Cincinnati's startup climate drew Chris Bergman home

Chris Bergman knows gaming.

He’s wanted to make video games since he was about 9 or 10 years old, and has been working his way in that direction for years.

“The video games industry made $137 billion last year,” says Bergman. “It is the largest entertainment market in the world, larger than music and movies combined. And it’s unfortunate that there aren’t many people playing in that space within [Cincinnati]. I think, ultimately, shedding light on the fact that there’s a lot of opportunity to be had in this market; there’s a lot of talent in this area that can contribute to that.”

His first venture, cofounded with Paul Armstrong, was called Wiseacre Digital, which specialized in web and mobile apps and had a variety of clients, including New Balance and Harrah’s Casino. In 2011, the pair created ChoreMonster — later FamilyTech — an app that rewarded kids for doing housework with a variety of virtual monsters.

Bergman’s latest startup, Gylee Games, has been open since June and already employs 16 people — along with cofounders Denver Coulson and Gray Shuko — in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

“If you think about it from starting business, or building a team, or having to find talent, there’s no other place I’d rather work with people,” Bergman says about OTR. “We’ve had people move here from Boston, from L.A., [and] to be able to bring them to this particular neighborhood and say, ‘This is where you’re going to be working,’ has been extremely valuable.

“It’s a huge benefit to young people that are moving to Cincinnati that don’t know the city very well, and to come into this environment is really nice,” he continues. “It makes it a lot easier for them to say yes.”

Bergman’s no stranger to moving around. He grew up in College Hill and went to St. Xavier. But after getting kicked out of high school, he moved to southern California to become a pro rollerblader in the X Games.

He returned to Cincinnati in 2005, after about five years away. Following that, he and his high school girlfriend, Nicole — who attended McAuley and went to Baltimore after graduation — reconnected through MySpace. Four months after that, they were married.

Starting up in Cincy

The Bergmans moved one more time before putting down roots in Cincinnati. In 2018, they headed east so Chris could take a job as the head of product at Verizon’s Smart Family in New York City. For the year that the Bergmans lived there, they were located in the New Jersey suburbs and were looking forward to returning home, where they eventually settled in a place not far from Bergman’s OTR-based office.

“It was an experiment,” he says. “We have two young kids, we weren’t sure if it was going to go well, but we’ve loved it. It’s gone swimmingly.”

Bergman notes that they also have a cabin an hour away with about 100 acres for the two boys — Guy, age 7 and Lee, age 5 — to explore nature, which helps.

“When we lived in suburbia, there were a lot of things that we just felt like we were bad at,” he says. “Like, we could never keep groceries in the house. For whatever reasons, certain rhythms of suburbia, we were really bad at. But by living in OTR, it doesn’t matter; you can pop over to Findlay to find the things you need to make dinner, day of. You run into your neighbors so much that half the time you all end up going out somewhere together. The priority really is on community.”

Despite his love of Cincinnati, Bergman and his crew did consider setting up Gylee Games in other locations, like San Francisco and L.A., where there’s plenty of development talent.

However, as he says, “We got really lucky in that all of our investment came from Cincinnati for this company, so it made a lot of sense to be near our investors, obviously, and just being near the people that make the city great, in my opinion.”

Plus, he continues, “There’s a serious sense of community here, which is really neat and I really appreciate it.”

Bergman is also a 2011 graduate of The Brandery’s 12-week accelerator program, which connects startups in Cincinnati with mentors, creative agencies, large local businesses, seed money, and office space. And while he had to leave temporarily for the Verizon job, he’s excited to be back.

“You have someone that the startup ecosystem sort of invested in,” says Bergman. “I went, I did my time in NY that I had to do, and I got back as soon as I could to give back.”

Currently, Gylee is in pre-production for their first game, Ra Ra Boom. The goal, he says, was to create what he calls “breather games” — media that is smaller and easier to consume. According to Bergman, many games are designed to keep players engaged for 100-plus hours.

“They don’t want you to ever stop playing the game,” he says. “They want to keep you.”

The team at Gylee is working to make games that are shorter, in the 4–10 hour range. So that they’re “consumable and digestible.”

“[Ra Ra Boom] is a four-player, co-op, beat-‘em-up about ninja cheerleaders from outer space,” he says. “It’s really about bringing the collaborative nature of old-school arcade games to the console. Where friends can play with each other, go through a narrative, beat up some robots, and save the world.”

And while there will be some animated cartoon violence, parents will have the option of turning it off.

Currently, Gylee is the only studio in the area doing this work. They hope to attract people from Miami University, University of Cincinnati, Cedarville University, Shawnee State, Eastern Kentucky University, and Northern Kentucky University, which all have excellent development and design programs.

“I think it’s exciting because it feels like just the beginning of an ecosystem that can grow and expand and do some really neat things,” he says. “We’re sort of heads down making games. “We’re going to be making games for a long time, hopefully. We want to continue to grow.”

This is the tenth story in an ongoing series about Cincinnati’s “boomerang” residents — people who grew up here, left, and then came back for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons. If you or someone you know qualifies and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email [email protected].


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Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.