Above, Kartik Bala, creator of "Guitar Hero."
The convocation keynote address, as always, will be free and open to the public, although tickets are required and available via the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office. Call (716) 673-3501 for more information.
Most people have probably never heard of Karthik Bala, but every student on campus knows what he created.
In 1991 – while still in high school, and based in his parents’ Rochester, N.Y., basement – Mr. Bala and his brother, Guha, started what would become Vicarious Visions, a video and computer game developer that has produced over 100 top-selling games over the years, including titles for Marvel Comics, Star Wars and Nickelodeon.
However, none has had a greater impact on the gaming and entertainment industries than the “Guitar Hero” series, which revolutionized the way users interact with gaming systems while allowing friends and families to participate and connect in ways no game ever had before.
In just 15 years, Karthik and his brother went from working in their parents’ basement to sharing the stage with Apple Co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs during a 2010 iPhone launch. Their Albany, N.Y., company is now a subsidiary of entertainment software giant Activision, employs 150 programmers, artists and designers, and has sold more than 40 million units worldwide worth $2.5 billion in revenue.
Its “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” was the industry’s first title to surpass $1 billion in total sales.
Karthik, the company’s 36-year-old CEO and Chief Creative Officer, will deliver SUNY Fredonia’s 2011-12 Maytum Convocation Lecture on Sept. 15, at 3 p.m. in King Concert Hall. His appearance kicks off the year’s theme, “Risk Taking: Rewards and Repercussions,” and organizers say his selection is very appropriate in a variety of ways.
“His work and experiences touch on so many academic disciplines, making him both interesting and relevant to a great many of our students across campus,” said Dr. Jack Croxton, Convocation Committee chair and a member of Fredonia’s psychology faculty.
Indeed, the gaming industry is chock full of professionals who studied everything from business, graphic design, animation, communication, music/music business, sound recording and (of course) computer science while in college – all of which are well represented at SUNY Fredonia.
Bala brings another point of relevance for Fredonia too: his company is the product of a university incubator. After high school, he continued working on his business as a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and further developed it through the RPI Business Incubator in the mid- 1990s after he graduated with degrees in computer science and psychology. Like SUNY Fredonia’s Technology Incubator, which opened in December 2009, its tenant companies are encouraged to remain in the area after graduation – a commitment on which Vicarious Visions made good.
“This is exactly the kind of success story we were envisioning when we began our incubator,” added SUNY Fredonia President Dennis Hefner. “It’s great to see a company stay true to its region and the state. I suspect our students with incubator ties, not to mention the tenants themselves, will be eager to hear Mr. Bala speak.”
Bala represents one of the fastest-growing industries in the last 30 years, with annual sales now exceeding $20 billion in the U.S. alone, and estimates of more than $60 billion worldwide by 2012, according to many experts. Promotional budgets for top new game releases regularly exceed most of Hollywood’s new movie launches.
“His selection represents somewhat of a departure from our traditional way of thinking about who a convocation keynote speaker should be,” added Mike Barone, the campus’ director of public relations who also serves on the Convocation Committee. “This year, we wanted to find someone who was not only well-known or accomplished, but who would truly resonate with our students. This young, successful entrepreneur hits all those points.”
Bala’s talk will focus on the many challenges he and his brother faced in launching their company, the personal financial risks they took, and the lessons learned along the way before and since their success. He will also discuss new trends in the industry
today, the fascinating process behind being selected by Apple to participate in a new-product launch, and what’s next for Vicarious Visions.
Vicarious Visions has produced titles for video game systems such as Nintendo’s Wii, DS and Game Boy, as well as multiple Xbox and Playstation systems and Apple’s iPhone. In addition to “Guitar Hero,” its titles include the popular “Marvel Ultimate Alliance,” “Tony Hawk,” “Spider Man,” “Star Wars: Jedi Knight,” “Transformers,” “Crash Bandicoot,” “SpongeBob” and “Shrek” series, among many others.
Karthik’s focus is on staff development, creative and technology direction, but he also serves as the primary spokesperson for the studio. He is currently vice chairman of the board of trustees of WMHT, a public broadcast radio and television affiliate. He is also a director on the board of ReQuest Multimedia, a whole-house audio and media-server company. He and his brother have volunteered their time to mentor local entrepreneurs and business students. They are active participants in the entertainment software professional community and have been speakers and panelists at many industry conferences.