Stormy weather

Page 5 of 10

According to Porter, Romero sought him out to start ION Storm. (Romero declined to be interviewed.) "[Romero] had heard about what I did with Distant Thunder," says Porter. "And he was looking for a guy to do the business side...He wanted to start a company, and he wanted a guy with business sense behind it...and I said, well, I'll only start it if I can bring Jerry [O'Flaherty]. And he said well, only if I can bring Tom [Hall]."

Business sense or no, Porter originally came to ION Storm as game developer. When ION got its start late in the summer of 1996, it had five owners: game designers Porter, Romero, and Tom Hall; art director Jerry O'Flaherty; and Bob Wright, the sole "biz guy." With entrance of Mike Wilson--also a "biz guy"--in January 1997, the five owners became six.

Porter quickly revealed, however, that his true talent lay not in design but in arrogating power. In the beginning, Romero was to own the biggest share of ION, 30 percent, and the "suits," at 5 percent apiece, would have the least. Porter, O'Flaherty, and Hall were to have 20 percent each. According to numerous sources who were there at the start, however, Porter was unhappy with his percentage, and demanded that O'Flaherty surrender 5 percent to him. (O'Flaherty declined to be interviewed.)

But they were busy starting a company. There were publishing deals to negotiate and employees to hire. Game publishing was hot, and Romero was hot, and they dangled him as publishing-contract bait. Soon ION snared a whopper: Game publisher Mindscape offered the partners a $13 million three-game contract with a $3 million per game advance, as well as $4 million for 4 percent of the company--a figure that implied ION was worth $100 million. "We used it as the deal to beat," Bob Wright recalls. In December 1996, London-based publisher Eidos beat it. Eidos had fresh cash from an initial public offering and needed the credibility that signing John Romero would bring. On Christmas Eve 1996, Wright and Romero came home from San Francisco, Eidos' U.S. headquarters, with a six-title, $22 million deal that promised them a 40 percent royalty. (ION's effective royalty rate is actually less, since the company must pay companies from which it licensed programming technology.)

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."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Christine Biederman