Bada-Boom, Ka-ching, Ka-ching

Last year, a Toronto-based video game developer phoned an old pal of his in Scottsdale, Jim Perkins, with a hell of an idea.

"John Walsh of Groove Games asked me, What do you think of publishing a Playboy game?'" recalls Perkins, president and chief operating officer of ARUSH Entertainment, which publishes video games for personal computers and consoles. "It all came together in about two minutes of brainstorming: You the player of the game are Hugh Hefner, and you will build the empire and live the lifestyle of Hef, the parties, the celebrities, the girls. I said, Yes!' Who wouldn't want to play the guy?"

The notion of a 76-year-old man who (for all the public knows) has been wearing the same silk pajamas and comfy slippers for half a century as the focal point of a video game seems far-fetched at first blush.

But think about it a minute: Hef's well-cultivated image is that of an inveterate horndog who treats his uniformly beautiful women well (word is he's got seven young ladies in his crypto-concubine at the moment), has hobnobbed with generations of the rich, famous and beautiful, and has a gazillion-dollar business empire to boot. (How much the old boy spends on Viagra might best be addressed in another story.)

If Perkins and his team successfully translate Hef's world into a video game, then bada-boom, bada-bing might well turn into ka-ching, ka-ching.

"This is not going to be a sleazy game, though it will be sexy," says Perkins. "Yes, there will be beautiful women, but the game doesn't center around sex. It centers around Hef's lifestyle, the high life, and it will approach things from a Playboy point of view, not Hustler. We know the game will get a mature' rating [a person has to be at least 17 to purchase it legally], and that's appropriate."

Ideas are easy to come by in the burgeoning video game industry, of which ARUSH is a small but increasingly viable player. But, says ARUSH's manager of communications, Donald Case, the odds of a video game concept becoming reality is just this side of none.

The 44-year-old Perkins says he gets about 2,500 pitches annually from wanna-be video-game creators (most of them, he notes, are highly intelligent, single-minded young men who are school dropouts and work day jobs to subsidize their obsession). Of that number, ARUSH publishes about 10 games a year titles include Duke Nukem, Hunting Unlimited II, Monkey Brains, and the soon-to-be-released Devastation, a so-called "shooter" game that sounds akin to Escape From New York, the futuristic 1981 flick that starred Kurt Russell.

Perkins says he first approached Playboy with a short proposal letter a few weeks after he spoke with Walsh: "They know what they're doing, and they keep a very strict control over their brand name. But they immediately liked our idea, and took it to Hef, who gave a thumbs-up. Things since then have moved relatively smoothly."

Playboy's deal with ARUSH and Groove Games marks that company's first foray into the video-game industry, and a look at its Web site suggests it may be a happy (open, of course) marriage: Playboy readers themselves may provide a built-in clientele, in that according to market research released by the company they spent more than $300 million on video games in 2001.

Perkins says he plans to have the game on the market sometime next year, which will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Playboy magazine. But between now and then looms a ton of work.

Specifics are still being discussed, so who knows if the game's developers will include any "articles" in the software for players to say they're reading. But Perkins says the Playboy game will fit into the "world-builder simulation genre, tycoon-style," as contrasted, say, with shooter and puzzle-type games that also have found a niche in the billion-dollar industry.

He says the game will have a "historical" component, and will in part replicate Hefner's long, strange trip through the so-called "Swinging '60s" Hef called Chicago home in those halcyon days into the 1990s and beyond. It will be interesting to see if the game makes any reference to Playboy's widely reported malaise of the 1980s, when the company's once-flourishing Playboy Clubs shut down and, in 1982, when it lost more than $51 million.

Says Jim Perkins, "Hef has broken down a lot of barriers in his life sexual, racial, you name it and he's done it on his own terms. And we've been told that Playboy is one of the 10 most recognizable brands in the world. That's quite a legacy."

Perkins and a few colleagues are planning to go to Hollywood in a few weeks to get their first inside look at Playboy Mansion West, where Hef still resides. (His most recent ex-wife is said to live in a home on the mansion grounds, with the couple's two young children.)

"It really is about doing research," Perkins says, chuckling at the thought. "We're going to get a tour of the Mansion into places that few people get to see. There are secret rooms there that we are sure to incorporate in our game, and a lot of other things to learn about the place."

He's not sure, however, if he'll get to meet the reclusive Hefner, who apparently still oversees publication of his magazine, among other activities.

"It would be great to meet the man since I've learned so much about him in preparation for doing our game," Perkins says. "He's a legend."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin