Going to California

Making Magic — 14.5

We sat down in my small office, our faces lit by monitor glow.

“Here are my notes,” Steve said. “How do you want to do this?”

“One at a time?” I asked. “I’ll bring each one up, then we can talk about it?”

“Sure,” he said, and so we did.

I’d been expecting the bulk of the comments to run along the lines of, “This looks terrible next to the others — make it not-terrible,” or “Can you make this not-great illustration look less sucky by doing the color differently?” And he had a good number of comments like that. He also had some good notes on easy ways to improve the artwork, which was cool.

But a good number of comments were just differences of opinion as to how something should be colored. It soon became clear that there was too much for me to correct live, with Steve there watching, so instead of piloting Photoshop while he commented I instead took notes on his notes.

“I think that should be red,” was the general class of comment, “and not all this muddiness there.”

“I don’t think it’s muddy,” I’d say, for example. “It’s got some subtlety to it, sure—”

“Red. Make it red — really red.”

“Okay. Um, you know you can’t just change all these shaded maroon-like pixels to red pixels.”

“Can’t you simply fill it with red and clean up the shading?”

“It doesn’t quite work that way. There are edges along the black lines of the art, soft gray edges—”

“Anti-aliasing,” said Steve. He generally knew the technical details of everything his business depended on, and what he didn’t know he always tried to learn.

“—yes, and we need to be careful about preserving all the soft grays along the way. It doesn’t take long to do the right thing, but I can’t just use the paint bucket tool to dump a bunch of red in here and presume I’ll have picked the right shade of red, and then apply shading with the couple of other shades of red that will give it depth.”

“No browns. It needs to pop. It can’t be muddy.”

“It’ll be fine. There’ll be highlights, too.”

Steve sighed. “No pink,” he said.

I blinked. “Why would I use pink?”

“Light red is pink. Dark red is brown. I can’t have any of those here.”

I’m not sure how long I left my mouth open before closing it.

“Here’s the next one,” I said, turning back to the display.

“Did Jeff do this one?”

“Yes,” I said. I had to do less clean-up on his art than I was doing on Rick’s though Rick was improving more quickly than Jeff.

“I thought so, because it’s not one of the worst ones.”

“Rick’s getting better,” I said.

“Here’s what I had on this one,” he said, and then he told me.

Clearly, I wasn’t going to be done with this first batch of images tonight, maybe not even tomorrow. Clearly, Steve would need a second review of all the updates before signing off on them. My sense of the time we’d need to do all the work zoomed away into the distance, well past our firm deadline. A printer had just committed to a window for production, and if we missed it we’d be out of luck. We had to do this more quickly.

Clearly, it was up to me to put in more hours.

After reviewing the art for about two hours — I figured we spent nearly ten minutes on each one — we decided we were hungry.

“Sushi?” Steve asked. “Doug Barnes was stopping by. We were planning to get something to eat.”

“Sure,” I said. “If Rick’s still here, I’ll bring him along.”

At the restaurant, we paired off in conversation, Steve with Doug and Rick with me. Rick looked a little wary of the whole thing.

“I’ve never had sushi before,” he said.

“Really?” I said, then realizing that Mentor was the one who had actually introduced me to sushi, a few years before. “You’ll like it.”

“So, you said you and Suzanne went out the other night?”

“Yeah,” I said, smoothing out the napkin in my lap. “Yeah, it was good to see her, grab some food. We don’t hang out enough.”

“But you used to.”

“Oh, yeah — like six years ago, we dated for a while.” When she was about Felicity’s age. “We stayed friends, which I feel really lucky about, and then two years ago we were housemates for a couple of months. That was cool.”

“And,” he said, “why don’t you….”

I nodded.

“I mean,” he said, “you’re single, and she’s—”

“You know,” I said, “when we broke up, it was because she was seeing somebody else, and while—”

“Say no more.”

“No, really — seriously, she’s one of the most trustworthy people know, I swear. I’d trust her with anything, absolutely. She’s one of my best friends. But I just don’t think I can trust myself to go there anymore, if you know what I mean.”

“With her,” Rick added.

I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure I meant specifically with her. I think I meant that I couldn’t actually go there at all anymore, with anyone. I didn’t want to.

The evening had been great. I’d picked her up, we’d driven down Barton Springs and grabbed a table for two at a decent Italian joint and talked and laughed and caught up. It’s funny how you can work with a person every day, even someone you really like, and not talk deeply with them.

She’d worn a dress. I thought that was unusual, but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t try to hold her hand. I didn’t give her a hug. I was all smiles, and no kisses. She was smart and beautiful and she was sitting in my car — what else did I need?

