What it’s Like to be a Video Game Developer in Milwaukee: We Attended the Second-Ever M-DEV Conference

Being a game developer away from the coasts can mean either unity or fragmentation, depending on where you live.

Last year was the first M-DEV game development conference, when the M referred to both Midwest and Madison. This year, the M more clearly referred to Midwest, with presenters who mostly came from the country’s midsection, where they brought about storms of insight. Like the last M-DEV, this year’s was a great magnet for interesting people, including an amateur programmer who writes game code longhand on paper.

Also in attendance was a small army of students from UW-Stout’s Game Design and Development program, which simulates professional development using teams of students. The school has games for checking out in its library and a game room that includes an arcade cabinet with student projects. According to Stout students at the conference, the most notorious project in recent memory was a fighting game between elderly characters where walkers can be used as weapons.

Milwaukee-based Forever Interactive demonstrated its Steam Early Access game Visions of Zosimos at the conference, which combines parts of collectible card games and top-down strategy, creating a swarm of dice, bright colors and interesting character designs. The world is based on a kind of Gnostic mysticism, where visions are important, and what the developers are calling Hermetic alchemy. Taken all together, the mechanics play out similar to a tabletop game with distinct turn phases.

Also-Milwaukee-based Raphael Azcueta, a one-man-band of development, presented on how to show your game to strangers — something he’s done a lot of. Over the past year or two, he’s racked up several thousand miles on his car showing his game to groups of players at various gaming events and conventions, particularly those for the fighting game community (multiplayer games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat). His game, The Moon Fields, combines aspects of Zelda and Super Smash Bros. It’s basically a brawler where players, trying to smash each other, control different characters with different abilities. The complexities are many-layered: What will players find fun? What will they exploit? Which character is overpowered, or underpowered? He needs answers for these questions.

It might be tempting for a solo developer to work in a bubble, but Azcueta says, “I show people all my new things all the time.”

He knows a lot about gaming events across the country. For example, if you find yourself at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, attend the POW chip tunes and indie games sub-event, he says. He did once and met Rami Ismail of developer Vlambeer while listening to the works of Ben Prunty, a moment of indie gaming bliss.

A Milwaukee native, Azcueta has tried working as a developer in both Madison and Milwaukee and found the former to be more conducive. In Milwaukee, he says, the circles are more closed, more hip, and there’s no central place to find out about gaming events — not the case in Madison and Chicago. The situation in Milwaukee “is not great, but it can be overcome,” he says.

Cool things are happening — Mooncat Arcade, which recently put on an Indie Arcade at the Oak and Shield Gaming Pub, are one example.

At the other end of the organizational spectrum, Arthur Low, tech director at Lost Boys Interactive in Madison, described managing larger teams of very smart but very individualistic people. Some, he finds, just need a goal and a time frame and thrive on plotting their own course. Others need much more “accountability.” Some programmers don’t need to know how something like jumping fits into the wider game, and others need to understand the design.

On the weekends, he participates in game jams and tackles different programming challenges for fun, such as coding “fog of war,” a fog or shadow that covers the unexplored parts of a game map. And somewhere in there, he plays games, too. He needs to as he chats with his co-developers all the time about what makes a “good” game.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.