. A few years after that we started working with Microsoft on developing launch titles for Windows 8. We were one of two studios that developed launch titles for the Surface tablets and when Windows 8 came out, our games were bundled in with its operating systems. In addition, we worked with Disney to create games for Windows 8 and through those work-for-hire projects, we raised some money to develop our own platform for social and mobile games. With that platform, we launched our own titles, some of which we’re still operating, some of which we sold off.

We developed some mobile titles for clients who still use our platform and then about 18 months ago, we got started in the mobile augmented reality (AR) space. We began developing games initially for Google’s Project Tango devices, including our first AR game, Crayola Color Blaster. What we learned through the nine years HitPoint has been around is that the team really likes technically challenging projects and projects that are still a little bit nascent that show promise because most of our team are engineers and they really enjoy working on projects that are cutting-edge. When AR came around and Project Tango was an opportunity, it was a great fit for us and now we’ve made a name for ourselves in the AR space. We’ve launched a few titles and we have a couple more in the works. It’s about half the work we’re doing right now. The rest is some of our own games and other mobile game development projects on a work-for-hire basis.

Q: Could you tell us more about your recent projects? How do you think immersive experiences will impact the future of games?

A: We made a conscious decision a couple years ago to focus on AR because it seemed like it was a technology that would be more readily adopted by people who would be downloading our games and that was the bet we made. So far it seems like it’s paying off. Since then, Apple and Google, the two biggest players in the space, have released their own AR platforms for their devices, so we’re well positioned at the moment to not only be on the cutting edge in terms of the technology, but also there will now be hundreds of millions of devices worldwide that will have AR technology built into them a few months from now.

For our AR titles, we’re mainly focused on creating experiences that encourage exploring player’s physical spaces and moving around, instead of tabletop AR apps and games. One of the games we did was called Color BlastAR for iOS, where you have to run around your house, your room, or outside and it spawns AR characters in your environment, making it a get-up-and-run-around arcade game. That kind of immersion I think is going to be more powerful because you can see AR take over the space you’re moving around in, which is a whole new experience. The next phase for this game we’re working on is making it a multiplayer AR experience to allow for collaborative and competitive mobile AR play.

Q: You also focus on mobile games. In 2017, mobile games generated nearly 43% of the global market. Do you think the popularity of mobile games will continue to grow? Why?

A: About half of mobile phone users are playing games, and I expect we’ll see this percentage increase along with the number of mobile users worldwide. There’s a lot of room for growth, especially if you’re thinking globally. In addition, more people will become accustomed to spending money on mobile games. However, I believe there needs to be more ways for users to spend money on games outside premium purchases and in-app purchases. Right now, mobile game developers have premium, IAPs and ads as our ways to monetize games. I believe we’ll start seeing more subscription based models that will give developers another way to monetize in a form that consumers are already very accustomed to through HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc. Hatch has been announced already as one streaming subscription platform and I believe we’re going to see more people using these platforms treating gaming like Netflix accounts. This will allow the mobile game developers to monetize their games a fourth way and continue to grow the overall mobile game revenue.

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

A: Western Massachusetts is a great location to be running a software company. There are at least five major colleges here, Greenfield is not far from two of them and not far from Boston. There are a couple colleges in Vermont with computer science and art programs. Worchester Polytechnic and Rochester University are also not far. So, we’re in a really nice location for all these schools that are putting out really talented engineers and artists, so it’s a great spot to be for that. We weren’t always in Greenfield as we bopped around the valley a little bit, but we just started a video game co-working space in Greenfield and we found a spot we really like. The city has its own municipal internet connection that’s high-speed and it’s near the rail service and there’s a lot of great places to eat, hang out, and relax. We’ve worked with other studios that are in Boston or in other major cities that all have issues with parking, commuting, and extremely high costs of rent, which we don’t have to deal with out here, but we also have a lot of talent coming out of the colleges. Once people come out here, they really want to stay and it’s our open secret that Western Mass is a great place to recruit because the quality of life here is fantastic.

Q: Do you usually hire from local universities or are your employees from around the country? Are there specific areas of study you usually target when hiring new employees?

A: More than half of the people at HitPoint went to one of the five colleges here and the other people we’ve brought on are from other studios in Boston, who either commute out here or work from home. We have a very flexible work-from-home policy. We have a couple other people in our office in Los Angeles, another employee works from Buffalo, New York, because he has family up there, but our main hub here is in Greenfield. What’s really nice is UMass Amherst has a career fair, which we’ve participated in. There are two people who work at HitPoint who have been adjunct professors at Hampshire College, so we have a great connection with that college. They have a great game-focused program there, and in addition, we work with the local colleges to host a Global Game Jam and we actually have one here next month at our co-working space. They’ve been great opportunities to get juniors and seniors in college to get to know us. We get to see them, get to see their work, and basically keep them in mind and keep in touch with them after they graduate. We’ve done stuff like that and we have several employees, myself included, who have spoken at the local colleges dozens of times, giving talks about different career paths.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I studied computer science and art, and I’m not that good at either of them [laughing]. I’m an ok programmer and I’m an ok artist, but what I do like doing is organizing the teams or really talented people we have here and watching them be successful in their product launches. What is really nice about how HitPoint is structured and operated now is I have to spend less time doing hands-on management and overseeing things because the studio has matured so much over the past eight years. We just launched a Facebook Instant Game for the new Star Wars movie, which got a lot of great coverage, but I happily had very little to do with that. It was great to just tee up the project for the team and see where they would run with it. Things like that are what I like most about the job; making sure the right people are in the right room or Slack channel, on the right project, and giving advice where I can.

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

A: That’s a tough one but it’s probably Myst. I had a very limited amount of game time available to me growing up, and we had a strict no console policy at our house. But Myst was one that I played multiple times, and really shaped the kinds of games I like to design and play today. It had great puzzles, a strong narrative that wasn’t in-your-face, and for the time it had amazing graphics and groundbreaking animation, music, and audio. That game probably got me into video games more than anything.

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: This is one topic that I am asked to speak about at colleges a lot. For me, it’s always important for artists and engineers to be focused on the fundamentals. For engineers, make sure you have a strong math background, traditional computer science skills, not just focusing on the latest, hottest game engine and make sure you understand the fundamentals of engineering because those things don’t change. The game engines change, the languages change, “what’s hot” changes, right? I’ve seen a lot of colleges get tripped up by that by having their engineers focus their curriculum on the Unity game engine because that’s what’s hot right now or on the Unreal game engine or some other game engine and the students will have a decent portfolio on that game engine, but they don’t have a good base on which to build.

Same thing with art, too. A strong traditional studio art background, understanding lighting, colors, perspectives, and concepting. We’ve hired some artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where they have a strong traditional art program, and some of the best artists we’ve worked with have come out of that school.

The other big thing is having a portfolio that shows off only your best work, even if it’s just five pieces on your website. If there’s something you’re not proud of, don’t show it. It’s definitely quality over quantity. For engineering applicants, I don’t think you can go into a job interview or expect to get hired when you have a game you worked on, but can’t send over the sample code and a playable build. We receive a lot of resumes that show what games people have worked on but are lacking the sources because it’s on the computer at the school they went to or it’s on a repository they no longer have access to or some other reason. That’s not going to work. You have to have games you worked on, even if it’s in the Apple Store or some Android APK that we have to side-load, students need to have sample apps available with details of what their role was in the development of that app or game. That’s the number one thing you need and you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t have that when they apply.