“Mmm, I don’t think it’s in the cards. Besides, I have too much work to do at the moment.” I thought about it. “I think I need the seasons to change. I need it to be cold again, for a while.”

The waiter populated our table with the usual sushi accoutrements. Rick poked at a little wasabi ball.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“For the sushi,” I said.

“What do you do with it?”

“Oh, you eat it,” I said with the straight face that I’d always thought my friends understood meant I was joking. Then Rick popped the ball in his mouth.

“Motherfucking wait—,” I said, hands up in warning, but it was too late.

After a couple of minutes and a lot of water, Rick looked as though he felt a little bit better.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry. I was totally being a jerk for no reason, and I’m really sorry.”

“No,” he said, waving me down. “No, no.” But I couldn’t imagine on what grounds he could possibly call me off from apologizing.

As Rick’s face had turned red, and he’d gobbled a couple of glasses of water, a brief montage played back in my head of friends saying, “No, I didn’t know you were kidding,” in response to some absurd thing I’d said or done. I thought I was just being clever, when I was only being an asshole.

I’d shown up as a jerk, when what Rick needed was a mentor.

“The tuna is really good,” I said, blowing past his obvious caution about every word that fell out of my mouth. “But they sometimes slip a bit wasabi underneath it, between the fish and the rice, so be careful.” He nodded. “The rolls are clearly marked spicy or not, so you can really easily judge how strong something’s likely to be.”

“Okay,” he said, scanning the menu.

“I am really sorry,” I said. It seemed like the wrong time to bring up the coloring, but I began scripting what I’d tell him in the morning that would accelerate his Photoshop improvement. I’d been assuming he’d improve because I knew he would. I forgot how much faster things go when people help point the way.

On the way back to the car, I got to catch up with Doug. “Things are going pretty well,” he said, sighing. “I still have Patch and Felicity on the floor of my living room.” He looked up at me and smiled. “So that’s interesting.”

“I can only imagine,” I said, working hard not to imagine. I had other things to think about, anyway.

Later that night, when I got home, the house was dark but silent. The industrial fans had been taken away and the dried-out carpet re-stapled. I walked out onto the concrete slab in the back yard to look up at the sky.

I really somehow thought I was being funny all these years, when I was just being a jerk. I was making sounds out of random license plates in my head, and the universe did not give a shit because I was literally making no sense.

I began to wonder if Cookie had been right. What if I really was crazy? Not just a little crazy, but seriously so.

Turning to go back inside, I saw the hollow-point bullet set neatly on the back porch, deliberately placed to point in toward the house. Living with archeologists and their friends around, at least these people in that time in our place, meant giving careful consideration to anything that in your own home you might ordinarily confuse for a random pile of stuff, because it might instead be a little shrine or an offering of some kind to any number of hopefully reasonable spirits. Two days before, when I’d first found the bullet, I’d left it where I found it. Maybe it was someone’s good luck charm. Then the day before, when it was still there — right where someone would step when coming into the back yard — I’d slapped a sticky note on the outside of the sliding glass door, which read “Is this somebody’s?” That night, I could tell that someone else had written a graceful curling question mark beside my note, meaning it wasn’t one of ours.

Minutes later, when the police arrived, they explained to me that it was a common death threat.

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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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Going to California

Making Magic — 6

That next weekend was the worst, not just because I couldn’t believe how mortally wounded it felt to be dumped by a girl who I cared so little about that I regularly forgot her eye-color (brown); not just because I’d been given an impossibly short amount of time to rewrite the book I’d spent the last year authoring, designing, play-testing, and promoting in articles and on the cover of our in-house magazine, Pyramid; and not just because as part of Steve’s announcement that the book would be late, he also said that we’d both be staying in Austin during the first big convention of the summer, the Origins, second only to the show at which the book was scheduled to ship, which was called GenCon. The previous Origins had been in Fort Worth, a driveable distance for us from Austin, and it had been a blast, the first time I’d really connected with people who worked at other game companies as, well, someone else who worked at a game company and not as a fan. It was much cooler hanging with the game industry people as another industry person.

What pushed that weekend over the top was having to sit around the office knowing full well that there was no way I was going to rewrite a 208-page book in four days, and that I’d be damned if I was going to sit on my ass at home dwelling on my worst fear, that my stutter had returned. And while trying to imagine how to even begin thinking about the problem, I had to sit and watch Jeff poke away on the Web, idly browsing page after page.

“Dude,” he said, chuckling. “You seen this?”

I made a kind of scoffing sound, because it was the best I could do at the time.

Jeff looked slightly wounded, leaning in toward the monitor. “It’s cool.”

I took a shallow breath and said, “That really what you spend your time doing?”

He grinned. “It’s awesome. There’s more stuff here every day.”

“You’re wasting your…” I couldn’t get out “time” or “life,” and as I groped around for another appropriate word. He didn’t seem to notice.

“It’s what everybody’s going to be doing,” he muttered, clicking on the next link, and I think that’s the best prediction he ever made. It made me angry for a couple of reasons, though.

In the online community that Steve Jackson called Metaverse, he had imagined digital storefronts and virtual real estate, and he’d worked hard to get other game companies to set up shop in his text-based online city. But the limitations of having to move a character around in order to get from one store to another was a limitation of the Metaverse as presented in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It was not a limitation of the Internet that was being built before our eyes, and it was not how people actually wanted to do things. People wanted to type in a URL, or click a bookmark or a link, and be taken directly to wherever they wanted to go, the moral equivalent of a teleporter in virtual world. If you don’t have to bother with traveling in order to get from one place to another, then there’s no need to concern yourself with the geography of the world. In fact, you don’t really need the world at all. You just need a browser, and an interconnected Web of pages that could come to encompass the world.

So the age-old geek question had been a terrible waste of our time thinking about. It didn’t matter what the Internet would look like. It wouldn’t look like any one single thing in our lifetimes anyway, it seemed — not the abstract glowing shapes of Neuromancer, not the fantasy metaphors of True Names, and not the edgy, photorealistic virtual reality of Snow Crash. The shape of the Internet was Jeff, and growing millions of people like him, clicking links on crappy pages in buggy, incompatible browsers. For most people, that would be the Internet experience for years to come.

On our end, while the gaming side of our online dreams never happened, the Internet as it was coming to be shaped was definitely a money maker for the basic “get online” side of Illuminati Online. Metaverse slowly faded away, and the venture settled into being a simple service provider rather than a virtual world builder. Toward the end, before Steve acknowledged that the gaming services side of the dream was wearing thin, Doug had been looking more and more haggard. He’d gone from being the guy who’d been living the international cyberpunk dream, the laid-back tech guy who could do anything, to another guy who was just as beaten down as the rest of us from all-nighter after all-nighter. Then Doug got an interview with a local tech company — an actual tech company, Tadpole, who made crazily expensive workstations the size of a laptop; imagine that! — and suddenly, he was gone. Sure, Jim McCoy was still there, and a couple of other people I cared about, like Chris Williams, but the aspirations I heard most often coming out of the io.com staff, when it turned out that they had any aspirations at all, stretched about as high as writing a script to see if there were any three-letter .com domains that hadn’t already been taken — xfc.com, for example. There were still a few of them sitting around waiting to be grabbed, in the summer of 1994.

These people were not looking to change the world. They were solely in it for the money. Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That summer, I understood what he meant.

I refused to waste my time Web browsing.

“Why don’t you try it?” Jeff asked. At the end of the day, he was a sweet, well-meaning guy, and every day it felt as though there were fewer and fewer people there whose company I genuinely enjoyed.

I gave Jeff the most honest answer I could. “Uh-uh,” I said. “Might like it.”

It was diabolical that one of the ways in which my speech impediment hit me the hardest was in trying to say the first-person pronoun “I” — at the beginning of a sentence, at least. Even today, my posts and messages are littered with horrible constructions like, “Might like it,” instead of, “I’m afraid I might like it,” because when I’m rattling text off quickly I have it ingrained to avoid beginning with “I” so that I’d have a greater likelihood of starting to get the sentence out. Otherwise, some times I wasn’t able to get anything out at all.

The longest part of that wretched weekend was the late Saturday night I spent alone at home. I practiced trying to say random things, with varying results. It’s nearly always easier to talk when there’s no one there to hear, of course, though I’d had my bad days. In grade school, on many days I spent hours mutely watching TV, mouthing the catch-phrases, the sayings, the words, all the words I heard. I had some bad days in my twenties, living in Austin, too.

There was, it seemed, a carefully cultivated structure in my mind that I don’t believe I’d consciously realized I’d been building. Maybe everyone does the same thing, only I’ve had to break the seal and void the warranty and manually mess around with the process because of my situation. Or maybe the whole thing’s just the product of my crazy memory.

