Feb. 17, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 12

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    Game boys: Blazing 'Pathways' into computer-game industry

    An open copy of John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration" sits next to the computer of Jason Jones, co-owner of Bungie Software Products Corporation. Jones has one eye on the clock -- he needs half an hour to get back to the University for his "Classics of Social and Political Thought" class, which means leaving his Pilsen office in an hour. Cool.

    Twenty-two-year-old Jones, a third-year College student, has grown accustomed to fitting into his schedule both classes in the College and work at Bungie Software, the company he and his 24-year-old partner, Alexander Seropian (S.B.'91), began two years ago. The pair develops, publishes and distributes Macintosh-compatible games that are, Seropian said, "not just on the cutting edge, but defining the cutting edge of games on the Mac."

    He's not kidding. Pathways Into Darkness, the role-playing adventure game Bungie Software released last August, won MacWorld magazine's Hall of Fame Award and MacWorld/Australia's Game of the Year award in 1993. MacUser magazine selected it as one of the 100 Best Software Products of the Year, and reviewers have praised Bungie for taking "another leap in technological wizardry" (Inside Mac Games); for beating the capabilities of "superb" PC games (MacHome Journal); and for introducing a game "so unique it deserves the center stage spotlight" (Strategy Plus).

    It's Pathway's three-dimensional graphics that have generated so much attention. Players find themselves facing monsters inside a detailed, texture-mapped, continuous-motion, vividly colored, sound-enhanced environment. As Jones describes it, it's virtual reality without the helmet and glove.

    "Pathways is a completely new product for the Macintosh," Jones said. "It's completely interactive. All you can think about when you're playing is how you're going to survive. It takes total immersion in the game."

    Jones conceived Pathways, wrote the story line, created some of the artwork, programmed the software and contributed to the manuals. "I'm responsible for getting the product into Alex's hands," Jones said. "I'm the force behind the design. Alex runs the business."

    Jones and Seropian met in 1991 after taking the class "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" taught by Kristian Hammond, Associate Professor in Computer Science. Seropian graduated from the College with a degree in mathematics that spring, and instead of accepting any job offers, he decided to start his own company. "It came down to job security or start a business," he said, letting the options tip the imaginary balance in his hands. "Job security, start a business. I figured 'Oh, what the hell, I'll start a business.'

    "Ever since high school I had wanted to start a computer software company, but you can't really sell software unless you have a product," Seropian continued. "After college, I wrote and packaged a game, but technology was growing faster than I could keep up with it. I'd heard Jason was pretty swift, and that he was already working on this game called Minotaur. So really I called him out of a need to find more product."

    Jones had been developing Minotaur for years, working on it with a group of friends who, like Jones, received their first computers while in the sixth grade. "The only good use of a computer that I can really think of is to write games," Jones kidded. "I'd started programming before high school and have been writing games the whole time." Minotaur, a traditional, two-dimensional game, is meant to be played on a network. "It's great in the dorms at U of C, which is where I finished it," Jones said. "I'd started it before I came to school, and then when I got here and had access to this huge network, I couldn't help finishing the networking part." "As soon as I saw Minotaur, I thought, 'Oh my God, that's so cool!' " Seropian recalled. "I hadn't seen anything like it. I thought Jason was really talented, and I told him I thought we should publish Minotaur.

    "But," Seropian teased, "Jason said, 'Oh, I don't know -- it's not really finished. I don't know if I'm going to have a chance to work on it that much. I kind of want to work on something else.' And I kept saying, 'What, are you kidding? Come on, let's just publish this!' "

    Seropian was persuasive. The two agreed that Jones would finish Minotaur, Seropian would market it, and then they would split the profits. The Bungie company was launched.

    Jones took time off school, finished Minotaur in the spring of 1992 and began work on Pathways shortly thereafter. By late summer 1993, Bungie had the game that is projected to generate seven-figure revenues in 1994.

    "Things are going great," Seropian said. "Pathways has just exploded in a huge way." The game is distributed through retail stores and mail-order catalogs in 15 countries, including Japan. Initial estimates of how many would sell have ended up being embarrassingly low. Bungie now uses six independent programmers and artists, and with six computers in tow, began renting office space in December. Seropian spends countless hours each month on the phone running the business, and Jones retains creative control of the games.

    Jones returned to classes as a part-time student last quarter. "U of C is a really cool school. I enjoy going here and I do want to get a degree -- maybe in history," he said. "But this isn't the sort of business where you can just take two years off to go to school. We'd get passed by. So I'll probably continue going to school part time."

    The company is currently focused on completing its third game, which Jones and Seropian introduced last month at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, despite the fact that the product is not yet finished and still has no name. "We just wanted to get people stoked," Seropian said. "The game will be released in May." The second installment of the two-part product -- for which Seropian is composing an original musical score -- is scheduled for release at year-end.

    Next on the horizon for Bungie will be expanding the product line. Jones is exploring new hardware and working with several other developers on new games, while Seropian travels the country making contacts.

    "We're definitely working hard enough," Jones said. "If things go according to plan, Bungie will really take off. We're hoping to kick butt in 1994. " -- Carmen Marti