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Thursday, May 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sony considers Zipper great fit

Seattle Times technology reporter

LOS ANGELES — Sony's booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo is monstrous, filling 50,000 square feet with television screens highlighting the best games the company has to offer in the coming year.

Grabbing a prominent position is "Socom 3: U.S. Navy SEALs," the latest in the best-selling game series by Redmond-based Zipper Interactive.

The placement is hardly a surprise. Zipper has worked solely on Socom for Sony since 1999, and the military-shooter series is exclusive to the PlayStation 2 console. Sony gives the company millions of dollars to develop the games, and Zipper produces hits. The relationship gives both parties significant amounts of cash.

"Ever since we launched the PlayStation and certainly with PlayStation 2, we have been able to come out with new franchises that really define each generation of the console," said Kaz Hirai, president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment of America. "Socom has been one of those platform-defining franchises for us."

The Puget Sound region is becoming known as a video-game development center, with numerous studios involved in nearly all aspects of the industry.

The area is home to Microsoft's Xbox division and Nintendo's North American headquarters, but Sony is gaining more presence as well. It recently opened an office in Bellevue to produce massive multiplayer online games in the "EverQuest" vein.

Bellevue is also home to Sucker Punch Productions, which makes the "Sly Cooper" series for the PlayStation 2.

Zipper's office is the largest of the three, with 110 employees preparing "Socom 3" for release this fall.

Sony perks

The studio enjoys rarefied status among video-game developers. It is technically an independent company but gets many of the same perks as Sony's in-house teams. It uses Sony's resources, it makes exclusive games for a massive user base, and those games benefit from Sony's vast marketing machine.

The original "Socom," which debuted in 2002, was Sony's first venture into online console gaming. It was released in conjunction with Sony's Network Adapter, a device that enabled online play on the console.

"Socom" had standalone, first-person play, but it was the online multiplayer component that won fans and kept them playing for years afterward.

Within six months, the $60 game sold a million copies. It would eventually sell about 3.5 million — staggering numbers in an industry that generally considers 1 million a hit.

"We led the way with Socom for the whole console world for the Internet," said Jim Bosler, who co-founded Zipper with Brian Soderberg in 1995. "Everyone else was kind of waiting. We were the ones that took the chance and we were fortunately able to reap the rewards."

Boeing roots

In some ways, Socom's origins trace back to Boeing. Soderberg, 49, worked on airplanes and flight-control design there after getting a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of Washington.

He later moved into Boeing's flight-simulator group and began developing networking-simulation programs for the military as part of a project called Simnet.

He left Boeing and started his own simulation-development company, but acquired a serious interest in producing games. He teamed up with Bosler, who had opened a game-development office locally, and the two formed a company in a Redmond office park.

Zipper threw itself into large-scale PC games, including "Recoil," "Top Gun: Hornet's Nest" and "MechWarrior 3." Those got Sony's attention, and the entertainment giant came knocking in 1999 as Zipper wrapped up development on its last PC game, "Crimson Skies," which was published by Microsoft.

Sony wanted Zipper to create a military-style shooter game for the PlayStation 2. Zipper had never made a console game but agreed to begin production and suggested centering the title on the U.S. Navy SEALs.

Sony pushed the studio to open the game to online play, which proved to be an enormous amount of work.

The 2002 release didn't go as smoothly as hoped. Excessive cheating plagued the online game as players learned ways to dupe the system, and reviewers, while generally positive, had complaints about its artificial-intelligence capabilities.

Zipper took notice. It released a sequel in 2003 that fixed many of the cheating loopholes. The game won high praise and went on to sell 2.5 million copies.

Sony has been so happy with the Socom series that it commissioned a game for its PSP handheld system. It gave Zipper a second E3 display for that title, expected out in November. The company hasn't announced a final release date for "Socom 3," but some observers are betting it will launch around the time Microsoft's Xbox 360 console hits the shelves.

"Sony's quite happy to have this title so late," said Peer Schneider, a senior publisher at IGN Entertainment. "With an online game that you keep going back and back and back to, it'll be much harder for people to leave and embrace a new console."

Zipper has announced some features for "Socom 3" that are generating buzz at E3. For one thing, it is doubling the scope of its online multiplayer game, allowing 32 people to play at once. The game will allow players to drive boats, tanks and trucks.

"Socom 3" ran into controversy this year when the Bangladesh government reportedly threatened to sue Sony if Zipper went through with plans to set part of the game in that country. According to news reports from Asia, the government was concerned about possibly being portrayed as a terrorist state.

Bangladesh disappears

Sony said Socom would never depict a country as a terrorist operation. Still, Zipper removed all references to Bangladesh in the game.

Once "Socom 3" debuts, Zipper plans to look at where it wants to go next. Bosler and Soderberg don't want Zipper to be known exclusively as the Socom company and said they won't keep churning out new titles in the series.

Already, the studio is using its financial success — it would not disclose figures — and good standing within Sony to explore different ideas. But it's hard to imagine Sony would be willing to let that valuable franchise go.

"If we come back with something Socom-related in the future, you can bet it will be like 'Socom 3' in that it will be a huge leap from what's come before," Bosler said. "We don't want to do a me-too type of game."

The studio has nearly wrapped up a deal with Sony that would give it two games to develop, including at least one for the PlayStation 3, the next-generation console due next spring. To do that, Bosler said, Zipper will have to ramp up to nearly 200 employees.

Bosler and Soderberg aren't saying what their plans are. They recognize the enormous work — and risk — that goes into creating games these days and said they are researching ways to bring the costs down.

One way, Soderberg said, is to make it easier for developers to build things like houses and backgrounds into their games.

"The consoles are getting so powerful that it takes a ton to generate all the content necessary to feed the console," he said. "One thing we're looking at for the future is trying to come up with technology that can build that content much quicker."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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