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Gamer Theory

To learn how to reach the top of the $9.5 billion video game industry, three Johns Hopkins alumni first had to start in the basement — and learn how to outwit their sword-wielding opponents.

By Geoff Brown, A&S '91
Photos by Will Kirk

When Jason Coleman, A&S '92, drove his beat-up mid-'80s Honda CRX (dubbed "Beelzebub") into the parking lot of a drab Hunt Valley, Maryland, office building back in 1994, he had no idea that his career plans — his impending PhD studies in numerical relativity, a life in academia — were about to be torn asunder by a nameless space marine armed with a shotgun and a chainsaw.

Coleman had just moved back to Baltimore with his wife, Holly Rebecca Hyatt, A&S '90, who had gotten a job in the city. Having been admitted to the University of Maryland's PhD program in physics, he planned to spend the summer working in the Johns Hopkins bookstore, as he had during his undergraduate years at Homewood. At least that's what he told Tim Train, A&S '91, a friend from Hopkins who had recently landed a job at a video game company called MicroProse.

"You don't want to do that," Train said to Coleman. "You can do something cool. You should come up to MicroProse and check it out."

So he did. "As soon as I walked into the building, I was absolutely entranced," Coleman says. "There was a set of double doors and a neon sign above them that read, 'MPS Labs'" — for MicroProse Software — "and that really appealed to my geek, science nature." He was instantly allured by the potential to mix his scientific side with his creative side — something a career in academia likely wouldn't offer.

Train walked Coleman into his office on the more managerial, non-labs side of the building, and the two briefly discussed job opportunities at MicroProse. Then Train stood up. "I gotta show you this," he said excitedly. He turned down the lights, sat down at his PC, turned up the volume on the computer's cheap stereo speakers, and booted up a video game Coleman had never heard of: Doom.

For the next few minutes, Train guided the game's protagonist — a tough space marine trying to fight his way solo through a mazelike Martian research base overrun by demons — through a blood-spewing, adrenaline-surged parade of carnage, mowing down zombie soldiers and fiendish beasts with weapons ranging from a simple pistol to a rocket launcher to, most infamously, a chainsaw.

Doom — a first-person shooter type of game, where the player sees what the character sees — wasn't made by MicroProse, a company known for its more cerebral strategy games and flight simulators. And by today's standards, the game's graphics were laughably blocky, the sound effects were scratchy, short, and crude, and there was no plot other than to kill everything between the player and the exit. Still, the vast potential of the medium was recognized by Coleman. "It was a visceral experience I had never had before, not even with a movie," he says. "The low-grade graphics and sound didn't matter. I was totally immersed in that world. Until that moment, I'd never seen a first-person shooter.

"It seemed," he concludes with a smile, "very freaking cool."

Coleman doesn't remember the rest of the visit, except for one thought: "I immediately wanted to work at MicroProse."

Reasons why Coleman would defer, and ultimately abandon, his physics PhD, and reasons why Train, an international studies major while at Johns Hopkins, was working his way up the ladder at a video game company, could be said to lead back to a gloomy, hot basement training room in the Newton H. White Athletic Center. That's where Coleman and Train — along with Jen MacLean, A&S '94, and Hamilton Chu, A&S '94 — formed the core of a unique group of alumni who would eventually parlay their experience as members of the Blue Jays fencing team into major success in the video game industry. Train, Coleman, MacLean, and Chu, none of whom were athletes when they started fencing, say that they not only became close friends on the fencing team but learned how to succeed in ways they weren't capable of before.

Since their days on the strip — the dueling surface in fencing — Train and Coleman have gone on to found the 120-employee-strong Big Huge Games (BHG), which had a big hit in 2003 with Rise of Nations (and employs several other Johns Hopkins alumni who weren't fencers). MacLean currently works at 38 Studios, the gaming company owned by Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. She's also the chair of the 15,000-member International Game Developers Association. Chu, who worked as senior producer on the hit games Halo and Halo 2, is now part of the team behind the massively popular World of Warcraft, which has more than 11 million players worldwide. (That game's famously secretive developer, Blizzard Entertainment, forbade Chu, the company's director of special projects, from participating in this story.)

Combine the careers of Chu, Coleman, MacLean, and Train, and this group has contributed to some of the biggest hits in video game history, as well as the growth of the industry into the multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today. But to understand that success, it's necessary to go back to 1987, when computers still had green cathode-ray-tube monitors and when a hard drive was a fantastically expensive luxury item — and back to that unpleasant concrete room in the athletic center.

