Finnish video game publisher Mika Laaja had never been to Austin, or Texas for that matter.
But he’s here now for South by Southwest Interactive to drum up publicity for his company’s mobile racing game, “AG Drive.”
“It’ll be a bit of a new experience for us,” said Laaja, who is fresh off the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco earlier this month. “Austin is a very cool town, from what I’ve read or heard.”
Video games have long been a part of SXSW, but their presence continues to grow. Whether it’s to make a splash or to network, developers continue to flock to Austin to be a part of the conference’s critical mass of tech industry movers and shakers.
Last year, the gaming portion of SXSW drew about 48,000 people and filled the parking garage of the Palmer Events Center in an hour. This year, the festival’s gaming project manager, Justin Burnham, said he “conservatively” expects 55,000 attendees.
“We’re growing faster than we can staff,” Burnham said.
On Friday, scores of independent developers showed off their games to onlookers who packed the gaming expo at Palmer Events Center.
Robert Dougherty, who runs a gaming company out of Boston, was walking attendees through his spacethemed card game, “Star Realms.”
“It’s our first South by Southwest,” Dougherty said. “We just want to show as many people as possible the game.”
Another product, SymGym, looked more like a piece of fitness equipment. It required users to move their arms and legs to control the game on- screen.
“The idea, it’s combining the exercise and the gaming all in one,” said Glenn Susz, as he helped an attendee use the device.
This year at SXSW, gaming panels run the gamut from talks by programmers for the Intellivision console to a speaker who wants to use gaming to forge peace between Israelis and Palestin- ians.
While SXSW has dabbled in gaming for years, Burnham was brought in four years ago to grow the gaming segment. In addition to panels and featured speakers, the gaming portion has stages devoted to e- sports, comics and other nerd culture pursuits.
“(Gaming) is under the Interactive umbrella,” Burnham said, “but it’s like the baby that can almost walk on its own.”
Burnham credited the growth to being a part of SXSW, which is one of the largest festivals in the country. That leads to not only hardcore fans showing up, but also casual attendees dropping by, he said.
“I think it’s just a perfect blend of everything,” Burnham said.
The growth of video gaming at SXSW comes as the industry continues to be a growing part of the Texas economy.
The computer and video game industry in Texas grew by 15.9 percent from 2009 to 2012 and added $764 million to the state economy, according to a study last year by the Entertainment Software Association. The number of video game establishments in Texas increased to 127 in 2012 from 80 in 2009, according to the study. That’s continued to increase since 2012. Last year, the Entertainment Software Association’s Tom Foulkes told the state House Select Committee on Economic Development Incentives that Texas has moved ahead of Washington state and is just behind California in video game production. He said the state’s 200 game developers employ about 5,000 Texans at an average annual salary of $90,000.
Chris Pfaff, who owns a New Jersey based tech marketing firm and is working with Laaja’s company, said SXSW is a good way to get attention for a new game and also to network.
“The gaming scene in Austin is pretty robust, so we’re looking to hook up with like-minded folks, but also partners on the advertising side, the branded entertainment side,” Pfaff said. “It’s a good way to introduce not only the game, but also the chops that (the company heads) have to a new audience.”
Pfaff said he thinks SXSW is now known more for the Interactive portion than anything else — even music.
“People go to South by Southwest to learn and network and take a pulse on what’s happening,” he said. “And (people) know that if you want to be in the nerve center of creativity and really aggressive forward thinking creativity, you kind of have to be there. It’s one of the few events where you’re really conspicuous by your absence.”