The Game Report

What's on the Boards With Austin's Game Companies

You've seen it on television. You've read it in the zines. And, of course, you've browsed it on the Internet. Microsoft's trademark slogan, "Where do you want to go today?" is as unyielding as an everlasting Gobstopper. Like sailor's lice on a submarine, it has infested the marketplace, and aside from abstinence, there is no way to avoid the itch. Shoppers spanning the globe are flooded with the dark gray "Microsoft" printed atop keyboard boxes, mouse packages, computer crates, and software containers, not to mention every related peripheral in the corporate arsenal. But in addition to its function as a company banner, "Where do you want to go today?" accomplishes more than simply pushing product. It aims to inspire those hymen-intact citizens who stand in marveled confusion on the silicon dust beaches of the Internet Ocean. And it's not always easy to persuade these tech-virgins into the water. Sometimes it takes a little coercing.

"Come on in; the water feels fantastic!"

"But I don't have a swimsuit."

"Oh, don't worry, we have plenty for sale!"

"But the sun is so hot; I don't want to burn."

"We'll grease you up!"

"But I'm not that good a swimmer."

"We can train you in the keystroke!"

"Hey! Look at me! I'm swimming! I'm swimming. But, oh dear! I didn't realize the water was shallow enough to stand here!"

This scenario probably isn't unfamiliar to experienced surfers of the Internet. And yet, even we veterans who buy Sex Wax by the case continue to drown our pocketbooks in the shallow end of the bay. Perhaps we're all a little wet -- the victims of our own stupidity -- or maybe we simply give in to the media frenzy accompanying the promotion of a new product (you just had to buy an MMX computer the first day it hit the shelves, didn't you?). We oftentimes get so caught up in the hype, we don't realize which way is up, until our feet are down in the sand, along with our checkbooks. And while Microsoft continues to wipe out its business, education, and operating system competitors, like Godzilla riding the tunnel of a killer tsunami, there is a small yet powerful undercurrent that escapes this dominating force -- the arena of interactive games.

On all levels of this CD-ROM kingdom, from the well established to the newly crowned, designers have continuously programmed the pants off Microsoft. Very often, it is the fledgling upstarts headed by the next wunderkind du jour operating from their parents' basement who deserve the greatest praise. Like an Odyssean tale, these pioneer creators are faced with turbulent decisions and obstacles, and occasionally swayed off course by the siren song of corporate buyout. But for the stalwarts who strap themselves to mastpoles in times of crisis, the success stories become legend. These are the demigod creators who, despite shoestring budgets, limited resources, and iffy distributors, continue to climb like hungry vines through the crowded market canopy, and into the rich sunlight of legendary sales. Sales fill with the winds of innovation and ground-breaking design, the highly effective rudders which help navigate newly christened ships through Microsoft's ominous advertising breakers. Witness the still conquering id empire of Doom fame, Cyan's Myst, Blizzard's smash Diablo, and Pulse Entertainment's Iron Helix and Bad Mojo. All extraordinary achievements cultivated from garage gardens, small production houses, and lesser-known game companies.

How is that these customarily obscure, independent companies are able to capture the market from what should be an overwhelming
Death Star-like force? Is it because Microsoft has resigned itself to cleaning the dark side of Windows? Of course not -- the global behemoth boasts at least a dozen entertainment titles at any given moment. And yet its only consistent cash cow is Flight Simulator, a game whose success lies more in the imagination of its players than its makers. Accurate and well-designed, yes. Inspired by passion, art, and true adventure, no. This is precisely why games like Deadly Tide, Golf, and Monster Truck Madness are resigned to mediocrity. Are they truly bad games? No, not in particular. They are all middle-of-the-road fare, lackluster and uninspired. Is this possible? How could a company like Microsoft, with its enormous resources, vast amounts of talent, while under the leadership of a widely agreed-upon genius, fail so miserably in this particular niche? It's because "Where do you want to go today?" is the wrong question.

In the world of Internet access, office applications, and reference titles, Microsoft deserves the praise its abundant prosperity demonstrates. "Where do you want to go today?" is a query that tempts us, like boarding the Orient Express with Agatha Christie shoveling coal on the fire. But in the world of cutting-edge action, fantasy, and adventure, the question is justifiably different -- "Who do you want to be today?"

Thankfully for Austinites, we have a handful of local game designers who ask this very question every day. Within our own virtual backyard, artists, producers, screenwriters, and programmers go about the routine task of creating alter egos of characters for game enthusiasts to inhabit. From a powerful sorcerer or a space ace fighter pilot, to a teenage super sleuth, defecting military commander or a time traveler, Austin innovators and freshman designers are creating tomorrow's entertainment today. And while they may not have the resources to coerce buyers into taking a swim in their makeshift software pools, many have made up for lack of funds with ingenuity, artistic savvy, and some very interesting websites. At the assorted addresses below, hopeful entrepreneurs sell their wares, hype upcoming products and, in one case, share wedding photos. Here is a sampling of what Austin-based companies are pounding under their red-hot digital anvils.

Crack Dot Com, Inc.

