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, who took over as CEO after Wilson left, was still convinced that Dominion would be a hit. He turned down a deal with Compaq computers that would have paid ION 75 cents to $1 for every Compaq computer sold with Dominion already installed, and would have guaranteed ION a minimum of $1.5 million. "He didn't want to 'cannibalize' Dominion's retail sales," says Doug Myres, ION's former head of business development who now works at GoD. In February, Porter and O'Flaherty announced that ION was beginning a comic-book division. The proclamation was not popular with some of the troops, who felt the company was having trouble getting games out, and here was the CEO charging off in another direction. The issues were never resolved. By May, they boiled over.

On the morning of May 13, Jonathan Wright, the programmer responsible for the artificial intelligence in Daikatana--making the computer characters smart--invited Bob Wright to lunch with eight other employees, mostly Daikatana team members.

According to seven of the 10 who were at lunch, the Daikatana team was seriously disenchanted. (Two did not respond to requests for interviews, and one, Shawn Green, supports Porter's version.) They wanted some changes, or they were ready to leave. "I told them to be very concrete and to present their problems in writing to their supervisors," recalls Bob Wright. "I didn't think any more about it. On Friday, Porter comes in and confronts me, and goes off on how I've supposedly incited a riot...On Monday, when I came in, rumors were circulating that I was gone."

"We fired our COO," insists Porter. "We fired him because he'd gone to [the Daikatana team] and told them that he could start another company with them."

On May 19, Hall, Porter, Romero and O'Flaherty held a formal meeting to fire Bob Wright and expel him from the partnership. Both sides moved quickly to file suit--perhaps because the long-awaited deal with Eidos was set to close just after June 4. Eidos was to buy 19 percent of the company's equity for approximately $12.5 million--at least $8 million of which was to go directly into the partners' pockets. (Wright alleges his firing was trumped up, in part, to cut him out of the pending deal.)

The deal would also have lowered ION's royalty rate from 40 percent to 25 percent and would have forgiven $15 million in advances. But it was never closed, and in June Dominion hit the stores.

It was a disaster. Although a few magazines that had deals with ION Storm for "exclusives" gave it big spreads, those gaming magazines that run straight-up reviews panned it. According to internal ION Storm documents, Dominion averaged 7,000 copies per month in the first four months it was on the shelves. Even those figures may be high. According to PC Data, a software marketing research firm, as of November 30, Dominion had sold 14,000 copies in the United States, a total dollar figure of $466,600. (ION Storm refused to comment on these figures.)

ION spent much of the summer and early fall being discovered by the mainstream press and warding off bad publicity in the gaming press, but with little luck. On September 30, after BitchX posted a summary of the proposed deal with Eidos--all correct, except for the part about it being a "done deal"--Director of Web Development William Haskins complained bitterly to Porter. "Either people who are no longer with the company know a whole lot more than the people who are here, or we've got a leak that the Titanic can sail through."

Next week, the Bitch scored again. At about the same time that ION laid off several artists, Todd Porter had sent an e-mail to the entire company asking if anyone wanted to buy his Lotus. He had to make room in the garage for his new Ferrari, it seems. The Bitch posted the entire e-mail.

Next day, Porter sent a message to his network guy ordering him to begin tracking employee e-mails.

But Porter was too busy to be distracted for long by the bad press. The long-awaited deal with Eidos was about to close. On October 6, all four shareholders went to the offices of their lawyers to sign documents.

But the deal never happened.
In an e-mail sent to "the owners" and outside counsel on October 23, Porter summarizes the conversation with Eidos, explaining why the publisher now has cold feet: "VERY VERY VERY concerned about Daikatana not shipping on time (as well as the other titles)...VERY VERY VERY concerned about people leaving Daikatana--though I tried to assure them that most of [those] who left were shit anyway...VERY concerned that John's heart is not in Daikatana...VERY VERY VERY concerned about the AI in Daikatana and that there is a TREMENDOUS amount left to do." He also says that Eidos opined that the games "are worth 1/2 what they were 6 months ago (and though they didn't say it outright--therefore we should be as well)."

Porter offered a few key employees "cash incentive[s] to get the AI done quickly." Even then, the programmers were dubious. "If it can be done, we'll get it done," Andrew Welch told Porter. "We may just have to cut some shit out of the game too to be honest...We're talking about a huge amount of work to be done by Thanksgiving--that's less than a month."

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