Defend Ironton!

Ironton, Ohio may seem just like any other small town, but those brave enough to look below the surface will find the real, surprising truth:

Ironton really is just like any other small town.

It’s got its own points of pride: the nation’s oldest continually running Memorial Day parade and the Ironton High Fighting Tigers, just to name a couple.

It’s also got its problems. They all come back to one, really: It’s economically depressed, having lost nearly 1,500 jobs in the span of about 18 months. In a town of a little under 12,000, that’s not a downturn, that’s a catastrophe.

The city council reacted the best way they know how, trying to keep spending down, and enacting a municipal fee that’s none too popular with the long-time residents. But somewhere in a local basement, a group of gamers from this area have formulated their own plan to save Ironton: They’re going to destroy it.

TickStorm is not like any other videogame developer. They’re a developer with a clear mission: To surrender their home to an alien onslaught in a game so popular that it will single-handedly put Ironton on the map … and save their beloved city.

The world’s most unlikely studio
The year was 1999, and Baltimore native and Navy vet Rick Eid had just been relocated to Ironton by his employer, Cabletron. He’d been asked to start a training department for the networking equipment company – a new direction that quickly ran aground.

“I moved out here working for Cabletron’s training department, and 10 months later, Cabletron shut down,” Eid said. “But in that 10 months, I had really fallen in love with the area.”

After years of moving around in the military, Eid had promised his two teenaged children, Rick Jr. and Nikki, that they could finish school in their new home. But Eid found keeping that promise to be difficult without work. Luckily, he was soon hired by Ohio University Southern, a branch campus in Ironton, which charged him with creating a game development department. It was an idea Eid bucked at, largely because he thought the coding would be too difficult for students, but also because he wasn’t very familiar with game design in the first place.

But never let it be said that Rick Eid is a quitter. He secluded himself in his office for a solid week, attempting to learn every in and out of a design program called 3D Gamestudio.

The classes filled quickly, but the new instructor discovered that his students were interested in something beyond an easy few hours of course credits. Eid found, as he taught, that they couldn’t get enough. As their enthusiasm for projects continued outside the classroom, he hit upon the idea of creating his own game design company with the students, independent from the school. With few resources, no formal training and practically no experience, the world’s most unlikely game studio was born.

A storm, some ticks and an identity
They happened upon the name almost by accident. They had already settled on Melee Games, before a quick internet search showed it was already taken by several other companies.

Their next choice, the one that stuck, was a name from Eid’s past derived from a female student who was trying to pick an email identity during a particularly bad thunderstorm: TickStorm.

Oh, and also, the girl loved ticks. It’s pretty much your typical company name origin story. But they figured it was memorable, and you wouldn’t need a bit of Googling to figure out they were certainly the only ones using it. What the team still lacked was a big idea. They drew their inspiration, in the end, from the same economically depressed climate that had brought Eid into their lives in the first place.

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“One of the reasons for picking game design to teach at OUS was that we wanted these guys who had high-tech skills to be able to do a job and not have to leave the area to be employed,” Eid said. “And with game design, it’s something you can do at home.”

For the employees of Tickstorm, home was Ironton, and it was a home they were willing to defend.

A miracle gone awry
The plot of Defend Ironton! begins like the answer to the city’s prayers. A large manufacturing plant moves into town and employs all those that are struggling to find work. But the locals soon learn that the bosses of this new corporation (psst, they’re actually aliens) have something far more sinister on their minds: abduction.

“They all start work, the doors close, and no one sees them again,” Eid said. “They’ve put up this impenetrable field around the city, so the Army can’t come in; no one can. You’re on your own, and it’s up to the residents of Ironton to defend the city.”

The agenda, besides the benefit of working with an area they’re extremely familiar with, is to give Ironton the boost it so desperately needs; just a little bit of extra attention to help bring a real (hopefully non-extraterrestrial) economic savior to the town.

“The students love this area, they were born here, they want to stay here,” Eid said. “Hopefully, we can put Ironton on the map.”

Total Insanity
The team – now comprised of 44-year-old Eid and about eight of his students – didn’t want to just slap the city’s name on the box. They wanted authenticity, with all the town’s buildings perfectly modeled, but reality soon intervened. After working for weeks to model The Depot, a now-defunct Ironton restaurant, the team realized that recreating the entire city with as little experience as they had might have just been more than they could handle.

The group had limitless energy and passion but didn’t have, as Eid said, a setting with no limitations, where they could “step out of reality a bit.”

“One of the guys said, ‘What if we put the game in an insane asylum? Think of the stuff you could do,'” Eid said. “We started brainstorming, spent an entire day doing nothing but storyboarding and came up with so much fun for this game.”

Tickstorm’s maiden voyage would be Insanity, an off-kilter, first-person shooter set in a mental institution. They don’t have the money for top-notch rendering and lighting, so they’re putting their faith in work ethics and their own creativity.

“The gameplay and humor in this are going to be a blast,” Eid said. “Things like you come around a corner and herd of squirrels start attacking you, clowns walk by and wave and then walk into a wall. Every time you look into a mirror, you see a different reflection. It’s total insanity!”

Although it may not be particularly rib-tickling on the digitally printed page, Eid has enthusiasm to spare, and he manages to sell it. Besides, he’s quick to add, Insanity (which they hope to release in 2007) is just a dry run for the big show, though it’s a dry run that has to finance said show.

“We’re learning quite a bit by doing Insanity,” Eid said. “Whatever money we make from that, the group’s already said they want to roll a good portion, if not all of it, back into the company so we can afford better computers for every one of them and better software. For instance, I have an Alienware laptop, too, that fried on me. I mean literally, smoke was rolling out of the keyboard.”

Coming to a town near you
With Insanity slated for next year, and Defend Ironton! due in 2010, times are tight, financially. But that doesn’t deter Tickstorm’s big thinkers; in fact, Eid is already planning on a franchise.

“It opens the door to unlimited sequels, you know, Defend Cleveland!; Defend Cincinnati!; Defend Baltimore! The world’s the limit,” Eid said. “If we get to the point where we’re big like Blizzard or like EA with a graphics department, we can just continue to work on it.”

For now, though, the going is slow. Most of the work is done on the weekends, not including that done by Eid, who recently left his teaching job to work on TickStorm fulltime. The hope is that, one day, his whole team will do the same.

“The hard part about doing this on our own is that these guys have to have jobs, they have to work, some of them work at Pic ‘n’ Save and other places,” Eid said. “They have to make money, so they can’t spend all their time doing this. Not too many guys want to come and work for you when they’re not going to get paid until the game sells. One day, we’re hoping that these games sell enough that these are the only jobs they have to do and they don’t have to work at McDonalds.”

Eid himself has not yet drawn a paycheck from TickStorm.

All of the long-range planning may seem far-fetched, but Eid and crew don’t see it that way. Their determination is almost fanatical. They’re always working to improve their situation, whether it’s the regular LAN parties they put on for gamers in the area, or small projects to help increase their toolset. For instance, they’ve even begun to pick up on Maya with personal learning editions, but they still don’t have the money to buy it.

To that end, they’ve just picked up their first paying game design gig: creating a safety training game for the Southern Ohio Medical Center of Portsmouth. In the game, which the team is frantically building models for, players learn the proper way to evacuate the facility in case of a fire or other emergency. No, it’s not Half-Life, but it’s work.

The big games are still years away, but it almost makes the effort that much more noble. They’re not just wagering their years of work on a game concept or play mechanics, they’re wagering that, in 2010, there will still be an Ironton worth defending.

But TickStorm doesn’t think that way, and neither does Ironton. In their minds, the game making a splash and the city’s rebirth is practically a forgone conclusion. This small southeastern Ohio city and the game studio share the same intangible power all the graphic artists and multi-million-dollar budgets in the world couldn’t match: They believe.

Justin McElroy is the news editor of The Ironton Tribune and a freelance gaming writer. He lives in Huntington, W.Va. with his fiancee, Sydnee.

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