You would expect that a video game development company would be a fun place to work. But it’s surprising to see some of the 150 employees playing board games as well as video games – and ping-pong, Foosball, basketball and volleyball.
The board games provide important information about strategic management in gaming, and the rest – well, they’re just part of Firaxis Games’ company culture, one that encourages innovation, creativity and flexibility. Company breakfasts and lunches and “Beer Friday” bring employees together in a large room known as the “Fun Zone.” And, since game designers don’t work in a 9-to-5 manner, flexible schedules and family dropping by are encouraged.
Firaxis – the name is a combination of fiery and axis – was co-founded by legendary game developer Sid Meier in 1996 and is still best known for its Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise. It’s also the developer of the immensely popular XCOM games, XCOM Enemy Within and XCOM Enemy Unknown. Other offerings range from Sid Meier’s Sim Golf to Ace Patrol, Pacific Skies and released at the end of 2014, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, a new chapter in the series taking Civilization into space.
The Civilization franchise alone has sold more than 25 million units, says marketing manager Pete Murray. Steve Martin, president and studio head, explains that Meier was a founder of the Hunt Valley company called MicroProse, which created flight simulators, a leading genre in video games at the time.
“Sid Meier has influenced an entire generation of game developers,” says Fronda Cohen, a spokesperson for the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
Meier then left MicroProse to co-found Firaxis, at the time an independent development studio that became recognized as a leading strategy game creator. In 2010 Firaxis was bought and is now a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.
“We still do all the design, art, sound, coding, interface and testing,” Martin says. “Our publisher, 2K does our marketing and sales. It’s a great partnership for us allowing us to do what we do best.” In fact in 2012, “Game Informer” magazine named Firaxis the World’s No. 1 Developer of the Year.
The work requires highly skilled creative and technical teams. At the company’s Hunt Valley headquarters, the design of the workspace encourages teamwork. Initially, Martin says, engineers and artists were jack-of-all-trades, but as the industry has grown, so, too, has the specialization within those jobs. An artist might be a modeler, an animator or a concept artist. The “sound guys” might include a composer who writes music or someone who creates different sounds. This specialization requires office space that allows creative employees to work independently but enables them to come together easily either in group office settings, small conference rooms or just open areas designed to accommodate collaboration and cross discipline work.
“From a creative side, there’s quite an array of disciplines and specialties, and that’s on the engineering side as well,” Martin says. Creating relationships with area colleges and universities encourages a steady supply of qualified employees that can fill these needs.
Hunt Valley – in part because of the success of first MicroProse, which spawned a number of companies, and then Firaxis – has been a hotbed for the video game industry. Montgomery County is another area of the state capitalizing on the development of digital entertainment.
“It’s a young industry as far as industries go, but it already has gone through cycles in the ways people get information – right now, the hot platform is mobile,” says Fronda Cohen, a spokesperson for the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development.
A May 2010 report prepared by the Sage Policy Group for the state Department of Business and Economic Development examined the size, scope and impact of Maryland’s digital industry. The report noted the tremendous national growth of video games: “In 1996, the U.S. entertainment software industry accounted for 74.1 million units sold and $2.6 billion in sales revenue. By 2007, computer and video game companies sold 267.8 million units generating $9.5 billion in revenue.”
The report found that digital media – defined as media that can be delivered electronically and including e-commerce; electronic games played online, social websites, mobile devices, or video game consoles; Internet publishing of books, music and videos; mobile communication including cell phones and GPS navigation; online education; video conferencing; accessing film, television and videos on the Internet; and web design and development – is a $5.5 billion industry directly employing 32,167, and one that in 2008 contributed more than $1 billion to state and local government coffers in Maryland.
The report also noted promising interactions between the video game industry and health care and the military. Nintendo’s Wii has been used in physical therapy, and Xbox controllers have been modified to use with drones.
“MICA is an incredible art resource for us,” Martin says, also citing UMBC and Johns Hopkins as strong local resources for engineering and programming. But as the competition for these future employees grows, the company is focusing its recruiting efforts on schools in Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as mentoring junior employees.
As gaming continues to grow, so, too, does the need for employees who can conceive of and develop games.
“Everybody is looking for the same people – that’s what’s hard,” Martin says. “And it’s not just for the game industry; Google and Westinghouse are all looking for the same people on the engineering side.”
Because game developers work unstructured hours, often staying until the job is done, flexibility is necessary and families are welcomed.
“We have really great and talented people who work here,” Murray says. “They’re smart and funny and dedicated – it’s an amazing industry to work in.”
“There’s a continuing evolution of games,” Martin says.
But those who were the first to load Civilization onto their early-generation PCs are still actively interested in gaming.
“The young audience who first embraced games never stopped playing them,” Martin says. “They may be 30, 40 or 50 years old and still looking to play those games.” But he knows those older players have more demands on their time, so the company develops game experiences “that can be played in shorter, digestible sessions … you can play for 30 minutes and then pause the game and come back when you have time – that is the beauty of turn-based strategy although we do know that some people still play for days at a time ‘taking just one more turn’ – a popular phrase for Firaxis gamers. We try to accommodate the changing demands and needs of our fans.”
A gaming experience today includes multiple platforms, too, such as Wii, Xbox, tablets and smartphones, which have become huge gaming platforms. Company members also play games, streaming them live online, and have found a surprisingly large community of gamers who just like to watch the experts play. Board games remain a strong contender and often complement video games; XCOM is available in a beta version of a board game and board game versions of Civilization are also available.
“The core of our success is to always provide strategy games on the personal computer,” Martin says. “That’s still one of our strengths and digital distribution allows us to deliver our fans more content and they can create and share content among the community as well, so it’s pretty exciting. We also deliver strategy games on the iOS, mobile devices and other platforms. Essentially if the game and the experience fit on the device we will develop for it.
While Martin doesn’t believe it’s necessary to have every game available on every platform, he does need to ensure that no matter the platform “it will be a fun game experience.”
What’s next for the industry?
“As developers we’ll keep focusing on design innovations and providing our fans with the best strategy game experience whether they are playing on their PC, in their living room or using a mobile device, but there are a few technologies that have a lot of people excited.”
The Occulus Rift, a head-mounted display that would allow the viewers to play games in 3-D, is garnering lots of attention. Technology that would allow games to be projected onto any surface – walls, desks and floors – also promises exciting developments.
But wherever Firaxis customers play games, Martin says, “The special sauce in our games is game play that offers a series of interesting decisions and choices and one that rewards players early along with the opportunity to try again and again with a new strategy or path to success. What makes the games really fun is the opportunity for players to accomplish something that you most likely could not do in real life – like rule a great civilization, defeat an alien onslaught or command a fleet of starships – that is what we try to create for our players in the game experience.” I95