Council Wants To Grow Online Businesses

February 3, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — If the fledgling Technology Sustainability Advisory Council has its way, digital animation could be a key to West Michigan’s diversification.

Granted, right now the council isn’t much more than local online game company Norseman Games and the Digital Animation and Game Design program of Ferris State University in Grand Rapids. But according to FSU program coordinator Ward Makielski, that might just be enough.

“We’re talking about a business where there is really no barrier if you want to take something to market,” he said. “You could start selling right away, all online, with no startup costs, just sweat equity. The only cost you’ll have is financial transactions and bandwidth.”

Makielski, a former West Coast game designer, learned this firsthand last year through a relationship with PBS personality Mark Kistler. Star of the learn-to-draw program “Imagination Station,” Kistler stages drawing clinics for children at sites across the nation, including a few each year in Grand Rapids.

Upon meeting Makielski, Kistler had an idea: an online drawing class.

He gave the programmer a frightening timeline of six weeks, but Makielski decided to take on the project with the disclaimer that there would be some bugs. Even while Makielski was still apologetically tweaking the site, students were flocking into Kistler’s animated classroom. At last count, the online class had 6,000 students, representing a dozen countries.

“But it doesn’t matter if it’s 20 kids or 20,000 kids,” Makielski said. “It’s going to cost the same thing.”

Commercialization projects could include medicine, architecture, education or an endless variety of uses.

In the next month, the Technology Sustainability Advisory Council hopes to move forward on a plan that could help facilitate such efforts. The group will seek a grant from the state’s 21st Century Jobs Fund, using a model that will establish the council — a 501c3 nonprofit — as a funding body for projects as opportunities arise.

Makielski has been optimistically watching the efforts of videogame maker GarageGames. He has been asked to sit on the board of the company, created by onetime co-workers of the now defunct Sierra Games — incidentally, the creator of Norseman Games’ core product, “The Realm Online.”

When Sierra Games collapsed, its assets were scattered to the wind. Norseman eventually ended up with “The Realm,” while GarageGames acquired a game engine originally built for the science fiction role player game “Tribes 2.” With that, the Oregon firm is pioneering a business model familiar to Web developers, licensing the game’s source code to independent game designers.

“You have an arguably world-class game engine that you can license for 100 bucks,” Makielski said. “They made it available via Xbox Live. So for $5, you can download content to Xbox 360.”

As such, an FSU student conceivably could create the next video game bestseller in his basement.

“That’s the greatest resource of West Michigan, our knowledge and creativity,” said James Bartek of BC Development Strategy, an intellectual property consultant working with the Advisory Council. “We shouldn’t really even care about manufacturing. What does it matter where something is made as long you get the royalties for it?”

Ellington Ellis, COO of Norseman Games, agreed with Bartek on that point. His company’s core competency is a product that exists entirely on the Internet. Even its auxiliary products — T-shirts, posters, comic books — exist only in the digital world. In the epitome of just-in-time manufacturing, none of the products is printed until a customer places an order, and the product only goes through Grand Rapids if that is where the customer lives.

“Any property that you create, you can plug into all these channels,” Ellis said.

And via the Internet, these channels are instantly global. It’s estimated that of Norseman’s 12,000 customers, only three live in Grand Rapids.

“Where this is all going to lead is that there isn’t an Electronic Arts here, there isn’t Pixar,” Makielski said of the game and film studios. “That is the biggest question for students and their parents: What are they going to do when they graduate?”

With channels like that of GarageGames, the budding programmers have the opportunity to create content from practically anywhere. There is also hope that with West Michigan’s high quality of life — and, with luck, tax incentives for knowledge industries — firms like Electronic Arts and Pixar will invest in West Michigan.

But he isn’t banking on either, as one of the principles of the Ferris program is to tie animation and gaming to real world applications.

“You can springboard the technology into other deployments,” Bartek said. He compared this to learning a language. When students focus their education on learning German, for instance, speaking German doesn’t usually become a career. They apply that niche skill to some other job.

“This is a ‘language’ that is going to eventually be spoken everywhere,” Makielski said. “A whole generation is totally comfortable with using this stuff.”   

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