The Soul Cage




Part 1 - The First Taste - 1980

I was nine years old, a curious kid who loved cartoons and fairy tales and games and books when other boys my age were discovering sports and beating each other up. I was going to a private school run by my church. My principal, Louis Hubbard, took a shine to me and my sister and invited us over to his house.

He owned a TRS-80 Model 1 - the first computer I ever touched. I didn't have much time on it that session, all I did was type in a few PRINT statements.

Later, he managed to purchase a TRS-80 Model 3 for the school. I puttered, doing a few interesting things on the display, but was losing interest and probably would have found another hobby if Mr. Hubbard (God bless his soul, wherever it is) hadn't handed me the book Basic Computer Games by David H. Ahl. Reading through the books and the code listings was like being hit by several bolts of lightning - computers could play games! Cool!

I spent most of my subsequent free time at school programming that thing - working with the clunky graphics and lack of sound to create clones of the Pac-Man and Popeye arcade games. This was all in BASIC, of course - I didn't even know other programming languages existed.

It was around this time - when I was ten years old - that I decided I wanted to write computer games for a living. I started reading all the computer books and magazines at the library, but there was precious little information about what I wanted to do - use the computer to play games.

I was able to gain experience on various computers like the Apple II and Commodore 64 over the next few years, but every game I played merely inspired the internal response "I can do better..."


Part II - ULTIMA - 1987

I had my first encounter with Origin Systems in my sophomore year of high school, when a guy I didn't even know handed me a copy of Ultima III. He knew I was into computers and games, and thought I might like to try it.

Gosh, was he right (and he's still a good friend of mine today). Just reading through the manuals of Ultima III and IV was a treat, and when I finally got to try them (on my friend's Commodore 64) I realized that these were deep games - something I didn't even know could exist. Sosaria and Britannia unfolded before me and I willingly immersed myself. I was amazed at how strongly playing those games affected me.

I decided then that I not only did I want to write computer games for a living, I wanted to do it for Origin Systems, and I wanted to work on an Ultima. At this point, I had access to an IBM clone called a Tandy 1000 - I was fortunate that the schools had purchased the same type of computer my parents did so I could work on my programs at home and at school.

I did all kinds of stuff. Found ways to make cool music on the Tandy using the four-voice chip it employed. I wrote a custom routine for that chip to create different instruments (which the chip didn't natively support). I then hand-digitized two movements of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite by ear - I had no sheet music and wouldn't have been able to read it if I'd had it. I created scrolling maps of worlds and towns that could be walked around in - and did Ultima IV one better by including pretty tiled roofs on the houses that disappeared when you stepped over the threshold. Even got a 3D maze going with walls that got lighter and darker as you moved around. Created about 14 different D&D character generator programs (I'd finish one and my friend would hand me the next book of rules he wanted in the next version). I was happy as a pig in shit, and thought I had what it took.

I got into college and got some experience on more powerful computers - but I was still using BASIC for everything. I started designing a system that would have allowed me to recreate every tile-based RPG I'd ever played without having to program - I called it G.A.M.E.S. for Graphic Adventure Maker's Equipment Set.


Part III - Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes - 1990

Then something happened that kind of derailed my entire life. My family moved from my native central Georgia to Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I took a year off from college to work full-time at two fast food jobs to build up some money so I could pay for additional schooling. The Tandy was now outdated and wouldn't run anything I wanted to play, so I couldn't play any of the new games coming out that year (including Ultima VI, which hurt).

So I would regularly walk down to the local Waldenbooks and buy every computer game mag they had and read them voraciously. And then, one day I walked into Waldenbooks and noticed a little orange book on the bottom shelf of the Games section - The Official Book of Ultima, by Shay Addams.

I looked at that book for a full five minutes before I thought it might be real. I immediately fell on it and devoured it - there was a point when I could have quoted passages of that book to you. I read with special interest the sections that talked about the making of Ultima VI, and started designing again - just on paper, of course, since I didn't have a computer to program on.

I finally managed to get back to college - and discovered the 386 and the Sound Blaster card! I purchased copies of Ultima VI and Savage Empire to play on the school computers and just had a blast.

Too big of a blast...I would go to a class, answer "here" to the roll call, and slip out to the computer lab to play some more Ultima. None of my classes had anything to do with what I wanted to do, so I had a very hard time keeping interest in them.

I look back on those two years and see a different person - a selfish, irresponsible person. I was still living with my parents, and was either working two jobs or going to school and working one job. I passed the point of burnout and kept going at full speed - I didn't even know what burnout was back then. The only joy I got out of my life was in my games and the dream of making them myself...I spent money like water at arcades and restaurants, so that even though I'd made about $4000 total in that year, I didn't have anything to show for it besides my college tuition, and I was going to flunk. Bad. I didn't have a car, and I didn't even have enough money to enroll in college again - I only had about $600 left.

So I left. I left home with my $600 and went to Austin, Texas, the home of Origin Systems.

I'm not going to give ya'll the details of my initial life here in Austin - needless to say I had a very tough time of it and learned a lot of painful lessons. So we'll skip ahead a few years to...


Part IV - I Go To Origin - October, 1995

I'm now married to a wonderful woman. I now have a beautiful little baby girl who is about a year old. I'm working for Motorola as a chip tester - my first non-fast food job.

My wife, who has always known about my dream/obsession, tells me that she knows someone in the HR department of Origin, and asks if I want her to talk to this person for me.

My wife had asked me this before, and I'd always told her no - I wanted to do this on my own merits. But this time, I succumbed to temptation. My wife talked to her friend, who got me an interview with two ladies who were supervisors in the QA/Tech Support department.

