Game On

A team of Vegas video game wizards changed the industry once. Can they do it again?

Las Vegas is not a high-tech hot bed. With a few noteworthy exceptions, like a branch office of gaming-software maker International Game Technology and the home campus of online retailer, tech companies don’t tend to wind up here.

However, in an office building just off U.S. 95 in northwest Las Vegas, a small group of computer programmers are working to create a new product that may change that.

Credit: Ryan ReasonWestwood co-founder Brett Sperry now runs Las Vegas’ Jet Set Games.

Credit: Ryan ReasonLouis Castle is also still programming in Vegas, at the helm of InstantAction Games.

The one-story beige building looks exactly like hundreds of other light industrial offices in Las Vegas. The only outward clue that this might not be just another workplace is the parking lot, where you’ll find a few BMWs and Corvettes with personalized license plates that read “Joe-B-Wan,” “Tie-Fitr” and “GameDev.”

The cars belong to some of the best video game developers in the world, and they are parked in front of Petroglyph Games. About 20 years ago, these same developers worked for Westwood Studios and they helped create video games that changed the industry by redefining how players interact with games. Westwood was Las Vegas’ version of the Silicon Valley success story: They started in a garage, got big and eventually got bought out. In Westwood’s case, they also got moved out of town. And that could have been the end of the story, just another high-tech false start in Las Vegas, were it not for the fact that some of the company’s founders are back and once again trying to upend the gaming industry.

Westwood founders Brett Sperry and Louis Castle both attended high school in Las Vegas. Sperry learned programming in his spare time on Apple II machines borrowed from friends and at the Clark County Library. After graduating, he left to study architecture at Arizona State University, while Castle enrolled in UNLV and studied fine art. A year later Sperry ran out of money and he returned to Las Vegas, taking jobs as a programmer to pay the bills. That’s when he met Castle, and the two started working together on programming and computer animation.

In 1985, they started their own video game company, Westwood Associates, out of Castle’s garage. They spent their early years of the company doing contract development for other game publishers. Their big break came in 1992 when Westwood merged with Virgin Interactive and released a follow-up to Virgin’s Dune. In the Westwood game, Dune II, players were in charge of an army comprised of units, each with different abilities—similar to chess. Players didn’t take turns, instead using their mouse to move their armies at any time, which made the game faster and more exciting.

Virgin wanted to market Dune II as a “strategy” game. Sperry thought that sold the game short, so he coined the term “real-time strategy.” The game proved so popular that other publishers copied it: Blizzard’s Warcraft and StarCraft, Cavedog’s Total Annihilation and Microsoft’s Age of Empires were all based on the Dune II formula. Real-time strategy (RTS) became an industry-standard term for the genre.

Westwood followed up Dune II with Command & Conquer in 1995, which featured new RTS innovations such as an improved user interface, live action full-motion-video cut scenes, and the ability for up to four players to compete over a network. Command & Conquer spawned more than 20 sequels and spin-offs, and became one of RTS’ most successful game titles.

In 1998, due largely to the success of Command & Conquer, video game giant Electronic Arts came to Las Vegas and bought Westwood for $122 million.

The generally accepted narrative in the Westwood tale is that EA bought the company and eventually smothered it in its overwhelming corporate culture. It’s an idea even EA’s own boss seems to support. At the 1998 Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain Summit (DICE) video game conference, EA CEO John Riccitiello apologized for how his company mistreated developers it acquired, including Westwood. “The command and conquer model doesn’t work,” he said, likely aware of the double entendre, because developers “felt like they were buried and stifled.”

Not at first, though. In fact, EA made so few changes most Westwood employees hardly noticed their new owners. “With EA having so many studios, we were kind of the Wild West, kind of rogue,” says Mike Legg, a former Westwood programmer. “We didn’t really embrace the EA culture. Over time, we embraced some of EA’s methodologies and styles, the management hierarchy, the titles. It felt, obviously, a bit more corporate. We lost a spark of electricity.”

But most employees accepted the new culture as a necessary part of working with such a large corporation, and during the next five years Westwood flourished. When they outgrew their office and had to move a development team to a new building, the change created “an odd social dynamic,” says Legg, which made working together more difficult and strained the culture of innovation.

To resolve this, they wanted to consolidate employees from both Las Vegas offices into one large facility, where they also hoped to merge two other groups of developers from California. “EA was not pushing us to consolidate,” Castle says. “That’s been wildly mischaracterized.”

Westwood and EA worked with the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency to find a new home, and eventually settled on a plan to build a large EA corporate campus in Summerlin.

In January 2003, Westwood employees awaited news of the Summerlin facility. But instead of moving down the road, employees learned that EA decided to relocate to California. The company had its sights set on Las Vegas, but the project was “victimized by the timing of the politics,” Castle says, adding that the company couldn’t get the necessary permission from the Bureau of Land Management.