Pages of wedding pictures of company employees? Is it a misguided sales tactic? Or simply the sign of a small but growing company? Either way, after you've visited with the bride and groom, you're going to feel obligated to help out the newlywed employees. That's a long introduction to a website that does just fine introducing itself. At Crack Dot Com, you will immediately sense that the company's charter was founded on more macabre subjects. Edgar Allen Poe has a distinct influence in their lighting, visuals, and one of their employee's short stories. Whether this is to your taste or not, Crack's layout for Golgotha, its front-running "coming soon" interactive game title, is something to behold. Set in the year 2048 A.D., it is set during the edge of WWIII, where superpower conglomerates wage a hi-tech war for a mysterious artifact unearthed in Iraq. Not exactly a Gene Roddenberry vision of the days to come, Golgotha projects that current border skirmishes lay unresolved some 50 years in the future. Yet playing the leader of heavy artillery battles as a renegade military commander sounds like enough fun to forgive such a tainted view of what Earthlings can expect down the road. Aspiring game designers should check this site for screen pics of the evolution of the game, ranging from phases of early renderings, to shots of the software tools used to create Golgotha.

Girl Games, Inc.

This is a game site designed by women and targeted solely to girls. And aside from the fact the site operators encourage their clients to perform a little free marketing reconnaissance for the company, this is the kind of place to which every teenage girl should have access. Planet Girl is something akin to an Internet therapy zone/venting area where web patrons ranging in age from 8-18 get online to express themselves or just find out what's on their peers' minds. Site explorers will find pages devoted to book reviews sent in by girls of all ages, inspiring stories about women mentors, and a public bulletin board where visitors can speak out about boys and the pressures of dieting, dating, and sex. For its younger audience, Girl Games' flagship CD-ROM title Let's Talk About Me offers a more personalized platform to explore many of these issues through humor and self-styling. With applications ranging from the Hairmaster 2000 (where visitors can practice cutting virtual hair), to a fitness and health planner and a secret diary section, Let's Talk About Me offers girls a unique opportunity to build their own image on their own schedule without the influence of that nasty thing called The Media.

Human Code

For everyone who still fondly remembers the lyric "I'm just a bill" from Saturday morning television, this website will be a nostalgic trip down computer memory lane. Human Code's Schoolhouse Rock edutainment title follows the long and winding road from bill to law. Geared toward a younger audience, kids are faced with challenging educational activities, fun music videos, and the discovery of interesting facts about American history, culture, geography, and government. Although Human Code's target audience for games like Schoolhouse Rock, Wishbone and the Amazing Odyssey, and The Cartoon History of the Universe is a younger crowd, its website is decidedly grown-up. The text is particularly highbrow, and the design of the site is filled with beautiful, slick screen shots -- a truly impressive advertising sphere also aimed at corporate audiences, industry traffic, and the sale of a vast array of interactive business applications.

Origin Systems, Inc.

As Austin's most celebrated and established game designer, it's abundantly obvious Origin created this area with very specific intentions: to inform and sell, sell, sell. Unlike Crack Dot Com, there is no peeking behind the curtain at the Emerald City here. Despite its frilly dressings, the site is long on practicality, offering an exorbitant amount of information on past, present, and future game titles. From its phenomenally popular Wing Commander and Privateer series to Crusader: No Remorse, Origin's interactive arsenal supplies enough gunpowder to destroy three lazy summers. But the real bomb waiting to hit the CD-ROM market has yet to explode. If you haven't heard of the company's impending Ultima Online, then you may have been hiding under the schoolhouse rock for too long. If you log on, expect to take an extended browse at, Ultima Online's linked website filled with a virtual gallery of medieval-looking artwork, facts, and features about the game, and just enough storyline to pique the interest of the most dimwitted orc.

Iguana Entertainment, Inc.

Even though Iguana Entertainment's webpages presently reside amidst a wide assortment of titles at the site of its parent company, Acclaim, it's easy to sort out the songs of praise surrounding its much ballyhooed Turok, Dinosaur Hunter. After a quick demo of this shoot'em-up game, which comes equipped with a Doom-style interface, even the most avid PC user may be ready to trade in their hard drive for a Nintendo 64 system. Unavailable in CD-ROM format, Turok's first sales summer will coincide with Spielberg's Lost World. You don't need an advertising degree to figure out what that kind of related marketing could mean during the three months of the year kids are really doing nothing. Surrounded by a dazzling 3-D realm filled with mounted triceratops, artillery-packing pterodactyls, and alien infantry, game players use a variety of weapons to survive a planet filled with trees, waterfalls, sheer rock faces, and all the wild life foraging in-between. Like the game itself, at Turok's website, visitors are afforded a 360deg. look at what the adventure is all about. With rich, colorful graphics, an impressive slide show of screen shots, pictures of enemies, and a full survey of Turok's weapon cabinet, these pages are a visual and auditory feast for the senses.

Steve Jackson Games

Been staring at your computer monitor for 10 hours straight? Starting to see kaleidoscope images of flashbacks from past Star Trek conventions? Bring your soul in for a healthy technology scrubbing at Steve Jackson Games. Here, you're offered an alternative to the radiation-soaking your eyes sustain on a daily basis. It's also the perfect excuse for non-techies to finally enlist an Internet provider and catch up on new releases for the old-fashioned roll-'em-up style of fantasy and adventure. With its mainstay titles GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) and Car Wars giving its newer games (In Nomine, Dino Hunt, and Ogre) a firm base to stand on, Steve Jackson Games is content for the moment to invent in the text-based universe, although plans for switching to PC platforms are not in the too distant future. If this isn't enough to convince you to take a peek at what Steve Jackson Games has to offer, at least log on to learn how they defeated an office raid by the Secret Service in 1990.

(Author's Note: Austin game designer Digital Anvil's website was not online at the time of this survey. However, the company informs me it will be up and running in the near future at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Marcel Meyer
Self-Funded and Self-Made
Self-Funded and Self-Made
Tom Fulp on 'Alien Hominid'

March 4, 2005

Halo 2
Gift guide

Dec. 10, 2004

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle