Civilization began in Hunt Valley—which isn't some Mesopotamian village, it's actually the Baltimore suburb known primarily for its sprawling office parks and shopping mall at the end of the Light Rail line. The dawning of this particular Civilization stretches back to the early 1990s, although some observers might place the date a decade earlier. That's when Sid Meier began designing video games.
It's also when the unassuming suburb of Hunt Valley began to be known as one of the most vital gaming centers in the world.
Civilization is Meier's flagship creation, an enduring video game that has sold millions of copies and helped establish the area as a hub for game development. An addictive strategy game that lets players build empires from the ground up, Civilization was initially designed for personal computers, but it's been adapted and updated for various gaming devices (like the PSP and Xbox 360). This summer, it's poised to conquer an entirely new frontier—Facebook.
There, Civilization World will go head-to-head with the popular CityVille and FarmVille games developed by San Francisco-based Zynga, which has an office in nearby Timonium.
Meier's work on the Facebook project has been top secret. For months, he's been hunkered down at the headquarters of his company, Firaxis, just a few miles north of Hunt Valley Towne Centre. If you drive down Loveton Circle, off York Road, you might notice a one-story beige building off to the left. Judging by its nondescript appearance, it could be home to a more run-of-the-mill outfit like McCormick, which, at one time, it was. But this place is different—there's a volleyball court out back and a programming genius inside.
The distinctive Firaxis logo—with its orange swirls circling an unseen nucleus—hangs behind the reception desk in the lobby, where visitors are asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Video-game developers, with millions of investment dollars on the line in a fiercely competitive industry, guard their proprietary information like defense secrets. Some firms don't allow photography inside their offices. Others have multiple security passes and two or three receptionists screening visitors. Windows are tinted, projects have code names, and employees are forbidden to discuss their work outside the office. Zynga declined to answer even the most basic questions for this story.
Copies of magazines like Wired, National Geographic, Game Developer, and Baltimore fan across a table, and a display case holds various game-of-the-year awards, statues, and medallions, along with a 2011 International Leadership Award from the World Trade Center Institute. Down a quiet hallway, a Firaxis employee zips past on a Razor scooter on his way to the copy machine.
Sitting behind three computer monitors on a desk cluttered with empty Coke cans, the 57-year-old Meier exudes an impish charm. His eyes are remarkably bright for someone who stares into computer screens all day, and he possesses a disarmingly warm smile that makes you forget he's smarter than everyone else in the room. He is, after all, the second person elected to the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame, and he's been called "our Hitchcock, our Spielberg, our Ellington" by gamespot.com.
"The Facebook platform is an amazing world," says Meier. "Taking a game idea that we're very familiar with and modifying it and enhancing it to take advantage of what's unique and cool about Facebook—the friend connections, people dropping in and out and playing at different times, and the wider audience—is a fun challenge. The fun of design is stepping out into this unknown process and a year or two later saying, 'Wow. We didn't know what we were doing, but we made something that's fun.'"
It echoes Meier's reminiscences about the early 1980s in Hunt Valley, when he was working at General Instruments full-time and dabbling in computers on the side. "It was at a time in the industry where we were just making it up as we went along," he says. "I sat down one day in front of my Atari 800 computer and said, 'I'm a game designer. I'm gonna write games.'"
Those games were copied from Meier's hard drive onto floppy discs and inserted, with a Xeroxed manual, into Ziploc baggies from Giant. Meier's business partner, Bill Stealey, would then drive up and down I-95 hawking the games to mom-and-pop computer stores. "I got a call from Bill one day," recalls Meier. "He was on the road, and he said, 'Sid, I just sold 50 copies of Chopper Rescue. I think we've got something here.' That was a milestone for us, selling 50 games to one store."
A decade later, personal computing had exploded, and Civilization sold millions. "It's been a rock for us, and it's given us something to fall back on," says Meier. "There's a certain stability in that, and it's made people more willing to move here and become part of the industry because we could demonstrate that we would probably be around for awhile, and this might be a good career move."
Another scooter-propelled employee zips past Meier's open door. "This area turned out to have everything companies need to make games and sustain themselves," says Meier. "We're just a little pod of game makers in an industry that's always growing and changing, which is exciting."
