Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 8

Timothy Leary was only one of the personalities I brushed up against as we launched Illuminati Online. He was the most famous, for sure, even if he wasn’t the most interesting or the most long-lasting in my life.

First, no one was interested in spending tens of thousands of dollars to set up our own business simply because we figured we had to be able to do it better than a bunch of yahoos across town, only to find out that we were yahoos, too. At a local tech conference — about the ramifications of useful encryption being widely available; I designed the t-shirts — Doug had met a clever security-minded unix geek named Jim McCoy, who became Illuminati Online’s employee number one. Jim first shocked me as being only the third person, after Steve and Doug, who worked longer hours at the office than I did. He was a fixture around the office by the time we launched the ISP: trench-coated, hunched slightly in thought, hairline receding into a long, thin, pale pony tail.

Jim and Doug became fast friends, and the things they plotted to do over 2 AM sessions at Austin’s only decent all-night deli will come back into our story later on. Most importantly, one or the other or the combination of the two did turn out not to be yahoos. The service stayed up, and we moved Metaverse over to its own server — which was bad-ass at the time, but which would be mortally embarrassed by the power and the storage of the phone I had in my pocket six years ago. Looking back, though, I’m still amazed by what they were able to throw together from mail-order parts and a few heavy weeks of manual labor.

To celebrate, Mentor threw a party at his house, a block up the hill from the office. More than half of the people I’d met in the Metaverse actually lived in Austin, so it was likely to be a good crowd. I didn’t expect to see too many people whom I hadn’t already met in person, though there were a few. Like my high-school pirate meet-ups, sometimes it surprised me to realize that I’d come to know some of these people so well that I could have sworn we had already met, only to be wholly surprised by what they looked like in the real world. Not that they were especially pretty or ugly — just normal people, mostly, and normal people all look different from each other in their own unique ways.

Patch was a nineteen-year-old boy who, when grinning, looked like a twelve-year-old boy, if that. He grinned a lot, and he knew more about Unix systems than anyone else I’d met under 21. He’d dropped out of college after his first year and was looking for something to do. Weeks later, he would become employee number two, but when we first met he was sitting on a tall stool in Mentor’s living room, a girl only slightly younger than him perched on his lap, who introduced herself as Felicity, one of the only people in the Metaverse who I genuinely believed was truly female. Even though I had a girlfriend with whom I was very happy, I was as glad to discover that she was a girl as I was disappointed to find her both attached to Patch and quite young, six years younger than I was. She was starting her freshman year at the university, in computer science.

“Can you believe she and I only just met in person for the first time?” Patch asked me, when Felicity’s attention drifted for a moment to a question from someone off to one side. A decent number of people had shown up, enough that you had to speak up to be heard by those sitting next to you.

“You two really only just met?” I asked. He nodded, grinning again. She glanced back over toward me for a moment, stopping herself before she got all the way, instead turning her attention to a far corner of the ceiling.

“It’s great,” he said, squeezing her hand. She smiled, looking down and squeezing back.
“And she’s really a girl,” Patch added. And Felicity undoubtably was a girl, unreasonably thin and unfeasibly intelligent, enormous anime eyes like spotlights in reverse, drawing everything in.

“Not like Bambi,” she added.

I had seen this person called Bambi. She ran around acting like a young, female deer, like the Disney cartoon character. Hardly ever said a word, actually, just flitted about and munched grass. I’m not kidding.

Before I could turn on my “Be Cool” filter, I asked Felicity, “Bambi’s not a girl?” In the Metaverse, you could set the gender of your character, which would automatically make it then use the corresponding pronoun when referring to your character, and in the Metaverse, Bambi was “she.”

Felicity frowned. “Nope. Guy. Nerdy guy, really weird — I’d mention that I was thinking about getting into something, like databases, and a few days later I’d get a package at my door with a five-hundred-dollar database program inside. Lots of documentation.”

“You’re kidding me!” I said.

“Ah, no.” She wrinkled her face. “I keep telling him not to, but it keeps happening.”

“A five-hundred-dollar database package?” In seconds, I’d gone from being lightly jealous of Patch to being a little jealous of her. “Guys really just send you high-end software because they get a crush on you?”

“Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “But Bambi’s really been the only one with the software, so far. He’s a tiny little guy — hates being social, so I didn’t expect him to turn up here — but he’s some high-end programmer or something, so he can afford to do that kind of stuff without thinking about it.” Then suddenly I found myself more than a little envious of a small, nerdy, reclusive man who had the power to make high-end software show up at the drop of a hat.

