Going to California

Video: “Shall We Make A Game?” — The Internet, in 1994

This video shows some American television morning-show hosts responding to being asked to read an email address on the air, commenting on how funny it sounded and disagreeing on the exact right way to say it. They quickly turn to asking each other what the Internet is. Someone on their crew, off-screen, chimes in to help them, but with that much bad data in the air there’s only so much that one nerd can do.

Going to California

Making Magic — 2

When you’re working at a place that had been raided illegally at gunpoint, certain things get your attention more than others — like when Federal agents surround a barn-full of people not a hundred miles from you, clumsily kicking off a multi-hour gun battle and extended stand-off.

The Branch Davidians, targets of the raid, claim that the authorities shot first, though clearly they should have understood that after killing four agents who were trying to break into their illegal armory, there would be no talking their way out as though it had all been some kind of misunderstanding. I think everyone understood what had happened quite well: the agents had badly bungled a gunpoint raid of a compound full of people with a tenuous grasp on reality, and the compound’s relief at the validation of their persecution complex manifested itself in a deliberate and well-targeted hail of bullets. At the same time, it was incomprehensible how someone could believe for any period of time that a group of people who’d convinced themselves that the world was about to end could merely say, “Okay, fair enough,” and hand over their carefully cultivated arsenal without complaint.

Still, while we had no special affection for apocalypse cults, at least we had a good model for how far we could trust them. We didn’t trust the government at all. A friend of ours tried several times to get past the security cordon that had been set up just outside of Waco, Texas by the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, if nothing else than to verify what we were being told about the situation. To our surprise, he was never able to get close enough to take a look or to some photos. We simply didn’t think they would be seriously locking the place down. It was a big place. Little did we know how much photographic evidence we’d soon have of the stand-off’s conclusion.

A few days past the siege’s seven-week mark, while out at an Indian buffet with Mentor, he pointed at a ceiling-mounted monitor and we stood and watched as the Branch Davidian compound burst into flames, 76 men, women, and children burning to death on live television.

“Never thought I’d congratulate the Secret Service on their restraint,” Mentor said.

There were much larger problems in the world than the troubles of our little game company, though the little problems would be the ones that laid us low.

I said before that the game company had never recovered from the Secret Service raid, four years earlier. Getting a big chunk of change out of them didn’t help, given that we pumped most of it into Illuminati Online, which then quickly turned into a separate company sharing our offices. In all the excitement, we forgot somehow that Steve Jackson Games was still in trouble. But this time, it was in trouble largely because of Steve himself — not simply because he’d ignored the gaming side of things in order to get the ISP up and running, though certainly that had happened, but because of one of the things that money cannot fix: writer’s block.

Steve had bet the game company’s near-term success on the release of a new game called Hot Lead. The magazine I’d started, Pyramid, had originally been imagined in part as a mouthpiece for this game and the many supplements and merchandise we’d planned to sell. As time rolled along, the unthinkable began to seem seriously possible. The game would not be delayed. It would never ship at all. It was marketed so thoroughly, though, and with such promise, that even after all this time people still ask what happened to it.

I don’t believe the story has ever been told, so here goes.

First, though, I’m going to explain what it was and why people wanted it so badly. I’ll be erring on the side of some serious oversimplification, but if anything in this next little chunk makes your eyes glaze over, skip ahead to the little break where I say, “Okay, then.”

I began writing this increasingly long story almost exactly twenty years after the release of Ogre Miniatures, one of several versions of the game. I produced the book, though I had nothing to do with the game itself — Ogre is and has always been Steve’s baby, his first published game design and, like I said before, an honest-to-God classic. Here’s why.

War games were the nerdy older cousin of the basic board game, less like things such as Monopoly or Risk and more like simulations, multi-player battles between opposing armies, set either in some famous fighting era — the age of Napoleon was very popular — or recreating some specific battle, from the Middle Ages to World War II. They usually had incredibly complicated rules, the battlefield layout could take up an entire room, and games could run for weeks or longer, while covering only hours or a few days of time in the world of the game.

Any game designer can cobble together something unnecessarily complicated. Creating something compelling takes real skill. One of the ways we can find games to be compelling is when we think they’re fair, and a sense of fairness is often arrived at through a well-measured balance across elements of a game. One of the ways in which complicated war games came off as being balanced was by assigning point values to different army units, letting each player build their own army from the points available. Imagine that a soldier with a rifle costs ten points while a soldier with a machine gun could cost sixty points, because six guys with rifles might each get off one shot all at once, taking a bit of time to reload, while the other guy could steadily keep firing while his enemies approached. If six rifle guys did about as much damage as one dude with a machine gun, and the six slow-firing units cost the same as one fast-firing unit, then you could call that decently balanced. Give each player the same number of points to spend on whatever army units they chose, and you’ve got a fair game. Maybe the specifics of the units you picked let you more easily use some strategy for playing the game that comes very easy to you, or maybe those units will be particularly effective against the units your competition has chosen.

The conversation about game balance through point costs had been rising for some time before the mid-/late-1970s, when a young man named Steve Jackson said, essentially, “Okay, if that’s true, then should it scale all the way up? As in, if we each get the same number of points, but you had a large army made up of a ton of tiny units while I put all my points into one gigantic, massive unit, would it still be fair?”

So Steve imagined the single large unit as a half-mile long cybernetic tank, rolling on massive, headquarters-crushing treads and bristling with tactical nuclear weapons, while the other player had mobile cannons and well-armored soldiers and light hovercraft. And what do you know, it was a solid game. Steve called the giant tanks Ogres, and this simple idea both won the point-balance argument and made him a great crap-load of money. It helped that the game could fold up small enough to fit into your pocket and the rules were simple enough that anyone could begin playing within minutes, and it took at most a few hours to play. And it only cost a couple of bucks. Yes, it was popular.

At the same time, a new kind of game had come along, throwing point-costs right out the window and increasingly focusing instead on character and narrative. It was called Dungeons & Dragons, and while it was wildly popular it also had a dark secret: it was not a solid game, it was actually a kind of crappy game, in large part because any sense of fairness rested on the shoulders of the person who ran the game, the Dungeon Master, who controlled the dangers facing the players. Eighteen goblins coming at you? They fire their bows at you and, yeesh, sorry about that, you’re dead.

To classic board-game people, role-playing games often seemed to play out as capricious constructions. Steve, an inveterate improver of things flawed, saw an opportunity to do three things: apply a point-cost system to the construction of characters in role-playing games, such that two 100-point characters should be able to have a fair fight while a 250-point character was nearly guaranteed to crush a 50-point character; then to fill the point system with game elements from every imaginable era and genre, such that you could have a big caveman with a club and a feeble spaceman with a ray gun and if they cost the same in terms of points then at least to some degree you could call it a fair fight; and lastly then to create a more realistic combat system that would work across settings and tech levels. Steve called this game the Generic, Universal, Role-Playing System, or GURPS for short. While even in high school I found this to be a wince-inducing name, it was pretty popular, and still is today.

As the role-playing game industry flourished, old-school board games fell into decline. In part to appeal to the incoming role-players who were turned off by the aging war gamers who were happy spending weeks at a time pushing tiny French and English soldiers around a table, a different kind of hybrid hobby emerged, one which embraced the fantasy stylings of Dungeons & Dragons, with rules that were straightforward enough to be accessible to a wider audience and with miniatures that were more affordable than the average Napoleonics or World War II figures. They called it Warhammer, and it was immensely popular.

While the Warhammer rule books sold well — and novels, and later video games — the profits seemed to be in the miniatures. Every year, the company released new armies, with updated rules to support the increasingly wild miniatures: colossal cannons dragged around by orcs, elven cavalry, space-trooping dwarves from the far future of Warhammer 40K, and the like. However, year after year of new releases began to irritate some of the players who’d been in it longer, since in order to encourage the sales of new miniatures, some of them were very powerful or otherwise given serious advantages over older units. Some people thought this made the game more fun, though others thought this simply took away any sense of balance from the game, granting an edge to people who could afford to buy the newest figures. And since you could only play the game with the official miniatures, players were locked in.

Steve Jackson, whose eye for improving things had never been sharper, saw an opportunity to do to Warhammer what he had done for Dungeons & Dragons and to author a set of generic rules covering all kinds of fighters, from swords to cannons to lasers to wizards. It was called Hot Lead, though the game industry’s miniatures hadn’t been made from lead for many years. While it would be playable with any figures from anywhere, Steve and Mentor had several terrific game-worlds planned, for which terrific armies were being designed. One army were space knights (and in fact the entire line was called Space Knights), and their opposing army were undead, mostly fleshless cyborgs. We had a couple of large color posters printed up, at significant cost. The cover of Pyramid #1 showed a giant, skeletal cyber-dragon, ridden by laser-wielding skeletons, flying through space. It sounds absurd, though interestingly enough it hit all the right notes. The fans were salivating. The same sculptors who’d partnered with us on Ogre Miniatures had already created a line of Space Knights figures, and they were close to being released. We just had to deliver the game.

Okay, then.

By the time things had gotten that far, we had only one problem: the game. It wasn’t working, wasn’t anywhere near what it needed to be in order to deliver on its promise. What Steve had developed was a solid, genius-level set of skirmish rules for medieval troops, even if area effects — like explosions, or magic — were still in progress. The larger problem was how technology was not well balanced in terms of point costs. The promise of playing low-tech soldiers against equivalent points worth of high-tech soldiers was not coming together. The Warhammer people, it seemed, ended simply acknowledging this, and rather than pull back and try to preserve some game balance they embraced it, made it part of their business model. Or who knows, maybe they were pulling back. Maybe they were resisting the temptation to overtly cash in on their success, and what they’d shipped was as good as they could reasonably get.

Mentor had been running computer simulations, leaving tens of thousands of battle playing out overnight, and the news sounded grim. Looking at the numbers, the game didn’t work. I don’t remember Steve agreeing, though he kept working on it. Mentor began to crap on the game more seriously, insisting that something be done. They’d begun missing deadlines at that point. Space Knight figures were showing up in stores with no game to support them. Our partner was growing unhappy. Mentor had several ideas for wrestling the game around to end up with something workable, but it was far from clean or perfect. Steve wanted clean and perfect, at least at the start. After one senior-staff meeting, Mentor stomped out ahead of everyone else and punched the side of a massive metal filing cabinet. His hand hurt for several days, but that fist-shaped dent stayed for years.

“It would be good enough,” he told Andy, Jeff, and me as we stood outside the editorial door, underneath the upstairs balcony. It was late autumn, and the Texas air was finally cooling. Even worse, Steve and Mentor had come to disagree on the future of Illuminati Online, as well, but I’ll come back to that next time.

The place is called Steve Jackson Games for a reason. If it were called “Apex Games” or “Terrific Entertainment, Inc.”, then it’d be easier to make a case that other people should get a say in the company’s direction and what the brand should stand for. When the company is named for a single person, then that person’s brand is inextricably linked to the brand of the company. Only a few people had ever shared top-billing with Steve on a game, or been allowed to appear as a game’s sole author — industry luminaries, usually; Warren Specter, who went on to produce the award-winning Deus Ex video games, was one, and Allen Varney was another — though all of them had left the company after not too long for the relative freedom of nearly anywhere else.

So when Steve decided he didn’t want to compromise and release what he saw as a flawed game design, that was how things were going to go. It didn’t matter how much money had been sunk into marketing, and it didn’t matter that a partner of ours had been making and trying to sell the game’s licensed miniatures for many months by that point — it was tremendously unfortunate, no one was discompassionate — and it didn’t matter that Mentor thought the game could still be better than the competition, who made many millions of dollars every year. In England, where they were based, they’d even opened their own stores to sell their crazy miniatures. But Steve’s game wasn’t demonstrably, argument-winningly great, so he shelved it. Maybe it was the right decision. It wasn’t mine to make, so I tried not to have an opinion.

Ultimately, the shelving of Steve’s baby happened quietly, by inattention. There was never any one day I recall where it was said, “Okay, no more Hot Lead.” Or at least, by the time Steve said it, each of us had already wrestled with and arrived by ourselves at the conclusion that it was never going to happen, so any announcement made little impact on us. I can’t imagine that our miniatures partners were particularly impressed.

There was at least one less-quiet aspect of the passing of Hot Lead. It meant that we wouldn’t have the big financial boost that a set of “miniature rules done right” would have brought. We had to do some more belt-tightening. And just before Christmas, Steve fired Mentor — because he was expensive, sure, but more I think to deflate the office tension. No one was happy about it, as a rather wild understatement, though that didn’t make it any better.

The office was gloomy for months. I was gutted, and angry, and worried, even though everything went really well — really great, actually — for me, personally, better than things ever had gone before. Since I couldn’t put my finger on my fears, I ignored them. By the time that summer rolled around, though, I failed to find comfort in the truth that I’d been right to be afraid.

We left the posters up around the office for years, of course, because giant robot bone-dragons in space look cool, even if we’d given up on that particular dream. Myself, I managed to soldier through because Mentor, before leaving, had given me a different dream: a game of my own to produce in-house, an opportunity that, like I said, nearly never came around at Steve Jackson Games. As a young man who’d spent his teenage years in the grip of fantasy escapism, it was a bright dream, and it filled my waking hours with hope for my future.

Then a whole lot of things happened quickly, pretty much all at the same time.

Going to California

Making Magic — 1

Even for a guy who worked in an office where posters of staff-waving wizards and skeletal dragons covered the walls, “magic” was a pretty strong word to use when talking about everyday life. Even though the game company itself was edging toward terrible trouble, and would take some serious reality-bashing to save, we had already conjured up something otherworldly by providing a way to get normal people connected to the Internet. Although truthfully, the real trick wasn’t the service itself, it was getting together the team of wizards who pulled together to bend reality in the first place.

Jim McCoy mentored Patch on how to keep the machines up and humming; newly hired Chris Williams — long hair, long fingernails, long beard, and long stare, who first introduced me to trance music — worked on the scripts which tied all the little things together, automating so much of what until then had been manual procedures; Jeff and I cranking out late-night Web pages, astonished that more and more people in late 1993 were online to see them; and walking in and out of Steve’s office with pages and pages of notes and plans, was Doug. Plenty of other colorful characters came and went in the years I saw that company grow, but these were some the few people I’d call my friends, then and now.

When Apple put out the new version of their Newton portable computer, the 110, Jim and Chris and I all jumped on a special deal to get some of a limited run they’d made with transparent cases. They were amazing devices, like nothing we’d seen before. You could walk around with a computer in your pocket. “Imagine how small and how powerful these things will be in ten years!” But in those early days, I knew Doug the best, mostly because I was a sponge for stories and he always had the best stories. Jim and Chris and I and the others dreamed of international, cyberpunk lives. Doug had already lived something like one.

Once Doug and I had been hanging out with each other for a little while — late night belly-filling at Magnolia Cafe, too much coffee at all hours — we both suspected we’d seen one another somewhere once before. He was of average build, wearing the usual programmer’s uniform of rimless glasses and a dark, scruffy beard, though while he fit a certain nerd archetype, there was no denying that there was something very sharp behind his eyes, and something gentle and helpful in his smile. From a distance, he might not stand out in a geek lineup — yet, once meeting him, I’ve never heard of someone forgetting him. People often tell me I seem familiar to them, but it’s rare enough when someone else feels known to me that I feel compelled to track it down.

When I was a freshman on campus at the University of Texas, Doug Barnes ran with a much older crowd. He was a senior at the time, though against serious odds we had something in common: an affliction of affection for a drama student, a young actress with gorgeously glowing light-green hair. This was in the late-1980s, when there wasn’t the brightly hued rainbow of heads that bob around on the sidewalks and playgrounds of cities today. To have green hair was to make a something of a statement, certainly — and an impression, definitely. Today, twenty years later, Doug no longer remembers her, but I do, and I remember us arriving at the suspicion that it was in her larger social circle where we had likely first seen one another, even if we never quite met.

Doug was the first example I ever met of that mythical beast: a computer programmer who was smart, and focused, and easy going, and well socialized. He was, in a word, cool. If I had met him earlier — when I’d been a freshman, struggling to find my identity as a computer programmer who danced four to six hours a day — I wonder how things might have turned out.

Doug’s life had also brushed up against the hacker crackdown in the week before the raid on Steve Jackson Games. He had taken a local programming gig, and his officemate, Bob Izenberg, was one of the people who’d received an early visit by the Secret Service. They told Bob that a system he managed had been used for storing or transferring some documentation and some code that had been obtained illegally from the phone company. As with most people who had these little chats with the U.S. Secret Service, Bob Izenberg watched them walk off with his server-class equipment, at the time worth something like ten-thousand dollars. Also like most everyone else, they never pressed charges, but neither would they talk about when he might get his stuff back.

This incident, and the mayhem that exploded in the weeks and months to follow — from the Steve Jackson Games raid to the full-court press of Operation Sundevil and its 23,000 seized floppy disks — did not sit well with Doug. After hearing over and over how people he knew were finding out what it was like to have the authorities show up out of nowhere to grab them, he eventually grew irate enough to jump to the same conclusion that any right-thinking geek today might make: if the system was the problem, then the only solution was to hack the system. But as the founding of the EFF soon validated, this was not the kind of problem that you could solve with a “get in and change my grade” kind of hack. Doug was savvy enough to guess which system needed hacking, which was how he got into law school.

Before finishing his degree and embarking on his legal studies, he scooped up some money he’d saved and took some time off to visit a friendly ex-girlfriend, who had moved to Taiwan. He’d never been out that way, and when else in the near future would he have the chance? It would be an adventure.

Like any good international cyberpunk adventure, Doug’s visit quickly turned into a rescue mission. He arrived to find his ex- squatting in a derelict building, with no water or power, as part of a thriving community of meth users. Doug rented an apartment for her and for anyone else who wanted out.

After helping his ex- sort out her drugs-and-roommates problem, he found himself spending a lot of time where she worked as a bartender. Then he found some reasons to stay longer than originally planned. Then he arranged to defer his law school admission, and began teaching English to Taiwanese professionals, bankers and lawyers.

Then he met Coco, a minor TV news personality in Taiwan, and this connection set him on the course that would shape the rest of his time there. In addition to possessing a small spark of celebrity, Coco also happened to be a life-drawing model. On their first real date together, Coco brought along a portfolio of portraits that people had made of her. “If I had been thinking carefully,” Doug told me recently, “this would have set off sufficient alarm bells at that point to bail.”

Doug and Coco had a good number of blissful months together. At some point his visa had expired, but he didn’t care. He was happy, for a while.

After that, it should have ended like most love stories do: she began to feel more seriously toward him, and as he was realizing that his feelings were less serious than hers, they broke up. But when Doug began seeing another woman, he discovered that his love story with Coco had not ended. After many months of relatively normal life in Taiwan, suddenly Doug seemed to be targeted by the random aggression of the world. His door got spray-painted, his motorcycle tires were slashed. He knew it was Coco, though he didn’t know she was only getting warmed up.

Coco knew Doug had been working without a visa, which left him vulnerable to someone with the kind of good connections that minor media personalities have in some countries. She went to the police, and convinced them to illustrate for Doug what it really does look like when the authorities show up to grab you.

Recounting the story nearly ten years later, Doug said, “Do you remember that scene in The Matrix? How our hero sees the cops walk in and he’s like, ‘Uh oh,’ and locks himself in an office and then negotiates his own release by phone? That’s basically what ended up happening, except I got thrown into a holding cell with some guys from Sri Lanka.”

Coco had come along with the cops, presumably so that the point wouldn’t be lost on Doug that she was the one responsible for his suffering. In my mind, she is wearing mirrored sunglasses.

Two days later, they marched him to a plane and sent him back to the States. He’s never returned to Taiwan.

The rough thing that in those early days we called the Internet was beautiful, by any measure. And even those of us who’d been expecting it for years, we didn’t quite yet believe that it was in the process of becoming a real thing, right before our eyes, finally, even though we were making it happen. Because there still remained one question that no one could answer — a question it was presumed would have to be answered before the Internet as we thought we would know it could fully arrive. What will the Internet look like?
It was a restless and more experienced Doug who eventually made it back to Austin — after finishing his degree, gaining a wife, and losing a father — and found his orbit drawing him into a series of side shows that had grown up around the question of what the Internet would ultimately look like. Quickly, he got to the heart of it, first loaning a server-class machine to some friends to start one Internet service, then meeting Steve Jackson and Mentor and launching a more successful venture, in those days before the Web took over.

Doug’s stories of international adventure felt like some kind of a connection from an abstract, science-fictional world of mirrorshades and madness to my boring world of oppressive heat and endless laundry. Some part of me, in the long quiet moments while the rest of me obsessed over magazine-page design, imagined that it must be a two-way connection, that if Doug popped out of a science-fictional world into my reality, then it must be possible to follow the tether back to that place.

For a time, on my way home from work or while waiting for a late-night hamburger at the local franchise drive-through, I used to dream about this other reality, knowing full well that the path to that place was more likely to be tangled up inside my head than it was to be spelled out on a map anywhere.

Five years later, I’d dropped my drive-time fantasy of finding the sideways path into a science-fictional world. Of course, only once I stopped looking for it did an alternate, cyberpunk reality found me. It would consume me completely, but a lot had to happen in those five years before I made it to California.

By the time we’d formally launched Illuminati Online, I was deeply exhausted — not least of which because, in addition to starting and sustaining a magazine that would be nominated for a slew of awards, winning some over the years, I’d also been scraping together hours here and there to work on Hot Lead, which was where the worst of our problems began.

What was Hot Lead? Well, I’ll tell you.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 10

About a year earlier, Timothy Leary collaborated somehow with rock star Billy Idol on his Cyberpunk album, and the month before this event in Austin he’d starred in a tedious documentary, also called Cyberpunk. Clearly, his snappy patter would be predictable.  I’ve already searched the Internet and came up empty. If someone were to find a video of the event it might be a little bit different from what I remember, but:

I divide the event into three stages.

The show began with Timothy Leary and his wife or girlfriend, or whatever she was, coming out to thank people for attending. Then Leary raised his arms and slowly intoned a deep sentiment about computers and cyberspace and the future of human consciousness. I thought he seemed a bit shaky, impaired, though clearly the crowd was loving his cyberpunk talk. He could hardly find a more receptive audience outside of the U.S. West Coast than in hippy-speckled Austin. Then we watched a trippy video, projected larger-than-life over the stage. This was at a time when video projection was still a new thing, and the crowd seemed to go with it.

Leary came back and stumbled through an introduction of the video of his arrest. Then he played the video.

Leary came back again after that and tried to win people back to his cause. It didn’t go well.

Here’s how the AP newswire service reported his arrest. You can unpack what no one liked about the story from the newswire article, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow.

He stressed in his introduction for the video of his arrest that he was striking back against the political-correctness that had developed a stranglehold on all of our minds, put there by the authorities to control our actions. That kind of thing. So were were expecting something serious.

His videographer traveled with him to Austin, and began recording, or at least we began seeing what they were recording, as they were stepping out of the old Austin airport, the one that had been in north Austin (again, now central Austin; the place has mushroomed in 20 years). They step into the heat of our early Summer and decide that they’re going to step back inside to have a smoke, having just gotten off the plane but apparently not wanting to arrive at wherever they were to be ensconced in Austin to have a cigarette in a not-stupidly hot environment. But someone waves Leary off: smoking had been banned inside the airport.

Leary throws a bit of a fit, waving his arms and cursing about how he should be able to do whatever he wants to do. He seems seriously impaired. He marches over to the closest person in a uniform with a badge. He’s a security guard, though, not an officer of the law. Leary tears into him about the insanity of this culture of political correctness, waving an unlit cigarette.

They guy looks extremely embarrassed and basically says, “I’d really, really rather you not do that. Can’t you please step outside?” Leary refuses, and asks for trouble. The guard explains that Leary would need to find an actual police officer for that. I recall him both wincing slightly over being asked to point out where a real cop might be while also intently looking for a way to get out of the conversation.

Then a suited person appears — I remember Leary calling out from the overall baggage claim area that he wanted to speak with someone in charge — and I forget if she worked for an airline or for the airport but she has her lips pursed and her eyes locked on Leary. She is listening to exactly what he is saying. And she nods, and she leads him to an actual, uniformed police officer. After asking for and receiving an explanation of the actual law, Leary belligerates the cop, and at the climax of his rant he lights his cigarette and begins smoking. The cop gives him a momentarily resentful look — like, “And you’re really going to make me do this” — before gently handcuffing him. I forget how much more the tape showed; not enough that I remembered. Maybe, like a lot of other people, I’d stopped paying attention. They’d taken him downtown and given him a ticket, basically. He didn’t get booked; he didn’t have to put up bail. He just got a lift from the airport to downtown, then the event organizers picked him up there. And he basically got a ticket for being a dick. And then he showed us the evidence.

Six months after this event, in his book Chaos and Cyber Culture, he wrote that he was “1,000 percent against the thoughtless use of ((drugs)), whether caffeine or LSD. And drugs are not central to my life.” Knowing how publishing works, that text was likely edited and ready to go many months before that event in Austin. I think he saw the cigarette smoking issue as a human rights matter rather than a form of drug use. Maybe it would be easier to whittle down from our culture — I’m against tobacco, personally — if we called it what it is: drug use.

Some months after that event, his home state of California would ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants (though not bars; that would take three more years). It would take Austin ten years to gain a similar smoking ban, though it wasn’t because the people in Austin were jerks. I’m not defending Austin — we weren’t suffering a jerk drought — but it’s more because people in Texas in general and Austin in particular, against what I’ve discovered the global media would have you believe, are extremely polite. No kidding, Canadians would wish they were Texans if it weren’t for all the gun violence and the infrastructure problems and the poverty. I can’t say there’ve ever been official reports about people being niced to dead, but it wouldn’t shock me. “An armed society is a polite society,” I used to hear. People were genuinely very polite, and part of being polite is to not figuratively or literally blow smoke in people’s faces. There was, again, no drought of young jerks who would sometimes do it on purpose because it was funny, or older jerks who simply couldn’t be troubled caring about other people’s opinions of something that hardly even registered anymore to them, with their severely dulled senses of taste and smell. But for the most part smokers were circumspect and wouldn’t smoke where it wouldn’t be cool. After all, being cool was the only reason they started smoking, anyway.

The sense in the crowd, as we watched the scene play out, was confusion, at first. Did he really do that? Is this a joke? Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing?

After coming back, he looked a little confused as to why he was losing the room. He fell back onto the old standbys, like how cyberspace is the psychedelic of the future, and how we will only be free when we free ourselves, but the crowd had already begun thinning, and it became more difficult to hear his amplified voice over the people in the corridors muttering to one another — and while I’m sure he’d respect that a lot of what was going on were drug deals, he no longer seemed to be having fun.

I hoped he was at least learning something. It turns out he already knew he had cancer. Two years and two weeks later, his consciousness passed out of this world. His body was cremated and sent up into space on the same launch that took Gene Roddenberry’s mortal remains, a final trek to the stars for them both.

Cookie and I shared a glance: It was time to go. We skipped out, hand in hand, past the throngs of skate punks out front, falling down again and again trying to hop the curb on a board. Oak trees shrouded our exit into the near dark. We slid into my car — my little red convertible, my other little love.

“I think that went well,” she said.

I placed my hand on her leg. “Oh, my,” she said, and laughed. I punched the gas and we tore out of there, towards home.
Standing as we had been, sometimes on opposite sides of the incoming throng, sometimes side by side, we felt very warm, very close to one another. We were giddy, feeling like we had just done a great thing. What I’ve failed to mention about Cookie is that in addition to being a stellar graphic designer, she was unfeasibly and almost impractically beautiful, coupled with a pure shyness that was two innocent steps to the right of being coy, but just two. There was a nearly unbearable frisson that came from seeing hundreds of people respond so positively to what we had to tell so many of them individually. They responded well in part, I think, because she was unreasonably hot, but the positive sense from it was boosted ten-fold for it being clear that she was with me. I liked that.

The next couple of weeks, as a growingly great mob of people signed up for the service, were great. The month afterwards, though, went as badly as any one month has ever gone in my entire life. I didn’t believe it at the time, I won’t be surprised if you don’t.

With a full-time staff on io.com, they didn’t need me or Jeff hammering out crappy Web pages anymore — which was good, because back on the game-company side of things, we had big problems. Getting out of the hole we’d unwittingly dug ourselves into would take nothing short of actual, honest-to-God magic.

Hang on tight.

NEXT: Making Magic — part 1

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 9

The day of the event felt like the most exciting in months or years — no one was even sure what was going to happen; would there be music, or what? The Leary people had leaked through their many post-arrest media conversations that a thorough recording of the event had been made, and that we would have a chance to see it for ourselves at the event. Really, you couldn’t ask for more attention than that.

I remember it being an unexpectedly bright day, four of us Illuminati Online people doing product promotion in black t-shirts, arms full of flyers that would serve as most people’s first introduction to an affordable, local Internet service. Cookie and I got there around 3:30 PM to scope out how we’d do it. I also wanted to get good parking in case the fact that Austin was not just a big hippy town but also a big tech town got us a decent turn-out of tech hippies. We could not have been more right. We were mobbed.

The show was sold out — I think it was more than sold out. I think someone probably could’ve been arrested over that one. It wasn’t a huge joint: big, open concrete, rectangular room; long corridors running along two sides; high-school brown, metal, double doors; the whole place encased in brick on the outside, with a cement flatness that passed for a milling-about area in front of it all. At least, that’s how I remember it; I don’t recall the name of the venue, and I would only go there once more, a few months later, just days before Cookie broke up with me. We would go to see a popular flash-in-the-pan band, and maybe a third as many people turned up as did to see Timothy Leary detail the sudden continuance of his fight against The Man.

The central concrete area filled up fairly quickly. I could run up to the back of the crowd, before it got too thick to move without brushing up against people, but I’d still only barely have squeezed inside the open concert area itself. A T-shaped stage had been set, with the long limb of the T stretching out into the audience. A microphone stand sat mid-stage, ready.

The two main corridors bustled with people, flanked by folks huddled on either side in long, low rows. The cement staging area out front was only half as dense with people as the hallways inside, mostly with those who couldn’t afford to get in, or people waiting on other people to get in, or people who didn’t want to get it in but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what was going on, or random skateboarders.

“What was up with that girl?” Cookie asked.

“Oh,” I said, “ah, you know. Boy trouble.”

“Go on. I find it interesting. How old is she again?”

“Eighteen,” I said.

“That’s pretty young,” she said. We were twenty-four.

In the couple of hours leading up to the show, Cookie and I stood on either side of the brown double doors, smiling hugely and handing out Illuminati Online flyers just as quickly as we could, to people who were more than receptive. I began to notice that I wasn’t seeing very many of the fliers on the ground, unlike some of the other give-away cards, which was nice given that if the audience wasn’t receptive, I was going to have to look at them getting stomped on for a couple of hours. Nearly an hour before the show, the place was full and we were running out of flyers.

“It is pretty young,” I said. “And the guy she likes is nineteen, maybe twenty now, but he’s married.”

“Oh, my.”

“Yeah. And they just the other week met up at his place for lunch when, surprise, his wife decided to come home for lunch that day as well. She had to lay there, naked, in his bed —”

“In her bed,” she said, meaning the wife.

“— listening to him talk his wife into going out for lunch, and not going in the bedroom.”

“That sounds like an awkward couple of minutes.”

“Twenty. She said she thought it was something like twenty.”

She winced, her face softening toward the girl she did not know. “That’s a long time.”

Some people, after glancing at the flyer, stopped in their tracks and said, “What?!” Some people came back to ask for details. Some people who didn’t even have tickets came up to us and asked meekly if they could have a flyer, even though they weren’t going to the show.

We gave out all the flyers we had, and we’d brought a lot. I don’t remember how many. Hundreds, many hundreds, certainly. I recall there being at least four of us frantically doing the handing, but I don’t remember today who all else had been there. Me and Cookie, sure, then I want to place Jim and Patch as being there, as well. That might be unlikely, though, given how soon after he started that we had to let Patch go.

Patch had one most crucial responsibility: before leaving for the weekend, put a new backup tape in the drive. Let’s not lose data like those yahoos. But Patch kept forgetting, and one time he forgot to do it and one of the machines hiccuped and some data ended up getting lost. I saw him shortly after and I was happy to see he was fine with it.

“I didn’t put in the tape,” he said, shrugging and grinning with great exaggeration, winning my respect. He went on to do a ton of good work at a ton of great tech companies, no surprise. You own your mistakes. You learn.

The hippies and the techies and the tech-hippies were starting to get a little unruly by showtime. There was some kind of opening act, some dim music-something that people were happy to suffer through while we waited for Leary to take the stage. Murmuring in the back corridors began to grow until we could hardly hear the cue to begin clapping for the end of the opener. Once the clapping got going it only built, until the whole place was a din of hooting and calling and yelling and stamping as the lights grew dim and a few people in white walked up on stage.

I recall it going something like this.