Going to California

Making Magic — 5

I put the phone to my head.


“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.

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.

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.”


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.”


“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.”

Going to California

Making Magic — 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 10

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

I divide the event into three stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think that went well,” she said.

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

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

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

Hang on tight.

NEXT: Making Magic — part 1

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — Sidebar

As an aside, it’s worth noting that in one of those unexpected alignments, the same weekend that this was written also saw Steve Jackson Games celebrate the roll-out of their newest version of Ogre, the Ogre Designer’s Edition. The Kickstarter that they launched to gauge support for the game generated more than $900,000 over the asking price. It’s been immensely popular both in American and internationally; they’ve just put out a draft copy of the rules in German, for example.

I’m hoping to have my copy of the Ogre Designer’s Edition in about a week. It looks massive, like it needs its own room. I don’t know where I’ll put it, but it will get played.

Now back to the story.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 3

Steve Jackson Games was well known, long lived, and respected in the adventure gaming industry — again, I hope I’m not spoiling the story to say that they still are. At the time, though, they were still smarting from the Secret Service raid. They needed a hit. I’d just laid out and sent to print about $10,000-worth of color posters promoting the game. It was game on, seriously, and I had been trusted with this.

I took a deep breath.

“This is a one-gigabyte drive,” I said. I’ve added a picture of the drive in question, just above this text; I keep it on a shelf in my office even today, as a reminder. “How much do you think this costs?” I asked.

“I dunno, about two grand?”

“About two-thousand dollars. That sounds like a lot of money to me. I don’t have extras lying around. I didn’t just happen to make a mistake and bring you the wrong drive. This is the only one I’ve got, and it’s the one I’m very confident has the full-color book I’ve been slaving away on, night and day, for the past three weeks.”

The guy started to look nervous. I smiled, hoping to put him at ease.

“I think I know what the problem is,” I said, genuinely being a huge enough geek that I had intuited the solution to the problem. “I had my project folder on the drive’s Desktop. In the last version of the Mac OS, there was a small bug that made files on the Desktop seem to disappear, but everything is still really there. An update came out a couple of months ago; maybe you haven’t upgraded yet, for some reason. But, cool. All you have to do is reboot the machine and hold down Command-Option after it’s done starting up, ’cause that’ll force it to rebuild the Desktop, and then you’ll see the files, no problem.”

I thought I was saving this guy’s life. What I didn’t know was that he’d already lobbed a one-gigabyte bomb into mine.

“Well,” he said, “yeah, I think I remember hearing something about that bug. I think we had that problem a couple times, a while back, I just never got around to upgrading that machine.” He winced from somewhere deep inside, as I glanced back and forth between him and my hard drive as though I was glancing back and forth between his hand and a desk-mounted vice grip, wondering how to get the two together.

“So then we reboot the machine,” I said.

“Do you have a backup?” he asked.

I took a deep breath. “Of the six-hundred megabyte project? No.” Three years later, I’d be able to burn that much data onto a CD for $15.

“Well,” he said, “there’s a problem. Last night, I needed to move a bunch of projects around. And I needed to get them from one place to another place. And I thought your drive was blank, so I copied everything over to it, moved the drive to another machine to copy everything off. It was about…a gig.”

I felt my eyes narrowing. “And because your computer didn’t know that I had stuff on the disk, it wrote over everything that was there.”

He looked as though I’d already put his hand in the vice grip. “Basically,” he said.

I could hear a rush, like a hurricane coming up behind me. Our partner had in fact already shipped their miniature tanks to the world’s game stores. We were already a couple of weeks late getting the book out. Steve had approved the final artwork from Japan, where he was still traveling on business. I was going to have to tell him that the book would be delayed by as much as a couple of weeks — longer, in fact, given what I’d learned about big printers. You don’t just send something to a large-scale printer and have them print it. You schedule it, as far in advance as you can. They probably wouldn’t have an opening in their schedule again for more than a month. They probably wouldn’t be happy about me creating a hole in their schedule by failing to ship them film at the last possible moment, either.

