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Studio217: Interactive Arts Alumni Found Indie Game Company

Mr. Mart

Posted 09.12.16

Cole Pritchard and Karen Chang For Karen Chang '15 (Interactive Arts B.F.A.) and Cole Pritchard '15 (Interactive Arts B.F.A.), co-founders of the independent game company Studio217, much of their work in gaming is steeped in MICA.

During their senior year, it was a MICA faculty member, Sam Sheffield, for example, who encouraged the pair to apply to IndieCade East, an international, independent game festival based in New York City. And after a successful application to the festival — and a successful first day showing an early version of their virtual reality game, Mr. Mart — that the pair turned to their time at the College when they decided to formally launch a game studio.

As Chang explained, "IndieCade East was in February 2015, and while we were showing there, we met with a lot of industry professionals. They kept asking, ‘What's your studio name?' After the first day, we went back to our hotel and both said, ‘Maybe we should form a studio, that would be cool.' Because we spent all of our time in Studio 217 in Brown Center during our senior year, and because we knew we'd have to move out soon, we took the name with us."

Today, the pair is continuing development of Mr. Mart, which was recently nominated for a 2016 Baltimore Innovation Award for Indie Video Game of the Year, an honor given by Technical.ly Baltimore to the best of the city's burgeoning tech and startup industry. The game was also featured at the city's 2016 Gamescape, earning third place in the People's Choice Awards. This success comes on the heels of Studio217's release of a tablet-based game, Circle Soiree, earlier this year.

As Chang and Pritchard continue to refine Mr. Mart, the pair seek to make the virtual reality aspect of their work better and better. Because for them, matching the right technology to the right game idea is what their work at the studio is all about.

"We want to make games that can only be played on the machine it's made for. We want to use the device fully," Pritchard said. "Virtual reality is new, but a lot of virtual reality games are like hayrides that you drive around in and look at things. We want to use the technology to its fullest extent."

"Our thesis question at MICA was, ‘How can we make virtual reality better?' We found Leap Motion, a tool for interaction in a virtual setting-we found that tool first and experimented with what was fun and useful before creating the grocery store theme that turned into Mr. Mart. That says a lot about how we work," Chang noted.

Chang and Pritchard, who grew up in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, elected to stay in Baltimore to after their graduation from MICA. Beside the fact that several of their friends were also staying in the city, they found Baltimore to be a great fit for their professional and personal lives.

"Baltimore has the right density. It's not like New York, which is overwhelming and crowded," Pritchard explained. "Baltimore also has a lot of good concerts that come through venues here, good food, and a lot of culture. And it's dirt cheap to live here; it's great."

While their dream is to by fully supported by Studio217, for now, the pair has kept their day jobs rather than seek investment funding. Chang is a 3D Artist at MedStar Simulation Training & Education Lab (SiTEL), a firm that designs simulation training games for medical professionals. Pritchard designs interactive exhibits for the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, and also works at FabLab Baltimore, assisting users with fabrication equipment-and using the equipment in the makerspace himself.

"Having other jobs makes us able to make the games we want to make, and not have investors influence what we do," Pritchard explained, while Chang added, "We're fortunate enough to have jobs in our field, because they're interesting and also inform our skills."

Staying in Baltimore has also made it easier for the pair to stay connected the Interactive Arts faculty that help them launch their careers.

"Interactive Arts is like family," Chang said. "Sam Sheffield still goes to conventions — like IndieCade — so we see him, talk to him, and he still supports us."

Pritchard added, "There were a lot of great resources at MICA, including really good faculty. Faculty and the variety of classed I was able to take had the most influence. I made friends in every department, and was able to get their perspectives on everything. Being surrounded by so many artists in general was a great experience."

This page was last updated on 09/13/2016.