There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.
When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.
“‘Scuse me,” I said.
She turned and let me see her smile.
“You were on the plane with us,” I said.
“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”
She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”
“Wow,” I said.
“What are you here for?”
“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”
“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.
“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”
“What’s it about?”
“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”
“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”
“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”
“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”
“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.
As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.
Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.
“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.
“You didn’t hear?”
“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.
There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.
“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”
I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.
The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.
“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”
“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”
And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.
But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.
A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.
“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”
“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.
They looked at least good enough.
We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.
There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.
Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.
When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”
“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.
“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”
“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”
“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”
“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”
“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”
“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”
“And what was that?”
I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.
“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”
“I’m with you.”
“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”
As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.
On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.
I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.
We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.
On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.
Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.
He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”
“Okay,” I said.
You won’t believe what it was.