So, after almost four years of working at Origin Systems.. before, during and after the EA buyout, the inevitable layoffs came around. I was let go in the first round of what came to be known as "the night of the long knives."
It was horrible.
Because of the intensity with which we worked and the demands of the company that we employees make the company our life.. when they let people go they didn't just let them go. They demonized them... I guess this had to be done by the managers and the teams to convince themselves it was OK to lay off someone who had essentially become a family member. I guess in some way they had to convince themselves you were "unworthy" of being in the family any longer. And while I was laid off.. not fired... the accusations were quite cruel and quite false.
Once you were let go, it was a bit like being "shunned" in the old religious sense of the world. The doors just shut on you and that close, tight family you had been a part of for so many hours and days .. all closed ranks against you.... ceased communicating with you completely.
I'll never forget my first day of being unemployed. I got up as usual. Put the dogs out. Showered. Got dressed.... and then sat on the side of my bed. I was numb. I finally called my friend, Tim, who was still at Origin and all I could say through the tears was, "What am I supposed to do now?" For almost four years my time had been completely filled with Origin. With that gone, I was adrift. For the first time in my entire life I felt completely abandoned. It was incredibly difficult.
I left my "Origin Star Performer" badge I had just been awarded the previous quarter taped to my white board.
For the next nine months I was unemployed. I worked a string of temp jobs just to keep the roof over my head. Just a couple weeks before being let go I had closed on a little house in Cedar Park so I had a house payment to make. It was not a pretty time. But I skrimped and saved and put enough together to buy a ticket to GDC that year and worked as a volunteer cuz no way I could afford the ticket to get in. There I had two interviews, one with American Laser Games and the other with a little company called Square Soft.
They both offered me jobs as a producer and after much consideration I took the job with American Laser Games as they told me they were about to open up a division called Her Interactive to concentrate on making games for girls. (Yes.. I often wonder what my career would be like if I had taken the Square Soft job instead!)
American Laser Games told me they had a girls title named McKenzie & CO they'd had in production for full year and just needed me to come in to get it out the door for Christmas. Sounded good to me so I arrived on JUne 1, all ready to dive in.
THAT'S when the first surprise came.
I walked in the door the first day and was handed a big box with about 10 reels of shot movie film and a big three ring binder with a shooting script in it.
"Here it is," said my boss. "You just need to make a game out of it."
ME: Ummmm.... where's the code?
Her: Oh.. there's no code.
Me: Ummm.. where the design document?
Her: Oh... there's no design document
Me: Ummm.. how am I supposed to know what goes where and what this is?
Her: Oh.. see that guy there? (points to a fellow in a cube) He's the only one who really kind of has an idea of that. Oh.. and he applied for your job but we turned him down.. and demoted him too.
Me: -- blink --
Her: OH.. and it has to ship in Nov 1.
Me: OK.. so.. it's June 1... that means we have to beta October 1.. alpha Sept 1.. that gives us three months to do this... right.. *sigh*
And so I began the third worst crunch of my career. (Ultima VIII being the second worst crunch)
The execs started trying to get someone.. ANYONE to be willing to serve on the team. Unbeknownst to me, this project was a snake pit that NO ONE wanted to be involved with. But.. with some cajoling and pleading we finally got a team put together, albeit a reluctant one.
Our first task was to identify what we were gonna write the silly thing in. After a very short debate, we decided to use Director. We ended up making Director stand on its head and whistle dixie... we had it doing things it was NEVER intended to do. My programmers performed what I can only describe as pure magic with that program!
At the same time, I started by going through the shooting script and just trying to figure out what exactly they intended to do with each scene. I had scores and scores of flow charts taped up all over my cube. It was just nuts. Time and time again I'd run into a situation where I had one branch of a decision tree figured out, but there didn't seem to be another branch. So I'd go to the fellow who's job I'd taken and ask him. He'd lean back in his chair.. laugh .. and then shrug his shoulders and say, "Mmm.. don't think we shot anything for that."
What I found was, in a lot of the decisions in the game, only what the founder felt was the "correct" decision for the player to make had been filmed. For instance, at one point the player was asked by her grandmother to help with a charity bake sale. A couple of scenes later, the player is asked to go to a party with her friends that happens to be at the same time as the bake sale. The player was presented with a choice... go to the party or help with the bake sale. The problem was... only the scene where she went to help her grandmother was filmed. There was nothing filmed for if she made the decision to go to the party! Sooo.. I had to either delete the decision points or figure out a way to have a decision point. It was a very trying and difficult process.
Then I had the problem of trying to explain to a fairly green team how the scenes needed to go togather. At one point.. I printed out the scene number and a brief description for each scene on individual pieces of 8X11 pieces of paper.. which I then taped to the wall .. and used different colored yarn to show how they all connected.
We spent the next three months in 6 day a week crunch getting it out. And that's when I found out my boss wasn't exactly.... stable.
Here's an example:
One day she showed up in my office and told me she'd figured me out. I was intending to take over the company from her. That I was an egotistical bitch who had an agenda to overthrow her and take the company from her. Needless to say I was a bit flabbergasted by this but managed to get her out of my cube and just wrote it off as her being in one of her "moods" again.
She showed up later that day.. apologizing and telling me she was sorry she was such a bitch to work with.
The next day she showed up in my daily team meeting and repeated the accusations again .. in front of my team. Then... after lunch that day I arrived in my cube to find a card stuck in my keyboard. It was one of those cheesy motivational cards with an eagle on the cover and inside said "Together we can fly" with a long rambling hand written message about how with me leading the project we couldn't fail and were going to do such great things.
The next day she called me again.. and for 45 min went on about how I was trying to steal the company from her.. and finally devolved into that she thought I was trying to steal her husband from her too. The leader of one of the other teams walked by my cube several times during this looking at me with very worried eyes as I just sat.. listening in complete shock to the crazy insults and accusations. Finally I got her off the phone. Then at 4:30 that day I got another call from her. She asked what I was doing. I said I was still working through the script files. She asked me to come over to the administration offices immediately (they were across the street) So I did. As I got out of my car in the parking lot, she came out of the front door and tossed something to me. It was the keys to her Jaguar convertible. She told me she had made me an appointment with her personal massage therapist and that I was to take her car over there... because I had been working so hard that I really deserved this.
The very next week I got a frantic call from our audio engineer and composer. Seems that our boss had called him in late night on a Sunday and asked him to come in and play some of the music for the game for her.
Now *she* had chosen a musical group called The Strawberry Zots to do the music for the game and the idea was we were going to include a disc of theirs in the box along with the game (and a free makeup sample... but more on that later) However, she had heard something in one of the songs she didn't like.. so she called Gino in to play it for her. One of the songs had the following chorus in it:
I've got a little secret
I've got a little secret
A silly little secret that no body knows
She looked at Gino and said, "So what's the secret?"
Gino said, "I don't know... it's a secret."
She said, "Well.. we have to know. We have to know what the secret is!"
Gino said, "But..I don't know what it is."
So Patty had him find out who the songwriter was... and call him... in the UK... right then. Of course it was in the wee hours of the morning for the songwriter. But our boss asked him what the secret is.. and he said, "I don't know.. maybe she's going to leave her boyfriend?" And the boss got VERY upset. "We can't have that! We can't have anyone singing about breaking up in our game!" With that, she slammed the phone down and told Gino to rip out all the songs in the game.
Did I mention this was about three weeks to gold master? Yah... big fun.
Anyway.. more on the looney bin that was American Laser Games/Her Interactive in the early days when I post next time.
Thank you again for walking down this crazy path of 20 years in games!