I might have to find another printer. I might have to fall back to someone who would only produce the book in black and white. We had already solicited orders for a full-color book. We might have to start all over, a three-month process of canceling the outstanding orders and asking distributors to place new orders for the suddenly black-and-white book. Our partner might take a gigantic hit on the brick wall that the miniature sales would hit. It might be years before I got anyone at the company interested in considering going digital again.

“I see,” I said, staring intently at the drive, as if that might bring the data back. It was right there — I just had it last night.

“I’m really sorry,” the guy said. “I am, I’m really sorry.”

“You didn’t know,” I said, disconnecting the drive.

“I didn’t know.”

I nodded. “I know. It’s my fault for not having backed everything up. I have all the actual layout files — all the pages and the text and the placeholders for all the images — on a backup back at the office. They’re big, but not as big as the giant color photos that I spent two weeks scanning and color-correcting.”

“I’m really sorry—”

“I know. Here’s what I’m going to do, though: I’m driving straight back to my office, as fast as I can, and I’m going to start scanning. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I’ll put the whole thing back together.” I looked around. “How busy are you right now?”

He winced. “Pretty busy—”

“The moment I’m done with this, I’ll call you. After I call you, I’m going to drive straight over, and I’m going to sit down with you, or with whoever’s shift it is, and I’m going to wait until the film starts to come out. Then I’m going to go home, and when the film’s all done I want you to next-day that shit straight to my printer. I’ll have the address for you.”

He blinked several times, rubbing a phantom pain in his hand.

“Can you help me out, here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, confused. “Of course. I mean, yes.” But he only looked more confused. “You’re being really cool about this.”

“All I know,” I told him, “is that I have a book to get out.”

And that’s what I did. Design school, while run out of the School of Fine Arts, was not a walk in the park. I guess I could’ve let it be easy, but that wasn’t like me. I wasn’t a lazy person, and I could no longer imagine being any other way.

Only in that gray area, beyond where sane people stop and before the hard and fast limits of reality are guaranteed to smack you down can you find anything close to real magic in this world. Still, it’s easy to forget that the far side of a gray spectrum is fraught with darkness.

Two and a half days later, though I probably shouldn’t have been driving, I made it back to the bureau with the drive. I had eaten a lot of take-out; I had not showered. This time the manager was there, and he eyed me curiously.

“I hear you may have something for me,” he said. I gave him the drive and he hefted it in one hand, frowning slightly as if judging its weight. “Everything’s there?”

“It’s all there,” I said.

“Sixty-four color pages —”

“I had the pages backed up. It was just the art —”

“Sixty-four color pages, you scanned all the photos. They’re all set? Good to go?”

“Good as they’re going to be.”

He nodded. “I heard you’re a pretty cool guy. Some people, when they have a problem, they get mad. I had a guy last week pick up that tall stool over there and throw it down the length of the room.”

“Not my style.”

He nodded. “I’m really, really sorry about what happened. We’ll be very careful with this drive.” He sighed and checked a piece of paper on the table beside him. “Here’s what else I’m going to do for you.” Pointing at a line listing my job, I could see that he’d cut the price down to a fifth of what it had been. “I can’t do it for free but, you know.” He smiled. “Cool guys deserve a break.”

“Thanks,” I said, getting lost in what the expression on his face was saying.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You know, we’ve got a bed here. Maybe you ought to crash out for a little while.”

I told him I was fine, and I made it home alive, and when I woke up in the middle of the night — the following night — it occurred to me that I’d done it. I’d made produced something that wasn’t great, but it looked as professional as its peers at the time. And it was a full color book. that was going to be printed, in thousands of copies, and sent all over the world. Even better, with the discount we got on the film, the book ended up costing less for us to produce than a black-and-white book.

Also, I got my hands on a large backup drive. But that’s another story.

Steve was impressed, so he had a new challenge for me: he wanted to start a magazine, a full-size magazine about gaming and the game industry, with as much color as possible.

He didn’t have a lot of faith that it was possible, though. “If I can make it affordable,” I asked him, “can I do it?” It seemed like a low-risk proposition for him to say yes, which he did.

And that’s how I started a game magazine. I designed it, I scanned or tweaked or swiped the art from other books in production, I went through the slush pile for articles, I leveraged Steve’s name to cold-call famous people in the industry in order to get news from them — and to fill the pages with paid advertising.

I produced the first three issues of Pyramid essentially on my own. It didn’t make much money and it didn’t lose much money, but it was terrific advertising, and clearly it was a hell of a lot of fun. It told people what we were doing and it showed off good work by people we liked. It went on to be nominated for and to win a crazy number of awards, which is cool. As I think back on those days I find I’m a lot more proud of it now than I thought I would be, or that I remember letting myself feel at the time.

A few months later, we hired a new print buyer and I moved from the operations side of the small company into the creative side, and it felt like coming home.

For the first time, I didn’t question what they could possibly be thinking when people called me cool, because it no longer mattered to me whether or not I was cool.

Then six months later came the Secret Service trial, then the victory, then the Secret Service’s money — and with the money came certain challenges.

This is where I should probably tell you about Doug.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 2

As a designer, I had a serious problem working at Steve Jackson Games: I hated how everything looked, and not art-school-jokingly despised it but genuinely, deeply held the design output of the whole place at the time pretty seriously in contempt, mostly because they were doing things the old way. Clearly, I still had a lot to let go of. But let me give you some idea what I was up against.

Here’s how the old way worked. After pouring text into a page template, computers were not really involved. Instead, a really nice laser printer spat out a copy of the page, after which a human being covered its back with wax and stuck it to a piece of cardboard. Any art that needed to go on the page was scaled up or down or otherwise duplicated using a super-nice photocopier, and someone had to cut out the copy and wax it to the board-mounted page. Then the ten-inch stack of cardboard pages were shipped to a printer, who laid them out in the proper order for printing and took a photo of them — no joke, with what was basically an enormous camera — and from this film a proof was made. The printer then sent the proof back to us; we checked it for errors, sent back any corrections, and maybe three weeks or a month later a truck would pull up bearing between two- and five-thousand copies of a 128-page black-and-white book with a heavy, color cover.

I thought this was primitive, in terms of wasting a lot of human time, but also because it made experimenting with layout and design very expensive. I wasted no time dragging into the office the great big monster Macintosh I’d put nearly all my money into upgrading. I called it Frankentosh. Over my two years in design school, there would be weeks when I literally starved myself so that I could afford a 1 gigabyte hard drive, which cost nearly $2,000 new at the time. (As long as we’re throwing numbers out there: I had a 28-inch waist.) The climate in the office at the time was distinctly anti-Apple, so as bad-ass as I proved my machine to be it was impossible to get traction for digital publishing.

Even worse, I had the classic designer-brought-in-from-the-outside problem: my client, in my mind, had terrible taste. I wanted to explore the clean lines and the beautiful sense of balance that I saw in Dutch design at the time (and before, and ever since; long live Dutch design), while people at Steve Jackson Games wanted skulls stuck to spikes along the bottom edge some book’s pages.

These were not computer games. SJ Games still today prints board games, card games, and role-playing games, usually with a fantasy or a science-fiction bent. Think Risk meets Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons, done differently.

No, that’s a terrible comparison. The reason that Steve Jackson Games was actually pretty close to great was that we did our own thing. In the same industry that contained things like Dungeons & Dragons, Steve put out some really great stuff that people who really care about games almost always really know about. I’d been following their growth for more than ten years at that point, myself, and they’re still doing well today.

What was I actually doing there at the time? Clearly I wasn’t doing design, at first. I’d been hired on as a print buyer. This was both crazy and important for two reasons: one, printers have their own bizarre language that they use to describe a print job — “I need a two-over-one on that ten-point matte you showed me, using Pantone 323 as the spot, with a one-over-one, 32-page saddle-stitch insert, okay?” and the companies that run monster printing presses are just like computers in that they will do exactly, precisely, unwaveringly what you order, so if you get it wrong then you live with the consequences, with no Undo; and two, I figured that the only hope I had of changing people’s minds about going digital would be to do it on their terms, literally in the language that they spoke.

I’m not simply talking about the language of printers, of course. I’m talking about the language of publishing, which eventually boils down to money.

More even than a chance at professional validation, what I needed from the job was money. After suddenly moving to Wisconsin, my parents paid my $600 University tuition twice a year, for which I was thankful. My first year, they gave me $500 a month; the second year, $250 a month. On one of our Sunday calls, after the first year, my mom told me to ask dad to cut it in half because they were doing very poorly — the company for which dad had moved my family to Wisconsin had folded — and he was too proud to impose that on me as his idea. She passed the phone to dad, and I proposed it, and he gratefully accepted, and I worked many more hours at my terrible job in order to get through design school.

The terrible job, not-good as it might have been, was actually where I learned most of what I needed to know in order to pull off the print-buyer job at Steve Jackson Games, though I nearly got shot a good number of times in the process — which was wholly unexpected, given that there was nothing illegal about what we were doing. In fact, the workplace where I saw and heard more guns than ever before or again in my life was a law firm — though it was a Texas law firm, of course. But that’s another story.

I was luckier than most just getting to and then through college, I know, but walking in the door that first day, I also knew that the idea was to do things that people would like and that would make money.

Not a week after I started, Steve Jackson was finishing a new version of his classic game, OGRE. For the game itself, imagine grown men standing around a large kitchen table, pushing small futuristic tanks around at one another. Each tank is maybe three or four inches long, with a lot of smaller units zipping along around them. There were rules, of course. Luckily, it was fun. For a decade, it had been a terrific game, a classic.

For the new edition, he’d partnered with another company to produce a line of miniatures to go along with the game, which meant he had a big stack of beautiful color photos of sample tanks, professionally painted and tricked out, on miniature landscapes sculpted to model train geek-level.

It was too bad that printing a whole book in color looked fantastically expensive, and time consuming. Except for the cover, his photos would only show up in black-and-white. Even if we wanted to do it in color, having a manufacturing partner also meant that the book’s shipping schedule was carved in relative stone. There was only a little give. If the miniatures spent much time in stores with no game to play with them, it would probably screw up sales, which would probably screw our partner, who had made a much more massive investment in tooling and physical production and packaging and shipping lead-like miniatures that they had cast themselves than we would spend in producing a 64-page book to sell their miniature science-fictional vehicles.

“I can totally make a full-color book,” I said to Steve.

“For how much?” he asked. So I found out, and it was too expensive. So I started asking other printers, and I got back some outrageous quotes. Everyone was thinking about things the old way, which involved lots of cardboard that they would photograph to produce enormous sheets of film from which proofs would then be made. I kept saying that no, there was another way to go about it.

I didn’t go it alone. I found a young, upstart group of guys who’d opened a service bureau in town — basically, they took out a loan to buy something that was part giant laser printer and part enormous film maker. You could print straight onto film, side-stepping the whole photocopying and waxing process. Even better, producing color pages only meant printing four pieces of film, one for each plate of color it took to reproduce the basic range of colors onto a printed page. Those guys helped me figure out what I needed, and they wanted the business so they gave me a really good rate on printing the film.

A lot of printers weren’t set up to trust that I would be sending them good film. For a cover, maybe, but for a whole book’s interior? I began faxing the question to other printers, people I’d never heard of, until I found someone in Canada who didn’t think I was crazy. They only wanted to know how many books I wanted and how quickly I could get them the film.

The photos were color slides, so between the cost of the slide scanner and the film output and the printing, I was able to get the job cost down to only maybe twice the cost for black and white. Steve went for it.

After an intense three weeks, on my own equipment (and Steve’s newly purchased slide scanner) I’d designed and laid out my first real book. I’d produced all the graphics, either by color-correcting the terrible scanner’s output or by drawing things when necessary, and it looked like a real book. I was as surprised as anyone.

