A screen shot from DomiNations
A screen shot from DomiNations (Baltimore Sun)

If Sid Meier's "Civilization" is among the forefathers of Baltimore County's video game industry, it can add two more descendants to its family tree.

Meier's Firaxis Games released the latest chapter in its series of strategy games, "Civilization: Beyond Earth," on Oct. 24. This time, the franchise takes players to new planets, instead of through Earth's history, to build societies.

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Three days later, a team of local industry veterans announced "DomiNations", a "Civilization"-esque game under the banner of a familiar name in Baltimore County — Big Huge Games. Instead of the traditional PC or console platform, it brings the genre to the growing pool of smartphone and tablet users.

Both announcements are signs of an alive-and-kicking game industry here, though several years of upheaval and turnover have subtracted a few players. The studios of game makers including Zynga, Impossible Studios and even Big Huge Games have closed since 2012. But as in the past, those in the region's experienced workforce who remained didn't sit idle for long.

"People they left behind were free for the hiring," said Brian Reynolds, who left the Timonium studio that was dubbed Zynga East shortly before it closed in February 2013.

He and partner Tim Train quickly gathered two dozen of the new free agents and got to work on what would become "DomiNations." The team eventually inherited not only some cast-off workers but the name of the studio he and Train helped found more than a decade earlier. The Big Huge Games moniker was among the computers, chairs and intellectual property auctioned off after its owner, former Orioles and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, closed in 2012.

Big Huge and Firaxis took contrasting paths toward their new titles.

The "Civilization" brand dates to the early 1990s with game company MicroProse, before Meier and Reynolds left to launch Firaxis, which resumed the series in the 2000s. Sparks-based Firaxis has developed about a dozen iterations of the series since — several in the past two years — along with other games outside the series.

Lead game designers Will Miller and David McDonough said the genesis of "Beyond Earth" stemmed from a desire to go back to the future. The company hadn't looked into the future since Meier and Reynolds developed "Alpha Centauri" in 1999, but it frequently heard from fans who wanted a new chapter to return to space.

"We really saw this as an opportunity to try a new thing — to invigorate a series with a new point of view," McDonough said.

It was that concept that drove the game's design rather than a desire to release on any given platform, said Steve Martin, the studio's president. It is available for PCs, where the company finds the widest audience of gamers and, more importantly, where the design of the game made the most sense, he said.

For Big Huge Games, on the other hand, the industry flux pushed Reynolds, Train and colleagues to design their game for mobile, where gaming companies are tapping the growing audience that carries miniature computers in pockets and purses everywhere and plays in spare moments.

When Zynga, best known for the once-ubiquitous Facebook game "Farmville," closed its East Coast headquarters in Timonium, a group of veteran designers saw an opportunity to band together. Reynolds began looking for investors to slowly build something new, but when he came across the Los Angeles-based mobile games branch of the South Korean company Nexon at a West Coast gaming conference a month or two later, the process sprinted forward.

Nexon was looking for a U.S. partner to develop a "free-to-play" mobile game, a category that gives free access to start a game, but then charges for add-ons or advanced levels. With a host of game designers fresh off of "Farmville" spinoff "Frontierville," Reynolds said his team could take on the project.

"In some ways, that created a little more pressure to figure out how to take the opportunity," Reynolds said. "I had to maybe move faster than I was thinking I was going to have to."

In a little over a year, the group developed "DomiNations," which is set for a 2015 worldwide release after tests in select countries.

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Despite the activity, the local industry appears to be significantly smaller than it once was. A 2010 state report estimated that about 32,000 people were employed in the digital media industry, including custom computer programming services, software publishing and game development. Baltimore County and state economic development officials said they didn't have updated figures.

But amid the upheaval, many jobs were lost or moved. When Zynga closed, some employees were transferred to San Francisco, while others landed at what is now Big Huge Games. But layoffs numbered in the dozens when Impossible Studios closed in February 2013, and more than 100 when the previous iteration of Big Huge Games shut down in 2012.

"The number of companies has gone down, but the size of the companies that have stayed has increased," said Ben Walsh, CEO of Pure Bang Games in Baltimore. His company employs 10 people, but finding senior designers and programmers is hard because many experienced game developers moved away when studios closed, he said.

Anirban Basu, whose economic consulting agency, Sage Policy Group, wrote the state report, said boom-and-bust cycles are to be expected, given that studios typically stake their success on a few titles and hope for a hit.

"There has been a lot of upheaval, but that's the nature of the industry," he said. "These are often really poorly diversified companies."

As Firaxis maintains its key franchises and Reynolds and Train work to rebuild the Big Huge Games name, other studios are still at work along the Interstate 83 corridor — including ZeniMax Media, a Rockville-based studio with a Hunt Valley office that owns titles including "The Elder Scrolls" and "Fallout," and smaller houses like Pure Bang Games, Oxide Games and Mindgrub Games in the city and county.

For those who stick around and step out on their own, it's an easier path than it once was, said Marc Olano, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who directs its computer science game development program. Though game studios operate at the whims of their publishers, which contributes to much of the instability, the advent of mobile games and marketplaces like Apple's App Store and Google's Android Marketplace means a relationship with a large game publisher isn't necessary to reach gamers, he said.

Firaxis' Martin said the more games local companies can create, the more attention is drawn to the region, and the better it is for all of them — so long as there are enough designers to go around.

"We are always encouraged by the growth not just of ourselves but of every company around here, and we definitely cheer for the success of every product," he said. "The challenge is finding the best talent, and that's where the competition really is."

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