Autoblography Part 38: Press Release

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Nov 2, 2011

Filed under: Personal 43 comments

I’m going to be talking about some possibly litigious people and companies in the next couple of posts. I doubt they will read or even care what I say, but just to be on the safe side, allow me a disclaimer: The events related are made in good faith according to my memory of the events some sixteen years later. I was not present for any of the business decisions I discuss and many of these facts were related to me second or third hand. I do not have the names required to fact-check this information, and it is offered solely as a personal account. Moreover, I have simplified a bit of the history for the sake of brevity.

In short, there’s no reason to sue. Go bother someone else. You know who you are.

Through a family member I’ve been introduced to Rick, a smart guy with some big plans. He’s starting a software company, and plans to bootstrap the enterprise with contract work. He’s heard about my cross-discipline skill set: My understanding of Doom (not just how to make levels, but an understanding of the engine limitations and why it works the way it does) has sold him on the idea that I’m a valuable guy to have around. I can program, I can make texture maps, and I understand a lot of 3D design. I’m a guy who can figure things out and make them work. I’m exactly the right kind of guy for a small company.

For over a year it’s just Rick and I. We make some money by doing contract work for a company called Worlds, Inc. (This is a confusing name for their company to have, like if a soft drink company named themselves “Soda, Inc.” and then named their flagship brand “Sodas”, which sold a dozen different drinks, all of which were “sodas”. For the sake of clarity, from now on I’ll refer to the company as WI.) They have a program they’re working on called “Alphaworld”. It’s supposedly going to be the “3D internet”. They have big investors, big dreams, and big expenses. At one point we joke that they have more people on the board of directors than they have employees. Later we find out this isn’t that far from the truth. Like true innovators, they are following the logic, strategy, and trajectory of the dot-com bubble, six years before anyone else makes that same mistake.

The idea behind Alphaworld is that it will allow users to connect to a shared 3D space. It’s an online universe consisting of many different worlds, all of which are dynamic and changeable. People can collaborate to build things. Individuals will also be able to pay money and have a world of their own. It’s an idea that will be popularized by Second Life almost a decade later. In theory, the system will be paid for by the people owning worlds, and the end users will use the system for free.

Keep in mind that we are years from the explosion of online gaming, particularly graphical online gaming. This system is designed to run on the average PC in 1995. Most people are on 56k dial-up connections. Consumer-level graphics cards don’t exist. A lot of people are still using Windows 3.1. The idea of online worlds has been in fiction for years, but actually attempting to make them work on this technology is radical.

They have a flair for the dramatic. When someone asks them for their business plan, WI hands them a copy of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Snow Crash is a book about a world where a madman lobotomizes and controls people through cyberspace. I doubt that’s what WI has in mind. I think what they really mean is, “This cyberspace stuff is cool, we wish it existed, that we owned it, and that we got a cut every time someone built in it.”

Rick and I make 3D objects and other content for WI. Rick handles the business end while I focus on technology, and both of us do a good bit of 3D modeling. We have a good friendship, despite the fact that we’ve never met face-to-face.

WI lands a contract with the United States Department of the Interior, and they sub-contract that work to us. The government is looking to invest in the educational opportunities of the internet, and so they want an online, virtual replica of Yellowstone National Park. Rick brings his wife in to help and the three of us set about figuring out how we can make anything approximating a decent representation of the place, given the graphical limitations of the both the software and the average home computer in 1995.

For over six months we chip away at this job, which should probably have been given to a larger team. The work is difficult because there’s no real reference materials. Wikipedia won’t be invented for another six years, and the internet hasn’t reached the point where you can type something into a search box and be treated to a vast buffet of maps, historical documents, photographs, and geographical information. We have to look up things the old fashioned way, which is hard because the kind of information we need is scarce. In the end, we have to resort to guesswork for a lot of things.

As we work, new requirements are passed along. We don’t know if these come from the Department of the Interior, or from WI, but these changes make the world decidedly less educational. It’s frustrating, since we liked the educational bent of the place, and it’s really disappointing to see it turned into a silly Yellowstone-themed funhouse. (We’re obliged to put Old Faithful ten steps away from the Yellowstone visitor’s center, for example.)

