Garage-Band Programmers

At the Macworld Expo held each August in Boston, software developers try to dazzle each other with technology that pushes silicon chips to the limit. This year, one of the bigger draws was Jump Raven, a sci-fi game with movie-quality sound and images -- clearly the work of master programmers. The crowds were entranced by mutant villains racing across a futuristic New York City streetscape in a plot that's a cross between the cult-movie classic "Blade Runner" and vintage James Bond flicks. Was it the latest hit from one of the powerhouse developers? Hardly. In fact, a guy from one of the best-known names in the industry stood at the Jump Raven booth for 15 minutes and then hum-bly asked, "How did you do that?"

The creators, four guys who work out of a loft in Knoxville, Tenn., just smiled. Bill Appleton, Andrew Nelson, Scott Scheinbaum and Jamie Wicks are the team behind CyberFlix, a year-old company with two CD-ROM games already on the market and three others in development. Their first release, Lunicus, also a sci-fi action game, was named 1993 CD-ROM game of the year by the magazine MacWorld; Jump Raven, a best seller, is a favorite to win this year. CyberFlix and a growing number of other small developers around the country are proving that there's a lot of talent outside San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch. Take the Miller brothers, Robyn and Rand, who work out of a garage in Spokane, Wash. Their company, Cyan, started out with innovative children's programs. But their current hit is Myst, a critically acclaimed CD-ROM game set on a peaceful and remote island. At the other end of the action spectrum, there's the hyperviolent but wildly popular Doom, from Texas-based id Software.

In an earlier technological revolution, Hollywood became the center of the en-tertainment industry because movie production requires a critical mass of specialists -- camera operators, sound//ar techs, film editors -- assembled in one place, a film studio. But in the digital age, software has turned computers into portable studios in a box. "We can build musical scores, packaging and animation all on a desktop in Knoxville," says Nelson, a former freelance writer who is now CyberFlix's creative director. "It's just a bunch of ones and zeros."

Not only is the rent reasonable in a place like Knoxville, allowing CyberFlix to move into a 12,000-square-foot loft last fallar, but the low-key atmosphere spurs creativity, says Erik Quist, CyberFlix's general manager. "Being here has made it easy for us to keep things in perspective," Quist says. "We don't even have a sign on our door. If we were in California we'd spend half our time just moving around that scene. Being out here really helps us blow off the glitter." While their Hollywood counterparts are struggling to capture the attention of Madonna or Julia Roberts for interactive projects, Nelson just hopes to get a visit from the Gore daughtersar.

CyberFlix got started in Knoxville because Appleton, 32, grew up in nearby Oak Ridge. He returned home in 1992 after a productive but frustrating stint in Silicon Valley. In California, Appleton became something of a legend for writing software such as World Builder, Course Builder, SuperCard and HyperDA. Those programs enabled even non-techies -- especially gamers -- to create electronic worlds. "Bill is totally amazing," says Eric Zocher, a director of engineering at the graphics software giant Adobe. Zocher met Appleton in the mid-1980s, when Appleton was trying to sell World Builder. Bill "is the fastest engineer I've ever seen," Zocher says. "He'll take on projects that would scare a team of 10 programmers, without even thinking about it." But Appleton felt that in California, surrounded by corporate megaliths, he had no say in how his work was used. "I've built a lot of [programs] for Silicon Valley, but they never seem to care about the product," Appleton says. "The real thing I've learned . . . is that this isn't about money or power or technology anymore. It's about art. I'm an artist, and I've got to be able to control my work."

Nelson, 35, who had worked in New York and Los Angeles, moved to Knoxville to work for Whittle Communications, but left in 1992 in one of a series of corporate restructurings. A mutual friend introduced him to Appleton and soon Nelson was spending hours in the basement of the log cabin where Appleton was living, helping him market Lunicus. Also hanging out in the basement were Scheinbaum, now 34, then a struggling musician working for a record store, and Wicks, now 26, who grew up across the street from Appleton and had been trained in computer graphics. Between Wicks, Scheinbaum and Appleton, the basement overflowed with the latest techie gear. "It looked like NORAD," Appleton remembers. "I'm sure my neighbors thought we were running drugs, with people coming and going at all hours of the night. We got to the point where the people at Domino's knew us so well we could just pick up the phone and say, "CyberFlix.' They knew what to send over."

At the time, CD-ROM games were so new that hardly anyone outside a small circle of technologically sophisticated gamers had even heard of them. "Financially, we would have been better off flipping burgers," Nelson says. "But we were like a rock band, just four guys in a basement." Each partner contributed: Wicks did the graphics, Scheinbaum the music, Appleton the programming and Nelson the marketing and publicity.

The long hours paid off. Lunicus was a hit when it was released last summer. Suddenly, CyberFlix was in the business of mass production. "I remember one day I picked up the phone and there was this delivery-service guy on the other end," Appleton recalls. "The guy says to me, "Uh, how many forklifts y'all got down there?' I was, like, "None.' So the guy gets quiet and then asks, "Well, do you have somewhere where we could back up the 18-wheeler?' " Appleton laughs at the memory of the truck pulling up to his log cabin. "We got this old skateboard and one by one we rolled these giant pallets of CDs to the basement on the board. The thing just about broke, but we got all the discs inside."

By Thanksgiving, CyberFlix had signed a three-disc deal with Paramount, moved into the new loft and begun the process of signing a contract with Bandai, a large Japanese toy company. They were also getting ready to release Jump Raven, which, like Lunicus, was created using DreamFactory, a program designed by Appleton. DreamFactory employs a studio metaphor. The program opens with Central Casting, where photos of actors are scanned in or images are drawn by a graphics editor. Then characters get dialogue and facial expressions in the Head Shop. Virtual landscapes are created in Set Construction. The Movie Editor segment weaves everything together. DreamFactory enables CyberFlix to create games with complex story lines -- a feature that Hikaru Sasahara, CyberFlix's agent for Japan, thinks could give CyberFlix an edge in the next few years as game designers go after the generation now graduating from Nintendo. To be compelling to these jad-ed consumers, Sasahara says, "they will need a story line which makes people play the games for 25 or 30 hours."

The CyberFlix guys are already looking to their future, which includes plans for Jump Raven II. Quist says that so far they have sold 50,000 copies each of Lunicus and Jump Raven in the Macintosh format (which makes both top-10 best sellers). CyberFlix just released 50,000 copies of each for PCs, and Quist projects sales of 100,000 for each title by Christmas. No matter what happens next, one move is not on the schedule: California may beckon, but they're staying put in their old Tennessee home.