Somewhere, in another universe, Arthurian knights and Norse warriors intermingle in Celtic lore. That universe, inhabited by over 200,000 gamers from around the world, was not formed in the gaming hubs of Austin and California, but in Fairfax City.
Fairfax-based Mythic Entertainment creates online games where participants role play as different characters from various realms. Its most popular game, "Dark Age of Camelot," averages 35,000 players online at one time, from all across the globe: the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea.
Because of the company's growth since its founding in 1995, Mythic Entertainment was chosen recently as one of the 50 fastest growing technology companies in Virginia by the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche.
"We're always listening to our players. We're always trying to improve our games," said Mythic Entertainment CEO and president Mark Jacobs.
With expansions of the Camelot game, a new science fiction game in the works, and 13 other games online, Mythic Entertainment has come a long way since its beginning, when Jacobs had 18 phone lines, attached to game servers, running out of his apartment.
Jacobs and Rob Denton co-founded the gaming company in 1995, then named Interworld Productions. While Jacobs, who received a law degree from Georgetown in 1984, managed the business and design aspects of the company, Denton focused on the programming.
In 1997, the company changed its name to Mythic Entertainment. In 2001, the "Dark Age of Camelot" came on-line.
One area where the company tries to please its customers is through the customer service department, which answers questions 24 hours a day from the company's office in Fairfax.
"They like the ability to do realm vs. realm contact. People love being able to identify with their realm," said Jacobs of the gamers.
Jacobs added that other gamers like chatting with other players or fighting monsters.
"It attracts every type of player," Jacobs said.
Susan Stafford of southern Indiana is one such player who regularly logs in time in the "Camelot" universe. A 29-year-old mother, Stafford, who goes by the name "Chrysanthe O'Fleur," has been playing "Dark Age of Camelot" with her husband since December 2001.
"My husband and I got started in role-playing games with ‘Magic: The Gathering,’ a fun card game," said Stafford in an e-mail. "It was something to do at night when nothing was on television. After acquiring a computer, we discovered "Ultima Online," which we played for over three years.
"To us, gaming is very relaxing," Stafford said. "You meet new people, make new friendships, and relax and enjoy yourself. Towards the end of our ‘Ultima Online’ fun, some of our ‘Ultima Online’ friends found a new game, ‘Dark Age of Camelot.’ My husband bought it and tried it out. I had never played anything like it before and found myself watching him over his shoulder. Soon, I also had my own account."
Stafford explained that the gamers she interacts with aren't just teenagers, but adults from diverse walks of life: executive types, mechanical engineers, and Web designers. Through the games, she has developed friendships with other gamers.
"I've made very strong friendships with several people. One in particular lives near Seattle, Wash. She and I talk over the phone, send each other silly gifts, and wish that we didn't live 3,000 miles apart," Stafford said.
Another gamer, Chris Kyle of Springfield, likes the depth of "Dark Age of Camelot." Because it's an online game, a player who has achieved mastery of the game can still find other material to explore within the game.
"With the multi-player games, when you reach the highest level you can do, there's still so much you can do," Kyle said.
Kyle discovered "Dark Age of Camelot" after an online friend told him about it a week before the game came out. He checked out the Web site and got hooked on the game. He's been playing it ever since.
"There's a lot of stuff to do in it. And there's a community to it," said Kyle, adding that he's made some friends online from playing. "The game itself is fun, and the social aspect adds to that."
With 140 employees, Mythic Entertainment is a small company compared with other online game producers such as Microsoft and Electronic Arts. Yet its size hasn't stopped Mythic Entertainment from producing expansions to current games, as well as plans for new ones. A science fiction game depicting the Roman Empire in outer space will come out at the end of 2005.
"We were the small independent no one believed in," Jacobs said.