At 40, He Hopes He's Got Game

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.

"So I told them about the ad, which happened to have my phone number on it," Fargo said. "They'd put me on hold, and seconds later the other phone would ring. I'd hang up the first phone and took orders with the second phone. I guess you could call it guerrilla marketing."

Fargo chuckled about the days when a single person could do it all from his bedroom.

"I even wrote the ad copy," he recalled. "It said, 'Over 16 entirely different colors!' Not just 16 colors, but entirely different colors!"

Fargo, then 19, sold his company in 1982 for $5,000. A year later he founded Interplay with a $60,000 contract to make a computerized encyclopedia.

Within a year, he won his first game contract -- to make three adventure titles for Activision Inc. for $100,000. The first game, "Mind Shadow," was a minor hit and sold 100,000 copies.

Interplay's second game, "Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale," published by Electronic Arts Inc., cemented Fargo's reputation.

"Half the people we were working with back then were teens, but Brian was a little beyond that," said Bing Gordon, EA's chief creative officer, who at the time was in charge of the company's marketing. "He was a little more grown-up."

"Bard's Tale" sold 300,000 copies, a massive hit by 1985 standards.

"It was the first computer game that reminded me of ["Dungeons & Dragons"], where you got to create a party of magical thieves and role-play the characters," said John Keefer, managing editor of GameSpy, a Web site in Irvine. "You couldn't actually see the action on the screen, and you had to have graph paper next to you to plot where you were going. But it was enough to keep you interested."

For the next 10 years, Interplay grew along with the rest of the industry. Its marketing motto -- "By Gamers, for Gamers" -- became a mandate within the company to develop cutting-edge games.

"Descent," published in 1995, was one of the first games to give players the ability to maneuver freely in a three-dimensional environment. "Fallout" and "Baldur's Gate," which came out in 1997 and 1998, respectively, are routinely cited as classics among hard-core gamers.

"Interplay is just one of those companies that computer gamers get all misty-eyed about," said Gamespot's Kasavin.

Fargo, meanwhile, had become a celebrity in the small, geeky circle of gamers and developers. Tall, handsome and fashionably dressed, he looked more Hollywood than technology. He drove a fire-engine-red Dodge Viper with caution-yellow wheels.

Warren Spector, who created the "Deus Ex" franchise of games, remembered meeting Fargo at a conference in 1989.

"Up walks Brian Fargo, the first guy to prove you don't have to be a geek to make games, a star," Spector said. "Here's this good-looking, nicely dressed, articulate guy. And there we were in shlubby T-shirts, taped-up glasses and ripped-up jeans. He brought a touch of class."

Fargo worked hard, regularly logging 14-hour days, including weekends. He partied just as hard. Those who worked at Interplay during mid-1990s said a rock 'n' roll atmosphere permeated the company's culture.

"It was just how a little boy would fantasize it would be like to be working at a video game company," said one longtime Interplay executive, who declined to be named.

At company Christmas parties, held each year at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana, Fargo worked the crowd and poured liberal shots of Patron tequila or Jagermeister liqueur.

But the party came to an abrupt halt in 1998.

Interplay had been profitable every year until then, according to Fargo and former company executives.

Red Ink -- and an Exit

Then, the year the company went public, Interplay began to bleed losses.

James Lin, a former Wall Street analyst who tracked Interplay, attributes the red ink to a strategic attempt to broaden the company's products from PC games to console games.

"They had difficulty meeting deadlines," Lin said. "It was the right decision but poorly executed."

As Fargo continued to invest in console games, Interplay piled up $50 million in debt.

Fargo needed cash -- fast. He made a Faustian bargain and sold a controlling stake in Interplay in March 1999 to French company Titus Interactive for $25 million. Almost immediately, he found himself butting heads with Titus' chairman, Herve Caen. Caen declined to be interviewed for this article.

"I started hating going to work," Fargo said. "People were quitting. Vendors were suing. There was unbelievably bad news every single day."

Things came to a head when Titus issued a surprise news release in July 2001 saying it had seized control of Interplay's board. Exhausted and demoralized, Fargo gave up. He got married and disappeared on a monthlong honeymoon cruise.

Despite having more than enough money to never have to work again, Fargo wanted back in the game. He found investors and launched InXile last year. His business card reads "Leader in Exile."

The company's offices are tucked in a Newport Beach strip mall next to Jack's Surf Shop. Employees jockey for parking with customers of a Subway sandwich restaurant. It's worlds away from Interplay's corporate headquarters, where Fargo had the reception-area restrooms professionally decorated.

InXile's first game, "The Bard's Tale: Waking the Dead," is a tongue-in-cheek adventure set for release next year. It pokes knowing fun at the sword-and-sorcery genre that the first "Bard's Tale" helped define nearly 20 years ago.

The game's hero starts in the game with a single talent -- the ability to conjure a rat. As he gathers experience, the bard is able to do more. Like the game's protagonist, Fargo plans this time to leverage his experience, rather than the brute force he relied on to launch Interplay.

"As you get older, you have less stamina for 20-hour days," fellow game creator Spector observed. "Twenty years ago, that wasn't an issue. These days, it is."

Fargo believes he has the formula -- hire bright, young talent and watch them flourish.

"The other week, they worked all night to meet an internal deadline," Fargo said. "We never asked them to do that. They just decided to do that on their own."

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