Going to California

Making Magic — 12.5

Rick was a friend from back in my college days, if a distant one. He was on the far side of a social circle that had swept across with my own so thoroughly that all the points of contact didn’t become clear for years. We’d only hung out maybe three or four times, though I’d seen him around and more than anybody else in that crowd I felt a palpable kinship with him, a sense that we were meant to work together at some point.

Of course, I did the only reasonable thing and felt extremely embarrassed by my feelings, cramming them down into the big nowhere inside my head. After having been kind enough to introduce me to some terrific music, Rick moved back to Houston for art school, but I’d seen some of his little black and white noodlings, and he was good, much better than I was. But because I liked him, I wasn’t at all envious, I was happy for him, so I kept him in mind for whatever reason.

Only a month before Steve asked me about the card game, I heard from a friend that Rick had graduated school and was killing time working at a book store, thinking about how he was going to repay his art school loans. So when I did the math and saw that there was no way I could get everything done, even if I broke down and taught Jeff how to color art, which I was grudgingly admitting was possible, I was already ready to consider unreasonable solutions. The thought of with Rick went from a random feeling, best suppressed, to the obvious solution to a good many problems. So I called him.

“I don’t know Photoshop,” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “But you know your way around a computer?”

“Mmm, no, not really. Sort of. But no.”

“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll send you a piece of line art, and you try to color it in best you can.   I’ll show it to Steve and we’ll see if he thinks we can work with what you’re capable of putting out.”

“Are…you sure?”

When Rick emailed me his sample effort, it was clear he didn’t know his way around Photoshop. But I knew he had an artist’s mind, and it’s always been easier to bring an artist into the digital realm than to bring an engineer into becoming an artist.

“He did this?” Steve asked.

“I spent a tiny amount of time doing some touch-up,” I admitted. “Not ten minutes.” Not five, but I was hedging. Some touch-ups might take much longer.

“So,” he said, waving his hand at the monitor, “you’re going to ‘touch up’ the work, and get it where it needs to be?”

“Yes,” I said. “With 400 cards, the three of us can color maybe one every two hours. That’s twelve a day, sixty a week —”

“Seven weeks,” Steve said, “and then a week for layout.”

“We’ll have to do a lot of the layout up front.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose toward his eyes. “You won’t have time. You’ll be coloring art.” He gestured at the monitor again. “You’ll be coloring art.”

“Can you see at least that we need Rick if we’re going to do this at all?”

Steve nodded. “When can he get here?”

“A few days.”

“He’s in Houston? Tell him to start driving.” He puckered his lips. “Have you talked with Jeff?”

“Not yet,” I said. I’d been converting the existing Illuminati logos into scalable vector art that computers like to use, and working on the layout of the cards themselves. They’d have to be very different from the previous version of the game. Steve even had the name — Illuminati: New World Order. But I’d wanted to get my thoughts on that nailed down before involving anyone else. It’s not like I’d been doing anything in my spare time except packing and moving and half-heartedly unpacking.

“Jeff,” I said, later that day. He turned to me. “I am going to need your help.”

“What’s up?”

“Let’s look at how the brushes work in Photoshop, and how I use them to color art.” His eyes widened slightly, and I felt bad for not having been able to check my ego at the door in the past, and for not having been a good mentor.

I said, “It’s easy,” by which I meant, “You can do this,” by which I meant I was only there to support him. We were going to do this. And Rick. It was going to work.

Later that evening, Andy was flicking between sample cards from various sources while we watched, in the tiny confines of his office. The talks with printers were getting serious. He sighed.

Jeff flicked a few, some of which had a very satisfying snap. “Why can’t we do cards like these?”

“That’s how real cards are made,” Andy said. “They got a nice coat, they got a plastic center—”

“Plastic? Really?”

Steve stood in the door of Andy’s office.

“Yeah,” Andy said. “It’s just impossible to get time with those printers right now.”

“Really?” Jeff asked.

Steve said, “There isn’t time,” and he said it with enough of a punch that we got the picture.

This was serious.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 12

In a couple of days, Steve returned with a very big set of prototype cards. “I have a call in for how many of these people cards we can use,” he said, and there were a lot, from Madonna to Dr. Dimento. Within days, the lawyers had verified that only public figures could be used without license, so most of those were trashed immediately. But Steve had made a pretty good effort at taking a small game, one you could carry in your back pocket, and turning it into a 400-card deck-building game.