Months into the project, WI mails us a huge stack of documentation from the client: Maps, topography, land use maps, and volumes of documentation on the buildings and sights of the real Yellowstone. We’ve blown countless hours and days trying to find this information, only to learn that it was sitting around at WI and nobody bothered to send it to us? Why did they send it to us now, since the project is almost done and all this documentation does is show us where we guessed wrong? What is wrong with these people?

We’re doing work on this Alphaworld platform on a scale that hasn’t been attempted before, using tools that are still in flux. We’re inventing new techniques and improving the workflow as we go. It’s a lot of work, but we get faster with practice. At some point we realize our artistic output greatly exceeds that of the company that hired us. We really are trailblazing here, and not even the people who wrote the software know what can be done with it.

I wake up to the sound of the phone ringing at 3AM. It’s Rick. This is surprising, since I thought we were pretty much done with the Yellowstone project. All that’s left now is to wait for them to mail us a check. Is there some more last-minute crap the client wants?

Rick tells me me that WI has just issued a press release. With great fanfare, they have announced Project Yellowstone, talking about all of the educational benefits and the importance of this work with the U.S. Government. There is no mention of our company or any of our efforts. They’re acting like they did the work themselves. This wouldn’t be so heinous, except we’re still waiting to be paid for it.

So we have no money for the last six months of work, nor do we have any of the notoriety that might lead to further work.

“No problem,” WI explains the next day. “Look, it’s a press release. Those don’t mean anything. The point is, this press release increases our ability to land more contracts, which means more work for you.”

Our relationship with WI continues along these lines for months. They always have an explanation when things go wrong. Everything is fine. Big opportunities are right around the corner, hang in there. Sure, we’re planning on paying you. These things take time.

Rick and I would like to storm off in a huff and take them to court, but that’s not a very attractive option. They seem to have a very active legal department, and we’re just a couple of guys. We could probably win, but it would take a long time and lawyers are expensive. Even if we won, and even if our lawyer worked for free, we’d be burning this bridge we’ve built. We’ve already invested our time in this Alphaworld platform, and this would oblige us to start over elsewhere.

WI always manages to pay us just enough to keep us mollified. More work comes along, and with it are more promises that brighter days are ahead.

It is impossible for me to escape the notion that we are being outfoxed by people who know more about business than we do, and who are always going to be a step ahead of us. On the other hand, this work is really, really interesting and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

 


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43 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 38: Press Release

  1. Sucal says:

    Dang. On one hand we could have had Snowcrash and virtual avatar swordfights, which would have been awesome. On the other hand it would have cost us DM of the Rings, Darths and Droids and other such awesome webcomics.

    Not to mention Project Frontier and Spoiler Warning.

    Of course, on the less egotistical side, Shamus could have also been the Steve Jobs of Software.

    1. M the Cheddar Monk says:

      On the LESS egotistical side? I think you mean the MORE egotistical side. But yeah, Rick & Shamus industries could have made Shamus into a multi-billionaire. But then none of his terrific blogging would have been done, and even a guy like him might eventually succumb to drugs and booze.

      1. Sucal says:

        Less Egotistical side because it was about stuff that Shamus could have benefited from, rather then me myself. After all, denying him fame glory and drugs just to get a webcomic and some blog posts out of him would be egoistical and selfish.

        Though then again he also would have been able to make Project Frontier a full game and release it to a console near you.

        1. CheddarTheKnight says:

          Well yeah, but I happen to be a selfish prick.

  2. The Nick says:

    Ouch. This latest event sounds like it’s going to lead somewhere terrible. The big yellow box of libel warning does not bode well.

  3. Kell says:

    That last paragraph…ouch. A difficult place to be; doing what you’ve wanted to do for years, while being screwed over for it. I do not envy.

    You have the qualities I’d want for any game designer. It bewilders me that you havent been hired by Valve yet. Talking of your 3D game design endevours…Project Frontier? When?

    1. Bentusi16 says:

      There was a Dilbert comic once, and summed up it was: “You can be rich and successful, but your work will be burned in front of you every day, or your work can be appreciated and needed and loved, but you’ll be left penniless.”

      Of course, Wally and Dilbert thought both were better then their current situation.

