By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
"This is downtown L.A. sometime in the near future when aliens have invaded," Broussard manages to casually explain in the midst of this carnage. "They're kidnapping earth's women to breed with them."
It's no big deal, really. He's already saved humanity countless times. It's his job.
Broussard is President of 3D Realms, a division of Apogee Software. At 32, he looks like an older, big kid, as do most of his colleagues at the Garland-based company which employs 30 people.
At the Apogee offices, young men sit before glowing monitors, staring intently into them. All the window blinds are closed, and room lights have been dimmed or switched off altogether, so that color and contrast on the computer screens are enhanced. Work areas are cluttered with paperwork, walls papered with concept art of otherworldly settings for games in development. The only feminine influence is represented by a few photos of women--girlfriends and wives, presumably, and two of Winona Ryder. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly male collegiate--as in a freshmen dormitory.
Broussard is showing off his company's latest creation, Duke Nukem 3D. It's a computer game that runs on PC compatibles. Duke utilizes an immersing 3-D-graphics environment.
You play the game from a simulated first-person perspective. You can enter buildings, open doors, walk through corridors, cross catwalks, leap over chasms, and barrel through alleyways.
That's not all. Light switches in rooms can be turned on or off; air ventilation shafts can be entered; and, when in the men's restroom, you can even relieve yourself at a urinal--"virtually." Through the keyboard, you can interact with almost every object in this game's world.
Yes, the degree of detail in Duke crosses the sublime into the anal retentive. And that's exactly the way video gamers like it, explains Steven Blackburn, 3D Realms' chief operating officer. "Players of hard-core action games expect that level of interactivity," the 31-year-old says.
Players want reality. Blackburn should know. He and Broussard consider themselves hard-core video-game players first, programmers second. They--as well as most of their fellow workers--first met one another at a local video arcade when they were in their teens.
Then there's the violence. The uninitiated may be surprised to learn that the spectacular bloodshed depicted in Duke isn't a shocking new development. While it offers greater interactivity and graphics sophistication, Duke has merely upped the ante on the violence that's already common in computer games--and added an element of seamy, overt sexuality.
Broussard plays through a part in the game that's set in a strip bar. Here, the aliens are attempting to kidnap the dancers. As part of the simulated detail, if you've collected enough dollar bills found throughout the game, you can wave them at any one of the women, who'll then reveal to you her pasty-covered breasts.
You can even, as Broussard demonstrates, blow away a dancer with your guns. She'll explode into a mess of bloody limbs. You lose points in your score for doing this, but it does prevent the aliens from using her for breeding stock. Duke has to be the first video game you win by not saving the girl.
Broussard and Blackburn admit that they expect quite a lot of people will be offended by this feature in the game. Yet they can't offer a solid justification for having included it, other than that it's all part of the designers' attention to realistic detail.
"We'll probably catch more flak for the sex than the fact that you can shoot the women," Blackburn guesses. He's probably right.
Still, he, Broussard and their all-male associates don't seem like misogynists. The motivation behind their creation seems to center less on sex, or even over-the-top violence, than on engineering something that will induce a pure adrenaline rush.
Blackburn tells me that Duke is marketed toward the 17-and-over crowd. The packaging will clearly warn parents that this game isn't meant for minors.
That, of course, is exactly why 13-year-old boys will want to play it.
Dallas isn't San Francisco. Nor is it New York City. It's not even Austin. Those cities are hotbeds of "digital culture," the nerve centers where the digital elite of innovative tech startups and multimedia companies--the so-called digiratti--congregate.
Sure, there's Texas Instruments and Intel-clone chip manufacturer Cyrix here. EDS makes its home base in Plano. Dallas even boasts that architectural curiosity, the Infomart. None of this counts, though. Dallas isn't recognized for having a computer culture, perhaps because its digital industry is based mostly around tech hardware; or maybe it's because the city is "too corporate." Whatever the reason, Big D just ain't hep.
But Dallas is home to several software firms that dominate nationally and internationally in the area of action-oriented computer games, like Duke, set in a virtual-reality-type environment. The Dallas area has cornered this profitable niche of the computer-games market with companies like Apogee and id Software, and another contender, 7th Level, determined to make its mark. Foremost among them is id, formed by a development team who parted ways with Apogee.
"I tell you, it's almost not fair to the rest of the industry," boasts id's vice president of marketing, Mike Wilson. Id has a lock on Dallas' prized talent in an extremely lucrative computer-game specialty, 3-D programming, which overall lacks good talent. One of the company's founders, John Carmack, is regarded as one of the top 3-D-games programmers in the world. Recently, id stole away another highly respected talent in this area, Michael Abrash, from Bill himself--from Microsoft's games division.