(I think of my memory as being genuinely crazy because of things like developing a series of epic stories based on the characters I saw when I looked at numbers. For the record, my high-functioning memory is very selective. For example, one day in third grade, on the way to school, I found a small garden snake, dead in the road, so I put it in my metal Star Wars lunch box and forgot about it until lunch time. There, in the cafeteria, to my delight, I remembered it. Squeals all around as I displayed my prize, though somehow my show-and-tell didn’t come to the teacher’s attention until after lunch when the class couldn’t settle down. The teacher said I was being disruptive and sent me to the principal’s office. When the principal asked why I’d been sent down, I explained that I’d been disruptive in class after returning to lunch. The truth was that I could no longer remember why I’d been sent down there; I think I got distracted passing through the library on the way there. He told me not to be disruptive any further and sent me back to the teacher, who was astonished to see me again. “Did you even tell him about the dead snake in your lunchbox?” I slapped myself on the side of my head. After returning to see the principal and adding this crucial bit of context, I was sent home for the day. Because I only lived two blocks from school, they let me walk home, where I watched TV for five hours before dinner.)

It was as though I’d been growing a tree of language out of snippets of phrases, sayings, and whole run-on statements as delivered by characters from the movies and TV shows I’d seen, or from radio programs, or from lines from songs I knew, or from stage plays I’d seen. This tree of associated, reasonably compatible options comprised the scope of what I was capable of saying without risking too much trouble. I’d be fine either because I was merely repeating what someone else had once said, so it wasn’t like I was having to create my own sentences by piecing the words together one by one, a process which felt to me a lot like paving a road while driving down it, or because I’d built into a rhythm, which felt more like having paved a runway just far enough to let the airplane of my voice take off, more like making music than like making a personal statement.

This crystalline tree of language had grown so large that I’d basically forgotten it was there. I’d been pruning it, adding to it, making adjustments almost unconsciously for years. Now something bad had happened, and it had been shaken, and many little leaves might as well have fallen off the tree. I spent hours and hours that weekend, and in the weeks and months to come, watching TV, watching anything and everything, adding back some little leaves, the more discrete units of word inflection which had served me so well in the past.

I don’t even remember a lot of what I watched. Funny that so much of whatever it was probably contributed significantly to the core of how I talk now.

The other thing that helped was cursing. I quickly discovered that falling back into some rather extreme cursing would also smooth the way for pretty much any sentence start, though I’ll spare you from most of it. Still, profanity produced not only instant runway pavement for launching my speech, it also made for high-octane jet fuel. When you start you sentences with, “Motherfucker,” not only do you have no choice but to hurtle onward, but whoever you’re talking to is guaranteed to be all ears. The conversation doesn’t always go well. Still, I figured that I at least got out what I was trying to say without stuttering too badly, so I called it a win.

I saw Felicity that Sunday morning.

She’d gotten a job at my favorite breakfast place, Red River Cafe, where evidently it was appropriate to wear tall black boots and a long, purple crushed-velvet cape over a short black dress. My heart skipped a beat when I registered it was her. She was half a head taller than I was, which I noticed less while looking up at her as she was asking what I wanted to eat.

The crystal tree shuddered. I frowned, burbling a little, pointing at the menu.

“Really hungry,” I explained weakly. She smiled at me.

“How’s it going?” she asked later, sliding into the booth right across from me. I guess it was her turn for a break.

“Motherfucking great,” I said.

She grinned. “All right! Same here. I moved in with Patch. He’s split from his wife, and Doug Barnes had an extra room, so he let the two of us move in with him.”

“Fuckin’-A,” I said, pulling the lever that made my head rock up and down.

“Doug’s got a new job, at a big tech company. They make these workstation computers, the size of a laptop.” Her voice got quiet. “Do you know how fast those things are?”

“Mmm,” I said, hoping to sound impressed.

Getting back from the cafe, there was a message on my answering machine.

“Ah, Mr. Pearcy? This is the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. We have recovered your stolen vehicle. Call us back and you can come pick it up.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 5

I put the phone to my head.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Cookie said. I could hear traffic in the background.

“Where are you?”

“I’m out,” she said. “I was running an errand for work, when I realized: it’s over. I can’t go on this way.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“Please,” she said, “just give me this.”

“Why?” I asked, like I didn’t know.

“You have trouble finishing things,” she said. “And even when you do finish something, there’s always the next thing and the next thing. There’s always going to be something else.”

“I always want to be working on something.”

“And you never finish anything, you never do.” She stopped herself before she got too emotional. “Just to be clear,” she said, “the story I’m telling our friends is that I’m the one that broke up with you, and that it was your fault.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I give you that?”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t get to say that. You never gave me anything.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just give me this,” she said again.

“Sure,” I said again. “You’re sure?”

“I’m very, very sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You know, I always loved you,” I added.

“And I love you,” she said with singsongy emptiness. “I just never really cared for all your, you know, all your ideas and everything.” She sighed. “I really only ever thought about how it felt walking down the street with you on my arm.”

