Steve Jackson Games was well known, long lived, and respected in the adventure gaming industry — again, I hope I’m not spoiling the story to say that they still are. At the time, though, they were still smarting from the Secret Service raid. They needed a hit. I’d just laid out and sent to print about $10,000-worth of color posters promoting the game. It was game on, seriously, and I had been trusted with this.
I took a deep breath.
“This is a one-gigabyte drive,” I said. I’ve added a picture of the drive in question, just above this text; I keep it on a shelf in my office even today, as a reminder. “How much do you think this costs?” I asked.
“I dunno, about two grand?”
“About two-thousand dollars. That sounds like a lot of money to me. I don’t have extras lying around. I didn’t just happen to make a mistake and bring you the wrong drive. This is the only one I’ve got, and it’s the one I’m very confident has the full-color book I’ve been slaving away on, night and day, for the past three weeks.”
The guy started to look nervous. I smiled, hoping to put him at ease.
“I think I know what the problem is,” I said, genuinely being a huge enough geek that I had intuited the solution to the problem. “I had my project folder on the drive’s Desktop. In the last version of the Mac OS, there was a small bug that made files on the Desktop seem to disappear, but everything is still really there. An update came out a couple of months ago; maybe you haven’t upgraded yet, for some reason. But, cool. All you have to do is reboot the machine and hold down Command-Option after it’s done starting up, ’cause that’ll force it to rebuild the Desktop, and then you’ll see the files, no problem.”
I thought I was saving this guy’s life. What I didn’t know was that he’d already lobbed a one-gigabyte bomb into mine.
“Well,” he said, “yeah, I think I remember hearing something about that bug. I think we had that problem a couple times, a while back, I just never got around to upgrading that machine.” He winced from somewhere deep inside, as I glanced back and forth between him and my hard drive as though I was glancing back and forth between his hand and a desk-mounted vice grip, wondering how to get the two together.
“So then we reboot the machine,” I said.
“Do you have a backup?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “Of the six-hundred megabyte project? No.” Three years later, I’d be able to burn that much data onto a CD for $15.
“Well,” he said, “there’s a problem. Last night, I needed to move a bunch of projects around. And I needed to get them from one place to another place. And I thought your drive was blank, so I copied everything over to it, moved the drive to another machine to copy everything off. It was about…a gig.”
I felt my eyes narrowing. “And because your computer didn’t know that I had stuff on the disk, it wrote over everything that was there.”
He looked as though I’d already put his hand in the vice grip. “Basically,” he said.
I could hear a rush, like a hurricane coming up behind me. Our partner had in fact already shipped their miniature tanks to the world’s game stores. We were already a couple of weeks late getting the book out. Steve had approved the final artwork from Japan, where he was still traveling on business. I was going to have to tell him that the book would be delayed by as much as a couple of weeks — longer, in fact, given what I’d learned about big printers. You don’t just send something to a large-scale printer and have them print it. You schedule it, as far in advance as you can. They probably wouldn’t have an opening in their schedule again for more than a month. They probably wouldn’t be happy about me creating a hole in their schedule by failing to ship them film at the last possible moment, either.
I might have to find another printer. I might have to fall back to someone who would only produce the book in black and white. We had already solicited orders for a full-color book. We might have to start all over, a three-month process of canceling the outstanding orders and asking distributors to place new orders for the suddenly black-and-white book. Our partner might take a gigantic hit on the brick wall that the miniature sales would hit. It might be years before I got anyone at the company interested in considering going digital again.
“I see,” I said, staring intently at the drive, as if that might bring the data back. It was right there — I just had it last night.
“I’m really sorry,” the guy said. “I am, I’m really sorry.”
“You didn’t know,” I said, disconnecting the drive.
“I didn’t know.”
I nodded. “I know. It’s my fault for not having backed everything up. I have all the actual layout files — all the pages and the text and the placeholders for all the images — on a backup back at the office. They’re big, but not as big as the giant color photos that I spent two weeks scanning and color-correcting.”
“I’m really sorry—”
“I know. Here’s what I’m going to do, though: I’m driving straight back to my office, as fast as I can, and I’m going to start scanning. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll put the whole thing back together.” I looked around. “How busy are you right now?”
