written by Justin Fields
Oregon is fast becoming a top hub for video game developers, and SuperGenius, led by CEO and founder Paul Culp, is at the leading edge of that trend. Culp exemplifies the creative and disciplined new breed of Oregon indie tech pioneers, contributing to an industry already valued at $111 million and ranked 9th in the nation. Situated in once sleepy downtown Oregon City, SuperGenius is perfectly positioned to play a pivotal role in the burgeoning Oregon video game industry.
So how did you get into developing video games?
I have been doing commercial art since I was 13 or 14. I grew up in a small town where I did everyone’s business cards. On holidays, I would decorate shop windows—like Santa Claus, or Halloween stuff. So I learned from an early age how to make money doing art. I always knew I was going to be an artist or an animator. I originally wanted to be a Disney animator, but I ended up going into web development in the ‘90s.
What was it like being a web developer in the ‘90s? And how did that lead to video games?
I was working for a web development company in San Jose in ’94, and nobody even knew what the Internet was. At the same time, I had some friends in San Francisco that were working on a video game. They were the cool kids. So I ended up jumping ship and going over there to work as a concept artist. There’s a game called Monkey Hero and it was kind of a clone of Legend of Zelda for the PlayStation 1. That was the first game I worked on, and my job was to design characters and do 2D art. Walking into that place was crazy because it was this old San Francisco Victorian, with shag carpet and incense burning. In the artist room, which is where all the concept artists were, people were laying on the ground and listening to Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers. I was like ‘my God, people do this for a living?’ So that’s where I started in games.
What are the most important attributes of a video game developer?
Well I can’t speak for a lot of developers because there’s such a wide variety of styles and audiences they’re trying to please. We help other game developers make games, so it depends on who the client is. We’ve got indie developers that are kind of like the punk kids making games here. It’s definitely like the indie punk music movement, but for games. So there’s a rebellious attitude and a creative passion and drive to do art and not make money. But there are also bigger developers that are doing really cool things, like Double Fine. They’re CEO is Tim Schaffer and he runs a very innovative and playful company. They generate tons of games and they Kickstart a lot of them, and the public just eats it up. Plus they know how to get things done and ship on time. I respect that. So I guess it’s that balance between being super creative and disciplined, being able to make your milestones and ship a game on time, instead of just working on it for years and years and years.
Are there local education programs or universities that offer video game training? Where do you draw talent from?
We’re working with CCC, Clackamas Community College, to help them create a game development curriculum. We helped purchase a big motion-capture, place-based system, and helped them set it up. We’ve had people from SuperGenius teach classes there. We really like the idea of home-growing talent because we have to relocate people all the time, and it’s expensive. Walk into any high school and ask the kids what they want to do and a lot of them say they want to make video games. So those kids, if they have that kind of drive, should be able to go to a school locally and figure out how to do this and not spend $120,000. Our goal is to work with CCC and see if we can come up with [a] more social-based program that would cost a lot less, so they don’t have to be in debt the rest of their lives.
Explain to me the difference between the developer support studio and an outsourcing studio.
That’s exactly where I draw the line in the sand and make the distinction. There are a lot of overseas outsourcing companies that specialize in producing mass amounts of assets for low cost. So they’re factories. We didn’t want to be a factory. We wanted to be a game developer for all intents and purposes, with all the capabilities of a game developer, helping other game developers. We’re not 1,000 people in a room busting out trashcans and cars. We’re intelligent, skilled people who know how to work an engine and know how to build things for other people’s games and be dedicated to that. Everyone here is doing exactly what they want to do. They want to make games, but being able to work with the legends that they work with is pretty incredible. We’re not small enough to be a boutique, and we’re not a factory. And we’re on the west coast, which is rare for a game company like us.
What are some of the biggest games that SuperGenius has worked on?
Walking Dead. It wasn’t fully developed here, but we helped with it. Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us, and two of the Skylanders series were done here. There’s also Broken Age, which was Kickstarted by Double Fine. A game called Marvel Super Hero Squad: Online was a big Marvel MMO (massively multiplayer online) we worked on. We’ve done four or five Marvel franchises. We also did Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, and Poker Night. We are also currently working with Blizzard on a game called Overwatch. Those are all some of the bigger ones.
