BANGOR, Maine — Tuesdays are veteran video game designer Chuck Carter’s time to pull all-nighters at his startup’s downtown office above Bagel Central, developing a game he envisioned decades ago.
“Everything has to start with an idea,” Carter said. “And this started with an idea that’s been in my head for 20 years.”
His is one of two new Bangor-area businesses that have big designs on building the region’s software and technology industry and are chipping away this summer at the challenge that involves building a workforce and connections to financing.
The other entrepreneur is Elizabeth Chabe, who last fall founded High Touch Group and its sister company, High Touch Courses, which launched a monthlong summer technology camp July 7 at the University of Maine’s Innovative Media Research and Commercialization Center. The curriculum over four weeks of courses uses video game development as a way to attract young people to take on topics in web design and development, 3-D art and graphic design, game development and hardware architecture.
“It’s about getting them interested in programming at a younger age,” said Chabe.
She said developing that industry here is one way to attract more young people into the country’s oldest state. In recent years, software companies have popped up in rural areas of the United States with the idea that they can provide lower-cost programming services — a trend dubbed “rural sourcing.”
Beyond programming, the courses also touch on lessons in entrepreneurship, which Chabe said distinguishes High Touch Courses from competitors. It also is developing an online course to run on tablets and netbooks, catering to rural users who may have slower Internet connections.
Chabe, who grew up in the Machias area with no track for pursuing her programming interest, didn’t have to look far to find an example of her target audience.
“If I had a support network of people to help me learn how to code, I feel I would have been able to blossom a lot faster,” she said. “We want to reach the kids in Down East Maine or potato country to give them that support network.”
Carter, who is a lead instructor for the summer technology camp, is seeing the other end of that problem in developing the game Curio: Charlotte’s World through his company, Eagre Games.
“I’m having to hire out of state to do art for us,” said Carter, who’s worked on 26 games in his career, including the 1993 release Myst, which held the title of best-selling PC game for almost a decade.
Long term, Carter plans to tackle that workforce problem in his own way: mix a few industry veterans he knows are interested in moving to Bangor with younger developers who can polish their skills with experience.
His vision for Curio is a larger franchise of nonviolent plot-heavy games geared toward people age 36 and up, a market he said Myst tapped into years ago and recent releases such as the 2012 game Dear Esther have proven is still strong.
“It was profitable five hours after releasing it,” Carter said of Dear Esther.
He plans to distribute the game for Windows, Mac and Linux through the game marketplace Steam, where developers collect about 70 percent of the revenues.
Carter hopes to raise between $750,000 to $1.3 million by this fall to get his game published by November 2015. Making that investment pitch can be tough for a business that has no revenue until its work is done, he said.
“People don’t necessarily know how video games make money or that they can make a lot of money,” he said.
Chabe, who helps technology companies find financing through High Touch Group, said fundraising is a primary problem for Maine technology startups in general.
“We can have all the networking events and workshops and whatever that we want to have, but we really need access to capital,” she said.
Making his game reality, Carter said, will be the first step toward putting the city on the map and becoming a minor hub for video game development, such as Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It started out very small [in Utah],” said Carter, who previously worked there. “The only real advantage was [Brigham Young University] and the University of Utah’s advanced computer science programs. Then people started a company and started to see it as realistic.”
Since the early 2000s, software publishing has made up a small fraction of employers in Maine’s information technology sector, but it’s on the rise, entirely in York, Cumberland and Hancock counties. From 2007 to 2013, the number of private-sector software publishing employers in the state increased to 24, up from four. Employment in that industry rose to 36 from 10 during a period when overall information sector jobs declined in Maine, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The data does not include sole proprietorships or contractors working independently in that industry.
Carter, who has so far supported his passion project with contract work from all over the country, said the connections he’s made in Bangor have encouraged him that Penobscot County can add to those totals. Those connections led him to bring on his first programmer and business development manager as interns this year.
Adam Mullen, an MBA student at the University of Maine’s business school, said pitching Eagre Games to investors is the first job that’s kept his mind whirring at all hours — in a good way. The company is operating on a shoestring budget, with eyes on a return of eight to 12 times the initial investment, which Mullen said is a reasonable expectation for a successful game.
The ability for the company to get through that “runway” phase with few resources is what gives Chabe hope for Eagre and other software startups in Maine.
“Why we think technology startups might have the best chance succeeding in Maine is because the costs are so low,” she said. “There’s such a low barrier to entry, and rural areas have the ability to leverage that.”
That’s what Carter sees in getting his start and developing something bigger in Bangor, too.
“We don’t have any overhead and we can build it just how we want to,” Carter said. “That’s the idea, to build a unique tech hub. It all starts with an idea.”