By JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS
WASHINGTON -- Two years ago this week, over the lull of winter break, Rocco Repetski got bored the way high school juniors who happen to be math geniuses (and who happen to take interest in computer code) get bored. He wondered, why not design an online game?
He wasn't thinking, "Oh, a game will make thousands of dollars," though that would come later.
He was thinking, "Oh, creating a game is cool," in the manner a teen-ager considers instant messaging and PlayStation 2 not only as "cool things" but "facts of life."
To play Repetski's game, you sign up online, get a secret link, send it to your friends and tell them to click on that link. The more clicks you get, the more points you earn. The more alliances you make, the more chance you'll have at landing on top of the ranking list.
Simple, harmless, quick fun, like one of those chain letters -- "Please copy this entire e-mail and send it to 10 friends" -- waiting in your in box.
"It's really a primitive game that you couldn't really do anything with," says Repetski, 18, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective magnet school in Annandale, Va. In Repetski's mind, the game could only get better. It did.
With Ben Gelb, Aman Gupta and Nick Meyer, also TJ graduates, Repetski developed Kings of Chaos, or KoC. It is a "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" -- a mouthful, like its acronym, MMORPG -- inspired by Middle Earth, with humans, elves, dwarfs and orcs battling for survival.
Not coincidentally, the free site took off about the same time "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" flew high at the box office.
"I had this sole goal of seeing how many people I could get to my site," Repetski says. Try about 5 million page views a day, with 136,488 active users and more than 90,000 hits on Google, complete with fan sites.
How a simple online game like KoC can blossom from a high school computer server into one of the top 50 gaming sites on the Internet -- a few spots below FreeArcade.com and Nintendo.com, this year -- is a big, big surprise with gross revenue of more than $175,000.
In the past eight months KoC's creators have each received a check, the exact amount they'd rather not say. The money, they admit, helps pay for their freshman year in college -- and for "some toys," adds Meyer, half-smiling.
This is proof, pure and clear, of a highly democratic Internet, which in its laissez-faire, anything-goes nature allows something as ingeniously entrepreneurial as this to happen.
From that winter break in 2002, when Repetski put the game on his school Web site, it took only a few weeks before TJ's server couldn't handle the game's online traffic. "We figured we had to get more serious," Gelb says.
They needed their own top-of-the-line servers -- four of them at a cost of $20,000 and a monthly fee of about $1,500, paid for out of the game's revenue.
Never mind that the creators were high schoolers who'd run from their history class in room 219 to the computer-systems lab in room 115 to check on their business.
"It does and it doesn't surprise me,"says Michael Dowling, general manager of Nielsen Interactive Entertainment. "These kids are digitally inclined, and, as a result, they are adept at utilizing tools that are available to them now. It doesn't require a large-scale infrastructure to support a business opportunity on the Internet,"
Having upward of 130,000 users is more than a respectable figure, adds Dowling, considering that well-known, well-budgeted, pay-to-play MMORPGs such as Everquest II and Star Wars Galaxies are attracting 350,000 and 250,000 users, respectively. "But it's crazy to really think about what these kids have done, isn't it?"
The game's users, 90 percent of them male, with an average age range of 13 to 21, are mostly in the United States, though there are some in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to a user survey conducted by the site last year.
On a recent weekday, the four have gathered at the Gelbs' home in suburban Vienna, Va. They're on winter break, this time from college.
Gelb, Meyer and Repetski are freshmen at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Gupta, the "slacker-master programmer" type who's too smart for school, is, for now, at nearby George Mason University in Fairfax.
They're close friends, the usual clique with a ping-pong-like way of completing each other's sentences and a history of too many Cokes and cheese pizzas with grilled chicken and bacon.
Repetski and Gelb have known each other since preschool; Meyer and Gupta met during Spanish in their freshman year. Gupta and Gelb hung out at TJ's computer systems lab as sophomores. And Meyer was the guy who spent his freshman year programming video games in the computers of the school library. "See, that was the rule," explains Meyer. "You could play video games as long as you made them."
They're not fond of personal titles. "The second you name somebody president, then you're asking for trouble," says Gelb. Still, each plays a distinct role.
Meyer is the hardcore gamer who figures out how the game will work out in real life. Gupta is head programmer and advertising manager. Gelb is the money man, who mails out the monthly checks. Repetski is the ethicist, reading and answering user e-mails, and the house mathematician, figuring the equations that determine who has the top stop on the rankings list.
For Meyer, running an online game on top of his four classes -- physics, chemistry and multivariable calculus among them -- is getting to be a bit much.
"It can be a chore sometimes," Meyer says. "It's one thing to start a Web site. It's another thing to maintain a Web site . . . ."
Gelb cuts in. "A lot of people say that once you start a game this big, you have a responsibility to maintain it. When a server goes down, when a new gaming feature isn't good enough, there are always a few people" -- the users, he means -- "who speak out saying, 'You guys aren't doing enough for the game.' Then basically we say, 'We have degrees to get and homework to do.' "