He looks and acts like a gawky teenager with too much energy. He constantly paces his company's offices looking for things to do, stopping to change a compact disk or play a few rounds of the video game Tekken II. He slumps his lanky, 6-foot- 8-inch frame uncomfortably into a chair, then slides off and curls up on the floor instead. There's graffiti everywhere. Broken toys spill out of a closet. Downstairs, in the so-called conference room, an unused conference table sits in one corner, an unmade bed in another.
Meet Douglas R. TenNapel of The Neverhood, a Mission Viejo (Calif.) computer-game company. The 30-year-old artist and animator is a hot property. Not only does his outfit have a multimillion-dollar deal to develop three games for DreamWorks Interactive but TenNapel is also executive producer of two Saturday morning cartoon shows featuring characters he created, and he just signed a contract to write a series of kids' books for Scholastic Inc. Says David Perry, president of Shiny Entertainment Inc., a game company where TenNapel used to work: "Everything he does is completely original."
The Neverhood is more than just TenNapel's company. It's a dreamworld he has been creating for years. It took root in his imagination and sketchbooks, then became a series of paintings in a 1988 art show. Last year, with three tons of clay, TenNapel (the name is Dutch) started building his kingdom and its puppet population. The final product emerged last month: a clay animation computer game, The Neverhood, in which gamers solve puzzles to guide the hero, Klaymen, in his quest for the meaning of life. It's the first game published by DreamWorks Interactive, a joint venture of Microsoft Corp. and DreamWorks SKG, the company formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen.
It's too early to tell if The Neverhood will be a megahit like TenNapel's Earthworm Jim, created two years ago for Shiny. Jim and its sequel, both put out by Playmates Toys Inc., sold 2 million copies, worth more than $100 million at retail. Jim, a sort of idiot-savant superhero, was reincarnated as a toy by Playmates, a comic by Marvel, and an underwear line by Fruit of the Loom. Now he lives on as a Saturday morning cartoon, in its second season on Time Warner Inc.'s WB Network.
Jim gave TenNapel the confidence to strike out on his own. "I was tired of bitching about the way the previous places where I'd worked were run," he says. "And I knew we could make a really good living if we came up with incredible games." So last year, he quit Shiny and rounded up seven friends he had met at previous jobs: some from Virgin Interactive, some from Blue Sky, and some from Shiny. Like him, four of the seven had attended Point Loma Nazarene College, an evangelical Christian school in San Diego.
"INCREDIBLY LOYAL." The result was The Neverhood, which remedies his biggest gripe with game companies: Artists and programmers do the work, and the owner gets the profits. Every employee is an owner; TenNapel has the biggest, but not a majority, share. Each collects royalties at a rate more than five times what other companies pay. "I think a successful business has to have incredibly loyal employees," explains TenNapel, who has offered $1,000 to any headhunter who can lure one of his friends away.
As soon as TenNapel left Shiny, offers poured in. Katzenberg, while still at Walt Disney Co., had tried to buy the Earthworm Jim character, and Spielberg's son loved the game. So that deal was a natural. And CBS Inc. was so eager to get a show from TenNapel it signed up for Project G.eeK.eR., which features a humanoid with transformative powers, even before it found a studio to produce it. The show, which TenNapel developed outside of his company, debuted in September and is No.3 among CBS's dozen-plus Saturday morning kids' shows.
The Neverhood is run as a partnership: The books are open, and everyone votes on how money is spent. "`Management' is a dirty word here," says Mark Lorenzen, a background artist who met TenNapel on their first day at Point Loma Nazarene, in Drawing 100. "We're all basically equals, including Doug, and that's the way he wanted it." Still, TenNapel is clearly in charge. "You might look at Doug and think he's wacky, but when it comes to running a company, he's got tremendous personal and professional integrity," says DreamWorks Interactive President Glenn Entis.
BORN AGAIN. Given TenNapel's quirky characters and oddball humor (his business card reads "mayor"), it comes as a surprise when he reveals he is a "conservative, born-again Christian" and that The Neverhood is "the account of the fall of man." Says TenNapel: "We didn't start out to make a Biblical parable, but all the inputs in our lives start pouring out into what we make." Lorenzen, who helped write the story, figures "maybe half the people who play the game will see the Biblical paradigm."
What may hurt the game's popularity is not its scriptural roots but the fact that it's not a shoot-'em-up like most blockbusters. On the other hand, several reviewers have compared it to the megahit Myst--but with humor. In an era of glitzy graphics, The Neverhood's handmade quality also stands apart. After fashioning clay characters and sets, TenNapel & Co. shot 57,302 frames of stop-motion animation--10 times as many as in a typical hand-animated game. By summer, the team was putting in 100-hour weeks. TenNapel's wife of six years, Angie, the company's business manager and receptionist, says one of her job perks is getting to see her husband.
TenNapel won't breathe a word about The Neverhood's second game, due to be pitched to DreamWorks in early December. Instead, he picks up the latest of 30 hardbound sketchbooks and flips through it. "There are 10 years' worth of characters, worlds, and stories here," he says. "And now that the public wants my stuff, I'm sure I can make a living at it." With all the high-profile media companies he has lined up so far, it should be a pretty good living at that.