Controlling Their Own Destiny

So many questions for the gaming industry, so many Austin game developers to answer them

Controlling Their Own Destiny
Illustration By Peat Duggins

As you read this, millions of copies of the newly released Microsoft game Halo 2 are flying off store shelves at an unprecedented rate. As this is being written, it's a scant 24 hours since the game, a strategically complex you-against-the-aliens scenario that operates as a "first-person shooter" (meaning the action takes place from the player's point of view), has hit store shelves, but it has already racked up sales, including more than a million online presales, that are almost surely going to make it the most popular video game ever. Here in Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse's Village and Lake Creek locations have organized big-screen tournaments (for more on that, see p.82). It's a watershed moment in gaming, one of those cultural crash barriers that marks the denouement of one aspect of popular culture and initiates another: Games are becoming – have become – the new recreational pastime to an unprecedented degree, eclipsing watching movies and doing, like, other things both financially and creatively.

And as Austin's game-development community grows right along with the industry itself, it, too, is experiencing growing pains, from the recent sale of Inevitable Games to industry giant Midway to the death throes of Acclaim Studios this past August. As it were, much of the blame for that shuttering fell to the company's initial push toward creating games for the Sega console platform, which steadily dropped by the wayside after the release of Sony's ultimately more popular Playstation in the mid-Nineties. It was a case of backing the wrong horse, and one that cost some 120 Austin employees their jobs. That said, there's plenty of action going on right now in the River City, ranging from the arrival of the American division of South Korean-based NCsoft, headed by Austin gaming pillars Richard and Robert Garriott, late of Origin Systems, to the Congress Avenue-based Aspyr Media Inc., which takes PC and console video games and reconfigures them for the cult of Mac. Aspyr is also branching out into other entertainment mediums, which, in what every single person interviewed for this article called "a time of transition in the gaming industry," might be the smartest and surest way to stay one step ahead of an increasingly fickle consumer base.

Then there are the legions of smaller outfits, or newer outfits, or outfits with new, smaller names – Knockabout Games, Ion Storm, Sony Online Entertainment, BreakAway Games – that have evolved into local success stories ... or not. It's not just politics and the global theatre that are a battlefield these days – gaming is undergoing a transformation that will likely make William Hurt's tortured metamorphoses in Altered States look like a cakewalk. What it all boils down to is a series of seismic upheavals in the industry that are being felt both here in Austin and around the globe.

For starters, there's the impending releases of Microsoft's Xbox 2 and Sony's Playstation 3 game consoles, scheduled, tentatively, for late 2005 and early 2006. These new chunks of superfast, supersmart hardware are already creating ripples in the game development process as local, national, and international gaming outfits struggle to figure out what hot new feature to take advantage of next. A gaming console with GPS, MPEG capabilities, and, say, a flamethrower, might not be as radical an idea as once perceived.

Add to that the miniskirmish between the developers/fans of "massively multiplayer online games" – products like Origin's original Ultima Online and the insanely popular EverQuest role-playing game – and the fans/developers of down and dirty console games like the new Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and you've got a recipe for chaos of the fun sort. (EverQuest, by the way, is so addictive it's regularly referred to as "EverCrack," and has spawned a whole legion of mental health and social welfare concerns due to the fact that players get so caught up in the imaginary world of the gamescape that they tend to forget to do things like, oh, bathe or feed their kids.)

Richard (l) and Robert Garriott of NCsoft
Richard (l) and Robert Garriott of NCsoft (Photo By John Anderson)

And then there's the mergers and acquisitions aspect of the gaming industry, which locally has seen Origin spawn Digital Anvil (which was bought by Microsoft and later bred Warthog Games), gaming giant Midway purchase locals Inevitable Entertainment, and more permutations, name changes, and relocations than you'd think one little gaming community like Austin's could reasonably support.

But for now, let's begin, more or less, at the beginning, with the already-legendary ascent of brothers Richard and Robert Garriott's Origin Systems Inc., whose motto – "We Create Worlds" – has only become more and more appropriate since they were bought six years back by Electronic Arts, which forced the Garriott brothers to find other interests. Which they did.


Origin Story

The Austin offices of South Korean-based online gaming behemoth NCsoft is the new home of the Garriotts, and oddly enough, it's just a stone's throw from their former Capital of Texas Highway digs. Richard Garriott, he of the fantastic Halloween haunted houses (no more) and the far more important world-changing games Ultima, Ultima II, and the Wing Commander series (which led to the Chris Roberts-directed big-screen adaptation in 1999, for which company offshoot and Congress Avenue stalwart Digital Anvil supplied the then cutting-edge effects, by the way) began making games while still a high school student back in 1974. His success in the nascent field of computer gaming happened quite literally overnight, and following a series of financial setbacks (like not getting paid for his groundbreaking work despite his contributions to Ultima II for the company Sierra), he teamed with his business-minded brother Robert to form Origin Systems.

