Stormy weather

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?

By Christine Biederman
Now is the moment to do or die. Again.XXXIt's come about pretty quickly. Only minutes have passed since an odd time-travel device, a magical samurai sword, deposited you here in the sixth century. Looking around, you noticed it was snowing lightly, and from the looks of it, a storm was blowing in.

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In front of you loomed an ominous medieval castle. Eager to commence your quest--to revise history by capturing the elusive daikatana, the saber you are chasing through 3,600 years--you hurried inside. The castle responded by hurling vermin, fantastic creatures, and deadly germs at you. In short order you've shaken a gang of bats, dispatched a nasty pair of werewolves with your crossbow, and beaten a hostile archer to the punch with a few well-aimed arrows. Then came the pack of squealing, plague-carrying rats leaping for your face. Since you know there are times to fight and times to turn tail, you've just slipped through a secret passage and down an elevator. (An elevator? You're rewriting history already.)

Now you're back outside, and there he is--a plague-infected half-man, half-zombie. And then another. And a third.

This doesn't look promising. Over one side is a drop that looks to be several thousand feet, and in front of you, Black Death. Where are your fellow time travelers, Mikiko and Superfly? Aren't you supposed to be able to page them somehow, to get you out of a fix like this? And where's the damned daikatana--literally, the "big sword," the magical eight-in-one weapon?

Oh, well, black-magic time. Pointing your staff at the three zombies, you draw a circle, then a pentagon, and the gates of Hell fly open, and...next thing you know, the menacing undead explode into a few dozen flying, bloody chunks.

"More gibs for your money," laughs a voice from across the centuries. "That's gibs, as in giblets."

And with that, you're back in the late-20th-century offices of computer game developer ION Storm, located high atop a downtown Dallas skyscraper. It is December 17, 1998--less than three months before the scheduled release date for Daikatana, the computer game that Mr. Giblets, ION Storm producer Kelly Hoerner, has just been demonstrating. It's the game that a tribe of computer gamers is dying to get their trigger fingers on.

It's also the game that could make or break ION Storm.
The glimpse has been impressive, and if this little tease is any indication, Daikatana is apt to be a runaway best seller--which, in this corner of the entertainment world, means selling 500,000 retail copies. Of course, judging a computer game by this demo would be like reviewing a three-hour movie based on a 30-second trailer. It can help whet an audience's appetite, but it can also create expectations that the game won't meet and fuel a lot of bad press.

For a number of reasons, the poison pens are already warming up.
For one thing, there's the hype. Since ION Storm was founded two years ago, and even before it released a homegrown game, it has garnered as much ink as any developer in the $2.5 billion a year PC game business. According to internal company documents, ION has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on public relations, hiring New York and Los Angeles press agents to pitch them as the "it" boys of the information age.

Then, too, there's the fact that Daikatana will carry the byline of John Romero, one of the gaming industry's most bankable stars. Romero is one of the originators of the "first-person shooter," a genre that casts the player as hero in a strange, Mad Max sort of fantasy world filled with violent weapons and ritual gore. Romero is semi-famous for masterminding these digital planets, conjuring the monsters, inventing the armory, jury-rigging the ever-so-slight plots, and scripting the spewing blood and flying body chunks. The computer-gaming press covers Romero incessantly, and he's even beginning to get his mug in mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and Time, or their digital supplements, anyway.

Yet amid the hype, there are signs that the company is imploding. In the last 12 months, two of the six original owners--former Chief Executive Officer Mike Wilson and former Chief Operating Officer Bob Wright--have been given the boot. Wilson was the first to go, the apparent victim of a coup led by current CEO Todd Porter and art director Jerry O'Flaherty. But Wilson, a flamboyant marketing whiz, didn't go far. Last January, he set up a cooperative publishing house, the Gathering of Developers ("GoD" for short), in a former cathedral about a mile from ION Storm.