Vicarious Visions, a gaming studio with chops
“Gaming connects people,” says Jennifer Oneal, Studio Head at Vicarious Visions (VV), an Albany-area company that develops some of the biggest names in video games. That connectivity and popularity has led to the growth of the gaming industry — an industry worth roughly $99 billion in 2016 worldwide, of which New York State represents around $276 million.
But VV, a company that has worked on big video game franchises like “Guitar Hero™,” “Skylanders®,” “Spider-Man™,” and “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2,” started small. Back in 1991, it was founded by teen brothers Guha and Karthik Bala in the basement of their childhood home in Rochester. Karthik, who later attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and Guha, who went to Harvard, outgrew their basement digs and, as students, moved the company to the Capital Region, where RPI is located. VV developed games like “Crash Nitro Kart™,” released in 2003, and are now at work on the “Crash Bandicoot™ N. Sane Trilogy,” over a decade later, highlighting their continuity and longevity in the field.
In 2005, VV was acquired by Activision®, an interactive entertainment company that was behind some of the first games in the 1980s for the Atari 2600 — one of the first video gaming consoles. Activision® also publishes prominent games including “Guitar Hero™,” and “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater™.” Today, VV makes its home in a 40,000-square-foot studio, and has roughly 150 employees. It’s also a “AAA studio,” a designation that marks it as best in class among gaming studios today.
Among its major gaming projects, Vicarious Visions developed “Skylanders® Superchargers” and “Skylanders® Swap Force™,” which feature toys that are used as characters in the games, creating an interactive experience for players by “bringing toys to life,” Oneal says. The cinematic visuals and story also make “Skylanders®” feel “like watching a high-end feature animation film.”
“Guitar Hero™,” which gives players a guitar-shaped controller to play in a virtual band, also has a huge presence worldwide. “The game gave people a chance to live out their dreams,” of playing live music for an audience, Oneal says. VV is also partnering with Bellevue, Washington-based Bungie™ to create new versions of Destiny®, a game that engages millions with its action and adventure blend.
“You would be amazed how many people just watch video gaming,” Oneal explains of the many people today who watch games like they would a TV show or sports event, while they are taking a break from playing. Through apps and the web, video games also have become a social space. Companies like Twitch, an Amazon subsidiary, stream gaming live or through video-on-demand. Gaming is no longer confined to the notion of a single or multiplayer game, or a player on a smartphone, but has become a broader entertainment for people everywhere.
A Gaming Life
Vicarious Visions has “a cinematic team that rivals any of the AAA studios out there,” Oneal says, describing the company’s culture and staff. Game design is a field that draws new talent across disciplines, and VV employs a range of creative professionals to bring its games to life. VV employees include concept and 3-D artists, as well as narrative designers and engineers who provide the backbone and infrastructure for the tech. “We have some of the most brilliant engineers,” Oneal says, adding that the company also employs several QA employees who ensure top quality across VV’s products.
Vicarious Visions also recruits from neighboring schools. “We have strong relationships with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as the Rochester Institute of Technology,” Oneal explains. Recently, those two schools, alongside New York University, each received state assistance to help cultivate their status as “Digital Gaming Hubs.” That assistance is designed to foster robust resources like staff, and to support events and students in the field.
For its part, Vicarious Visions mentors and finds potential employees from both RPI and RIT. “We have what’s called a cooperative program — a student at either school can apply for our co-op program, get college credit, as well as get paid for it.” At the same time, VV can assess what kinds of skills the student shows the most promise in, and which jobs might be a fit. “It’s a really great deal.”
In Albany, the company has worked to create roots and partnerships across the community to help new hires from all over — like Oneal herself — settle in. “Separately there’s success in culturally how we are,” Oneal says, “we’ve been around for 25 years. People love the culture.” Oneal, who came to VV after working in gaming out in Los Angeles, was recruited initially to work on “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2,” and found the change of pace to the Capital Region to be a welcome one.
“Upstate New York is such a fantastic place. Much of the industry is located in high-expense areas; here, you can afford a home,” she says. Oneal highlights that in Albany, she’s been able to settle in over the past decade or so. She says that Albany’s proximity to New York City, Boston, Montreal and the Adirondacks helps the company recruit people from all over, explaining that when she first started, she was given pamphlets on area wineries, and the Finger Lakes in the western part of the state, less than a day’s drive away.
Additionally, employees and their families are invited to participate in regular social events in and outside of the office. There are active social network groups to help welcome new employees and families. The VV employee community has grown in part because the company fosters loyalty and creativity that makes it attractive for people interested in all aspects of the gaming industry to come, and stay. In each of the company’s team rooms there’s a space for a row of traditional La-Z-Boy recliners and a gaming area that employees can use not just to relax, but for work.
VV also gives back to the local community through social causes. Through its participation in “Extra Life™,” which uses gaming to fundraise, VV has raised several thousand dollars for the Children’s Hospital at the Albany Medical Center. Additionally, students in the area are often invited to tour the VV office and meet with employees in various disciplines.
“Giving to our players, kids or adults, makes it all worthwhile. We still get letters and drawings from kids,” who love VV games, Oneal says. “We post them up on a bulletin board in our hallway and it reminds us of why we do what we do.” That’s also the community ethos Vicarious Visions is aiming for today in its work. “I’m really excited about these innovations that bring player communities together,” Oneal says, explaining that the gaming community’s “shared world,” is available to everyone, unifying people around one of the best things in life — play.