Based in Mesquite, id's original founders, Adrian Carmack, John Carmack (no relation), and John Romero--all still in their 20s--created the 3-D graphics technology and gunshot-induced blood carnage that scads of other games, including Apogee's Duke, have copied and improved upon.
"We like to think we're always a year or two ahead of everybody on what's coming in 3-D [computer games]," says Wilson. Regarding his company's upcoming game, Quake: "We're pretty sure we'll set a new standard," he says. "Hopefully, companies will be copying it for a couple of years like they did with Doom, and we'll be on to the next thing."
You really can't blame the competitors. Id's most popular creation, Doom, earned the 13-person company a reported $10 million in 1994 and maybe as much as $20 million last year alone. (These numbers are derived from industry sources and sales estimates. Id, a privately held firm, chooses not to reveal its earnings.) There's a very good chance that if you regularly play games on your computer, Doom is installed somewhere on your hard disk.
Several companies and universities banned Doom from their computer networks--where groups of people could play, each person traveling his own path in the game's world and thereby communally whiling away the workday.
Doom is so popular that Hollywood wants to turn it into a movie. (Hey, it worked, at the box office at least, for Mortal Kombat.) Director Ivan Reitman (Junior, Ghostbusters) plans to produce the Universal feature, which is set for possible release for this year's holiday season. Tom Berenger is being considered for the starring role. Never mind that Doom, the game, has no plot to speak of (you run through the subterranean caverns of Hell, blowing away demons).
Much has been written about id and Doom, most of it fawning, deconstructing how the company made its millions--initially through shareware distribution. The first "levels" of Doom were offered free for the downloading--then, once hooked, Doom junkies had to cough up cash for more levels. The few criticisms raised have concerned the violence depicted in Doom. The game's virtual brutality and astonishing success is, after all, to a large part responsible for the computer- and video-games industry's self-imposed ratings system after congressional hearings condemning video-game violence were held two summers ago.
Id is to computer games what Quentin Tarantino is to movies: an unrepentant purveyor of violence and damned successful at it. And if Dallas has only a minimal digital culture, Texas' overarching romance with the Wild West may be living large in the success of these games. Texas loves its guns, and though id's founders are transplants to the state, "Violent games didn't come about for them until they got together in Texas," Wilson muses.
"Maybe it's part of the Texas culture that you just do what you do and don't worry what the rest of the world thinks about it," he says. "That could have something to do with what has become known in the industry as our 'iditude': We don't give a shit what anybody thinks--we're just going to keep making our games."
Stockbrokers and headhunters making cold calls should hang up now. We are not interested, and you only piss us off when you ignore this message and ring through
--message on id's automated voice-mail
When you visit a company with this kind of attitude, you might expect to see architecture with fortress motifs or maybe a converted armory; a complex out in the middle of nowhere that would've made David Koresh proud, with a gun range or survivalist school nearby; an environment that would have obviously influenced and shaped this magic little company's success, controversy, and influence.
Instead, id dwells in an unassuming office building that looks like a giant black cube, which it shares with several other tenants. Worse, it's smack in the middle of Mesquite's suburban sprawl, amid shopping-center strips, fast-food joints and a mall, Town East. The only gun in sight is a plastic mock Gatling gun barrel--mounted to the front of an employee's Mitsubishi cargo van.
A few questions deepen the disappointment--nobody at the company is a firearm aficionado. The only employee who owns a real gun is the secretary.
Considering all the media attention, you'd think that it was id that created the first-person virtual-reality shooter. Actually, this basic video-game idea has been around since 12 years ago. Back then, the action was fairly benign; for example, in one game called Faceball, you'd run through mazes to hunt down "happy-faced" spheres and shoot balls at them. No one tried to make a game where you could gun down human enemies who screamed and bled in agony. If only for the technological limitations at the time, that was unthinkable.
Five years ago, id dared to create Wolfenstein 3D; it put the player up against hordes of Nazi soldiers in a castle. Since then, id has proven that violence isn't a detriment--it's an asset. The only thing lethal to this business is repetition and a deficit of new innovations and ideas. So far, the company's success has been focused around a one-trick idea: A "hero" navigates long passages, gunning down evil opponents as they appear. Doom was followed by a sequel, Doom II, and Heretic and Hexen. Next up is the highly anticipated Quake, which is in final development.
All of these games look and play similarly; the principal difference is in the graphics, which advance in sophistication with every new title. Is this enough to guarantee id a future in the rapidly evolving interactive-gaming industry?
