(Previous entries in this series can be found here.)
Following E3 in May of that same year, a handpicked team of Testers and I were making our final preparations to move out of Interplay’s Fitch building in Irvine, California to a temporary spot in what was only known to us as the Alton building. It was a couple miles down the street, and housed the OEM division that we were moving to. It also contained several development teams, which were still a nebulous, mysterious group of people that sat in dark offices lit only by the glow of their monitors and the occasional lava lamp.
I remember several of my coworkers from QA telling me that I was the luckiest person in the world to be moving away, having open access to the developers there. However, all I kept thinking about were my friends back at Fitch, and how I’d miss all of our daily banter.
Instant messaging was still in its infancy, so most communication was done through good old-fashioned land lines, pagers, and of course email. Interplay used the DOS version of cc:Mail, so if you were testing PC software — which was primarily DOS-based back then — you couldn’t check your email. Very few, if any of us in QA had dual monitors or more than one PC at our desks. This was long before the days of thin LCD monitors too, so just fitting more than a single screen on your desk was a challenge. There was always buzz around the department whenever someone would get a nice, new Sony Trinitron monitor, and that buzz would usually be tinged with more than a touch of jealousy. Me, I never liked them because of the aperture grille damping wires that I could never un-see.
Anyway, that summer we were off to the Alton building’s OEM division, a team that worked with developers and hardware manufacturers to create customized game software — usually demos that would show off specific features, such as hardware mipmapping and bilinear filtering on 3D accelerated video cards.
The four of us sat together in a long, skinny office where we started off testing many different versions of Parallax Software’s Descent. It got pretty mind-numbing after a short while, so we would often break up the monotony with sessions of Quake, which were a blast! One of my coworkers also discovered that playing Descent to the Chemical Brothers’ album Exit Planet Dust (especially the three “Beats” tracks) made it an almost transcendental experience. If you ever get the chance to try it out yourself, I highly recommend it.
Around that same time, I had posted something Final Fantasy VII-related on Interplay’s internal message board. I don’t remember what it was about, but it must have been controversial, because I almost immediately got an angry response from someone in Product Development (PD) ripping me a new one. I was like, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?” We sent a few emails back and forth to smooth things over, and before long, it became clear that I had a lot in common with this guy. Turns out he would become one of my best friends, educate me in the ways of import gaming culture, introduce me to the classic works of Hayao Miyazaki, and be a groomsman in my wedding twelve years later. He would also provide an “escape” for me of sorts from OEM later that year.
It’s important to note again that I was still very new to being a team manager of any kind. There wasn’t any training, so you had to somewhat fly by the seat of your pants, emulate other Leads who you thought were doing it the right way, and hopefully ask a lot of questions. I didn’t do a whole lot of the latter, only because I had this notion in my head that asking too many questions would make me look like I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the problem, though: I didn’t! Plus, I was young and thought I knew it all. These are such common mistakes for new managers, and they really bit me in the ass over the next few years.
We had since moved from our temporary spot in the Alton building to our new “campus” around the corner on Von Karman Ave. It wasn’t Microsoft or Google huge, but going from the cramped spaces we were all used to into three large buildings was a big deal for us. Plus, parking! There was never enough parking at the original Fitch building, and we would constantly hear people over the intercom asking double-parkers to move so that other employees could leave for lunch.
The Computer Dealers’ Exhibition (COMDEX) in Las Vegas — which I’ll talk about more specifically in another post — came and went that November, and we were all flying pretty high from it. However, one day the part of my brain that controls egotistical idiocy must have been on vacation. I had walked into my office after lunch to find another coworker lounging in my chair waiting to speak with me. Something about that really rubbed me the wrong way, and after he left, I thought I’d complain about it vehemently via IM with a friend of mine.
Little did I know that the guy who I was insulting saw everything I wrote. He had to do some work from my friend’s PC, and he saw everything as I sent it. It’s one of those moments that drains the blood out of you, and I sat frozen at my desk for the remainder of the afternoon. I was expecting that at any minute my boss would walk in and tell me to get out. I was expecting it and it was deserved. But it didn’t happen.
I did a lot of thinking that night and throughout the next couple days as well. I wondered if I should let it blow over, since nothing had come of it. Instead, I psyched myself up and went into my coworker’s office to apologize. You can’t take back words, but you can certainly ensure that it doesn’t happen again. We ended up having a really good conversation about our friendship, working relationship, and various frustrations we’d had that year. What I did was a horrible thing, and it was probably the most important lesson I learned early on: If something’s making you mad, walk away from it until you calm down, because nine times out of ten, you’ll end up doing something you regret.
I’d hit rock-bottom in other ways too. Simultaneously that year, a small group of us had been working directly with Interplay’s team overseas in Japan trying to secure and localize a number of console games. Attempt after attempt, and nothing ever materialized, which was frustrating. It exposed me to the process of pursuing licenses, and how difficult — sometimes impossible — it could be.
We pursued everything: Sakura Wars, Langrisser, Hermie Hopperhead, Tenchi Sozo / Terranigma, Keio Yugekitai, Tokimeki Memorial, you name it. 2010 was the first time Sakura Wars appeared in the US, if that says anything about the difficulties surrounding that one. I really thought we were going to be the next Working Designs, only bigger. Looking back, the market really worked against us: Sony didn’t want 2D games on the PlayStation, the Super Nintendo was old news, and the Saturn was more or less dead in the water here in the US. Focusing on import game localization wasn’t high on anyone’s priority list except ours, so with nothing to show for it but research material — namely some import games and a stack of Famitsu Weekly magazines — we pulled the plug and called it quits.
I was also terribly bored with my OEM Test Lead job, often wishing that I had stayed in QA where there was not only more variety, but I also really missed the more casual and fun atmosphere. At the same time I wondered what it would be like working in PD, even though I didn’t know what was really involved. It seemed cool, though, and since I still wanted to make games, I figured the timing was right.
At the tail end of 1996, I contacted my friend — the same guy who didn’t have kind words for me on the topic of Final Fantasy — to see if there was anything available. To my surprise, there was an open Line Producer position for an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons PC game! What’s a Line Producer? Who knows, but it sounded like a dream, so I accepted without question.
So, in early 1997, I packed up my things and moved over to the building next door. There was no application, no interview, no nothing. Basically, I got an email from the Producer saying, “See you on Monday!” What a different industry it was back then. It would be a move that proved to be highly rewarding and educational, but would also make me feel like an ignoramus among geniuses for that entire year on what was a very, very troubled project: Descent to Undermountain.