Tim Train was a smart kid, identified through Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth program when he was a 13-year-old growing up outside Philadelphia. Wandering about the Homewood campus as a new freshman, he saw dozens of fliers offering membership in everything from Freshman One-Acts to A Place to Talk to the Nipponese Student Association to sports that had to advertise for athletes, like fencing. Unsure of his major or what activities he might like to try, Train decided to check out that sport with swords. He headed down to the athletic center basement and found an old man standing in front of the new blood: men's fencing coach Dick Oles.

Oles had been coaching Hopkins fencers since 1959 (10 years before Train was born), and he greeted the newcomers with only slightly more warmth than if they had been the dregs of the lowliest boot camp. "He wasn't a young man," says Jorge Gana, A&S '92, another fencer (who now works in finance in New York City). "Coach Oles wasn't warm and fuzzy. He was curmudgeonly. He would have been viewed, even by his own generation, as being old school."

For some, the coach's style had a certain appeal to it. "He had me hooked when he said, 'You want to hit the son of a bitch, but you want to do it artistically,'" Train says. "You know how when you're a freshman, and you're out trying 20 different things, and maybe one or two stick? For me, fencing stuck."

Jason Coleman, Jen MacLean, and Tim Train bonded on the Hopkins fencing team.

The following year, Coleman arrived at that same basement room, a Writing Seminars major from Little Rock, Arkansas, who liked science and who had played trumpet in his high school marching band. (Heading into his junior year, Coleman switched his major to physics. "I was very busy my senior year," he says.) Gana also arrived in 1988, and he, Coleman, and Train would become the heart of the team's epee squad. (There are three types of fencing weapons: The epee is the heaviest, the slugger of the bunch, and attacks with thrusts; there's also the foil, which is a lighter version of the epee. The saber is a quick, slashing and thrusting weapon.) In 1991, the squad made the Blue Jays' first and only appearance at the NCAA fencing championships, where it beat or held its own against the titans of the sport: Penn State, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, UNC — teams that had recruited experienced fencers. The epee squad finished sixth in the nation.

There is an allure to fencing, particularly for people who are not natural-born athletes. It is a combat sport with its roots in feudal Europe. It's a one-on-one battle of wits, tactics, and skill more than a show of brute strength. In a match, two fighters face each other, weapons in hand, and the first to get five touches — which is a catchall term for stabs, blows, slices, jabs, or cuts — wins. As in many martial arts, the larger, stronger participant is not guaranteed a win. MacLean, who stands about 5' 3" and is primarily a foil fencer, once had to fence a much taller male opponent. And she had to use an epee. Unfamiliar sword in hand, she won because her opponent couldn't figure out how to fight a smaller adversary — and she realized that before he did. "I've thought about that many times since then," MacLean says. "I learned how to take advantage of my strengths, and how to outthink the other guy — at the same time he's trying to outthink you."

MacLean, a native of Millersville, Maryland (and a member of her high school's It's Academic team), had come to fencing not via a flier but from attending a party with her roommate, who knew some fencers. When she heard one of them needed to teach someone how to fence in order to secure an instructor certificate, she volunteered to be the pupil. She spent the summer of 1991 learning how to wield a blade. "It was brutal," MacLean says of the experience. "I spent every day that summer in the basement of the old athletic center, in a windowless room with no air conditioning. I lost 10 pounds. But I loved getting better at something."

There were other lessons as well. Train and Coleman will admit that they were a bit nerdy, that they enjoyed role-playing games like the cultural touchstone Dungeons & Dragons and the first generation of video games. All of the eventual fencers liked competition and winning, but they were mostly used to facing off against lucky dice rolls or predictable computer code. What fencing and Coach Oles were teaching them was how to square off against the most dangerous and unpredictable opponent of all: another human being armed with a sword. Fencing wasn't just about learning how to win. It was also about learning how to lose, in the immediate and utterly devastating way that only a one-on-one sport can teach. There's no reset button in fencing, just those five quick touches geared toward getting the best of your opponent — or, to be overly dramatic, to feel the wicked sting of the blade.

"I loved it," says MacLean, "because it was that rare sport where working smart, and working hard, could overcome physical limitations. I love being competitive, and I love being part of a team. Because it was my first experience on a sports team, I really learned about maturity and leadership. I learned a lot of lessons I definitely applied to the business world."

Train's first real job, as a game tester back in 1991, paid a whopping $22,500 a year. The international studies major had spent his first summer out of college working for a temporary staffing service and coaching the women's fencing team — and forgetting his grad school application deadlines. "I was getting up at 5 a.m. to temp, and I was really miserable, and I hated it," he says. One of the members of Baltimore's Salle Pallasz Fencing Club (a loosely affiliated group of local fencers), which Train had joined after graduation, was Bruce Milligan, a designer at MicroProse. "It turns out there had been a bit of a scandal in the play testing department," Train says. "Two of the testers had run off together, one of whom happened to be married to a programmer." So there was an opening.

