Stormy weather

Hot new computer game maker ION Storm appears to have all it needs for success -- top talent, plenty of money, and legions of anxious fans. So why is its future so cloudy?

It was a great contract--so great, they overlooked a complication. From the start, their plan had been to plow profits into their own publishing company. "When I left id, to my knowledge ION Storm was signing up for three titles with Eidos," recalls Wilson. "And after that we were free to publish. And when I got there, Eidos had, in a sort of typical, 12th-hour negotiating tactic, said, 'Well, we want options on your next three,' which effectively made it six games." ION Storm came up with a strategy: They would acquire other companies' games or add development teams in order to "burn" through the three options.

It was a time of giddy optimism. "We were trying to be a full-fledged entertainment company," recalls Bob Wright. Wright, an attorney and MBA who for many years was a partner at the downtown Dallas firm of Jenkens & Gilchrist, is a fatherly sort who went by the nickname "Bob Popular." He reluctantly agreed to answer some questions only because, in an interview with the Observer, Porter laid the recent departures squarely at Wright's feet. Wright is suing ION for wrongful termination, as well as for the value of his 5 percent interest in the company. He declined to answer questions about the suit.

Wright now works at Edge of Reality, which develops games for Nintendo. Ironically, it was Porter who lured him to ION Storm, after Wright handled the legal end of Porter's Distant Thunder deal. Wright's reputation and credentials, in turn, lent Porter and his new partners credibility. ION Storm had its first location in Wright's law office in the Quadrangle, which Wright closed to join ION Storm.

Still, there were tensions. Porter, especially, had a genius for rubbing others wrong. In one early e-mail exchange, he throws a fit because the company's accountants haven't prepared tax returns quickly enough, and conjectures it's because Wright and Hall owe the government. Hall replies succinctly: "Yeah, I called Bob up and asked him to delay it...Piss somewhere else, angry boy."

There were other unresolved issues. "I also didn't know at the time that John had pretty much decided he had paid his dues and he was gone," recalls Wilson. "He just wanted to do interviews and be John Romero. Just be a producer. I'd never even heard the title of 'producer' at a game developer until I met Todd. I'd worked at places like id that were very tight shops where anyone who didn't have a full-time job was a shirker."

From the start, Porter demonstrated a talent for winning partnership battles. The purchase of Dominion was the first. Porter had been struggling through a design document for his game Doppelganger. He shifted his focus from that project in the summer of 1997, when he learned that Dominion, a strategy game he'd worked on at 7th Level, was for sale. The other partners were interested only because of the company's plan to burn options by acquiring new games, but Porter was far more enthusiastic. "Dominion is not just a way to burn an option,'" he opined in an e-mail dated June 3, 1997. "It is, in my opinion, a top-10 product...In fact, we are talking about a product that could sell [more than] 500,000 units."

His partners were decidedly cool. In an e-mail, Romero doubted it would sell 500,000 and wrote, "the only reason we're thinking about acquiring it is to burn an option, simple as that." Wilson had another bone to pick. He believed Porter might already have mucked up a Dominion deal by suggesting to his old colleagues that ION was willing to pay too much.

Porter vehemently denied the charge. "I have wondered for some time," Porter e-mailed Wilson, "why it is that you seem bent on attacking me...[P]erhaps it is just plain office politics."

Wilson sent a sharp reply. "Pretty much all I've heard from you since I've been here are the reasons why you can't work...you couldn't do a design document without the engine, and then you couldn't do it without art time. Then, all I hear about at our meetings about how to structure the company are concerns about 'what happens to me' when this place all goes to shit...You seem to be focused on meltdown strategies, and protecting the individuals [owners], not the company."

"[W]e had to wait for a deposition to discover that you've never actually finished much of anything. You bark orders at people like they're a bunch of fucking construction workers...even those not on your team...You consistently try to elevate yourself above the other non-partner, or even 'junior partner' members of this company."

Porter sent a halfhearted response, but he would soon get even.

In August 1997, the six ION partners unanimously voted to acquire Dominion. Porter told the partners four guys working six weeks could finish it. With that assumption, the purchase made sense; even at a price of $1.8 million, they couldn't lose. As long as they finished the game for something between $1.8 million and $3 million--the amount Eidos agreed to advance for the title--they would have an automatic profit. (Developers are not required to repay advances if a title fails to recoup its advance.)

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