That would echo in my head for years to come.

“Goodbye, then,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Did I catch her by surprise? “Oh,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then she hung up.

I sat on the floor of my apartment cradling the phone for a few minutes, unwilling to move from that position. I called Mentor.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. There was a long pause. “You should come over,” he said. “Andy’s coming by.”
I nodded, as though he could see me. “Later,” I said, hanging up.

As I pulled myself upright, I became aware of how every step took me further away from the place where I’d still been in my relationship with Cookie. I stood on the balcony as the evening leeched away the heat of the day. Staring at my hands, I felt no connection to anything that had happened more than ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

Next thing I remember I was over at Mentor’s. Jeff was there, and Andy, and three or four other people, everyone subdued. I delivered the news, but they already knew — it must’ve been clear by how my shoulders were hung as I walked up to the door.

I didn’t stay long, I thought. I had no interest in getting hammered, and though I appreciated the company, I generally did feel better when I was alone. After a round of “Sorry, man,” I left.

On the way to the car, tripping lightly in the dark — when did it get so dark? How long had I been there? — the strangest thing happened to me.

I know I’m a little crazy, but I also know exactly how crazy I am. Yet, this next thing happened.

A voice spoke to me, as plain as could be — two voices, actually, a man and a woman’s voice at the same time said three simple words: “Don’t be afraid.”

It sounded somehow like the most true thing I’d heard in years. And it sounded like an order.

It really did not seem to have come from inside my head. It seemed to come from just behind me, from my right and slightly above me. I kept walking down the slight incline of Mentor’s front yard, though I slowed, tilting my head back slightly just to check. No one was there.

As I walked around my car, got in, buckled up, I played back my memory of the voice.

It hadn’t sounded like someone trying to sooth me. It hadn’t sounded like someone feeding me a platitude about how everything would be okay. It sounded like what someone would say after they’ve strapped you into the experimental rocket sled of your own unintentional devising, explained to you what you have done, and then walked away to press the ignition when they felt like it. It was the most frightening way you could possibly tell someone not to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid,” I told myself, starting the car, but I was, suddenly I was, I was very afraid.

Three days later, I walked out to my car — which I was still paying for, would be paying on for three more years — to drive in to work to find on the sidewalk two black, triangular pieces of canvas where my car used to be. They’d been cut from the vehicle’s convertible roof. The car had been stolen.

I called my insurance company first. They had cancelled my insurance the day before, because I’d missed two payments. It’s not like I didn’t have the money. I simply hadn’t done it. I’d been too worried about the book.

Two days later, Steve called me into his office.

“We’re not shipping this,” he said, pointing at a printout of the book I’d been working on for the past year. “It’s simply…not good. Take the weekend, and see how much of it you can rewrite. Rewrite the whole thing, if you need to.” He pulled out big chunks of it — the introduction, the fiction that I’d written, the game mechanics that I’d invented myself — and set it all out apart from the rest of it. There wasn’t much remaining.

“I understand,” I said. I stayed late at work. Jeff gave me a lift home. Every time we passed a little red convertible that looked like mine, I’d crane around to get a look at the license plate. They all looked like mine, but they never were.

“That all really sucks, man,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The next morning when I woke up, I found my roommate asleep, half-naked, in the living room, a small stove-pot of macaroni and cheese that he’d cooked himself for dinner the night still resting loosely in his hand, tipped over onto its side, the macaroni so firmly gelled together that none of it had spilled out onto the floor, wooden stirring spoon sticking out at a nearly perfect 45° angle.

The phone rang again. Another grandparent — my dad’s mom — had a stroke. I couldn’t even drive to Weatherford to see her.

So I called Jeff, to see if he could pick me up. When he answered the phone, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I pushed, I got, “Juh-juh-juh-juh—”

Oh, no. I bit my lower lip, hard.

“Derek?” he said.

Breathing out very slowly, I said, “Yes,” and then, “Hey.”

“I’m not coming in for a while — maybe an hour? Can I call you then?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said. I could hum just fine.

After hanging up the phone, I reached into my head for the places where I’d hoped that voice — those voices, any voice — might have come from. I’d just spent a year writing about angels, gothic and flashy. The voices I’d heard for that briefest of moments that night, and which I never heard again, had been some other thing entirely, and I couldn’t see how I could hack my way back the feeling of certainty I’d held when it or they had spoken to me. I’d even lost control of my own voice.

I remember thinking: I’d better be learning something.

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 4

“What kind of shit?”

