When it comes to employment opportunities in the video game industry, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin are the cities job seekers are most likely to head to, but Cookie Jam and Panda Pop mobile game-maker Jam City is bringing gaming to the Midwest. Jam City is run out of Los Angeles, but in 2016 the casual gaming company opened a new studio in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
What is Jam City?
Jam City (then called MindJolt) was founded in 2011 by MySpace co-founders Chris DeWolfe, Aber Whitcomb and Colin Digiaro, and former Fox Entertainment Vice President Josh Yguado. Jam City’s games also include Marvel Avengers Academy, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and The Book of Life: Sugar Smash.
The games are largely free to play, with in-app purchases and advertisements driving revenue. More than 800 million Jam City apps have been downloaded to phones and tablets.
Nick Cash, lead software engineer at the Cedar Falls office, launched his first startup, Book Hatchery, before graduating from the University of Northern Iowa. One of his former colleagues, Dean Gibson, became a technical director at Jam City and helped set up the deal for a Cedar Falls office.
“Dean called up and said they needed more engineers, but it’s kind of a rough market on the west coast,” said Cash. “He asked if he could put together a Cedar Falls office, if we would do it. He had lived here, so he knew Cedar Falls has amazing internet speeds and that we have a hardy work ethic.”
The studio launched with three engineers, including Dan Cash and Ray Ryan. The Iowa staff is now up to five employees, based out of the Mill Race co-working space.
Connecting offices across the globe
The Cedar Falls Jam City team stays in regular contact with other Jam City offices. They keep in touch with other branches in San Francisco, Seattle and Buenos Aires via Skype and voice and text chats.
“One of our rules is we over-communicate,” Cash said. “It’s easy to lose context when you’re not in an office with people. We don’t feel isolated, even though we’re just five dudes in Iowa.”
Cash said the co-working space helps stave off the feeling of isolation as well. Even though they have a small team, the other tenants of Mill Race make it feel like Jam City is part of a bigger office.
What they’re working on
The Cedar Falls office recently did a soft launch of its biggest project to date, Snoopy Pop, a bubble shooter featuring characters from the “Peanuts” comic strip. Cash expects another game with Cedar Falls origins to launch soon.
“Most of the day, we’re plugging away at code,” Cash said. “The office is pretty engineering focused, with us working with designers and artists to make sure things are good.”
The next level of gaming in Iowa
Net Marble invested $130 million in Jam City in 2015, and CEO Chris DeWolfe has been discussing an IPO for the company. Meanwhile, the Iowa branch is focused on doing work that helps the company as a whole.
“Not a lot of game development happens in the state of Iowa,” Cash said. “In San Francisco you can’t walk down the street without meeting someone working on a mobile app, but here it’s more of a novelty. My personal philosophy is we just need to hire smart and hard-working people and let them get to it.”
Joe Lawler is a freelance reporter based in Des Moines.