Orlando evolving to video game hub

Published August 10, 2005

In the brute force economics of mass-scale entertainment, it seems unfair to pit such Walt Disney second-tier films as Bambi 2, Brother Bear 2 and Cinderella 3 against this week's brawling debut of Electronic Arts' powerhouse video game Madden NFL 06.

But the matchups must be made.

Disney this summer said it will close its last studio specializing in hand-drawn animation films. DisneyToon Studios Australia will shut its doors next year after finishing the films noted above. The shutdown comes on the heels of last year's closing of Disney's feature animation facilities in Orlando and its Tokyo studio.

Electronic Arts, a giant in video game development, operates a facility just outside Orlando where it creates hit games based on Tiger Woods PGA Tour, NASCAR and, of course the latest Madden NFL. Last year's version, Madden NFL 2005, sold more than 6-million copies and was the top-selling sports video game of 2005 in North America.

The version out this week should dominate the NFL video game market, especially now that Electronic Arts holds an exclusive license with the National Football League and its players.

But first, a moment of silence. The era of hand-drawn animation once defined and dominated by Disney is drawing to a close.

Hail the age of computer-generated imagery.

This rapid evolution is playing out 90 minutes away in Orlando.

In addition to the formidable presence of Disney and Electronic Arts, Orlando is home to a new training facility. In less than two weeks, 12 graduate students will start their first class at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy.

The grad school, affiliated with the University of Central Florida's school of film and digital media, is among the first to offer students advanced training in video game development.

This could be the start of something big bound to get bigger. After all, the $10-billion video game industry generates more revenue than Hollywood movies. (Though the line between the industries is blurring.)

The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy was born after Electronic Arts and other game developers came to UCF and said they needed to hire more trained people than they could find in the area. The academy came together after the university, Electronic Arts, Orlando area economic development officials, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council and the state of Florida (with a $4.2-million grant) pooled their resources.

At a spring conference on technology in Orlando, I listened to Electronic Arts chief operating officer Ben Noel describe the need for a school to train more people in advanced game development. At the time, Noel was on loan from Electronic Arts to help get the academy up and running. This summer, Noel became the full-time executive director of the academy.

The first students in the 16-month, $29,500 program should find plenty of job offers come graduation day.

There are some lessons for the Tampa Bay area in this tale.

First, Orlando must be congratulated for leveraging the arrival of Electronic Arts (which bought a Maitland game developer called Tiburon in 1998) and making the graduate-level Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy a reality. If Orlando plays it smart, the metro area could emerge as a significant player in what is clearly an industry poised for megagrowth.

On a smaller scale, Electronic Arts is to Orlando's video gaming industry what Scripps Research is expected to become to West Palm Beach's (if not all of Florida's) bioscience industry.

Second, the academy will train game developers, many of whom will be hired locally and at healthy salaries. This becomes a plus not only for generating better-paying jobs, but for attracting younger, educated adults to remain in Central Florida. So kudos to a practical plan to produce people with specialized skills.

Third, beyond traditional theme parks and tourism, Orlando and UCF have demonstrated a knack at developing promising and higher-paying business hubs. The metro area is well regarded for its concentration of entrepreneurs and young companies with expertise in laser technologies. The area also is gaining a stronger reputation in the defense industry.

And now, 12 days before opening day, an academy in downtown Orlando is pushing the envelope on video game development.

Florida likes to talk a lot about training its work force for better 21st century jobs. This time, it's happening.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.