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?

Porter proceeded to assemble a team composed mostly of former 7th Level staff. Meanwhile, programmers hired by Romero, Hall, and O'Flaherty were arriving. E-mails from the period suggest that the hiring went on willy-nilly, new employees sometimes showing up without anyone from human resources expecting them. Nor was creative the only side where things were wild. In the spring of 1997, ION signed a lease to move into a formerly unoccupied space atop Chase Tower in downtown Dallas. The ION partners intended it to be a showplace, a futuristic office that would garner lots of press attention. They spent well over $2 million finishing out and furnishing their sky palace. Meanwhile, the business side was scrambling to make payroll. "We couldn't meet our milestones," explains Wright. ION had to meet certain agreed-on goals in order to get its advances from Eidos. The failure to progress, though far from unusual in game development, was a real problem for ION. Ultimately, Eidos agreed to remove the milestones and advance money based on ION's monthly expenditures--a concession that made the company's life easier but also removed any real pressure to produce.

Behind the scenes, the jockeying for position continued. Eventually it seems to have escalated into a power struggle between Porter and O'Flaherty on one side versus Wilson and Wright on the other. Though Romero was the star, both he and Tom Hall took little interest in day-to-day business issues.

Things came to a head in late October 1997, when a whole host of personnel problems and employee complaints led Wilson, Wright, Romero, and Porter to a bar, where they concluded over beers that Porter had to go.

"I called [Romero and Hall] over there," Wilson says. "Because everybody was bitching about Porter every day, and that had to stop."

"And I said 'Look...this is the situation. We've been lied to, [Porter] said it would take six weeks [to finish Dominion] and now it's going to take forever. He's hired all of these full-time people, etc., etc. And [John] said 'Aw, shit.' And...I don't remember whether it was John first or Tom, but they were both absolutely ready to fire [Porter]."

The next week, after consulting with counsel, they called a partnership meeting. "And on the way [to the meeting], John says 'You know, I don't think I can do it. I think we're firing [Porter] just because everyone hates him. And we really haven't given him a chance to fuck up.'

"And not only did [John] choose not to fire him, he chose to tell him that we were going to fire him. And that's when the whole thing started shifting."

A month later, the tide carried Wilson out the door.

Certainly, Wilson did his part to help. In October 1997, with the knowledge and approval of Chief Financial Officer Steve Pittsenbarger, he borrowed $30,000 from the company to buy a used BMW. "I wrecked the car while I was in the process of getting a loan," recalls Wilson. "And it was very hard to explain. Because I went from borrowing money for a week, while my loan officer was out of town, to, it's almost 45 days later, and I still haven't repaid for the car. And here I am in this inquisition brought on by Todd."

In the meantime, at the partners' request, Wilson had presented them a draft of the business plan for the long-planned publishing arm. Porter and O'Flaherty attacked the plan, saying the business guys were getting too much equity in the new venture. At about the same time, Eidos indicated it was interested in purchasing an ownership stake in ION Storm--a position that Porter and O'Flaherty advocated, since it would put money directly in the partners' pockets.

On November 26, 1997, ION Storm had a board meeting at which the "ION Strike" business plan was discussed. It went well. Over the weekend, however, all hell broke loose.

Porter, Romero, O'Flaherty, and Hall all decline to discuss what happened, but apparently they met over the weekend and decided to kick Wilson out of the company. "The decision was made without my vote or participation," recalls Wright. "On Monday, I was simply asked whether I was going to be an ION Storm guy or a Mike Wilson guy."

Meanwhile, Dominion was way behind schedule. Internal ION documents show that in December 1997--six months before Dominion was released--its costs crossed the $3 million mark. Though the business side sent concerned e-mails, nobody else seemed to care. The press binge was starting in earnest. Hundreds of media representatives trooped through ION's offices. In between interviews, the partners focused on luring Eidos to buy a stake in ION. E-mails show that Porter had convinced Romero and Hall that they had to grab the cash now, because the company's valuation would never be higher.

In late '97, some of the mad money being thrown at developers just a year or two earlier was already beginning to dry up. "A couple of years ago, when gaming was first starting to take off, a lot of companies came in and threw a lot of money around," recalls industry analyst Mike Wallace. "There was a lot of reckless spending, and a lot of companies have since gotten out. A lot of people lost a lot of money. And there have been consolidations. So I think the reckless spending is over. In fact, the last company to come in and throw a lot of money around was Eidos at ION Storm."

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