Stormy weather

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In May, it was Wright's turn. ION Storm fired Wright, they claim, because he tried to incite a rebellion among ION's employees. (Wright denies this.) The two sides sued each other, Wright claiming that the remaining ION partners tried to cut him out of a pending buyout by game publisher Eidos. The case is set to go to trial February 15.

Throughout it all, ION Storm has been hemorrhaging employees; of the approximately 85 people ION employed a year ago, more than half have quit or been let go. Finally, six weeks ago, virtually the entire team working on Daikatana jumped ship and joined Wilson's company.

The situation was so dire that Eidos, the London-based publishing company that has been bankrolling ION Storm, felt compelled to issue a public statement proclaiming it remains "fully confident in" Daikatana. But internal ION Storm documents leaked to the Dallas Observer show that, behind the scenes, the place where the "designer's vision is king" has turned into a toxic mix of prima donnas and personality cults. Internal ION e-mails and interviews with former employees suggest that Romero is missing in action and that Porter has taken the supervision of Romero's long-delayed title. Eidos is pressuring ION to get Daikatana out the door by any means necessary, and has pulled out of a long-negotiated deal to buy part of the company.

As a result, ION Storm is shopping for additional capital. The company has run through $26 million and is spending at a rate of nearly $900,000 per month. Every month the number of copies of Daikatana it needs to sell goes up. In the meantime, ION has become a little like one of John Romero's own nightmare worlds. For Romero, Porter, and the remaining owners, the goal is to take advantage of the hype and the hot market to milk as much cash as they can from the company. For Eidos, the goal is to force ION to get its titles out the door and try to recoup some of the $26 million it has sunk into the company. And for many of the workers, the goal is to find the exit and go play somewhere else.

On November 19, eight of the most talented young designers, conceptual artists, and sound men in the game business went nervously to their last day of work at ION Storm. One by one, they filed to their futuristic steel-and-fiberglass cubicles, stared at their 21-inch monitors, and waited for a sign.

Their secret couldn't hold much longer. Nothing stays under wraps for long on the 54th floor of Chase Tower. The "ION Eight," as they were subsequently dubbed, had already lined up a publishing contract of their own, and several trade publications were already sniffing around, trying to confirm that John Romero's hand-picked whiz kids were walking out en masse.

It was a stunning move. Two years ago, when ION Storm started with $13 million, it was the place everybody in computer gaming wanted to work. Billing themselves as the shop where "design is law," ION would pay game designers to pursue their artistic yen. In fact, the ION Eight had been recruited with the promise that they would share in game royalties. But perhaps the most stunning part wasn't that they were abandoning the promise of money, or artistic goals, or even the hippest offices in gameland. They were abandoning John Romero.

At 31, Romero, who claims to have been designing games since he was 13, is an industry legend. In 1991, Romero, Adrian Carnack, John Carnack (no relation), and Tom Hall founded id software, a tiny Mesquite-based company that turned out an extraordinary series of hit games--Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, Doom II, and Quake--and helped make Dallas the center of the universe for first-person shooters. Along the way, id lost game designer Hall, who moved to a competing company. But it gained Mike Wilson, a brash young marketing guy who came up with clever new avenues for selling id's products, such as distributing games as "shareware" at 7-Elevens, allowing customers to sample the game then call id with a credit card to unlock the full version.

Id got rich, and its founders became celebrities in the wired world. But Romero was a star. His Doom was among the first games to be widely played simultaneously by multiple players on the Internet and set the pattern for dozens of knockoff games from other developers. Doom spawned a virtual community, as well as a whole new generation of self-taught computer talent. Using the game's readily accessible programming as a blueprint, these amateurs learned to design games themselves at the University of John Romero. They idolized the guy, and Romero basked in the adoration, growing his hair out into a flowing black mane and making deity-like appearances on the Internet. With the first big royalty checks he acquired the requisite toys, a yellow 1991 Ferrari Testarossa and a yellow Humvee.

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Christine Biederman