Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From the outside looking in, just getting a job in the games industry seems like an impossibility. I think the game developers who entered the industry in the late 80s and early 90s are part of the reason for that perception. It seems like all of us have a crazy story about how we got our first gig. Hell, we use words like "gig" instead of job; like we're old touring artists who have seen it all and know all your troubles, because we've been there. Well, I'm probably not going to buck the trend with my own story, but hey -- it is sort of a crazy story, so you might enjoy it.
Partly, our crazy stories are because of the age of the industry at the time. The games industry felt like a frontier and the folks making video games were the hardy pioneers brave enough to go there first and blaze new trails. Most studios were small; I remember Ron Millar commenting in a 1998 PC Gamer Article that he left Blizzard because, "it was getting too big and corporate." I was employee 35 at Blizzard; I believe we had 70 or so people at the company when I left it myself in 1997. Just to compare it to today: When I lead the design team on Rift, it was 35 or so people -- our design team was as large as Blizzard itself was when I joined it. A smaller industry means a smaller number of gatekeepers and so maybe it really did take crazy brashness to get into it back then. Everything really was fast and loose. Or at least, it felt that way to me...
Part 1 - Mine is the standard QA story... sort of.
Like most of the nerdy kids of my generation I was fascinated with the personal computer. The platform didn't matter back then -- the idea of having your own little electric brain that was all yours, to with as you pleased, was itself still sort of novel. Most of us got our first computer in the 80s, back then. By 1989, I'd had 4 computers in my life: A TRS-80, an IBM PCjr, an Atari 520st and an XT clone my dad had built for me that I'd overclocked, upgraded and otherwise hacked until it was as fast it could be. I was the typical nerdy kid, in a lot of ways. I was also a blatant and notorious software pirate. A Leech, at that. I contributed content to the community and maybe I couriered a ware or two, but I wasn't a cracker or a supplier. I just knew everybody and I filled forums with posts, which kept people coming back. I don't mention this because I feel guilty about it, or because I'm proud of it. It's just that it'll come up again in a bit. You see, I had a really weird string of luck at the same time that turned knowing everyone in that scene into a way to work in the games industry, twice.
There's an interlude story that I might tell some day about how a kid I went to school with hired someone to kill for the same reason. (knowing everyone in the warez scene) I did mention it was a strange string of luck right? That doesn't necessary mean it was all good. That's a totally different story though and has very little to do with games, so let's get back on track: The first time piracy became a way into the game industry.
I ran a BBS at one point, back before the internet. It's part of why I knew all the pirates. Since BBSs were phone based, that also meant that your users were usually in your community. Hence, as part of running the BBS, I discovered that many of my fellow high school students, not just freshmen like me, were also my users. A sort of "meta-clique" formed where, even though it wouldn't affect our social standing, we would all talk about our "secret lives". despite what we might have thought would happen, this brought us all closer together. We sort of trusted each other. In the way characters on a soap like 90210 might trust eacher other: Let's not forget our common bond was that we had all committed felonies that only our being underage really saved us from, should they come to light.
One such individual was also connected to a local manufacturer of novel new laptops called "notebooks" which were light, small and generally pretty cool, if not a little wimpy compared to say a top of the line 386. That company was looking for a way to reach out to the community. I can only assume they had noted Apple's success at putting Macs in schools and thought they could reach out on the cheap. What they did was turn us teenage nerds into their QA and call us an example "teen entrepreneurial spirit." Since the most computer-savvy folks he knew were his fellow pirates, we became the teens in this little mentoring/PR exercise: A free focus group and QA team who had volunteered to do it.
It was pretty fun! We tested scanners and digital cameras before anyone had ever seen them and we got to play with notebooks before most folks had ever even heard the word in that context. It sort of shut down a year later, but I resurrected the idea with a couple of the other guys as a high school project that was part of the technical program I attended. That's when we said, "Screw it -- we all know games, why don't we try offering our services to them?" and transformed from a hardware QA group into a software group. Still a free focus group and test corps, we offered our services to every game company in the area... and since I lived in Orange County at the time, that was a lot of them. SSI and Interplay took us up on the offer. We tested the Bard's Tale Construct Set, SSI's Unlimited Adventures and Veil of Darkness. I remember playing the hell out of Flight of the Amazon Queen at the same time, but it was 20 years ago and maybe I just pirated it and used all the waking hours we weren't testing to play that, too. I wouldn't put it past me.
After graduation, we shut down again and I went to college. I kept in contact with my old testing/pirate buddies though and it wasn't long before we'd said "let's make our games!" Together with some pirates who didn't go to the same high school, we formed a little club/indie game studio. We made a lot of prototypes, but we never really seemed to finish anything. One thing we did do though, was tour a little company called Silicon & Synapse down in the Tustin/Costa Mesa area. One of my friends got a business card for one Allen Adham that somehow ended up in my hands. I tucked it away in my wallet and forgot about it for a year or two as I went about the business of being a college student.
Then it happened again!
Until the second time piracy offered me a shot at entering the game's industry. That one is actually a story that I tell pretty famously and it's one I've told a lot, so it's already out there. I'll spare you the massive retelling. In brief though: While a youngster in college, I kept pirating because I was really, really poor and had a really, really expensive hobby. One night, I pirated a game called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. It was this incredible real-time strategy game, like Dune 2, but fantasy based. After I tore through it like a starving man finding a twinkie, I realized it was made by the company we had toured -- the one that used to be Silicon & Synapse. I was so impressed that I dug out the fax software for my softmodem and sent them a fax, wherein I told them how great the game was, admitted I pirated itm asked why I couldn't find it in the store when I tried to make up for it by buying it and asked where could I go to buy it...
...Allen Adham, the owner of the company, called me the next morning at some ungodly hour (I think it was like 6 or 7 ) and explained: The game wasn't out yet. (D'oh!) He invited to come down and talk about it and when I got there, I realized it was a job interview. Which lead to a second. That lead to me joining Blizzard as a QA Tester and Technical Support Rep. I've been working on developing software in one form or another ever since, but most of that time has been spent in Video Games, my one true love.
Over the years, I've talked a lot about how working in the industry made me feel, or what tools and techniques I've used, but I've refrained from telling most of the stories I've amassed over the years. A couple of things have really brought the past back to mind for me though:
First, the team from my second gig, a tiny intrepid crew I left Blizzard to join in 1997, has started to get back together to put out the game we had originally intended to make. We're running a kickstarter right now, but a lot of the information that we've retooled from the original project that PC Gamer called "One of the few truly original ideas at E3" is up at the website. I decided that, funded or not, I'm totally in. It was an incredible project and one I'll never forget. I figure, if I was willing to give up 4 months of my life with no pay back then to try to get it published, why can't I give it something similar now, to actually resurrect it, modernize it and ship it? Wouldn't you go back and redo your first project, if you had the chance? I mean, it's been 15 years; we've all learned a lot. I'm dying to apply what I've learned!
But second, an old friend from Blizzard, Mr. Patrick Wyatt recently posted his blogs about StarCraft. I hadn't thought about that project in many years, but the memories and stories were all still there. When I mentioned it to him, Pat pointed out that I had a lot of stories of my own to tell and suggested I put them on a blog somewhere. (Which, hey, I have!)
I've kept from telling most of the stories I have because I've no desire to hurt anyone's feelings or to paint a picture that might hurt their futures in any way. I didn't want to name names... but as with my pirate friends in this story, why do I need to name names? It was just a lack of the right perspective; something that really is one the most common problems I've seen in my 17 year journey through this industry.
Maybe I'll tell a few stories to illustrate that, with the next posting.
Thanks for listening!