Following the early 2000s recession, the game development community of Georgia reduced to just two studios, essentially imploding under the weight of economic downturn.
Cut to 15 years later, however, and Georgia is the seventh largest game development state in the US, and home to over 128 studios. Included in that number are Hi-Rez, Tripwire, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, plus Blue Mammoth which was acquired by Ubisoft earlier this year.
Recovering from the brink, Georgia is now a flourishing hub of games studios; often overlooked in favour of places like California and Washington, it's been a long and arduous journey, but thanks in part to the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo (SIEGE), Georgia has become a dark horse of development in the US.
Having endured one industry collapse, and reluctant to face another, indie developer Andrew Greenberg decided to set up the Southern Interactive and Game Expo in 2005. It was around this time that the Georgia Game Developers Association (GGDA) was also formed, and so the two organisations joined forces, establishing SIEGE in the process.
Having started out with just a few hundred attendees in 2007, SIEGE now sees an attendance of roughly 2,000 members from the game development community, and serves as the de facto developer conference for the Southeastern US.
Greenberg, who serves as director of SIEGE, says the purpose of the expo was to establish a game development community that could not only support itself through difficult times, but also provide more options to developers than packing up and moving out to the west coast when times are tough.
"We had a hard time coming back from [the recession] and by around 2005 there were some new studios back, but the industry here was still struggling," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "It became clear to me that one of the ways to avoid having another collapse like we had was to start having a way for people to get together [and support each other]."
Georgia is also the No. 3 filming location in the US, just behind California and New York; a major contributing factor to this is the tax credits offered by the state and, in 2017, the Georgia House passed a similar tax credits scheme to game developers. Obviously this has helped the industry in Georgia substantially, but SIEGE has contributed in a myriad of smaller ways, stitching together the fabric of the wider community.
"It became clear to me that one of the ways to avoid having another collapse like we had was to start having a way for people to get together [and support each other]"
"I would love to be egotistical and claim that SIEGE was the number one factor, but I think I'm safe in saying it is one of the three to five reasons for why the industry has grown at the rate it has," says Greenberg.
"Certainly it helped when we had the slowdown in 2008. We didn't really lose any studios and those that had issues, those people primarily transitioned locally as opposed to going to California or Washington."
SIEGE also serves as an academic hub for Georgia; the state is home to over 20 game and game-related degrees, some of which of which are globally renowned, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology. Importantly, it contributes to slowing the brain drain that more rural communities frequently suffer from as young people move away for brighter prospects.
With over a decade of experience organising SIEGE, Greenberg has learned a lot about what does and doesn't work when it comes to a developer expo, and shared some of his insight on making it a success.
"Putting on events is like game development," he says. "We have to start early with the concepting phase, then it requires a really good team coming together with a good shared vision that everyone is on board with.... For SIEGE it is about creating a long-lasting, sustainable community."
There are three pillars to running a successful event, Greenberg says. First is buy-in from the professional side of the industry; studios both big and small need to be invested, committed to putting on sessions, supplying sponsorship, and spreading the word.
"There are a lot of voices that aren't being heard, and by spreading out the game development industry geographically, we start to creating avenues for new voices to bring us games that nobody else has seen or has played"
Secondly is the link to academia; it's not just an important aspect of community-building, but it also provides a host of eager volunteers from the students who will "bring the passion" and rejuvenating energy which, Greenberg admits, older veterans sometimes lack.
Finally is connections with local government; although a little tricker, says Greenberg, outreach to the public sector can yield invaluable results. Not only does it help legitimise the event, but it can lead to legislative changes such as the tax breaks enjoyed in Georgia.
Above all this though, vision is arguably the most important aspect. For Greenberg, SIEGE isn't just an event for its own sake, but rather a keystone to support and encourage a thriving industry. Based on that, accessibility is a fundamental tennant, and SIEGE has the lowest ticket price of any developer conference in the US.
"It's actually a problem," he says. "When we focus on community, we want it available to all members of that community, but we've been accused also of devaluing our product and making it look less valuable than it actually is. We specifically aim it more for community building rather than revenue generation...
"Point is, we are a non-profit association.... a for-profit corporation is trying to bring as much money to the stockholders as possible; we don't have any stockholders. The goal from our board... is that we need to build a robust, viable game development community in Georgia, and in the South.
"One of the points of view is that we love the games coming out of the traditional game making centres, but we feel there are a lot of voices that aren't being heard, and by spreading out the game development industry geographically, we start to creating avenues for new voices to bring us games that nobody else has seen or has played."
The 12th annual SIEGE Con takes place this week, at the Atalanta Marriott Northwest. It kicks off with a college fair on Thursday, October 4 then moves into three days of sessions, running until Sunday, October 7.