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October 18, 2018

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Grownup gameboys: A look inside Westwood Studios

The rise of Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios is as dramatic as the storylines and scenes in its games.

The year is 1985. Two young Southern Nevadans, Brett Sperry, 21, and Louis Castle, 20, are united by an interest in computers. They decide to form their own company in 400 square feet of a garage belonging to Castle's parents.

The company gains prominence in the industry converting games made for the previously popular 8-byte personal computers to run on the new 16-byte machines and also designing their own games including Temple of Apshai Trilogy, The Mars Saga, Battletech, DragonStrike and Eye of the Beholder.

Seven years later, they sell Westwood to Irvine, Calif.-based Virgin Games Inc., owned by Spelling Entertainment which is held by Viacom, the billion-dollar entertainment giant which also owns MTV, Showtime and Nickelodeon.

Castle, a Las Vegas native and vice president of Westwood Studios, said the sale price was in the millions. "That's millions -- plural," he smiles, but he declines to specify exactly how many millions.

Sperry and Castle take their money, retire to some tropical island and live happily ever after. End of saga?

No way! Neither Castle nor Sperry would be happy if they weren't designing computer games in an industry where their company is considered the leading producer of strategic war games.

"I haven't achieved my goals and dreams -- to create the ultimate product, the best end-all, definitive product," said Sperry who serves as president of the company. "We've come close, but we're not quite there yet. I measure success by the customers -- how many of them go for it."

"Why would I want to retire?" asked Castle. "This is my hobby, I love it."

So the two young millionaires are hard at it, sometimes working 14- to 16-hour days designing new games and running their 100-plus employee company from in the Las Vegas Technology Center in northwest Las Vegas.

"Productwise, there's not much that can top the games that come out of there," said Stu Rich, director of marketing for Century 23, a local computer store specializing in Apple products.

"They (the games) are becoming more and more like motion pictures, they're extremely creative and talented products. They contain scripts, actors, music, stories and story lines that are deep, better than most motion pictures," said Rich.

As the different forms of entertainment compete for the consumer's discretionary dollar, entertainment that can span several boundaries like games combined with motion pictures, will have an advantage, he added.

"They're very good at it. The name Westwood Studios says it all. They're talented with all the creative products out there," Rich said.

Westwood releases about two games a year, taking them from concept to completion at its 67,000-square-foot building at the corner of Tenaya Way and Smoke Ranch Road. The facility, which formerly housed government defense contractor Loral, contains a sound stage where actors are filmed for portions of the games, a recording studio where the music is produced and graphic artists' workshops where the graphics for the games are created.

The different elements are then combined, put in a three-dimensional format and animated by computer programmers.

Besides 385 computers, the facility boasts a ping-pong table in the lunchroom, an outdoor basketball court and Tai chi (part yoga, part martial arts) lessons three times a week, all part of a progressive management style that attempts to foster and maintain creativity among employees.

Workers wear T-shirts and shorts to the job if they want. They basically come and go as they please. They are allowed to decorate their offices however they choose: several boast an Asian theme, one resembles a cave, another is stark white in contrast to the brightly painted hallways which feature game box covers that double as works of art.

The management style is very hands off. It doesn't matter what workers do as long as they do their jobs on time and well. And it works, Castle and Sperry agreed.

"I think it works because it addresses the needs of the creative people. There are so many people and they're creating so much. You have to give them room to breathe and you have to give them room to be loose. You can't restrict every moment," said Sperry.

"If you do that then it's fair to make demands on them -- 'Hey, I need this, hey, we've got a deadline now, can you work late on this?' The majority of people rise to the occasion because they see this balance," he said.

"Our management style is very lateral. We work in teams, it's not a hierarchy. We do team problem-solving, working with people to come up with solutions. A lot of what we are is built around friends getting together and doing something they enjoy," Castle said.

Nearly all the workers are involved in the game-production process in some way, with the exception of the three administrative assistants to the executives and the receptionist, he said.

"We only have four employees who are not directly involved in the production of computer games," Castle said.

The two young men never sought business advice from consultants, accountants or lawyers. "If we didn't understand the wording of a contract, we'd have them reword it so that we did understand it," Castle said.

Lest anyone think building a computer game company was all fun and games, there were difficult times. And one of the most difficult aspects of starting a business in their early 20s was obtaining financing.

Banks didn't take them very seriously because of their ages, lack of credit history and the seeming frivolity of their venture. Therefore, the two entrepreneurs financed Westwood's growth entirely through cash flow instead of borrowing money, Castle explains.

If he had anything to do differently, Sperry said he would have "taken a few more risks" financially.

Selling out to Virgin Games gave Sperry and Castle the ability to publish their products directly, market products under their own name and allowed them to retain complete control of Westwood.

The company is set to release two new games before the end of the year. Command & Conquer: Red Alert is a sequel to the first Command & Conquer game, which has sold more than 1 million units since its release last year.

Will Red Alert, a war game which has the world scrambling to head off a Soviet siege, do as well as its prequel? Long-time fans certainly will buy the sequel, but new fans will buy Red Alert, discover they like it and will buy the original Command & Conquer, too.

"Sequels never catch up," Sperry said.

The company also is preparing to release Lands of Lore II: Guardians of Destiny before the end of the year. The prequel, Lands of Lore I: Throne of Chaos, was released in 1994, and was named role-playing game of the year by Computer Game World. The company did not have sales figures on the game.

The Internet will figure prominently in Westwood's future. Sperry envisions a day when customers order and pay for their computer games over the Internet and the games are then downloaded directly into the customer's computer without ever having to go to a store to pick up a box.

Currently, enthusiasts who play Westwood games on the Internet have to go through Total Entertainment Network or Empath to play the games. The two services own the sites and they charge users to go in and play them.

Even though the art from their first Command & Conquer game occupies a dominant place in Westwood's lobby, Sperry insists Westwood's goal is not to command and conquer the computer game industry.

He said he will be content turning out two or three quality games a year. And, as for being forever regarded as a computer geek, he responds with a laugh: "Hey, I'm one of the more hip computer geeks -- I can dress myself."

Given his druthers, Sperry says he'd rather not be known as a computer geek. He'd like to be known simply "as a kid who loves to create games for people to play."

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