In Rival Interactive's Real War, players hunt for terrorists. At their disposal is the arsenal of the U.S. military -- Apache helicopters, F-16 jets, even unmanned aerial drones.
But Rival Interactive, a subsidiary of Alexandria-based Cornerstone Industry Inc., will need more than imaginary military hardware if it wants take on the superpowers of the computer-game business. Cornerstone develops strategy-training games for the armed forces. But its attempt to appeal to game geeks as well as the military's top brass has so far been a losing battle.
Real War, which sells for about $30, sold only 16,000 copies in the third quarter, according to market researcher NPD Group Inc., dwarfed by the likes of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, which sold 370,000 in the same time. It's an illustration of how difficult it is to appeal to the fickle $1.4 billion PC gaming market, industry analysts said.
"Tastes change a lot and there is the danger of disappearing on the shelf next to the 100 other games that were released next to yours," said Steve Bauman, editor of Computer Games magazine.
Nonetheless, privately held Rival Interactive said it is proud of its progress in the retail game business. The firm is profitable and has $2 million in revenue this year, company executives said. "We are just now getting our feet underneath us and starting to grow," said Don York, Cornerstone's president and chief executive. Cornerstone was established in April when York and other managers bought the company from OC Inc. of Alexandria.
Rival Interactive is not the only company trying to serve the Pentagon and computer geeks simultaneously. Calabasas, Calif.-based NovaLogic Inc., which was founded in 1985 to produce home versions of arcade games, developed a special version of Delta Force 2, which has sold 1.3 million copies retail, for freshmen at West Point, a company spokesman said. It is required gaming before the freshman begin training with real ammunition, company spokesman Marcus Beer said.
There is even competition from within the military. The Army spent $6 million developing America's Army, in which players work their way through basic training and a night parachute jump. Launched on July 4, America's Army, which can be downloaded free (www.americasarmy.com), has 929,000 registered players, 563,000 of whom have finished the basic training exercise, an Army spokesman said.
Rival Interactive is developing a recruitment game for the Army National Guard that will be released in December. "We're trying to make people aware of what the Army National Guard is -- but in a fun way," said Darrell Stokke, a spokesman for the guard. Players could be sent to save a small town overtaken by a flood or snow storm, he said.
While gaming may be growing in popularity among military forces, Real War proves that the transition to the private sector is not easy, industry analysts said.
Gamers can be tough critics. PC Gameworld.com called Real War "a throwback to the days where everyone with a computer and a basement was mass-producing subpar Command and Conquer clones."
GameSpot did not like the follow-up Real War: Rogue States: "So what does a company do after it releases a game to almost universal criticism? Why, it creates a sequel, of course!"
Rival Interactive dismisses such criticism and says the second edition of the game made some significant improvements, including allowing two players to control the same regiment, one in charge of air forces and the other in charge of land masses. "That was something inspired by our Joint Chiefs work," said Jim Omer, president of Rival Interactive. A third edition is planned.
"There are titles in the industry that do millions of sales and we would like that too," Omer said. "But for our first effort we're pretty happy about it."
The gaming push for the government contractor began with Joint Force Employment, developed for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which wanted a way to test how officers react to a crisis, Omer said. A year later, the company launched Real War, in which players fight the Independence Liberation Army, a terrorist group with access to heavy weapons.
Part of the problem may be the focus on fantasy among some of Real War's competition, industry analysts said. A soldier caught behind enemy lines during World War II would not be limited to weapons of the time, for example, and could use superpowers to zap an enemy or escape a trap.
Rival Interactive trumpets its realism, even borrowing a catch phrase from President Bush for Rogue States, which encourages players to defeat the "axis of evil."
"It seems to me that real-time strategy games in a fantasy or a futuristic setting have sold better than real-time strategy games that are set in a more modern plot," said Steve Koenig, an NPD software analyst. "The sales numbers back that up."
Rival Interactive hasn't given up. It is developing a non-war game for the Marine Corps that would test logistical skills, including whether marines sent to the scene of a crisis would bring enough Band-Aids and tanker fuel, Omer said.
There could be more opportunities in the private sector, Omer said. Rival is developing a game that would skip the war scenario altogether and take players back in time.
The game, Extinction, features cavemen caught in the one part of the world where dinosaurs are not extinct.
"We just wanted to spread our wings and do different things," Omer said. "You can only do so many war games."