City profile: Dallas

City profile: Dallas

Recalling the moment in 1992 when John Romero, John Carmack, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack arrived in Texas for the first time, David Kushner writes in Masters Of Doom: “Everything in Dallas was big. The trucks were big. The car dealerships were big. Even the people were big, from the towering cowboys to the statuesque blondes.”

The id Software guys were finishing up Wolfenstein 3D at that point, working out of a rented apartment in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite. And their small business was itself on the verge of exploding into a phenomenon that makes the word ‘big’ seem like crass understatement. The studio’s revolutionary work would trigger the birth of the FPS and lock in the commercial coordinates of the videogame business for years to come.

The legacy of innovation in Dallas’s videogame scene doesn’t just cover game design and engine technology, however. Id’s early publisher Apogee Software – whose founder, Scott Miller, coaxed id into relocating to the Dallas area – holds the distinction of pioneering shareware distribution, an early precursor to the free-to-play model and the now-standard practice of downloadable demos.

Developers who got their start at 3D Realms (the moniker Apogee later adopted) have spawned such studios as Gearbox Software and Terminal Reality, the latter of which is finishing up work on Kinect Star Wars. Just like its colleagues down the road at id Software, Terminal Reality continues to push new developments in engine technology with its Infernal Engine.

“Our Infernal Engine technology allows us to really get in and work physics and destruction into the player’s integral experience,” says Terminal Reality studio director John O’Keefe, “and have those elements affect how the game is played beyond just a visual treat. We’ve made forays into this since BloodRayne, and ramped it up considerably in Ghostbusters. One of the Kinect Star Wars modes focuses on big physics and destruction, and we’ve since worked up a number of concepts that push these elements further.”

Microsoft’s disbanding of Age Of Empires developer Ensemble Studios in 2009 was a tragic blow to the Dallas scene, but the splintering of the studio’s talent has given rise to exciting new startups, such as Robot Entertainment (Orcs Must Die!, Hero Academy). Zynga has acquired two of Ensemble’s other offshoots, snapping up Bonfire Studios (now Zynga Dallas) and Newtoy (now Zynga With Friends). With these smaller startups focusing on mobile, social and downloadable games, the Dallas development community has become even more diverse.

For example, Controlled Chaos Media, which formed in 2009 and saw success with Pocket Fish on iOS, has recently expanded its reach into serious games with The Quest To Lava Mountain. The game was commissioned by The Cooper Institute in partnership with the Texas Department Of Agriculture as part of the NutriGram.org programme, which promotes healthier eating among children. “We really wanted to avoid the mistake of publishing an educational game that was unable to compete with consumer games that students play,” says Nancy Beasley, NutriGram project manager at The Cooper Institute.

Given the development community’s irrepressible spirit, even amid high-profile studio closures, it would seem that Dallas has built its reputation on Doom but certainly not gloom.

Q&A: Gearbox Software

Aaron Thibault (VP of product development)

Can you feel Dallas’s 20-year-long FPS legacy informing development in the area today?
Absolutely, without a doubt. You had so many companies here – 3D Realms, obviously Gearbox, Nerve. It’s interesting, because Ensemble was here doing strategy games, but there was a lot of communication and idea sharing even between the shooter and strategy developers. The point being, you’ve got GOD Games and Ritual – all these developers who’d honed their skills and paid their dues in shooters over time. To this day, I would put my money on a Dallas developer to make a great shooter. If I was to think about regions and where development teams are, I’d bet on Dallas any day.

Did Texas’s gun and military culture inspire early FPS development?
You have some of the world’s largest army bases and some of the more critical army bases located here in Texas, starting with, at the top of the list, Fort Hood located in Killeen, right in the heart of Texas. It’s the army’s installation for rolling out the modern army, and there’s a lot of R&D and training that exists professionally in Texas to support that army and military infrastructure. So it’s natural that you would find companies here [based on] weapon manufacturing and training, and extending into the virtual side of that as well.

Do you have any regrets about taking over the tortured development of Duke Nukem Forever?
It was an amazing experience. Just to start out by being able to say: “We shipped Duke Nukem Forever.” That alone is worth whatever blood we poured into shipping the game and its final phase. But the truth of the effort we put into it is that we applied smarts and know-how and skill from a group of our technical experts in the company who really know how to ship games. Speaking for myself, I feel very good that we took on that challenge and that we put that feather in our hat. And, as a result, we are able to move into the future with that franchise to do anything else that we might want to. But who knows what the future holds? I have no idea. But I’d say the risks were well worth the rewards that we’ll see.

Did bringing Triptych in-house to finish the game feel like helping a wounded comrade in battle?
Absolutely. Dallas is a very close-knit community. Some of the owners of Gearbox had worked at 3D Realms, so they worked very closely with and believed in Triptych and what they would be able to do if we helped give them some stability so they could finish. It’s funny, just yesterday I was talking with one of my colleagues here, David Eddings. We were reminiscing about how we got into the industry and the mindset of various developers. David was relating to me a story about Paul Jaquays, one of the real big talents in the game industry, one of the old-school veterans who had worked with the guys at id and Ensemble. Paul said that his mindset was always shaped by the fact that people had extended a hand to him and brought him up as he was starting out. So he always sought to do the same thing, mentoring anybody who was making an earnest effort to get in and be mentored. We were talking about that in the context of Duke Nukem actually. We feel like we were able to do the same thing with a developer that just wanted to finish their missions and see that vision through. And we were able to help with that.

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