An Online Gaming Mecca


    GRAND RAPIDS — In only its third year in West Michigan, transplant technology firm Norseman Games is looking to carve out a new industry cluster around its battle-tested niche.

    “Our vision that we’re spearheading within the company and the city of Grand Rapids is to make Grand Rapids a hotbed of online role-playing game development,” said COO Ellington Ellis.

    Norseman Games’ core product is the online fantasy role-playing game The Realm Online. At 10 years old and in its third version, The Realm is the oldest and largest gaming environment of its kind.

    With 12,000 registered users at $4.95 a month, the annual revenue of roughly $712,000 ranks the 10-employee firm as one of the region’s highest-grossing Web developers on user fees alone.

    Designed in 1995 by Sierra Entertainment, the “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” (MMORPG) was traded as a non-core asset to Sony and later Codemasters, a British game developer.

    When Codemasters began shopping for a buyer in 2003, one of its developers, Grand Rapids native and GrandValleyStateUniversity graduate Scott Wochholz, seized the opportunity. The Wochholz family — President Lee Wochholz; Customer Service Manager Lynn Wochholz-Havens; Scott, lead designer; and Brett, community relations manager — acquired the game and began plans to relocate it from Silicon Valley to Grand Rapids.

    Ellis, the Indiana stockbroker in charge of the Wochholz family’s assets, was recruited to take over the day-to-day operations of the fledgling company. Admittedly, he first suggested operations remain in California, but could not persuade the family against a West Michigan headquarters.

    Ellis was joined by an Alabama transplant, General Manager Michael Crow. Crow, along with Scott Wochholz, had been playing the game since its alpha launch. Later, Research and Development Director Akio “AJ” Yokoyama relocated from California.

    When the original design and administration team opted not to move to Grand Rapids, its members were laid off and replaced by local programmers.

    “I’m not from the area (and) neither is Michael or AJ, but we’re glad we’re here,” Ellis said. “And if we’re going to be living here, we want to make it a great place for gaming. We want to produce these games from the talent we have here in the community.”

    Norseman, the only company of its kind in the Midwest, has teamed up with another Midwest exclusive, Ferris State University-Grand Rapids’ Digital Animation and Game Design program.

    This semester, Norseman will administer a class in which FSU students develop designs for the upcoming fourth edition of The Realm Online. Students will be asked to create their own visions of what the new wizards will look like, how spells will look and function, how damaging an assault will be, etc.

    At the end of the semester, Norseman will use the completed packages to select interns for the development team.

    Norseman is also working with several GVSU programs, as well as Kendall College of Art and Design, which has many students who share the firm’s 5 Lyon St. NW headquarters.

    “I see (Kendall) kids in the elevator pretty much every day, and when they find out what I do, they get really excited,” Crow said. “I used to give them my card and tell them to stop by. Now I make appointments.”

    Norseman went to GVSU to fill a recent intern opening and 43 applicants showed up for interviews.

    “Most graduates that want to do this, they’re going to have to jump state,” Crow said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is create a development corridor so that when they graduate, they do have a place to go.”

    In partnership with The Right Place Inc., FSU and GVSU, Norseman has formed the Technology Sustainability Advisory Council (TSAC). Through this, Norseman hopes to spearhead an initiative similar in intent to the region’s Life Sciences Corridor.

    “There is a passion for biolife in this area, that’s why you’re seeing such growth in that,” Ellis said. “Life sciences is a great and wonderful thing, but it’s still tunnel vision. If we have multiple strong industries growing, then if one of us gets a cold, we won’t all get sick.”

    In the long run, Norseman hopes to entice West Coast companies such as EA Games and Sony to establish West Michigan satellites. In the short term, the FSU program will produce its first graduates in 2007, and Norseman hopes to have jobs waiting.

    As such, the company is looking to expand its offerings on several fronts.

    Along with the fourth edition release, Crow cited plans to adapt The Realm Online for other cultures, with Spanish and Vietnamese translations forthcoming.

    Ellis is steering the company into software development, with intentions of creating a variety of educational games and animation packages. One area where he sees immediate demand is the life sciences, including games designed to teach patients about their illnesses and bodies.

    “Fear comes from the unknown,” Crow said. “This helps to belie the fear. People recognize that you can learn by playing games.”

    That is partly the intention of Norseman’s second MMORPG, Kingdom Quest, currently in development. Set in the Biblical world, the game teaches morality and Christian values through fantasy and action adventure.

    “Everybody is talking about how children are leaving the church between the ages of 18 and 24,” Ellis said. “This is a tool to make Christianity relevant to that age bracket. What better way to do that than to meet them where they are — playing these games.”

    As Norseman’s vision enfolds, Crow expects that employment in game development won’t be limited to designers, engineers and programmers. The Realm Online, for example, is a representation of a virtual universe, complete with its own economy, laws, government and sociological structure. In creating these environments, a diverse array of expertise is required.    

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