"I had dropped out of college to start playing games for a living, so to speak," explains Richard, "while Robert, who is five years my senior, was becoming, to my mind, overeducated, with a bachelor's from Rice, and master's from MIT and Stanford. He had also been studying investments in software companies, and, so, whenever I'd have problems with a company paying me, I'd go to Robert, and he would act as my contract negotiator. Finally, after two companies had done that to me, Robert decided that we could do a better job publishing my games ourselves, and that's how Origin was founded."

Robert: "At least he knew I wouldn't screw him as all the other people had done. That didn't make sense, really, because the first person you pay is the goose who lays the golden eggs, you know?"

That initial version of Origin – formed in their parents' Houston garage, as are all good adventures in DIYism – led to an Austin office and, according to Richard, "a very interesting thing happened when we did that. Origin was the first entertainment company within a thousand miles of Austin. Our office grew very, very rapidly and attracted tons of people who wanted to be in this business. Talented developers just came in droves."

After a breakneck and tremendously successful run at Origin, the brothers left the company in 2000 right after launching the first of those multiplayer online games, the ridiculously popular Ultima Online.

NCsoft's <i>City of Heroes</i>
NCsoft's City of Heroes

Says Richard Garriott of those semihalcyon days, "After doing Ultima Online, we expected all the other players in the business to swamp this new territory that we had charted. That game was the most successful game in the history of all the games we had ever done, and it was the first of these big online games.

"To our shock, frankly, no one jumped in and exploited it. We had opened the door to this whole new, highly profitable creative opportunity, and people weren't diving in behind us. Except in Asia. And here's why: At that time, there was a big debate in our industry about what people were going to be looking for, either option A, which was big subscription games like we had created; option B was lighter fare where you didn't actually have to pay a subscription fee to pay for it but you maybe watched advertising. And a lot of the big companies chose this other model, thinking that advertising was the way to go. We always thought that was a bad idea and that, to a large degree, was why I retired. And now online games have clearly been proven to be where the sweet spot is."

With NCsoft now firmly positioned as the ne plus ultra of U.S.-based online gaming (via the games Lineage and City of Heroes), it remains to be seen what the coming turf battles between the console kids and onliners will do to their considerable market share.

Adds Richard, "If you look at the very first game I wrote on the Apple II, I did it in seven weeks and my cost was basically zero. My first contract netted me about 150 grand – for a high school senior, that return on investment was practically infinite. And ever since then it's been downhill, because it gets harder and harder to make these games, and the profit margin gets tighter and tighter. It's a common curve for any market that matures. Starting out in this business, the total money needed – compared to any other business – was very, very small. But the number of other companies was equally small, so that meant that the profits were very high. But as the business grew, all the other media companies, like Time Warner, Sony, and so on, began to pay attention to gaming, and they then attempted to buy their way into the business. Overnight, salary levels shot up, profits went way down because of the bulk of crummy product, and the business became much harder."

NCsoft's Austin offices now employ some 200-plus employees, making the Garriott brothers the largest game developer in town. Again.

And as far as the Austin connection, as in "Why are there so many talented developers loping around town and keeping every java joint and Jolt Cola purveyor afloat while crafting some of the most viscerally entertaining games around these days?," the Garriotts are in agreement: It's an Origin thing.

Aspyr (l-r): Michael Rogers, Ted Staloch, Leah Heck, 
and Zach Rener
Aspyr (l-r): Michael Rogers, Ted Staloch, Leah Heck, and Zach Rener (Photo By John Anderson)

"Austin is absolutely the leading city in the United States for the development of online games," notes Richard with a grin, "which really is where the next round of money is going to be made. That's because of the common history of game developers in Austin: Everything goes back to Origin, where we had two big product lines, Ultima and Wing Commander, and if you look at the principal development staff of those two products, some of them are here, some of them are at Sony Online, but there's still a substantial number that are doing all the other start-ups around town."

That's an idea echoed by virtually everyone that the Chronicle spoke to for this article. The viral, fragmented nature of Origin Systems' talent pool has spread far and wide and deep, and sometimes it seems as though everyone here, at some point, paid their dues at the company's palatial offices overlooking the Loop 360 Bridge.