Video game testing is the "mailroom" of the gaming industry, and it's where the former fencers all got their starts in the business. Video game testing — which to many young men immediately sounds like the greatest job ever — is actually real work. It's about making sure the game works right, no matter what the player does. In interactive media, maintaining the illusion that you are, say, a lethal interstellar commando, is critical to success. If the game crashes when the player tries to blow up an alien tank in an inspired manner, that needs to be caught and fixed before the game hits shelves. The best play testers can cause the same failure over and over again, remembering specific steps or actions, so the glitch can be recorded and explained to the programmers for repair. "It's great if you can make a bug happen, but if you can't explain why or how it happened to the programmers, they can't fix it," MacLean says. Play testing is where Train, Coleman, and MacLean all got their start in the industry. "Play testing is the mailroom of the game industry," Train says.

In his first year, Train began to test a game designed by MicroProse's hotshot designer, a guy named Sid Meier who is now one of the industry's legendary figures. That game, Civilization, is today considered one of the greatest ever. Train loved the job, and quickly became play-test manager and lead tester on several other games, as well as a fervent booster of gaming as a career option for some of his fencing compatriots who were looking for work.

The first fencer to follow him to MicroProse was MacLean. (Coleman would follow two years later.) In 1992, she was looking for part-time work while she was still in school, so Train got her an interview at the company. When she arrived and sat down with the manager of the quality assurance group, it became clear that the man did not believe that the bright, confident, and eager MacLean — who, confusingly, happened to be female — played video games.

"Which game do you play?" he asked.

"F-19 Stealth Fighter," she replied — a legendary flight simulator, and one of the best and hardest games of the era.

"Fine," he said, taking her to a desk. "Here's a computer. Boot up F-19. I want to see you bomb something."

This was an extra insult, as a bombing run is one of the game's easiest missions. MacLean obliterated the target and had herself a job — though not, it turns out, full respect. Later that year, one of MicroProse's top executives was showing a group of Japanese enthusiasts through the company's offices. When they saw MacLean play testing the company's F-15 Strike Eagle III — another flight simulator — the executive informed the group that the game even came "with an easy mode, for girls."

Despite its brightly colored Mario Land landscapes and its virtual Rock Bands, video gaming is a serious business, and one that brings in an enormous amount of revenue. In 2007, video gaming raked in $9.5 billion in the United States, according to one industry survey. That same year, Hollywood's film industry brought in $9.6 billion domestically. Such success has earned gaming a seat at the table of pop culture titans, even though many people over age 40 couldn't name a single hit game of the past 10 years.

Coleman and Train founded Big Huge Games nine years ago. The company now employs 120 people and is a major player in the industry. The other similarity between video game companies and Hollywood is their product: Each major game is like an expensive blockbuster. Grand Theft Auto IV — a 2008 game with a development budget of $100 million — made more than $500 million in its first week of release. Where that similarity breaks down is that each game studio (like Train and Coleman's BHG and MacLean's 38 Studios) really only makes one massive blockbuster at a time. If it flops, the studio goes out of business, and its unemployed workers create a new studio or join existing ones (repeat ad infinitum). Imagine if Paramount Pictures made only one movie every year or two, and lived or died on that film's success. To help ease that risk, game studios seek the financial backing of publishers, which are like the major movie studios. Publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision have massive coffers that allow them to take in smaller studios and let them operate without a financial sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. In 2008, California's THQ Inc. acquired BHG for an estimated eight figures.

Despite the multibillion sales figures, video games are still not fully welcomed into the pantheon of acceptable commercial creative endeavors. One problem is that cultural critics don't quite know where to put gaming: Is it merely a fantastic technical achievement? Is it art? Is it both, like filmmaking? Hopkins computer science senior lecturer Peter Froehlich has moved beyond trying to convert the skeptics. "To be perfectly honest, I don't care," he says, laughing. "If you don't like video games, fine. I don't like blood sausage. Games have been around a long time. It's not 1983 anymore. People didn't take the idea of home computers seriously, either."

Froehlich, a PhD in information and computer science, created the Johns Hopkins Gaming Lab and a new video gaming course, Introduction to Video Game Design. The class puts 20 technical students (from fields like computer science and electrical engineering) together with 20 arts students (from places like the Writing Seminars, Peabody, and the Maryland Institute College of Art) to create teams that generate a final project: a video game. Each four-person team gets the help of an industry vet, many of whom come from Big Huge Games. Froehlich worked with the Center for Educational Resources and Hopkins' Computer Science Department to secure funding and grants for the class, and the Digital Media Center kicked in facilities and staff. The creation of the class and the Gaming Lab is not a frivolous move, says Froehlich. "We were starting to lose prospective computer science students because we didn't have anything [in video game design] to offer them."

