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Dream Job: Computer Game Guru

Welcome to the Next Level

Adam Levesque spent much of his childhood hunched in front of a console, gleefully shooting down space aliens and exploring the twists and turns of a computer-generated maze. "I played computer games all the time - I mean, day and night," Levesque, now 34, recalls. A wasted youth? Not if you consider that his childhood obsession led him to his present career as CEO of Blue Fang Games, a Lexington, Mass.-based game development company he founded with three buddies in 1998.

At Blue Fang, Levesque is now hard at work directing the production of the company's first game, "Zoo Tycoon," set to be published by Microsoft this Christmas.

Levesque and others like him provide the raw material that fuels the $6 billion annual global interactive game business, an industry that includes games for home computers as well as titles for specialized systems such as the Sony Playstation. Software publishers such as Microsoft and Sony rely on development companies like Blue Fang to meet consumers' demand for interactive entertainment. Levesque said it's "very difficult" to land a contract with a publisher, especially for new firms."

The reason Microsoft looked at us at all is because people on our team had worked with Papyrus [an established game development company]," said Levesque, who spent several years as a game tester and project director at Papyrus before starting Blue Fang. "That's not what got us the contract, but it helped get our foot in the door."

"[In game development], you have a ton of companies all trying to sell their games to [relatively few] publishers," says Tom Dusenberry, former president of Hasbro Interactive and cofounder of Call IT Entertainment, a Beverly, Mass.-based wireless game publisher. "It's much safer for a publisher to go with a game with an established brand. Getting a publisher to buy an entirely original game is extremely difficult, just because putting out something completely new is such a high-risk enterprise."

The people who start game development companies don't do it because it's easy, though. They do it because it gives them the chance to build a career around their passionate love of games, which often dates back to their earliest years. "I was making paper-and-dice baseball games when I was five years old," said Clay Dreslough, cofounder and president of Medford, Mass.-based Sports Mogul, a developer of baseball and football season simulation games. "Even now, I can't go to sleep without having ideas for the game pop up in my mind."

Dreslough's story illustrates the rocky road game developers must often travel on their way to establishing themselves in the industry before they can become millionaires. "When my wife and I started the company in 1995, we paid for it out of our own pockets," said Dreslough. "I stayed home and wrote code while she worked part-time." The pair sold their first game, Baseball Mogul, to the California-based publisher Mindscape. But in mid-1997, just before the game was due to be released, Mindscape was bought by another company and the project was scraped.

Fortunately, Sports Mogul had already received enough revenue for Dreslough to make "a bunch of copies" of Baseball Mogul and offer the game for sale through ads in game magazines and on the Internet. A second version was produced, and then a third, before the product hit another snafu.

Sports Mogul now sells its products - including the version of its baseball simulation game, Baseball Mogul 2002 - exclusively through the Internet. Dreslough is now looking for investment capital to grow the company.

Finding money to get through lean times is a problem faced by virtually all game development companies, especially at the very beginning when they must somehow find the resources to develop demonstration products without having sold anything. Many founders, such as Dreslough, will sink considerable amounts of their own earnings into their budding enterprises. In addition, a company can pursue creative staffing and compensation options to bring necessary people on board at minimal cost. It is a long road to becoming a millionaire.

"When we started in 1999, we went on the Internet and found some people who were willing to trade programming for design," said Kimberly Unger, cofounder of South San Francisco-based Peekaboo Software. "A lot of startups have just programmers or just artists, looking for people to do the other piece," Unger explained. "By trading services with a team of programmers, each of us got what we needed without having to spend a lot of money."

The hard truth in the game development business, as with any other business, is that the people in the company won't start earning serious money until their products start to sell. "A brand-new game developer should expect to earn nothing," said Call IT Entertainment's Dusenberry flatly. On the other hand, an executive at an established development company with a major hit or two under its belt can cash in big. "[Hasbro] scored a big success with a game called Roller Coaster Tycoon," Dusenberry said. "The guy who developed it made millions from that one title alone."

The prospect of making millions, however, is not what drives people like Levesque, Dreslough, and Unger to spend so much time, money, and effort into developing games. For them, the driving force is the chance to bring their ideas to life. "I'm not making as much money as I would if I were writing databases," said Dreslough. "But if I were doing that, I wouldn't be able to have my vision out there."

"When you look at the financials, in terms of what you have to do to make money, you'd be crazy to try to start your own company," said Levesque. "It has to start with a love of making games - that's what allows you to keep going and put in all the extra hours you need to make it work."

So if you love games, have a blockbuster idea that won't let you sleep at night, and are prepared to deal with the ups and downs of running your own business, find yourself a team of designers, artists, and programmers...and dream on!