KABOOM! Computer game designers find niche in Baltimore area

September 21, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

There are magicians among us. But instead of rabbits or flowers, they conjure jet fighters, demons, pirates and the ghosts of Civil War generals.

Sid Meier is first among them. The 44-year-old Hunt Valley computer programmer is a legend in the world of computer gamers, practicing his craft in a snake pit of electrical cords, humming computers, crumb-filled Pop Tarts boxes, and half-empty soda cans.

Many gamers think his masterpiece, Sid Meier's Civilization, is the greatest simulation of all time. His name alone on the front of a software box can guarantee millions of dollars in sales.

But tucked away in odd buildings and nondescript offices in northern Baltimore County, scores of Meier's former disciples are trying to repeat his success. They labor for more than a dozen local companies that turn out some of the hottest games in the entertainment software industry.

"There was never a master plan that said, 10 years from now we're going to turn Hunt Valley into this gaming metropolis," said Meier, now chairman of Firaxis Games. "It was just that we liked to play games, we liked to write games. We thought, let's do the best games we can and see what happens."

Most Baltimore game companies sprang up quietly over the last few years, unnoticed in a state where programmers toil in the gray, buttoned-down world of corporate and government databases.

But the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development says entertainment software is one of the state's fastest-growing high-tech industries.

While the epicenter of the $8.4 billion entertainment software business is in California, the landscape is starting to change. Many games are created by small companies in places such as Baltimore, Boston, Austin, Texas; and Raleigh, N.C. Then they're marketed by West Coast publishing giants with enough distribution and advertising muscle to make them profitable.

"The days of a guy doing a game in his garage are over," said Greg Kreafle of Origin Systems in Hunt Valley.

Kreafle heads a 12-person shop that creates military flight simulations for Electronic Arts, the nation's No. 2 game publisher. Origin's latest creation, Jane's F-15 Combat Simulation, took two years to finish.

To make the game as realistic as possible, the group pored over thick flight manuals used by F-15 pilots, struggled through research on the F-15's aerodynamics and visited air bases to snap pictures of every inch of the jet fighter.

"People always say, 'It must be so cool to play games all day!' " said Kreafle. "They don't realize that we have just as many headaches as people in other jobs - we just have different ones."

But game developers wouldn't think of doing anything else.

"I'm one of the few fortunate one percent of the country who gets to work doing exactly what they love more than anything else," said Jim Rose, president of war-gamer TalonSoft Inc. "And if you find that kind of job, you don't work a day in your life."

Baltimore game companies produce everything from football and racing titles to shoot-'em-ups and complex strategic simulations. Most have only a handful of employees - which is the norm for the development business. But they have produced some mr titles, including Magic: The Gathering, Civilization II and East Front.

A few firms have found other gaming niches. Hunt Valley-based InterAct Accessories, for example, makes joysticks and other hardware, while neighboring Absolute Quality Inc. tests games and provides technical support for other publishers.

"If the companies here do well, we could wind up being the East Coast Mecca of game design," says Ed Fletcher of Meyer-Glass Interactive LLC, which is adapting classic Milton-Bradley board games Axis and Allies and Battleship for the PC.

The history of gaming in Baltimore is almost as old as the personal computer. One of the city's first publishers was Muse Software, which opened on North Charles Street in 1980 with a shoot-'em-up for Atari and Apple computers called Castle Wolfenstein. Although the game is crude by today's standards, it still has a cult following on the Internet after almost two decades.

Like many early players, Muse went bust a few years after it opened - about the time that Meier and "Wild Bill" Stealey, an Air Force Reserve jet jockey, discovered each other at General Instruments in Cockeysville. Meier knew how to write game programs and Stealey began peddling them from the trunk of his car.

They called their company MicroProse, and it put Baltimore on the entertainment map with titles like Hellcat Ace, F-15 Strike Eagle, Pirates, Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon and the best-selling Civilization. At its peak, MicroProse had sales of $46 million a year and 400 employees, including talented programmers drawn from all over the country.

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