It was a good thing there were two days left in the schedule. The next morning, when I called the service bureau to see how things were going, they said they were puzzled. When they hooked up my drive, they’d found it empty.

I drove immediately over to the bureau. Lo and behold, the gigantic, gigabyte drive where I’d done all my work said it held zero files.

I took a deep breath.

Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?”

Because I know I’ve made it confusing, it went:

  • I spend two years learning how to actually be a student;
  • then there was the SJ Games raid and the hacker crackdown;
  • weeks later, I moved back to Austin;
  • after taking two years getting a design degree, I take a job at Steve Jackson Games;
  • then six months later was the Secret Service trial, and everything after;
  • eventually I end up in California, and the whole story changes again.

First, here’s how I arrived at getting a design degree.

For about a year after getting suspended after my first year in college, I’d tried to press on into computer programming but I was frightened as hell that I would only ever be mediocre.

A big part of me still insisted that whatever I ended up learning or doing, there should be some aspect of it that was somehow fun, and all the programmers I knew were much, much better than I was, and it didn’t even look they were having any fun. I was even dissuaded by my dad, who had essentially been an early computer programmer in the Air Force. He was in personnel, which in American business culture we now call Human Relations or HR, and while he never one time thought of himself as a programmer (that I remember hearing about) it was his job to take mission requirements — such as must speak Vietnamese and also be diving-certified, to make up an example — and find the right personnel for the job.

It was a nice desk job, I’m sure, punching a series of long cards in exactly the right way to form exactly the right request which he then fed into a computer, which then did a search of all the folk it knew about and turned up the best people for the specified job. He was kind of like a recruiter, for people who kill people, though I thought he was undeniably a programmer. I think he didn’t think he’d ever been a programmer because in his world you only used a computer if you didn’t have someone more junior than you to use it for you, that’s how much of a pain in the ass it was.

If there were actual great programmers who were cool people and happy most of the time and easy going and reasonably well-socialized, I hadn’t met them. It didn’t sound fun being a mediocre programmer, is what I’m saying. Having already made peace with myself as a mediocre dancer, I had a hard time seeing a path forward. Luckily, I had a chance to get my basic courses out of the way before worrying about what I’d do for an actual college degree.

I’ve no memory of when the answer came to me. It’s too bad that, unlike when the Grinch got his wonderful, awful idea, we rarely have single, life-changing realizations which in one moment shift us radically and irrevocably down one long path or another. There’s usually a build up, or a long burn down, into change. Maybe it feels sudden, but with me, at least, it nearly always turns out to have been a series of cascading thoughts, one after another, like building a Lego sculpture without instructions, or a model, or any clue as to either how many or which pieces you have in the box. Then suddenly the true shape of the thing comes out and you race down the then-obvious path toward completion.

Still, by late 1989, it occurred to me that I was lucky enough to love computers, in a world where most people didn’t yet get how awesome they are, so I figured I should work with that. Computers were not going away, they’re only getting more interesting and more accessible to people who hadn’t yet gotten how awesome computers can be.

Computers were mostly becoming more accessible to average people by laying a graphical interface on top of the normal complexity. I wasn’t going to be a programmer, yet it felt crucially important to understand what the computer does under the hood, beneath the graphics, because knowing what’s really going on with something gives you power that people can’t usually tap into.

While most people saw users and programmers and nothing much in between, I imagined a kind of super-user, someone who knew how the system worked in its deep, dark details and who could use that knowledge to bend the system, to make it do something that other people couldn’t do.

Only years later did I realize that I’d taken a twisty path back around to rationalizing a career as a kind of hacker, all because I refused to let go of the stupid dream that had led me to want to combine computers and dance in the first place. The root of the dream was wanting to tell stories. In the early 1990s, the clearest intersection of art and technology in the service of a kind of storytelling was in what they called Desktop Publishing, which we now simply call “How everything gets published.”