On October 15th, I went to the interview. I smashed it. All of my interviews should be so good. It was obvious that I was telling these ladies exactly what they wanted to hear - that I was very familiar with both the technical and the play aspects of Origin games. And every word I spoke was the truth.

We wrapped up the interview and I headed out, feeling more alive than I ever had in my life. After all this time, the thought entered my head that I might get my dream - it was more than I ever deserved.

I got home and walked through the front door - to find my wife on the phone with the two ladies I had just interviewed with. I was hired! They had wanted to hire me on the spot, but it was against company policy! Needless to say, it was one of the happiest days of my life. They mentioned that I would have to stay in QA for 18 months before I could transfer to another depart, but I didn't care. The dream was fulfilled. The story was over. Only glory lay ahead. Or so I thought.

Once at Origin, I quickly learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I had expected this - after all, I'd had no experience doing this type of job. There were several Origin games that I'd never touched and I'd never used the internet before. And it took them six weeks to get me a computer...

Another thing that shocked me was how little my fellow Originites knew about the history of Origin and the very games they were pledged to support. I didn't expect them to be as obsessive as I was, but didn't they know they had the best jobs in the world?

But I was happy. I sat in my corner cube and answered the phone and looked up answers I didn't know in books and bugged everybody else for clues when the answers weren't in the books. All while looking out onto one of the most incredible views in Texas.

And then things started to happen...things I would have expected in Dilbert, not at Origin. One of the supervisors left under odd circumstances that were never explained. My cohort on the hint lines had personal photographs stolen out of her cube. People would lose their jobs, no one would know why. The monthly happy hours slowly faded away, to be replaced eventually with sessions where management tried to tell us how hard a year we were having and why things would have to change soon.

And change they did. Brute Force Productions got the axe en masse - the rumor was that they had missed every deadline they had been presented with. Bioforge Plus was killed as a result.

Right around this time, I was taken aside by a supervisor and asked what I'd rather test - Ultima Online or Ultima 9. I pondered for a while - this was obviously a fateful choice. But while Ultima Online interested me, my dream was to work on a real Ultima, so I picked Ultima 9.

Then came Christmas 1996 - another producer group, Technosaur, gone. Only this time we couldn't understand why - they had been working on a cool project using a hot technology and had been making their deadlines. But right before Christmas they were all handed pink slips. We in QA especially felt their pain because Technosaur had mostly been staffed by people who had worked in QA and then moved up.

I learned the Millionaire's Fear. I was so afraid that I would lose my job that I became unable to enjoy it or even do it very well. At this point I was testing Crusader PSX, which I enjoyed...we got the game out the door on schedule for Christmas. But Marketing didn't think the game would do well, and so didn't put much effort into marketing it. Guess what - the game didn't do well. My wife enjoyed it, though.

At this point, Marketing pretty much ruled Origin. The company had been losing money for about a year now due to years of mismanagement, and the desparate need for cash gave the Marketing department a lot of leverage - "Just get this out the door, we'll sell it for you and get our money back". Unfortunately, this caused several products to go out before they were ready - the most notable being Privateer II. Disgruntled customers do NOT spend money and the situation was worsened, not bettered (as anybody with two brain cells to rub together could have anticipated).

We couldn't get the sales, so we had to cut back - and every department had to cut someone. And so, on March 10, four days after my birthday and only a few weeks shy of my 18 months, I was brought into the supervisor's office and told that today would be my last day.

I was stunned, but not surprised. I went back to my desk, cleared out my things, wrote a fairwell email to everyone, and walked out the door. I wasn't the only one. About 20 of us got the axe that day. When we got together later, we discovered that the only things we all had in common was that we were all salaried, but hadn't been permanent for a year yet. None of the Ultima Online testers had been cut.


Part 5 - Lament - 1999

My time at Origin was not the experience I was looking for. But now I realize that the experience I was looking for couldn't possibly have been provided by that company. I was still thinking of Origin as the small, close-knit, creative orgainization I had read about in the Official Book when in the meantime Origin had become a large monolithic organization that was directly responsible to a larger, even more monolithic company hovering directly overhead. How can such a company provide a good working experience for any employee?

Since then, I've kept in touch with several of my friends who survived that black day. Origin survives, having cut back to their core of Wing Commanders and Jane's games. These games have been very good and sold very well - but the creative element of Origin appears to be gone.


Part 6 - The Wake - 2001

Since I left Origin, very little good has been allowed to come out of it. All single player games were cancelled. Privateer Online, a game that could have revoluntionized the industry and finally given me a MMORPG I could get into, was cancelled and everyone on it was laid off. (They pretty much marched over to Verant en masse and said "Here we are!" and are working on Star Wars Galaxies now.) Electronic Arts seemed intent on relegating Origin to a mere "maintain Ultima Online" role.

On Monday, March 26, they got their wish. Origin's last new project, Ultima Online 2, was cancelled and everyone on it, almost a hundred people, were laid off. All that remains at Origin now is about 20 people whose task is, you guessed it, to maintain Ultima Online.

So on Wednesday, March 28, Richard Garriott called for an Origin Wake. Everyone who had ever worked at Origin was invited to attend. We all went down to his lakefront property and piled up the UO2 documentation (the resulting pile was nine feet tall) and set it on fire. Then we milled around, drinking and talking for a few hours.

It was wonderfully cathartic. I got to see a whole bunch of people I remembered very fondly from Origin but hadn't kept track of socially. There was a sense of finality, of closure in the air.

And Richard made up some wonderful T-shirts. They read "Origin Systems, 1983-2001. We Created Worlds."

And that's all I have to say about that.