Steve was on a roll the likes of which I’d never seen. As he pulled our the playtest cards to show them off to us, he happily edited as he went, crumbling up cards that in the cold light of day must have no longer made sense, and scribbling notes on cards where elaboration suddenly seemed obvious and necessary — he was a force of nature in motion, doing the work he was put here to do.

When I’d been working on my book, I’d had a chance to see him in action. “No, no,” he said, pawing over my translation of the original French game. “Something more like this.” Then he drew out in pencil a graph that made perfect sense of the likelihood that a player might roll one number or another, in relation to how skilled a character might be. The numbers were clear and inarguable. It was late in the evening, and I walked back to my office, cowed, as he’d just formed a shell of reason around something I’d been struggling with for months by that point. What I saw with him working on Illuminati was something even more different.

Two days later, I asked him, “How many cards?”

Steve looked up from his laptop. “We looked at the math,” he said, “and it seems we can get a certain number of cards per sheet, which ends up giving us about 400 cards, plus the Illuminati. I have a few changes still to make but that’s what it turns out to be.”

That’s about what I was expecting. “That’s a lot of cards,” I said.

Steve nodded, smiling, eyes closed.

I took a deep breath. “Four hundred is a lot,” I said. “But —“

“I have a couple of artists lined up.”

“But they’re black-and-white artists.” I took a deep breath again while Steve nodded. “I’ve had good luck color art in Pyramid.”

“I know.”

“But it does take time. Coloring one image per hour — and that’s very optimistic — is ten weeks, with one person.”

“Presuming no burn-out.”

“Sure. And that’s too much time, anyway. So I figure I’ll show Jeff how to color art. Still, very optimistic. So call it eight weeks for me and Jeff, if we’re lucky. And we only have nine weeks. I have to lay out the cards, and the point-of-purchase display boxes.”

Steve steepled his hands over his eyes. “Your point is?”

“We need a third person.” And I knew just the man.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 11

In terms of how to build a collectible card game, we got a lot of details from the Wizards of the Coast guys, who had of course invented the idea. We would print four large sheets of card stock: two for the most-common cards, one for the uncommon cards, and one for the rare cards. Then you print a lot of the common cards, a dramatic percentage fewer of uncommon cards, and even less of the rare cards. After that, the trick is to get all the cards trimmed off their sheets and sorted so that you end up with the correct distribution of common, uncommon, and rare cards when they’re packed into boxes of starter decks and little plastic booster packs.

There are several things that make real playing cards different from pieces of cardboard of the same thickness. One of them is that instead of being some kind of card stock, what you actually have a very thin layer of plastic sandwiched between two layers of paper. The plastic in the middle is part of what makes a nice playing card snap so satisfyingly.

Magic cards had been printed like real cards, though we weren’t going to be able to go the real-card route ourselves. Very few printers did that sort of work, and they were booked months in advance. On top of that, they can then take as long as a month getting the product from the plant to us, because they’re probably located in Belgium.

Andy was busy calling all the large-scale pharmaceutical packaging printers in the northern-most states of America, since it made sense that someone like that could be the best match in terms of lots of custom die-cut boxes, and they probably give serious attention to detail in the finishing, and they’re probably used to receiving huge orders on short timeframes. Also, their proximity to the Canadian paper mills gave them a lot of flexibility in terms of access to different kinds of paper stock.

While waiting to be called back, we had a good long afternoon of brainstorming.

“What are events from the last ten years,” Steve asked, “that should be included in a new Illuminati?”

“Raid on Waco,” I said.

Steve frowned. “I don’t want to talk about Waco specifically,” he said. “But the rise of militia groups plays into this, yes.” He made a note. “Good.”

“The Internet,” said Jeff.

Steve nodded, scribbling with one hand while pointing at Jeff with the other.

“Communism is a problem,” I said.

“In what way?” asked Steve.

“End of the Cold War. International Communism is no longer the scary bad monster it had been ten years ago.”

“There are still plenty of Communists. China —”

“Sure, but in the media that’s not what the story’s about anymore.”

“Go on.”

Groups in the game, not the secret conspiracies themselves but controllable groups like California and Wall Street, can have alignments, like Straight or Violent. Some of the humor that people like the most in Illuminati comes from the alignments used to describe the various groups. Each alignment opposes some other alignment, like Straight is the opposite of Weird and Violent is the opposite of Peaceful. Not all groups have an alignment, and few groups have more than one or two, but it’s very important in play: when a group with one alignment tries to control a group with the same alignment, the attack is easier — imagine the Mafia wanting to control the Loan Sharks; you could see that being fairly low-risk. Opposing alignments make things harder — imagine the Pentagon trying to control the Hippies; that might take a lot of power or a lot of money, or both, to pull off.

