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Fun & Games

The rain is falling at Miami's Pro Player Stadium, and the Dolphins and New York Jets are scoreless. With the first quarter ticking down, New York's quarterback floats a long pass over the outstretched arms of Dolphins All-Pro defender Patrick Surtain and into the hands of Santana Moss.

"Touchdown!" screams Twe Hopkins, jumping from his Herman Miller Aeron office chair, fist pumping.

A co-worker, stubble-faced Tim Spangler, a bit rumpled in jeans and T-shirt, is not impressed. " 'Bout time," he shrugs, fingering a game controller that freezes the action on a projection screen rising above a V-shaped conference table. "Now let me show you how it's done."Test-run fun: Josh Looman, assistant producer (left), and Tim Spangler, graphic user interface designer, work on the latest games at the EA-Tiburon campus in Orlando.

Just another day at the office at Electronic Arts-Tiburon, the Orlando design and development studio of Redwood City, Calif.-based video game giant Electronic Arts and maker of the wildly successful Madden NFL game series. Total units sold since 1999: 26 million. "No, we don't play video games all day long," says a grinning Hopkins. "But we do have a lot of fun."

EA-Tiburon is ground zero for Florida's budding video game sector. Hopkins and Spangler are two of about 420 mostly young, overwhelmingly male, self-proclaimed video game freaks who've landed a job with the industry's leading player. EA boasted nearly $3 billion in revenue last year, much of it through sales of EA-Tiburon's Madden NFL, NCAA Football and NASCAR Racing games for various platforms, including PlayStation, Xbox and GameCube. EA recently announced a major expansion of its Orlando studio, adding 200 employees by May 2006.

Florida is still a blip on the nation's video game industry map, but EA-Tiburon's presence is spawning upstarts across the state while infecting economic development officials with a bad case of the-next-big-thing disease. "I believe we're on the verge of becoming a major center for video game production," says Randy Berridge, president of the Orlando-based Florida High Tech Corridor Council. "This is a natural place for it."

"Lots of cool stuff in game development is happening in Florida right now," says 34-year-old Steve Chiang, co-founder of EA-Tiburon. "We want to see ourselves as Apple Computer did in the '80s."

The stakes are high. U.S. video game sales increased 4% in 2004 to $7.3 billion, doubling in eight years. By comparison, U.S. movie ticket sales last year totaled $9.4 billion. Analysts expect the market to grow as products become increasingly sophisticated and as the population ages, bringing more game enthusiasts, or "gamers," into the market.

The growing popularity has had an obvious impact on EA: Its stock price has tripled in five years.

High-tech frat house
In his modest office at EA-Tiburon's campus-style headquarters, company co-founder Steve Chiang nods at the prospect of a Florida gaming hub. A 2-foot-tall Lego figurine wearing an EA baseball cap overlooks his desk. A miniature R2-D2 Star Wars robot and other toys line his bookshelves. "Lots of cool stuff is happening in game development in Florida right now," he says.

Who plays video games? Half of all Americans ages 6 and older do, according to a recent national survey commissioned by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.The average age of game players, known as gamers, is 30. More than one-third are over 35. Male gamers outnumber females 61% to 39%, but the gap is narrowing.Players average about 7.5 hours of gaming per week.Video games are played on
a variety of hardware devices, known in the industry as platforms. Among the better known are Xbox, PlayStation and Game Boy. Most programs also can be played on personal computers.Online gaming -- using PCs or game consoles -- is the industry's fastest-growing segment, with 43% of frequent game players saying they play online, up from 31% in 2002.

Clad in jeans, sandals and polo shirt, Chiang, 34, looks and acts the part of the whiz-kid computer geek who spins silicon into gold. A decade ago, the Iowa native quit his job at a game development firm in San Francisco and moved here to strike out on his own. Why central Florida? "When you're making $30k a year and a condo costs a hundred grand," he explains, "you need to start looking for someplace else to live."

The company, Tiburon, had three employees and 900 square feet of office space but carved a niche writing programs for large gaming companies like EA. In 1998, EA acquired Tiburon, showering Chiang with both wealth and the responsibility of growing the company into a major production studio. Today, the company's 130,000-sq.-ft. headquarters conjures a high-tech frat house: Sports memorabilia decorate the walls; pods of young males clad in baseball caps and basketball sneakers huddle around computer screens.

"We want to see ourselves as Apple Computer did in the '80s -- a place where the most creative, most imaginative people came to work hard but also to have fun," says Chiang, who says he unwinds most evenings playing video games for a couple of hours. His current favorite: Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft.

Chiang's passion for gaming is not unusual. Companies target workers with technical or artistic skills as well as a love of video games. And if you don't play, don't apply. "There's definitely a certain worker profile," says Marc Mencher, president of GameRecruiter.com, a Fort Lauderdale headhunting firm that specializes in the gaming industry. "These are the creative types -- the odd guy in high school who was always doodling in his notebook. The freaks, the eggheads. They're still eggheads, but now they're making lots and lots of money."

