Skip to main content

Somewhere on-line around the globe, a computer gamer who goes by the name Dirteater had the scalp of his life in Unreal Tournament 2003.

Dirteater had just dusted James Schmalz, the man behind the hit PC game.

Gamers like Dirteater have helped the 33-year-old native of Walkerton, Ont., fill his garage with a Mercedes and Mazda RX7 thanks to worldwide sales of the Unreal franchise in excess of 3.5 million units.

Unreal Tournament 2003, the latest release by Mr. Schmalz's Digital Extremes, is going to add to that fleet.

"It looks like this game is going to do pretty well so I think I've got a Ferrari in my future," Mr. Schmalz says matter-of-factly.

Mr. Schmalz, founder and creative director of Digital Extremes, is a made-in-Canada success story.

Unreal is a futuristic first-person shooter. You choose a gladiator-like character - from a list that ranges from aliens to humans - and head to one of a string of exotic worlds to do battle.

Then you start fragging foes. Not surprisingly, the game is rated for mature players.

Unreal Tournament 2003, the successor to 1998's Unreal and 1999 Unreal Tournament, was the best-selling PC game in the world for the first two weeks of its release in October. In its first month, Unreal Tournament 2003 has sold more than 800,000 copies worldwide.

No doubt the cash register will keep ringing when Unreal Championship comes out later this week for Xbox, with the game touted as one of the cornerstones of the Xbox live gaming system that makes its debut Friday.

Not bad for someone who sold his first game during university a decade ago for some $2,000.

Mr. Schmalz's empire now stretches to two divisions and some 40 employees.

Digital Extremes is based in London, Ont., while the new offshoot Brainbox Games - home to Mr. Schmalz these days - is in downtown Toronto.

Brainbox is working on an Xbox project, but Mr. Schmalz isn't saying what. Digital will also tackle a new game after employees get a much-needed month's vacation following the release of Unreal Championship for Xbox.

While young and evidently well off, Mr. Schmalz comes across as a proud businessman rather than know-it-all CEO. His office space is spartan and he talks more about the prowess of his employees than his own skills.

Mr. Schmalz says he spends half his time doing what he does best - creating games - while the other half is now spent running the business.

It appears he knows what he is doing. He has given key people at Digital a piece of the action, ensuring he retains his top talent while perhaps paving the way for time away from the business or an early retirement.

For someone like Mr. Schmalz, Freedom 55 sounds 15 to 20 years too late.

Unreal Tournament 2003 is so popular that Epic Games, the North Carolina company that built the engine for the game (Imagine a car. Digital gives the game its look and feel, Epic is the powerplant that gets it from A to Z) is developing a pro version that will be used for tournaments around the world.

According to Mr. Schmalz, top gamers are "getting wealthy" off Unreal in South Korea where gaming tournaments can carry a purse of $300,000 (U.S.). The on-line version of the PC game can even document who does what, listing the top players in the world.

A tournament on a lesser scale is planned for Toronto later this month. Fragapalooza East 2002 is slated for Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 with $20,000 Cdn in cash and prizes on the line. Up to 2,000 gamers can be accommodated at the event (for more information, go to

And it's not just teenage boys who are spending hours on alien planets, killing off foes. At one point, American porn star Asia Carrera was ranked No. 1 in the world at Unreal Tournament.

"She's just a fanatic about it," Mr. Schmalz said.

Ms. Carrera's Web site confirms the interest in Unreal Tournament. It also lists a filmography of more than 250 titles including Bite the Big Apple, Blondage and Encino Housewife Hookers.

So how would Mr. Schmalz fare against the top Unreal players?

"Not well," he said with a laugh. "They're good."

Mr. Schmalz is pretty good at his game, it should be said. Dirteater got lucky because the Digital boss gave himself up on-line to show a reporter how his characters tumble realistically to the ground when coming second best in a shootout.

But like just about everything else, it takes time to really excel.

"It is kind of like training for an Olympic event. The more you play the better you get. And if you stop for a week, you actually get that much worse.

"We never thought that until we actually found it happening to ourselves."

The first version of the Unreal PC game sold 1.5 million copies. The PlayStation 2 version of the game sold between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. Not bad, but there was no on-line option. The game was also limited as designers tried to cram the huge world of the PC version onto a console.

Unreal Tournament 2003 opens with armour-clad characters from the game making their entrance before an adoring throng. Imagine The Running Man meets The Road Warrior. It's slick stuff. Epic used real wrestlers to make the figures authentic.

One gamer has already tattooed his entire arm to mirror a character in the new game. A garage band has written a song about the game.

It's welcome feedback after two years of intense work developing both the PC and Xbox games.

"More than a little stressful," Mr. Schmalz admits. "Hopefully we'll never have to go through that again."

Mr. Schmalz had always been interested in video games, from his first Apple computer. He loved playing games - and trying to recreate them. He was 12 when he started programming his first creation on the Apple.

Mr. Schmalz founded the company in 1993 after experiencing success in the early '90s with a shareware pinball game. He was 22 and started the game in the final months of a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Waterloo. Essentially he built a computer pinball game that featured 12 different pinball tables and released one of them for free. Anyone who liked it could buy a fuller version.

The concept allowed Mr. Schmalz to skip middlemen and other costs. It also gave him the pleasure of knowing if people liked the game, they'd buy it.

"So many times now you could put crap in a box and if it's got a great brand name, people will buy it," he laments.

It was just a hobby, but throughout university, he sold a couple of basic adventure games for $1,200 and $2,000. Then he sold a shareware game called Solar Winds and made about $60,000.

"I thought this was just mind-boggling, that I could make that much money from this tiny little thing I was doing in my spare time," he said.

He started work on the Unreal game in 1994. Both the company and sales have grown, although the process wasn't always easy. In the gaming world, it takes time to finish a product. When profits finally roll in, they are eaten up by taxes and the cost of creating the next game, not to mention taking on new staff when expanding.

"Plus it's hard getting the best people. We grow very carefully," he said.

The Unreal franchise will continue to flourish, although the name belongs to Epic - something Mr. Schmalz clearly regrets haven given up years ago. Still his company has the rights to the next version of the game. And by then, hopefully he will have a new title out in the market - with him owning all the rights.

He knows the marketplace is flooded by games. But quality still sells

"As a developer you can't suck," he said. "You have to be good at what you do.

"Everyone says, a good game - as long as it's marketed properly - is going to sell."

Xbox has started to beat the drum for Unreal Championship. Unreal Tournament 2003 is already a hit.

And that probably means a healthy commission for a local Ferrari dealer.