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Frank Lee has a big vision for Philadelphia, and only a hint of it will be visible at the right moments this weekend to those within eyeshot of the Cira Centre, the glass-skin skyscraper across from 30th Street Station.
For the second year in a row, the Drexel University professor will help launch Philly Tech Week by turning Cira into a giant video-game screen. Last year’s game was Pong. This year, it’s Tetris – the colorful, shape-manipulation game Lee first imagined as he drove past the building en route from his Penn Valley home.
Lee, it’s clear, has a powerful imagination – one that overlaps neatly with the founders of Technically Philly, the website that organizes the annual celebration of the city’s tech community. Tech Week starts Friday with the Philly Robotics Expo at Penn’s Singh Nanotechnology Center and wraps eight days later with a Women in Tech Summit and a digital music showcase.
Scheduled for Friday evening, the Tetris game and a companion showcase on Eakins Oval for 20 small, local video-game companies may be postponed because of rain to Saturday or Sunday. Lottery winners will play Lee’s game of Tetris on Cira’s exterior, which amounts to a very low-resolution screen – 20 by 23 pixels.
But there’s nothing low-res about the vision Lee brings to his adopted city or to Drexel, where he cofounded the Game Design program in 2008 several years after arriving. Born in South Korea and raised in California, Lee has become a big Philadelphia booster.
In his first years here, Lee turned his energy to a plan for using tax breaks to lure a major game maker to the city. He hasn’t given up – in January, he again pitched the idea to a group of eight legislators.
But something dramatic hit the gaming industry the same year his program launched: the debut of Apple’s App Store, and the sudden emergence of mobile gaming as a major slice of an industry that Lee says generates more revenue globally than either movies or music. Mobile gaming is the fastest-growing segment of the gaming industry – it went from zero in 2008 to $13 billion last year. And he wants his students – and Philadelphia – to get as big a piece of that pie as possible.
This year, about 70 freshmen entered Drexel’s highly regarded gaming program, which bridges its College of Computing and Informatics and its College of Media Arts and Design. They all meet – digital artists, coding geeks, and those who span the divide – at Drexel’s new Entrepreneurial Game Studio, a name reflecting Lee’s aim for students.
Lee earned his doctorate in cognitive science at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, and has a variety of academic and civic interests, including dreams of games that mix the digital and physical and draw in thousands of people. But he wants his game-program grads to get a taste of real-world opportunity, and he says the mobile-gaming space is a perfect match.
The reason? Mobile games are aimed at smaller screens. There’s no need for 3-D graphics and big-game complexity. Development time is measured in months, not years. And mobile games don’t take hundreds of coders and artists to create.
“While I can’t imagine my students creating a game like Halo or Call of Duty, I can imagine them creating a game like Angry Birds,” Lee says. He says the popular Temple Run mobile game was created almost entirely by a husband-and-wife team.
Results are at least encouraging. Some current and recent students have invented marketable games. Some work at boutique firms whose creations you can sample at Friday’s scheduled Arcade@the Oval. Not all have to split for Silicon Valley or Seattle. (For updates and other events, go to phillytechweek.com.)
“My vision long-term is for Philadelphia to become a major mobile gaming hub,” Lee says.
Lee once only dreamed of turning the Cira Centre into a giant game display. So don’t count him out.