And, of course, as Richard adds, "I really think it has a lot to do with the history of Austin and with the creative spirit that comes out of being the so-called 'live music capital of the world' – it's also been a big high tech town for a long time. We've had everyone from Texas Instruments, IBM, and more recently Samsung that have made this a great town for that. What we're doing, if you think about it, is high tech art, and that's just perfect for Austin."


Spectorvision Redux

Warren Spector is a former Origin man himself, and a 20-year veteran of the Austin gaming scene. He concurs, but notes that his former bosses' proselytizing on behalf of online gaming might be tinged with a bit of bravado.

"The game industry in general is at an interesting point," Spector says. "We're heading into treacherous waters because there's a hardware transition coming. We're moving from the Xbox, Playstation 2, GameCube era into an Xbox 2, Playstation 3, very high-end PC era. Any hardware transition is going to be difficult and involve a shake-out, but this one is particularly difficult, because the capability of the hardware is going up so dramatically that it's forcing us to rethink the development process, which is going to change and change radically to take advantage of the power of the hardware."

Speaking to the Garriotts specifically, Spector feels that there's less of an online-versus-console-gaming battle in the works than a "meeting of the minds," noting that all the new hardware will be sporting advanced online capabilities, presumably allowing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas fans to team up online and mow one another down in massive droves.

"What Richard and Robert Garriott and all the sort of evangelists for online gaming fail to recognize," he helpfully points out, "is that while that audience is growing rapidly, the most successful online game ever in the United States, which is the bulk of the gaming market, has only attracted 400,000-450,000 people, and that would be EverQuest. City of Heroes, which is a wonderful game that I played obsessively for months – they were thrilled when they hit 200,000 people. I'd much rather talk to 10 million people, and games like Halo and Half-Life and The Sims do talk to that many people. It's kind of a false argument. Online games are wonderful games, they provide a great gaming experience, but that's a future of gaming, not the future of gaming."


Meanwhile, Back on Congress Avenue ...

In the midst of these local upstarts, overlords, and just this general pandemonium, one little company with a very specific take on gaming has emerged from the wings to take on the big boys (and the small ones, too) by focusing not only on gaming, per se, but also on the very Austin markets of music and film. That company is Aspyr Media Inc., and with their broad platform, they might be the unexpected next big thing, able to survive – as they have since their initial forays into the business in 1996 – by keeping things interesting and eclectic.
Aspyr's Live From Shiva's Dance Floor DVD 
release
Aspyr's "Live From Shiva's Dance Floor" DVD release

Ted Staloch, executive vice-president of publishing, tells the tale: "Michael [Rogers] and I had known each other for a while, and, so, in '96, we incorporated and moved into our first office, which was his front bedroom on Elm Street. It was the type of thing where we both kind of pool some money and give up our corporate jobs to see if we could make the thing fly."

Staloch, with his background in sales and marketing, and Rogers, who had previously been with the company TechWorks making memory upgrades for PCs and Macs, chose right off the bat to take their interest in gaming to realms previously untapped, mainly Steve Jobs' Apple Computers, which until they arrived had been seriously deficient in their acquisition of game titles.

"1993 or 1994 was when Apple started to slide downward in their market share," explains Staloch, "and, as a consumer, Michael was frustrated that while there were a lot of games available, there weren't many available for Mac owners. So, it was really his thought that we should do games for the Mac, and then as that caught on it became a case of not just making specific games for the Mac, we should also license other PC-oriented games and reconfigure them for the Mac. A lot of what we were doing for the first three or four years was spent taking licenses from successful PC game titles and doing a version for the Mac."

Their first game was MahJong Parlor, but dedicated Mac users will doubtless recall the arid days before Aspyr showed up – trying to find a decent Mac-playable game at your local computer outlet or chain store was almost always an exercise in frustration. Since then, Aspyr has released more than 70 games specifically for the Mac platform, everything from the Tomb Raider series to the recent and thoroughly addictive Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and from gritty, nuanced combat exercises such as Delta Force: Black Hawk Down to more traditional exercises in mad firepower like Command & Conquer: Generals, which "puts your trigger finger on the pulse of modern warfare" in real time strategy. Oh, hell yeah: The Mac, thanks in large part to Aspyr's efforts (and some serious hardware upgrades, finally), is back in the gaming fold as never before.