One of the original alignment pairs had been Government versus Communist. Now, besides being a poor characterization of communism as being unable to govern — not that I think the 20th Century is full of sterling examples — it no longer seemed relevant.

“The whole ‘Red Scare’ thing was strong when I was growing up. And I know there are still communists in the world, but now, in what is basically the mid-1990s—” Deep sighs from all the people who suddenly felt old. “—I don’t see anyone talking about the communist threat at all.” I scanned the ten or so people hanging out in the editorial bullpen for contradiction, then I went on. “From the perspective of the ’90s, I think the opposite of Government is Corporate.” Everyone nodded. “Then you can show the banks and the media fighting against government conspiracies.”

“Hmm,” Steve said. “Let me think about that.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” Andy said, “if we had something like ‘George the Janitor,’ who you can send into another player’s power structure — you know, to get information out of the trash cans or something?”

Steve pointed and paused as though he was going to say something, then he looked up at the ceiling, finger still extended in a half-pointing gesture. Then his mouth opened slowly, and he said, “That sounds more like a Special card.” A few special cards were mixed in with the group cards, much like one-time tricks you can play to help yourself or to hurt your enemies. “But…people cards would be very different.” Slowly, he tapped his knee.

I was going to say, “You can’t control people,” when the absurdity of it hit me. Of course, you could. It happened all the time.

“People cards would be great,” Andy said.

“They couldn’t be very powerful, though,” Jeff added. “I mean, is any movie star as powerful as the Mafia?”

“No, no,” Steve said. “Very small, more powerful than the Boy Sprouts, but with interesting personalities.” He thought about it. “Special abilities,” he said.

“Rock stars,” said Andy. “Politicians.”

“Presidents,” said Jeff. “Former presidents?”

Steve kept scribbling.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 10

Illuminati was one of Steve Jackson’s early games. I think it first came out in 1982. He’d put out board games with tanks shooting each other, successfully leapt into the early post-apocalypse zeitgeist with a great little Mad Max-influenced board game called Car Wars, and before that had re-imagined Dungeons & Dragons with practical, board-game styled combat rules. Illuminati would be his first card game, and it was unlike any other.

Each player controls a secret conspiracy bent on taking over the world. Every conspiracy shows up in the game as a card, on which are numbers for how much basic power and income your Illuminati group can leverage. When it’s your turn in the game, your conspiracy gets however much money it’s due, after which you may choose to use your power performing some kind of action, such as attacking the competing conspiracies, with dice rolls to determine your success. Money spent by your conspiracy, and by your competition, can influence the outcome of the roll, for you or against you.

The basic game offered six different conspiracies, each with a unique victory condition. For example, the Bavarian Illuminati have the most raw power, and they win by further building their power up to a terrific height. The Gnomes of Zurich are like the Bavarians, but in terms of money versus raw power. Then there are the Servants of Cthulhu, who win by completely destroying some number of other groups. Rounding out the list are the UFOs, the Discordians, and the Network, each with their own terrible power and purpose.

But of course the Illuminati are not the only groups in the game. They’re manipulators, our secret societies, so there’s a stack of cards from which each player draws with every turn, representing the various uncontrolled groups which are prey for the conspiracies. Newly drawn cards are set out in the middle of the table, face up. Uncontrolled groups are generally easy for one of the Illuminati to attack to control. If the attack succeeds, then the newly controlled group gets added to your conspiracy’s power structure. Your main card has four outward pointing arrows, one on each edge of the card, so simply take the inbound arrow from a new group and lay it down next to one of your Illuminati’s outbound arrows, describing the relationship: power flows from the controlling card down to the sub- and sub-sub-groups, for as far out as is reasonable to build the branching limbs of your power structure. For example: Big Media controls the Republicans, who control the Boy Sprouts as well as the American Autoduel Association, and all the money made at the leaf nodes trickles back up into the heart of your secret conspiracy. More powerful groups — like the Pentagon, and the Mafia — have a lot of outbound arrows, so they can control several other groups, making it easier to build a network of power from the central card. It’s more difficult to attack into someone else’s power structure, but when you seize a group that controls other groups, you get that entire branch of the power structure, too. You end up with something that looks like a paranoid’s illustration of how different groups conspire to control the world.

