In 2002, the blockbuster video game was at its peak. Back then, game designers vied for highly competitive positions with the handful of large companies creating content for the newly-released Nintendo Game Cube, Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox gaming consoles. The year's winning title, RockStar Games' "Grand Theft Auto Vice City," sold 3.6 million copies its first day and went on to sell 17.5 million units by March 2008.
Today, developers once striving to get a foot into RockStar Games' doors are now working to build empires of their own through the gaming potential inside billions of new smartphones. Rather than emulating RockStar's success, designers hope to emulate Finland-based Rovio, the company behind the top-selling "Angry Birds" app franchise.
In July, Rovio reported that the apps "Angry Birds," "Angry Birds Seasons" and "Angry Birds Rio" had been downloaded 648 million times, resulting in $106.3 million in sales. The year's top console, Activision's "Call of Duty Black Ops," sold a little more than 10 million units in comparison, according to Port Washington, N.Y., market research firm NPD Group.
In a fiercely competitive industry where the smartphone has upended traditional business models, more developers are taking it upon themselves to design, produce, promote and distribute their own games for their own casual gaming companies.
And while thousands of app-makers in the market may never see their games become as mainstream as Rovio's, there's no arguing the odds of making another "Angry Birds" versus another "Grand Theft Auto," according to Matt Rodgers, founder of South Side-based gaming company HeadRight Games.
One example he gave was the release of Activision's Prototype 2. Released for consoles in April, Mr. Rodgers said the game has yet to sell enough units to account for marketing and development costs that added up to around $30 million.
"Consoles are definitely not the way to go. Mobile gaming apps, social gaming, online gaming -- they all have a cheaper barrier to entry," he said.
An eight-year veteran of the industry, Mr. Rodgers speaks from the perspective of someone who has seen the advantages of both ways of doing business, but drew a firm line when it came to his personal success.
A Pittsburgh native who attended Seattle's highly selective DigiPen Institute of Technology, Mr. Rodgers has worked for several major companies since 2004, including Nintendo, Microsoft Game Studios and RealNetworks Inc. However, he said his experience as a producer with Redmond, Wash.-based casual gaming company Wildtangent gave him the firsthand knowledge he would need to operate his own business.
"My job as a producer was to design and produce games, and I had to outsource certain parts of the game to different companies. It allowed me to get a good business model for developing a studio and knowing what to do in-house and knowing what to outsource," he said.
Mr. Rodgers' background undoubtedly helped him receive funding and support, once he decided to return to Pittsburgh to start HeadRight Games last year.
The company was chosen for Alpha Lab Ace Class in January and received $25,000 in seed funding from the incubator. With help from an additional $50,000 from Innovation Works, HeadRight this summer released its first casual game, "Amusement World."
Part hidden-object game and part puzzle, Amusement World allows users to play carnival favorites skee-ball and darts, along with dozens of original games and challenges. The game was released in August under Big Fish Games for Mac, and was released under Big Fish for PCs on Monday. It will also be released on www.wildtangent.com and www.gamehouse.com and on other sites at the beginning of October.
But even without a seasoned executive like Mr. Rodgers, the heads of casual gaming companies have opportunities to become major industry players with a single hit on one of several new platforms.
"There's more of a pipeline to release games, whether it's a Facebook game or an iOS or Android game or Steam, there are ways to get games out that are pretty effective," said Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center.
At the center, Mr. Davidson said fewer students in video game production classes likely indicates a strong trend toward independently released casual games.
Shawn Patton, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the International Game Developers Association, said many of the city's gaming companies have jumped ahead of the trend by maximizing gaming platforms that have yet to see their full potential.
He cited East Liberty-based Electric Owl, which creates games and gaming kiosks for child-friendly areas, and South Side-based Evil Genius Designs, which creates interactive games for audiences waiting in lines and at movie theaters, as examples.
"They're not [blockbuster] titles but they fill all sorts of interesting niches and holes in the industry," Mr. Patton said.
And even though casual games can be a developer's route to success and independence, there's still room in the market for a blockbuster console game, said Mr. Davidson. He said Gearbox Software's "Borderlands 2" is one of the most highly anticipated console titles to come out in years and will most likely earn back upfront investment costs and then some.
"It seems like it's paying off for some companies," he said.
But considering that developers now can make highly popular games at a fraction of the cost of a blockbuster while being their own boss, Mr. Rodgers questions why emerging developers would want to do things any other way.
"As far as the console business, you have to have an extra $20 million to $30 million lying around to make the game and it's kind of hard to do that," he said. "Consoles are a dying market, but social and mobile games are definitely a growth market."