By Kathy Canavan
Senior Staff Writer
Wilmington University’s new business incubator is smaller than four side-by-side minivans, but it has already produced a video game that scored a favorable review on the Huffington Post and The Daily App Show.
The four-month-old incubator has also been the springboard to full-time jobs for two game-design students and contract work for six more.
Puzzlesque, an animated jigsaw puzzle that flips, clicks and rotates to keep baby boomers’ minds sharp, has been lauded on PopularWireless.com for its “mind-bending illusions” and “elegant solutions.”
Stewart Penick, the North Carolina entrepreneur who runs Exalt LLC, said he tried to outsource the eight-level game design to India, but after a year of disappointments, he was ready to give up.
Then a mutual friend working in India connected him to Scott Shaw, chair of Wilmington’s game design and development program. It was a fairy-tale twist that ended with Penick getting his game and Wilmington University students Jesse LaVigne and Thiago DeOliveira getting full-time jobs as game programmers. “Between Tiego and Jesse, they were able to do in five to six months what the Indians tried for a year and couldn’t do,” Penick said.
Penick, who owns several businesses, saw the potential in mobile video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 58 percent of Americans play video games, and the average household owns at least one video-gaming device. More men than women play – 55 percent to 45 – but women 18 or older make up a significantly larger portion of the game- playing population than boys under 18. Thirty-six percent of video gamers are women older than 18; only 17 percent are boys younger than 18.
Puzzlesque, a splashy high-tech version of the sliding puzzle games boomers played with as kids, appeals to men and women. The number of female gamers 50 and older has increased by 32 percent between 2012 and 2013.
The latest software association tallies show 35 percent of mobile video game players buy puzzle games, board games and game show or trivia apps. That compares with only 13 percent buying action, sports, strategy and role-playing apps for their mobile devices.
The incubator temporarily serves as the Delaware engine room for Exalt Games. It provides a handsome carrot for Wilmington’s 15 newest game- design students.
“I can say, just so you know, you’re learning right next to a game company. Right there in that room there are two former students who work for a game company and they’re nice and you can ask them questions,” Shaw said.
“The university provides the space in our building to give these guys that warm, fuzzy, protective space. Eventually, these guys will go out on their own, and we still want them to be in contact with our talent pool,” Shaw said. “We, as a university, are really responsive and flexible as to getting our students the education they need. We really take seriously the money that they’re giving us, and we want to make sure they are going to be able to apply what they’re learning at the earliest opportunity, because we want them to be successful.”
Puzzlesque is selling on Apple’s App Store and on Google Play. There’s also an ad-supported free version.
Penick said it’s doing “fair” early in its life cycle. “These kind of games are not something you put out on the market and they just go crazy all at once unless you have a million-dollar advertising campaign,” he said. “We have a fairly expensive ad program, but not like the Candy Crushes out there.”
Exalt’s Wilmington employees and student contractors are about to launch a second game aimed at a wider audience — from age 3 to second-wave boomers. Fruit Slinger, which will debut by October, is a family-friendly Wild West target practice game that uses a unique game control option. You can choose to put some power behind your pitch by winding up like a professional pitcher with your phone in hand.