Gaming in the Rust Belt: The story of the Buffalo Game Space


Yeah, the place with the wings

It’s not often I pause an interview because a sizzling plate of loaded fries, topped with thick diced bacon & monterey jack cheese, was just dropped in front of me, but maybe that’s because I don’t conduct many interviews in my home town of Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo is the capital of bar food, all of it delicious and incredibly fattening. It has to be. If you aren’t at least a couple pounds overweight, you will probably freeze to death. Between the fries and chicken fingers, I probably gained a solid 2-3 pounds during my lunch interview with the guys behind the Buffalo Game Space. By the time the check had been paid and we began heading for the door, we probably talked about the addictive relationship Buffalonians have with bar food more than the videogame-related project we had met to discuss.

I paid for lunch, by the way.

If it seems as if I’m belaboring the food aspect of this meeting, it’s because it’s hard to separate the location from the interview. Cole’s, a downtown Buffalo staple, nestled between other downtown Buffalo staples, is a great place to eat if you’re way into satisfyingly thick burgers and delicious chicken wings. But there’s more to it than that. Food is intrinsic to Buffalo’s culture. The Taste of Buffalo is the largest two-day food festival in the country. Hell, you probably know Buffalo through its main export: buffalo wings. We just call them “chicken wings” back home, because we know what city we’re in.

Buffalo is so connected to food because we don’t have much of an identity beyond it. Unless you’re already familiar with the subject of this feature, when you think ‘Buffalo, NY,’ you don’t think videogames. Perhaps you think of the legendarily inept Buffalo Bills, best known for their four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Maybe if you’re way into sociology, you know that Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.

Point is, Buffalo and the games industry couldn’t be further apart. John Futscher and Chris Langford, the co-founders of the Buffalo Game Space, feel differently. They see this traditional blue-collar city as the next big startup town.

“There’s an image of this area that’s very blue-collar and I think the attitude here is very blue-collar, but the level of education is much higher than people expect,” Futscher said.

“I don’t see those as mutually exclusive,” Langford added. “A lot of people in our tech community come from blue-collar backgrounds and we kind of bring that in with our attitudes and the way we work.”

“I don’t know about you, but after this, I’m going back to my tractor,” joked Volker Einsfeld, the BGS’ treasurer of the board.

Credit -- Harry Scull Jr, Buffalo NewsThe aforementioned Cole’s (Harry Scull Jr, Buffalo News)

The Buffalo Game Space was founded around two and a half years ago when Futscher began making videogames full time. “I was starting to make games on the side. I’d been doing that for a while and hit a wall.” He started looking around for fellow Buffalo-based developers and eventually met Langford online.

“It turned out we were working three blocks away from each other at the time. I was at CitiGroup and [Langford] was at HTO. We got together with a couple people and started bringing more people into the fold, starting hosting meetups. That’s where we found PJ and starting hosting meetups at Canisius, and those grew a little bit,” Futscher said.

PJ is short for Przemyslaw Moskal, another lunch guest. He’s an associate professor in Digital Media Arts at Canisius College, a private school in the heart of Buffalo, where he once taught Langford. It’s a nice enough place. I even considered going there when I was looking at schools. Thanks to him, the Buffalo Game Space has a working relationship with the college, hosting meetups and game jams on the campus.

“When they met, Chris sent me an email, ‘Hey PJ, we are cooking something out here. At that point, naturally I invited the group because I knew they were homeless. I invited them,” PJ said.

“As someone who teaches interaction design, games are sort of a subset of that. I’m always interested in creating opportunities for my student because of the way Buffalo is. We don’t have that many high-tech companies. I’m always interested in creating a community around that, I just never really had a starting point, an anchor point to start with. When this opportunity arrived I just quickly jumped on it and I guess the rest is history.”

Canisius College

The first Buffalo Game Space couldn’t hold the rapidly expanding group of developers, much to everyone’s surprise.

“The warehouse space wasn’t being used for anything else. Along with PJ and these guys, we pitched them the idea of, ‘Hey, this isn’t really being used for anything else. What, say, we use this? If we clean it up and set it up, can we use this spot?’ They were all for it.

It gave us access to this room, and we revamped the whole place and made it our own and started hosting bigger meetups and events and game jams and our own game jams and workshops and talks with industry professionals and so on and so forth,” Futscher said.

Eventually, the space became too cramped, bringing us to the group’s Kickstarter. In September, the Buffalo Game Space launched a funding campaign. For most of the campaign’s running time, it looked as if local game developers would be stuck working out of a warehouse forever.