According to Game Developer Magazine's 2004 salary survey, video game programmers nationally are earning close to $50,000 to start and often more than $100,000 after six years. Video game artists make about 10% less. But that's just salary, says Mencher. Most employees also receive bonuses, royalties or both, which can easily double their income.

'Nobody left to hire'
Despite the attractive salaries, Florida is not producing enough skilled workers. EA-Tiburon imports about half of its people from out of state, a figure that discourages companies from moving here. "Incentives are important, but the workforce is the key to it all," says Suzy Allen, managing director of the Metro Orlando Film and Entertainment Commission.

Across town in a conference room at the Expo Centre in downtown Orlando, Ben Noel ponders the problem. "You can't expect someone to open a design studio here if there's nobody left to hire," he says. "We've hired them all."

Noel, tall and lean, is a former EA-Tiburon executive who now heads the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a graduate-level program in video game design affiliated with the University of Central Florida's School of Film and Digital Media. The program, to be housed at the Expo Centre, will enroll its first students this fall thanks to a $3.2-million startup grant and $1 million annually from the state Legislature.

Noel, 40, a fast-talking game industry veteran, calls gaming a "gypsy business" that follows the talent. "If we do things right, central Florida can be one of the world's top 10 digital media powerhouses." Part of the reason, Noel insists, is the region's well-established modeling and simulation industry that includes such firms as Lockheed Martin, AT&T Government Solutions, Science Applications International Corp. and other defense contractors that develop computer-aided systems for weapons and battlefield training. Video game designers use the same technologies. Overlaying both industries, he adds, is Florida's deeply rooted entertainment culture.

Coming together
Last January, Orlando played host to the three-day G.A.M.E.S. Synergy Summit that brought together industry leaders from the simulation, entertainment and video game industries. G.A.M.E.S. is an acronym for Government, Academia, Military, Entertainment and Simulation. The summit goal, says Tom Buscaglia, a Miami attorney whose industry support group, Games-Florida, helped organize the event, was to "get guys who wear T-shirts and flip-flops to sit down with guys who wear suits and ties."

But making those connections is only part of the challenge. Much of the summit focused on removing the financial barriers to growing the state's gaming industry. Buscaglia, whose law firm represents a number of gaming companies and professionals, says production costs for today's most sophisticated video games can run between $10 million and $20 million. Marketing costs can equal that.

Large publishers, like EA, typically bankroll the projects of promising independent studios, but with production costs skyrocketing, publishers are backing away from that role, leaving the financing to venture capitalists and other private investors who shy away from unknown talent. "The risks are high, so venture capitalists will stick with who they know, what has proven to sell. Being innovative and original can scare off investors," Buscaglia laments.

Like many other industry insiders, Buscaglia challenges state and local economic development groups to put their money where their mouths are, providing seed grants to startup gaming studios. "That's how they do it in the U.K., in Canada," argues Dustin Clingman, a professor at Winter Park's highly regarded Full Sail, which offers degree programs in video game design and development.

Clingman is also a partner in Zeitgeist Games, a three-person studio in the Orlando suburb of Oviedo that develops both electronic and non-electronic gaming products. Clingman says he bucked the trend, and the odds, by getting his 3-year-old company off the ground with personal savings and a small amount of private backing. Zeitgeist turned its first profit last year.

Clingman likens central Florida's gaming industry to Silicon Valley a generation ago: Lots of geeks, lots of dreams, lots of potential, little money. Many of them, he says, are working alone in their spare time, simply for the love of gaming. "These are people who typically are very bright, passionate about what they do and are willing to work very long hours. That's the kind of talent to invest in."

'An awful lot to offer'
Indeed, back at EA-Tiburon, Chiang is bullish on central Florida. "Obviously with the kind of investment we're making here, we think this area has an awful lot to offer in the long term."

"If we do things right, central Florida can be one of the world's top 10 digital media powerhouses," says Ben Noel, head of the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy and a former EA-Tiburon executive.

Later this summer, the company will release the newest version of its blockbuster video game, Madden NFL 2006, which is now in testing. Expect a few new features. Chiang declined to say more, other than an improved 3-D appearance of the players and stadiums. "Little details," he explains. "Getting the light that reflects off the skin to look and feel natural."

Those little details require lots of work. Facial features, for example, are mapped using laser scans of star football players. Movements are re-created with the help of stunt men who run, jump and tackle with sensors attached to their bodies. A former University of Florida backup quarterback, Larry Richart, is on staff to advise on play calling. Bringing it all together on a video screen requires teams of 50 or 60 workers -- programmers, artists and game designers -- and literally millions of lines of code. Each of those little details is a mind-numbing task. Getting the raindrops to splash off the football during that thunderstorm in Miami, for example, might require a thousand lines of code and up to a week for one programmer to write.

At 29, Spangler is an EA-Tiburon old-timer. "I've been here five and half years, but I'm still amazed at some of the stuff we do. It's like 'wow!' " says Spangler, shaking his head as the Dolphins line up for a third-and-long against the Jets.

Brainstorming on Madden NFL 2007 is already under way.