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Check It Out, Dudes: Surfer, 26, Cashes In on a Computer Wave

Up and down the beaches of Southern California, thousands of teen-agers stare past the rolling waves and fantasize about life after graduation--escaping from high school without getting stuck in the 9-to-5 grind, making big bucks without holding down a real job . . . in short, growing older without growing up.

Dream on, you say? Well, check out this dude named Jeff Maier, Irvine’s original surf-rat-slash-computer-phenom who invented the surfin’ answer to the mechanical bull of “Urban Cowboy.” The interactive video game features a real live 6-foot-long surfboard. By the end of this year, with sales of his Urban Surfin’ simulators poised to begin booming on four continents, he expects to earn seven figures and change.

“I think I could live on a million a year,” 26-year-old Maier says.

The fun-loving kid, whose top priorities are still sun, surf and girls, certainly has a knack for computer programming and self-promotion. He ditched college for a computer trade school after a class in electronics convinced him programming was a more lucrative way to go. He quickly landed a prestigious job at Rockwell International writing esoteric software for the NAVSTAR satellite.

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“Everyone I worked with had a doctorate,” he says. “I was only, like, 22--the youngest by about 10 years. It was very intense.”

Found New Profession

Near the end of his two-year stint at Rockwell, Maier bought a Commodore 64 and taught himself to write video games. In 1984, he began knocking out two games a week at $500 a pop, for a “schlock” home computer game outfit. Then he was snatched by Coleco to write their Cabbage Patch Kids video games. He had found a new profession.

“Writing a video game isn’t work. It’s fun,” he says. “You see a ball bouncing across the screen and if it doesn’t work, you look until you find the problem. It’s like solving a puzzle.”

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Applying his computer skills to surfing was a natural for the kid who used to hitch to the beach before sunrise to surf all day. His joy-stick home video game debuted in 1985 and sold 2,000 copies. Buoyed by the success, he built an arcade version and put it in Kahuna, a San Diego surfer bar.

“It was taking in just tons of quarters,” he says. “In fact, I was thinking of retiring and just riding my bike along the boardwalk picking up my sacks of quarters.”

Bigger Than a Joy Stick

Instead, he had, like, a stroke of genius: He replaced the joy stick with a surfboard.

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The idea was that players would actually stand on the board, and whatever moves they made would control the computer-generated surfer on the video monitor. Talk about interactive video: Accomplished surfers could ride the tube, cut the lip and perform 360s to dominate the digitized waves. Novices, on the other hand, would indulge in some hard-core face-plants.

The machine, assembled on his living room table, was unveiled in 1987 at the Red Onion in Huntington Beach. It was an immediate rage. Not only with surfers. As one surfing magazine snipped, “Most (patrons) look as though their greatest affair with water is in the shower.”

Maier was besieged with prospective customers, but, since he could only build two machines a week, max, he decided to offer his creation to a major video game manufacturer.

Consultant Took a Chance

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The company turned him down, but the consultant it hired to evaluate the game--Paul Scribner--decided to take a personal gamble on the simulator, convinced that the novelty appeal might make the machine a winner on the nightclub circuit. Scribner bought rights to the simulator from Maier and formed a company--Scribner Enterprises of Santa Ana--to manufacture and market it.

About 300 units have been sold since production began a few months ago, and Scribner says he expects to sell 1,000 by the end of the year and twice as many during the next 12 months--chicken feed by industry standards, true, but nothing to sneeze at when you consider the deluxe models retail for $2,795.

“If we sell 2,000 units,” Scribner says, “I’ll be a happy camper.” Not so farfetched now that they’ve lined up national sponsorship from Miller Lite, Ocean Pacific and Panama Jack.

Maier trots around the globe promoting Urban Surfin’, welcoming every opportunity to give hands-on lessons. Judging from how much he relishes these gigs, in fact, it sometimes seems as if he invented the simulator to give him an excuse to play party animal in nightclubs all over the world.

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But despite his wild-and-crazy persona, Maier says he avoids drugs, rarely drinks more than a couple of beers and favors a diet heavy on veggies. He gets his biggest kick out of putting the finishing touches on a killer game simulating the sport of snowboarding--something like surfing on ski slopes.

Maier doesn’t care what the future holds so long as it involves “surfing, skiing and making a lot of money.” He smiles ingenuously and adds, “I don’t have to call in sick to anybody.”


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