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CEO hopes Butterfly.net move will let company spread its wings

July 28, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - David Levine does not fit the stereotypical image of a CEO.

To give a tour of the Martinsburg building he just bought for his company, Butterfly.net, Levine pulls up on a BMW motorcycle, wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket.

His clothes cannot cover the creativity he exudes or the enthusiasm for his company, which is part of the $1 billion industry of Internet gaming.

This week, Levine and his 12 employees will move into the former YMCA and Martinsburg City Hall at 224 W. King St. He paid $540,500 for the four-floor building, formerly owned by Martinsburg developer Moncure Chatfield-Taylor.

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The possibilities inside its 19,000 square feet, he said, are endless.

Painted on the peeling brick wall is one rule: "Please do not spit in the pool." The pool in question is in the basement floor of Levine's new building. It's empty and, to get to it, one must walk across thin, bouncy planks laid across a gap in the flooring.

Levine, of course, has plans for it.

"This?" he said, as he sat on the pool's ladder. "I was thinking water polo on lunch breaks."

The four-story building was constructed in 1908 in the eclectic mission style, according to a plaque attached near the front door. Inside, cavernous rooms boast wooden floors, fireplaces, large windows, tall ceilings and a few oddities.

Former town hall


A YMCA from its inception until 1932, the building was later used as Martinsburg's City Hall until 1988. A jail cell and walk-in safe dot the lower floor. Some of Levine's employees have already told him they want to use the cell as their office.

He is debating whether he can rent out space on the first floor to people who want to open coffee shops or restaurants. First he needs to make sure he won't need the space. He envisions renting the pool and an indoor basketball court to someone who wants to open a health club.

Upstairs, on the top floor, a room that has "Band Hall" painted on the door may be used as a conference room, and Levine plans to have a deck built off the back, offering a rooftop view of Martinsburg.

Phone lines have been set up and some desks were moved in last week. Levine must be out of his current space, a 3,500-square-foot building on German Street in Shepherdstown, W.Va., by Sept. 1. The Village Finery, a ladies apparel shop, will open there.

Leaving Shepherdstown has its downsides, Levine said. He will no longer be able to walk to his daughter, Zoe's, elementary school, or his son, Milo's, day care center. Levine and his wife, Monica Larson - who is co-founder and vice president of marketing for Butterfly.net - also have a daughter, Daisy, who is almost 2.

Levine, who grew up in Bethesda, Md., moved to Shepherdstown about seven years ago.

Born from chaos


Butterfly.net was born from chaos. Sort of.

The name derives from the chaos theory, which is based on the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan can cause rain in Chicago or a tornado in Texas.

Levine came up with the company's name in 1992, when he started "playing on the Internet and realized I could register domain names." He registered the name and kept it since, although Butterfly.net would not become official for nearly a decade.

"Because this company is really all about play, I thought a nice whimsical name ..." Levine said, trailing off. "It has that sense of something slightly magical or ethereal."

When his former company, Ultraprise, merged with a Southern California company, he left in part to learn how to make the Internet work well for multiplayer games. A trip to Disney World with his three children helped.

"When they would take naps, I would pull out my engineering notebooks and try to figure out what parts of Disney World were fun and why," he said.

When he returned home to Shepherdstown, he had a plan in mind and Butterfly.net was born.

Explaining the origins is easy. Explaining exactly what the company does is more difficult. (Levine is under contract to write a 350-page book about the technology and how it works.)

Butterfly's main product is server software that allows companies to build "enormous" 3-D Internet game worlds.

Programmers are also creating their own game, Cryptids, which Levine called a contemporary science-fiction game. The game is based on the idea of what would happen if West Virginia, to spur economic development, built a tourist attraction centered on cryptids - creatures like Bigfoot, the Mothman and Chupacrabra that have supposedly been spotted but never verified.

Levine expects Cryptids to hit store shelves in 2004.

One of the most popular "Massively Multiplayer" (MMP) games available on the Internet right now is EverQuest. Around 495,000 subscribers pay $10 a month to play. Some gamers have sold their characters and armor on eBay for thousands of dollars, Levine said.

"The game market is a lot bigger than people think," Levine said. "In the U.S. alone, it's a $10 billion industry."

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