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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