Smile Politely

The Champaign-Urbana IGDA stays connected through community

IGDA Facebook

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is an organization that connects people who are part of every facet of the gaming industry. Champaign-Urbana has their own chapter that is open to developers, but also to students, hobbyists, and anyone interested in this industry. I spoke with four of the members, and from their answers and the mission of the IGDA, it is clear that community is a main component of this group.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do? 

Mitch Cronin: I’ve been in games for almost 19 years now. Presently I’m the lead publishing producer at Humble Games, an indie game publisher. Prior to that I was at Volition for about 16 years in a number of roles including production, QA, and release management. I fell in love with games as a kid and they’re still by far my favorite form of media and favorite way to engage with stories.

Jason Scott: I’m originally from Maine, but I’ve been living in the C-U area since 1997. I worked at Volition for 25 years until its closure last August. My background is in design and narrative, and I’ve taught courses at the University of Illinois and Parkland. I also founded the Mindful Teacher Foundation and ran that organization from 2012 to 2022.

Emilie Butt: I was actually born and raised here in C-U. I’m the Engagement & Instruction Coordinator for the C-U Community Fab Lab, and affiliated faculty within the Game Studies and Design program at the U of I. I actually come from librarianship — specifically teen services — so a lot of my work focuses around makerspace and game design education.  

Katherine Marlin: I am a production leader and product owner in the games industry. I was born in Urbana and have worked in games for all of my approximately 22 year career in C-U: At Volition as an audio designer and Lead Producer, remotely at Santa Monica Studio (Sony Interactive Entertainment) as a Gamplay Pillar Producer, and currently I am Senior Product Owner at Undead Labs (Microsoft). I enjoy working with diverse and talented game teams to bring complex video games to life. In my job I wear a lot of hats, but at the end of the day, I help large teams work better together to deliver quality game experiences for our players in a sustainable way.

SP: Why did you decide to join this organization? 

Cronin: I mean, the short answer is “Jason Scott asked me to.” The longer answer is after he asked me, I started to do some research since while I’d heard of the organization I didn’t really know much about it. Once I learned more about the mission and the sort of events that it puts on I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of and it sounded like a lot of fun and like a cool way to give back to the game development community and help it grow here in the C-U area.

Scott: The pandemic and the transition to remote work profoundly changed the video game industry. Previously there were just a few game companies in the area, with Volition as the flagship employer. However, once studios opened up to remote work and people could find jobs anywhere and everywhere, our community became much more fragmented. Instead of everyone here working for the same company, employment became distributed across 20 to 30 studios, from major first-party publishers like Microsoft and Sony, to small independents. With the structure provided by IGDA, I saw an opportunity to bring everyone together, and so I reached out to Kate and Mitch to see if they would be interested in starting up a chapter here. Emilie and Katryna joined the board soon after to represent the university community.

Butt: Can I agree with Mitch’s short answer? The reason for why I agreed, and why this chapter specifically, is because I see all the time how much my students are looking for knowledge and connection with people currently working in the industry. There are many things that faculty that aren’t currently in the industry (or are years ahead in their careers, with times rapidly changing) simply cannot answer — and giving students a community where they can ask those questions and get real answers will help them grow as potential developers. The short of it is Jason came to me, introduced me to IGDA, and then gave me this vision of a local community that supports and connects all people interested in games — whether it is kids dipping their toes into game design for the first time, hobbyists designing outside of work, students in our classes, or professional developers in the industry — that can give kids and students a vision of the path forward if they want to take it, but also respects those who just want to make games without it being their career, and that was something I 100% wanted to be a part of.

Marlin: When I first became interested in the games industry, I joined the IGDA and was selected for a student scholarship to attend the Game Developers Conference — which was impactful for my growth — this is a critical yearly conference where industry veterans share knowledge. The IGDA has always had a good focus on student growth and industry mentorship and throughout my career it has also been an important voice for the state of the game community at large.

During the pandemic, many local C-U game developers started to work remotely for game studios and tech companies across the US and were looking to stay in touch as a community. I had started to form a local special interest group and then Jason Scott got in touch with me to help found the official IGDA chapter for C-U! I was thrilled!

SP: Can you tell me about the IGDA? 

Cronin: IGDA stands for the International Game Developers Association. They’re an organization that has chapters all over the world and are collections of folks passionate about every and any aspect of the games industry. It’s not just professionals in the industry but also students interested in joining the industry, hobbyists who just like making games on the side, esports personnel, streamers and anything and everything in between.

Each chapter is region-specific to bring members of that community together so that it can best serve the needs of each unique region in their own special way. As an example, one region might focus more on indie game developers and sponsor a lot of game jams, whereas others might have more professionals in a particular discipline so they can focus on interesting talks relating to that or mixers.

Scott: In addition to the chapters, the IGDA also runs Special Interest Groups or SIGs that are topic focused rather than located in a specific community. IGDA also runs a global mentorship program and special events at major industry venues like the Game Developers’ Conference and Gamescom.

Marlin: I will add that the IGDA also does important surveys for quality of life for developers, pulling together helpful statistics and giving voice to tough issues. I personally enjoy participating in the game developer and parenting IGDA SIG as well as the women’s SIG.

SP: From your website it looks like you’ve got an event coming up; can you tell me about it? 

Cronin: We always try to have several events cooking. There’s always a social mixer once a month that we try to alternate between a campus and an off-campus venue. Lately we’ve been doing these at Riggs and Legends, which has been great.

Additionally we just had our first game jam in January as a part of the Global Game Jam. A game jam is an event where you split into small teams and you’re given a short span of time to make a short playable game around a particular theme. This year’s theme was something to make people laugh. It was a great experience and we’ll definitely be doing more of these. We’ve also got a community event coming up to help clean-up the Boneyard Creek.