If that demand isn't enough of an indication of gaming's arrival as an industry and a force, Froehlich suggests skeptics examine the $9.5 billion bottom line. "If you don't think gaming is as big as Hollywood," he says, "look at the dough."

Now defunct, MicroProse would still be a major stop on a tour of America's Greatest Video Games Historic Sites. Hunt Valley is just a 15-minute drive north of the Homewood campus, and it's where MicroProse began to turn out some of the games that led so many creative people to join the company. Various offshoots and progeny of MicroProse still call the area home, including, indirectly, Big Huge Games, located just south of Hunt Valley in Timonium.

Entrance to the BHG offices is gained via biometric, palm-reading scanners. Terra cotta statues of Chinese warriors, posters of past video games, brightly colored collectible figurines, toys, and energy drinks fill the hallways and offices. There's the Big Huge Bar, which lords over a large common area filled with couches and amusements. In offices and studios, BHG's workforce of (mostly) young (mostly) men work on 3-D animations, drawings, textures, architecture, sound, and myriad other technical aspects, all crucial to creating a virtual environment. Train and Coleman are BHG's general manager and technical director, respectively. The company was founded in 2000 by Train, Coleman, gaming legend Brian Reynolds (who created the celebrated Civilization 2 and Alpha Centauri), and art director David Inscore. Together, they brought years of collective experience to the table.

Train's duties include the daily operation of the business and the oversight of the company's products. He travels constantly, heading to game conferences and conventions across the globe. On the way back from a conference in Las Vegas this February, he boarded a plane in Chicago with fellow Hopkins alum and fencing team member Michael Steele, A&S '81, who had just been elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. The two talked fencing and Hopkins on their way to baggage claim. Coleman's job is less peripatetic. He works on hardware and software solutions and provides programming expertise to BHG's staff, as well as overseeing the technical side of the company.

MacLean eventually went on to help run AOL's massively popular gaming areas, then headed to Comcast to operate the cable giant's gaming products as a vice president and general manager. In April 2008, she joined 38 Studios, based in Maynard, Massachusetts (just outside Boston), where she now serves as senior vice president of business development. "I do anything that needs to be done," she says, "looking at potential partnerships, revenue models, and investor documentation, providing feedback on features, and creating strategies to expand into new markets."

One downside to the successes of Train and MacLean (and, to a lesser degree because of the technical nature of his job, Coleman) is that they've all managed to promote, create, or succeed to such a degree that their jobs are not as fun as they used to be. In fact, "one of the reasons I came to 38 Studios," says MacLean, "was that I got to be closer to the games again, which I missed."

The economic downturn of the past year has not been kind to the video game industry. Publishers like Electronic Arts — one of the biggest and most bulletproof names in the business, and home to money-making machines like the John Madden series of football games — have laid off over a thousand workers, and studios are being shuttered left and right. On March 17, as this article was going to press, BHG's publisher, THQ, publicly confirmed rumors that BHG was up for sale; if a new owner is not found in the near future, the company will be closed for good. (Train, who serves as the public face of BHG, did not respond to an interview request.)

BHG's current major project, the one that may help it land a new owner and publisher, is a role-playing game (an RPG, in gamer parlance) guided by legendary designer Ken Rolston, whom BHG lured out of retirement. Rolston's last game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, sold about 4 million copies at roughly $60 each. (Rolston's games are very successful, but also very expensive to make: Outside estimates put Oblivion's cost at about $20 million.)

But the completion of the new game is now uncertain. The company is already set to lay off at least 50 workers in an attempt to make BHG less expensive to operate and more financially attractive to potential new ownership. This is the sort of real-world challenge that will make Train and Coleman draw upon the lessons learned in that basement room of the athletic center. They'll also continue to count on the friendship and counsel of their fellow fencing alumni. "I think they both can succeed at anything," says Gana of Train and Coleman. "And they think that, too. They'd succeed even if it was something like starting a global cookie-selling company."

Train, Coleman, and MacLean speak regularly, not only as friends but as peers in a business that's clearly just as high-risk and high-pressure as the movie industry. Having friends they can rely on, they all say, is crucial. Before news broke of BHG's impending shuttering, in an interview with Coleman, Train, and MacLean, Coleman had said: "Because we spent so many years on the strip, we know how someone deals with all sorts of crises."

Added Train: "This bond is far greater than anything the industry throws at us."

"I can always count on these guys to give me an honest answer," MacLean said. "It helps to have that level of trust in a relationship, where you can trust that someone will tell you the things you don't want to hear."

Geoff Brown, A&S '91, is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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