The Salem News
Staying in the game: Salem group shuns retirement to produce video games
By Bryan McGonigle
SALEM - In a four-family house near the North River, a group of longtime friends has shunned retirement and turned a love of storytelling into moneymaking entertainment aimed at a largely untapped market.
The company, 7-128 Software, produces computer games that are not only family friendly but also can be enjoyed by seniors, disabled people and small children.
The games hardly resemble the violent, bloody offerings like "Grand Theft Auto" played on Xbox or PlayStation consoles. Players won't see the title character of the mystery game series "Inspector Cyndi in Newport" blowing up cars or slicing through a crowd of zombies with a chain saw.
But that audience isn't what the gang at 7-128 Software wants to attract anyway. One game, "Sandusky," looks more like "Pac Man" from the 1980s. But that retro feel is part of their charm, the makers say.
"We just felt that there needed to be something that was more family-oriented, that parents and grandparents could play with their kids," Cynthia Geller said, "and something that would make people really think about what's going on rather than just reacting. We engage your mind and not just your twitch."
And, Geller says, Microsoft and Sony don't market to the elderly, the deaf and the blind. Many 7-128 games have special features for seniors, the hearing impaired and the vision impaired - voice activation and text enlargement, for example. The level of difficulty is flexible, and each game can be set to easy mode.
Many of the games have a sort of throttle that lets players slow them down. That's to appeal to seniors and people with poor motor skills and cognitive problems.
"People, as they age, need to keep their brains exercised as well as their bodies," Geller said.
Most important, the group unanimously agrees, is the storytelling.
"All you have to do is sit two or three of us down for dinner, or a drink and stories just flow," said Marcia Morrison, vice president of audio arts.
If the stories within the games are creative, it is only a reflection of the lives lived by their creators. They're all baby boomers or older and come from backgrounds as diverse as their games.
Morrison is a former rock musician who has performed all over the West Coast, Canada and Alaska and still teaches music.
Chief Technology Officer John Bannick is a former Air Force officer who has built many software products and is an expert in user interfaces. Bannick's late wife, Barbara, is the seventh person of the group. She died six years ago but was instrumental in the company's development. The name of the company, 7-128, came from the fact that the seven founders all lived within the Route 128 arc at the time.
Geller is the resident actress. Players will meet her in several games, including the "Inspector Cyndi in Newport" mystery game series. She's vice president of sales and marketing and works on the side as a political fund-raiser.
David Brown, vice president of literary arts, is a published author, political activist and former English teacher and social worker for Child Protective Services.
Earl and Eleanor Robinson are the chief financial officer and chief operating officer, respectively. Earl is a former Army officer, Red Cross coordinator, political coordinator and auditor for the State of New York. Eleanor is an ex-Marine, former college teacher and New Hampshire government bureau chief who enjoys skiing the black diamond trails.
"Eleanor is our puzzle meister," Bannick said. "The puzzle games start off easy - anybody can solve the lower levels - and they end up diabolical."
The people at 7-128 don't just work together. They also live together.
"It's what I like to call an intentional family," Geller said.
The group first assembled more than 20 years ago at the Robinsons' New Hampshire farm over sessions of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons .
"I met and started dating a guy who owned the farm with Earl," Geller said. "Somewhere along the line, we were all having dinner together and started talking about the fact that aside from Earl and Eleanor, everybody rented their home," Geller said. "So we bought a three-family house in Somerville."
The Robinsons remained in New Hampshire but eventually sold their farm and moved with the rest of the group when they relocated to Salem several years later.
"We decided to form a collective where we would all be taken care of," Geller said. "All the circumstances were right, and we really enjoyed one another's company."
Eleanor Robinson credits those many Dungeons & Dragons meetings with a lot of the creativity that goes into their computer games.
"Great stories evolved as a result of it," she said. "So the storylines just flowed, and that's why we decided to do story-type video games."
To play 7-128 Software games requires purchasing the company's $25 Game Book - an "engine" that runs all of the games; it comes with four games included. Dozens of games have already been produced. A new game is released every Thursday, and the price typically ranges from $5 to $10.
Games can be purchased and downloaded from the company's Web site, www.7128.com.
Financially, the small company has its benefits. There's no venture capital investors pressuring to issue products on tight deadlines. And since the group works from home, there's no office space rent to pay. And no $100,000 software engineer salaries to pay.
That cuts the costs of running a software company from millions to thousands of dollars, Bannick said.
The gang at 7-128 doesn't expect to be the next Microsoft. Their business motivation has been to do what they love and make some money to enjoy life in the process.
"We just want to make enough to help with the mortgage and maybe have some beer money," Bannick said.