Once a 9-year-old 'nerd,' Clayton Belcher now runs the game development company Jolly Crouton

Clifton man tackles tough $30 billion industry

CINCINNATI -- Clifton resident Clayton Belcher has been designing and building computer games since he was a 9-year-old growing up in Batavia.

"I've always been a bit of a nerd," he said. "More people should enjoy being nerds."

Belcher now has a day job working as a freelance website developer, but evenings and weekends, he's still chasing the dream of creating the next Angry Birds or Words with Friends.

He formed his own game development company, Jolly Crouton Media, in 2013.

As a child, his nickname was "Crouton" because he loved those tiny bits of hard toast. He chose the word "Jolly" because he likes to infuse whimsicality into his work. "Media," ironically, was the hardest word to settle on, but he liked it because it cast a wider net than "studio" or "games."

Also in 2013, Belcher held the first edition of the video-game-building competition he calls The Buswick. It's designed to celebrate the creativity of local game developers, to encourage quick prototyping of games and "crazy, throw-things-at-the-wall creativity."

Game developers often get so bogged down with adding features to a game that they never complete it, Belcher said.

"The intent is to get them out of that rut," he said.

Chicago resident Brandon Song heard about The Buswick when he was on social media and randomly saw Jolly Crouton's Twitter feed. Since then, he's participated twice and plans to participate again this year.

"I like how relaxed it is," he said. "It's just people who want to have fun, and I like that atmosphere. Having that atmosphere gives you a lot of space to push yourself, but at the same time, it's not the end of the world if you don't finish what you're doing."

Song participates remotely because The Buswick has previously been a monthlong, internet-based contest.

This year, Belcher has shortened it to a weeklong contest, because "motivation dwindles" over 31 days. He also plans to kick it off with two days of in-person competition Aug. 26-27 in the basement of Dyer Hall at the University of Cincinnati.

The theme of the competition is usually brief. The 2016 theme, for example, was "Fail to Win." A video Belcher created for the 2016 competition suggested, "Maybe your game will be about learning from mistakes."

The contest usually doesn't offer much in the way of prizes, Belcher said, although one year he did have three $100 prizes. In 2016, the grand prize was a The Buswick trophy -- a bowler hat with a mustache.

Belcher runs the contest in part because he wants to make Cincinnati a more appealing area for game developers and hopes to draw some talent here from the coasts.

There's a significant number of game developers here and an active chapter of the International Game Developers Association. But there are few local investors interested in funding game development, Belcher said.

"It's seen as a (riskier) investment," he said.

Belcher said Jolly Crouton sold the initial version of Splotches, a game it designed, to San Francisco game distributor Humble Bundle for $14,000. The company's been working on an updated version that it hopes to release in time for Christmas.

It's the company's first big commercial release, Belcher said, and he's hoping its sales will fuel the company's growth. He's received approval to release the game on Steam, a large game platform for personal computers.

He hopes to market the game by building relationships with members of the gaming press, which includes publications such as Gamasutra. Gamasutra reported that in 2016, U.S. consumer spending on video games amounted to $30.4 billion.

It's a lucrative market but hard to break into, Belcher said, especially considering how much competition there is for the entertainment dollar.

"It's kind of a cutthroat business, and it's pretty saturated," he said. "You have to be dedicated … to get that first success for yourself, and build from there."

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