Nerd Cred, or, The Coolest Job Ever: #NaBloPoMo Day 4

In March 1999, I was wrapping up my senior year of high school in Houston, Texas. I had just won a creative writing scholarship to University of Houston. Writing and theatre were my life. That same month, EverQuest launched. It was a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, or MMORPG. It was preceded by Ultima Online, but it was pretty close to being the first MMO ever. The whole thing was brand new.

I didn’t even get my first computer until 1997, but right from the start I wanted one that could run the graphics on new games and such. I had already been online at my friend Tomas’ house (he also introduced me to LARPing and tabletop gaming. Thx, Tomas!), and from the moment I got my computer I was hooked. I lived in Yahoo chat rooms, mostly trolling people. Good times.

But I digress. I graduated high school and started at University of Houston. I met a boy on ICQ named Jase, and we quickly fell for each other. In what was probably one of my first major bipolar episodes, I rashly decided to drop out of college and move to New Orleans with him. Overnight I did it, and soon we were living on St. Charles in a tiny apartment, not too far out of the Quarter.

Jase was even nerdier than I was, and he was super into EverQuest from the very beginning. While I was working at the voodoo shop, he would play EQ and we would work on writing a comic book together. The comic book never got very far, but we made art, read books, and played games together and we were pretty happy. After we had moved back to Houston from New Orleans, I tried college again. Due to several factors, I wound up in a severe depression and dropped out again. At some point, Jase decided that I really needed to try EverQuest, too.

He bought me the game, and I started a Half Elf in Kelethin. This meant I could hardly see anything. I didn’t auto-attack my guild master, but I did fall off the platforms a few times before I found the lifts. The funniest thing was when I finally got down to try and kill some things. I had the speakers turned way up because I couldn’t believe how immersive the game was. I can’t even describe how magical it was. It was like everything fantasy had suddenly come to life. Anyway, I was immediately attacked by a black wolf, and the sound it made scared me so much that I fell out of my chair. Jase has NEVER let me live it down.

I quickly realized I was NOT meant to be a Half Elf, or a Wood Elf, or a High Elf. I was always meant to be a Dark Elf, and that is what  wound up playing for many years. I was hooked. EverQuest took over my life.

When Jase and I broke up, I wound up moving in with my grandmother. All I did was play, all day, every day. I had lost a few people that were very close to me, including an ex-boyfriend to murder and my grandfather to a completely random bout of pneumonia. My mother had moved to California, so it was just my grandmother and I in our grief. EverQuest gave me an outlet and I made so many friends.

There was a program within the game that let you volunteer to be a Guide to get a free account. That was super appealing, so I started doing that. I would spend 12-18 hours straight in the game, either playing or guiding. Being a guide back then involved answering petitions from players and helping out customer service a lot more than running quests and events. I was really good at it.

In the game I met my next boyfriend, Jeff. He moved out from California to be with me, and we got a small apartment in Houston. At that point I had no job, so I lived off a gas card. It was pretty much exactly like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites. It was a Shell card, and I’ve felt guilty ever since as my grandmother had to foot the bill for those months of non-work. Jeff and I didn’t do anything but play. We didn’t even have any furniture, just our computers on the floor.

Eventually, Jeff realized that this wasn’t a great way to live and if he stayed we would just continue, so he left. When he went back to California I was crushed. I didn’t want to burden my grandmother anymore (though in hindsight, she would have welcomed the company). I had no job, prospects, money, car, nothing. So one of my guide friends said I could come out and stay with him in Mesa, AZ. I had no other leads and it was closer to California, so I agreed.

I hated Arizona. The guy I was staying with was weird. I instantly realized I had made a huge mistake. Six weeks into it, ANOTHER guide friend of mine was moving across country to Iowa, so I hopped in his U-Haul one night with my bag and computer and split. Guess what? This guy was even weirder. I was immediately sexually harassed and intimidated and I was so scared that I called my mom. She instantly bought me a plane ticket to San Jose, CA, which is where she was living at the time. I was in Iowa about 3 days.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great time in my mother’s life and when I arrived in San Jose, she got arrested. I was staying at her place, and she just didn’t come home. The power got shut off a few days later because she hadn’t paid the bill. I panicked. I had no idea what to do. I finally got a note on the door from my mom’s boyfriend at the time, telling me she was in jail. I couldn’t bail her out or anything, so everyone was stuck.

Luckily, I was also good friends with the Guide Coordinator in the game. His name was James, and he was worried about me because I hadn’t been guiding as much. I broke down and told him about the creepy guys and my mom and how I was hungry and didn’t know what to do. He was my hero. James ordered me a pizza and paid for it from where he was in San Diego. Then he bought me a Greyhound ticket to San Diego. I arrived in July 2001, and never left.

James was so sweet that he talked his parents into letting me crash on their couch until I could get a job and a place. Then he got me a job interview at Sony Online Entertainment to work in their customer service department as a Game Master. I was so nervous that I 100% blew my first job interview there. I didn’t give up though, I kept calling and following up a few times a week. Finally I got a second interview, this time with Michelle Butler. I have no idea what she saw in me, but she hired me that day.

