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A wired world awaits a Hero

St. Charles-based Simutronics' new game has already made money as a development platform

Explore fantastic worlds, make lifelong friends, fight epic battles.

This pitch is directed to the legion of subscribers who play the online games offered by Simutronics, the company responsible for CyberStrike, DragonRealms, and many other fantasy, role-playing titles.

Founded in 1987 by David Whatley with Tom and Susan Zelinski, the company is located in St. Charles with additional offices in Maryland.

The privately held company has 50 employees and numerous contractors around the world. Simutronics’ flagship product is the text-based game, GemStone IV, created and deployed in the early days of the Internet.

GemStone was originally accessed through General Electric’s Internet service provider GEnie, later becoming accessible through AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe before Simutronics finally established their own domain, play.net, in 1997.

Greatly anticipated in the online gaming world is Simutronics’ release later this year of Hero’s Journey, a 3-D massively multiplayer online [MMO] roleplaying game, in the works for five years now.

Wired Magazine listed ‘Hero’s Journey’ on its Top Ten Vaporware for 2008. Vaporware are products that are highly-anticipated, but not yet available.

From Hero’s Journey came the technology known as HeroEngine, an MMO development platform that has produced an entirely new revenue stream for Simutronics.

“Originally we had started a product with the same name and it was going to be an online game but we ultimately decided it wasn’t the kind of game we wanted to make. And we realized we needed a whole different base of technology to do it, and so we started completely over, developing some really cool technology that would let us make the game the way we wanted,” Whatley said. “That ultimately is what ended up being HeroEngine.”

HeroEngine is now licensed by major game companies for use in building their own games. Development partners over the years include leaders in the computer game industry such as Universal Studios, Sony, Viacom and Time Warner.    

“We never intended to create this enabling technology for others to use. We kind of fell into it, and it was a big decision for us to say OK, there’s big opportunity here and that we would put ‘Hero’s Journey’ on the back burner, take the technology beneath it and make it into a stand-alone product.

“It took about 18 months to productize that, and once that work started to subside we ramped back up on ‘Hero’s Journey.’ Because we’re a self-funded op we have the luxury of doing that sort of thing.” 

Chief designer for most of the company’s games, Whatley has won numerous awards including Computer Gaming World’s Online Game of the Year award for CyberStrike.

 

In researching this industry I learned a new term, MMO, which stands for massively multi-player online game. So, what kind of talent does it take to create an attractive MMO in the highly-competitive online gaming industry?

“Well you have all kinds. You need game designers. You need really good programmers and good artists as well – 3-D animators. That’s the core of your team.”

 

People with imagination or technical skill or both.

“Usually both. Some people work more on the creative side of things doing design and art, but even then there’s a lot of ‘tech’ that goes into it. That’s why you have specialized jobs like technical artist that straddle the boundary between the two.”  

 

As a programmer, do you tend to build on games with proven popularity or do you follow your own lights?

“Well, like they say, there are no original ideas anymore. So everyone kind of builds on the work of others and then tries to take that in their own direction. Many companies focus heavily on IP  – intellectual property – driven titles, trying to get their hands on a franchise like Harry Potter, or whatever happens to be popular, that they can build a game around. We’ve done that a few times as well.”

 

You’ve done that with “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”

“We’ve participated on the tech side of the Star Wars game, but we’re not actually making the game – that would be Electronic Arts and BioWare. We provided the core technology for that game with our HeroEngine.”

 

That’s your million-dollar baby, right? How to describe it?

“Well, HeroEngine is a technology platform for teams building MMOs. Licensing our engine gives you everything needed to start building your game. There isn’t anything you actually have to do other than write your game mechanics. It’s ready-to-go, basically. And it’s unique because it allows for very large teams of developers to collaborate in real time while developing the product. So really, it changes the paradigm in which these things are constructed. For instance, the number of people working on the Star Wars game may be somewhere between 150 and 200, all being a part of several different teams in different places. But the engine is designed to enable that sort of thing, people working remotely. You could have several studios all contributing from all over the world.”

 

PCs were almost a novelty in 1987 when you started this company. What were you thinking: “I’ll just see where it takes me”?

“I was in college at the time when I realized that there was nothing that they were going to teach me there, and I just went to my parents and asked if they’d support me for a year while I got my own company off the ground. Mom and Dad didn’t even hesitate. I’d always been a game programmer since I was a little kid, knee-high to a keyboard. Back in those days, games were played through online services – CompuServe, America OnLine – where you dialed in using a modem. Before broadband, before the Internet, we were making these kind of games. Much smaller audience, though.”

