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At 40, He Hopes He's Got Game

Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay, sees his age as an advantage in a youth-crazed industry

November 09, 2003|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Brian Fargo is a grown-up kids might envy.

His ride to work is a black 450-horsepower Cadillac Escalade with seven video screens. His office two blocks from the surf in Newport Beach is stocked with video game consoles, classic arcade machines, free snacks and a shower so he can wash up after boogie boarding.

At 40, Fargo himself would be considered a kid by most business executives. In the youth-crazed video game industry, though, he's a geezer.

After building -- and losing -- his own company, Irvine-based Interplay Entertainment Corp., Fargo is starting from scratch with a new enterprise, betting that an "old" man can win in a young man's game.

"I don't think I could make the games I do now 10 years ago," said Fargo, who was forced out of Interplay two years ago and recently founded the small game developer InXile Entertainment. "I didn't have the real-life experience then."

Three decades after the games business was born in garages and spare bedrooms, the teenage and twentysomething tinkerers who established the industry are, like Fargo, these days finding gray hairs in the sink and feeling haggard after round-the-clock programming binges.

As young men, they bucked tradition to forge a new medium of entertainment. Now in their 40s and 50s, they are old enough to be the fathers of those who buy their products. The $25-billion global games business is, with few exceptions, produced by the young for the young.

The average gamer is 29. Two-thirds of PlayStation 2 owners are 25 or younger. Eight of 10 buyers of Xbox games are younger than 35. Although the industry claims customers in their 40s, the loyalists typically are young bachelors with time and money to spare.

Like many of his aging peers, Fargo says he still gets as big a rush out of making games as he does playing them.

"Within the game industry, he's viewed as an old-timer," said Greg Kasavin, 26, executive editor of Gamespot, a games industry Web site based in San Francisco. "He's a veteran. He's gone all the way through the '80s and '90s, longer than most people in this industry. He's not a young hotshot by any means."

Although game programmers tend to be in their late 20s, some of the game industry's founding fathers -- and they are almost exclusively male -- are still tapping away at their keyboards.

"Sim City" creator Will Wright is 43 and designing games at Maxis in Walnut Creek, Calif. Rand Miller, 44, co-creator of "Myst" and "Riven," is making an online game as head of Cyan Worlds Inc. in Mead, Wash. Richard Garriott, 42, continues to produce online games at NCSoft Corp. in Austin, Texas, two decades after he created the "Ultima" series. "Donkey Kong" and "Mario" creator Shigeru Miyamoto, 50, is still elbow-deep in game design at Nintendo Co. in Japan. And Nolan Bushnell, who launched the age of games with "Pong," is 60 and back in the arcade business as chief executive of UWink Inc. in Los Angeles.

"It's amazing going from a young buck," Bushnell said, "to an old fart."

They are the exceptions, and the relative paucity of silver-haired game developers reflects the youth of the industry itself.

"The movie industry has been around for four generations," said P.J. McNealy, a game industry analyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco.

"Your parents and grandparents went to the movies," he said. "Your kids go to the movies. That's four generations of having a common experience. Video games has two generations. It's just a very young industry when you compare it to other businesses."

On and Off the Track

As a teenager growing up in Orange County, Fargo knew he wanted to do one of two things with his life: compete in the Olympic decathlon or make games. The 6-foot-2 sprinter decided on the former and, on a track scholarship, enrolled at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.

That lasted about two weeks.

"I remember sitting in some history class thinking I wanted to get on with my life," Fargo said. "So I just got up in the middle of class and walked out."

That left games. Fargo went home and holed up in his bedroom for nine months, tapping out code on his Apple II computer. What he came up with -- a puzzle adventure game called "Demon's Forge" -- was kludgey by today's standards.

The graphics were blocky, the text corny. There was no music. Players moved through the game by typing commands such as "get axe" and "cross bridge."

But in 1981, the notion that a machine could react to people -- that choices affected outcome, no matter how trivial -- was nearly magical. Tap a few keys, and the computer responded.

Although Fargo was a respectable programmer, his real strength was in marketing.

With his parents as cosigners, Fargo got a $5,000 bank loan and spent half of it on a full-page ad in Softalk, one of the largest computer magazines at the time.

Then he got a second phone line. He called every computer store he could think of and pretended to be a customer wanting to buy the game.

The clerks invariably said they hadn't heard of it.

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