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Originally published Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Former boss of Microsoft Game Studio launches FigurePrints

Ed Fries, formerly of Microsoft, has founded FigurePrints, which produces figurines of characters created in the "World of Warcraft" game.

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

FigurePrints, an Eastside game-figuring company launching today, is the latest venture of former Microsoft Game Studio boss Ed Fries and it probably won't be the last.

Since leaving Microsoft three years ago, Fries, 43, has become an industry godfather, serving on the boards of game companies in San Francisco, New York and the Seattle area. He also co-founded Airtight Games in Redmond and he's advising 10 other game startups.

That gamer mafia led to the creation of FigurePrints, which is producing three-dimensional figurines of the customized characters people create for themselves in the wildly popular online fantasy game "World of Warcraft."

A year and a half ago, Fries was meeting at the E3 game show with Electronic Arts and Will Wright, creator of "Spore" and "The Sims," when he saw "Spore" figurines that Wright had created.

"I played with the software they wanted to show me, but I was really curious about these figures," Fries recalled.

Wright agreed to make a character Fries had designed, Fries put it next to the computer where he was spending a lot of time playing "Warcraft."

"It probably took a month of that before I put two and two together and said 'Wow, what if you did this, what if you applied this technology to 'World of Warcraft?' " he said.

The idea floated around until he had lunch to discuss Etherplay, an online game company that Jon Grande, another Microsoft veteran was starting.

"He was asking me to help, I was telling him, sure... but I almost felt guilty because I'm sitting there thinking I've got this great idea for a company and I'm not doing anything about it," Fries said.

"I'm helping other people do these things but I'm not doing it. So I talked to him about it and he was excited about it ... that gave me the courage to go forward and start to make it happen."

Grande is now one of four partners with Fries in FigurePrints.

Others are Craig Link, who developed the 10,000-line software script that pulls the characters from "Warcraft" servers and formats them for printing, and Dan Iosch, a Fries family friend who owns a printing company in Vancouver, B.C., where FigurePrints has set up its four, $50,000 3-D printers.

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Apparently there's demand for the $99 figurines among the 9 million "Warcraft" players. FigurePrints' Web site had more than 1 million hits in the last week, when word of the company slipped out early.

The 1/18th-scale figures take the company up to three months to produce, so the company will have monthly drawings to allocate production.

To explain how invested players are in their characters, Fries described how he spent months playing to earn a special helmet by killing a dragon with a team of 40 skilled players.

"That helmet means a lot to me — I probably worked for several months to get that, and I had to be lucky, too," he said, "... so the idea of being able to commemorate that, put it on your shelf and hold it and show it to your friends that way, and not just virtually, it just seemed like a really compelling idea.

It's kind of hard to explain to people who aren't part of the game but you've got 1,000 hours or 2,000 hours into your character, it means a lot."

Here are edited excerpts from the rest of our interview:

Q: So to fans, the $99 price isn't that much?

A: I don't think so. There's always going to be some people who it's too much money for, but for something you spent 1,000 hours, to spend $99 to have it on your shelf...

Q: What else is cool in gaming now?

A: The stuff we've been working on for 20 years is finally starting to happen. Video gaming is going to pass music this year as the second biggest entertainment business in the world. More and more of people's time is spent in interactive entertainment than passive entertainment.

Q: Are there still opportunities for independent developers and studios?

A: There are. Seattle is a great place to be a game developer. More and more game startups are happening in the region. Game publishers, they need content, they need developers to work with. Game developers like to grumble. It gets harder and harder to do a game deal. The fact is, the need is there for publishers to do these games.

Q: Sony's PlayStation 3 is getting traction since its price cut and the Wii is killing everybody. Microsoft has to do something in the next year to keep the Xbox momentum going ...

A: I think Sony's got off to a slow start, shot itself in the foot. It is starting to find its direction now. Sony has come out with a lower price and is starting to see its sales take off. The Wii has had a very good following since it started. Microsoft has to be careful it doesn't get pinched in the middle.

Q: Do they need to come out with an Xbox 365?

A: Price cuts are going to be the most important thing they do. I doubt if they are planning a major new console for several years now. Sony started so high and it's been able the last few months to be competitive by bringing its price down, but Microsoft is in a position to really put the hurt on by lowering its price.

With Nintendo, it's been successful because of the innovative controller, but also, really, because of the price; it had a low price from the start. If you have both Nintendo and Microsoft putting price pressure on Sony, it could make Sony's life difficult.

Q: Are you ever tempted to go back to Microsoft?

A: No, I was there almost 20 years, I did my time. For me, I like to always be learning new things. What I've been learning the last few years is the entrepreneurial side of things — venture capital, boards, starting new companies. So that's what's fun for me now.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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