Nationally, the video game industry generated a whopping $20 billion in revenue in 2009, leading PricewaterhouseCoopers to predict "above average growth" for it through 2011. Although sales dipped in 2009, its growth rate over the previous five years was seven times greater than that of the U.S. economy. It employs approximately 32,000 people in 34 states, with California and Texas having the most jobs: 13,000 and 3,000, respectively.
The industry in Maryland employs about 700 people, with about 500 of those jobs clustered in Hunt Valley, between Timonium and Sparks. That corridor has spawned studios such as Big Huge, BreakAway, Day 1, ZeniMax, and Zynga East, whose key people often have ties to Firaxis or Meier's first company, MircoProse. In fact, "All roads lead to MicroProse" is something of a mantra when discussing the local gaming industry.
The studios employ hundreds of designers, programmers, and artists. Their average pay is $86,000. "From an economic development point of view, these are the kinds of jobs and people that you want in your business community," says Fronda Cohen, communications director for Baltimore County's Department of Economic Development. "They are the cream of the creative class, very innovative and entrepreneurial. And they're always growing and changing."
Change may be the only constant. BreakAway, for instance, no longer makes traditional games. After developing titles such as Command & Conquer III and Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth, the Hunt Valley-based company—which was founded by MicroProse alum Doug Whatley—turned its full attention to "serious" games. Now, it exclusively develops training and simulation games for government, medical, and military use. "Our first work with the military was in 1998," says Whatley, "so we have been doing it for a long time. We find creating games that solve real-world problems to be more fulfilling."
Two of the local start-ups, Firaxis and Big Huge, have been bought by outside companies. Take-Two Interactive—the New York-based publisher of mega-selling titles such as Grand Theft Auto—purchased Firaxis in 2005 for a reported $26.7 million. 38 Studios, owned by former Red Sox star (and erstwhile Oriole) Curt Schilling, bought Big Huge for an undisclosed sum two years ago. After the deal was sealed, Schilling called the local talent "a phenomenal team" and praised its "highly regarded developers."
Those developers are now working on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a role-playing game that's generating lots of advance buzz. Originally set to come out this year, 38 Studios reportedly pushed it back to 2012, so it won't compete with the release of another hotly anticipated role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim, that's being developed by Maryland's Bethesda Softworks. Bethesda's parent company also owns Hunt Valley's ZeniMax Online Studios.
With Zynga and social media now in the mix, they're all scrambling to create that next big thing, while navigating a landscape of emerging technologies and shifting demographics. In fact, the demographics are changing profoundly, not just for the players, but for the game designers themselves.
If Sid Meier is "the godfather of video games"—as he's often been dubbed—Taylor Fischer represents the new guard. A 2010 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) grad, the 22-year-old has already interned at Firaxis, done contract work at Big Huge, and been hired full-time at ZeniMax, where she now works as a concept artist. When she started college, she never imagined she'd end up working on video games.
Sitting outside Panera Bread across the street from the ZeniMax offices, Fischer chuckles at the thought. "No, I thought I was going to make fine-art paintings," she says. "Girls weren't supposed to be that interested in video games."
Fischer was an Air-Force brat and lived in Alabama, Colorado, and Texas, before coming to Baltimore. She grew up watching her brothers play Gears of War and eventually developed a fondness for video games herself—especially puzzle games like Myst. She also spent a lot of time outside, building treehouses, drawing turtles and plants, and designing imaginary planets. All of that would come in handy.
After getting to MICA, Fischer distanced herself from fine art—which seemed too self-absorbed and insular—and switched to illustration in her sophomore year. A year later, she got into video-game art and found it liberating, because, as she explains, "You could draw a dragon and feel like it was awesome. It's just awesome, and there's no debate."
At a campus job fair, a Firaxis rep took a look at Fischer's portfolio and was impressed by her renderings of ancient and imaginary villages. She was, at the time, taking a lot of art history and had a keen interest in prehistoric societies and Sumerian cultures. "I used to pretend this is how their villages were set up," recalls Fischer, "and I'd draw their houses."