I breathed deeply. When I’d moved to Austin to continue school, my family had moved to Madison, Wisconsin — a very similar city, in terms of being college towns and capitals of large, largely rural states of America, but they could not be further apart in terms of climate or in simple geographic location. It was about as far from Austin as you could get while still staying in an urban area of the United States, and it was unreasonably cold. The first time I went up to spend a holiday with the family, I got a sinus infection that lingered nearly a week. I always hated the cold. The deep heat was where I was born, in the middle of the summer, and that’s where I reckoned I’d live my life through.

And somehow, maybe because I started seeing them less and less as I approached the end of high school, the family that remained in Texas had begun to grow very distant in my mind: my grandparents, both couples on both sides alive and well against all odds, and an uncle, my mom’s younger brother and his family. I’d grown apart from them, though their very existence was a major underpinning of my firmament. I came to realize that I’d built a lot of myself on that stability when something bad happened to one of them.

“My granddad had a stroke,” I said. “They say he’ll be okay, probably — it was a small one, but he was such a big, strong guy, it’s hard to imagine him being weak.”

“I bet. I know what you mean.”

It seemed childish to bring up work at that point, though the truth was that my work was more important to me than my family, at that point.

“Work sucks,” I said.

He winced. “Gotta get that book out, huh?”

I tried not to wince myself. I’d been working on a book for nearly a year, the one that Mentor had set me up to write before Steve had let him go, a game that we’d acquired from one of our foreign licensors. Jeff had been given authorship of a licensed property, which he cranked out over a chunk of long weekends and ended up making a good chunk of change off of royalties, selling something like 10,000 copies. I was a little envious of Jeff — so many things seemed to come so easily to him, though he seemed perpetually stuck at plateaus with most of his skills. They were decently high plateaus, but plateaus. A lot of what he thought he did was good enough, though, and it was only more infuriating that he was often quite right. So part of the reason I was working on the book was to feel as though I’d shown that working hard to develop your skills would result in something much better than simply “good enough.”

There were a couple of enormous differences between our two writing gigs, though.

For example, his was the simple adaptation of an existing role-playing game into our company’s universal gaming system. The property in question was a fantastically popular game of gothic horror, produced by a competitor whose fortunes had started out small and then gone through the roof. Mentor had arranged a license as they were on their growth curve, so all we needed to do was write up our version and print it and the money would flow. It was a good deal for us, and a great deal for Jeff.

My gig was a foreign game, so we first had to get it translated. My French sucked, so I got a friend from design school to help. He got enough translated that I could present it to Steve, who’d rejected it outright. He’d been expecting to see a slightly different approach to the gothic horror genre that was so popular at the time, only with angels and demons instead of vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, instead of being slightly different, it was totally different, enough so that he disliked it.

“Do you think you could make this into something good?” he asked me, by which he meant, “Do you think you could make this into something more like the gothic horror game I thought I’d bought?” I said I could.

In addition to the setting, he didn’t like the game itself very much, either, so he asked me to rework the whole thing. Because it was turning into a larger job, Steve offered to let me bill the company for the hours, though I’d be doing so at a lower royalty rate than most of our regular writers. I’d also be designing and laying out the book, spec’ing the cover, working with our best house artist to come up with the aesthetic of the book, promoting it within the pages of Pyramid, designing the posters, and the like. So it would basically be a large part of my job that year.

And it had been. I simply hadn’t been doing it very well.

“Are you okay?” Andy asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. It’s just that the book’s not going great.”

Steve wasn’t liking what I’d come up with. And to be honest, I wasn’t wild about a lot of it myself. There were big parts that I thought could be good enough, though very little of it was good enough for me.

“It’ll be fine,” Andy said, which was what everyone else had been telling me. It was the kind of thing that everyone had told me in the dorms, back when I was getting kicked out of the university, so it didn’t bring me much comfort.

“I’m just worried,” I said. “I’m actually really worried.”

“Channel that. Use it. Get it done. It’s basically finished, right?”

It wasn’t. It was mid-June by this point. In order for the book to make it to press on time, for an August ship-date — for the enormous, once-a-year game convention at which it was slated to be introduced — it would have to be done in three weeks.

“Even if Steve liked it,” I said, “I don’t see how I can make the date without throwing myself into it completely. Like, completely.”

“So do it, man. You’ve done it before.”

I had, and I would again, but not that time.

Texas heats up by the time June comes around. That summer, life was painfully, unreasonably hot. Even though I spent most of my time in the air-conditioning, as most people did and still do, I couldn’t escape a kind of heat I held inside.

