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  Game Over

A lawsuit by former employees brings to light the last days of CyberFlix, the company of "garage band programmers" that was supposed to rule the video game world.

by Jack Neely

You could make a computer game about CyberFlix.

You approach the door at 4 Market Square, click on the wooden door, which opens to a narrow flight of stairs. You climb to the second floor, bluff your way past Blue, the receptionist, and begin gathering information from each of the widely various characters you see. You pet the dog, greet the Newsweek reporter, exchange blows with the guy in the mohawk.

Then, if you've done everything just right, you'll climb the narrow staircase, past the World War II poster that says Shh—Silence Is Security to the third floor, the dark, quiet lair where the Genius resides. The object of the game is to guess what he's thinking.

CyberFlix was never one of Knoxville's biggest businesses, but for three or four years, it was probably our most famous. Newsweek profiled these "garage-band programmers." Computer author J.C. Herz devoted a whole chapter to them in her 1997 book about the global computer-gaming industry, Joystick Nation. Experimental composer Laurie Anderson and former Sen. Howard Baker visited their offices. They earned flattering writeups in People (an article titled "Hollywood in Knoxville"), U.S. News & World Report, Variety and dozens of computer trade journals. And that was even before their biggest title, Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, became a nationwide bestseller.

They made waves across the international computer-game world, and seemed to herald a high tide in their downtown neighborhood. CyberFlix inspired politicians to follow its lead, with catch-phrases of "technology hubs" and "digital crossroads." CyberFlix's pale young geniuses found themselves working as consultants to a city that tried hard to catch on, sometimes even seemed eager to convert downtown into a Greater CyberFlix. It's more businesses like this, many thought, that downtown Knoxville needs. At an ad-hoc meeting on the Square in 1997, City Council passed resolutions aimed at fitting out ancient Market Square with cyber-connections certain to spawn more CyberFlixes.

Just last year, Titanic was among the nation's best-selling computer games, and People and Southern Living ran profiles of this amazing young company. On Sunday talk shows, Mayor Ashe was boasting of CyberFlix as strong evidence of the rebirth of Market Square.

Anyone who spent any time on Market Square a year or two ago would recognize most of them. Rand Cabus, with glasses and a dark Van dyke, walking briskly to his Locust Street condo. Alex Tschetter, muscular, tattooed with a flat-top mohawk, smoking cigarettes. Slow-talking, blond-goateed Billy Davenport, usually in a trucker's cap, loping to his pickup. Polite, bespectacled Erik Quist, getting a bagel. Bill Appleton, short-haired, square-jawed, and basketball tall, walking his big weimeraner around the square.

Their impressive offices were unlike any others in East Tennessee: two levels of an old building, polished hardwood floors, bare-brick walls. In the well-lit lobby, clocks showed what time it was in cities around the world: Tokyo, Los Angeles, Knoxville. Beyond the lobby, the place was always comfortably dark, lit mainly by afternoon sunlight and dozens of flickering computer screens. With baskets of free candy, big-screen video games, ping pong, and billiards, it was the sort of office that little brothers loved to visit.

That was just a year ago—which, in cyber time, can seem like several decades.

Today, the upper floors at 4 Market Square are empty and silent, and there's no digital crossroads here. What happened to CyberFlix is unclear, and the subject of a lawsuit filed earlier this month by two of the company's founders.

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