Des Moines Register: Video Game Designer Hits High Notes with Relocation

Friday, January 16, 2009

By Erin Jordan

Iowa City, IA -- Note to aspiring video game creators: Live your dreams in Iowa.

Budcat Creations, an Iowa City video game design company, has gone from six employees to nearly 60 in three years, recruiting people from across the nation based on Iowa City's laid-back lifestyle, Budcat's bright future and an endless supply of Little Debbie snack cakes.

"We've had more luck recruiting people to Iowa than we ever had recruiting people to Las Vegas," said Jeremy Andersen, general manager for the company that moved from Las Vegas to Iowa City in 2005.

{C}Activision Blizzard of Santa Monica, Calif., bought Budcat in November after working with the Iowa studio on several versions of "Guitar Hero," the wildly popular game that allows players to use a guitar-shaped controller to play along with the band. The Activision deal gives Budcat more stability and better marketing, as well as a commitment to keep the studio in Iowa City, said Isaac Burns, a Budcat founder.

Budcat isn't the only one impressed with the partnership.

"From the perspective of an industry watcher, Budcat's done extremely well for itself with this attachment to ActiBlizz and 'Guitar Hero,' " said Tim Smith, editorial director of Spong.com, a video game database.

Keeps Iowa students here

Steven Herrnstadt, an Iowa State University art and design professor who has taught video game design courses, said Budcat could be a reason for talented graduates to stay in Iowa.

"They usually go to Washington, Illinois, California, Texas - to where these companies are," Herrnstadt said. "I'd love to send my students" to Budcat.

Burns and Jason Andersen, who both grew up in the Iowa City area and attended the University of Iowa, started Budcat Creations in 2000 after working for other video game studios in large cities. They named the company after Jason and Jeremy Andersen's family cat, Bud.

Instead of borrowing money to compete for big contracts, Budcat started small with projects it could do itself, Burns said: "We never took out loans. We just signed small contracts and proved ourselves as we went along.

Jeremy Andersen, also a U of I graduate, joined his brother and Burns in 2004 after working at Neversoft Entertainment, a Southern California studio owned by Activision.

Activision bought the rights to "Guitar Hero" in 2006, and Budcat was chosen to develop the PlayStation 2 version of "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock." Budcat went on to create "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" and "Guitar Hero World Tour."

Tweaking "Guitar Hero"

Although the "Guitar Hero" formula is set, designers add personal touches.

One character, an aspiring Elvis named Elroy, is modeled after a Budcat employee. Designers also get a kick out of inserting "Easter eggs," which are secret features or inside jokes that relate to the developers.

But making video games isn't always fun.

In fact, some design companies in the United States and abroad have been accused of running sweatshops because of the long hours required before major deadlines. Video game maker Electronic Arts of California paid multimillion-dollar settlements in 2005 and 2006 to employees who claimed they should have gotten overtime pay.

Deadline work

Budcat is trying to keep employees happy while completing projects on deadline.

"The office atmosphere is laid back, but the hours can be brutal," Jeremy Andersen said. "No one punches a clock."

Budcat's staff often works long days before major milestones, but the managers try to ease the strain by bringing in dinner on crunch days.

Budcat's office just south of downtown Iowa City is designed to appeal to its staff, which is mostly young men. The walls are turquoise, the break room is stocked with pop, granola bars and snack cakes, and the testing area has couches, a pingpong table and a big-screen TV.

The sour economy isn't affecting Budcat, which has two job openings and is looking for a larger office. Games may provide the escapism some people crave during a downturn, Burns said.

"Video games are very popular now and a relatively cheap form of entertainment," he said.

The company's next goal is coming up with an original title that it develops from scratch. Other projects include starting an internship program and possibly — if Internet buzz is correct — creating a new "Guitar Hero" game to keep the party rocking.