I remember being home one afternoon, maybe a week later — why I was around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I have no idea — when the phone rang.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 3

Since I’d learned to focus on classes, and work, most everything else in my life had taken a backseat. Still, I had other things going on when I wasn’t working or on the ’net — or driving; good lord, I spent countless hours just driving — other threads being sewn into my life that I haven’t talked a lot about yet.

Some of these other threads, a lot of them, need to find a home in a different place, in a different story, but it’s safe to say that girls were involved.

Late in the Spring, talking about girls with Andy over Mexican food, was probably the last possible moment I had to avoid the big crash.

“How’re things with Cookie?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Great.” I thought about it. “Not good,” I added.

“What’s up?”

I sighed. “She thinks I’m crazy,” I said. “And I don’t trust her.”

“Why does she think you’re crazy?”

I breathed in tightly through my teeth.

I’m kind of a weird guy, I know that, always have been. Some people have accused me of trying to be weird on purpose, but I don’t think I have been. I’d be fairly happy relating to people the way everybody else does, but I don’t, and I know that.

So many things were clearer when I was younger — like my sense of numbers, which stretched far beyond their base values. To me, for example, the number 1 was white, of course, pure and voiceless, like the sun in the sky. The number 2 was blue, but a light blue, simple and curious as a child. All even numbers have a little bit of 2 in them, which was why they play together so easily. The 3 is a desaturated yellow, round and soft, just a little smarter than 2. The 4 is a blue darker than 2 and also the first distinctly girly-girl among the numbers — she wears her hair in a bob — while 5 is a boy, a richer yellow than 3, a brave young daredevil who doesn’t mind tumbling a bit. And on and on.

The characters and colors in numbers seemed self-evident as far back as I could remember — for the first 10 digits, at least. Larger numbers are simply the combinations of these characters in myriad different ways. My memorization of the multiplication tables became the charting of interactions — marriages, divorces, unhappy children, and mysteries — of these main characters. It’s like I was wired, nearly from the start, to tell stories.

In third grade, I failed math because I didn’t do the homework. I didn’t think I had to. I already knew all the stories; I knew how things played out. I’d drift away in class, hyperventilating with joy over the truly infinite complexity of the stories I saw unfolding in the dancing numbers before me. How beautiful it was that 6, a mistake-prone young man who couldn’t wear his baseball cap straight, and 7, who was 6’s older sister, both come together to make 42 — which, seen as two numbers, the more innocent characters of 4 and 2, make something like a youthful reflection of the more mature and troubled 6 and 7, as if by sticking together they’d preserve each other’s innocence.

A few times, as a child, I’d insist that some number was obviously a specific color, or some combination of colors. I was always surprised when other people didn’t immediately intuit which colors the numbers were supposed to be, though I learned early on not to bring it up.

I rambled on in this vein for a bit before stopping, looking at Andy for some sign.

He shrugged: Yes, guys like us are always going to come off as at least a little crazy.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I think she thinks I’m actually crazy.”

He raised his eyebrows: For example?

For example, I’ve always loved license plates, and an immature little boy inside of me loves it when a license plate spells out something that sounds funny. Hackers were well known for swapping numbers for letters — 4 looks like an A, 5 looks like an S — so it wasn’t hard for me to find pronounceable plates here and there. Sometimes I’d read them out loud: PZB-84C was “pizz-bak,” or MMP-501 was “imp-sol,” or GOU-108 was “goo-lob.”

After we’d been dating for nearly two years, she and I had been driving back from dinner, winding up a tree-lined road. I loved driving, more than nearly anything else, and I must’ve been doing it that night, reading license plates out loud to myself.

“Oh my God,” Cookie said, a dainty hand covering her mouth. “License plates.”

“What?”

She pointed at the car in front of us. “You were reading the license plate,” she said. Her voice wavered.

“Yes,” I said.

“This whole time,” she said, “you’ve been reading license plates?!”

“What do you — wait: so, this whole time, did you think I was just making weird noises because I was crazy?”

She checked the rear-view mirror on her side, brushing a stray lock of reddish hair back behind one ear. We didn’t talk about it any further.

“That’s not cool,” he said, scratching his goatee. “What was it like with previous girlfriends?”

“Well, there was Suzanne — there were others, but she was the main one. But when we broke up, it was because she was dating somebody else, and I think I had a hard time trusting girls after that.”

Andy stared at me. “Wait,” he said. “This is Suzanne — crazy hot receptionist at work, Suzanne,” he said.

I nodded; it was. We’d needed a receptionist, and she’d been working a crappy job at the time, so there you go.

Andy looked for a moment like he had a lot of questions, then he said, “But things were good at first, with Cookie?” he asked.

“Things’re always good at first.” I thought about it. “Exciting, at least, with her.”