Why did you choose to open shop in Oregon City?
It wasn’t intentional. We used to be a part of Funnelbox just down the street. We started off as a small division of Funnelbox helping them with game cinematics. When I got there to help Rob with operations of his company, they had these video game animators in the back who were about to finish a game and get laid off. So I decided to stick around and figure out how to start a team. We didn’t intend to start in Oregon City, but we basically incubated in Funnelbox as a division, eventually outgrew Funnelbox, bought the division from them, and moved down the street.
And you still have a good relationship with Funnelbox?
Absolutely. Robb (Crocker) was the first one to have a dream for downtown Oregon City to be a kind of tech/ media oasis in Clackamas County. These cool buildings and cheaper rent allow more creative and tech artists to take hold down here. So splitting off resulted in there being two big media companies in Oregon City, and we’re hoping to get more down here as well.
Can you elaborate on why Oregon City and Clackamas County have really worked out for you, even though you didn’t intend to land here initially?
It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever lived. It’s crazy, historic, and cute. Five years ago I did not want to be down here. I would’ve been embarrassed to bring clients down here five years ago. But now we try to get them to come down, go out to lunch and go to bars and stuff because it’s a cool little neighborhood. I mean we could be in The Pearl paying $15 grand a month for a studio, or we could be down here with a higher quality of life.
Does the State of Oregon help foster gaming at all?
Yeah they do. The Indigenous Oregon Production Investment Fund (iOPIF) was carved out as an incentive package for film companies initiated by Oregon Film and the Governor’s office. A couple years ago they brought games into the mix, so now there is a percentage of iOPIF that’s dedicated to video games. Our bill just passed so video games are now illegible for more iOPIF funding, which is a much larger pool of money ($14 million). This was previously only available to film studios. It’s a huge deal and gives game developers a boost only available in a few states. It’s taken some burden off us on a few projects. It’s been nice.
How do you make the work environment conducive to creativity?
Have a lot of creative people. They kind of do it themselves. It’s their culture. They built that place. They feed off each other, they train each other, they push each other. That’s a hot house of cooperation. Everyone in there wants to bring everyone else up with them. We have some rock stars in there but they don’t act like rock stars. They’re kind of introverted, cool, easygoing people who just really care about what they do. You get enough of those people in a room and it’s pretty fantastic.
What’s the future of gaming in Oregon?
That’s a good question. We recently started a trade organization called the OGO (Oregon Games Organization), and united all the game companies. So instead of being part of the OMPA (Oregon Media Production Association), which lobbied for film incentives, we broke off. We’re still members of OMPA, and we love those guys but we started one specifically for games through the Technology Association of Oregon so we could have a lobbyist of our own. The goal of OGO is to help pass legislation in Salem that will give us more incentives and make Oregon a little friendlier for game development. So that’s the industry side. On the more creative side, it’s clear that the type of work that comes out of Oregon is different than anywhere else. So in film you’ve got your auteur filmmakers from Portland, Oregon, and there’s a funny style or sentiment that comes out of here. Same thing with the writers and musicians. There’s an amazing music scene here. Oregon game developers kind of have their own thing here as well, and what we do is different than anything you would see in San Francisco or Seattle. It’s very Portland, Oregon-centric.
What’s on the horizon for SuperGenius?
We’ve become kind of the go-to studio for virtual reality and augmented reality games and experiences. We work with lot’s of VR and AR companies including Microsoft’s Hololens division and Oculus. Our goal is to pioneer this space as much as we can and stay on the cutting edge of the technology. We’re going to see the entertainment world change drastically over the next decade because of it and the thought of SuperGenius and Oregon in general being in the vanguard is super exciting to me. We’re in a very unique time and place right now.
What advice do you have for a 17-year old kid interested in video games, as they think about their senior year in high school and what their next move might be?
Don’t drop out of high school. Practice with all the software out there. It’s available to everyone. The Internet is full of tutorials. There’s so much more help now than we had in 1995, because the game engines are free to tool around with. There are games to mod. Get in there and just start figuring out how that universe works because some of the best people were self-taught in high school. It doesn’t take a college degree to do what we do. We’re trying to grow and hire, so if you’re talented we want to talk to you.