Power Button According to the panelists at the “Mass Effect 2: The Sate of Gaming in Massachusetts” panel at the MIT Business in Gaming conference last Thursday, the answer is “maybe not.”

I have to say, I was surprised at the overall tone of the panel. My expectations going into it were that we’d be hearing all about the growth in the gaming sector in Massachusetts – how heavy hitters like Turbine, Irrational Games and Harmonix Music Systems as well as about 75 other companies have built a thriving gaming industry here in the Commonwealth.

Yet, I’m sad to say that the mood in the room was a little depressing. Jon Radoff, a serial entrepreneur whose ventures include the current social game publisher Disruptor Beam and most recently GamerDNA (which merged with Crispy Gamer in 2009), asked the audience if anyone was thinking of starting a gaming company in Massachusetts. To the several people who raised their hands, he then said, “If I were you, I’d seriously re-consider.”

Why? According to Radoff, it’s because, despite the academic excellence in the Boston area, Massachusetts has three serious impediments to building consumer technology companies: (1) the financial environment “stinks,” (2) there’s not a lot of gaming talent in the area compared to the West Coast and (3) prehistoric legislative policies still exist around contract workers and non-competes.

Ken Levine, co-founder, president and creative director of Irrational Games, which employs 175 people in Massachusetts, concurred.

“Massachusetts doesn’t have a critical mass of studios to get people to come here.”  Levine explained that Massachusetts’ non-compete laws hamper people’s ability to seek work elsewhere if one job fails.

“People wonder, ‘where else would I go if this job doesn’t work out?’ and that makes it hard to take the risk to move to Massachusetts,” he said. 

Plus, the past year hasn’t been good for Triple A gaming companies in Massachusetts: Harmonix Music Systems lost more than $300 million in the first nine months of last year, leading to its sale, and Curt Schilling’s company 38 Studios announced last Fall that it’d be moving its headquarters to Rhode Island.

On the flip side, some of the panelists felt strongly progress is being made. Tim Loew of Becker College highlighted the increased legislative focus on the gaming industry and spoke about the tax credit bills pending in Congress as well as potential non-compete reform. 

“Massachusetts is a brains and innovation state and that’s the kind of industry gaming is,” he said. “Over 20 colleges in Massachusetts now teach courses on or have majors in gaming.”

Overall, it seemed like everyone on the panel – and many in the audience – felt there’s a stigma in the gaming industry: that the industry doesn’t get as much respect as other entertainment channels. Yet, at the same time, there was incredible energy at the show from all sides of the industry – publishers, designers, lawyers, marketers, educators and students. And, this weekend, more than 60,000 people descended on Boston to attend PAX East. To me, that says something for the Hub as a top spot for gaming companies.

What do you think? Does the gaming industry not get enough respect by the Massachusetts government? Do gaming industry professionals need to treat themselves with more seriousness if we’re ever going to change the industry perception? Tell me your thoughts. Would you start a gaming company here?

Contributed by Stacey L. Mann. Follow her @sliedermanmann

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