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Firaxis' latest 'labor of love'

Sparks video game company today releases biggest title yet, hopes for blockbuster sales

By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

9:07 PM EDT, October 8, 2012

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For more than four years, a team of 40 or so people in Sparks secretly worked for this Tuesday.

In perhaps the biggest day in Firaxis Games' history, the design studio releases "XCOM: Enemy Unknown," a richly detailed and immersive video game that already has gotten rave reviews.

Firaxis and its parent company, 2K Games of Novato, Calif., need all the buzz they can get. Firaxis wouldn't say how much it spent developing the game, but large releases typically cost tens of millions of dollars. It's a calculated gamble that's commonplace in the video game industry, where companies pursue big-budget blockbuster hits in much the same way Hollywood bets on movies.

"You're talking about a big investment to reach a lot of people with a high end production product," said Steve Martin, Firaxis' president. "It's the biggest game Firaxis has ever produced. … It is a Herculean effort to make something this big."

Firaxis is part of a thriving Maryland video game industry that first took root in the 1980s. A state Department of Business and Economic Development report two years ago estimated the video game industry was part of a larger digital media sector in the state that had $5.5 billion in direct sales.

The video game industry grew for years, exceeding even movies in sales, but peaked in 2008 at $21.7 billion. Sales have slid since then. The recession may have bitten into sales, but analysts point to shifting consumer trends, as people increasingly download video games from the Internet as opposed to buying physical copies in retail stores.

Matt Matthews, a columnist for Gamasutra, an online magazine for the video game industry, said that with the rise of gaming on smartphone and tablets, consumers may be spreading their gaming budget around to multiple devices.

But it's difficult to get a clear picture of how sales flow in the industry since many games are sold now as digital downloads, and publicly released statistics don't clearly break down the revenue trends, he noted.

Firaxis is launching in a challenging environment, said Matthews, who writes about the business. "XCOM" will face intense competition soon. Video gamers anticipate a crush of holiday releases, including two expected blockbusters next month: "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" and "Halo 4."

"If you're a huge retail game, you have basically six weeks to make your money back," Matthews said. "And if you're product is not successful in those six weeks, it's exceedingly unlikely you will be after that. It's a very, very competitive market."

For many long-time PC gamers, "XCOM" is a familiar name. In the early 1990s, Microprose Software, one of Maryland's earliest video game companies, released the game, which was hailed widely as one of the best strategy games. It's about an elite, multinational military force called together to battle an alien invasion.

Firaxis has a long history of developing turn-based games, where gamers are expected to make thoughtful tactical and strategic decisions. The company was co-founded by Sid Meier, a living legend in the field of strategy games best known for his Civilization series. Meier is the creative director at Firaxis.

Firaxis's strategy games typically play differently than so-called first-person shooter games, where a player's perspective on the screen usually is shown while holding a weapon and moving through a field of play.

With "XCOM," Firaxis's parent company is investing in both game styles. While Firaxis developed "Enemy Unknown" as a turn-based strategy game, another 2K subsidiary is working on a first-person shooter version of the game, simply known as "XCOM." The company hasn't set a release date for that version.

Garth DeAngelis, Firaxis's lead producer on "Enemy Unkown," described the studio's effort on the game as a labor of love. Throughout the firm's office in Sparks, images of the game's muscular soldiers, futuristic weapons and creepy aliens hang on the walls.

A big part of the challenge, DeAngelis said, was being faithful to the original game, while updating the look and feel with modern graphics and gaming mechanics.

Artists, designers and engineers worked together for years to craft the game, he said. The company even has a professional cinematographer who helped frame the different views and perspectives in the game's realistic world, to give the player the look and feel of being immersed in a movie.

The game even revitalizes the concept of "perma-death," DeAngelis noted. Game players create and customize characters, who can develop their own unique abilities — but who also can die "permanent" deaths and never be brought back to life. The player then has to create a new character.

"Garth lost his mother in one of his games," joked Kelley Gilmore, a Firaxis executive producer and spokeswoman.

For now, the Firaxis team who developed the game are taking a much-deserved break. The company has another game in production, which Martin wouldn't talk about. The company's employees sign non-disclosure agreements, and Firaxis, like so many other video game makers, fiercely protects its games until they're ready for release.

"You're dealing with a highly creative hit-driven industry," Martin said. "These are long development cycles. You have to protect the ideas."

Beginning Tuesday, the game will be available in North America, Europe, Russia and Japan, making it the largest initial distribution ever for a Firaxis game. The game has been localized, or translated, into nine languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Polish.

"XCOM: Enemy Unknown" sells for $59.99 for the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation consoles and for PCs. Consumers can also download it for $49.99 directly to their PCs through Steampowered.com, a digital marketplace for video games.

Whether Firaxis reignites the popular "XCOM" franchise remains to be seen, but the early reviews are good.

"If you were once an "XCOM" fan, buy this game. If you like strategy games — particularly turn-based ones — buy this game," wrote Nate Ralph in a review for PCWorld.com. "In fact I'd be hard pressed to think of a reason to steer clear, though I'm admittedly smitten by titles that can combine complexity and fun so well."

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