Reborn dot-bomb: Boxerjam Media's got game

In a large multi-desk office overlooking the Downtown Mall, four people stare intently at computer screens as their fingers fly across the keyboards. The room is silent except for the clatter of furious typing, punctuated by the occasional "Got it!" or "I'm still not done..."

This is the world of Boxerjam Media, where employees are weeding out glitches in a new set of online tournament puzzles by playing them over and over (and over). It may not seem like work, but as Boxerjam Media prepares to launch its latest pay-to-play enterprise into cyberspace, it's serious business.

The original Boxerjam was the competitive brainchild of Temple Fennell, Allen Cunningham, Julann Griffin (ex-wife of Jeopardy! creator Merv Griffin), and Griffin's sister, Maureen Roberts.

In 1995 the foursome convinced a young company called America On-Line to give their interactive gaming idea a go. A few years later, and Boxerjam was providing 80 percent of the content for AOL's wildly popular games channel.

But like so many dot-com booms, Boxerjam went bust in early 2001, its once 70-strong staff dwindling to zero. What happened?

"I think it was a combination of a lot of really ugly marketing factors," says Evan Cooper, vice president of operations for Boxerjam Media, who was hired by the original Boxerjam in 1999 and laid off in May 2001.

"Advertising was really drying up... We took a lot of venture capital on really quickly... It was really hard to grow in that environment."

Nevertheless, Richmond-based newspaper and broadcast behemoth Media General saw revenue potential in Boxerjam. As Media General's interest heated up, Boxerjam rehired Cooper in October 2001 to devise a scheme for how the formerly advertising-dependent game site might profit from its proven ability to attract devoted players.

Now, a year after Media General inked the deal for Boxerjam (adding "Media" to its name), Cooper and his lean team of six full-time employees and six contract workers are spearheading boxerjam.com's new three-pronged approach to generating revenue: 1) Skill-based games, in which competitors vie for a cumulative kitty. A player puts in a dollar, and 75 cents goes into the pot, 25 cents into Boxerjam's pocket; 2) Downloadable games, available for $19.95 each (no, they don't come with a set of ginsu knives); and 3) Puzzle subscriptions that allow solo play as well as participation in tournaments. Still in beta-testing, the puzzles are currently free, but eventually a subscription will run $3.95 a month or $24.95 a year.

Cooper estimates developing a game costs the company $10,000-20,000– but a successful one will recoup the outlay in three to four months.

"Distribution is a huge thing," Cooper says. "We're already on wireless phones, and we are very soon to be on interactive television." Plus Media General-owned newspapers syndicate print versions of three of Boxerjam's most popular online puzzles: Elvis=Lives, Flexicon, and Clink!

The company's games are "platform-agnostic," Cooper points out, hi-tech lingo for adaptable (Virgin Atlantic even offers in-flight gaming).

Back at the office, screen-name "lowrentslumlord," a.k.a. graphic designer Lawren Spera, has again made it to the finals of the Clink! Tournament. Suddenly, the "start" button for her last round begins to flicker. As she desperately clicks it, she's booted back to boxerjam.com's homepage. She sighs, realizing she's been DQ'd– gamer slang for "disqualified." Another day of beta-testing, another bug detected.

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