He winced. “Pretty busy—”
“The moment I’m done with this, I’ll call you. After I call you, I’m going to drive straight over, and I’m going to sit down with you, or with whoever’s shift it is, and I’m going to wait until the film starts to come out. Then I’m going to go home, and when the film’s all done I want you to next-day that shit straight to my printer. I’ll have the address for you.”
He blinked several times, rubbing a phantom pain in his hand.
“Can you help me out, here?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, confused. “Of course. I mean, yes.” But he only looked more confused. “You’re being really cool about this.”
“All I know,” I told him, “is that I have a book to get out.”
And that’s what I did. Design school, while run out of the School of Fine Arts, was not a walk in the park. I guess I could’ve let it be easy, but that wasn’t like me. I wasn’t a lazy person, and I could no longer imagine being any other way.
Only in that gray area, beyond where sane people stop and before the hard and fast limits of reality are guaranteed to smack you down can you find anything close to real magic in this world. Still, it’s easy to forget that the far side of a gray spectrum is fraught with darkness.
Two and a half days later, though I probably shouldn’t have been driving, I made it back to the bureau with the drive. I had eaten a lot of take-out; I had not showered. This time the manager was there, and he eyed me curiously.
“I hear you may have something for me,” he said. I gave him the drive and he hefted it in one hand, frowning slightly as if judging its weight. “Everything’s there?”
“It’s all there,” I said.
“Sixty-four color pages —”
“I had the pages backed up. It was just the art —”
“Sixty-four color pages, you scanned all the photos. They’re all set? Good to go?”
“Good as they’re going to be.”
He nodded. “I heard you’re a pretty cool guy. Some people, when they have a problem, they get mad. I had a guy last week pick up that tall stool over there and throw it down the length of the room.”
“Not my style.”
He nodded. “I’m really, really sorry about what happened. We’ll be very careful with this drive.” He sighed and checked a piece of paper on the table beside him. “Here’s what else I’m going to do for you.” Pointing at a line listing my job, I could see that he’d cut the price down to a fifth of what it had been. “I can’t do it for free but, you know.” He smiled. “Cool guys deserve a break.”
“Thanks,” I said, getting lost in what the expression on his face was saying.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You know, we’ve got a bed here. Maybe you ought to crash out for a little while.”
I told him I was fine, and I made it home alive, and when I woke up in the middle of the night — the following night — it occurred to me that I’d done it. I’d made produced something that wasn’t great, but it looked as professional as its peers at the time. And it was a full color book. that was going to be printed, in thousands of copies, and sent all over the world. Even better, with the discount we got on the film, the book ended up costing less for us to produce than a black-and-white book.
Also, I got my hands on a large backup drive. But that’s another story.
Steve was impressed, so he had a new challenge for me: he wanted to start a magazine, a full-size magazine about gaming and the game industry, with as much color as possible.
He didn’t have a lot of faith that it was possible, though. “If I can make it affordable,” I asked him, “can I do it?” It seemed like a low-risk proposition for him to say yes, which he did.
And that’s how I started a game magazine. I designed it, I scanned or tweaked or swiped the art from other books in production, I went through the slush pile for articles, I leveraged Steve’s name to cold-call famous people in the industry in order to get news from them — and to fill the pages with paid advertising.
I produced the first three issues of Pyramid essentially on my own. It didn’t make much money and it didn’t lose much money, but it was terrific advertising, and clearly it was a hell of a lot of fun. It told people what we were doing and it showed off good work by people we liked. It went on to be nominated for and to win a crazy number of awards, which is cool. As I think back on those days I find I’m a lot more proud of it now than I thought I would be, or that I remember letting myself feel at the time.
A few months later, we hired a new print buyer and I moved from the operations side of the small company into the creative side, and it felt like coming home.
For the first time, I didn’t question what they could possibly be thinking when people called me cool, because it no longer mattered to me whether or not I was cool.
Then six months later came the Secret Service trial, then the victory, then the Secret Service’s money — and with the money came certain challenges.
This is where I should probably tell you about Doug.