As I was reeling, Patch asked Felicity what she was doing that weekend. They’d go on to have a brief affair before it came out that, yes, even though he was only nineteen years old he was both already married and already wishing he weren’t. This came up after his first month at work with us, when he had to go back to the college town in the middle of nowhere from whence he’d come and move his wife out to Austin. And the funny thing was that he never talked crap about her, to his credit, not one time. However, when talk of her came up, he’d lose about an inch in height, his shoulders bowing down and towards each other, as though an enormous, fleshy palm were pressing down from above and behind him. The arrival of Patch’s wife distracted Felicity from her affair with him, at least for a while.

Still, it was Felicity who would find herself in my apartment when Timothy Leary came into the picture.

Timothy Leary was a psychedelic subculture guru in the 1960s, among other things. After being jailed several times in the 1970s, he’d lost some of his revolutionary edge, though he was still more than capable of being provocative when it felt good. I’d run into him in January of 1993, in San Francisco, at a high-tech gathering, part robotics demonstration and part self-congratulatory futurist high-five-ing. (After writing this I discovered that my future wife, whom I would not meet for ten years, was at the same show.)

Leary seemed happy to have found a connection to the growing computer subculture, describing our growing sense of life in a networked world as being the closest thing to the hallucinatory drug experiences he had promoted thirty years earlier. For example, while he was giddy to tell the assembled forty or so of us his stories about palling around with William Gibson, author of *Neuromancer*, they always ended with him coming out on top.

“So it’s the middle of the night, and we don’t know anyone else in Prague — and we’d been, you know, drinking.” He winked at the audience to chuckles all around. “And there’s this car coming by, and it’s cold, and we need a lift. So Bill, he says, ‘I got this,’ and he steps out in front of the car and he waves his gangly arms in the air — he’s a tall man, you know — and he says, ‘Stop! I’m William Gibson!’ And the driver nearly runs him down, speeding off into the night.” We laugh uncomfortably. Where was this going? “So the next car that comes by, I hold my arms up and I say, ‘Stop! I’m Timothy Leary!'” He smiled. “And they stopped.”

He was a colorful character. Besides strongly promoting the idea that people should quit their jobs and take a lot of drugs — which, let’s be serious, people never seem to have failed to have come up with that idea on their own — he’d escaped prison, later being dragged back to spend several long periods in solitary confinement — between six months and two-and-a-half years, depending on whom you believe. It was longer than I’d want to spend by myself, in any case.

“Through it all,” he told the people gathered around him, “through everything that I’d done in my life up to that time, I’d always held to two things: I had to either be having fun, or learning something.”

The crowd murmured their appreciation.

“As the doors opened,” he said, “and they began walking me down the hallway to the cell where I would spend years of my life in solitary confinement, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’d better be learning something.'”

Though a lot of what he said was contrived and self-serving, that one was a powerful a life lesson. I wish it would’ve prepared me more for what was going to happen when he came to Austin, and in the weeks and months after.

The lady organizing the spoken-word event that Leary would be headlining was my roommate’s girlfriend, and coincidentally lived in the apartment directly below us. Days before his arrival, she changed the plan so that he would no longer be staying with me. Instead, the people in the apartment beside us could actually clear out for a few days so Leary and his wife or girlfriend or whatever she was could have their own clean space. We lived in a nice set of apartments in downtown Austin, very modern, and the more-empty pad would better serve as a reception area for media and other visitors. I was promised that I’d be one of the five or six core group of people who’d be in and around more often than not, and I had come home early from work to meet him.

This was back in the days when I used to have the television on all the time, as background noise if for no other reason. That day, though, I wasn’t alone. Felicity and I had talked about getting together a couple of times, so she had come by that afternoon to kill some time while we waited for Timothy Leary’s arrival. I was poking at something on the computer in the loft while she sprawled out on the sectional couch, smoking in front of the television.

“Uh, Derek,” she called up. “Is this your guy?” Even though I’d heard the TV announcer at the same time that she had, I hadn’t responded. I imagined a word-balloon stretching out of my mouth, reading, “Does not compute.” I scrambled down the black, spiral staircase, my mouth open, staring at the screen.

My girlfriend Cookie walked in. She and Felicity sized each other up, but before either of them could open their mouths, I said, “Timothy Leary was just arrested at the Austin airport. They’re holding him at the police station—” I pointed out the door, behind my girlfriend. “—about two blocks away.”

Cookie both relaxed and looked irritated at the same time. I thought she was irritated because she’d gotten dressed up for a party that now almost certainly wasn’t going to happen, and not because she’d found a beautiful, meek young girl in a dark purple crushed velvet dress lounging about in my apartment.

“Why?” Cookie asked.

“We don’t—” Felicity started. Cookie began to look at her, but then turned her gaze so strongly toward me that Felicity shut up.

“We don’t know,” I said, still completely oblivious to so many things. My roommate’s girlfriend came in.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Did you hear?”

I pointed at the television. “A woman in Atlanta just told me through a nation-wide broadcast what happened a couple of blocks from here about an hour ago.”

Cookie wrinkled up her nose. “Okay,” she said. “That is weird.”

“It’s a disaster,” said my roommate’s girlfriend. “They arrested him!”

“What for?” I asked.

“Smoking,” she said.

“What?! He brought drugs on the flight?”

“No,” my roommate’s girlfriend said. “Just tobacco. Cigarettes.”

“Um,” I said, raising my hand. “How is that illegal?”

She winced. “It was a no-smoking area.”

“Why didn’t he just go outside?” Felicity asked.

Cookie stared at me, her lips pursed.

Felicity zipped up her backpack. “I should go,” she said.

When the cops let Leary go, he went somewhere else other than our salmon-colored, too-modern downtown apartments. We wouldn’t have an opportunity to ask what had actually happened until the next day, at the show — and boy, would we find out more than we would ever want to have known about how it had all gone down.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 7

One of the perks and occasional pains of the gaming industry is attending conventions on behalf of your company. Mentor was pretty charismatic, and people liked his hacker stories, so he got invited out more than anyone else besides Steve.

Sometime between Pyramid issues 2 and 3, he’d gone to a convention in Toronto. Up super-late one night and figuring he’d simply stay up for his early morning flight, he hit the paperback turnstile in the convention hotel’s gift shop. Like most of my favorite nerds, and like myself, Mentor consumed cheap science-fiction and fantasy books like breathing air. I especially appreciated what good taste he had, which isn’t always a characteristic of someone who’ll happily give many books a try. That night was no different.

The next day, he stumbled into work mid-morning and pressed a paperback into my hands.

“Go home,” he said. “You have to read this. Right now. Tell me if it’s as good as I think it is.” Mentor would read a lot, but he didn’t actually like a lot, so a recommendation from him carried some weight. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need any convincing to fall in love with Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. I read the whole book that day and into the evening, laughing out loud and quoting long passages to my roommate, who eventually ran out to get his own copy. My girlfriend crossed her arms and gave me the night to myself.

“Holy crap,” I told a much more well rested Mentor the next morning. “This is the most amazing book I’ve read in years.” Then I added, “I’m not sure it had an ending, though.”

Mentor squinted at me. “What do you remember happening?” I told him, and he smirked. “You know,” he said, “it’s funny. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember how it ended. I figured I got so excited about having to give it to you that I’d fallen asleep reading it and had forgotten that I hadn’t actually finished it.”

“No,” I said. “It just didn’t end that well.”

“Still,” he said, plucking his copy of the book from my hands. I nodded, raising my eyebrows as he opened it up to the first page. A grin swept broadly across his face. He punched a telephone extension and picked up the line.

“Andy, you doing anything?” He hung up. “Jeff,” he called into the other room. “Get over here.” With Jeff and Andy and a few others gathered around, Mentor read the first two chapters, with full arm gestures and righteous intonation, which remain to this day some of the most joyful, exuberant, and visionary fiction I’ve ever read. The rest of the book isn’t all great, though the parts that are great are really, really great.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash was an evolution of cyberpunk. It felt fresh and raw and it was thrilling, even if it rather famously didn’t come to a conclusion particularly well. (He took 150 pages ending one of his more recent novels, as if having been given too much crap for wrapping stories too abruptly and unclearly.) It had come out in hardback a year before, garnering zero attention as far as I could tell until it hit paperback. The book would be a colossal success. Snow Crash was Cyberpunk 2.0, in an era when Blade Runner had become an older, classic movie, deserving of a Director’s Cut release, and popular nightly news shows talked regularly about the promises of virtual reality.

Like True Names and Neuromancer, the protagonist of Snow Crash — and you could take that literally: the character’s last name was Protagonist — spent a lot of his time in an online virtual world called the Metaverse, which struck us as a fantastically cool name. Even better, unlike previous cyberpunk characters, who were high-tech thieves or game designers or someone else with a reason to be playing with computers, the novel’s hero — again, literally: his first name was Hiro — was one of the original designers of the fictional future’s virtual reality world itself. The character peppers his recollections with a few precious asides recalling how he and his girlfriend-at-the-time had worked on the Metaverse, first getting it up and running, and how before the virtual land rush and the online population explosion, people in the unsettled digital world had free rein to do things like race vehicles that looked like enormous, Gothic cathedrals down what quickly became dense virtual storefronts and precious online homes for the wealthy. Even online, the poor had to live on the outskirts of everything interesting, and even in a virtual world, if you didn’t have the money to move yourself around, you had to walk. The point, though, is that the book wasn’t about crooks who were hacking, it was about actual hackers, in the traditional sense of people who were going deep on computer stuff because simply for the love of it, driven by the need to make things work. The hero of the book was a nerd, and a cool one at that.

“This is exactly what Steve’s talking with other game companies about,” Mentor said. “Set up virtual stores, get a bunch of people doing business online, and then build the world out around that. Can you imagine selling virtual real estate?”

Doug laughed, pointing at the far room in editorial which we would sacrifice to the cause of hosting io.com. “We have a lot to get set up here, first. We haven’t even moved Multiverse off of Wixer, yet.”

“It’ll happen this week,” Mentor said. “And let’s call it Metaverse.” It was a great idea, but there was a lot of head-scratching. “We’ll call this —” He glanced at the book’s spine. “—Neal Stephenson and ask permission. It’ll promote him as much as it’ll help us.” Not that he’d need it, but it was early enough in the man’s fame that he was happy to help. So we got to call our virtual world Metaverse.

Also, when Mentor called around to see if any copies of Snow Crash still existed in hardback, suspecting they might be worth something some day, he found half a case of them at a local bookseller, where they’d never sold and were about to be shipped back to the publisher where we knew they would be destroyed. Having scared up enough people to claim a copy, he was able to save them all. Then he took the next logical step of shipping them to Neal Stephenson with an extremely nice note (and return shipping). The books came back beautifully autographed and personalized. I still have mine. The author later even agreed to let me run the first two chapters of Snow Crash in an issue of Pyramid. I was ecstatic.

We had no way of knowing that a few years later Neal Stephenson would base one of the main characters in one of his finest novels on Doug, though we’ll get to that.

In the meantime, over a small handful of months we went from, “Hey, the Secret Service is about to give us a bunch of money,” to being the first truly functional and decently promoted Internet Service Provider in Austin. If there’d been another, I hadn’t heard about it. The promotion part was easy, using Pyramid, though as an international magazine it didn’t go deep in our immediate vicinity, the 512 area code.

Though in retrospect I was being payed very little, I was buying about seven copies of Snow Crash a month and giving them to people who I thought might be remotely interested, along with the sign-up info for io.com. It was while reflecting on how poorly that was scaling that my roommate’s girlfriend walked in to ask if I would if I’d ever heard of Timothy Leary, and would I mind putting him up at my place for a couple of days? He was in town to promote the launch of a local futurist literary magazine that she and a friend had started. Just to confuse things, it was called IO. And hey, since this is costing her an arm and a leg, and our new service was called io.com, was there any way we could pitch in to help out?

I had heard of Timothy Leary. If you don’t know who he is, you’ve got a surprise coming up. I knew who he was, and I still had a hell of a surprise coming. Yes, I could put him up at my place. And yes, I was pretty sure that IO — Illuminati Online, that is — could see its way clear to kicking in a bit to help. Could we hand out fliers at the door?

She said we could, if we pitched in a couple hundred bucks.

It would be the most irrationally successful disaster I’ve ever witnessed. Here’s how it went down.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 6

The little world we launched in our little corner of the Internet at the time wasn’t called Metaverse at first, though. It was called Multiverse, as we would announce in the third issue of Pyramid. In a single, black-backed column on the outside edge of my editorial page (“I in the Pyramid”) was a tall announcement:


Illuminati Online is the new home of the Illuminati BBS, which dates back to April 1, 1985. But instead of one or two callers at a time, we can now handle dozens. In the beginning, IO will follow the interests of our current user base…gaming, SF/fantasy, and the civil liberties of computer users. When enough users request more areas, we’ll add them.

We’ll have online games…lots of them. We’ll offer “canonical” Unix games like nethack and empire…the ones your site administrator keeps taking off your own system…at no extra charge. We will add more games as fast as we can, and will welcome suggestions. And yes, we’re creating online versions of SJ Games classics including Hacker, Illuminati, Killer (!!) and Ogre.

And there’s the Multiverse: a multiplayer text-based virtual-reality environment where people can meet, talk, and build new places and objects. It includes the city of Freegate, where businesses can erect virtual buildings, meet fans and customers, and even sell goods online. (Right now we’re offering “virtual real-estate” leases at no charge, especially to game-related businesses. For more information, contact us.)

And eventually you’ll be able to role-play online for real, as we build [our role-playing] rules into the Multiverse server.

I’ll guess that Steve wrote most of that, if for no other reason than I was apparently afraid to cut it down very much. The last third of the column is the money talk: $10 per month for 80 hours of access. Only Austin residents could call without paying long distance, but when AOL could charge a couple of bucks per hour, this was a deal — and you weren’t stuck with whatever applications and little bits of content that AOL decided to offer you. You got the actual Internet, which was a lot. At the time, it was probably too much. AOL and the couple of other services around at the time were classic walled gardens, offering no access to anything that they didn’t control utterly. With the Internet, on the other hand, you could do anything, if you knew how.

From a gaming perspective, though, these were big plans, huge. None of them ever came about, not then or in the years since, though we had fun and learned a lot before the pain began to set in.

Here’s some of what we learned.

Nerds had long been arguing about the shape of the global computer network: what form it would take, and how we would end up thinking about it. The fantasy world as a visual representation of the Internet seemed compelling when it appeared in True Names. The abstract geometric metaphors of the Net from the novel Neuromancer also seemed practical, somehow. Maybe they will be, someday.

Around 1988, at a local university I saw a big map of North America with the Internet overlain, straight lines illustrating all its connections between major colleges, across many different networks and their gateways to and from each other. At the time, that was what the Internet looked like, but even then it seemed foolish to me to think that anyone would really ever care what gateway they’re connecting through to do what they needed to do over the Internet. I actively prayed that all that complexity would soon fall away, a distant layer of abstraction upon which we would build something bright, something more easily comprehensible.

When I was in design school, this terrible thing called multimedia was taking over people’s imagination. I was horrified to see so many teachers and older students I admired getting caught up in it. I mean, I was doing interactive design with audio and video, but people would do the worst crap, label it multimedia, and expect praise. It was frustrating. Luckily, some design-minded companies, like Apple, still hoped to salvage something useful out of all the noise, and would fund little competitions between design schools to see what popped out.

While everyone in design school knew I was a big dork, no one knew how far down the rabbit hole I’d gone, so no one could’ve known how hard my heart would stop when one of our professors, in talking about how we might compete in that year’s design contest, off-handedly mentioned how the year before, the contest had been to come up with the best metaphor to describe the Internet. She began to go on, and I interrupted.

“What was it? What was the winner?”

She smiled. “There was a lot of ‘net-this’ and ‘net-that’. Some other finalist were things like ‘leaf and tree’, and ‘web’. But the winner was ‘cloud’.”

I rolled “cloud” over in my head. I liked it. I was disappointed that it took nearly 20 years to take off. In 2013, it’s our ‘multimedia’, though I hope it hangs around longer.

I’d fallen in with the crowd of editors at Steve Jackson Games who stood outside a couple of times a day, beneath the second floor’s wrap-around balcony, to drink a cup of coffee or smoke a cigarette and to take in the mostly natural sprawl of greenery around us. Mentor was the head of those sessions, along with Jeff and another guy named Andy. Andy and Jeff and a couple of other people who’d passed through the game company had all gone to high school with Mentor. They seemed to trust each other implicitly, even when it was only because they knew how far they could trust one another. They were coming to trust me, and I liked that.

We worked hard, long hours, but we spent a small chunk of time drinking and smoking and talking crap about our friends and sharing horrible news stories and speculating about things that would never, that could never be. One day we were talking about what the Net would end up looking like.

Andy was about my height, hair buzzed tight to his head, strongly built, and when he wasn’t looking absolutely serious he wore a deeply genuine smile. I liked him. “I think Neuromancer got it right,” he said. “You’ll have the Net, with geometric shapes and everything.”

“There will not be just one online world,” Mentor said.

“But you could have connections between different worlds,” said Jeff. “Like gateways between networks, you could have gateways between metaphors.”

Mentor scoffed. “You can’t translate everything. It won’t be like going from a cowboy-themed world to a science-fiction world. You’ll either lose too much, or the things will be so different that they won’t seem worth doing.”

“I think ‘Web’ sounds okay,” Jeff said.

“You seen the new program for that?” Mentor asked. Jeff nodded.

“What program?” I asked.

“I’ll show you,” Jeff said, and when we went back inside, he did. We couldn’t stay outside long, anyway. The summer was always irrationally hot. There are all kinds of places you can try to save money as an Austin business, but air-conditioning was not one of them.

He brought up a window and began clicking links, moving from one server’s listing of files to another. The program was called Mosaic. Oddly, it was software labeled beta, which I’d only ever seen released in controlled ways, not offered for free for anyone to try. That should’ve been my first clue that I’d entered a new world.

“I’ve seen that,” I said, because it’s what nerds and five-year-olds say when they’re relieved not to have been shown up.

“Oh,” Jeff said. “So you know gopher?” A discussion of gopher, an old kind of kind of file sharing, was one of the few things that the Secret Service had pointed to as evidence that Mentor was up to no good. Yes, I’d heard about gopher. “So you know how you can click from one server to another by hitting links. And you can go back with the back button and all that.”


“Okay,” he said. “So this is the same thing, but instead of gopher, it’s the Web.”

“The what?”

Jeff smiled. “The Web. It’s like, a bunch of pages, but they’re just text. I mean, you can put images in there. But it’s not like just a file listing or anything. It can be whatever you want it to be. You can link to files on your same server, or on some other server — anywhere in the world. They actually call it the World-Wide Web.”

I’d heard the term, but seeing something in action is every different than having someone describe it to you.

“It looks like shit,” I said, and I still stand by my critique.

“You can make your own pages,” he said. “Doug was saying that we should make some Web pages for Illuminati Online.”

In my mind, I opened and closed my mouth several times. In reality, I probably only did it once.

“I already started making a couple,” he said, pulling up a few pages. I’ve never been a competitive person, partly for being so anti-social and partly because I had a hard time seeing it as a good idea. You should compete with yourself, on your own terms, to push yourself forward down your own path. If you use other people as a guide, you might fail to do something that wasn’t in the cards for you in the first place and pull yourself away from the things that you can specially do. But there was something about Jeff that made me feel competitive. I think it was how so many things seemed to come to him so easily that he took for granted how much work it took to get to higher skill levels. Being decent at the basic level of something seemed good enough, and with many things being what they were, in a lot of cases he was right. With design, he was often wrong. But for someone with absolutely no experience, he was on the right track a shockingly great number of times. He wasn’t great at anything, except maybe writing, but he was good enough at a lot of things. It was the most irritating thing I’d encountered in years.

“How do you make Web pages?” I asked.

“Like this,” he said. “It’s called HTML — ‘Hypertext’ something, I forget.”

“Huh,” I said, and cogs began to turn deeply in my head. “Huh,” I said several hours later, after finally getting together a couple of pages that weren’t completely awful. “Huh,” I said, having realized it was well after dark and my girlfriend was probably wondering when I was going to call. I’d have to copy the files to a floppy and — no, I could just move the files to the server. That way, I could keep working on them from home.

Oh my God. This is going to change the game, isn’t it?

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 5

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Well,” Steve said, steepling his fingers over his chest. Then he stopped for half a moment, mouth open as if about to speak, though staring blankly at the ceiling. Then he turned his sharp gaze back to me. “Do you know what a MOO is?”

“No,” I said.

Steve nodded. “There has been an idea to build a virtual world. MOO means ‘multi-object—'” He frowned, and turned to the other scraggly bearded man in the room. “Doug, I know that there are Os, but what does MOO actually stand for again?”

“It’s an object-oriented MUD,” said Doug. He looked into the air and made a kind of “rearranging things” motion with one finger. “MUD, Object-Oriented: M-O-O.”

Steve knew what my next question would be. “Multi-User Dungeon,” he said, pointing out imaginary letters in the air as he spoke the acronym.

I nodded. For the first time in years, I was having a conversation about games and computers and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about. Strangely, it felt wonderful.

“Doug and I are talking about getting the Illuminati BBS back online,” Steve said, then he corrected himself, “—how to get Illuminati back online.”

“What do you mean, ‘how’?”

“Well,” Steve said, leaning back in his chair, “there are certain options available now that were not available in 1990, or ever.”

I knew what they were talking about. They were talking about the Internet.

“Put a computer at the end of a phone line,” Doug said, “and you’re sharing it one person at a time, and only to people who can afford to call.”

“Put something on the Internet,” said Steve, “and anybody can get there, from anywhere!” He frowned. “Not anybody, of course, but anybody on the Internet.” They shared a quick glance, smirks all around.

I wasn’t sure exactly what they were getting at, though I’d find out soon enough.

“Do you have an account on Wixer?” Doug asked.

“On what?” I asked.

Steve nodded. “You should get one. It’s a new online service. You of all people I’m surprised are not already signed up. They need you to show up in person to open an account. Jeff said he was going today. Maybe you can go with him.”

Early that evening, Jeff and I went together. I knew that part of town well.

What at the time had passed for the desolate northern fringes of Austin, and which 20 years later is simply a northern-ish stretch of central Austin, was thick with decrepit, one-story office parks, small warehouses and storefronts, like a red-light district of cheap hairdressers and tax accountants. I knew it well, because amongst it all were several little pockets of people like the blue, short-sleeved, collar-shirted nerds I knew from my high school days, guys flush with technology, mostly outdated, reading stacks of old science-fiction paperbacks and trying to sell what they could. Near the end of the Twentieth Century’s last American recession, vast amounts of tech passed through that north campus area — old items bought in bulk at auction, new items of dubious origin — and in addition to haggling and arguing and horse-trading, I was happy to hear that some people had decided to try and actually do something with some of it. I’d certainly spent enough time digging around there, as a poor college student.

In those days, like I said, even as someone well-off enough to own a computer, your only option to connect computers that weren’t in the same room or the same building was to have dedicated phone lines on each end. But computing power and storage capacity had not been standing still, and the kind of muscle that you only used to see in the basement of a building on a university campus could suddenly be had for only maybe many thousands of dollars. A couple of guys seriously next-leveled one of these server-class machines by connecting it not to a single phone line, but to a bank of them.

With big, beefy equipment — and with the right software, and enough money to pay to connect the machine to the Internet — that setup went from something that connected a couple of people to each another into something that connected several tens of people at a time both to each other and, well, anybody else with Internet access anywhere. In short, they had a business model. They weren’t the first people to find that model, and the idea would keep evolving, but it was the first time I’d heard of a random person being able to pay a bit of money for Internet access at home. It was an idea whose time had come, though, and in a handful of weeks it would seem like most people I knew were either online, or looking to get there.

In the narrow, low-rent, glass-fronted office, sat a guy on a tall stool in front of a couple of large computers, which sat on the stubby-carpeted floor, or on each other, at strange but stable angles. Some of them were open, exposing their delicate internals, fans whirring madly. I was delighted to have no idea what kind of machines they were, the rush of the high-tech new. A pegboard on the wall had ten or more modems tied against it, cables running in and out of each one as well as in and out of various other machines. The only guy there at the time was scruffy, overweight, his collared shirt half-unbuttoned and untucked, his eyes red. Basically, he looked like most system admins I’d meet for years to come.

“I thought only schools and the government could be on the Internet,” I said.

“I can give you an account if you want it,” he said, which made me feel less like we were doing something illegal and more like I simply didn’t want to get to know the guy. That was fine, since I wouldn’t have my account for very long — none of us would.

I’d spent the past three months creating a magazine from scratch. The launch of the first issue of Pyramid was a victory lap both for the company, having just survived and conquered the U.S. Secret Service after their illegal raid, and for me, having survived creating the first issue of Pyramid. With the deadline for the next issue about six weeks away, I took advantage of the late-Spring lull to get rather seriously back online.

It was a frustrating couple of weeks. I loved the service when it worked, though mostly it didn’t. No wonder that guy’d looked so haggard: they couldn’t keep their computers going for more than a couple of hours. One crash would kick everyone offline, and it could be fifteen minutes or more before you’d be back where you were.

“How hard could it be?” Jeff asked me one day at work. “Can’t two nerds keep a computer going?”

“You’d think,” I said, though I knew absolutely nothing about those kinds of systems.

Jeff laughed. “I think almost anyone would do a better job than those guys.”

We weren’t the only people having the same conversation. Some people, like Doug, knew quite a lot about those kinds of systems. He had loaned those guys the server-class machine they’d used to start their business, though they’d been less interested in talking about how he could help their little venture.

It was only a matter of time before Doug and Steve decided that not only could someone do a better job than those guys, but that they specifically would do a better job than those guys.

In the second issue of Pyramid, which went to print in late May or early June of 1993, is this brief note. “We’ve added a new staff member, Douglas Barnes, who is working full-bore on getting the Illuminati BBS connected to the Internet. The Internet is the world’s largest computer network — this move will give literally millions of people access to the board. Of course, there will be a lot of new features…more on that later.”

Readers only had to wait until the next issue, two months later, for us to spring our surprise on the world. Flush with cash after winning the Secret Service trial, Steve started a new company: Illuminati Online. We bought peg boards and many boxes of modems and many spools of cabling and a couple of just the right kind of big, bad-ass computers. Also — because the final straw in our relationship with those other guys was their ability to lose all kinds of data at great speed and not care that much about it — we bought a backup drive with tape enough to grow on. Because if there was one thing we did not want to lose, it was the Metaverse.

The Metaverse was our MOO, our Multi-User Dungeon, Object-Oriented. It wasn’t actually much of a dungeon; they only called it that after the kind of dungeon-crawling games from which the idea for the software originally sprang: like the text-adventure games from the 1980s, there were a bunch of “rooms” with text descriptions, with things you could do in each room, from moving “north” or “east” into another room, to picking up an object or attacking a monster. In the concept’s first major evolution, as a Multi-User Dungeon, running on a networked machine, you were not alone in your quest. There were other users there, too, slogging through the same adventures, competing for magic items or whatever the game was about. At the time, like bulletin-board systems of old, there were maybe twenty or more MUDs running at any one time (and later, there were many, many more). Because the MUD software was wildly customizable, every server’s world was different, and very few were actually set in dungeons. The more customized the experiences became, the more that players hungered for greater customization.

While I could spend a while taking a stab at what “object-oriented” meant in the context of this kind of game, let’s just say that some people got tired of walking around in other people’s dungeons, suffering the kind of impermanence you feel when playing someone else’s static game. In the new world of the 1990s, as the euphoria following the end of the Cold War good and truly settled in, and as a generation was finding their way into the world with fewer restrictions than it seemed there were before — and very bright futures, all cyber-everything — people wanted to play their own games. A few especially clever people produced a MUD that was user-hackable, with permanent, programmable objects, which could have wide-ranging effects on the virtual world. What did that mean? In part it meant that with the right permissions, you could change nearly anything about the game that you wanted to. Let me give you an example.

One of the first things I did in the Metaverse, after taking a look around, was to find out where people were. I found Mentor, chatting with friends in the base of an enormous mushroom — I’d seen a caterpillar smoking on top of the mushroom and thought I’d check it out; one leap into a small hole took me to Mentor’s secret lair. He was a wizard, so he blessed me with his magic wand and gave me the ability to change a few things in the world myself. I couldn’t make other people wizards, though I had enough rights to program objects and create a home for myself.

Back out along the edge of the small city that was being authored even as I walked through it, I remembered a rocky, oceanfront view. I started by creating a long dock, stretching away from the city, out over the ocean. At the end of the dock I made a large brass bell, with a whale etched into one side. It only took a little bit of code — and nearly as much cursing, as it’d been five years by that point since I’d last done any real programming — to make it so that when the bell was rung — literally, you would type “ring bell” — a giant whale would leap up out of the ocean, swallowing you whole. Once your eyes adjusted to the light, you could find your way down the beast’s throat to where I built a place I could call my own.

This was far in advance of anything like the graphics you’d need to show this on a screen. Everything was done through text, and in its own way it was far more rich than anything else that came along for almost ten years. In those early days, stumbling away from the keyboard as my third-story balcony began to glow with the new day’s sun, it seemed clear that we had something very interesting.

What we failed to understand was that the interesting thing was not the shared world we called the Metaverse, or any of the other services suddenly available from home or from work, or even the new business model of being an Internet Service Provider. The interesting, nearly magical thing was the Internet itself, and like any magical creature whose true name we did not know, we did not have it. It had us.



Since I don’t trust myself to publish my most recent entry without taking another look at it tomorrow, here’s something in the meantime.

This is an illustration of me in a science-fictional, cyberpunk future, from the back page of the second issue of Pyramid. Note the cable going into my right temple. I look nothing like that today. Thanks to Dan Smith for drawing that, just over 20 years ago.

Going to California

Pyramid #2 — June 1993