  4. MichaelG says:

    Taco Bell, one mainframe programming job, and then this?! So bizarre.

    I remember seeing some of the hype for Worlds, inc. and Alphaworld. Didn’t it have some kind of space station themed area?

    That was right around the time I took my first whack at my virtual world project. I remember thinking it would be so great to work at a place like that. I had been burnt by one failed startup already by that point though, and wasn’t interested in another. Instead I decided to go it alone, and ran out of steam (and savings) after a year or so.

    1. Squash says:

      I guess it may not have been so great after all. Now you know!

    2. Abnaxis says:

      It’s funny, the first thing I thought as I read Shamus’s description of the project was “Man, Ive read this somewhere before. Recently, even…” :D

      Small world, yes?

  5. benjamin says:

    actualy, they seems to be still active: http://www.activeworlds.com/

    1. DaveMc says:

      Ssh! If you speak their name, you may summon the Lawyers!

    2. Ross Bearman says:

      As far as I’m aware that’s a different company that split off from Worlds, Inc. Active Worlds employed Shamus up until quite recently, he used to refer to them on the blog every so often.

      This may spoil the autoblography for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_Worlds#History

      1. Aldowyn says:

        ZOMG Shamus is famous(/notable)! He’s on Wikipedia!

  6. Piflik says:

    That’s why when doing any contract/freelance work, especially in creative stuff, you take at least two thirds up front…this reads exactly like a story from Clientsfromhell

    1. Tizzy says:

      But it’s difficult to demand this when you are new and untested.

  7. Simon Buchan says:

    Hmm. Isn’t ActiveWorlds where you ended up? I guess that’s one way to get money from them – take a salary. I’d be interested in a post-mortem of a project or two if you think you could get away with it, but I’m not sure how well it fits the blog.

  8. Hal says:

    Shamus, your situation, such as it was, feels eerily similar to my own situation. I can’t wait to hear how the situation played out.

  9. Jarenth says:

    Ah, yes. I understand why you felt the need for that yellow warning box. Still, the situation doesn’t seem that bad, does it? You are (were) doing what you love and making enough money not to starve.

    Plus, you seem to be wising up to corporate trickery, which is also a good skill to learn early.

  10. DoctorSatan says:

    I know them. A few even shifted to stay in my home town of Hell, New Jersey. They ran away after realizing Hitler and Osama are their new neighbours.

    1. xXDarkWolfXx says:

      Iv been to Hell, New Jersey. Some of the neighbourhoods are in bad shape but i have to say Osama is damn good with a BBQ and Hitler is a damn good tennis player

  11. CalDazar says:

    I seem to recall you saying you had some kind of issue with the dot-com bubble but couldn’t talk for legal reasons.

    But this story here has a happy ending, right? Right?

    1. noahpocalypse says:

      Well, he gets married and writes a book and does all the cool stuff he did. That’s reasonably happy, no?

  12. Droid says:

    Wow, I remember Worlds Chat. One part of it, at least: I seem to recall there was a hedge maze you could get into and from there, I think, into a place that looked like you were walking in space. I kept going back for a while just for those two environments.

  13. Dys says:

    I imagine there would be legal ramifications, but my suggestion there would have been this : keep the source code.

    They get the compiled version and good luck to them in working out how to do anything with it, you keep the source until the contract is honoured.

    That way you retain control of the work you’ve done, until such time as you’re paid for it.

    1. Tizzy says:

      This might not be an option. Plus, if I understand correctly, it was their proprietary software anyway, so what are you going to do with source code for a software that you cut yourself off from?

      That’s how I understand the remark: “Even if we won, and even if our lawyer worked for free, we'd be burning this bridge we've built. We've already invested our time in this Alphaworld platform, and this would oblige us to start over elsewhere.”

  14. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Less depressing life story event. More Skyrim!

    (joke.. :-P)

  15. Aanok says:

    Yeah, that’s the matter with forward contracts.