Westwood employees were given the choice of picking up and leaving, or losing their jobs. Legg remembers having to make that decision. “It was such a difficult day, emotionally. It was literally the same kind of impact as losing a relative. I mean, that was my life.” He chose to stay behind.

EA had planned to move Westwood west, but ultimately many employees left and the creative core of the company ceased to exist. EA kept the Command & Conquer name and intellectual property, but the series was never the same. In March of this year, EA released Command & Conquer 4 to decidedly mixed reviews and announced it would be “the final chapter.”

EA built the campus they wanted in Los Angeles, not Las Vegas. It combined the four EA offices Westwood managers had originally hoped would move to Summerlin. In 2004, EA made an $8 million donation to the nearby University of Southern California to build a game-development curriculum in their computer science department.

“We blew it, as a state,” Castle says.

EA’s contracts with their former Westwood employees expired March 31, 2003. On April 1 of that year, three Westwood veterans—Legg, Joe Bostic and Steve Tall—started building a new company, Petroglyph Games.

It seemed like a risky venture at first, says Legg, but success came quickly. At a video game trade show in Los Angeles, E3, Petroglyph’s principals met with people from LucasArts. Although Petroglyph was still not even officially a company at that point, LucasArts asked them if they could reunite Command & Conquer developers and create a Star Wars-themed RTS game. Petroglyph quickly agreed.

“It was the shortest meeting I’ve ever had,” Legg says.

Displaced Westwood veterans welcomed the opportunity to get back to work—what computer nerd wouldn’t want to work on a Star Wars video game? “It was so cool to be in charge of our own destiny again,” Legg says.

For Star Wars: Empire at War, Petroglyph developers built a completely new game engine, adding innovations such as space battles, a real-time strategic campaign map and a “persistent” environment in which events that occur in one battle affect events in subsequent battles. The game was so successful that LucasArts commissioned Petroglyph to do a sequel, Star Wars: Forces of Corruption.

Petroglyph’s subsequent non-Star Wars games—titles including Guardians of Graxia, Universe at War: Earth Assault and Panzer General: Allied Assault—are well-respected in gaming circles.

Unlike in the Westwood days of old, Petroglyph is no longer the only game company in town. Westwood founders Sperry and Castle both eventually left Electronic Arts in Los Angeles to start new video game companies in Las Vegas. Sperry’s venture is called Jet Set Games and is focused on creating games for mobile platforms such as iPhones and Androids, and downloadable console games for Playstation Network, Xbox Live, etc. Castle’s company is InstantAction Games, which makes a Web-based distribution platform and game-development tools.

Together with Petroglyph, the three companies built a small cluster of like-minds that attracted JV Games, which collaborates with the other three. The four companies share ideas, non-proprietary information and sometimes employees.

Today, Petroglyph’s headquarters are across the street from Westwood’s old location. Inside, the vibe is like a college dorm. There’s a carefully cultivated informality that carries over from Westwood, as well as an atmosphere that encourages employees to take risks.

The lobby is decorated with a company photo and fantasy art prints, but a flat-screen TV attached to a collection of well-used game consoles dominates the space. The company photo has to be replaced with a larger one at least once a year as Petroglyph has grown to 100 employees, and even in this economy, is still hiring.

And they are working on something that could change gaming in the future the same way RTS did in the 1990s: the “massively multiplayer online real time strategy” game, or MMORTS, in gaming-nerd parlance.

Last century’s boxed, stand-alone, single-player games are being replaced by downloadable online multiplayer games. Currently, the most popular genre is the “massively multiplayer online role playing game,” or MMORPG, as exemplified by World of Warcraft, a game that holds a Guinness World Record for most subscribers. The key is role playing. Typically, a player will assume the role of a single character and do battle with hundreds, or even thousands, of other players online who each also assume a single character.

Petroglyph, however, is trying to perfect something much more complicated. Its concept combines Westwood’s old real-time strategy concept—build an army, then go to battle—with online technology, so that your army ends up doing battle against, or building alliances with, hundreds or thousands of other players’ armies. It’s a massively complex challenge that wasn’t even technologically feasible until recently.

One major hurdle was finding a publisher willing to take a risk on this unproven idea; more than one told them it was impossible. Even giants like EA and Microsoft have avoided the MMORTS genre, possibly sitting it out until someone else figures out how to make it work. Fortunately, Petroglyph finally found a receptive publisher, Trion Worlds, which specializes in building servers specifically for massively multiplayer online gaming. In April, Petroglyph and Trion announced their new project, End of Nations, which they hope to complete some time in 2011.

The End of Nations design team is led by Bostic, one of the original designers for both Dune II and Command & Conquer, and the team includes other veterans of those projects. It’s a large risk for Petroglyph and Trion, but if it pays off, the potential rewards are enormous, and it could put Las Vegas back on the game-development map.