It was fun — my favorite game in high school, I think, not the least of which because it led me believe that I had some inkling into why the world worked the way that it does. When — in the game — the Mafia helps the Pentagon to attack to destroy the International Communists, I couldn’t help but think it sounded a lot like the newspaper headlines I used to read over my dad’s shoulder every morning at breakfast. Quickly, I developed a reading list that too few sophomores made themselves push through, initially cribbed from the credits of the original Illuminati game, which gave appropriate credit to everyone who’d walked that route before them. The big one, The Illuminatus Trilogy, was hard to lay my hands on and even more difficult to consume, though I found my high-school copy recently and the degree to which it had been bookmarked was nearly embarrassing. I remember it having a pretty awkward finish, though it spurred me on to figure out how much of that mass of insanity had some germ of truth in it. Because on the face of it, any curious mind’s next reasonable thought has to be: How much of this was true? And how much of this truth was sitting out in plain sight?

I’d not be the first or the last person to tumble down this rabbit hole. Years later, deep in the winter of my senior year in high school, I found myself in a dark cubicle on the campus library of the University of Texas at Arlington, pouring over a photographic projection, via old-school microfiche, a 200-year-old book purporting to be one of the only remaining documents of the historical organization known as the Bavarian Illuminati, who stories from that time report them having moved to infiltrate and then to control local governments to such an extent that the power structure at the time responded quickly and ruthlessly. The book purported to be something of an internal training manual, with the documentation of which specific rituals were to be used for one thing or another, or bullshit titles to give people when you want them to feel important. My feeling was that it was either a fake, or that secret conspiracies are way, way more banal than anything I was capable of suspecting.

As people, we want to look at situations, especially terrible situations, and find some meaning, discover some agency behind what has happened. We want our stories to make sense not only to us, but to the people to whom we’re giving our stories. Because you can blame pretty much anything on a secret conspiracy, the thought will always hold some attraction for some people.

Even better, what all the marketing around Illuminati played up was your role in this, as a player: you are now part of the conspiracy. It was a savvy angle, I thought, selling membership into an enlightened society which as gaming geeks they already belonged to. Steve actually went so far as to sell Illuminati Membership Kits with membership cards and IDs and even things like branded rulers (“Who rules: the ruler, or the one who controls the ruler?”). It was pandering, and people liked it, and the game was really good — slow sometimes, but more than just good. It was great. The eye-in-the-pyramid logo first used in Illuminati was adopted as the primary logo for the company itself. That’s why the bulletin board was called Illuminati BBS, and the Internet Service Provider was Illuminati Online. (Plus, io.com was just sitting there not ever having been registered before, back then.)

So if we were going to do it, we’d have to do it well. It would have to work, and it would have to be on time, or most of us would likely lose our jobs, and Steve would scale back production to a couple of products a year until such time as there was more money in it.

“How many cards will there be?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, pointing at some strange carriers that he’d hung on the backs of the two doors leading into his office. Each one was about as wide as the door, carrying row after row of little pockets for small stacks of card-sized colored paper. “I have a bunch of cards right now. I’m not sure if we can use them all — for legal reasons, and because they might suck — but there will only be so many cards we will be able to print.”

“And how is that even happening?”

Steve smiled, his eyes closing with the peace of a happy child. “Peter Adkison, to prove that there is not simply a Magic market but a collectible card game market, is willing to loan us the $300,000 we will probably need to print a card game like this. I think Illuminati could make that back and then some.”

“I think you’re right,” I said.

“And what do you actually think?” he asked me, by which he meant did I think we could do it.

“How many cards, about?”

“About 400, plus the Illuminati cards. Maybe a few extra — we don’t know how large the sheets will be, though unless we do something odd with the size of the cards, there will not be much room for anything more than a little bit.” Steve pointed out his office door and toward Andy’s. “He is getting us the answers to those questions.” Andy’s strength as our print buyer would be tested.

“Can we do it?” he asked.

“How long do we have?”

Steve considered the question long enough that I figured he wasn’t going to tell me.

“I can do it in less than three months,” I said. “Ten weeks, maybe another week just for card layout. But less than three months. I can do it.”

He lightly pounded the top of the table in front of him. “Done,” he said.

“We’re going to need a couple of things.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 9

A year after the release of Magic: The Gathering, the biggest game convention in the year — GenCon, in Milwaukee — had become a very different place. The hallways were crammed with people trying to play quick pick-up games of Magic, the dealer room was well stocked with people buying and selling the rare first print run of the game, and word was in the air that Wizards of the Coast were able to demand that distributors order some of their non-Magic games in order to receive a decent volume of new expansion sets. Small hobby stores were opening up with the sole purpose of selling Magic cards. It was the beginning of a new speculator’s market.