Scott: In April, we’ll have a social gathering at Legends on the 6th, and we’re organizing a team to help with the Boneyard Creek Community Day clean-up on the 20th. (We put together a Volition team last year and had a lot of fun — someone even found a DVD player.) Game Studies & Design at Illinois is hosting their spring Playful by Design Symposium, and we may be involved with that event in some capacity. We’ve also done roundtables and panels, and we’re planning to offer more of those in the future.

Marlin: My favorite event so far that we held was a round table discussion for how to improve the remote game development experience for those of us who work miles away from the office. I also emceed a panel with my colleagues on indie game development and publishing, which was insightful for anyone trying to get started on their first games. We hold events to bring our talented community of game developers, students, and game hobbyists together to build each other up; there is a lot to share!

SP: What in your opinion, makes the C-U chapter special? 

Cronin: You can’t talk about the C-U game dev scene without talking about Volition. Champaign was lucky enough to hose an amazing AAA studio with Volition, which sadly closed down in August of last year. However the impact of that studio and remote work means we’ve got a lot of gaming professionals still local to the area working at over 15 different gaming companies right here in the area. On top of that we have the U of I and Parkland that have a number of exciting opportunities for students to get involved.  

When you combine the two, this area has a unique mix of a veteran professional gaming community alongside a passionate and hungry base of students excited to learn and dive into the game dev world.  

Scott: It’s a great group of people who represent a wide cross-section of game development–industry vets, hobbyists, educators and researchers, AAA and indie developers, video game and board game creators (such as the incredible community involved with CUDO Plays). We’re part of a vibrant tech and gaming ecosystem here in Champaign-Urbana, and the IGDA connects us to a global community.  

Butt: I would certainly say that the intersection between industry, education, and hobby really is what makes IGDA C-U special. We try very hard to be as open as possible, and make it clear that you do not need to be in the industry to join us! As someone who primarily focuses on board games and escape rooms, before the first social I attended I was worried about how welcoming folks would be, but there is a shared passion around all things games. 

Marlin: C-U has a unique community for game developers because it is unusual to have this much game presence in a town of this size in the Midwest. Between various university game programs, the strong tech force of the U of I, and the former studio Volition; we are a bit of an anomaly.

SP: It seems like community is a big part of IGDA. Why is community important to the work you do? 

Cronin: Making a game is a pretty unique experience and as many folks will attest, “making games is hard.” The sheer number of different challenges and hardships that arise from making a game make it all the more important.

Scott: Community is why the organization exists and why we started this chapter. This is a challenging time to be working in games, whether you’re facing layoffs or trying to make a start or just dealing with the pressures and volatility of the industry. Connecting with others who are going through similar difficulties or who are able to lend support can be a source of strength and resilience.

Butt: I would also say community is important in any creative pursuit. Whether it is learning new skills, getting feedback and outside perspectives, or just support through your struggles — having a community around you who understands your particular area helps to keep you going. And that support network can help you do things you didn’t think possible, and open new doors, possibilities, and passions.

Marlin: As a producer and advocate for the game, I need to be familiar with the greater gaming audience and community. When delivering game experiences, I have to understand the diverse range and needs of our players. Over the years I have worked with organizations such as the AbleGamers Foundation to ensure games are accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

I enjoy mentoring students at Bradley University, the U of I, and others in the community who want to be a part of the games industry — it allows me to honor my previous internship opportunities and mentors. I was able to get my first internship in the industry through a program at Urbana High School. Community is everything.

SP: Can you tell me about the interest groups? Especially the affinity groups.

Cronin: While the chapters are organized by location, the interest groups are organized by a common topic. The interest groups are generally more specific than something as broad as “art” or “design.”

Scott: SIGs are organized into three broad categories: Advocacy (social issues such as climate action, allyship, accessibility, or mental health), Affinity (connecting people who share similar backgrounds or interests such as parents, people of color, or those who identify as neurodivergent), and Discipline (the craft of making games such as design, programming, art, production, or quality assurance). SIGs are open to IGDA members globally. 

Marlin: I enjoy participating in the parent affinity group where working parents share tips, tricks, and shoulders to lean on for how to achieve the dream of work-life balance.

SP: Why is it important for members to feel like they have a group of people to connect with? 

Scott: As Mitch said, making games is really hard. Remote work has a lot of benefits, but it can also be very lonely and isolating.

Marlin: It takes a lot of diverse creative, social, organizational, and technical talent to pull a video game together. It is also fairly niche. It is critical to stay in touch with people who share the same type of passion to have people you can relate to and share stories. The games industry is also constantly shifting and a strong network can be critical for finding opportunities, co-development help, technology answers, and other needs.

SP: What’s your favorite place in C-U? 

Cronin: Man, I gotta just pick one? I’m going with Punch!. The cocktails there are crazy good and the concept is really cool. I love how every seasonal cocktail on the menu was made by someone from the staff and it’s so fun asking someone “Which one was yours?” and hearing them talk about their inspiration and how they made it. Close second is Allerton in early spring or late fall when the trees are barren, the air is chilly and nobody is out there.

Scott: I miss working in Downtown Champaign. It was nice to be able to take a break and walk around Westside Park, stop by Cafe Kopi for an Americano, or grab lunch at a restaurant or food truck.

Butt: I don’t know if I can pick one! Though I rarely get out there to walk as much as I would like, I really like both the Japan House and Busey Woods trails. I particularly like watching the turtles and fish at the Japan House’s lake.

Marlin: Carle Park in Urbana for me. That little park of zen was a special part of my world for a long time.

SP: Anything else you want to share?

Scott: Anyone in the local area with an interest in game development is welcome to participate in the IGDA Champaign-Urbana chapter. If you’d like to join us, you can find more information on our site.

Culture Editor

More Articles