Video-game industry thrives here

The Hunt Valley area has become a player in a field rooted on West Coast

July 30, 2006|By STACEY HIRSH | STACEY HIRSH,SUN REPORTER

For most executives, having an Xbox 360 and an armload of video games in their office would be an admission that they have way too much time on their hands. But for some Hunt Valley corporate-types, it's practically required.

Just ask Dave Inscore, a founder of video game company Big Huge Games. He often uses the Xbox 360 in his office to check out the competition.

"Right now I'm actually playing a couple of games - I'm playing one on Xbox and another game on PC - that I need to play for the sake of making the correct decisions for my job," Inscore said. "But at the end of the day, I get to play games and that's part of what I do. That's why I love what I do so much."

Big Huge Games is just one of a small cluster of game companies in the Hunt Valley region. The industry's decidedly unbuttoned-down culture may seem out of place in the more traditional corporate atmosphere of the area.

The computer game industry draws geeks and artsy, creative types who love to play at work and work at play. Those in the business are overwhelmingly male, and many of them grew up playing the kinds of games they now create.

The video game industry is usually associated with the West Coast, especially the San Francisco Bay area, the epicenter of gaming companies. But on the East Coast, the office parks around Hunt Valley are known as a hub of talent.

Credit Sid Meier and "Wild Bill" Stealey, who founded MicroProse Inc. in 1982, a time when video games where just beginning to take off.

Meier went on to become known as the father of computer gaming and one of the most well-respected creative minds in the industry. Talented game professionals from around the country were drawn to the area for the chance to work with him.

When a California company merged with MicroProse more than a decade after the company was formed, many employees left and started their own businesses in the Hunt Valley area.

"Bill Stealey and I started MicroProse in the early '80s and chose Hunt Valley as its home because we all lived nearby and the area provided some nice new and affordable office space," Meier wrote in an e-mail. "Over the years, folks left MicroProse to go out and start their own companies ... and since they lived locally, and Hunt Valley was a blossoming business community, it made sense to stay in the area."

After leaving MicroProse, Meier, Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs started Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley in 1996. Meier and Briggs remain at Firaxis - where Meier's name is a marketable asset - though the company was sold last year to Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.

Reynolds left the company and co-founded Big Huge Games. Other MicroProse offshoots in Hunt Valley include larger companies such as BreakAway Ltd. as well as smaller firms like Digital Steamworks LLC.

Today, the cluster of video game companies in the Hunt Valley area has expanded geographically and in scope. It has grown beyond game programmers and developers to businesses such as Absolute Quality, which tests games for bugs, and Graphic Designs by Dave Inc., a one-man business in Carney that specializes in flight simulation development but also does some video game packaging and artwork.

"With folks like Sid Meier being in the area, really one of the legends in the industry, I would say it has a very strong reputation," said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

Video games have become an $8.4 billion dollar industry, where the cost of developing a single game can run as much as $20 million. And experts predict the industry will only get bigger with the introduction of new consoles such as the Xbox 360, the leap of video games to mobile phones and hand-held devices, and the expanding use of games for nonentertainment purposes.

But the industry has come under sharp criticism for the violence of many games. A rating system has since been established to tell players how suitable the content of each game is for children. California passed a law last year banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

Many companies in the area avoid the issue because many of their games are nonviolent, focusing on history or, for instance, becoming a railroad tycoon in "Sid Meier's Railroads!" game due out in the fall.

Kelley Gilmore, director of marketing for Firaxis, said her firm believes developers should take responsibility for the content of their games. But, she added, "As a company, we don't feel as though video games are responsible for some of the negative behaviors in youth."

The video game market is projected to grow to $13 billion by 2010, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers' Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2006-2010.

"The industry's growing at a great clip, partly because more and more people are playing games and also the production values of games are going up," said Tim Train, president of Big Huge Games.

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