The big company that dominated the industry was TSR, which owned Dungeons & Dragons. With decades of beautiful fantasy art to draw upon, around seven months of Magic they had released their copycat, Spellfire. The graphic design was decent for its day, and the imagery, of course, was fantastic, but the game itself was not great. I found it dull. Initial sales were fairly high, but even though it was still being promoted heavily six months later, by the time the summer conventions had rolled around the game was clearly dead. Many smaller publishers were now getting in the action, though – a wave of small print-run collectible card games was on its way to retail stores, but nothing like Magic.

In a few years, Wizards of the Coast would buy Dungeons & Dragons. That’s how much change was coming. The big summer conventions were great core samples to take of the state of the industry. For me, though, the biggest impact of the cons wasn’t being exposed to a broader view of the industry, but in the friends I made.

Dustin, for example, I’d met already because he’d been a playtester for Steve Jackson Games. A young archeologist by training — looking a lot like a taller, more boyishly faced Eddie Vedder with an extra 25 pounds on him — Dustin also had a broad range of experience across a range of the many game systems on the market. And he was a reflective guy, not inclined to talk about things he didn’t know about, even if he was happy to ask questions when something caught his interest.

As a low-key but not-shy guy, his personality stood out from the crowd of interested if less interesting fans and playtesters. It was always a fun time hanging out with Dustin, which I’d been doing more and more often. Some of his archeologist friends were pretty cool, as well. Some of them were planning to move in together, and asked if I wanted the last unclaimed bedroom. I took it, and a month later we were housemates.

Charlie was someone else who stood out. I met him through Dustin, though he wasn’t another fan — quite the opposite. He ran one of the most popular of the smaller publishers, Chaosium, famous not for their Dungeons & Dragons fantasy-style games but for their Twentieth Century horror games. Chaosium was one of the few publishers I’d known and cared about as a kid, so I loved getting to know Charlie. Dustin was a playtester for Chaosium as well, and like Dustin I found Charlie to be one of the most affable and unpretentious people around in an industry of pretense.

It is true: one of the most disappointing things I saw in my early game industry years was the behavior of some game company employees, who would charmingly engage their fans in playtest sessions then run them down behind their backs when there were only “insiders” around. It wasn’t super common, thankfully, but it did happen. Sadly, game industry behavior at its most false and pretentious was still a slight improvement over the behavior of some fans.

Different people had different opinions about what made for the worst fans. There were the people who thought they deserved a discount or even some free stuff because of some slight, often an imaginary one, or due to some hiccup in the ordering process. There were the really sad guys who literally hadn’t changed their clothes in weeks, maybe longer. These guys often had a hard time understanding when the people around them needed more personal space, a terrible combination.

But for me, the people who triggered my impatience more quickly than anyone else were the ones for whom I’d always thought I’d have the most compassion, the people who’d gone so deep into their beloved game that it was basically all that they could talk about. It’s not like I could find a way to respect these people because of their superior intellects — strangely, it’s not like they had some crazy memory or deeply ingrained sense of the game system or its background. And it’s not like they had uncovered something interesting at the heart of a complex game that could be made accessible to other people. Instead, they’d developed a deep emotional attachment to a character that they’d created in the game, and it was often a character that in many ways served as a reflection of themselves.

At the Origins convention that year, a guy approached me at our booth. “Hey,” he said. “I’m a level 63 Paladin.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. That was Dungeons & Dragons talk, and we had nothing to do with that game, so I was wondering where he was going. I wasn’t curious, I just wondered.

He held up clenching hands. “I have diamond gloves with shields that protect me from any evil. I have a castle and followers and I protect the town.”

“Wow. Hey: do you play any of our games?”

The guy glanced around the booth. He was younger, maybe nineteen, wearing jeans that were too tight around the waist. He didn’t seem comfortable.

“No,” he said. “I only read the books — I don’t play the games.” He opened his mouth to continue — I thought he was going to say something like, “No one wants to play with me” — but he only glanced down, then back up, and said, “I’m a level 63 Paladin, but do you think there’s any way to get to level 100? Or level 1,000?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“You’re dumb. There isn’t even enough experience points in the world to get that far. You could kill all the monsters and you’d still never have enough experience points.” He chuckled. He was enjoying this. “Dummy,” he concluded.

“You got me,” I said, and turned on my heel, surprised by how much the guy had gotten under my skin. At another company’s booth, I shared my story with a woman who worked there.

