By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Making games is what I love doing with my life," Porter says. With his glasses and boyish looks, he appears much younger than his 36 years, and his extreme enthusiasm for his craft borders on that of a hyperactive kid.
At the age of 4, Porter created his first game, a board game that "all the kids in my neighborhood would play," he remembers. "My mother said then that when I grow up I should make games."
He rocks back and forth in his chair as he talks. Maybe he's nervous about being interviewed; or maybe he's burning off excess adrenaline produced by the production pace of G-Nome. Beside his desk sits a cot, complete with blanket and pillow. How long has it been since he last slept?
"When my wife and I were first dating, she knew that this is what I'd be spending most of my time doing," Porter says. The more he talks, the more he rocks. "She had to inform me that I worked 41 days without a day off--and that was during December."
Like so many entrepreneurs in the computer industry, Porter has an eccentric history. Except for three years of ministry schooling that he didn't complete, he never went to college. He does hold an honorary degree in computer science at Southwest Texas State University. In 1984, he got a job at the university researching laser-disc technology. The federal government, which was providing the grant money for the project, became, understandably, somewhat antsy about Porter's lack of academic credentials. The school cleared up this technicality by giving the degree-deficient Porter the necessary papers.
The key to 7th Level's on-time efficiency lies in its use of a proprietary programming engine to crank out all its games. Code-named "Top Gun," it works--in its most basic sense--like a template in which graphics, music, and sound elements are plugged in to make a new game. This significantly speeds up production, since Top Gun handles most of the programming processes that occur "under the hood."
There is a trade-off, which comes in two ways: a reduction in the speed at which the program will operate (though Porter claims that any slowdown with Top Gun-produced games is very minimal, if at all noticeable); and, most importantly, games made around the same proprietary engine can wind up playing and "feeling" similar to one another, with only superficial elements being different. 7th Level's principal audience--parents and their young children--may not be discriminating enough to notice, but finicky, hard-core gamers, most of whom are familiar with such technicalities, might.
The likelihood that the end product will be "cookie-cutter" depends on how powerful the software engine's capabilities are; yet, if it's too complex, dealing with it can slow production. This conundrum is why many game-software companies choose not to solely rely on one programming engine to produce their projects. Usually, separate engines for specific parts of a game (its graphics, sound, or programming) are grafted together. Other times, as is the case with most of Apogee and id titles, everything is "pure code"--created from the ground up specifically for that game.
Porter extols his company's Top Gun engine, but G-Nome's success may depend more on the skills of the graphics and sound artists than the programming engine that glues it all together.
It remains to be seen whether G-Nome, the first 3-D action game made on the Top Gun engine, will have what it takes for 7th Level to compete in this league. For now, the company's 3-D games will have the distinction in the industry for being produced quickly and shipped on schedule.
Appropriately, and in sharp contrast to Apogee, the culture at the 2-year-old 7th Level resembles a Disney-esque animation factory. Posters of science-fiction movies are up on the walls, and small toys litter desks. Beyond that, everything feels orderly and efficient. Lots of marker boards conveniently hang from walls. The artists here are juggling three projects at once, but the stress level appears minimal. And the air smells very, well, corporate--like a well-oiled machine running flawlessly.
Back at the Apogee dorm, hardly anyone can name a hobby or outside interest other than computer games. Ranking second is going to movies, when the time for them can be found. "We tend to refer to our hobbies in the past tense" is a joke among the programmers. One of them, though, says he's a part-time personal trainer. Good physical conditioning probably comes in handy when you're pulling in long hours, staring at the computer screen.
The big kids spend a lot of time in virtual reality and very little in real reality.
In another one of the dimly lit parts of the offices, members of the Apogee staff are hunched over their monitors. They're playing Duke Nukem 3D in network mode. All of them have fought their way inside the alien mother ship and have ganged up against the giant, head-honcho alien. They pummel it with their combined firepower. Eventually, they defeat this menace to humanity.
Then they do it all over again, replaying the game in its entirety over and over. They're testing the game's networking ability, rooting out programming bugs and other quirks that might occur when it operates under extreme, technical conditions--like in the hands of an adolescent. It's typical of the rigorous testing that goes into any computer game before the final product is shipped to the public.