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A big name in the world of video games is starting a New Orleans studio, bringing high-paying jobs | Business News

New Orleans’ budding video-game sector is set for a big boost, with one of the industry’s most celebrated entrepreneurs starting a new gaming studio in the city with the promise of 75 local jobs paying an average of $100,000 a year each.

There are few bigger names in digital gaming than Jeff Strain, who founded and sold two video-game companies over the last two decades, and who is starting his latest studio — Possibility Space — on Poydras Street in the Central Business District.

The move is a coup for economic development agencies GNO Inc. and Louisiana Economic Development, which have courted Strain at his former base in Seattle for more than five years.

There were no upfront financial enticements to bring Strain to New Orleans, but the studio will qualify for two of the state’s payroll-related tax incentive programs. The tax breaks factored into his decision to locate in New Orleans, Strain said. For GNO and LED, they helped attract what they said will be an “anchor” start-up that can put the city on the map in the video-game industry.

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“With the addition of the Possibility Space studio, Greater New Orleans can now legitimately stake a claim as one of the leading video game development hubs in America,” said Michael Hecht, President and CEO of GNO Inc.

Gaming has been a key target for the state and region because of its size, growth rate and the potential to create high-paid “knowledge industry” jobs.

The 40-year-old industry has grown into a market that has surpassed traditional entertainment sectors. It is worth more than $200 billion worldwide and is growing at an annual rate of 10% while already employing more than 270,000 people in the U.S., according to data from IBIS World.

A handful of video game or related companies already have taken root in Louisiana, including TurboSquid, an image database startup that sold for $75 million earlier this year. Also, homegrown virtual reality company Stryker VR, inXile Entertainment (acquired by Microsoft in 2018), High Voltage Software, Testronic, and, in Baton Rouge, Electronic Arts.

Last month, University of New Orleans launched an esports program and this week the City of New Orleans said the winner of the bid to redevelop the defunct Six Flags site in New Orleans East has promised to build an esports arena there as part of its rehabilitation.

In a prepared statement, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that Strain’s new company marked a sea change for the local interactive entertainment cluster. “With an industry innovator such as Jeff Strain at the helm, this project could be a game-changer for video game development in Louisiana,” Edwards said.

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The company is expected to qualify for the state Digital Interactive Media and Software Program, which will rebate 25% of payroll for higher-paid software-development jobs, as well as 18% of related production costs, including rent; and the Entertainment Job Creation Program, which rebates 15%-to-20% of payroll for non-developer jobs.

GNO and LED said they couldn’t estimate how much the tax incentives would be, as it’s based on actual local employment and spending. But the rebate for the 75 full-time jobs at annual salaries of $100,000 would be roughly $1.5 million a year.

Strain, a native of Temple, Texas, has been a part of the gaming industry since its early heydays in the mid-1990s, when he joined Irvine, California-based Blizzard Entertainment soon after its formation. He went on to be lead developer for the company’s hugely successful World of Warcraft, and to develop its StarCraft, and Diablo games.

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In 2000, after moving north to Seattle, Strain co-founded ArenaNet, maker of Guild Wars, another successful series that was sold to NCsoft in 2008. He then founded another Seattle-based company, Undead Labs, creator of State of Decay, which was sold to Microsoft in 2018.

Strain said that gaming, already larger than the television and film-making market combined, has shown that it can thrive even during a pandemic. It is also an industry that is undergoing a cultural shift, reflecting broader changes in society, and Strain said that will be the focus of development at the New Orleans studio.

The pandemic amplified the trend of negativity driven by politics and social media, which has created this yearning, especially by Millennials and Gen-Zers, for more positive social interaction, Strain said.

“There is so much crap in the world today and we’re just assaulted by it,” he said. “People want to come out of [a gaming experience] feeling joy and pleasure and that is driving a lot of the discourse in the industry now.”

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What that means in practice is a shift from the dominance of games filled with explosions, gunfire, and zombies — games that made Strain hugely successful — toward the kind of world-building aspects found in games such as Minecraft.

Strain has also weighed in recently on the real-world cultural shift in the gaming industry, which has acquired a reputation over the years for its poor treatment of employees and a disturbing misogyny.

In an open letter in July, following revelations of a toxic workplace at his former employer, Blizzard, Strain called on his own employees to unionize. He said that his 25 years of experience in the industry “showed me how abusive cultures can propagate and self-amplify over time; how ‘hardcore gamers only’ is a smokescreen for ‘bro culture’.”

In the July letter, he recounted how he and his wife, Annie, had decided to leave Blizzard and California at the end of the ’90s when the corporate culture there already was showing signs of the toxicity that recently came to a head.

The decision to move to New Orleans also has been driven by a desire for a lifestyle change for Strain and his wife, who is a graduate of Loyola University, and their five children.

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“Despite the hurricanes, despite having a crime rate which we wish it didn’t have, there’s a pervasive sense of joy, a spirit of the people here that does translate into inspiration,” he said.

That is important at a time when it has become easier for people in industries like interactive entertainment to choose where they live, he said. It has helped him already bring from Seattle some of the industry’s top talent to his New Orleans start-up.

A studio like Possibility Space employs writers, actors, artists, musicians, as well as coders, programmers and all the auxiliary functions like publicity and finance, he said. It thrives in a creative milieu.

The objective for Possibility Space over time is to create “on ramps” through training and mentorship programs for local kids coming out of high schools so as to help develop the local industry ecosystem.

“The way you build an industry and a place is by creating supply and demand” in the workforce, he said. “I don’t want to invest in mentoring and training a bunch of people and the only choice they have to get jobs is move to the West Coast. You want them to be able to stay here and be part of the community.”

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