“Oh, it’s bad,” she said. “That kind of stuff is the worst.” One of her company’s big properties was a game where pilots crawl inside of giant robots called mechs — basically they’re walking, sometimes flying, tanks — and duke it out on big battlefields. You can customize your mech, of course, and people did. She affected a slightly glazed look on her face and said, “‘Let me tell you about my character. I made a mech that no one has ever made before.’ I said, ‘Okay, tell me.’ ‘It’s a bicycle.’ ‘Um, a bicycle isn’t really a mech. I mean, what about armor?’ ‘I don’t need armor, because I’m super-fast! When I’m on my bike I’m, like going — and nothing can stop me.’ ‘Okay there, partner.'” She sighed. “And that guy was nearly okay.”

Another woman from another company — the vampire game company — had walked up behind me. She said, “‘My character is the most special. I’m a vampire-werewolf with daylight protection powers. And I can fly. It’s not part of the rules, but I can do it. Vampire-werewolves break rules.’ Then the guy made a funny symbol in the air and whispered, ‘Rule-breaker.’ Then he walked away.”

“Aw, really?” the first woman asked.

“Really,” she said. “There’s some sad people in the world.”

Even people in the office weren’t always immune to that. Coming back from a coffee break one time that summer, Jeff pulled me aside.

“Hey, I tried something cool last weekend, testing the system,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Well, I made a really interesting character.”

“Oh, man — you are not going to tell me about your character, are you?”

We laughed. “Just listen,” he said. “So, I made a jack-of-all-trades character. He’s got a ton of natural intelligence and the like, and since so many skills are based off your intelligence, then he’s automatically got a really good chance to succeed at nearly everything.”

This summed up nearly everything that irritated me about Jeff. He knew a little bit about a lot of things, enough to get himself in trouble, but outside of writing he didn’t seem to have gone deep enough on any one thing to have truly mastered it.

I hope I suppressed a sigh. “How’d it go?” I asked. He broke down a couple of rounds of game play, and listened with what I hope was patience, though I did finally interrupt to ask him something.

“You know that saying about jack of all trades? You know it ends with, ‘master of none,’ right?”

He smiled, a little lopsided. “That’s the point,” he said. “When you’re good enough, you can just pick anything up and do it.”

I thought, “Are we really only talking about your character, now?” But I didn’t say it. I hope I didn’t. Because that would have been mean.

At the Origins convention, later on the day I’d met the 63rd-level Paladin, I’d walked the floor, hoping I might run into him. I wanted to tell him, “There are other ways to gain experience points besides slaying monsters. You can get experience simply by learning new things — or like how priests get experience by healing people, sometimes you can go up a level simply by meeting just the right new person. So you don’t have to think so much about the monsters. There’s enough experience points in the world to be anything you want to be.”

I never saw him again, as far as I know, which was too bad. I could have used some experience points myself around then.

At the biggest game convention of the year — GenCon, the month after Origins — I was talking with Charlie and Dustin when our sales manager pulled me aside to introduce me to a tall, buzz-cut and blond-goateed German man.

“This is Alex,” she said. He was smiling broadly.

Alex was good friends with one of our biggest foreign licensors, next to the Japanese, a French game company called Siroz — they’re the people from whom we’d licensed the game I’d been working on, the book that I hadn’t gotten off to the printer in time for the biggest convention of the year. I was seething from self-disappointment and wide-band frustration. Thankfully, warmly calm and smiling Alex was more focused on his excitement and anticipation around soon seeing the finished product.

“When would it be out, now?” he asked, after we’d talked for quite a long time.

I didn’t have a good answer, though luckily he didn’t mind much. “Have you been to France?” he also asked.

“No, never to Europe.” I’d hardly been out of Texas.

“You should come to France,” he said. “If you want to see Berlin, I have a flat also there. I let my friends stay there.”

“Sounds interesting.” I did wonder if the invitation would still be good after Steve fired me.

Speaking of, Steve caught me on the afternoon of the last day of the convention. He was walking slowly down an aisle, through the tired energy of the con’s final afternoon. Soon all the booths would be pulled apart, the dreams of modern adventure gaming packed up for another time.

He called me over to where he was handing off a bag of games he’d been given by various competitors to one of our con volunteers to tuck away for him. For me, it had been a long six weeks or so since the bad time had hit hard, and it’d be two more weeks before Cookie would call and ask for help moving. It’d been a tiring week as well, every step pushing the bones of my foot against a layer of skin that had already had all the blood pressed out of it. I felt weak, and I didn’t think I wanted to hear what he was going to say.

