I’ve spent much of this week talking to people at some of Seattle’s largest gaming companies, and whenever I ask “Why is gaming so popular in Seattle?” the response is nearly always: “Well, I’d never really thought about it before.”

Gaming in Seattle is like social networking in Silicon Valley – it’s huge, growing, and nothing’s going to kill it any time soon. Companies such as BigFish Gaming, PopCap, and Valve are here. Then there are Microsoft’s Xbox division, Bungee, and Zynga’s satellite offices. And that’s to say nothing of the dozens of gaming companies that quietly push out best-sellers but remain largely off the radar. The gaming community, it would seem, is a natural extension of Seattle’s strengths and flaws as a technology ecosystem.

The developers and producers at Zombie Studios gave me an insight into what makes the Seattle’s gaming community tick. They suggested Seattle has a near-perfect mix of artistic people and technology-centric companies. That seems fair, but there are a few other communities in the country – such as Austin and Boston – that have a similar balance but don’t enjoy the same success rate.

What, then, is the factor that pushes Seattle over the top?

From all available evidence, it seems the catalyst is actually more of a constraint. Entrepreneurs in Seattle created game companies in part, because it is so difficult to do everything else. The area’s relative shortage of investment capital has pushed entrepreneurs to create startups that wouldn’t normally top many people’s to-do lists. (I’ll be delving deeper into the lack of capital in a future post.)

What does this have to do with gaming? Well, gaming is traditionally one of the most revenue-driven sectors of the tech industry. That’s not to say it’s a guaranteed win, but the historical model of game development doesn’t rely on venture capital to the extent other startups do.

To clarify, it’s important to understand the developer-publisher model that is ingrained in the video game world. In the normal course of developing an indie game, the developers approach an existing publisher with the idea of the game. The publisher then finances the game and takes part of the proceeds following its release. Instead of equity, the publisher gets a payout, as the game sells.

This variation on the venture capital model is likely a key reason gaming is so successful here. The large technology base combined with creativity provides a solid foundation, but it is the mutation of the traditional venture capital model that pushes it over the top – a point verified by nearly everyone I have spoken to in the area.

For people who want to live in Seattle and work in technology, there are few options left outside of gaming. That explains why gaming began to take off in the ’90s, but it only partially explains why it has seen such strong success over time. That sustained success falls into line with the normal ecosystem pattern of feeding past wins back into the community. After the initial companies succeed, and their employees become financially secure, it’s normal that they’ll then strike out on their own.

The seed-to-tree cycle serves as an apt metaphor. The first company grows from a seed into a large tree, which then shoots off seeds of its own. And the cycle continues.

What’s different here is that while most seeds mutate only slightly from the original organism, in Seattle the gaming industry has changed dramatically since it was spawned by Microsoft. It’s this dramatic and forced deviation that continues to drive the community forward today.