One Saturday night in December 1995, my wife and I were shopping for computer games as Christmas gifts. The PC game industry was still robust then, and the aisle was brimming with new games. I was moping about my inability to escape from the MoS into publishing. I commented to Anne that what I really needed to do was get a job playing computer games.
The next day’s classifieds included a small ad headlined “Make a Living Playing Computer Games”. Sierra On-Line, one of the major publishers, was hiring game testers. That was as clear a sign as I’ve ever seen. I applied the next day, despite Anne’s caution that the career potential was equivalent to stuffing envelopes at home. Impressions Games hired me before the week was out, and I started my new career in January 1996, at age 39.
It was a good move. I had no formal training in computers. I was still using a 486 running MS-DOS, having turned up my nose at Windows 3.x. With this new career facing me, I immediately bought a Pentium 120 with Windows 95 and taught myself to use it. I would remain behind the tech curve for the next several years.
The PC game industry turned out to be lucrative and challenging. I worked as a tester, lead tester, writer, associate producer, and finally producer, and then later on as a writer again. We mostly made historical strategy games aimed at brainy adults – exactly the kind of games I like to play. My salary soon caught up and surpassed my meager bookselling income; with bonuses, I nearly tripled my income.
You’d think that the game industry would be a lot of fun. It was not. It was a sweatshop. The hours were grueling and the burnout rate was high, due in small part to bad management, and in larger part to the computer industry’s feudal structure. As proud as I was of our finished products, the process of making them was highly unpleasant. Although Impressions was successful, the corporate masters (Sierra and its owners) were not, and they put the squeeze on us. It became obvious that the company was doomed by corporate incompetence. So it was with great relief that I took a layoff with generous severance in early 2002. I’d never been laid off from a job before, but it seemed to be all the rage in 2002.
Thus began a period of instability. My erratic work life featured more layoffs and failed companies and bouts of unemployment between 2002 and 2005. It didn’t take long to exhaust the very limited PC game employment options in New England. The unstable PC game industry did not inspire sufficient confidence to move elsewhere to take a job. And so I found myself once again contemplating a career change.
I’d been doing a bit of freelance writing and editing, so that was my focus. It gradually became apparent that a white male of my age would never break into publishing without either considerably more education or an inside line on a job. I was unenthusiastic about it anyway. In fact, I really wasn’t much interested in returning to office work at all.
Then my mother died. I inherited some money. Not a lot, but enough to change the direction of my life.
Next: Curio City is born