No fun: Gamers take another hit
For more than two decades, starting with the 1981 founding of Kesmai, which is widely credited with being the first online game company in the world, Charlottesville has been a hotbed of computer game development. Now, the last such major company has been dealt a near-fatal blow by the very same corporation that spawned it.
And more than just the end of one company with a large workforce of creative people, the demise may signal the end of an era.
Two years ago, the future looked brighter. In 2001, Sony approached former Kesmai employee and online game development expert Lorin Jameson with a proposal.
"[They] told me if I could pull the people together, they would fund me," says Jameson.
After a few months of whirlwind recruiting, Jameson had assembled a team of five. Sony came through with a 20-month contract to create a game called Driving Force, in which players "drive around in well-armed cars," says Jameson. Like some other online games, Driving Force was considered a "massively multi-player game" because it allows hundreds, even thousands, of players around the world to interact online during play.
It never hit the screens. Just over a year into the contract, Sony put the breaks on Driving Force. But all was not lost for Lodestone. Sony requested assistance completing another game, Planetside, in which players align with one of three factions in a never-ending war.
Jameson says the possibilities of the new project softened the disappointment of losing Driving Force. "Sony promised us," he says, "a new game, a new contract after we finished off Planetside."
In anticipation of the new contract, Jameson added five employees. The contract– for a fantasy role-playing game similar to "Diablo," which Jameson describes as "one of the most popular [online] games in the world"– was inked this past March.
Though still unsure at that time of the long-term fate of his company– gaming contracts generally contain a clause allowing for cancellation at any time– Jameson says he was put at ease when Sony issued a worldwide press release announcing Lodestone's contract.
"I thought, 'Oh, good, finally,'" he recalls. "'Now I can tell they're serious.'"
His relief was short-lived.
"Within a month of that press release," he says, "they canceled." A Sony representative did not return The Hook's calls by press time.
Faced with a monthly payroll of approximately $100,000 for 15 employees many of whom had left other positions to join Lodestone Jameson says his options were limited. He shopped around, looking for a new contract, and even considered selling the company "to keep the team together." To no avail.
As of Friday, November 14, Jameson will be alone in his 4,000 square-foot offices at the corner of Ridge and Main streets. And Jameson (husband of Hook proofer Lynn Jameson) fears it's an omen about the future of online gaming in Charlottesville.
"It's the first time since the mid-'80s that there hasn't been a [gaming] company here with a substantial number of employees," says Jameson, citing Kesmai, which was eventually purchased by Electronic Arts (EA).
After a series of brutal layoffs in 2001, EA abandoned Virginia altogether and consolidated its operations in Austin and Los Angeles. Now, with the fall of Lodestone, Jameson fears that the local industry will not be able to recover.
"The likelihood of another game company forming here is pretty small," says Jameson. "Most of my guys will be leaving town."
Jeremy Dale, a 3-D artist at Lodestone, moved from California to Charlottesville in June to join the company. Less than six months later, he's out of a job. Surprisingly, he says he'd do it again.
"I don't regret it at all," he says. "I do regret that I bought a house instead of renting."
He says he's interviewing with companies in D.C. and in Massachusetts, but wouldn't rule out California or Texas, the country's biggest gaming meccas.
Dale wishes things had worked out differently. "I don't look forward to leaving," he says.
Not all of Lodestone's workforce plans to move, however.
Christian DeBaun, Lodestone's program manager, says he plans to stay in town, though he's not sure what he'll be doing. Losing Lodestone, he says, has been hard for the employees.
"This was the best gaming experience I've ever had," says DeBaun, "because of Lorin."
He also feels it's a loss for the city. "It's a shame for the Charlottesville community," he says. "Had we been successful," he adds, "we would have continued to draw people in from the community."
And he agrees with Jameson that this may signal the end of the gaming industry in Charlottesville. "We were just about the last high-tech entertainment firm in town," he says.
But not everyone sees Lodestone as Charlottesville's online game industry's last gasp.
When asked, "Is it the end?" Kesmai founder Kelton Flinn has a quick reply: "I hope not."
Flinn, who co-founded online game development business Castle Hill in October 2001, says, "We're poised on the brink of something," mentioning two potential contracts that are in the works.
But though Flinn has hope for the local industry, even he acknowledges it may never thrive the way it once did.
"It's not going to be like the glory days," he says, "at least not soon. But we're hoping to keep gaming going."
Jameson hasn't given up all hope either. Though he's downsizing the Lodestone space, going from the spacious 4,000 square feet of the current office to "closer to 200"square feet, he plans to keep the Lodestone name and run it as a one-man operation for the time being.
"I love it," he says of the work, "but I've had nothing but frustration. I haven't released a title in six years."
Working only for himself, he thinks, may provide a bit more security: "Chances are," he laughs, "I'm not going to cancel my own game."
Lorin Jameson's gunning for games.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO