Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.5

“What are we going to do?” I asked my new boss.

“You know about ports, right?”

Now there are so many horrible ways to talk about ports that I’ve had to come up with my own less-bad way to say it.

The way things currently work on the Internet, you have addresses and you have ports. If you’re a computer on the Internet, you have an address, just like how computers networked over phone lines had phone numbers. But the address only gets you there. The same computer can serve up Web pages and manage email, from the same address, so you need some way of as soon as possible getting out of the way whether you’d wanted to talk about email or about the Web, so some years back, purely by convention we started giving each service a number. Each port number is like a different door into the same computer. If you’re running the right service — a Web server on port 80, an email server on port 25 — then you’ve basically opened a door into that computer. The door may not go anywhere, but it’s there.

“I think I know about ports,” I said,

“Like, how many are there?”

“Really? Only a few major ones. But as many as you’d need. Sixty-five thousand.” Because computers are so super-rational as to be completely insane, they believe that 65535 is actually a nice, round number, because that’s how many ports there are.

“Per protocol,” he added.

I nodded. I’d neglected to remember that there were two major core Internet protocols, and they each have more than sixty-five thousand possible ports.

“But that’s not the problem,” he continued. “Or rather, it is the problem. There are so many machines out there with ports open, people have no idea what’s going on inside their companies.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean,” he said, leaning forward, “no one has any fucking idea what is actually going on in their network.”

“How can that be possible?”

“It takes knowing what you’re doing,” he said simply. “It takes time, and money, and attention. You have to pay attention, to see what’s going on. If you don’t see it, it’s like it didn’t happen.”

“But people don’t care that what’s happening could be somebody ripping them off?”

“They don’t care until they hear about it.”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. I figured that someone, somewhere, must have their shit together.

“Firewalls?” I asked.

“Requires you to set up the firewall, then watch it, see what it’s doing. And most people have to set the thing up so open that it’s not doing them any good.”

“I’m very surprised.”

He shrugged. “It’s how the world works. Nobody wants to spend money on something until they know it’s costing them money not to. That’s the problem with selling security. You’re doing your job and all you have to say at the end of your day is, ‘Everything’s okay,’ and that’s not getting you more budget, or a raise, or anything. You only get attention when everything’s so fucked up it’s your ass on the line and you’d better get things sorted out right now or you’re done. After that, you go back to a boring life of telling people things are okay, even if you’re pretty sure they’re not — they’re just not on fire.”

“Sounds about right,” I admitted.

“That’s what people usually think when they hear this is a security company. They think we sell security, when nothing close to that could be the case.” He narrowed his eyes. “What do you think we sell?”

“Risk management,” I said.

“Exactly. We don’t tell people we will make them secure, because who wants that responsibility. We sell risk management. You know what we’ve been doing with all the security consultants?”

“I could say ‘security consulting,’ but—”

“Yeah. So we started out as a security consulting firm, information security. We were bought by this big company, Kroll-O’Gara, at the start of the year. They’re trying to make a big play to be a big security vendor. We’re using our contacts to do a bunch of security consulting for many different companies so that we can identify what problems these people are having, what’s consistent across them, so that we can sell them a solution — or make a solution we can sell them, more like.”

“So how many of these consulting gigs have you done so far?”

“Many. And we’ve learned a couple of things. Like, people have no idea what their network is actually doing. When they do know, they have no idea how bad an idea it was to do what they were doing.”

“So you’re talking about a way to help them manage the risk of doing what they’re doing.”


He told me a couple of stories to illustrate his point. Here’s one that I both believe to be true and think I can share.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 2

Here’s what I was told after my interview, as they presented me with an employment contract and a check for moving expenses, when I asked what I could possibly do for the information security group of an international private detective agency.

“Have you ever heard of Packet Storm?”


“Me neither, but last week I bought it. It was a Web site that was being run for a while by a student at Harvard, a big collection of security information and tools and—”

“You mean hacking stuff?”

“Basically. As he was getting close to graduating, it came to the attention of Harvard that they’d been hosting Packet Storm and they shut the site down. He can’t afford to host it himself, so he sold it to us. He’s shipping us the hard drive. We should have it early next week. So we want to know what’s there, first. Then we need the site redesigned — it needs to look professional — and then all the tools and the scripts and the—”

“Are we talking tutorials or attack tools?”

“It’s a lot of things, I’m sure, but what’s there for certain, I’m not sure.”

“Do you know and you don’t want to say, or do you really not know and you need me to find out?”

“I’m sure I don’t know everything that’s in there.”

Mary smiled lightly.

“So you want me to index and categorize a Web site full of computer cracking scripts—”

“Security tools.”

“—of security tools—”

“And then run it, run the site. Organize everything, manage it, post new things.” She smiled more deeply, as if sharing a secret. “Because we’re not simply buying the hard drive, we’re buying the domain, and one of the most valuable things that we’re getting with that will be the email.”

It took me half a beat. “Because little kids all around the world are constantly emailing their new attacks and exploits and terrible, terrible shit to Packet Storm.”

“Right. And if we can use any advanced information we get coming up from these channels to protect our clients, all the better.”

So they wanted me to do for real, as an adult, what I’d being doing on the sly as far back as high school, collecting and distributing information that many people believed was dangerous but which, for whatever reason, I’d always felt strongly needed to be collected and shared. Or collected, at least — by me, at least.

It’s not that I would do anything with information like that, probably.

When I got to California, on my first day at work, I more formally met my boss, Phil, a Yorkshireman only a little shorter than me but about as broader again across his shoulders than I was. His hairline was a dark, receding buzz that only made his eyebrows seem more severe. He was a serious guy, as I’d find out. He smiled a lot, and he’d joke about things, but he was serious.

We’d met at the interview, though things were different this time. He smiled a little more deeply, in a way that made me feel like I was no longer an outsider. I didn’t just feel like I was talking to a serious person. I was talking to a serious person who was on my side.

“So,” he said. “Bit of a change in plans.”

“Um, okay.”

He winced. “So, the guy who actually owns the Packet Storm project here internally, he’s out of town right now, but he doesn’t want anything to happen on it until he gets back. Sorry.”

“Sorry, how?”

“Well, apparently he’s not impressed that I’ve hired someone to run the site for him.”

“He wants to run it?”

“No. He doesn’t actually want to do any work. He’s off in the middle of fucking Africa watching the eclipse.” I’d heard about the eclipse. Four months before the end of the millennium, and everybody’s talking about the total solar eclipse.

“Wasn’t that a week ago?”

“Something. But if you go all the way to bloody Africa, you stay a while.”


“So, we’re gonna be working on something else.”

“Wait. What’s the deal with Packet Storm?”

“He’s going to run it, with his people, let them do their own thing. He won’t be around much, anyway.”

“Is…is this guy a problem for you?”

Phil shrugged. “Was. He’s a bit of competition.”

“What happened?”

He smiled. “Just got into his machine and fucked with him a bit. Drove him mental over a couple of weeks. I thought, ‘That’s sorted.’ Now I think he suspects and he’s a bit pissed off. So he’s drawing a big line around Packet Storm. We’ll be working on something different.”

“Okay, like what?”

“A service. Something that could make money.” He paused. “I get the impression you know a bit about security tools, eh?”

I winced. “A long time ago—”

“I don’t mean a long time ago. I mean now, recently. You’ve kept your foot in it, have you?”

“Mmm,” I said.

I’d paused, many times, but I’d never truly stopped. I was never malicious, though I was that other, lighter M: mischievous. My drive toward mischief kept me reading certain mailing lists, and at least thinking sideways about how certain new bits of computerdom worked. Here’s an example.

Working my way through college, I’d gotten a job at a computer mail-order parts place. It was probably the most dangerous job of my life. In nearly every room of the joint, somewhere, was a loaded, semi-automatic weapon. The parts company — we sold memory, drives, printers, monitors — was run out of the back of a bankruptcy attorney’s office, and about every six months or so some client’s spouse, or ex-spouse, or creditor or other associate would come by and try to cause trouble. This was in downtown Austin, and nobody batted an eye. The density of weapons was simply so that our boss could most quickly, with the least amount of fuss, be able to discourage someone from making further trouble for themselves.

A woman in the office below us, a divorce attorney, was shot and killed by a client’s husband, who then killed his wife before turning the gun on himself. I was working that day, one thin floor right above them.

I disliked our boss. For such a smart guy, he was kind of dull, but he loved his toys. He let me design his magazine ads, which was how I did my first professional print work, but I had to use one of the crappy black-and-white 13″ monitors on the Macs in the sales room where I spent most days answering phones and taking orders or otherwise coping with angry customers. We had a lot of angry customers. In his office, though, he had two enormous 19″ monitors hooked up to the same computer. He had the biggest, most bad-ass machine I’d ever seen, and he used it to do really simple things with spreadsheets, and to try out all the new junk that people used to send him, to see if he wanted to sell it.

Like the Voice Navigator, the first commercial voice-control system that I ever heard about for the Mac. It was a thin black box with a thin microphone that came up at a 45° angle and ending in a puff of black foam about a foot from your mouth. You’d train it, saying, “Computer, shutdown,” three or four different ways so that it would have some slightly different samples to compare against as it sat there, constantly churning away, listening, in case you wanted it to do something for you. It sounded pretty cool, even though in practice it seldom worked at all, unless you had a really good sample.

One time, on a Saturday, he let me work on the ad on his machine. I’d already turned it into him but he wanted a bunch of changes, so I got to sit in the big leather chair while he cleaned his pistols in the other room, worried that we wouldn’t make the 3 PM FedEx deadline to get our ad in the next issue of MacWorld magazine. Every 15 minutes, his secretary would buzz me on his intercom to ask if I was finished. So when I was done, I figured out how the Voice Navigator worked, and the next time the buzz came through I recorded it, all three buzzes, really good samples, and I assigned them to the Shutdown action.

Days later, he was cursing. He didn’t know nearly as much about computers as he said he did, he just thought they were cool and wanted more than anyone else he knew. He had so much crap jacked into that Mac that it took something like five minutes to fully start up. Shutting down was as major an event, a shifting of applications, all running at the same time, which slowly tried quitting. Shutdown took so long that he never had an opportunity to associate it with the Voice Navigator. All he knew was his intercom would buzz, and he’d turn away from the computer to answer it, usually having to get on the phone after that. Once he was done with his call, he’d turn back to the Mac and it would be off. What the hell?

I caught it in action, one time. The phone buzzed and he looked away, but he kept his hand on his mouse; he’d been irritated for a good couple of days, and he was getting twitchy.

“Uh, huh,” he said over the phone. “Well, tell him he can—wait, hang on.” He squinted into his enormous monitor. “No, computer, don’t lose my changes, save the file. Okay, I’m back with you. Wait.” Under his breath, he muttered as he moved his mouse around to click buttons that were popping up in dialog boxes on screen. “Why are all these programs closing? Yes, save changes. Save changes.” Then he slammed the mouse down against his heavy wooden table so hard that the little circle holding in its rubber ball popped off and the ball that actually fed the motion data up through the mouse fell right out and rolled into the tangle of cables and floppy disks underneath his table. “Goddammit!” he screamed. “Fucking computer. Goddammit.” He remembered he was on the phone. “I’m gonna have to call you back.”

After a wholly unproductive week, he ended up erasing the entire machine, and losing a couple of months worth of data because he was afraid that any backups might also be corrupted. I’ve never heard a man curse that much or that hard in such a short period of time. He wasn’t a poet, he just had a good, workman-like approach to his cursing. I felt entirely justified, even though I hadn’t really done it on purpose. I just thought it’d be funny, especially that his problems stemmed from his inability to troubleshoot a simple problem, compounded by his poor computer hygiene — no one needed that much crap running at once. He so clearly had no idea how anything could possibly go wrong with what he’d made, so he had no idea what was going wrong. It must be some virus that no one knows about, he howled.

Also, I’d found out that he’d ripped me off for about two thousand dollars over a six month period of time, when some manufacturers were giving bonuses to salespeople on the sales of certain items. He told us that the paperwork didn’t go through, when really it had gone through — he’d simply used his own name in filling out all the forms for the five of us who worked for him. Still, I hadn’t meant for it to cause him that much grief. The second time, though — the second time I got to see him running around the office, literally pulling his thin hair out from his scalp, I meant it.

And that was just the kind of stuff you could do if you had hands-on access to someone’s computer. Early applications that connected machines to each other over the Internet were not especially well-coded, early on. As the Internet grew, more computers were connected to other computers, which meant that while more and more people could send each other email, or chat on private relays, it also meant that more and more people could attack random targets, at low cost to themselves and at a potentially high return on their effort — given a good target, or enough crappy ones.

For example, in the mid-1990s there was The Ping of Death. You could craft a couple of malformed packets of data, pop them in digital bottles and float them over to very many machines on the Internet, and when they opened them up to read them they would die. Or rather, the machine’s processing would hang, and you’d have to reboot the machine to get it to do anything again. I first ran into that on a chat client, a crappy little app which was itself vulnerable to a ping attack. If you wanted to kick someone off of a chat line, or out of some games, you could send some very innocuous traffic over the network to their address. At best, from their perspective, it would slow down their interactions, and at best, from your perspective, it would knock them offline.

Sometimes all you had to do was simply send a bunch of packets to the target faster than they could respond, again at least slowing them down but more likely crashing some service on their machine. There was a version of this called a Smurf attack. If you were on the same network as a machine, you could send out a bunch of packets which were fraudulently marked as having been sent by your victim machine, and the barrage of responses from all the hosts who thought the victim wanted something from them would crash the victim. You smurfed your target.

As people wrote more services — more name services, more mail servers, Web servers — the vulnerabilities only got more sophisticated. I could go a couple of months without paying much attention, or trying anything out, but things change so fast, and I’d have hated to have missed much, especially because I was still insatiably paranoid.

“Yeah,” I said offhandedly. “I kept my foot in it, a little bit.”

“How long you been hacking?”

“Since I was fifteen, so: half my life.”

He nodded. “Alright. You can do this. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Going to California

Making Magic — 15.75

There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.

When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.

“‘Scuse me,” I said.

She turned and let me see her smile.

“You were on the plane with us,” I said.

She nodded.

“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”

She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”

“Wow,” I said.

“What are you here for?”

“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”

“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.

“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”

“What’s it about?”

“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”

“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”

“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”

“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”

“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.

As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.

Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.

“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.

“You didn’t hear?”

“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.

There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.

“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”

I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.

The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.

“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”

“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”

And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.

But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.

A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.

“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”

“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.

They looked at least good enough.

We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.

There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.

Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.

When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”

“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.

“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”

“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”

“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”

“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”

“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”

“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”

“And what was that?”

I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.

“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”

“I’m with you.”

“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”

As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.

On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.

I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.

We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.

On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.

Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.

He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”

“Okay,” I said.

You won’t believe what it was.

Going to California

Making Magic — 15.5

Once Andy and I were on the plane, seat belts snapped, I was almost able to relax, though my memory of the ten or so days before were not especially clear.

The final rush to completion had been a frenzy. The enormous sheets of card layouts looked fine, the art was as decent as it could be with what little sanity we’d had remaining — our earliest work was making me cringe, by then — and I’d put finishing touches on a stripped-down design for the various cardboard boxes and other packaging needed to hold the products together.

The last few pieces of art we made were for the Illuminati themselves. Jeff threw several together in a day in Photoshop, while I went the roundabout way to produce a few myself, such as borrowing some high-end 3-D software to render a golden apple.

I have no memory of actually turning the game in, of sending it off to the printer. I remember us standing around downstairs, saying, “Okay, well, what do you think? Is this it?” But we must have. I don’t think I did a lot before getting on the plane.

Unfortunately, after landing outside of remote Holland, Michigan — home to many large printers as well as three of the largest American office furniture companies: Haworth, Herman Miller, and SteelCase (which we were later told was technically in Grand Rapids, less than 30 minutes from Holland) — we hit a fundamental impasse.

Neither of us had any money. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because we had bank cards and credit cards.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Andy said. “There are no ATMs here.”

It’s not as though we needed a lot of money. We only needed a quarter, to call our printer’s office so they could send over someone to meet us.

Imagine, if you can, being one of the few people traveling through a small airport in a relatively remote part of Michigan, when up walks a shaggy, sleep-deprived guy in torn jeans, sporting a bright nose ring and a look in his eyes of unparalleled paranoia. A bristle-headed companion stands by in a worn, black leather jacket, cooly staring you down.

The first guy says, “Motherfucking do you have a quarter?” While you have no way of knowing how hard it is for him to start a sentence with a D — like trying to pick up a house of cards; even using both hands does not help — you can imagine it being hard to be sympathetic.

You can imagine not giving him a quarter.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Andy. “I can’t believe how old this place is.”

Something sparked in my mind. I began digging through my backpack.

“How old would you say this place is?” I asked.

“Green-shag-carpet old. Dark-wood-paneling old.”

I pulled free a device, grinning so hard that it hurt.

“Fucking watch this,” I said, not only because starting to talk with a W-sound was like buying a first-class ticket to Porky-Pig land, but because, well, fucking watch this.

The thing I held up to the pay phone receiver was an Apple Newton, which looked like this:


As far as I knew at the time, it was the most powerful portable computer in the world. Even though I was nearly always broke, when Jim McCoy heard that Apple was releasing a special, small batch of this new, incredible hardware in transparent plastic, he let me know. He and I and another io.com guy each bought one, making the three of us the only people we knew who had Newtons, and so even with the terrible press that the first device had gotten we were the only people we knew who understood how awesome its newest incarnation had become.

Because there wasn’t a lot of software for them at the time, we’d share whatever software we came across. Through the usual secret three-way-handshakes and esoteric quote exchanging, Jim and I came to understand that we shared a specific background. One day, he’d buzzed my office.

“I got a new piece of Newton software,” he said. “It makes Red Box tones — that mean anything to you?”

I blurted, “Can I have a copy?”

That’s why a few months later, in Holland, Michigan — which was so far behind the times that the phone company had probably not updated their infrastructure in well over fifteen years, I was able to hold my Newton up to the phone receiver and tap an image of a quarter, which triggered the device to make a series of high-pitched “budda-dudda-dink” noises.

“What are you doing?” Andy asked, glancing around to check if we were being watched.

“What’s the number?”

He gave me the number. I told the printer rep that we were at the airport. She said she’d send someone right over.

Walking to the airport exit, Andy whispered, “Holy shit, dude. What did you just do?”

“Magic,” I said.

Going to California

Making Magic — 15

Soon, September passed by. It was no longer Summer though, situated as we were in the middle of Texas, still the heat would not relent. I was working 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

I spent a lot of my time with Steve.

“No,” he said one day. “I don’t want to see any more of this?”

“Any more of what?” I was really confused. We were looking at an abstract design for a computer-centric cards. One of the secret societies was called The Network, so naturally we had a lot of technology touch points in the game as well, and I’d painted it up in shades of green.

“No,” he said, turning away from the screen. “I don’t want to see any more green.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“If it’s not something like a tree,” he said, counting exceptions off one finger at a time, “or grass, or money, or an Army uniform — something that is supposed to be green — don’t use green. It’s a dull color. Stop it.”

“Why?” I asked, and when his shoulders tensed, I almost wished I hadn’t.

“When I was in school,” he said, “a long time ago, I had to read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.”

“Sure — all American school kids have to.”

“And the author described rotting wounds on the battlefield as green.” He shuddered. “It’s stuck with me. So I don’t want us to use anything green here. Please.”

“That’s—” I started.

Steve caught me in a strong stare. “Please,” he said.

I sighed. “I’ll tell the guys: no green from here on out.” I turned back to the computer. “As long as we still have red and blue to work with.”

“Thank you.”

Life went on like that, more or less, for nearly two months, in a blur of dark air-conditioned rooms, take-out meals, and computer-colored artwork reviews with Steve, peppered by the occasional playtest.

Pushing a mouse to color artwork for more than 80 hours a week — week after week — will do something to your brain. When the artwork you’re coloring is an extended vision of the power structures of the world and icons of your age and paranoid delusions, it’s possible to create in your mind a perspective that never before existed and may never should have.

The eye in the pyramid goes back at least as far as Ancient Egypt. In America, it most famously appears on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill, though because it’s also been used for hundreds of years by the Freemasons, and it’s commonly believed that many of the Founding Fathers were brother Masons, some see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the buck as a wink to the conspiracy that was the true force behind the birth of that new democracy.

The strength of the symbol is its simplicity. It’s a triangle with a circle in it — that’s all. It makes a perfect seed for paranoia because it takes two of the most simple shapes and produces something that crosses the lowest threshold of what our brains consider to be an actual signal against the noise of randomness around us. It’s a trick, exploiting the limits of our lowest levels of cognition to find a way into our minds. It’s a hack, bringing along whatever you attach to the symbol and giving it a stronger cognitive presence than the payload might have otherwise.

Every piece of art in Illuminati: New World Order has an eye in the pyramid in it, somewhere. Sometimes it had been spec’ed for the art, often I had to add it. In reviewing the art, Steve and I sometimes found even better places for them. It was fun. I spent essentially countless hours running a virtual brush along inked lines, watching as the forms abstracted out into their fundamental geometries: adding a subtle eye to a triangle that seemed to be begging for one, or adding acute angles in the shading to create a slanted cone behind a circular form.

What little walking around I did outside the office only made it clear to me how far gone I was. The eye in the pyramid was everywhere, when you were looking for it. The only pleasures I allowed myself were music and driving and comic books. The local comic book stores had begun selling collectible card games, given that everyone was buying them, so taking a break to walk around Dragon’s Lair or Austin Books was like walking through a story of economy and commerce that I was at that time myself living. The feedback loop was focusing in some ways, but in other ways not.

I stopped showering every day. I shaved rarely. I hadn’t had a haircut in months. I used to let the TV news run in my apartment, all the time, but by that point in the production I had to keep it off or my mind’s noise amplification would create too much signal. I even found myself struggling to avoid reading tabloid headlines at convenience stores.

There were secrets in the world, and if someone wasn’t going to tell me what they were, I was going to figure them out myself. I saw conspiracy everywhere, and it wasn’t just me. A lot of us were becoming similarly afflicted, one way or another, which only seemed to make the game deeper. A few of the things that bounced out of our heads in that time strike some people as eerily prescient today, like the card that shows the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers, cropped closely, with one tower exploding from its middle.


All I can say is that everything we put in the game seemed very plain to us at the time. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable explanation given that I had become delusionally paranoid.

A Street Gang, controlled by the Mafia, attacked the Game Developer. The Local Police, controlled by the Servants of Cthulhu, attacked to destroy a Street Gang, causing it to lose its Safe House. The Archeologists, controlled by the Discordians, took over the Safe House, sharing its protection with the Game Developer. The Mafia attacked the Safe House, but George the Janitor, controlled by the Local Police, blocked the attack.

It all made sense, in a fragile sort of way. And while I was dropping card art into the layout, it struck me that the cyberspace I’d long anticipated, that I yearned for, had come true in the form of modern design tools. Those geometric abstractions of pictures and text and boxes that I’d spent days creating and flying over, and which I still struggled to control, described a virtual reality of locations and people and forces which had been designed for the sole purpose of fighting it out with one another.

I decided I’d been in cyberspace for years, and never even realized it.

All the fears that had welled up in my head for so long were wrung out into that production, and all the pieces that my paranoia put together culminated in an last, fevered round of color correction and art tweaking. The artists themselves, the illustrators, were beginning to feel exhausted, though we were close enough to the end that it didn’t seem to matter. We had what we needed to be successful. It didn’t take the whole two months for Rick to develop into a Photoshop powerhouse, and Jeff was turning in work that I not only didn’t have to touch up, but which I knew was better than the job I’d have done on the same thing. He was more than good enough, by then. He’d developed a genuine skill there, and in the darkness of my office it was impressive.

I wasn’t alone in those last weeks. Steve was there with me, and he looked close to as worn out as I felt. We spent an hour or two every day reviewing art, tweaking it there — between getting faster with the tools than I thought possible and lowering my standards slightly, I was often able to get Steve to sign off on a card at first glance by making quick changes right there in front of him. He’d rap on my war-surplus metal desktop that a piece of colored art was now good and we’d move on to the next.

One day, I don’t remember why, I stumbled out of my office. It was late, probably close to midnight if not past it — Steve regularly stayed in the office until at least two in the morning — and we were the only two people in the building.

“How did it happen?” I asked him.

He pushed himself back from his desk, squinted his eyes, and shook his head.

“How did what happen?” he asked.

Illuminati,” I said. “Ogre was your first baby, though — taking nothing away from how awesome it is — it’s kind of taking something that already existed to its logical conclusion. And GURPS is taking the point-balanced role-playing game and doing it right. You have this real knack for taking things that already exist and making them better — much, much better. But Illuminati is its own thing. I’ve never seen anything else like it. You’ve done some genius-level stuff, no doubt, but where did Illuminati come from?”

“It just came to me,” he said quietly. “I was driving down the road, back from a friend’s house, one of those long country roads out here, and—” He looked up with a widening smile, as if the heavens were opening before him. “I could see it laid out before me. I pulled off to the side of the road and I immediately began taking notes. And that was Illuminati.”

I don’t know if what he said was true, but it felt true.

The next night, not a week before I’d ship the game to the printer, Steve caught my eye walking past my office. I don’t know why I’d left my door open.

With no introduction, he said, “I’m color-blind.”

I’d like to think I made no response. “Not badly,” he quickly followed, “not in a terrible way. I can see color just fine, just a little less so than some people. So things look better when they’ve been pumped up a little.” He frowned. “I probably should have told you that earlier.”

“It would have made things easier,” I said.

The next morning I showered and shaved and I arrived early, where again Andy was kicking boards in half up in the rotting stable. Wordlessly I joined him, knocking down posts, busting open a knuckle on a too-thick board, working up a sweat.

“Good morning,” he said. It was the end of October.

I shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “But we’re almost done.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.” Andy waited for me to say more. “You know the story about the caterpillar and the, I don’t know, some other bug?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The other bug asks the caterpillar, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of legs, how do you even coordinate them all? How you even walk at all?’ So the caterpillar thought about it, and after that he was never able to walk again.”

“That’s fucking depressing.”

I checked my mind. Somehow, it was quiet. It was mostly empty, in order, like it hadn’t been in a very long time.

“What I’m saying is that I’m not thinking any more about how I’m walking,” I said. “So I feel okay. I don’t know why, but I’m not going to question it.”

He laughed. “Well, keep on walking, man. We’re flying to Michigan for a press check in less than two weeks.”

“It’ll be fine,” I told him. “Don’t be afraid.”

Going to California

Making Magic — 13

In the early days of a project, even a rush project like Illuminati: New World Order, it’s easy to feel like you have plenty of time and to avoid letting the stress drive you, that all you have to do is work patiently and deliberately, day after day, and everything will come together. As I began to show off the early card and box designs, it was clear that we would not have the luxury of a quiet period at the beginning of our efforts.

“Is that really going to work?” asked Steve, squinting at the design.

“I think it can,” I said. The group cards, for example, had a red, lightly textured background, the card name in gold along the top with drop-shadows and a few highlights throughout the design. “My only worry is that the drop-shadows may need too much manual tweaking.” With today’s tools, it would be easy to get the effect right. In 1994, it would take a lot of manual manipulation, with no guarantee that it was perfect before the first proofs arrived.

Still, I did like the effect. It gave the cards some depth. They even looked a little fleshy, in an enjoyable way. If I’d taken the time to experiment for a couple of hours, or even simply just thought about it a bit more, I probably could’ve made it work, but —

“Then drop it,” Steve said. “And this looks flat somehow. Can you make it pop more, like this one?” The new Illuminati would have a ton of special cards, which I’d given blue backgrounds to clearly separate them from the groups. The blue was richer and deeper than the red, that was for sure, as the groups would be laid out on the table most of the time while the special cards would  be played and discarded, so it made sense that the group cards should be less garish, allowing their card art to pop out more.

I began to explain this to Steve.

“There’s no time to get anything any more right,” he said. “Just make some of these changes, and let’s keep going. Have you looked over my list of card art ideas yet?”

I had not.

“Do so,” he said. “I’m sending them out to the artists tonight.”

Just like we had three colorists on our end, we had three artists ready to draw art for the cards. The idea was that their black-and-white line art would show up in the mail — FedEx, really — at least once a week, giving us more than enough to do for that week. They simply needed to be told what to draw and ink.

I looked over Steve’s list of card names and art ideas. Some of them were obvious and needed little description — the Bill Clinton card didn’t need a lot of text — and some of them were obvious but needed a lot of text — the art spec for the National Security Agency’s card described a guy with headphones and an old reel-to-reel recorder, crouched outside a bedroom window on which you could see a silhouette of lovers embracing. I only took a few hours working on the list; the art specs were mostly either great, or good enough, or so specific and idiosyncratic that Steve would not listen to any criticism.

For example, the George Bush card — this was Bush the elder — had to show the man with a piece of broccoli on a plate, because evidently he’d said at one time that he’d never liked the stuff and that as President he wasn’t going to eat it any more. As a total media junkie from that era, I was surprised that I’d never heard that quote, and not at all surprised when I couldn’t find anyone else who could recall having heard the joke. But Steve thought it was the line that best summed up our 41st President, so that’s why the card shows the man with a piece of steamed broccoli on a plate.

For all the weird, personal references that Steve insisted on hanging on to, we found many more cool bits of art to slip in. As it’d be at least a week before the first bundles of art began arriving, Jeff and I spent a couple of days going over our recent publications, books and magazines, and pulling out interesting art that either immediately jumped out at us as an embodiment of one or more concepts in the game, or could simply be colored really well, or hopefully both. With Rick and his girlfriend having just arrived in town, it was time get him up to speed, and fast, and this batch of fifteen or so pieces of existing art would be great practice.

The first playtest made a lot things very clear, though.

Going to California

Making Magic — 12.5

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

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

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

“I don’t know Photoshop,” he said.

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

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

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

“Are…you sure?”

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

“He did this?” Steve asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve nodded. “When can he get here?”

“A few days.”

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

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

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

“What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Plastic? Really?”

Steve stood in the door of Andy’s office.

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

“Really?” Jeff asked.

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

This was serious.

Going to California

Making Magic — 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve nodded, smiling, eyes closed.

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

“I have a couple of artists lined up.”

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

“I know.”

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

“Presuming no burn-out.”

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

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

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

Going to California

Making Magic — 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how is that even happening?”

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

“I think you’re right,” I said.

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

“How many cards, about?”

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

“Can we do it?” he asked.

“How long do we have?”

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

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

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

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

Going to California

Making Magic — 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see why not.”

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

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

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

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

“Aw, really?” the first woman asked.

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

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

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

“Like what?”

“Well, I made a really interesting character.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No time like the present.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In how long?”

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

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

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

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