Alumni Achievers

John O'Neill (B.S. 1996)

Entrepreneurial Alumnus Drives Game Business

A fading sign on an old car-repair shop gave NC State alumnus John O’Neill an idea that changed his life. It said, "spark plugs."

It was soon after seeing those words that O’Neill, a 1996 computer science graduate, founded Spark Plug Games, a Raleigh company that’s since collaborated on a teaching game for IBM and is developing products Nintendo’s Wii and other gaming consoles. The startup bolsters the Triangle’s reputation as one of the top game-development centers in the country.

For O’Neill, a gaming industry veteran, starting the new company was a shot in the arm. He’d been in-and-out of the gaming industry for years and wanted a chance to build his own company with its own culture.

"I wanted to start making fun games again," he said.
John O’Neill, founder of Spark Plug Games
O’Neill began his gaming industry career in 1994 when he was still at NC State. He took a job at MicroProse, where he worked on the popular Civilization II strategy game and built relationships with industry leaders and hardware vendors. He left the industry for several years before returning to work for Vicious Cycle Software, a Chapel Hill company formed by former MicroProse employees.

The years away from the industry helped O’Neill gain some perspective. Like other game developers, he began to have trouble balancing a new family with the long hours and intense dedication required to work at a bigger game company. The idea of a company where employees could work in small groups while also having the time and energy for other things in life stuck with him.

O’Neill was walking in downtown Raleigh one day when he came across an old automobile shop with the words "spark plugs" on the sign. He was struck by how the fading letters had held up over the years, and began to think about what they represented.

"I did some research to see if anybody was using the name ‘Spark Plug Games’ yet," he said. "Luckily for us, no one was using it. From that day on, I kept thinking, ‘This company is something that I really think could happen.’"

It did.

In January 2008, Spark Plug Games set up shop in a downtown warehouse. The office is located a block away from the sign that gave the company its name and next-door to Center Line Productions, Spark Plug’s parent company.

"We wanted to leap-frog the start-up phase, and become a valid company right away," O’Neill said. "Having Center Line’s 12-year track record allowed me to concentrate on video games without having to worry about establishing the validity of the company."

The company has found some early success working alongside Center Line in the development of Innov8, a so-called "serious game" used by IBM to help train MBA students in business process management. The idea has garnered a lot of attention for IBM, including feature story in Business Week magazine.

Now Spark Plug is working on projects for several gaming consoles, including the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, and hopes to soon develop games for others, such as the Playstation 3. The company has just five employees now, and O’Neill said it would try to stay small.

"We don’t want to become a gigantic game company," O’Neill said. "We want to keep to keep the small team sizes that allow our programmers to have more freedom and creativity in their games. We don’t want to ever grow any larger than approximately 30 people."

O’Neill said that his education at NC State was influential to his career and was glad to hear that the Department of Computer Science had recently added a game development concentration to its undergraduate curriculum.

Perhaps some of those students will work for O’Neill some day. If they do, they’ll work with a guy who likes having fun on the job. His profile at the company’s Web site, which features a bearded O’Neill grinning into the camera, speaks to that.

"John is available for personal training in the art of ‘perfect beard growing’ on Mondays and Thursdays," the profile reads. "Call for prices."

Photo courtesy of Spark Plug Games.

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