Demons over Dallas

It's the gaming office to end all gaming offices, a space filled with monsters and other creatures of the night. Some of those creatures - game designers - all but live there. In fact, At Ion Storm, work is a game.

High atop Dallas's chase tower, on the highest floor of the city's third-highest skyscraper, in that time of night when pitch-black begins to fade imperceptibly into light, there lurk hundreds of flesh-eating demons and weapon-wielding monsters.

No, this isn't a sequel to The X-Files movie. It's the office suite of Ion Storm, a hot computer-gaming company founded in 1996 by five men, four of them alumni of two other hot gaming companies: id Software, the creator of Doom and Quake; and 7th Level Inc., the creator of G-Nome. And the gruesome figures that populate the space are the highly animated, yet inanimate, creations of a talented team of computer-game designers.

In their space on the 54th floor, four of the original founders — Tom Hall, 34, Jerry O'Flaherty, 28, Todd Porter, 38, and John Romero, 31, who together boast more than 50 years of experience in their industry — have created the gaming office to end all gaming offices. Working with Dallas-based Russ Berger Design Group, Ion Storm built a $2 million, 22,000-square-foot game lab in the Chase Tower's penthouse suite — a space so unusual that it sat unleased for the first 10 years after the building went up.

"Our space reminds me of playing one of our games," says Jim Daly, 25, one of Ion Storm's conceptual artists. "The slanted ceilings, the stairways, the different floor levels — it all suggests different levels of a game." To underscore the correlation between the space and the work, Porter, Hall, and Romero have situated autonomous design teams in separate areas of the office. In June 1998, Porter's group launched Dominion, a strategy game. Next spring, Hall's group is expected to release Anachronox, a science-fiction role-playing game. And Romero's team is creating Daikatana, a new "shooter" game featuring 63 monsters — more than three times as many as Doom II. Like their games, the offices of Ion Storm are a testament to innovation, cleverness, fun, interactivity, and technology.

The Game Is Work

"There's no bigger playground office in the world," says Daly. But don't be fooled: Most of Ion Storm's top designers and programmers spend more than 16 hours a day at work, creating monsters and ways to dismember them. Employees have been known to arrive at 11 a.m. and to leave at 5 p.m. — 18 days later.

"We knew people would spend a lot of time here, so we had to think about how to make it easier for them to stay and to keep up the momentum," says Romero. "I knew what I'd want if I lived here — a place to watch movies and a place to sleep."

To accommodate the unorthodox work styles that characterize the gaming industry, Ion Storm designed a place where employees could indeed live. The offices include a Crash Room, with two beds, three couches, a wide-screen TV, a VCR, and two private telephone booths. A gaming area sports four arcade machines and a Ping-Pong table. There is also a large shower room and a changing area. Corinne Yu, 28, director of advanced technology — and one of the few women at this virtual frat house — spends every other night in the office. "I don't go out much, because everything I need is here," Yu says. "Soda pop. A shower. My pillow. It's like home."

The Game Is Design

Ion Storm's offices are equal parts practicality and cool. For example, when four $15,000 Italian-made desks arrived for the founders' offices, they were sent back immediately. These guys didn't need fancy desks; they needed sturdy work surfaces, each one deep enough to accommodate two 21-inch computer monitors. "Everything here must be used," says Porter. "It's not for show — it's for work."

Cubicles are custom-designed and custom-made. They have to be: No manufacturer offers ready-made workstations that are flexible enough to meet Ion Storm's needs. Translucent fiberglass panels placed overhead block sunlight; sliding doors provide privacy; and wall surfaces serve as tackboards. Even so, these workstations cost no more than standard cubicle setups.

In the middle of the office stands a 144-square-foot motion-capture stage, which enables designers to translate human movements into realistic 3-D computer images. Beneath the stage, the company built eight "death match" stations, where employees go head-to-head in fierce digital showdowns. An extra dividend: The stations double as quality-assurance test sites for new games.

The Game Is Change

The company itself is on a growth tear: bolstered by a $13 million investment from Eidos, a London-based publisher, Ion Storm's staff has catapulted from 20 people in March 1997 to more than 100 people today. As Ion Storm's ranks expand, additional workstations have to be built, and existing ones need to be reconfigured. No problem — since the cubicles can be broken down and reassembled in half an hour, simply by detaching thin metal support beams from the walls. "Change is our business," explains Porter. "We don't get used to anything. And we're not just in tune with change — we're leading it."

Lisa Chadderdon (lchadderdon@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. You can visit Ion Storm on the Web (www.ionstorm.com).

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