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Leader enchanted by site’s future

Andrew Phelps is at heart an artist who dreamed of finding a way to bring the fantasy world that books planted in his mind come to life in a way that everyone could see. Beyond seeing the fantasy, he wanted people to be able to join in, to be part of the game.

As the founding director of the Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity Center at Rochester Institute of Technology and founding director and CEO of the MAGIC Spell Studios there, his dream has come true.

“I grew up idolizing people like (fantasy illustrator) Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson, who could create visual representations that matched what I saw in my head when I read works of fantasy, and whose work became a bridge into role-playing games,” Phelps, 41, says. “While I was at art school I was introduced to computer animation and digital tools and fell in love with that and went deep down that rabbit hole.”

Phelps was instrumental in bringing the games development program to RIT. He taught the first course in games programming in 2001, and it grew into a master’s degree program of game design and development by 2006. Three years later Phelps created the department of interactive games and media, which became the School of Interactive Games and Media in 2011.

Two years later, RIT announced the MAGIC Center, a multimillion-dollar research center and home to RIT’s media and game design facility.

It has grown from just four students involved with projects to more than 80, Phelps said.

“When we first started nobody knew what we did. We have had sort of a ramp up on campus, letting people know what the MAGIC center is, what our resources are. It will grow even more with Spell.”

Phelps is referring to the MAGIC Spell Studios, which RIT announced in July would be expanding through the center with $12 million in funding from New York. It brings the total funding of the MAGIC Center to $30 million, including $3 million from Dell Inc., $12.4 million from Cisco Systems Inc. and $1.5 million from the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation. The money was in addition to $1.5 million RIT had already received through the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.

MAGIC Spell Studios is located at the MAGIC Center, but it is a separate entity established to develop digital media, expose students to a studio environment and act as a third-party publisher of their work.

Dual duties
Phelps splits his time between being a teacher and an administrator. One of his closest colleagues says he is equally adept at both.

“Andy stands out because of that, and he’s rare,” said Jennifer Hinton, assistant director for the MAGIC Center and chief communication officer for MAGIC Spell Studios. “He has a foot in both worlds, and we all benefit from that, especially our students.”

Hinton has become Phelps’ dependable sidekick.

“Andy is the visionary with big dreams, the ideas. I, along with the rest of our small team, are responsible for executing them,” Hinton says.

Phelps’ being a “gamer” might make one think he would be easy to know, but that was not the case for Hinton, she says.

“He is the most introverted person I know. He’s great at turning it on when he has to, such as when he is giving a talk or stage presentation. I didn’t realize or appreciate the drain that takes on him,” Hinton says.

She learned to read his cues and approach him differently and says they have grown into a successful working partnership as well as a great friendship, sharing time with their families.

“Our kids play together. We get together for game night or we swim at their house every once in a while,” Hinton says. “I joke that his wife, Ashley, is my favorite Phelps.”

On the job, she says, Phelps has helped her understand the process of successful game development.

“It’s a lot of compromise, communication and teamwork. You learn from your initial failure, incorporate that into the second iteration and realize learning is an active process,” Hinton says. “Andy is great at directing us through that process.”

A former student of Phelps’ went on to form his own gaming company, Darkwind Media Ltd. CEO Colin Doody changed his course of study at RIT from computer science to game development after seeing a presentation Phelps gave.

Doody started Darkwind in 2008, before he graduated from RIT with a master’s degree in video game development.

“We were just three of us running it, making about $300,000 that first year,” Doody says. “Andy was one of the people we put on our advisory board. He’s always helped us.”

Today the privately owned company generates enough profits to comfortably support 15 full-time employees, Doody says, and it has no debt.

Doody acknowledges he and his business partners are more “gamer geeks” than business experts, which is why they are grateful to Phelps for his continued help as needed, free of charge.

There are other ways Phelps helps as well.

“One of our biggest strengths being in Rochester is the co-op at RIT,” Doody says. “We wouldn’t be as strong a company if not for the co-op. We’ve had so many people we work with get blown away by the quality of our engineers. They don’t know they are sophomores in the game program. Andy helps us by pushing good students our way.”

Gaming is a rapidly growing industry that is beginning to get serious attention by way of funding. Last month, RIT was named one of three digital gaming hubs in New York by Empire State Development Corp. The designation grants RIT $150,000 a year through 2018 to foster economic development through the creation of new gaming technologies.

Phelps points out the games have applications for use that span a wide array of fields, and local businesses are experimenting with some ideas. There are video concepts to illustrate battlefield simulations, a project developing a game to teach physics to grade-school girls and another game developed for the Strong to help museum visitors understand a specific historical period.

Games have many uses in the medical field, too.

“There are games for helping people on the autism spectrum cope with anxiety. There are also media pieces for helping people to understand different diagnoses or systems within the body. We’re making small steps in this area so far,” Phelps says. “It’s how this technology is infusing itself into our lives—not just games, but technology.”

Phelps works with a core team of four at the MAGIC Center along with 24 faculty members across the university who can be affiliated with different projects at any time.

“We have accomplished a lot in the last couple years. They’ve done a great job with a small team. We do have to find a way to grow that team,” Phelps says. “It’s critical we’re realistic about what we can do and grow in ways that make sense.”

Managing change
Growing up as only child, Phelps learned to adapt to change. His father worked for ExxonMobil Chemical, and every time he earned a promotion the family moved. Phelps lived in Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Georgia and California before he set off for college. His mother was an educator, and while in New York she taught in the English departments at St. John Fisher College and SUNY Buffalo.

He spent three years at Fairport High School where he was a member of the swimming team. It was his love of swimming, and a scholarship in the sport, that took him to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he pursued a dual major in painting and art.

“I came back to RIT for grad school because I wanted to learn more about computing, started teaching as a graduate student and stuck here,” Phelps says.

There is one thing that has helped Phelps manage change throughout his life and now in his work.

“You have to be OK with it being messy. I go to several meetings every week where someone will ask what our process is or what the steps are to accomplish some goal. And increasingly I’ve come to recognize that everything I’ve ever done that really mattered is a special little snowflake,” he says. “Every game and project is different. Every class is different. Every student is different. Every relationship is different. Every situation is different.”

Phelps, who lives in Henrietta, enjoys hiking and spending time with his young daughter and son. He and his wife, his college sweetheart, will soon celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary.

As he continues his work, he looks forward to being part of the evolution ahead for the fledgling MAGIC Center and the potential change it could bring for the entire university.

“MAGIC has become, and will increasingly grow to continue to be, a kind of melting pot for students, faculty, staff and partners to come together in ways that the normal academic apparatus doesn’t accomplish on its own,” Phelps says. “We rather specifically set out to change the way parts of the university work, and organizational change takes time, so that building of culture and practice is only just starting.”

Andrew Phelps
Position: founding director, Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity; founder and CEO, MAGIC Spell Studios
Age: 41
Family: Wife Ashley Phelps; daughter Emma, 12; son Kalan, 9
Home: Henrietta
Activities: Hiking, reading science fiction and fantasy, playing with his children
Quote: “If I had to do it over again, maybe the M in MAGIC should stand for messy. Every design process starts there. Every building begins in mud…At MAGIC the very first thing I did was create the ‘We Learn by Making Things’ tagline. But that’s the core of it.  Just keep making things, and thereby keep learning.”

2/12/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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