“When you get a moment,” he said, “I’d like to talk.”

“No time like the present.”

As we found a quiet place, I narrowed down possible conversations to a short list of different ways I could be fired, or otherwise have so much responsibility taken away from me that I’d be humiliated into leaving under a dark cloud. Someone else would finish my book, and it’d be the success I always knew it’d be, and I’d never get over it, and —

“I had an interesting conversation,” he said, “with Peter Adkison.”

“How’s he?” He was the CEO of Wizards of the Coast, and a really nice guy. We’d had a couple of good long talks on the phone, before their great success.

“He’s rich,” Steve said. “And he’s worried that Magic might be a fad that burns out soon. He wants it to be more than a fad. He wants it to be something that could last for a long time. To do that, he thinks there need to be more good collectible card games soon, to make the argument that there’s a collectible card game market, not just a Magic market.”

“Okay,” I said, no idea where this was going.

“Do you see one of our card games we could make into a collectible card game?”

I thought about it. “I’d do Illuminati,” I said, because it was, in my mind, Steve’s greatest game. It was also one of the only big games in his stable that we had not revisited since going digital.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Steve said, nodding. “Can you see how you would do it?”

“It’s expensive, right?” I didn’t know by how much, but given that my book had been a no-show that year, and we hadn’t had a decent hit for several years before except that vampire game license that Jeff authored, so money was only more and more tight. Since io.com had taken our recent windfall, and not exactly paid itself off yet, we weren’t in a good position. I didn’t know at the time how close we were to shutting a chunk of the business and reducing the staff to a skeleton crew.

Steve seemed thoughtful. “There is an opportunity,” he said. “Can you do it?”

“In how long?”

Steve bugged his eyes out, his personal expression which meant, “I don’t know.” Then he said, “How about right now?”

I thought about it. All the pieces swam around in my head. I knew what most of them would be, but —

“Think about it,” he said. “Let’s talk back in Austin.”

On the plane, halfway home, whatever background process I’d set to considering Steve’s question came back with something for me: all the pieces I had and everything else I’d need to know, how it would work — including ways to tweak the cold-war era game to play for more modern audiences — and what I’d personally have to do, for us to make our own Magic.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 8

The year before, when I was selling ads for the first two issues of Pyramid Magazine, at my boss’s recommendation I’d reached out to a small company that was working hard to innovate in the early 1990s game industry. They were based out of Seattle, something like seven people in a basement studio.

It was a drawback at the time that there were so many role-playing games — they were all so different that it was hard to share monsters and adventures and other material from one game to another. When you wrote role-playing game material, you had to write it for a specific game. This little company had taken a novel approach by putting out a book that focused on cool material, and then including rules for a wide variety of popular games. Sadly, one of the game publishers thought that they should have exclusive control over creating content for their game, and sued the new publisher. I was glad to report in Pyramid #1 that they’d won their case, though it took a real toll on the small company. I was happy to help provide them with an inexpensive promotion, seeing how a full-page black-and-white ad cost something like a couple hundred dollars.

You didn’t have to be a designer to think poorly of them because of the ad. It was crap: a not-great illustration of a thoughtful robot set against a white void, alongside a column of text thick enough to cross your eyes. But buried at the bottom was a mysterious line, encouraging fans to watch out: “It’s going to be a magical summer!” Something about that stood out to me, echoing back over in my head not four months later that summer when Doug Barnes approached me at the Origins convention holding something new.

“It’s interesting,” he said, fumbling with a garishly designed deck of cards — they hadn’t really upped their styling much from where they were with that ad, beyond moving to full color.

“It’s a card game?”

“Sort of. It’s a collectible card game. You can buy a deck, but you can also buy these booster packs of something like eight random cards — sorry, not-random cards. That’s the trick.”

“That they’re not random?”

His face lit up. Something cool to explain! Doug lived for that.

“Yes! There are something like 400 different cards, so you only get some in any given box. Some cards are more common than others. Most cards are pretty common, a good number are uncommon — you get maybe two in a booster pack — and a few very powerful cards are rare, so you get, like, one rare card per booster. Then based on the powers of your cards — see the colors; similar colored cards work together well — you build custom decks optimized for one strategy or another.” He blinked. “Probably the best thing to do would depend on how much you could find out about your opponent’s deck.”

“So this drives people to buy the cards, okay. Is the game any good?”

“I don’t know.”

“The graphics suck.”

He winced. “Yeah. They’re paying their employees in stock right now, though, so there’s probably not a lot of free cash lying around to pay designers. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere — it comes out in a month, so I guess we’ll see. I was talking to them about doing an online version, through io.com. It wouldn’t be too hard to do. It’s a formula that would work even better as a computer game.” He sighed. “They’re all really excited about it over there at their booth.”

Game conventions could be boisterous scenes, large exhibition halls with row after row of game publishers trying to promote their newest thing to all the fans — and generally also to the distributors, who held the keys to the retail kingdom in terms of which companies and products got promoted to the stores, or not. Our company was a fan favorite, and the show was in our home state, so we had a larger booth with a lot of attentive fans. A ways away I could see their booth, small but decently manned enough to make up for the lack of floor traffic they were getting.

“I wish ’em well,” I said, even though it turned out they didn’t need it, not nearly at all. They believed enough in the promise of their game that they were happy to press five or six decks and a bunch of boosters into my hands of the first print run of their game, which if I kept would be worth many thousands of dollars today.

The company was Wizards of the Coast. They called their game Magic: The Gathering, and in a handful of months it had completely transformed the entire gaming industry.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.5

For Cookie’s last night in town, she asked me to help pack her U-Haul. I had no problem saying yes — two and a half years dating is worth more than an evening carrying boxes and furniture down a rickety flight of stairs.

There was another guy there helping, a friend of one of her roommates. He was a big dopey dude who kept ducking out on making eye contact with me. I wasn’t surprised, though — in general, they had little but contempt for me, her friends, and I’m afraid I seldom gave them much reason to think differently. Once someone has it fixed in their head that you’re crazy and uncool, any attempt to prove them wrong only proves them right. Plus, they all had what I thought of as real jobs — in marketing, or in video production, or at serious design studios — and probably at least in part because I didn’t take myself seriously, they were never inspired to take me seriously, either.

For example, I was hanging out at her place one day when a guy-friend of hers, a decent designer and a techie with what I considered real vision, dismissed Illuminati Online as not interesting. I said, “The number of people on the Internet is doubling every six months.”

He laughed. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “That’ll never happen.”

“It’s happening,” I said. “It’s gonna make us think about design differently. Get enough people—”

“Oh, please. Doubling can’t go on forever.”

“Sure, but how many more times does it have to double before you’ve got tens of millions of people—”

“Please,” he said, turning away with a scowl. “You’re wasting my time.” And this was a 24-year-old tech-centric, Mac-wielding graphic designer in 1994, who really should’ve known better.

At the beginning of that year, sure, there were 623 Web sites on the Internet. I’ll put that another way: across the entirety of the Internet, there were about as many Web sites as 15 years later there would be apps on the Apple App Store in its first week. Eighteen months after that conversation, there would be more than 20 million people on the Internet, with more than 23,000 Web sites available to visit.

I was always surprised to find myself unable to make a connection with my girlfriend’s friends, though mostly because I kept forgetting how she had been undermining me to them. She was such a nice and sweet girl, everybody said so. She told me that she only half-jokingly referred to me as the anti-Christ amongst her friends. I asked her which half was joking but she wouldn’t say any more.

It began to dawn on me, carrying boxes of her stuff down to the truck, that most people don’t simply decide one day to pull over on the side of the road to break up with a boyfriend of two years over the phone, without an outside prompt — like needing to tell someone, after arriving at their apartment, that you were now officially single.

Later in the evening, as the last few boxes were being tucked away, I caught the dopey dude gently brushing the back of Cookie’s hand while she talked with her roommates. She recoiled, her head quickly darting around the room to inventory who was in it. She didn’t notice me, in the next room, watching her.

Not long after she walked me to my car. We said goodbye, and it was not quite the summation of more than two years together, but it was good enough. We didn’t indulge in a farewell kiss. That wouldn’t happen for nearly a year, yet.

We did hug, though, that precious, jigsaw-piece coupling that had kept me coming back to her time and time again. In a few days she’d be in Seattle, nearly as far away as it was possible to get while still staying inside the United States.

I pulled back and said, “I never trusted you.” It wasn’t a criticism. It was where I’d gone wrong.

She smiled with grim beauty and pulled me close again. “I never trusted you, either,” she said.

Radio on, I drove home. I worked very hard not to care. After all, I needed to focus. I had a move to manage, myself: I couldn’t go on living in that same apartment; I was done with that place for all kinds of reasons. Plus, there was the other thing that had come up.

I’d been wondering when I was going to be fired from Steve Jackson Games, but instead I’d just been given three months to produce something I never could have imagined: Magic, or something very much like it.

Here’s the story.

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