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The Serious Quest for Totally Addictive Digital Fun : Forget The Novel, Ditch That Screenplay. The Ultimate Break in the '90s is Writing the Perfect Video Game.

December 19, 1993|Michael Walker | Michael Walker is a regular contributor to this magazine. In his last story, he reviewed San Diego rock culture.


Jon Horsley, a genial 29-year-old computer-game producer, watches as a swarm of Drak-sai assault ships blasts the bejesus out of StarBase BRAVO on the giant-screen TV in front of him.

"The Drak-sai are these aliens way off in a distant galaxy," Horsley explains as the meticulously rendered StarBase BRAVO, a gyroscope-shaped space station, dreamily fragments in a zero-gravity explosion. "And, um, they are a very predatory culture, and they have this big Sun Dagger that they drag around which destroys the suns of these systems--in this case Earth--and leaves them there in sort of the cold emptiness of space to die, which pretty much brings everyone to their knees. The player is this hotshot pilot who, of course, is the last chance to save Earth, and he's got this hotshot plane called the FireWing, and he and his commander go on missions designed to hurt the Drak-sai." Horsley shrugs. "It's supposed to be a pretty powerful experience."

A powerful experience that will take Horsley and a four-member team of computer artists and programmers almost a year to perfect. But on this sparkling May morning in Palo Alto, Horsley is scrutinizing the game's opening act, a preview that gives players an overview of the space war they are about to engage in. Horsley's enemy, however, is time. His employer, Crystal Dynamics Inc., an upstart Silicon Valley video-game company, wants Total Eclipse ready in time for this Christmas season.

On the screen, attacking Drak-sai fighters swoop down and fold their wings under their fuselages, a maneuver that resembles a bodybuilder flexing his latissimus dorsi. "The Arnold ships," Horsley chuckles as huge shards of the hapless StarBase BRAVO go flying again. Suddenly, the images freeze; the screen goes black. Horsley shrugs some more. "It crashed," he says.

His nonchalance aside, Horsley and his team are under blinding pressure to ready a preliminary version of Total Eclipse for presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, just a week away. Troy Gillette, 29, one of the game's programmers, recently set a company record by working 36 hours straight, and fellow programmer Eric Knopp, 28, and artists Dan Colon, 30, and Suzanne Dougherty, 29, are likewise bleary. The stakes are enormous. The show is the last chance to show off the game to retailers before they place orders for the crucial Christmas selling season. And because Total Eclipse is a new game released by a new company, it risks being overshadowed by entrenched titles such as the phenomenally successful Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. series.

Then again, the possible payoff makes a few all-nighters seem inconsequential. The video-game industry, left for dead after the crash of Atari in 1983, has resurrected itself completely, thanks largely to the astonishingly shrewd U.S. arm of Nintendo Co. U.S. sales of home video-game software--the cartridges or disks containing the games--catapulted from $48 million in 1985 to $3.4 billion in 1992. In 1993 alone, Americans will spend about $6.8 billion purchasing nearly 100 million games and 20 million game players. According to David Sheff in "Game Over," his exhaustive history of the Nintendo juggernaut, that company's pre-tax profits in the early '90s have routinely topped $1 billion a year, as much as all the American movie studios combined.

Not that Hollywood hasn't taken notice. Faced with whipsawing revenues and stagnant movie attendance, the industry is actively striking alliances with game makers, licensing digitized footage from hits like "Jurassic Park" that is used in cross-promoted video games. Long-term, some analysts see the studios merging with the software side of the game industry as a hedge against the day when movies, records and video games blend into synergistic grist for the home-entertainment mill.

"That's why you see people like Mike Ovitz taking meetings in Silicon Valley," says Valerie Hennigan, marketing manager for Infotainment World, a San Mateo-based publisher of video-game magazines. "Everybody is waking up to the fact that those who control the software are going to win."

Crystal Dynamics became a symbol of this Hollywood/Silicon Valley romance last summer when Strauss Zelnick, president of 20th Century Fox, left the studio to head the company--a remarkable leap of faith since Crystal Dynamics then employed only 28 people and had yet to sell, or even complete, a single game.

"I'm sure there was a bit of trepidation of what a Hollywood person would do," says Zelnick, a 35-year-old Harvard MBA. "But we're focused on the entertainment business, and in that way, it's a good fit."

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