Two years ago this week, over the lull of winter break, Rocco Repetski got bored the way high school juniors who happen to be math geniuses (and who happen to take interest in computer code) get bored. He wondered, why not design an online game?
He wasn't thinking, "Oh, a game will make thousands of dollars," though that would come later. He was thinking, "Oh, creating a game is cool," in the particular manner a teenager deems instant messaging and PlayStation 2 not only as "cool things" but as "facts of life."
To play Repetski's game, you sign up online, you get a secret link, you send it to your friends, you tell them to click on that link. The more clicks you get, the more points you earn. The more alliances you make, the more chance you'll have at landing on top of the ranking list. Simple, harmless, quick fun, like one of those chain letters -- "Please copy this entire e-mail and send it to 10 friends" -- waiting in your in box.
"It's really a primitive game that you couldn't really do anything with," says the 18-year-old, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or TJ, the highly selective magnet school in Alexandria. In Repetski's mind, the game could only get better. So it did.
Together with Ben Gelb, Aman Gupta and Nick Meyer, also TJ graduates, Repetski developed Kings of Chaos, or KoC. It is a "massively multi-player online role-playing game" -- a mouthful, like its acronym, MMORPG -- inspired by Middle Earth, with humans, elves, dwarfs and orcs battling for survival. Not coincidentally, the free site took off at about the same time "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" reigned at the box office.
"I had this sole goal of seeing how many people I could get to my site," says Repetski.
Try about 5 million page views a day, with 136,488 active users and more than 90,000 hits on Google, complete with fan sites.
How a simple online game like KoC can balloon from being on a computer server of a local high school into one of the top 50 gaming sites on the Internet -- a few spots below FreeArcade.com and Nintendo.com, with a gross revenue of more than $175,000 this year -- is a big, big surprise. Even to its creators, who in the past eight months have each received a check, the exact amount they'd rather not say. The money, they admit, helps pay for their freshman year in college -- and for "some toys," adds Meyers, half-smiling.
This is proof, pure and clear, of a highly democratic Internet, which in its laissez-faire, anything-goes paradigm allows something as ingeniously entrepreneurial as this to happen. From that winter break in 2002, when Repetski put the game on his school Web site, it took only a few weeks before TJ's server couldn't, and shouldn't, handle the game's online traffic, the group decided. "We figured we had to get more serious," Gelb says. They needed their own top-of-the-line servers -- four of them at a cost of $20,000 and a monthly fee of about $1,500, paid for out of the game's revenue. Never mind that the creators were high schoolers who'd run from their U.S. history class in room 219 to the computer systems lab in room 115 to check on their business.
"It does and it doesn't surprise me. These kids are digitally inclined, and, as a result, they are adept at utilizing tools that are available to them now. It doesn't require a large-scale infrastructure to support a business opportunity on the Internet," says Michael Dowling, general manager of Nielsen Interactive Entertainment. Having upwards of 130,000 users is more than a respectable figure, adds Dowling, considering that well-known, well-budgeted, pay-to-play MMORPGs such as Everquest II and Star Wars Galaxies are attracting 350,000 and 250,000 users, respectively. "But it's crazy to really think about what these kids have done, isn't it?"