It's crunch time at the local offices of video game maker Bethesda Softworks. A team of 70 programmers, designers, artists and bug testers is spending long hours to get its upcoming game ready for the launch this fall of Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console.
Up against huge competitors in the cutthroat gaming industry, Bethesda Softworks, founded in 1986, is a long-shot survivor. The little outfit has quietly built a solid following in the video game industry, and its upcoming "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is a sword-and-sorcery epic that could launch it into the big-time.
Bethesda Softworks LLC (www.bethsoft.com) and its parent company, ZeniMax Media Inc., have gone through their share of turmoil. Bethesda nearly went bankrupt in the late 1990s and later faced a lawsuit from its founder, Christopher Weaver, who was squeezed out of the company three years ago.
But even though the company's board features a high-powered team of media industry players -- such as CBS chief Leslie Moonves and Robert S. Trump, brother of the Donald and president of Trump Management Inc. -- the company's success or failure hangs chiefly on the ability of a group of game addicts in their twenties and thirties to crank out a cool product.
"The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is the company's most ambitious title, three years in the making. Appropriately enough, perhaps, the gamemakers' offices are in a basement in Rockville that is as dark as a dungeon: Drop a pen on the floor, and it might as well be gone forever.
"Every time we try to turn the lights up, they say, 'Turn 'em down!' " said Robert A. Altman, chief executive and chairman of ZeniMax.
"That's the way those guys prefer to work down there," said Altman, a prominent Washington lawyer well known both because of his stature in Democratic circles and his role in the BCCI bank scandal of the early 1990s, in which he was acquitted of all charges.
The offices "down there" are a cross between a typical corporate cubicle farm and a game-geek playground. Action figures, comic books and video games are on the shelves. In some cubicles, artists fill pages with sketches of monsters that might populate upcoming games; in others, animators are polishing some of Oblivion's cinematic fight scenes.
When Executive Producer Todd Howard started working for Bethesda 11 years ago, it was strictly a mom and pop outfit. His desk was in an unheated part of the building used as a warehouse; during the winter, programmers had to put space heaters under their desks to keep warm. When a game was finished, "I used to be down here packing boxes," he said.
With the new Xbox scheduled for a November release, Howard has more to worry about than postage. Neither ZeniMax nor Bethesda would put a figure on how much the game is costing to make, but Howard is at the helm of a project with a budget clearly worth several millions of dollars. With the current generation of game consoles, budgets for cutting-edge titles surged past the $10 million mark and are now frequently in the neighborhood of $20 million.
For the investment, Oblivion will feature 50 hours of game dialogue and 1,000 characters -- one featuring the voice of actor Patrick Stewart, the man celebrated in geekdom as Captain Picard of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The game's action takes place in 16 square miles of playing field in a virtual forest (complete with 200 dungeons strewn about).
To make sure soil erosion and geology in the game world looked realistic, the company sent an employee to the University of Maryland to study up on the topics. With new game systems continually offering deeper degrees of realism, it's the sort of attention to detail that players are coming to expect.
Howard said the game is designed for players who want to explore every nook and cranny as well as for those who just want to experience the story line. "You're going to save the world in 20 hours," he said, "but this game has 200 hours in it."
Bethesda has dabbled in many genres, but the company's standing among gamers is built largely upon the 10-year-old Elder Scrolls series. The previous installment sold about 4 million copies, counting Xbox and PC versions and two subsequent add-on packs that expanded the adventures.
David Cole, game industry analyst and president of DFC Intelligence, said that Bethesda has a "good reputation" among gamers, though the company has not released any titles that have become household names. Role-playing games, the type that Bethesda is best known for, are the fastest-growing genre in the industry, he said.
Altman said that Bethesda employs just over 100 people and that the staff will probably double in the next six months as the company gears up to make more cutting-edge titles. The company's kitchen is out of commission to make way for the growth; in the works are a sound studio and a "motion-capture" studio, where an actor's movements are recorded before they are translated digitally into the game world.
In development is a sequel to a popular role-playing game called "Fallout," to which Bethesda recently acquired the rights. The company also has action games in the works for Disney's next "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.
The video game industry is dominated by huge, publicly owned publishers such as Electronic Arts Inc. that release dozens of titles a year. By comparison, Bethesda is tiny and privately held -- and didn't have any major releases last year.
Bethesda parent ZeniMax was founded in 1999 to make content and technology for a new type of interactive television, but the subsequent tech bust made potential companies wary of new investments in the field, Altman said.
ZeniMax's Business Advisory Board is loaded with Democratic Party players of Altman's acquaintance, including Tony Coelho, Terence R. McAuliffe and former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell of Maine.
Altman came to Bethesda Softworks after meeting founder Weaver in the early '90s. Weaver's wife was an obstetrician-gynecologist whose patients included Altman's wife, actress Lynda Carter -- former star of the TV show "Wonder Woman" and currently featured in "The Dukes of Hazzard" movie.
Weaver has not been a part of the company for three years, however; he said this week that Altman had essentially kicked him out.
Now a visiting scholar at MIT, Weaver says ZeniMax still owes him money from when the company failed to renew his contract. One lawsuit against the company has gone nowhere; Weaver said he may pursue an appeal.
Altman responded that Weaver's account is "fantasy."
"Bethesda Softworks was a financially bankrupt business which ZeniMax Media acquired, recapitalized and turned around," he said. "I regret that he is unhappy."
But all that corporate back story isn't going to matter much in the marketplace, where gamers will judge the company based on its goods.
The early returns are encouraging. GamePro magazine, for example, picked "Oblivion" as one of three top games for Microsoft's Xbox 360, out of dozens of offering including many from larger publishers.