Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 2

As a designer, I had a serious problem working at Steve Jackson Games: I hated how everything looked, and not art-school-jokingly despised it but genuinely, deeply held the design output of the whole place at the time pretty seriously in contempt, mostly because they were doing things the old way. Clearly, I still had a lot to let go of. But let me give you some idea what I was up against.

Here’s how the old way worked. After pouring text into a page template, computers were not really involved. Instead, a really nice laser printer spat out a copy of the page, after which a human being covered its back with wax and stuck it to a piece of cardboard. Any art that needed to go on the page was scaled up or down or otherwise duplicated using a super-nice photocopier, and someone had to cut out the copy and wax it to the board-mounted page. Then the ten-inch stack of cardboard pages were shipped to a printer, who laid them out in the proper order for printing and took a photo of them — no joke, with what was basically an enormous camera — and from this film a proof was made. The printer then sent the proof back to us; we checked it for errors, sent back any corrections, and maybe three weeks or a month later a truck would pull up bearing between two- and five-thousand copies of a 128-page black-and-white book with a heavy, color cover.

I thought this was primitive, in terms of wasting a lot of human time, but also because it made experimenting with layout and design very expensive. I wasted no time dragging into the office the great big monster Macintosh I’d put nearly all my money into upgrading. I called it Frankentosh. Over my two years in design school, there would be weeks when I literally starved myself so that I could afford a 1 gigabyte hard drive, which cost nearly $2,000 new at the time. (As long as we’re throwing numbers out there: I had a 28-inch waist.) The climate in the office at the time was distinctly anti-Apple, so as bad-ass as I proved my machine to be it was impossible to get traction for digital publishing.

Even worse, I had the classic designer-brought-in-from-the-outside problem: my client, in my mind, had terrible taste. I wanted to explore the clean lines and the beautiful sense of balance that I saw in Dutch design at the time (and before, and ever since; long live Dutch design), while people at Steve Jackson Games wanted skulls stuck to spikes along the bottom edge some book’s pages.

These were not computer games. SJ Games still today prints board games, card games, and role-playing games, usually with a fantasy or a science-fiction bent. Think Risk meets Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons, done differently.

No, that’s a terrible comparison. The reason that Steve Jackson Games was actually pretty close to great was that we did our own thing. In the same industry that contained things like Dungeons & Dragons, Steve put out some really great stuff that people who really care about games almost always really know about. I’d been following their growth for more than ten years at that point, myself, and they’re still doing well today.

What was I actually doing there at the time? Clearly I wasn’t doing design, at first. I’d been hired on as a print buyer. This was both crazy and important for two reasons: one, printers have their own bizarre language that they use to describe a print job — “I need a two-over-one on that ten-point matte you showed me, using Pantone 323 as the spot, with a one-over-one, 32-page saddle-stitch insert, okay?” and the companies that run monster printing presses are just like computers in that they will do exactly, precisely, unwaveringly what you order, so if you get it wrong then you live with the consequences, with no Undo; and two, I figured that the only hope I had of changing people’s minds about going digital would be to do it on their terms, literally in the language that they spoke.

I’m not simply talking about the language of printers, of course. I’m talking about the language of publishing, which eventually boils down to money.

More even than a chance at professional validation, what I needed from the job was money. After suddenly moving to Wisconsin, my parents paid my $600 University tuition twice a year, for which I was thankful. My first year, they gave me $500 a month; the second year, $250 a month. On one of our Sunday calls, after the first year, my mom told me to ask dad to cut it in half because they were doing very poorly — the company for which dad had moved my family to Wisconsin had folded — and he was too proud to impose that on me as his idea. She passed the phone to dad, and I proposed it, and he gratefully accepted, and I worked many more hours at my terrible job in order to get through design school.

The terrible job, not-good as it might have been, was actually where I learned most of what I needed to know in order to pull off the print-buyer job at Steve Jackson Games, though I nearly got shot a good number of times in the process — which was wholly unexpected, given that there was nothing illegal about what we were doing. In fact, the workplace where I saw and heard more guns than ever before or again in my life was a law firm — though it was a Texas law firm, of course. But that’s another story.

I was luckier than most just getting to and then through college, I know, but walking in the door that first day, I also knew that the idea was to do things that people would like and that would make money.

Not a week after I started, Steve Jackson was finishing a new version of his classic game, OGRE. For the game itself, imagine grown men standing around a large kitchen table, pushing small futuristic tanks around at one another. Each tank is maybe three or four inches long, with a lot of smaller units zipping along around them. There were rules, of course. Luckily, it was fun. For a decade, it had been a terrific game, a classic.

For the new edition, he’d partnered with another company to produce a line of miniatures to go along with the game, which meant he had a big stack of beautiful color photos of sample tanks, professionally painted and tricked out, on miniature landscapes sculpted to model train geek-level.

It was too bad that printing a whole book in color looked fantastically expensive, and time consuming. Except for the cover, his photos would only show up in black-and-white. Even if we wanted to do it in color, having a manufacturing partner also meant that the book’s shipping schedule was carved in relative stone. There was only a little give. If the miniatures spent much time in stores with no game to play with them, it would probably screw up sales, which would probably screw our partner, who had made a much more massive investment in tooling and physical production and packaging and shipping lead-like miniatures that they had cast themselves than we would spend in producing a 64-page book to sell their miniature science-fictional vehicles.

“I can totally make a full-color book,” I said to Steve.

“For how much?” he asked. So I found out, and it was too expensive. So I started asking other printers, and I got back some outrageous quotes. Everyone was thinking about things the old way, which involved lots of cardboard that they would photograph to produce enormous sheets of film from which proofs would then be made. I kept saying that no, there was another way to go about it.

I didn’t go it alone. I found a young, upstart group of guys who’d opened a service bureau in town — basically, they took out a loan to buy something that was part giant laser printer and part enormous film maker. You could print straight onto film, side-stepping the whole photocopying and waxing process. Even better, producing color pages only meant printing four pieces of film, one for each plate of color it took to reproduce the basic range of colors onto a printed page. Those guys helped me figure out what I needed, and they wanted the business so they gave me a really good rate on printing the film.

A lot of printers weren’t set up to trust that I would be sending them good film. For a cover, maybe, but for a whole book’s interior? I began faxing the question to other printers, people I’d never heard of, until I found someone in Canada who didn’t think I was crazy. They only wanted to know how many books I wanted and how quickly I could get them the film.

The photos were color slides, so between the cost of the slide scanner and the film output and the printing, I was able to get the job cost down to only maybe twice the cost for black and white. Steve went for it.

After an intense three weeks, on my own equipment (and Steve’s newly purchased slide scanner) I’d designed and laid out my first real book. I’d produced all the graphics, either by color-correcting the terrible scanner’s output or by drawing things when necessary, and it looked like a real book. I was as surprised as anyone.

It was a good thing there were two days left in the schedule. The next morning, when I called the service bureau to see how things were going, they said they were puzzled. When they hooked up my drive, they’d found it empty.

I drove immediately over to the bureau. Lo and behold, the gigantic, gigabyte drive where I’d done all my work said it held zero files.

I took a deep breath.



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