Computer game developer and Frogdice founder credits Hilton Head roots for company's success

gmartin@islandpacket.comNovember 22, 2011 

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A man meets a woman online, marries her and names her vice president of his company. The company flourishes, the couple starts a family and all live happily ever after.

It sounds like a modern-day fairy tale.

Or in Michael Hartman's case, a computer game.

For as much as Hartman's creations have influenced others' lives -- thousands have signed up to play the games produced by his Lexington, Ky.-based company, Frogdice -- it's tough to top the impact they've had on his own.

While studying law at the University of Georgia, he met a woman in an online forum of a game he'd already designed, "Threshold RPG." She was also a law student, at the University of Vermont, and for a while, Hartman recalled, "we had a pity party about how much we hated law school."

Commiseration turned into compassion, compassion to passion, and within a few years the two were married. She's been vice president and creative director at Frogdice for the past 10 years.

It's all the product of a game, Hartman said, that might not have been created were it not for the guidance he received as a student on Hilton Head Island in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"I played a lot of online role-playing games, and they were all made by career computer programmers," Hartman said. "It got me thinking, what if someone with interest in creative writing or from a liberal arts background were to try making a game?"

For inspiration, Hartman said he turned to lessons he learned as a student at Hilton Head Preparatory School, citing in particular the influences of Fred Bassett, Barbara White and Don Hite.

"I learned so much about critical thinking, creativity and leadership from them," Hartman said. "They were vital in giving me the foundation to make a more compelling game."

Armed with their lessons and broad interests of his own -- he majored in International Law at Georgetown -- Hartman started Frogdice 15 years ago, when computer games were played primarily among a small but dedicated community.

Today, Frogdice is part of a computer game industry that's become not just popular but profitable, generating about $25 billion last year alone, according to Hartman.

His company generates revenue by charging small amounts for users to make cosmetic changes to their online environments, such as a new home for their avatar or identity.

It just launched its first mass-market game, called Coin 'n Carry, in which users operate a shop in medieval times. It already has about 500 users, and Hartman hopes to have as many as 100,000 eventually.

Hartman lives in his wife's native state of Kentucky today -- "she wore me down," he said with a laugh -- but still brings his family back to Hilton Head almost every year.

Although born in Indianapolis, Hartman spent his middle school and high school years on the island and is glad to see his children embrace the region he still loves.

"My kids love the wildlife and the beach," he said. "And I get to spend even more time with my wife."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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