But that's not all they're up to over at 412A Congress. There's more to life than gaming, but you'd have to argue pretty hard with a lot of the developers in Austin to convince them of that fact. Not so with the sly crew at Aspyr, who have branched out into DVD releases with the Richard Linklater/ Timothy "Speed" Levitch post-9/11 monologue-tour "Live From Shiva's Dance Floor," Eric Saperston's epic and touching road movie The Journey, and Mike Woolfe's documentary "Growin' a Beard."

But wait – there's more! Being in the aforementioned "live music capital of the world," the company has also made headway into the local music field with a series of CD releases from the likes of Knife in the Water, Milton Mapes, and hometown heroes the Gourds. Now, how much would you pay?!

Controlling Their Own Destiny
Photo By John Anderson

And just over the horizon looms Aspyr's most ambitious project yet: the Fifties-era zombie romantic apocalypse Stubbs the Zombie, which matches the company with a veteran development team to create an original game bolstered by an all-new soundtrack featuring Death Cab for Cutie, the Dandy Warhols, and the Raveonettes, alongside 10 others reinterpreting classic Fifties pop songs. Advance buzz is, as you might expect, delirious. Zombies: can't kill 'em, can't live with 'em, but, boy, are they in vogue right now.

Rogers: "We're continuing to invest in the Mac space because that's sort of our bread and butter, and being able to work with big brands like Lucasfilm, Electronic Arts [to] reposition their games for the Mac platform. In addition, we're doing more and more stuff for the PC market and the console space, as well. We really want to be a better partner to everyone we work with today, whether it's a retailer or a content provider like EA. I don't think there's anyone our size doing the diverse work we're doing. We're trying to drive a lot of different disciplines from most gaming companies out there, almost as if we were a minimajor."


Parting Shots From the Fat Man, or, What's It All About, Anyway?

In the midst of the consumer-driven development chaos of the time, one rational voice stands out in the Austin noise barrage. It's George "The Fat Man" Sanger, a 22-year veteran of the gaming industry who also happens to be one of its most influential musical composers – we're talking the revolutionary, John Williams-esque score for Wing Commander as opposed to the give-that-kid-some-Ritalin squall of, say, Nintendo's glory days. And he's done some 200 of the brilliant, stylistically diverse works of minimusical art.

Unlike Sidney Greenstreet, Sanger is neither fat nor dead, but the nickname fits nevertheless: He's the man who, maybe more than anyone else, appears to know which way the wind is blowing, the shadowy go-to man for people who need the answers to the big questions. And more importantly, he's dedicated his life – all of it – to making gaming more than a hobby, a pastime, or something to do on a Saturday night when your best girl's visiting the in-laws: He makes it Art with a capital "A."

"At its best," says Sanger, "gaming does the same thing that art does: It confirms that there's an invisible world. And what does art do, really? When I have a feeling in my heart, and without any words at all, I communicate that feeling to you using notes or paint or something, and now you have the same feeling in your heart. How did it happen? We don't know, but one thing's for sure: Once it's happened, everybody that it's happened to has to recognize, for that moment, that there's more to the world than what we are aware that we're sensing. And so everyone is reminded of a larger universe. Games do that in various ways, and in online gaming, you're aware that you're communicating with another soul and when their little avatar moves to the left three feet and makes you laugh, it did art."

In between working on game scores and writing enthusiastic essays on this mad, mad point-and-shoot mouse-clicking world (his book The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness is something of an underground gamester bible), Sanger finds time to be just as evangelical about the whole not-all-that-sordid business as those Garriott brothers are about theirs. (He's particularly enthused about Namco's "stinkingly gorgeous" game Katamari Damaci at the moment.) Pearls of wisdom before swine kings? Hardly. Listen up, Austin game developers. Class is in session.

"Developers have to realize they need to keep the aesthetics of games different from movies and TV," says Sanger. "It must be quirky, it must be spiky (not well rounded), and you don't need smooth transitions. Witness Super Mario Brothers, then witness South Park, which created its own genre and does things that no other genre can do. That's what we need to remember. As gaming developers we need to leverage our strengths, invent new strengths, leverage the interactivity, and bring something to the table that Spielberg could never dream of. And in this way we will earn our place in history."

In Austin, however, it seems like most of the gaming community already has. end story

  • More of the Story

  • The Controllers (For Now)

    Any and all of these companies – some big, some small, some downright tiny – are worth a look, and many are producing games you've probably heard of
  • The Geek Behind the GURPS

    A conversation with Steve Jackson

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

gaming industry, Austin gaming scene, Austin gaming industry, NCsoft, Richard Garriott, Robert Garriott, Origin, Aspyr Media Inc., David Sanger, Halo 2, EverQuest, Ultima, Warren Spector, Austin game designers

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