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June 08, 2015

PHL Collective to release Xbox game, aims for games growth in Philly

Games The Arts
ClusterPuck99 PHL Collective/for PhillyVoice

An Xbox One controller-shaped level of ClusterPuck 99, a hockey-like puzzle game created by a burgeoning Philly game studio.

Whether you've been paying attention or not, Philadelphia's gaming industry has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. In Fall 2013, a coworking space for gamers surfaced in Old City; last fall, Drexel University was one of three game programs to receive a grant from Harrisburg to spur industry growth in Pennsylvania; and slowly but surely, Philly-made mobile games have been popping up on the App Store and Google Play.

Now it can add its first Xbox One game to the list of accomplishments.

The game, ClusterPuck 99, comes from PHL Collective, an indie-game development studio located at 16th and Vine streets. The title will release later this summer. 

PHL Collective founder Nick Madonna described the game as a blend of "hockey, soccer and pinball." The idea: create something that goes back to early gaming roots of sitting on the couch with friends and family in a social atmosphere.

"We wanted to take it back to the experiences of when we were younger, screaming at each other and having that kind of 'party' environment -- pre-Internet," Madonna told PhillyVoice. "That's been lost with online games, and we want to bring that back."

The game supports eight players in the same room. Differing from a PC version of the game released last July, it will contain a full-scale level editor, additional levels and features tailored to the Xbox One interface. 

But PHL Collective's game is most notable for its mere presence on a console -- a recognition of credibility in the gaming market that seldom graces game studios in Philadelphia. So far, only two other studios have put forward resources to make that happen -- both times for PlayStation 4. To be released through the Xbox One online marketplace, it was vetted by Microsoft in a process that took about six months. It's also been recognized by gold-standard game industry critics like GameSpot -- even rarer for a Philly studio.

Outside of projecting Tetris on the Cira Centre, it's the closest thing to getting Philly on the map as a games industry destination. 

"It does legitimize a studio. Most studios go through a process of launching a mobile game, then a PC game, then a console game. It shows growth and ability," Madonna said. "All of a sudden, you have new eyes on you who think of you differently."

Those new eyes were on Madonna and his game at the Game Developer's Conference this March, where he announced ClusterPuck's Xbox One release alongside Microsoft. The annual conference is the industry's largest professionals-only gathering, made up of video-game big leaguers from Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and more.

Nick Madonna

Nick Madonna, founder of PHL Collective, was raised in Philadelphia and left to work for AAA game studios. He came back to launch an indie game studio and collect untapped talent from local universities. Photo courtesy of Nick Madonna

Representing for Philly is part of what keeps Nick Madonna, from South Philadelphia, motivated. He launched his studio in 2013 after years spent developing games in San Francisco, St. Petersburg and New York, where he worked on marketing, quality assurance and development teams for big-budget projects -- including Final Fantasy XII and a remaster of Halo: Combat Evolved

But all the while, he had Philly in mind.

"I always wanted to start my own studio. I was born and raised here, and this is the place I wanted to come back to after traveling and working for different companies," Madonna said. "And instead of hiring all my friends, I wanted to leverage and retain a lot of the talent here in Philly -- especially the game talent and artists coming out of local universities. What we do at PHL Collective, is we only hire people here in Philly."

His team of six full-time employees, for example, has two graduates from Drexel University -- known for its gaming program headed by Frank Lee -- and two graduates from University of the Arts.

Aside from putting out two more to-be-announced game projects, Madonna is setting his crosshairs on growing the company -- and Philly -- to a place where it can be successfully and creatively satisfied. Because Philly only consists of indie studios right now, he said, the community thrives thrive on a lack of pressure from major publishers, ones that encourage studios to create a game based on target audiences, rather than creativity. Being a major city without a big-budget studio, he said, makes Philly unique and filled to the brim with ideas.

And whether or not a major game studio -- Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Capcom, etc. -- ever does move here, he said, gaming can still grow organically -- as it already has.

"The indie scene and what we’ve already built here is pretty important and special," he said. "That’s not to take anything away from larger studios, but people ask us, ‘Why Philly?’ And a lot of times we respond with that Philly blue-collar 'Eff you!' attitude; it’s ‘We don’t need anyone else -- we can do it ourselves.’ And while we laugh when we say that, there’s really a lot of truth in that."