By Christopher Spencer
Several burgers on the grill, once pink and full of mouth-watering potential, are quickly charring into small black discs.
“I think they are done,” Ron Toland observes, concern in his voice as he points out one meat patty teetering on the edge of thermal oblivion.
Toland is Brainstem Games’ story writer and his warning to Dustin Hector, the company’s creative art lead and resident grillmaster on this Saturday in May, comes across less as criticism and more as concerned co-creator in the day’s lunch.
The men are cooking for the company’s volunteer playtesters, nine hungry young men who’ve traveled to a lakeside hamlet called Holiday Island to get their hands on the sci-fi shooter “Obscura Nomen” (Latin for “Hidden Name”), Brainstem Games’ inaugural video game.
Investors want the game to launch this fall, and the success of “Obscura Nomen” is likely to determine the fate of Brainstem Games, possibly Arkansas’ only independent video game studio.
Lunch is not the most pressing thing on the men’s minds.
“We’ll be here every Saturday until this thing is finished,” Toland says.
‘A Golden Age For Indie Developers’
Brainstem Games was founded in May 2007 when a wealthy man who once ran a successful security company, Marty Roenigk of Eureka Springs, and who now owns the historic Crescent and Basin Park hotels, went into business with a blacksmith from New York City named Patrick Wilkinson.
The men had a common interest in gaming and Wilkinson is a fan of MMORPGs, massively-multiplayer online role-playing games, that let thousands of people interact at once via the Internet.
Wilkinson’s gaming pedigree goes back to the days of Commodore 64. He ran a successful custom metal-working business in New York City, and confesses he was a closet geek, who spent much of his spare time enjoying video games.
But enjoying video games and creating them are two different things. Wilkinson said he always knew he would one day create games, he just wanted to wait for the right time.
“Once computers got up to speed, and up to a mass market, I knew I would find myself behind a screen,” he said.
So he moved to Eureka Springs to go into business with Roenigk around Easter 2007. Over the next few months, he assembled a team of seven employees to create Brainstem Games who all moved here from outside Arkansas.
“I’m a New York City native, so relocating to Eureka Springs you would think would be a culture shock for me. This place is not what I expected … it’s kind of a land-locked San Francisco,” he said.
Wilkinson is now the company’s chief of operations and it’s his task to create a gaming hit that could make Brainstem Games the next Valve Corporation, creators of the famed Half-Life series.
There’ve been some bumps along the way.
The company’s initial goal of creating a MMORPG that could host thousands of players in a fictional universe, akin to World of Warcraft or Eve Online, was shelved as too ambitious. Plans to offer a virtual facsimile of Eureka Springs’ popular shopping district on Second Life, where real items could be bought and viewed by Internet shoppers was also put on hold.
“All of those projects are still on the shelf. They are possible,” said Wilkinson. “We have to take a bite we can chew.”
Obscura Nomen is that bite.
A nondisclosure agreement prevents playtesters and those near the game from spilling all the details, but the game is a first-person space shooter that can support up to 32 players as they fire at one another from spaceships and engage in dogfights around floating terrain.
“It’s like ‘Counterstrike’ in space,” he said.
The game is being developed simultaneously for PC, Macintosh and Linux — no small feat getting the different computer platforms to talk to one another — making it a first for any space shooter, Wilkinson said.
Toland is responsible for the storyline and he explains that Obscura Nomen is meant to be a game with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
“We wanted to take the tropes of space opera and have fun with them,” Toland said.
Players choose between two factions, the horse-like Mhori and the cat-like Mentki. The two races are at war because of some garbled television signals they received from Earth, showing hairless chimps apparently riding the Mhori and seemingly worshipping the Mentki.
Players can use the company’s server for free to set up competitive games with their friends. Brainstem Games will make periodic updates available for the game for free and new content, such as new ships or a character class, available for a fee over the Internet.
The game is going to be sold entirely over the Internet, said Wilkinson.
Controlling distribution of the game rather than relying on big publishers like EA Games is key. The Internet lets a small gaming studio reach out directly to the customer without a middle-man, he said.
“This is a Golden Age for Indie Developers,” Wilkinson said. “People are looking to indie companies because they take bigger risks.”
The hope is that a strong community will develop around Obscura Nomen, complete with tournaments and teams.
Wilkinson is a founding member of Lords of Clan Tribes, an online community dedicated to gaming and he hopes to bring the skills he honed forming that group to bear on developing the new game as a social portal.
“Our target is community, creating communities is very important to us,” Wilkinson said.
No Free Lunch
The playtester’s were told to arrive about 2 p.m. at Brainstem Games’ two-story headquarters. Two and a half hours later, after burgers and some head-to-head rounds of Halo 3, the game still had not been unveiled.
Wilkinson is in the company’s testing room, pitching the game to nine young men gathered at long wooden tables near a computer screen.
“We are looking for a core-gamer audience, not those who play ‘Slingo’ or card games online,” Wilkinson tells the group.
He explains that the staff want criticism of the game so they can make it better.
Jared Vanzant, 17, of Golden, Mo., picked up some of his friends in Cass, Mo., so they could all make the trip to Brainstem Games’ playtesting.
Vanzant said he’s typically a XBox 360 gamer whose been enjoying visits to Liberty City in “Grand Theft Auto IV,” but came because he wanted to participate in the creation of a game so close to his home.
Dustin Brite, 25, of Farmington also attended the playtesting. Brite said he is a big fan of Counterstrike and Lineage and wants to try out Obscura Nomen once its ready.
Mila Flora, a teacher at Eureka Springs East Labs, also attended the playtesting, though not as a potential gamer. She spoke with Wilkinson about the possibility he or his staff could come visit the nonprofit school that focuses on students using technology.
“It’s an opportunity to learn from life,” she said.
Both Flora and Wilkinson agreed to try to make it happen, hopefully collaborating after the game’s release on a comic strip authored by the students and set in the Obscura Nomen universe.
One of Flora’s students is here to game. Alex Martin, 16, of Holiday lsland said he was really surprised to know game development was happening in his town.
“I was not expecting this to be here,” he said. “Doing this you can really see how this industry works.”
The playtesters eventually got their hands on an early version of the game, Wilkinson said later. During next Saturday’s playtesting, 14 playtesters were able to experiment with the game for several hours.
Progress is being made and kinks are being worked out in “Obscura Nomen’s” programming, he said. The playtesting will hopefully lead to a hit once the game is released, he said.
But a hit for Brainstem Games, a small, independent gaming studio, is relative. Wilkinson said the company is not competing with major game releases and doesn’t expect the sales numbers of a large gaming company.
“For a large developer, it’s small, but for an indie start up like us, it’s huge,” he said.
Sequels are already being discussed. The staff is already banking on the financial success of Obscura Nomen.
Failure is not an option, Wilkinson said.
By Christopher Spencer