The Game-Making Game Is Big Business : Entertainment: Publishers of the genre immerse themselves in the medium, talking in dialogue and taking new versions home to play. Serious money is involved.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eavesdrop on a conversation between David Siller and Rita Zimmerer, top executives at video game publisher SunSoft Inc., and it's easy to see that Orange County's game entrepreneurs are a zany lot.

"Our hero, Aero the Acro-Bat, is something different; I call him Aero-dynamic," says Siller, product development manager. "He's a hero for the '90s, someone who rides flumes and goes bungee jumping."

"I like to call him an acro- brat ," interjects Executive Vice President Zimmerer. "And we have spin-off. Zero, the Kamikaze Squirrel, was the former star of the circus and when Aero displaced him, he joined with Edgar Ektor, the evil industrialist."

Sounds like dialogue from another world. But immersing themselves in the artificial reality of their video games--which often take longer than a year to produce--is the only way game publishers and developers say they can succeed in the cutthroat world of video games, a $5-billion industry nationally, with more than $200 million in sales expected this year for Orange County companies.

"All of our employees play games, even the accounting department," Zimmerer said.

Siller, who is the overall producer of the company's games, said that SunSoft may shift more of its development work from Japan to Orange County so that it can handle its tight schedule of creating 20 to 40 games simultaneously.

(Aero the Acro-Bat, by the way, is a bat-like cartoon character who stops a villain from sabotaging a circus. The game is due out this fall).

Scripts for such games can run hundreds of pages and include storyboards laid out like a comic book. Programmers, artists, musicians and designers are brought together on each team before a game goes out the door.

Grady Hunt, product developer for rival Atlus Software Inc. in Irvine, said he takes games home every night to test whether his company should acquire the rights to publish them from small developers.

"You have to play the whole game through to decide whether it's good or not," he said.

Martin Alper, 51, founder and president of Virgin Games Inc. in Irvine, doesn't play games himself. He said it prevents him from favoring titles he personally likes over others that may sell more copies.

"I have an instinct for what makes a good game, and I employ people who make good games," he said.

A look around Virgin's headquarters suggests the Irvine company has "gone Hollywood." Movie posters of "The Terminator" and "Robocop," two of the company's game titles, and a wide array of artists' sketches are plastered on every other cubicle.

In a 25,000-square-foot building across the street, Virgin is adding 17 separate game studios, each with Silicon Graphics workstations. Even with a 60-person development staff in Las Vegas, Virgin subcontracts out nearly two-thirds of its game development.

On the same street, Interplay Productions Inc.'s 115 employees are crammed into a two-story building. T-shirts and jeans are standard office garb and Brian Fargo, the 30-year-old founder and president, sets a breezy tone at work.

"Our insurance company went nuts when they heard we were filming exploding flames in a studio for a game," said Fargo, during a tour of the office, which is clogged with witches' masks, monster claws and skeletons--props for a dungeon game. "How'd it go?" he asks a film crew.

"It was way cool!" says one employee, looking the results over on a computer with a huge monitor. "Those special effects are going to look awesome!"

A whiz kid from Corona del Mar and former decathlon star who left college to pursue gaming, Fargo started Interplay a decade ago as an outside developer of games for Activision, a game publisher in Los Angeles.

Like Virgin, Fargo also took the movie studio approach, hiring a variety of Hollywood talent. It paid off with "The Bard's Tale," a 1985 adventure game that has sold more than 1 million copies.

Interplay now has its own film crew, sound studio and musicians. It also employs a room full of game tweakers, who spend all day testing projects under development and game designers who do whatever works to produce their games.

For the company's "StoneKeep" dungeon-themed game, designers went outside the building and filmed each other wearing skeleton suits. Those images were computerized and animated by artists. The skeleton images became the game's villains, who hack away at the player with swords in a realistic fashion.

Fargo is focusing the company's efforts on interactive CD games, such as "Bridge with Omar Sharif," in which players can can challenge bridge champion and actor Sharif, who was filmed by Interplay's crew in Paris.

"By gamers, for gamers," Fargo said. "That's our motto." But game makers are not the only successes among Orange County's video software designers.

Saddleback Graphics in Garden Grove, a software developer with 13 employees, recently signed a coveted deal to become a licensee to produce educational programs for the Sega of America Inc. CD game system.

President Hal Lafferty said the company will launch its first CD title, "My Paint," in October for the Christmas buying season.

The $59.95 title, which Lafferty calls an "electronic baby sitter," lets children draw everything from dinosaurs to jungle animals. It comes with sound effects, scores of storied images, and uses a blank TV screen for its canvas.

Lafferty hopes to stick to the educational entertainment market, which is a $200-million chunk of video game software sales.

"We don't want to market games because it's a roller coaster industry," Lafferty said. "I know a lot of game companies that have gone out of business. We want stay in 'edu-tainment.' It turns out there are very few educational titles coming out for the Sega system."

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