Cliff Bleszinski, a living legend among game developers, smiles broadly as he reflects for a moment on the success of the company where he works.
“We’re not called ‘Small Games,’” he says. “We’re called Epic Games.”
The crew at Epic – fresh off the multimillion-selling "Gears" of War" and pushing to launch the next version of its big-selling “Unreal Tournament” franchise – is having an open house. And a local reporter rushes in, eager to meet the people behind the company that has established an international franchise in a 15-year meteoric rise.
Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, smiles as he accepts a compliment about his company’s meteoric success in the videogame business.
“We’re riding a roller coaster,” he says.
But with mega-selling titles like "Gears of War" and “Unreal Tournament,” Epic’s story continues to be climbing ever upward – not down.
Capps and company were playing host to journalists who cover the gaming world earlier this week to display the forthcoming "Gears" of War" PC version. The game has been a sensational success since its launch last November. Not only has it sold more than 4 million copies for the Xbox 360, the title has also won several awards. Epic, in fact, reaped a prestigious “best studio” honor for its "Gears" success. And it had held position as the No. 1 title on the Microsoft Xbox 360 online network until "Halo 3" displaced it last week.
While the reporters rocked-and-rolled through "Gears of War" shoot-‘em-up demos, Vice President Mark Rein took time to walk another reporter through Epic’s headquarters. Located not too far from the Crossroads shopping center in Cary, the building is secluded. There are no garish neon signs proclaiming it the headquarters for the "Gears of War" and "Unreal" creators.
“We’re here to sell games, not ourselves,” Rein says.
Only a small decal for "Gears" of ar" on the front door marks the building as Epic’s home.
But the parking lot is another matter.
"Gears" of War" derivatives mark license plates.
And the cars speak of the financial success as well as the hard-charging entrepreneurial spirits that drive the small (around 100 employees) but powerful firm.
A Lamborghini belongs to one executive. Corvettes fill other spaces. Sports and power cars galore jam virtually every other space.
“I hope to have one of those one day,” laments one producer who hopes to cash in soon.
Once inside, the Epic success story becomes clear. A trophy case is filled with the gaming community equivalent of Oscars and Emmys.
But top billing goes to the hand-crafted head of an ugly, ghostly, sinister locust character – the demons in the "Gears of War" epic that battle humans for control of a planet.
To associate producer Tanya Jessen, however, there is nothing bad about the locusts or the game.
“That’s our baby,” she says proudly as she watches the reporters hammer away at each other in a "Gears" demo.
Bleszinski, lead creator for "Gears," stops by for a brief chat while the huge “mocap” or motion capture studio rocks with sounds of death, destruction and a sound track as menacing as ever created for Star Wars.
Like a proud poppa, Bleszinski breaks into a huge grin as he discusses "Gears of War".
“It pays the bills,” he says in a gross understatement. “This is a Triple-A game.”
By that, he means Epic is working with Microsoft, which paid Epic millions (estimates top $10 million) to develop "Gears," to turn the game into an empire similar to a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings franchise.
“A Triple A game transcends video games into T-shirts, underwear – and whatever else people want,” Bleszinski says with a chuckle. “Who knows what the future is?”
Epic wants to turn "Gears" into books, graphic novels and comics and other money-producing revenue streams.
At the same time, the company seeks to remain true to its mission – developing games. Even as "Gears" and "Unreal" near launch, the creative team is producing new content to augment existing titles. And other work is under way, although Rein, the marketing executive, remains silent on details.
The “mocap” room captures Epic’s commitment. It towers nearly 30 feet and is equipped with three dozen high-definition cameras. In that studio, players done black outfits equipped with lights so they can be filmed and their real-life motions incorporated into game scenarios.
“We can rappel people from the ceiling,” Rein says.
The building, about two years old, is modern in design but not ostentatious as are so many high-tech companies’ facilities. Rather, its hallways are lined with plaques and copies of Epic’s many titles developed over the years – from a simple, one-floppy-disk version and the hand-drawn designs for “ZZT” that launched the company 15 years ago to life-size cardboard renderings of "Unreal" and "Gears of War" characters.
A break room is packed with free food and drinks as well as a massive plasma screen TV. Outside is a basketball court. And a nearby open space gets lots of use for ultimate Frisbee. Near the break room is a gym equipped with all manner of equipment.
But the offices where the creation of new worlds and non-stop action takes place on high-powered PCs remain hidden from view.
After all, the true focus of Epic remains the games it produces.
Bleszinski watches and listens intently to the journalists as they deftly move mouse and manipulate keyboard while flinching, yelling, cheering and occasionally cursing in playing the new "Gears" scenario.
“I have to sell this game to them,” he says, knowing full well the power that game reviewers exercise in convincing consumers to buy titles.
At first glance, it appears the reviewers savor what they see. And Bleszinski savors the moment.
“It’s like taking fish to water,” he says if a game is successful. And success means critical acceptance, if not acclaim as well as sales. To him, that means more than dollars or movies or T-shirts.
Says Bleszinski with fatherly pride: “It’s like watching your kid graduate from college.”