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Firaxis Games growing slowly as its legacy competes with a changing industry

Firaxis Games is growing slowly as it navigates upheaval in the video game industry.

Firaxis Games is one of the oldest names in a Baltimore County industry that has seen a lot of players come and go. But its leader doesn't take that stability for granted.

"We have always had measured growth," said Stephen Martin, president of the video game studio. "We don't ever want to be pulling back our staff."

Next year will mark two decades since Firaxis launched as a 13-person offshoot of MicroProse, the first in a long line of game studios along the York Road corridor. After adding nearly 40 people this year, Firaxis now has 180 people in a recently expanded headquarters in Sparks.

As its developers ready for the February launch of the studio's next major title, "XCOM 2" — and as they focus on their next project, which they haven't yet announced — Firaxis is looking to establish a more consistent rhythm in its releases.

Its games compete with titles with annual updates, like the "Madden" football or "FIFA" soccer game series, and with mobile games that can be developed in a matter of months. But it won't sacrifice the several years of development for which its games, starting with game-maker Sid Meier's "Civilization" series, are known.

"It's like a portfolio," Martin said. "The more you diversify, the more you're balancing your risk."

Studios like Electronic Arts, the Silicon Valley giant behind most of the dominant sports-related game series, have almost a guaranteed annual stream of revenue, Martin said. But Firaxis puts years into each of its titles. Martin said he hopes the studio's growth means it can also keep up a yearly release cycle, though alternating between its several franchises.

Firaxis' most recent release was "Sid Meier's Starships," offered this year as a follow-up to 2014's "Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth," a futuristic spinoff of the studio's signature series.

Meier designed the first "Civilization" title, a strategy game in which players build an empire that lasts through the ages, while at MicroProse in Hunt Valley, and brought the series with him when he co-founded Firaxis in 1996.

Firaxis' next title, "XCOM 2," due for worldwide release Feb. 5, also can trace its roots to the early days of Baltimore County's game industry. MicroProse and British developer Mythos Games launched what became the "X-COM" series, science-fiction games featuring alien invasions, in 1994. California-based 2K Games, Firaxis' corporate parent since 2005, acquired a reboot of the series that started with Firaxis' "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" in 2012.

Previews and reviews of "XCOM 2" are expected from video game media soon. With a lot riding on any one title, positive press is key — Firaxis developers have been traveling around the world showing it off in recent weeks.

Given the legacies behind Firaxis' titles and the local industry as a whole, an audience of loyal players offers one advantage.

"I think we are the gaming capital of the world," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said jokingly on a visit to Firaxis' headquarters Monday.

Perhaps of the East Coast, Martin corrected.

But each investment in a new title comes with a risk, Martin said.

Apart from Firaxis, the local industry has seen significant upheaval in recent years. Big Huge Games closed, only to be relaunched by developers jettisoned when Zynga, the West Coast developer known for "Farmville," closed its East Coast headquarters in Timonium.

Firaxis has only laid off staff once, Martin said. Gaming media outlets reported Firaxis cut 20 jobs, about 15 percent of the studio, in 2010.

New technology has in some ways made it easier and cheaper to create and sell games. Instead of producing CD-ROMs to be sold at Best Buy, developers can offer their creations for download online. Steam, an online gaming marketplace, has become a key distribution platform for Firaxis. That means studios also can learn more about who their customers are, no longer relying on mailed-in information cards.

But the emergence of mobile games and social media-based games has invited more competition too. App developers can create an inexpensive game in mere months that builds a fast following, and then move on to the next project once interest wanes.

With its focus on detail, Firaxis' games require more manpower than they used to and typically cost a lot more than mobile apps. While engineers used to work on many facets of a game's development, now they have specialized expertise in, say, user interface or artificial intelligence.

"Now we're hiring four people for what one could do," Martin said.

Firaxis spends as long as three to four years building up to one of its major releases. Even after that, engineers get to work repairing bugs and developing expansion packs, he said.

"The more complicated it becomes, the harder it is to hit that deadline," Martin said.

Still, in an industry marked by turnover, Martin said he is proud of Firaxis' consistency.

The studio expanded its space on Loveton Circle by almost one-fourth this year, to 40,000 square feet, adding space for what could eventually be an additional team to focus on new projects. For now though, Firaxis has no plans to ramp up hiring further, Martin said.

"Every game is so fickle as it relates to consumer interest," he said.

For Baltimore County economic development officials visiting the studio Monday, there was little to be concerned about. Kamenetz said he was pleased to see the company was able to use its space, a former warehouse, to suit its needs. Other county employers are struggling to convert traditional offices to more open floor plans, he said.

And when he asked about how graduates from schools like the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, could help the studio, Martin said Firaxis already has hired many of them and worked with administrators to align curriculum with work force needs.

"You've already made that connection, which is great," Kamenetz said.

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