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Video game entrepreneur leaves MudBrick, moving south

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A year ago, Paul Benninghove dived headlong into his big dream: to be a video game developer.

Much like his first business venture, Harrisburg-based Web-development firm MudBrick Creative, it took sacrifice and hard work to get his endeavor to a point where it had potential to stand on its own.

Now, Benninghove has left his post as managing partner at MudBrick after five years to invest all of his time and resources in LightHammer, his video game design firm.

"We're taking a risk, but it's where we have to be to move it forward," he said.

Sadly, Benninghove said, the change also means he'll be moving LightHammer to North Carolina to be closer to existing game developers and publishers, as well as to take advantage of an emerging workforce from multiple colleges that have embraced game development as a legitimate industry.

The times, they are a changin'

The changes are big for Benninghove, his family and two former MudBrick staffers who agreed to join him in LightHammer. But the impact of his decision is change for the company he's leaving, too.

"It's really great for Paul, because this is something he's wanted to do for a long time," said Fran Lukesh, who took over recently for Benninghove as MudBrick's manager and president. "But this is really good for MudBrick, too, because it's poised to go in new directions."

Lukesh, who is leaving his role as a partner in Harrisburg-based Web and mobile app development firm andCulture, said he doesn't plan to completely overhaul MudBrick from the start. There could be some internal changes to the five-person firm and some marketing changes within the year, he said.

Primarily, MudBrick could focus on what Lukesh called "mobile forward" design, meaning the company will do more Web development that's designed to embrace the growing use of smartphones and tablet computers. However, the company will continue to work with clients on their standard websites and other Web development.

"It's no surprise that mobile is growing and is the direction that everything is going," Lukesh said.

Primarily, this strategy will involve melding both visual and software design elements to address that growth area, he said.

Lukesh described the leadership change in terms of Benninghove being a great intuition-driven leader, where he might be more structured.

"Paul was good in his leadership by bringing that artistry to the company," Lukesh said. "I don't want to lose that, but I'd like to bring a little more scientific approach to it."

For now, MudBrick will remain at five staffers, but it's possible it could grow to 10 or 12 in coming years, he said. Lukesh wants to keep it a boutique Web design firm to prevent over-extension.

"We could be too aggressive in our ambitions and collapse under that weight," he said.

Financing the game

In mid-October, Benninghove is moving LightHammer to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, where independent designers and video game publishers already reside. But part of the reason he's moving is that LightHammer is at a stage where it needs investors.

"We've sort of hit a wall here in Central Pennsylvania," Benninghove said.

Investors just weren't interested in funding a video game development company, he said. Some consultants advised him that many investors in this region typically put money in manufacturing but aren't necessarily interested in entertainment software and other technologies.

Benninghove said it's unfortunate, because he wanted to develop a market for video game design firms in Central Pennsylvania with the help of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology's Center for Advanced Entertainment & Learning Technologies.

"It kind of concerns me that people in the area where I grew up aren't willing to take a risk to change things," Benninghove said.

That's not necessarily the case, said Michael Shoemaker, managing principal of Wellspring FV Corp., a Lancaster-based firm that helps young companies grow and connect with investors.

People who want to invest money into other enterprises are interested in technology, but they need substantial proof of concept before they take a risk, he said. Investors won't lay money on the table unless they see solid business plans and revenue.

"There has to be a strong market for the product you're trying to sell," Shoemaker said.

Too many investors lost everything on the tech bubble in 2000 when the exploding Internet growth was filled with hollow companies with no real business plan to capitalize on their Web presence, he said. So it was back to the basics for investors: business plans, market and competition analysis, and existing revenue.

That may not have been enough to sway investors in Central Pennsylvania, Benninghove said.

"It's relevant to a point, but we have a lot of those things already," he said. "Mostly, they just weren't interested."

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