When I started at Sony, I didn’t have anything. I had showed up with my suitcase and computer, but I didn’t have any work-appropriate clothing. My first week there I was taken into an office and told that I had to dress more professionally. Considering what everyone else wore, in hindsight I’m a little shocked that this happened. At the time though, I was just embarrassed and used my first paycheck to buy some clothes.

I loved being a GM. I worked as a SWAT GM moving from server to server. Eventually I was the server GM for Sullon Zek, where I loved my players and tried my best to be fair on a server that had basically no rules. It was so much fun, and I was probably the happiest at my job during this time, before they started getting rid of server GMs and outsourcing customer service to other countries.

Eventually though, I wanted to do something more. I had inquired about moving into design several times when they suddenly announced that they would be offering limited design apprenticeships. I submitted some quests I had written and before I knew it, I was in a panel interview facing the entire design team. To date, I have not been through another interview as intimidating as that one was.

Again, I don’t know what they saw in me, but I was chosen along with Jonathan and Norm to be design apprentices. I worked hard and made it through and a few months later, I officially had the job title of Game Designer. Holy fucking shit!

My time on the EverQuest design team is simultaneously the best and worst time of my life. We all did the best we could with impossible deadlines and unforeseen problems. I don’t know anyone that worked on that game that didn’t love it, wasn’t passionate about it. I loved the fan faires, the players, writing and naming things, all of it. But the stress also drove me to drink. I made stupid decisions.

In particular, I had a really hard time with scripting. I even took a C/C++ class at Mesa while I was on the team in an attempt to understand it better. But I dropped out. It was too hard. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I’m a writer, not a coder. As the game evolved, more and more it relied on scripting to create dynamic events. I felt like I was falling further and further behind.

I slipped into a deep depression. This was the second major depression of my life. I drank almost every single night and wanted to die. I couldn’t handle the stress anymore, the feeling that everyone on the team thought I was stupid, the way everyone would go out together and not invite me. I thought it was me. In the years since I have spoken with many women in the tech industry that have had similar experiences of isolation at work. Once, a major VIP within the company asked me whose date I was. We were at a work holiday party, and I had been on the design team for years. He had no idea who I was.

I started to think something might be really wrong with me. I started missing deadlines at work. I couldn’t keep motivated. Even as I got handed more responsibility and creative freedom, I lost interest. I started to feel like I was putting a massive amount of energy, my entire life basically, into creating something that helped people hide from their lives. I also worried what would happen if I had a family, would I be working 50+ hours a week then? Not that I would ever have a family, my brain said. Depression lies, and I believed everything it told me.

I got so worried that I started seeing a psychologist. I should have gone to my doctor. I should have seen a psychiatrist and started taking medication. Had I done those things, I would have found out that I had Bipolar Disorder I. Maybe I’d still be making games. But I didn’t. Instead, I went to see a psychologist a few times, then I got fired.

It’s not surprising that I got fired. I had been missing deadlines and my work productivity had nose-dived. I would go to work and stare blankly at the screen for hours in a state of deep panic, before finally rushing and finishing something in a few hours. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. One day, I was in a design meeting with some co-workers, and I got pulled out. They fired me, and I had to clean out my desk immediately. I simply disappeared from the meeting and never returned. I was mortified.

But mostly I was relieved. It was over. I did a few phone interviews, but I was still depressed and it seemed like all the other companies wanted someone else. They wanted people that could script, or design systems, or with FPS experience. Everything I didn’t have and couldn’t do. Nobody wanted a writer, even one that had five years of design experience.

I probably would have been able to pull myself together eventually and gotten another game industry job, but I wanted to be as far away from games as I could. I had recently taken a few massage classes at night, and I decided to become a massage therapist instead. I threw myself wholeheartedly into school for that and never looked back.

I have so much love for my time as a video game designer. My world is certainly better for the people that I met during that time and the experiences that I had. Whenever I write fantasy, I am transported back to that time. Elves, orcs, and frogloks, oh my! I see a Keith Parkinson piece and burst into tears. EverQuest is a part of me, and it always will be.

Now that I have been out of the industry for nearly 10 years, I have a lot more compassion for who I used to be. I can remember the good times more than the bad. We were all so young, and worked so hard. I can only imagine what the game could have been if revenue hadn’t been such a major concern. But I try not to think about it too much. It’s nice to look back on the past, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Game Credits from Moby Games:

EverQuest: The Buried Sea (2007) (Game Designers)
EverQuest: Prophecy of Ro (2006) (Game Designers)
EverQuest: The Serpent’s Spine (2006) (Game Designer)
EverQuest: Depths of Darkhollow (2005) (Game Designers)
EverQuest: Gates of Discord (2004) (Game Designers)
EverQuest: Omens of War (2004) (Game Designers)
EverQuest: Lost Dungeons of Norrath (2003) (Game Designers )
EverQuest: The Legacy of Ykesha (2003) (Design Apprentices)
me2005

Pre-lasik, video game designer me in 2005.

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4 thoughts on “Nerd Cred, or, The Coolest Job Ever: #NaBloPoMo Day 4

  1. This was the most honest personal story I have read in many many months. So wonderful of you to share. Things have been hard for you but from where I see, you are a winner. You have fought tough situations and came up stronger. Keep writing cos that’s your thing. Hugs!

  2. I feel ya. I was so excited to finally get to design games and then I almost drove myself insane doing it. SOE alums unite, heh. (Been enjoying these blogs, btw!)

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