A young business with a game plan Firaxis: The year-old company just unveiled its first product and expects in a year 'have two successful products on the market and be working on the next two.'

June 23, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

To most white-collar workers, watching the company you work for go into conniptions and end up being sold can look like a recipe for doom. But if you make computer games -- Doom, after all, is the name of the third best-selling game ever -- it may not be such a bad thing.

At least, that's how it seems to be working out for Sid Meier and Jeff Briggs.

Four years after the Hunt Valley-based game company MicroProse Inc. culminated a series of big losses and painful restructurings by finding a merger partner, Meier and Briggs are on their own. Last week, their year-old company, Firaxis Software Inc. unveiled its first product, Sid Meier's Gettysburg, a simulation of the battle that is the first of two games Firaxis is developing under a deal with games giant Electronic Arts Inc.

Electronic Arts is counting on the pair to help a company best known for youth-oriented console games build itself in the more adult-oriented market for personal computer-based games.

"We basically design games we would want to play," Meier said. "Since we're more adults than kids, they tend to be adult games."

Meier, 43, Briggs, 40, and Firaxis partner Brian Reynolds, 28, all worked at MicroProse, which Meier co-founded. But Meier is the star. Even at MicroProse, he was heavily promoted -- when you buy a Sid Meier game, its name is usually not just Civilization but Sid Meier's Civilization -- and his record of more than 5 million games sold was the key to putting the new company together.

"There aren't many people whose name is a brand," said David Swofford, communications director at Origin Systems, Electronic Arts' Texas-based computer-game arm. "You can count the people who are celebrated in this business on one hand. Sid Meier is one."

Meier's forte is complex, thoughtful games such as Sid Meier's Civilization, a 1993 title that Computer Gaming World ranked this year as the best game ever.

Civilization has sold 900,000 copies, and Sid Meier's Civilization II sold 1 million. Meier also has had half-million sellers or better on topics such as railroad tycoons, colonization and two fighter-plane simulation games.

A million-selling personal computer game can be a $30 million proposition at wholesale, Briggs and Meier said. The money from their two new games will go first to Origin, which financed the development. Origin will pay Firaxis royalties on sales. Origin will handle production, distribution and sales -- the so-called publishing -- after Firaxis does the creative part.

"Anything that hits half a million units is a success," Swofford said.

Firaxis settled on Origin as a partner after talking with up to a half-dozen candidates. Briggs said the deal runs out next year, after the publication of the second game, of which Briggs will say only that it is a "strategy" game.

Neither company will say how the money will be divided. But in a typical arrangement, Swofford said, a game developer could get a 60-40 or 50-50 split, and better-known developers such as Meier have more leverage.

MicroProse used to do its own publishing, and it grew into a firm with hundreds of workers, but Meier and Briggs say they want to avoid that. They say MicroProse's problems were growth-related.

"When you talk to us, you're going to hear the word 'small' a lot," Briggs said. "A lot of problems come out of sheer size."

Even on Firaxis' 15-person staff, Meier is not the administrator. Briggs is president and chief executive, dealing with most administrative and sales jobs, and Meier is chairman and director of creative development. Reynolds is vice president of software development.

In a year, Meier expects "to have two successful products on the market and be working on the next two," and to keep the company about the size it is now. But Briggs insists that his and Meier's dreams are not so atypical.

"We didn't say we don't want to be rich. There are different ways to get there," Briggs said. "The way to get rich in the game business is to do great games. The way to do great games is to stay small."

Pub Date: 6/23/97

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