Maybe so. 3-D-graphics computer games with lots of heavy action and violence comprise a large share of the market. They tend to be more popular than titles with greater emphasis on intellectual challenge and multimedia (for example, live-action video footage) among the main audience to which the industry caters: teen-age boys on up to young adult males. Demand for more product also remains--so long as the newer titles look better than the old stuff and present more play options. Id's Quake and Apogee's Duke Nukem 3D are only a few examples of the computer candy being crafted to satisfy this blood lust.
"It's not that we're always going to do a 3-D, first-person shoot-'em-up," Wilson explains. "It's just that right now that's what works really well."
All the great stories have already been written--and new tales are just riffs on a theme; this is especially true in computer games. This partly explains why recent significant achievements in the digital-entertainment medium have been more technical than creative. Gamers are playing the same old games but things continue to look and sound so much better that they don't notice--or care. Games like Doom have strong appeal not just for their violence but because they're more "realistic" than their predecessors. The future of digital gaming lies in the programming wizards of the industry, like John Carmack, who aim to recreate reality as close as possible on your computer.
Having no interest in issues like violence and morality in its games, id grapples only with the software industry's toughest question: When will your latest product ship? Computer gamers with a Doom-fed jones are anxiously waiting for Quake. They've been marking time since last summer when it was originally slated for release.
Software-production companies, of course, are notorious for missing deadlines. Delays running anywhere from a few months to even years are so common that they're expected by retailers and customers.
Wilson makes hesitant sounds. The best he can offer is that Quake might be ready for public consumption before the summer--of this year.
Currently, id's creative team is grinding away through the night, every night, to get Quake out. John Carmack, the "workhorse," has been checking in at midnight and working until 5 or 6 in the afternoon.
Code, the bone and sinew of a software program, is a highly demanding creature. That's because it's so delicate, constantly susceptible to collapse ("bug" crashes) if command routines, subroutines, and other complex listings aren't put together properly. A software designer must possess innate logical smarts--and an appropriate imagination to match--to code elegantly.
Not having a life also helps. Maybe this is why "programmers are smelly," as Wilson jokes, and the social activities of most programmers are usually confined to chatting on the Internet.
Considering the complexity of three-dimensional graphics code, Broussard tells me he and his associates never set due dates. Having to meet a deadline requires cutting corners in the programming, he elaborates, resulting in code that isn't entirely stable and bug-free. "You can't guarantee the quality of a game if you have to make deadlines," Broussard says. Programming is an intricate, time-consuming process, where every problem solved sprouts another 12.
Quake will be finished, as they say, when it's finished.
While id, Apogee, and other computer-game developers are reluctant to even guess when products will ship, things work differently over at 7th Level. Headquartered in Richardson, this company prides itself on meeting deadlines. Recently, it finished a children's game for Disney, Timon and Pumbaa's Jungle Games, from concept to final shipping, in four months--very atypical in the industry.
Also unusual for Dallas game producers, most of 7th Level's titles, like the Disney product, have been family-oriented fare.
Now even this company is branching into action-heavy 3-D-graphics games geared toward the young male nerd, thanks to Todd Porter, vice president of 7th Level's 3-D-games division. Having years of experience working for other software firms such as Austin's Origin Systems, Porter formed his own games company two years ago; but before his new startup even began work on its first product, 7th Level, wanting to get in on the 3-D-games action, offered to buy him out. It was a proposal he gladly accepted, and he and his staff were moved over to Richardson.
In the dimly lit offices of the 3-D-graphics-production department, computer monitors display impressive demonstrations of walking robots from 7th Level's upcoming 3-D game, G-Nome. Pumbaa and Timon it isn't, but 7th Level hasn't gone completely over to the dark side yet; robots don't bleed when you shoot them (hemorrhage some oil maybe). G-Nome won't be giving players a bloodbath. You can't kill in this game, only lay waste, which, obviously, has less of a perverse visceral appeal. But 7th Level is betting that emphasizing blazing action and dazzling graphics will be enough to draw in an even broader demographic audience.
"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.
So, despite appearances, these guys aren't goofing off in front of a computer screen. They're hard at work.
Or maybe not. Taking into account Porter's obsessive enthusiasm for his work, made obvious by the unmade cot in his office, and John Carmack's coding into the night, this is more than a job to these guys. Asking about hobbies or outside interests is pointless. Their job is their hobby; and their hobby is their life. They're like ice-cream gourmets who earn their living creating new flavors.
The booming gun blasts and screams of monsters continue, as the game testers yet again rid earth of alien invaders who want to mate with our women. They're hard at play so others will be less inclined to be hard at work.
Dallas free-lance writer Howard Wen is a frequent contributor to Wired magazine and has written for VideoGames magazine.