(page 1 of 4)

Without stepping foot in Silicon Valley,
a local kid who grew up loving
games and computers started with a frozen yogurt shop and ended up building a video game company that brought a Silicon Valley giant to Sacramento.
Here’s how rolling some very funny-shaped dice 
paid off in a very big way.
And how it almost didn’t.

By Rob Turner
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Max Whittaker

 

 

 

Standing on the corner of 20th and J streets on a cold Friday night in December, Christmas lights dot the trees and lampposts, but suddenly an altogether unexpected radiant source appears in the darkness—lightsabers. It’s difficult to see the details or the identities of the shadowy combatants lit only by the orange glow of their weapons as they slash through the air, but at least one appears to be wearing a cape.

The scene, by all accounts, would strike most observers as more than somewhat out of context. There’s not a Star Wars or Comic-Con convention anywhere in sight. Instead, the dark figures are in a parking lot sandwiched between a pizza parlor and a pair of nightclubs. As it happens, the strange occurrence makes substantially more sense than even the warriors in question may have realized.

That’s because only weeks earlier, the faceless lightsaber rattlers became employees of one of the world’s largest video game companies, EA (aka Electronic Arts), the very same company that within days of this impromptu urban skirmish released one the biggest new video games on the planet: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The force was decidedly with them.

They were, it turns out, game developers who were taking a break outside of their red-bricked office with white columns, the headquarters of a four-year-old game maker known until recently as KlickNation before it was acquired by EA on Dec. 1, 2011 for many millions of dollars. But their saber play likely had less to do with their newfound affiliation to the legendary film franchise than the simple urge to express their inner fanboy by recharging their creative juices between bouts of intense late-night programming.

Mark Otero, GM of BioWare Sacramento, stands inside a room in the company’s midtown office decorated with wall posters and intended to inspire creativity.Minutes after the half-hearted battle ends, the 38-year-old founder of KlickNation and the man responsible for luring Silicon Valley’s biggest gaming company to Sacramento pulls into the still-full employee parking lot behind the wheel of a sleek, metallic grey BMW roadster after a weeks-long visit to EA’s Redwood City headquarters.

Despite the temperature hovering somewhere in the 40s on this night, the car’s convertible top is down as it has been for the entire three-and-a-half hour drive. But the car’s driver, Mark Otero, like so many other lifelong gaming fanatics, seems so thoroughly ensconced in a world of his own making at the moment, that he doesn’t seem to notice.

In fact, as he reorients himself to familiar surroundings, it’s clear that he’s struggling to mentally toggle between a dream world and the real world. Just 24 months earlier, he was desperate and scared, drowning in a mountain of tax debt and within months of losing both his home and his business, with a steadily worsening economic situation.

On this night, however, weeks after selling his business to a $7 billion gaming company for a widely reported $35 million, he’s now a general manager with EA’s wildly popular gaming division BioWare, and overseeing two of its “studios”—the newly named BioWare Sacramento and the existing BioWare San Francisco. His new boss is a legend in the gaming world, and Otero has singlehandedly put Sacramento on the map of one of the fastest-growing and downright coolest segments of the technology world.

“It’s all a blur,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, when asked what the last few weeks have been like. “I’m living my dream.”

And like with all entrepreneurs, his journey started with a roll of the dice. Of course, in this particular case, it was true in the most literal sense possible.

 

How to Train Your Dungeons & Dragons
Game players of a certain age will remember a fantasy-based, role-playing game called Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D in gamer parlance. Think Lord of the Rings played without joysticks or high-definition screens, but rather with books, paper, pencils and multicolored, polyhedral dice with up to 10, 12 or 20 different sides. And unlike today’s versions of multiplayer games where you can wage virtual battle with players in different cities, states or countries, this was a game you played face-to-face.

The office of the design department at BioWare Sacramento, formerly called KlickNationYou know, looking at each other.

Influenced by the seminal J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy that followed the adventures of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins through Middle-earth, the game, created in the ’70s, allowed players to assume the form of virtual characters in a Tolkien-esque universe filled with wizards, monsters and sundry mythical creatures and lands. They set about on various adventures with many of their actions and outcomes determined by a roll of these strangely shaped dice.

Otero was only 8 when he discovered D&D. Heavily story-driven, the game fueled his young mind. And at the time, the video game industry was also in its early years. Perhaps it was fate that he hadn’t discovered video games first. As much as he would grow to love them later, video games were an entirely different creature. They were fast-paced and highly visual, with limited options for exploration, at least in the early days. But not in D&D. Here, a player created his own worlds. And Otero wanted to create his own worlds.

He was hooked.

There was only one obstacle—his mother, who called the game “evil,” as did others at that time because of the sorcery and witchcraft elements. But to this young, impressionable Korean boy in 1981, it was the defining game that would ultimately become the foundation for his success and determine his future in more ways than he could have dreamed.

Unlike early video games, D&D required and inspired a great deal of imagination and strategy. In the mind, nothing is impossible. Many years later, when asked why he started KlickNation in Sacramento instead of moving to Silicon Valley or the Bay Area to launch it, his answer was simple: “I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.”

And within each group of players was someone called the “Dungeon Master,” or DM. This was the person who possessed a much deeper understanding of the rules that govern the game, and would essentially serve as the referee, guide and chief storyteller. According to a recent edition of the “Dungeon Master’s Guide,” the DM’s goal “is to make success taste its sweetest by presenting challenges that are just hard enough that the other players have to work to overcome them, but not so hard that they leave all the characters dead.”

Sounds a lot like a CEO.

Mark Otero was a Dungeon Master by age 10.

In fact, on the night that he’s returning to Sacramento after weeks at EA’s headquarters and the BioWare San Francisco office, he’s sitting in a conference room (he doesn’t have his own office; he works at a desk surrounded by others) in front of several framed covers of D&D books, constant reminders for him of where his journey began.

He is openly marveling at the path that has brought him to this point. The previous weeks and months have been so utterly chaotic for him, that he appears to only now be fully absorbing the reality of it all.

“Here I was, a Dungeon Master, a game nerd, who decided to make a game company when I didn’t know anything about making games,” he says. “And here we are. I feel like a part of my life has become complete.”

But despite his sincere expression of wonder, a look back at his adventure reveals far more strategy than luck.