“Exciting how?”

“I had a bad crush on her for, like, a year and a half before she asked me out.” I looked at my hands. “It was messy.”

“Messy can be good.”

“She was engaged, and I was living with someone else at the time, so it was pretty messy.”

“Huh,” he said. “I can’t believe I thought you were gay when we first met.”

“I just thought she really understood me, as a designer — she’s a great designer, world-class. But….”

“Now I think you’re gay again.”

“I feel like I let her down at some point, like I let myself down.”

“How?”

“Oh, well — you know I tried to leave SJ Games a couple of times?”

“Sure,” he said. Hardly anybody worked there very long. Next to our shipping manager, who was living in an old wooden house on the back lot, Mentor had been there the longest. He’d hired most of us. Even before he left, people often talked about what their next step might be. He was generally starting the conversation. “What happened?” Andy asked.

I smiled.

“She’s always been concerned about me wasting my talent at a game company, versus doing real design in the real world. It comes up a lot — how much more money I would make in the real world. I’d be making real numbers.”

“Understood,” said Andy. “So?”

Twice in two years, I’d had good interviews with real design studios in town. Both times, Cookie had also heard, or was told, about the opening. Both times she’d interviewed as well, and gotten the job, and both times they made her tell me the news. It had never occurred to me to mention it to my friends.

“Holy shit, man,” Andy said, shaking his head, hands on tabletop. “How did you feel about that?”

“Not good,” I said, “but what are you supposed to do about it? You can see, though, how she could think I should be doing real design work—”

“Dude,” he laughed, smacking one palm flat on the table. “You are doing real design work, man! I mean: You started a magazine. You did—” He waved at the air. “—all this stuff.”

“But it’s not anything I can turn in to a design contest, you know? The American Institute of Graphic Arts doesn’t give a shit what I’m up to. It’s nothing I can be proud of.”

Andy shook his head. “I don’t know, man.”

I went on. “It’s like, there’s nothing worse than a mediocre relationship. If it’s good, if it’s bad — you know what to do. But mediocre is the worst.”

“How’s the….” Sex. He meant, How’s the sex.

“Not great. Since she got herpes last year in a way that has yet to be adequately explained, I haven’t really been up for it very much.”

Andy — who at that point in my life had told me some of the most viscerally horrible stories about women that I’ve ever heard in my life — nearly flushed his sinuses with spicy ground beef. “And you don’t have—”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

“No shit,” he said.

I nodded. No shit. “For about a year, now, it’s been unsatisfying for both of us. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it on purpose, at this point.”

“So, where do things sit between you and Cookie now?”

“They’re not good,” I said. “I feel like we’ve been together for, like, two years, and either she doesn’t have much of an interior life —”

Andy laughed. “I guarantee you, a squeaky clean little girl like that has a rich interior life in this dirty, dirty world.”

“— or she just doesn’t want to let me in.”

“Break up with her.”

I slumped into my hands. “I probably should,” I said, “but….”

“But she’s hot,” he finished for me. I nodded. “Of course she’s hot! I mean, don’t get me wrong, she is really, really, really cute. Really cute. I mean, I’d fuck her.” He looked away into the near distance. “She’s the kind of cute and smart and pretty that you just wanna, like, drop her in the mud and roll her around a bit.” He held his hands up. “And believe me, I know that girls like that are not innocent, almost never.”

“She’s not. And not like ‘No one’s innocent,’ but seriously not innocent.”

“Are we talking ‘blood on her hands’?”

I laughed. There’s a whole story there, just perfect for a sidebar.

“She’s perfectly adorable,” I said. “She’s sweet, and vulnerable—”

“This is what I’m saying,” Andy said. “She’s the perfect mix of everything you seem to find attractive in a girl.” I had to swallow hard because he was right, and I’d never before thought of it as being a problem. “She’s the cookie-cutter girl of your dreams,” he said. “She’s a Derek-shaped trap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew, I knew what he meant. I’d always felt so strongly about me and Cookie being together, that this was how the story of my life was supposed to go, that I couldn’t see how broken we were together. I knew she wanted to get married, but if didn’t trust her. I had no perspective on how I’d forced my moral algebra to arrive not at the correct answer, but at the most alluring one. The fix was in, the numbers were wrong, and I’d been living the wrong story.

For a moment, I realized it. It cast a light shadow over me from high, high above — then before it could make too great of an impression on my conscious mind, I pushed it out of my head. I had bigger problems, I thought, and I did.

Andy was quiet. “I don’t think I care about her any more,” I eventually said.

“So break up.”

I stared at the table. Quietly, I said, “I have other shit going on.”

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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.

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