Storm Shelter

The game begins as soon as employees step into ION Storm’s Dallas headquarters, designed by Russ Berger Design Group

ION Storm, a video game developer, began in 1997 with a brainstorming of ideas among three designers in their 30s. Tom Hall, John Romero and Warren Spector had been working for a small Louisiana game company and yearned for more creative freedom. Hall and Romero had designed Doom and Quake at their own software company before ION Storm, and the trio decided to start ION Storm so they could develop their own vision instead of design by committee. The company’s long anticipated game Daikatana (which means “long sword” in Japanese), a game along the lines of Doom and Quake, is due for release in late March.

With success came expansion, overcrowding and the search for a new office. Most of the 80 employees at this company are in their early 20s, so making the new headquarters fun, inspiring and adaptable to designers working all night became the obvious plan. ION Storm’s workforce can now be found happily toiling away at all hours of the day on the top two floors of Dallas’ Chase Tower, a building occupied largely by oil and insurance companies, in 22,000 sq. ft. of space designed by Russ Berger Design Group to include a lot of the homey comforts that Gen-Xers find perfectly compatible with work.

“When we saw this space we said, ‘Uh…oh, we have to do something here,’ recalls Hall. “We were interested in this space because of its hugeness and arching windows.” Because of an unusual layout, unsuitable for a traditional business, and assorted HVAC challenges, the two floors had remained unoccupied. The founders, by contrast, saw potential for creative design and didn’t mind riding the elevator with suits and brogues.

Before moving into this space, the founders worked out of a cramped, 1,800-sq. ft. office furnished with boxes, but they knew what they were looking for: a facility for open communication and fun. “We tried to create an overall aesthetic that would delight and touch their senses,” agrees Robert Traub, AIA, design principal for Russ Berger Design Group. “Since the game designers frequently communicate with one another by voice, they wanted a space that would encourage openness.”

That’s just what ION Storm got. Most of the office is laid out with 8 ft. x 8 ft. open-plan workstations, 60 in all. The workstations are clustered in development teams headed by the design principals, who sit in private offices. Though they wanted the space open, the principals wanted to be able to shut their doors, albeit creatively. When the architects proposed a garage door as the solution, they got such an enthusiastic response that garage doors are also used in the conference room, and the glass is bulletproof. Why? Because it’s “cool.” “This is one big clubhouse,” reports Traub.

The top two floors of the Chase Tower did represent an unusual design challenge for a heavy computer user like ION Storm. With large windows as a backdrop for up to three 21-in. monitors in constant use at each workstation, the architects needed to come up with a way to control the sunlight. At the time there was nothing on the market that did this, so the architects designed their own device – a workstation with a roof structure. “There’s nothing traditional to be found here,” insists Russ Berger, a principal of the firm bearing his name.

Of course, some game designers have to sleep on the job too. “We dreamed of a lounge with beds,” Hall maintains. “People theoretically can live here, and some don’t go home much. One guy went home five days out of 90.” To make all-night sessions go as smoothly as possible, there are on-site showers and lounges, some with futons, and dinner is delivered so the employees’ work isn’t disrupted. “When we’re in the development mode,” Hall explains,” we don’t want any distraction, and this office fosters that mode of complete absorption and concentration.”

Employees can find their way to a game room if they need to let off steam, as well as a theater with Dolby digital surround sound to screen games or just sit back and relax while watching “South Park.” Indulgent as this all sounds, game designers work hard for play time. “This business requires a lot of horrible hours,” Hall observes. “Games take a lot of time to build, and the process can be unpredictable. So we stay late and come in six days a week to work out all the kinks. To do this, it has to be your passion.”

Also crucial for game designers is the motion capture stage. This is where the designers don attachments that correspond to a computer system that reads their movements. These movements are then translated into an action figure’s anatomy. The stage is built simply using wood with a fiberglass platform, so as to not interfere with the readings off the body attachments.

The audio/visual room, where musical scores, voiceovers and effects are recorded, is important as well. This is where punches, slaps, and detaching body parts are made to sound real. Acoustical diffusers are employed to vary the depth of space and distribute the sound evenly so technicians can hear more accurately how the mix will sound on tape.

Even the reception area gets into the act with a custom display area showing such items as “monster boxes” where the clay action figures in development are displayed. The boxes are air-conditioned so their contents won’t melt and the models are easily accessible. Leaving no opportunity untouched, the architects have finished the elevator call buttons in acid edged metal, and tinted the elevator doors green to match the company’s logo.

After all, you never know where a game designer will get that next big idea. “I get brainstorms in the bathroom,” Hall confesses, “and I scatter pads of papers in every room because of the impromptu nature of ideas.” Meanwhile, there’s no rest for the weary. ION Storm’s next launch will be in the spring with Anachronox, a three-dimensional, science fiction role-playing game. The game is never over ’til it says so.