With his quick mind and mathematical flair, Mark Turmell was obviously some kind of child prodigy. But there was a period in 1978 when his parents wondered if all the hours he spent staring into a video tube hadn't knocked some common sense out of the young man's head. Sure, Mark had graduated from high school and Michigan's Delta College simultaneously at the tender age of 17, but he spent most of his time sitting at home in Bay City, Mich. learning to write video games on his Apple computer. "My parents bought it—with the intent that I would pay them back a little at a time, mowing lawns and stuff," Turmell says. But before he ever had to lay hands on a lawn mower, Mark had used his computer to design a lucrative new career: inventing video games. Ten months after he started noodling with the machine, Mark created "Sneakers," which he shipped off to a company called Sirius in Sacramento, Calif. Sirius bought the game, a fairly standard clobber-them-before-they-clobber-you video chase, and Turmell was soon cashing monthly royalty checks of $10,000. Since then he has gone to work for Sirius at a $40,000 annual salary plus hefty royalties and designed four other games—"Beer and Run," "Fast Eddie," "Free Fall" and "Turmoil." At 20, he tools around his Sacramento neighborhood in a candy-apple-red Porsche. "I'm not a millionaire—yet," he says.
Turmell is only one of a growing band of vidkids, many of them still students, who are making fast—and vast—fortunes designing home video and computer games. Lately game manufacturers have been reporting lagging sales for video hardware, but the games played on the machines are as much in demand as ever. Some 65 million cassettes worth $1.65 billion were sold in the U.S. in 1982.
Charles Bueche of Houston is typical of the creators of these video games. He was a 20-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas in 1981 when he devised "Laf Pak," which sold more than 3,500 disks. Since then he's produced three more games, and his earnings so far have reached $54,000. David Kosmal of Plum, Pa. was 13 when he created "Math Mission," a space-age version of flashcards. Marketed by ATARI Program Exchange (APX), the game will be available this spring and ninth grader Kosmal will get his first 10 percent royalty check before he turns 15. "I'm in it for the money," he says. Last year David Buehler, a 17-year-old high school junior from St. Paul, Minn., created "Typo Attack," which teaches touch typing as a video sport. He entered the game in APX's annual competition for new designs and last month received a $25,000 check for "the best home computer program of the year."
"Do you know how much $25,000 is?" asked one impressed adult.
"Sure," said Buehler. "It's one-fortieth of a million."
Atari, Inc. is not the only software firm discovering and rewarding adolescent genius. Some of the best talent scouts work at Sirius. At a 1981 computer fair in Phoenix, Jerry Jewell of Sirius struck up a conversation with 18-year-old Dan Thompson of Mesa, Ariz. "I just happened to show him a game I had written," recalls Thompson. "It was the first version of a game called 'Borg.' He bought it and said, 'Okay, we'll take you on.' " A few months later Thompson joined the Sirius staff with an undisclosed salary, royalties and stock options. Within a year he had designed some of the company's best-selling games, including "Twerps," "Repton" and "Lemmings." His lastest creation is lyrically christened "The Earth Dies Screaming," a 3-D shoot-'em-up in space. Both Thompson and fellow whiz Turmell credit the company's loose, playful atmosphere with inspiring their creativity. The staff includes another 12 full-or part-timers under 18. "We give each other ideas, criticism and all, but there are no real bosses," says Turmell. "We have a great time."
Turmell would like a little more respect, however. He is sensitive about the social status of video game creators and bristles at the term "programmer." "I am not a programmer, I'm a video game designer," he insists. "Anybody can program a computer, but to design a game from the concept to the colors, sound effects and everything is a whole different ball game." Paul Cubbage, manager of product review for APX, agrees with Turmell. He talks about Atari's youngsters as if they were cathode tube da Vincis. "We're dealing with artists," he says. "They are authors and are treated as such. You know they are artists because their works all have emotional content. That, to me, is the definition of an artist: one who transmits information with an emotional content."
Art apparently does not always come easily. If one is to believe John Harris, the 21-year-old mastermind behind the Atari versions of "Frogger," "Jawbreaker" and "Mouskattack," he has suffered the angst typical of great novelists and painters. He even had the prescribed unhappy childhood. "I was the kid who was always the last to be picked for a team," Harris explains. "And then when they got to me, they fought with each other, saying, 'No, you take him, we had him last time.' I guess you could say that I was lonely and that the computer was my best friend."
Harris' teen years in San Diego were no better. After fighting with his bank executive father over his refusal to attend college, Harris drifted aimlessly around his hometown. Even now, after hitting the big time, Harris suffers. Last year he slipped into a period of creative torpor. "I went into a deep depression and stopped working for two months," he says. "I was close to finishing a program and just stopped. I couldn't finish it for anything." But he finally managed to shrug off despair and emerge triumphant. How triumphant? Last month he strolled into Oakhurst, Calif.'s Sierra-on-Line, which distributes his games, and picked up a check for four months' worth of royalties. He blushed when he read the amount, $139,000. "Oh," he said. "I didn't expect this much."
That story, like so many other vidkid tales, could easily be entitled The Revenge of the Nerd. As with Harris, many of these wealthy youngsters were a little out of it socially. "It seems as if all programmers are introverts," says Dan Thompson, "and the only people they can relate to are other programmers." Charles Bueche even admits to a fact that will no doubt warm the hearts of computerphobes: Video game designers are not exactly sexual magnets. "Women learn what I do and say, 'Oh, that's neat,' but that's as far as it goes," he says woefully. However, Joel Gluck, who is working his way through MIT designing games for APX, hastens to dispute that stereotype. "Video game designers are not nerds, geeks or clones," he protests. "If people would look at what we're doing, they'd realize that it's an all-American activity: We're doing what we like and making money. Hey, that's the American Dream."
Some vidkids are planning to take that modest dream a few steps further. Soon, Turmell predicts, software companies will promote their star artists in magazine ads and TV commercials. "They'll be just like rock stars," he contends. And beyond riches and fame lurk the corporate big leagues. "The video companies of today," he believes, "will be the major entertainment companies of tomorrow." In the meantime Turmell is grappling with a problem common to the newly wealthy—taxes. "They're horrible," moans the near millionaire. "I just bought a condo for an investment, and it looks like I'll have to buy a few more."
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