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Vol. 66, No. 1

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High Scorer

Eastman School graduate composes a career as CEO of top video game company. By Jonathan Sherwood
Jeffery Briggs ’79E

When Jeffery Briggs ’79E was studying at the Eastman School of Music, he envisioned a future composing his own classical music.

These days he orchestrates tactical assaults on invading armies.

The former composition major is the founder and CEO of Firaxis Games, one of the world’s leading video game producers. The company’s highly regarded lineup of games allow players to imaginatively change the tide of the Civil War by maneuvering cavalry, supplies, and infantry across a realistic battlefield, or struggle to rebuild human society on a hostile alien world, or even take control of the great empires of history and try to manage their diplomacy, trade systems, and laws to recreate civilization.

“The creative process behind both music composition and designing a game is extraordinarily similar,” says Briggs. “They’re both a way of creating an experience for an audience that unfolds and evolves over time. They suck you in, keep your attention, bring you to a peak and a dénouement at the end.”

Since founding the company in 1996 with four employees, Briggs has grown Firaxis to be one of the world’s top five video game developers. The company’s first game, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, was not only a commercial success, but remains one of Briggs’s personal favorites.

Gettysburg was unlike any war game that came before it,” he says. “Most games are about how fast you can click a mouse, but in this game everything was based on strategy—the strategy of that era of warfare. You have to command armies in the formations they’d have used back then. You’d fight to claim the high ground for an advantage.

“Most games don’t have that kind of depth, but we wanted it as realistic as possible, and we did it while making it really intuitive to play.”

Designing video games was not quite what Briggs was expecting to do with his degree from the Eastman School. After earning his master’s in music from Memphis State and his doctorate from the University of Illinois, Briggs went to New York City in the hopes of succeeding as a freelance composer.

“Being a freelance composer wasn’t quite as lucrative as I would have liked,” says Briggs. “I needed a ‘day job,’ so I answered an ad in The New York Times for a board game editor. I’ve enjoyed playing board games all my life, so I figured, why not?”

When an unexpected opportunity arose to use his musical talents, Briggs moved from board to video games.

“MicroProse, a computer game company, called me out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested in designing games for them.

“I liked video games well enough, but I have to admit that right away I was thinking, ‘Hey, video games need music.’ So I accepted and within a year I was composing all the music for their games.”

From 1988 until 1996, Briggs wrote much of the music for Microprose’s early games and eventually became a director, helping to shape the games. There, too, he met Sid Meier, a cofounder of the company and a legend in video game circles.

The two worked on such breakthrough strategy games as Civilization, which pits a player against the real-world tribulations of building and sustaining a civilization—building cities, roads, and trade routes, exercising diplomacy, and waging war.

After MicroProse was bought by another software manufacturer, Briggs realized he had what it took to start his own company. The new owners, for example, thought one of Briggs’s games, Civilization II, would likely sell only 30,000 copies. Instead, it sold more than 1 million.

In 1996, Briggs started Firaxis, bringing a few good people with him from MicroProse.

“Sid didn’t come at first, but I really wanted him because he’s the best designer in the industry and a celebrity in gaming circles,” says Briggs. “It took a few months of convincing, but he joined.”

Firaxis has produced eight games and plans to produce four a year by 2008. The company has grown to 45 employees and shows signs of doubling in the next five years.

But what of his music? Though Briggs composes the music for only some of his company’s games now, he is continually reminded of how important music is to his success.

The name Firaxis is taken from the title of Briggs’s doctoral dissertation and refers to a piece of music that runs in a circular pattern around “a fiery axis.”

“I’m a musician,” he says. “I love composing. At some point I’ll retire from this and then I’ll be able to compose all I want.”

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