Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 4

The game company was not far off the freeway, past four or five blocks of your standard, Twentieth Century American residential area. I drove a Toyota Celica, painted “Pull Me Over” red, and I loved whipping off the main road and gunning it down a slight slope of a hill to get to work each day. Because I was idealistic, I always got there early. Because I didn’t know what it took to be successful, I often stayed there late.

I drove too fast around there, and pretty much everywhere — I know that now. Somehow, though, I managed to scrape by with only a few tickets through the years. I’m lucky I didn’t hurt anyone along the way.

To get to the office, at the bottom of that minor slope of a hill, instead of veering left with the road you kept going forward, shooting up a short, gravel driveway and looping around our building to park beside the other cars in a long, dusty row around back. You wouldn’t know it was a game company unless you’d been told, that stocky, two-story, flat-topped wooden building with a large aluminum barn attached. I don’t know how old it was — maybe forty years, maybe more — though it couldn’t have been surrounded by houses and convenience stores and apartment buildings when it’d been originally built. I remember hearing once that it had been grandfathered in, given that you weren’t generally supposed to run a business of any real size in the middle of a residential community.

Steve had bought the place with some of his early gaming riches. The company had been pretty successful, ten years before. The structure had a lot of what you’d call deferred maintenance, but what we liked about it, and presumably what had attracted Steve in the first place, was that even though it was seriously in the middle of a sizable residential community, it still felt fairly isolated. A long stretch of overgrown grassland covered most of the side of the block leading down and up to the office itself and the sizable lot on which it rested.

The street-facing side of its hill had been leveled off to make a nice space for the building. There wasn’t much hill left on the far side of the property from the street, just a low ridge about as tall as reasonable adult. Pressing up to the edge of the ridge was a tangle of thin greenery through which a derelict, wooden horse stable was slowly collapsing.

The game company was not in a great neighborhood, but back then in Austin there weren’t a lot of great neighborhoods to be had. Five years earlier, the combination of a stock-market crash and absurdly low oil prices had plunged Texas into a something like a depression. Men in Houston had pulled their BMWs off the highway, leaving the keys in the ignition, and simply walked away. Even though I hadn’t felt the impact of the collapse as a college student — outside of my parents moving nearly a thousand miles away in order for my father to find work — I obviously had not graduated into a robust economic environment. It wasn’t the day-laborers milling around on the street corner, or the young single mothers cursing as they pushed strollers with stuck wheels. It was the paint on the houses, cracking but not yet peeling; it was how people quietly let you know which auto mechanic played loose with his inspections when you went to get the annual sticker so let you keep driving in a city that had no effective mass transit; it was how once you got to know people — at ice cream shops, sandwich places, breakfast joints — they’d spontaneously cut you a break or give you things for free, because clearly we were all in this together. Me, I was torn. I felt guilty for having a job doing something I loved — working at a game company, a job I thought paid decently — so I didn’t talk about it much. At 23 years old I still looked 18, and I didn’t think people took me seriously. I began dressing down, not combing my hair, not shaving. At the same time I resented somehow not being more successful, more appreciated.

It wasn’t that big on the inside — the warehouse was, certainly, but not the offices themselves. Upstairs we had a reception area and a tiny kitchen, and Steve’s office, followed by a stocky hallway off of which were four small chambers. One of them was usually empty. The largest office, and the only one with a locking door, was for the accountant, whoever that was at the time. The last two held a salesperson — almost always a saleswoman, while I was there — and a print buyer. I started out as the print buyer. Downstairs was different. There, besides the couple or three people who worked the warehouse, shipping books, magazines, and card games to our customers, you could usually find three or four editors working behind old, clunky monitors, along with an art director, a managing editor, and as many production artists as we could afford over any given couple of months.

Only after I’d been working there for more than a year did I hear — and I was embarrassed that someone had to tell me – that when the sunlight hit the building at the right time of day you could faintly make out the word “KENNEL,” painted against the multi-story warehouse’s aluminum siding in enormous white block letters. Some time in the distant past, that’s what it had been. We used to joke that late at night, you could still hear the dogs crying in their pens. It wasn’t actually funny, but that was fine; it wasn’t meant to be funny. The sense of humor in the company culture at the time was dark to the point of being bleak.

Still, the place was pretty close to perfect, for a time. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The company had never really recovered from its early-90s slump, even after an eventual and much hyped cyberpunk game release. At a special sneak-preview for Robert Redford’s excellent hacker-themed movie, Sneakers, one of the younger editors, Jeff, told me he was petrified about being laid off. This surprised me — he was a multi-talented guy, crazy smart and industrious. I told him I had no idea what he could be talking about. Why would there even be a layoff?

And it was true at least in some sense that I did not know what I was talking about. About a month later we had a layoff, a small one, with something like four people being let go. I don’t recall the exact number, I only remember how bad I felt about it. Like my dad, most of the people who were cut had to move out of state in order to find decent work. Mostly editorial staff got cut, since we didn’t have anything big in the pipeline outside of Steve’s New Big Project, which was still nearly a year away on the schedule. Jeff made it through, though, which was cool. I was happy to have been right about him. Maybe I slightly knew what I was talking about.

All this to say that those of us who remained were grateful when the Secret Service money came through in the summer of 1993, a few months after the trial. At the same time, a strange kind of excitement and energy began to build around the office. Most people on the street, and around the clubs, and in the press, all seemed hard pressed to put a name on this new sense in the air. I knew what it was because I’d been waiting for it for nearly ten years. It was the Internet, and it was finally happening.

In the early summer, once the trial was through but before the money actually arrived, life began to change around the office, and it started with a new face. I walked in one day to find a new, scraggly bearded guy downstairs, standing with Steve in front of the editorial desks.

“Oh, Derek,” Steve said, pointing at the new guy. “This is Doug. Doug knows a lot about a lot of things.”

“Hey,” said Doug, waving quickly.

“We were having an idea,” Steve said. “Care to join us?”

I did.

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