"It's not a sign of a great sea change," said Matt Firor, president of ZeniMax Online, which opened in 2008 as the multiplayer online game arm of Rockville parent ZeniMax Media. "It's just that things happen in this industry."

But the shakeout reduced Baltimore County's sizable studios to three, all in or near Hunt Valley:

•ZeniMax Online, which is several years into a project based on the popular Elder Scrolls universe and employs hundreds — the company won't give an exact number.

•The approximately 100-employee Firaxis Games, perhaps best known for its Civilization series, whose co-founder Sid Meier helped launch the local game industry in the 1980s.

•BreakAway, a 40-person shop that focuses on instructional multiplayer products such as medical training and crisis management.

Less sizable but growing is the local operation of Wargaming.net, maker of the World of Tanks online game. Wargaming bought a local studio in January to enter the console-game market.

The company, which has its headquarters on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, employs about 15 in Hunt Valley and is expanding, said Denny Thorley, general manager of Wargaming's offices there and in Chicago.

And then there are the indies. A variety of small game-development startups have launched locally in the past few years — some full-time efforts, some evening-and-weekend labors of love.

Among them: Twofold Secret, a two-person shop whose fifth release will be a strategy game set in a summer camp "straight out of an '80s horror movie." There's also Discord Games, a four-man operation turning to funding website Kickstarter to raise money for its in-development computer game about a soldier trapped in a mining town. And there's Pure Bang Games in Highlandtown, whose nine full-time employees have found a market making social and mobile games for clients — including other game-makers.

Discord Games founder James Petruzzi lives in Owings Mills. The rest of the gang is elsewhere: Pennsylvania, Texas, Brazil. They make it work with Skype, the Internet call service. And they hire out on contract when necessary — their poster artist lives in New Zealand.

"It's just crazy to think we're working with people all over the world," said Petruzzi, who left a computer-programming job — not at a studio — to pursue his dream of game development in 2011.

Advances in technology are driving indie growth in other ways, too. While console games can run into the tens of millions of dollars to make, high-quality mobile games can be produced for tens of thousands, said Ben Walsh, head of the three-year-old Pure Bang Games.

"Mobile is an equalizer," said Walsh, whose company's My Pet Rock game on Facebook amassed 50,000 likes and attracted more than half a million players. "If your game can go viral, you can totally be successful on your own, just as a small team."

The downside to fewer jobs at larger, established studios is fewer jobs with health insurance and 401(k)s. Some of the developers laid off last month have left town — San Francisco-based Zynga relocated about half of its Timonium employees.

Gabriel Pendleton, president of BaltimoreGamer, a website for game developers and players, worries about a brain drain to San Francisco and other places that have more big-name studios.

But optimism seems to be in larger supply than anxiety.

"I know quite a few people who are still in limbo now, especially after the Zynga closing, but I don't hear from many of them a sense of unease about their future," said Marc Olano, director of the computer-science game development track at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "In fact, some of them are talking about, 'Well, maybe now is the time to start an indie game.' "

Don Goddard, CEO of indie game-maker UFO Studios, calls this the most tumultuous period in his 20 years in the industry. And he's jazzed about it. He thinks the market shifts are custom-made for small, nimble developers.

"It's a phenomenal time because it's the classic American thing, which is opportunity," said Goddard, based just north of Baltimore County in Stewartstown, Pa. "I think Maryland will actually double its quantity of quality game developers."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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