Leveling Up in OKC

How James Simpson is shaking up the video game industry from Oklahoma City.

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James Simpson

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

Modern Pioneers

Welcome to Modern Pioneers, a profile series brought to you by Lifewire and UScellular, in which we spotlight innovators who are forging their own paths in the tech world. First up is James Simpson, an indie developer who is shaking up the video game industry from Oklahoma City. 

In much the same way that a Sundance darling might influence the next major blockbuster, indie games have a way of shaping the video game industry. Developers like James Simpson, the founder of Goldfire Studios in Oklahoma City, take risks to explore the possibilities of video games, pushing the boundaries of the medium from a storytelling, artistic and technological perspective. If you’ve played any video game in recent years, chances are that you’ve benefited from the hard work and boundless imagination of indie developers.

If you’re strolling through one of those beautiful OKC parks at the right time, you might catch Simpson leaving voice memos on his phone or listening to a podcast, two activities made easy by the network dependency of UScellular

James Simpson

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“If I'm trying to figure out some code or story issue, I'll walk around some of the great parks here in Downtown OKC.”

The upcoming title from Goldfire Studios, Arctic Awakening, perfectly captures the stunning beauty and technological innovation of indie gaming. That’s why we wanted to catch up with James Simpson on one of his brainstorming walks through scenic parks in downtown Oklahoma City.

These parks are only one example of the new Oklahoma City, featuring a burgeoning tech scene, standout restaurants and a revitalized downtown. It’s a much different place than it was when Simpson founded Goldfire Studios more than a decade ago. “You could walk around downtown and not really see anyone in the evenings. These days downtown is always packed. There's tons of great restaurants, all sorts of startups, community events and the film industry is taking off here as well.” 

There are a variety of reasons for the changes to Oklahoma City. Simpson points to the MAPS program, which uses a one percent sales tax in the city to fund major public projects. There’s also the professional basketball team, for which Simpson is a season ticket holder, that draws thousands to the downtown area on game nights. The other big factor is that many creative, entrepreneurial people are committing to the city instead of fleeing to the coasts. Simpson, born and raised in Oklahoma, is one of them, doing his part to make Oklahoma City a destination for developers, artists and storytellers. 

James Simpsons

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

Simpson certainly had the opportunity to follow a more conventional path in the video game industry, one that would have undoubtedly taken him far from Oklahoma City. After selling his first game at the age of 14, he kept creating all throughout high school and college. As his work grew more complex, the major studios began to notice and send job offers. The prospect of working for a AAA studio in California is a dream job for many, but Simpson knew right away that a huge company wasn’t the right fit. 

“I have a friend who's an artist at a big AAA studio. I remember them telling me how they spent six months working on a cluster of rocks. That didn't interest me,” Simpson says, explaining his choice to stay in Oklahoma instead of becoming a cog in a machine. “I'm interested in so many different aspects of the process."

"Being small and indie, you get to take the things in the direction that you want and work on so many different things. It keeps it fresh.” 

After securing funding for Goldfire Studios in 2012, there were practical reasons to stay in Oklahoma City. The inexpensive cost of living gave the studio a longer runway than it would have in California, which allowed Simpson more freedom to experiment without immediately having to think about turning a profit. Even so, the idea of a video game studio based in Oklahoma City might have struck some as odd, since there weren’t any others at the time. However, being in a smaller market ultimately proved to be more of a feature than a bug.  

“In larger markets you're probably going to spend most of your time around other people that are in the same industry,” Simpson says. “In a smaller market, there's just not enough people in each specific industry for that to be the case. I think you end up with a lot more cross-pollination across different industries, providing different perspectives that otherwise might have been siloed off.” 

In other words, having some distance from the center of the video game world gives Simpson more perspective and clarity. It allows him to rethink certain aspects of the industry that those steeped in it take for granted, like the usual process of creating a new game. 

James Simpson

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

“Traditionally in games, you come up with the characters, the gameplay, the mechanics and the locations first. You build a lot of the game and then writers come in and fit a story around those pieces. That would be like making a movie by filming all the locations and then trying to piece that together as a story. It probably isn't going to turn out that great.” 

That line of thinking is what led Simpson to rethink the process when building the latest game for Goldfire Studios, Arctic Awakening. They began with the story, which centers around a pilot stranded in the arctic with only his court-mandated therapy drone to help guide him back to civilization. Every other aspect of the game flowed from that story. 

“Our mantra through this has been story first. Whenever we add something into the game, we have to go back to make sure, 'Okay, does this support the story?' If not, it doesn't belong in the game. Our hypothesis is that that's going to result in a much better, more cohesive storytelling experience within the gameplay.” 

JamesArcade

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

It’s the kind of insight that seems obvious in retrospect, but it was only possible because of Simpson’s background. Not only does he lack the tunnel vision of those in the center of the gaming world, his artistic interests extend beyond video games. As an avid drone photographer, Simpson was a prime candidate for viewing games in a more cinematic way. One of his favorite activities outside of work is traveling around Oklahoma, enjoying and photographing its surprisingly diverse and dynamic landscapes.

Whether he’s traveling to a drone photography film festival a couple hours outside of Oklahoma City or capturing bird sounds in a forest to be used in a game, Simpson can be confident that he’ll still be reachable by his team thanks to the expansive network of UScellular

James Simpson

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

But his passions don’t always lead him so far away from the city. Since 2013, Simpson has hosted a meetup for game developers in Oklahoma City. “At that time, I didn't really know anyone in the community who was doing game development. It was a way to find out who else around here is doing this kind of thing and connect, and it's grown into something much bigger than that. We've got more than 500 members from around the state.” 

At these meetups, community members give talks, lead workshops and host play test days. During the latter the members bring in what they’ve been working on to get feedback from the others. It’s a process that is much more collaborative than it is competitive. “We're all just trying to help each other grow game development in the city and in the state,” Simpson says. 

Due to Covid, these meetups have gone virtual for the past year and a half. The pandemic has changed other things for Simpson, with Goldfire Studios transitioning into a fully remote workplace. But staying connected across wide distances is nothing new for Simpson—he’s used to leaning on his cell network to keep in touch with industry peers on the coasts and remote developers in different cities. 

Simpson continues to check Twitter on his phone regularly to follow industry insiders and gaming journalists. But he’s had to do something different to maintain the culture and collaborative spirit of Goldfire Studios. He’s started to invite his team to play games during lunch breaks to have some time together that isn’t so business-focused. 

James Simpson

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

Using games to keep people connected across great distances reflects the philosophy of Goldfire Studios. “We want to make our games as accessible as possible to the widest audience possible. We want our players to be able to play wherever, whenever they prefer,” Simpson says. “Our mission is to shrink the world through a shared love of story.” 

James on roof

Lifewire / Brian McGuffog

James Simpson is an incredible example of the innovation happening across the country. Stay tuned for the next chapter of Modern Pioneers, presented by Lifewire and UScellular, to see who else is rethinking their industry in unexpected ways. 

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