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Respawn boss Ryan Burnett shines a light on the game dev potential of Wisconsin

Back in March, Electronic Arts subsidiary Respawn Entertainment opened up a satellite studio in Madison, Wisconsin to bolster development on Apex Legends. As the company noted at the time, its new office wasn’t established as a pure support studio—it’s a third arm of the game development team behind the company’s juggernaut sci-fi Battle Royale.

Earlier today studio director Ryan Burnett—who leads Respawn’s third office—delivered a keynote at midwestern video game conference M+DEV arguing that the state is primed to be “the new epicenter” of video game development in the United States. Burnett is a lifelong Wisconsinite who previously worked at Epic Games and Raven Software. He might be a bit biased in his support for the home of the Green Bay Packers—but he’s also passionate in explaining to developers about why they should pay close attention to the region.

Burnett spoke with Game Developer in advance of his keynote to offer more context on Wisconsin’s potential as a hub for game development—and offered some thoughts about how studios can successfully set up new shops in such areas themselves.

What does Wisconsin have going for it?

Whenever game industry hubs pop up in less-traveled locales, a few obvious factors are usually at play. There’s usually a lower cost of living, lower real estate cost on studio space, and a pool of talent that’s untapped in video games.

That’s all true for Wisconsin—though Burnett pointed out that Wisconsin’s hub of programming and creative talent isn’t exactly “untapped.” Krafton, Epic Games, Zenimax, and Activision Blizzard also have offices in the area, meaning that plenty of studios are recruiting and training developers who might eventually be interested in changing jobs within the area. Madison is also regarded as a “college town,” meaning nearby universities have plenty of would-be junior talent that are building connections to the development community.

Burnett was able to dive into more specifics. First, Wisconsin’s lower cost of living and more affordable housing makes hybrid work environments more realistic. He noted that he lives within a 7-minute drive of the office, and most of his colleagues within a 15-minute drive. Respawn is still a company that loudly supports remote work, but as he put it, “If something critical comes up, I don’t feel bad about calling everyone into the office.”

He pointed out that back in Los Angeles (where EA and Respawn have their main headquarters), developers sometimes face hourlong commutes (or even longer) due to the great distances between where housing might be affordable and where offices are located. If the costs of office and housing real estate are more aligned in a region like Wisconsin, it lowers the costs of commuting and strengthens the value of an employee’s salary.

We pressed Burnett on if Madison could use better public transit options for developers who don’t want to drive, and he agreed such spending would be worthwhile—though he stressed he’s not an expert on public policy and didn’t want to extensively comment on the topic.

Interestingly, he took a different tack on a question we regularly ask developers advocating for opening up new regions of the world—when we asked what made the Wisconsin locale such an ideal spot for game development, he chose to praise the culture of the state rather than the geography.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities there from either looking at adjacent industries…but also looking at the culture within the state here,” he said, with a nod to Wisconsin’s recent recognition by the Biden administration as a hub for biotech development. But the culture Burnett spoke of had a lot to do with the Badger State’s love of sports.

Burnett noted that he’s found personal inspiration for driving the sports-adjacent atmosphere of Apex Legends while attending Badgers games at University of Wisconsin. “You pick up on the little things,” he said with no small amount of excitement. “You go ‘oh hey, the announcer said something cool, or how [the fans] do ‘jump around‘ in the third quarter.” He explained that experiencing moments like that will drive his colleagues to muse on how they can capture that emotion in the vibe of Apex Legends.

The idea that tapping into regional cultural quirks can be an inspiration for game development isn’t a topic we hear discussed much at Game Developer—and it’s an unusually high-profile example of a developer making a case for a game capturing that local personality.

Wisconsin may not be an equal option for all developers

There was one topic Burnett declined to directly address, which is that spinning up game studios in areas like Wisconsin requires some developers to ask if they’re willing to move to parts of the United States with less equal protections than others. In this country, the ability to access a cheaper cost of living sometimes correlates with regions where rights for women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color have faced significant erosion.

Developers who need to access reproductive health care in Wisconsin have plenty of reason to be concerned about a move to the state. A court battle is underway evaluating if abortion is legal in the state (the arguments are law dating back to 1849), and while providers like Planned Parenthood have resumed providing such care in the state, it is worth noting that such services were not offered for 15 months in the fallout after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

As Roe was in the process of being overturned, developers explained to us that such a decision could influence their careers or what states they consider to move to. Depending on how the court system interprets Wisconsin’s 19th century law, such care might once again vanish.

Studios or publishers setting up shop in the region may want to follow Respawn’s example. Not only does the company continue to support remote work, but it’s made public statements signaling its intent to offer benefits to employees who need to access reproductive care. Parent company EA informed Game Developer in 2022 that the company was working on expanding its travel benefits for employees who may need to access such care in a state other than the one they reside in.

“Diversity is super important to us,” Burnett said when asked about this topic. “When we talk…within in the studio, it’s part of our everyday language, it’s not this extra tack-on that we’ve seen from other corporations.”

“From a Respawn and EA point of view, we want as much diversity as [possible].”

A new strategy for satellite studios

Burnett was also keen to discuss how Respawn structured its two satellite studios in Vancouver and Wisconsin. It’s not unusual for game studios to open offices in other regions, but in plenty of instances said offices might be described as “support studios”—contributing to game development but not leading it.

For instance in Wisconsin, Activision Blizzard-owned subsidiary Raven Software slowly shifted from original game developer to Call of Duty development support studio. Its status slightly changed when it became the branch responsible for the development of Battle Royale fixture Call of Duty: Warzone.

Respawn and Burnett maintain that Respawn’s studio in the same area is not just an auxiliary support campus. Burnett that his team has been entrenched in Apex Legends‘ development since the branch opened its doors, though it took a few deliberate structural decisions to make that happen.

The first key decision is that Burnett himself is a member of the Apex Legends leadership team, and sits in key meetings about the franchise’s direction. “Having representation from each [location] on the leadership team is really critical there,” he said.

He added that constant communication is an “obvious” other requirement to maintain productivity across different offices, but he supplemented that observation with some insight on the studio’s working structure, saying that he and his colleagues have experimented with new ways of segmenting “the work” of making Apex Legends. “I don’t believe in [splitting out] whole chunks of the game,” he said. A clear example would be studios that divide the work of a game’s single-player campaign and its multiplayer modes between two offices.

He characterized the work division on Apex Legends between Respawn’s different offices as about being “swim lanes” and not “silos.” “It’s so you’re fully aware of what the left and right hand do and you’re relying on each other,” he said.

By contrast a siloed work environment would block off each studio from each other and reduce their knowledge of each other’s work. It makes them more self-sustainable but can create division or information gaps between employees working for the betterment of the same project.

Burnett says remote work isn’t going away

Some game companies—like Activision Blizzard—have used the launch of new studio hubs as an additional method to pull developers back into the office. They let companies hire from more parts of the world, but still exert control on employees by insisting there’s a physical location they can travel to (where they may in fact, spend all day on Zoom calls with colleagues from other offices).

Burnett doesn’t want Respawn’s Wisconsin office to be such a studio. The company is still hiring remote employees and he sees a future where more and more developers want to work remotely. “I personally don’t see a world where remote workers are going away,” he observed. “I don’t see a world where we’re all back in the office.”

He said the real challenge for his team will be determining how to blend the work of developers who are in-office, hybrid, or fully remote, and making sure everyone stays aligned across those groups.

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