“Towards the end there it was getting kind of — I don’t want to say we cut it close, but it was getting tight towards the end. I was fairly confident the last couple days that we were going to pull through because we were getting good feedback from people,” Langford said.

“When you kickstart a campaign, that middle run is dry. You get that plateau, a lot in the beginning and then the big call to arms in the end and that’s where we saw the community come out and support it. It was exciting. You get a lot of people in the middle that’s like ‘Sure I’m going to donate to that.’ Until the deadline is looming they don’t sign in and do it,” Futscher said.

Despite looming odds, the Buffalo Game Space 2.0 was fully funded on October 16. They were looking for $40,000, crossing the finish line at the last second with only 441 dollars to spare.

Concept art of the future Buffalo Game SpaceConcept art of the forthcoming Buffalo Game Space

If you had told me a videogame-based nonprofit would have found success in Buffalo, NY, I would’ve called you a liar. This is an area where you’re more likely to see enormous trucks carrying equally enormous Confederate flags than a Prius. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single hybrid car. The city has always been saddled with a very Midwestern reputation: politeness is the order of the day, ‘soda’ is actually ‘pop,’ and innovation is several states away. But the team behind the Buffalo Game Space thinks Buffalo is on its way to becoming relevant in the larger tech industry.

“We’re seeing a lot of big companies recognizing the amount of cost to live here versus how smart and educated the people are. You’re seeing the Googles and the Yahoos and the IBMs or whoever are all looking to put like data centers and stuff around here now too. While the attitude is still very much blue-collar you have these Elmwood neighborhoods, Allentown neighborhoods, and the downtown tech groups that are all springing up,” said Futscher. “There’s a wellspring of start-up talent in this sector right now that I think people are just starting to kind of take notice of.”

This increase in startups may be a result of the Medical Corridor — a sizable expansion of the already popular Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus — bringing permanent change to downtown Buffalo. The Corridor essentially replaces an unused part of Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood with even more Medical Campus buildings, giving wealthier medical students a place to live and spend their money. It’s not quite Silicon Valley or the Bay Area, but it’s had a real effect on Allentown’s rent prices, and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Allentown has become your basic gentrified neighborhood, except the artisan food trucks have been smothered by mountains of snow.

A more gentrified Buffalo would be a “good problem” for the Buffalo Game Space to have, but they currently aren’t worried about being priced out of the area. “The trajectory right now is definitely moving in the right direction. 10 years from now, if everything is gentrified and pricing everybody out, then we’ll deal with that problem as it comes. That’s a long way coming and a lot of good things would have to happen on the way to that before that becomes a problem,” Futscher said.

“We have all these old industrial places that are just dirt cheap and that’s why it was rather easy to find this space in comparison to, you know, places like New York City or San Francisco. I think it’s a great place to be if you are starting any kind of business,” Moskal said.

The Gates Vascular Institute, another part of the Medical Corridor

Even though Buffalo’s tech sector is starting to grow, Langford, Futscher, Moskal, and their compatriots are still the faces of videogame development in Western New York, and there are challenges inherent to being ahead of everybody else.

“We’re the canary in the coal mine. We have to get it right. We do everything that we can to make it, to help grow this community. It’s not just the jams and stuff. It’s making sure that we offer things that people are interested in,” Langford said.

“Without going into clichés, the stronger we make the community around us, it builds itself. You make everybody else more confident in what they’re doing, other people see them, they get inspired to jump in and do it too.

“I think a lot of people are scared to come out and try something. That’s where we all started at some point. Whether we went to college for it or not. Whether we started on our own or not. We all started not knowing anything and got to the point where we’re at now. Making sure that people know that. They should be comfortable to come and nobody is going to look down on them for not being a pro. To get that started, I think that’s the big thing from my perspective.”

Spend any real length of time with Futscher, Langford, & the others and you’ll get a sense of genuine pride mixed in with just the right amount of trepidation. To them, building up the Buffalo Game Space is an altruistic pursuit, and they have every reason to be proud of what they’ve accomplished.

Just a few days before our interview, the group signed a lease at the Tri-Main Center; a mixed-use office building located in downtown Buffalo. Even with the understandable apprehension that comes with being the first of anything, nobody seemed truly worried. But when you’re about to take a big risk, excitement and worry start to blend together.

When I started wrapping up the formal interview, Futscher made sure the final word was dedicated to Buffalo’s indie game community. “We are not out there trying to take advantage of anybody. Any dollar that comes in and spent is very well planned, we know exactly where that’s going to go and how it’s going to go back into the community, none of us are trying to leech off any money,” Futscher said.

“We are in it for the group and not to get rich off some trend or something.”