Many of the drawings were from an isometric perspective (from above), the same perspective that's prevalent in the Civilization games. The rep said she was a perfect fit for Firaxis, and a few weeks later, Fischer found herself working on Civilization V.
These days, it's not uncommon for such a scenario to play out at MICA or University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), schools that have tailored curriculums to careers in gaming. And more and more students taking that career path are women. "My classes have been almost entirely female," says Colin Campbell, who teaches illustration and concept art at MICA. A principal artist at Big Huge, Campbell is a MICA grad himself, class of 2004.
"When I was there," he continues, "the classes that related to video games were almost entirely boys. Now, I have 16 girls in the class, and they're all gamers." There were only two guys in the class.
"These young women will have a profound effect on the industry," says Campbell.
"You'll see games move toward speaking to a wider demographic, which is already starting to happen."
Recent statistics certainly support that. If you pegged the typical gamer as a teenage boy, you'd be wrong—the average age is actually 34. And 40 percent of all gamers are female. In fact, the average Facebook gamer is a 43-year-old woman, who's never played games before.
So lots of companies are clamoring for their attention and looking to tap the potential of social media. With upwards of 600 million monthly users, Facebook offers access to an enormous audience, as Zynga has already demonstrated. Its CityVille game, the most popular on Facebook, has 20 million daily active players, and FarmVille, at number two, has 12 million. Even Lady Gaga has been getting in on the action by releasing new songs, via FarmVille, in May.
Because Facebook and iPhone app games have limited graphics capabilities, it doesn't take an army of artists and animators to develop them. "Now, people can practically make a game by themselves," notes Campbell. "There are more avenues to create games, and that's great."
"Developing games for these new gamers is very exciting," says Ben Walsh, founder of Pure Bang Games, a small, local start-up. "They have different likes and dislikes, which means we get to create types of games that haven't been made before."
Pure Bang's My Pet Rock recently launched on Facebook, and it's more smile-inducing than adrenaline pumping. It's cute, with customized rocks going on dates and playing with other rocks. And it isn't a product of Hunt Valley at all because Pure Bang is located in Highlandtown on Eastern Avenue. "I fell in love with the neighborhood," explains Walsh. "We felt that it was important for us to be in the city. There tends to be more energy in cities, and the flow of information in Baltimore City is so much faster, since people interact more often than in Hunt Valley."
Walsh—who's also curating Gamescape, a video game exhibit at this month's Artscape—wanted his company to be in an Arts and Entertainment District. It makes sense, he says, because half of his dozen or so employees are artists, Highlandtown is diverse, and it has plenty of affordable real estate.
Still, most of the industry talent gets lured to Hunt Valley, where "the culture is super friendly, and everyone just wants to learn from each other," says Fischer. "They don't seem to hire assholes."
"There is definitely a competition for talent," says Firaxis president Steve Martin. "With other successful companies in this area, we're all fighting for the smartest people."
To get an edge, they make their working environments as alluring as possible, with on-site activities like Ping-Pong, pool, board games, volleyball, basketball, and, of course, video games for workers to blow off steam. They'll provide meals and even customize workspaces. One hotshot programmer has an office that's set up like a pub, with cold beer on tap.
The tight-knit gaming community—the "pod," as Sid Meier calls it—has its appeal, too. "We all know each other," says Fischer. "Once you get your foot in the door, you feel like you're in this circle of people who all hang out together."
They have soccer and softball leagues, Frisbee, and competitive fighting. There are contests for creating games, but on a much smaller scale than at work. And in an unlikely marriage of one of the newest forms of entertainment to one of the oldest, Fischer even started a group dedicated to fox hunting, which nods to a long tradition in the area. "I sent around an e-mail about fox hunting on horseback," she says, noting that it's more of a "mock" fox hunt because they don't actually kill any animals. "It turns out other people were interested, too. Now, we have a group that takes cross-country horseback riding lessons every week."
A few minutes later, she spots a colleague and waves. He's in the fox-hunting group, too. "It might seem odd that a geeky group like us would be into fox hunting," she says. "Maybe it is. But you never know what we might do next."