Information Processing: SOFTWARE
KILLER INSTINCT FOR HIRE
In the massive Nintendo booth at the bustling Los Angeles Electronic Entertainment Expo, "Killer Instinct" is the order of the day. Booth attendants pass out pewter pins and temporary tattoos with the logo for the violent new video game. Blondes in figure-hugging costumes pose for pictures with well-muscled hunks in "KI" fighting garb. Easily overlooked amid all the hullabaloo are two shy and softspoken Englishmen, the creators of Killer Instinct: Christopher Stamper, 36, and brother Timothy, 34, of Rare Ltd.
The Stamper brothers are on hand because they are now central characters in a new game that Nintendo Co. is playing. The No.1 producer of video game players badly needs hot new software to keep the lead in the next generation of hardware. So in April, Nintendo plunked down an estimated $39.5 million for a 25% stake in Rare--its first investment in a video game developer outside of Japan. Nintendo is hoping that the Stampers can come up with another hit on the order of its Donkey Kong Country, a runaway bestseller last Christmas. With over 7.4 million copies sold, DKC has racked up revenues of $450 million for Nintendo, which makes and sells the game cartridges. Rare has netted some $32 million in royalties.
"FELL IN LOVE." Not bad, considering Rare's simple beginnings. In 1981, Chris Stamper, halfway to a degree in electronics and physics, said farewell to Loughborough University of Technology in Leicestershire. He was spending more and more time in the computer lab and decided to "jack it in" and pursue computer programming on his own. He started on a computer that he made with an 8-bit processor while at the university. "The weather in the UK is not always ideal to be out in," said Chris. "The computer can sometimes be like a friend. I fell in love." He soon persuaded brothers Tim and Stephen, now 31, to join him.
They launched a company, Ultimate Play the Game, in the cramped four-room row house next door to their parents' corner news shop. First, they developed games for the home computers then sweeping Britain--Sinclair ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s. But there was no way to keep people from pirating their work, so they gravitated to cartridge-based video games, which can't be easily copied. The change in tactics also led to an identity change. The name Rare was chosen the same way they decide upon titles for games: sitting down with a thesaurus until they hit on something that sounds good.
When Chris first asked Nintendo for the programming codes needed to write Nintendo games, the Japanese giant turned him away. At the time--1983--the company was riding high on titles produced in-house such as the original Mario Bros. Undeterred, Stamper spent six months cracking the Nintendo code. At his next meeting with Nintendo, he arrived carrying a skiing game called Slalom under his arm. This time his reception was decidedly warmer. Nintendo bought the game for an undisclosed amount and went on to sell about 500,000 units.
In the intervening years, Rare has created over 60 games, including R.C. Pro-Am Racing and Cobra Triangle, for the Nintendo system as well as titles for other game platforms. Today, Rare employs 84 people and is headquartered in a dilapidated 280-year-old farmhouse in Twycross, Warwickshire, 20 miles northeast of Birmingham. The brothers renovated the rustic office room by room as they needed the space to park progammers and their Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations. The enterprise remains very much a family business, employing six additional members of the extended family and assorted university friends.
HIGH-END HEADACHES. Although the Stamper brothers now sit atop a company valued at approximately $158 million, they remain focused on their mission. Tim, the managing director, still works on a team as a graphic designer and created several of the backgrounds for Donkey Kong Country. Youngest brother Stephen, described as "the quiet one," is director of operations and oversees the more practical issues of the company. His current chore: Planning a new headquarters. Chris, chairman and technical director, still writes code and is currently working on a hush-hush project for 1996.
The brothers almost never give interviews and live a pretty low-profile life. Tim is married to Carole, Rare's financial director, and Chris recently became engaged. An admitted workaholic, Rare's top man says that the brothers will continue to put in 15-hour days. "We feel that a 9-to-5 work ethic produces a 9-to-5-type of game," says the senior Stamper.
The Nintendo deal is certain to bring big changes for Rare. For starters, the company is about to triple to about 250 employees so it can come up with the complex programming for the next generation of games. There's a rush to produce a blockbuster for Nintendo because the competition is gaining: No.2 game maker Sega of America Inc., which has 46.5% of the 16-bit market, compared with Nintendo's 52.5% share, has already introduced its next-generation player, called Saturn. And Sony Corp. has plunged into the video game arena with the new Sony PlayStation, a high-end CD-ROM-based system. Nintendo has disclosed that it will not be able to produce its long-awaited Ultra-64 system until next spring, missing the vital Christmas selling season, when 70% of all video game machines are bought.
Nintendo can make up for a late start if Rare is able to come through. "It's going to take some time to fully exploit the Ultra 64 hardware capabilities," says Howard C. Lincoln, chairman of Nintendo of America Inc. "I'm sure these talented people are the ones to do it," he says.
Nintendo isn't the only one to have discovered top-flight software developers in Britain. According to London-based Durlacher & Co., fully 40% of the world's video games are written in Britain. And in the past two years, half of Britain's game-software companies have been acquired by or forged deals with major hardware makers and publishers. "The giants have now recognized the value of the developers," says Durlacher analyst Geoffrey Chamberlain. Indeed, with the potential to crank out crowd-pleasers such as Donkey Kong Country, game developers are being treated like rock stars. Tim Steer, an analyst at Smith New Court Securities Ltd., has even labeled the Stamper brothers the "new Beatles." If that's so, then Nintendo may have just given them their ticket to ride.By Heidi Dawley in London with Paul M. Eng in Los Angeles