Hidden away in downtown McKinney, across from a pizza place and squeezed between two retailers, is a nondescript door labeled 221B. It's not the entrance to Sherlock Holmes' home in London, it's the home of Playful Corp., a small video game developer with a lot of pedigree.
It's an unexpected spot for a company that has a history of blazing trails on new technologies. Playful Corp.'s game Lucky's Tale was a launch title for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The company's new, non-VR sequel to the game, Super Lucky's Tale, was a launch title for Microsoft's high-powered console, the Xbox One X (the game is also available on Windows 10 PCs).
"We love being in McKinney," says founder and CEO Paul Bettner. "It's a really unique place to be for a game studio. We feel like we're this high-tech thing embedded in a really old-fashioned place."
Bettner had lived and worked in Dallas for years before he visited McKinney. But it's where his wife grew up, and as soon as she introduced him to the city, "it just clicked with me," he says. "You can see Christmas carolers at Christmas, and there are still police officers on horseback and all sorts of cool, old-fashioned things."
Many of the people working at Playful, including Bettner, have been making games in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a long time. The company rose out of the ashes of Ensemble Studios, the developer most famous for the Age of Empires series of strategy games. After Ensemble was shut down in 2009, Bettner co-founded Newtoy, the developer behind the early smartphone smash hit Words With Friends. He later sold that company to Zynga, the company that brought you Farmville, and founded Playful in 2013.
Their latest release, Super Lucky's Tale, is a platforming game that's evocative of colorful classics like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. The game's hero, a fox named Lucky, has become something of a mascot for the studio.
"A lot of our time was spent focusing on asking, 'What does it mean to have a character that you can relate to?'" says creative director Dan Hurd. Many of the creators at Playful have backgrounds in creating more "hardcore" games like Age of Empires and Halo Wars, and this was the first foray for many in creating a family-friendly platformer.
Playful focused on creating controls that were simple and easy to learn, which seems to have paid off: Hurd's 4-year-old daughter is able to run and jump around the game's world, despite the controller being "almost too big for her."
The game launched on Nov. 7, alongside Microsoft's newest piece of gaming hardware, the Xbox One X. "We test things, we play internally all the time, but it's just another animal to see it out in the wild, and see the smiles that it brings to others' faces," Hurd says. "I can't overstate how important that is to a team that has invested so much time and effort and vision into seeing something go from just an idea into something you can play and share with your family."
Since its founding, Playful has been growing steadily. "Originally, [Playful Corp.] was just three of us, and we were working from home," Hurd says. "Then we moved to a house that Paul owned here in McKinney. We slowly filled up all upstairs and we ran out of room. So we went to another office and filled that up."
"We're totally busting at the seams," Bettner says of their current office space, which he says is about 7,000 square feet. "We're growing at about one to two people a month, and we already have about 65 people."
There is a lot of construction near downtown McKinney, though, and one of the buildings going up is destined to be the new Playful offices. "It's been really exciting seeing where the city of McKinney is interested in being," Hurd says.
The new construction emphasizes McKinney's interest in having more places for people to live, congregate and play, Hurd says. "We want to be a fundamental part of that growth."
"The ability for our employees to live, work, play, go to restaurants and hang out in coffee shops and all that kind of stuff here in McKinney is one of the key things that helps us recruit folks. When they come here and visit the studio, it's something very different than other places where they might go to work."
The importance of work-life balance is an important aspect of the studio, Hurd says. Video games can be notorious for "destroying the people that make them," as a recent New York Times headline said. Industry work schedules can be brutal, especially near the end of a game's development. Employees at Playful are expected to put in a hard eight hours (laser-focused on their work, rather than watching cat videos or playing arcade games), but they don't want to get caught in a loop of adding more and more hours to their workday.
"It feels like a big family to us," says Hurd. "That is one of the most treasured pillars of Playful."
"When folks come visit Playful, they can feel the joy in the studio, and I think that's key to what we're doing," Bettner says. "We all try to bring that into our work, and then hope that it manifests in the games themselves."