But the scope of what was then desktop publishing wasn’t serious enough for me. I didn’t want to make baby shower invitations. I wanted to tell stories. So moving back to Austin, I first enrolled in the School of Art in order to improve my eye, then I quickly moved into the graphic design track in order to improve my mind.

It went really well. For the first time, I was doing work I really liked. Also, I was learning skills that would get me not just some random job out of college, but likely a decent one.

When I called the Mentor, while wrapping up my final college courses, he asked me what I wanted to do with my degree.

“I wanna make stories, really,” I said.

“How about games?” he asked. “Would you wanna make games?”

Yes, I did, I simply never thought it an option.

I would not end up working at Steve Jackson Games to make games, not at first, but I would — though as with most good things worth trusting, it would not come easily.

Going to California

Dancing — 4

Table of Contents

Something inside me opened up. I stepped out of myself, to a place where I could see what I’d become just as clearly as I’d been judging others.

I didn’t do schoolwork because I had no discipline. I’d never one time worked at being a good student. I’d never forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I only wanted to play. The times in my life when I’d done hard work — unreasonably difficult labor, which I had done — had only been in service of having fun.

All the drama with the hackers was nothing more than me throwing gasoline on my own fire because it was a fun distraction from what I was meant to be doing. I’d been happy for the disruptions. I’d graduated high school not because I was clever and my teacher was stupid, but because she’d been generous and gracious. It had been years since anyone had openly mocked me for my stutter, but I still held the words of the past against the world of the present. I hadn’t pushed hard for my dance-plus-computer ideas — engaging other people to help me experiment — because I wanted to do it all myself, even though I didn’t know how, because I wanted all the credit, all the applause.

I manufactured my fears so that I wouldn’t have to risk failure — or, more often, so that I wouldn’t have to do any work at all. My paranoia was a protective edifice of lies around the truth, and the truth was that I was lazy.

I was a like a small, sleepy goat, a kid, nearly alone in a barren field picked clean of anything to eat. The pile of crap that he had amassed behind him was fantastical, but his muscles were too weak to push any of it aside. He had no choice but to go elsewhere, and the only route open to him was up a dangerous rock face. It was intimidating, even though so many must have gone that way before him. It would have been easier had he started up the mountain with the other kids, when there’d have been safety in numbers to help one another along. Still, better late than never.

Oh, but God, the mountain was terrifying.

“Derek?” asked Lizard.

I looked up.

“You went quiet for a minute,” she said. “You okay?”

“You said I’d be okay, didn’t you?”


“Then I will be,” I said.


“Because I trust you.”

“It didn’t sound like it.”

“I do,” I said, then I corrected myself. “I should have,” I said. “I can.”

She nodded.

I felt shattered. The worst possible thing I could’ve feared had come to pass. At least, I figured, that’s one thing I’ll never have to be afraid of again.

Lizard looked away. “When you ‘knocked’ on my dorm room door that time,” she said, “it scared me, because it reminded me of my ex-boyfriend, back home. One night he wanted me, he wanted my attention so badly, he pounded on my bedroom window so hard that he shattered the glass.” She hugged herself. “Blood everywhere. It was awful. And the look in his eye—” She looked up. “—it was the look you get, sometimes.

“He was crazy. But you, you’re not him. I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re okay. You just have ideas.” She shrugged, and smiled. “You just need to work them out.”

“Thanks, Liz,” I said. “Thank you.”

The music played for hours. The next day, I was home.

It took me several weeks, though, to realize that I no longer stuttered.

In the two years that followed, I started working and I kept working. I did what teachers needed me to do, and I got all my basic classes out of the way. When I returned to the university, my grades were never a question. I spent all my time working. It felt good. It was a kind of dancing, and I never really stopped. I got a design degree, and nearly got a minor in Astronomy.

I did also have to learn how to work well, of course. That came later. Thankfully, it happened a long time before I shot past a hand-painted sign in a desert, leaned against a tree, saying, “CALIFORNIA”.

But first, before everything after, came the Hacker Crackdown.