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The Boston Globe

Business

Game developer to launch incubator

The release of its first original video game in 2011 should have been a celebratory moment for Cambridge-based Fire Hose Games, but instead it was a nightmare. Almost immediately after Fire Hose launched “Slam Bolt Scrappers” for PlayStation 3, the PlayStation Network was hacked, forcing Sony to shut it down for 24 days to prevent loss of users’ personal data.

“Nobody could buy our game,” recalled Fire Hose founder Eitan Glinert. “We had to have layoffs. We were nine people at the time and had to let go of a third of the company and go down to six.”

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Ultimately, “Slam Bolt Scrappers” sold well, and Fire Hose has since enjoyed success with a second game, “Go Home Dinosaurs,” and with collaborations on hits such as “Rock Band Blitz” and “Dance Central.” The company now employs 11.

But the disappointing debut exemplified the risky business of video game development and planted the seed for a major shift in strategy. Starting next year, Fire Hose will transform itself into an incubator for indie game developers, who will receive stipends, mentoring, and workspace at the company’s Inman Square office in exchange for sharing the proceeds of games they produce.

The change will enable Fire Hose to have a handful of games in development at any one time, increasing the odds of a winner and softening the blow of a failure. During the company’s first five years in business, all employees have generally worked together on a single, make-or-break project.

Fire Hose’s video game incubator will be the first in Greater Boston. It’s an unconventional business model, but one that reflects the changing landscape of the video game industry, said Philip Tan, creative director of the MIT Game Lab.

“I think we’re going to see continued growth on the indie side, but I’m not sure we’re going to see anywhere near the same rate of growth on the Triple-A side,” he said, using an industry term for big-budget game development.

“The barrier for entry is always dropping, and I think we’re going to see more opportunities for very small teams to recover their costs and make a profit on top of it.”

Several larger video game studios in the region have gone bust or made significant staff reductions recently because they bet heavily on games that did not live up to expectations.

Most famously, the company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, 38 Studios, went bankrupt last year. Zynga Inc. closed its Cambridge office last fall as part of a round of more than 500 layoffs nationwide. Boston-based Stomp Games closed over the summer.

If the industry is shifting toward indie development, then Boston is a natural fit for the Fire Hose experiment, said Dave Bisceglia, chief executive of a Cambridge indie game studio called The Tap Lab.

“If you go out West, there’s a heck of a lot more game studios,” he said. “Here in Boston, we’re a little bit smaller, but there’s a lot of talent, and it’s a very close-knit community.”

Glinert said he is looking for three types of developers for the Fire Hose incubator: people who have worked at big studios and want a change, current indie developers who might flourish with more support, and standout college students.

Fire Hose is not seeking fully formed teams, like many incubators in other business sectors, but it will probably accept a dozen or so individual applicants, based on their talent, not on their ideas for specific games.

The developers will work in pairs on projects of their own choosing, with guidance and additional manpower from the company’s existing staff. Fire Hose employees already have begun working in small teams as a beta test and will continue to do so when the incubator is launched.

Glinert said he expects the application window to open early next year, when he hopes to have raised money from investors to pay for the new program. Until then, Fire Hose will not disclose the terms of the revenue-sharing agreement with developers or the size of the stipend they will be paid.

Launching the incubator is a smart business move for Fire Hose, Glinert believes, but also an opportunity to strengthen the indie game development community at large.

“There’s just a ton of institutional knowledge that we’ve built up,” he said. “If you’re on your own, starving and eating Ramen, these are the challenges that you’re facing, and everyone has to learn how to do the same things. We can help people, and they can focus on something more important — like actually making the game.”

Callum Borchers
can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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