    “Weeell, we did say that we would have hired you indefinitely, but, uh… things have not been going so well… nothing to worry for, of course… we just need a bit more time… one more contract and then you will have your steady job, and it will be awesome, the company will start making big money and your salary will get skyhigh, I promise. We just need you to complete this one last project…”

    So you get to work for years, not sure whether you’ll still have a job in six months or not. In Italy this is expecially true for recently graduated kids, but I’ve met people who had been working on forward contracts up to their forties (!), in the public sector (!), doing high-level physics research (!!).

  16. dnaloiram says:

    Oh hell, I don’t know if we’re talking about the same thing, but a couple of months ago I played this old virtual chatroom called Worlds.com. It was honestly the most horrifying gaming experience I’ve ever had.

  17. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    So this all occured in 1995? Because if so that means Shamus was busy making video game worlds professionaly before i was even in pre-school

    1. Mrs. Peel says:

      Aw, you’re making Shamus feel old. Don’t feel old, Shamus. I was in middle school in 1995. And now I have an eleven-week-old.

      (The age distribution at work is skewed quite a bit older than I am, so when my coworkers start reminiscing about previous projects, I wait for them to mention the year and then point out that I was in elementary/middle/high school at the time. That never gets old. Hahahaha.)

      1. chabuhi says:

        Yes – anyone deliberately making Shamus feel old should immediately stop … mostly because you’re making those of us OLDER than Shamus feel even older.

        So you kids knock it off!

        1. Tizzy says:

          It doesn’t help those who are only slightly younger either, btw…

  18. Kavonde says:

    My best friend and I actually played Alphaworlds quite a bit back in the day. I knew you’d been involved with it, Shamus, but I had no idea you’d been so instrumental to it! Thank you for the dozens of hours of enjoyment, man. Sorry WI themselves sucked :-P

  19. Susie Day says:

    if I remember right, old faithful isn’t really much farther than 10 steps away from the visitor’s center .. picture of the other side of old faithful

    This story reminds me why I hate contract work for another creative company. Not to mention when you see them going down the path to financial ruin, and you know they aren’t going to have the money to pay for what they have asked you to create.

    1. MrWhales says:

      Old Faithful is bigger than I imagined…

    2. Shamus says:

      When I say “10 steps away”, I’m talking about the mouth of the geyser. Which is closer than people are allowed to get. Which seems kind of UN-educational to me. :(

  20. Paercebal says:

    It happened to us 10 years ago.

    I won’t disclose publicly the details, but we were solving a massive law-related problem. We won prizes. Every one was ecstatic. But they tried to keep us as far as possible from the journalists and prize ceremonies. Us, that is me (which was easy, as I was the programmer) and my brother (which was more difficult, as he was the law specialist, in addition to his own modest programming skills).

    We were lucky, though: We had the sources, and they only had 3 installed binaries. The moment those three binaries were uninstalled, my brother resigned, and the deal was off. They were furious. They had great plans. They want to show demos of that to other government agencies, and now, they had nothing but some powerpoints. They tried to retaliate, but claiming ownership of a source they never had, on a compiler they never had, they had no leverage. Still, they tried somewhat, and succeeded in stopping us to contact other public agencies to continue the project with them.

    The worst part?

    Because we were naive, and thought that this would be a great idea to share, we were working for free (I was using it to increase my knowledge of C++, and my brother was using it as a proof-of-concept of a law thesis). And before we realized they were trying to f*ck us, we had an idea about a Java port (to have one binary for every platform, both client and servers), and as such, we were thinking about opensourcing the whole C++ and VB6 code.

    10 years later, as far as we know, the project is dead (they tried to have some in-house programmer do it in his spare time… good luck with that), my brother had his Law PhD with the highest grade possible and his now a manager of a law department in a large company, and I’m now a successful software engineer.

    But I still regret that opportunity: We believed (and still believe) this would have been great. No great as “we are now millionaires” (we were doing it for free), but great as “yes, we are proud to be the creators of this”.

    Sigh…

    1. Tizzy says:

      Being denied the credit and recognition is more galling than any immediate revenue loss. Especially because it prevents you from engaging in similar projects with other interested parties.

  21. Well this is a story as old as time itself now in’it?

    1. MichaelG says:

      Yes, four billion years ago, RNA did all the hard work, then DNA grabbed it and got all the press.

      Uppity molecules.

  22. Leah says:

    My dad werks hard.

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