 

Well, you must be doing something right. The company has increased employees from a handful to about 50. Is that right?

“Yes, last year was very good for us, our best year ever. The HeroEngine side of the business had improved quite a bit over the course of last year and that’s where all of our growth came from. Other projects, like the “Hero’s Journey” game we’re working on, don’t generate any revenue until they’re released.”

 

OK, “Hero’s Journey,” long in the works, has been anticipated in the online player community. What’s the delay in releasing it and cashing in on all your efforts?

“Well, we made a conscious decision to back-burner the project for a while so that we could take the [game’s] technology and productize it. That’s what ultimately became HeroEngine. We had to make a call and it was a good call because now our technology is being used by a lot of big MMO games, not just our own. And so many people are using it now. That helps prove the technology. The more engineers you have looking at something, the better, right? Anyway, that seemed to be a good idea at the time and, in fact, it led to a lot of revenue last year. Although it is unusual, because in the game world small companies like us are typically a developer that lives hand-to-mouth from what the publisher of the game gives you, and we don’t do it that way. We actually fund our own projects. So that takes longer.”

 

Simutronics is an online games developer and publisher. Do you publish outside games?

“We have not helped anyone else publish their own games at this point. We do publish our own games online and we do our own distribution online. For a title like “Hero’s Journey” however, we’ll probably have distribution partners. In fact, we’re in talks right now and we’ll probably have retail distribution in Europe, Asia and North America. One of the things they’ll do for us is to create packaging that goes on the shelves at Best Buy. That sort of thing.”

 

Is there any way to know whether a game will succeed? From what I’ve heard so many of them are coming on the market, they either do very well or they flop.

“That’s like knowing whether a movie is going to be a hit or a flop, right?”

It seems like you’d have to trust your own instincts and that of those around you.

“You certainly do. This is what they call a hit-driven business, as in ‘your game is a hit or isn’t.’ Launching a game is an art form in itself. You start by doing the research into what the market is looking for. You’ve got to ask the right questions, and in the right way at the right time with enough people so the outcome has some statistical validity. Once you figure out the market segment that you’re going after, the next thing you do is look at the competition you’re facing and you determine whether you have a unique selling proposition or not. If you do have a unique selling proposition, then you probably have found some niche that you can fit into. At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee of success. But that’s the way life is, right?”        

 

How do you balance what the MMO game player wants and what you want them to have?

“Yeah, that really is the gist of it. People play these games for different reasons – there’s a feeling of community, interaction with other players-but at the end of the day people want to advance in the game, having been challenged. If the challenge is not there … there’s the example of an online game, where the company had spent considerable time and money building this MMO and they went into a beta phase where virtually anyone could come in and test the game before it was released. And that went well, but right in the last days of the beta they changed the rules so that every player was given an unlimited account. They could buy anything the game had to offer, and therefore they got to see everything that was in the game. And when the company released the game, guess what? Hardly anyone played, because they had violated the cardinal rule which was they had let the players see behind the curtain. Once you’ve had everything that the game has to offer, you don’t really care about the game anymore. On the one hand players want stuff, but on the other hand you don’t want to give it to them. Not too freely, anyway.” 

 

Do the players in Simutronics’ games meet with violent ends, virtually speaking?

“Well, death is always abstract in these games. You don’t really die so much as go back to start.”

 

What would you say to people who have a problem with video games that feature realistic-seeming violence such as the often-cited Grand Theft Auto?

“We don’t make games like that ourselves, but personally I don’t have a problem with it. Do people have problems with it on TV every day? I mean, how much violence is in ‘24′?”

 

Oh, I’ve learned ways to torture people in my living room just from watching ‘24′! OK, so that’s not a good question. Forget video games, TV is the corrupting influence.

“You know, pop media as a whole has a very high quotient of violence and it’s part of the culture. That violence, seen on TV and movies, is not real. Some people make that distinction, some don’t.”  

 

Speaking of movies, what’s your favorite?

“The Princess Bride.”

 

What do you feel is your predominant personality trait?

“Loyalty. I’m told that I’m loyal to a fault. I haven’t figured out what that means yet.”

 

You must have some pictures on the wall at your home or office. Which one means the most to you?

“I have an unusual item framed on my wall at home. It’s a copy of the very first income tax return form published in the United States. I’m not sure of the year, but I like it because it’s so simple compared to what we have today. Back then, doing your taxes was three, maybe four questions on one page.”  

 

I think you’re surrounded by bright people. Take the full compliment of Simutronics staff: What is your estimate of the median IQ?   

“Oh I really wouldn’t know. There are some smart cookies here, though. When you get a room full of geeks the IQ goes up exponentially.”