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volume 1, issue 20

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Behind the Curtain:
The Whirlwind

By Matt "Thraka" Gilbert


In the end, (and in December, of course), Glenn called us all together and told us the grim news: he had to let us go; he couldnít make good on his promises if he kept us on any longer. Only a few people, those who were working on a project that was still bringing in at least some cashflow, would stay. We would, he promised, get the money we were owed, just as soon as he had it in hand, and he meant it. We did eventually get caught up, but, of course, the damage was done by then. He offered those of us who wanted to try to weather the storm the opportunity to use the company equipment for contract work until the company could get back on its feet, but he knew that most of us would have no choice but to move on. It must have been very bitter for him; I would never want to have to sit in that spot, of having given it your best shot and failing not because you sucked, but just through bad luck. We had a damned good team, and it was like a family splitting up. Itís a crying shame, but all too common. My old bosses at Illusions were in similar straits; they pulled through, albeit with massive damage, but a lot of developers werenít so lucky. It sucks, but thatís how this life goes sometimes. Turn the page.

I found myself at SegaSoft next, courtesy of a good headhunter. It was different here, more corporate, but it was a good corporate. Sega felt like an extended family, a company willing to take care of its people. But there was a strange, Dilbert sort of flavor to it. sometimes, it seemed as if no one knew who you were or why you were there. You could have played Quake all day, maybe not even have shown up at all, and no one would have even noticed. It worked, I suppose, because we were all dedicated, and we just didnít abuse the system. Still, it was a big change from the constant buzz and hum of a small development house.

I came in as a Saturn whiz, who could hopefully help stomp out some fires that the project was dealing with. Again, I was with a good and smart bunch of people. And, again, things were less than ideal, financially. Only this time, it wasnít that the company was broke: rather, it had to do with the venture capitalists funding the whole deal.

Venture capitalists are people with lots of cash who throw money into something in the hopes of getting more back than they put in. Not surprisingly, they are very careful about this, since they stand to lose a great deal if things go wrong. My impression, and note, I am no financial whiz, is that they do these things by numbers, and when the numbers tell them to do certain things, like reduce the amount of money being paid out in salaries, they act. Itís merciless, but thatís how it is.

The layoffs came slowly, in stages. The management threw a party and promised it was over, that things were good from here on out. The president gave his word that this was the team, no more layoffs. HEAT was a big success, they told us, and so were the other projects. Everything was going to be okay. Six months into my stint there, when I was home sick one day, my headhunter called and told me to send him an updated copy of my resume, because the axe was about to fall at SegaSoft. Naturally, the first thing I did was call my supervisor and ask him what was going on. He confirmed the worst: SegaSoft was changing direction, and had decided to concentrate solely on HEAT: they were laying off the entire product development staff.

The next day, our team had a meeting with the VP of technology and the company president. We were the third team these guys had talked to, and the president was just ashen; he looked as if he could hardly carry on. It must have been hell for him to give the news to each team, knowing he had promised it wouldnít happen. The VP just looked plain pissed off, and who could blame him? I hear he resigned just after the end of the meetings. After all, he had no team: what was the point of staying?

As bad as it sounds, I think fondly of SegaSoft. They didnít dump us on the streets; they made sure we had enough to tide us over until we could find something else. They bent over backwards to help their people through a tough time, and let me assure you, not everyone does. For example, my next employer.

I wonít give the name, just say that it was a hardware firm developing a multifunction card, another startup backed by more venture capitalists. It wasnít games, but it sounded good, and I needed the work, so I went for it. My wife and I pulled up stakes, rented out our house, and moved to Seattle.

The lousy part of it is that for eight months, they promised that we would all be rich. It was a rainy Monday in February (it always rains in Seattle), and we came in like any other morning. The network was down, and we couldnít get mail, etc, but we had no way of knowing that it was intentional. The first sign of trouble was when my coworker was called into our supervisorís office. He comes back with grim news: our supervisor had been laid off!

It didnít take us long before they got around to us, upper management zombies asking to have a Ďwordí with various people. As it turns out, the Ďwordí was Ďterminatedí. Hereís youíre pay to date, pack your shit and jam. Sorry, pal, but those are the breaks.

Time to call the old headhunter again, only this time, there was no cushion; we had been taking a loss on the amount we were charging the couple who were renting our house back in the Bay Area, and our savings were low. I was out on my ass, with a lease in Seattle and the likeliest place for work back in San Francisco. Our renters would be leaving in a month, which meant I was going to be really screwed. I was looking at my house and two cars being repoíd, and my credit being destroyed: basically, I stood a good chance of losing everything I owned and had worked for because I trusted the wrong people. For the first time in this crazy biz, I was really scared. I told my wife it would be okay, that things always work out. But I wasnít so sure it would this time. I just thanked God that we didnít have kids. We could take the hit, if we had to.

The first interview the headhunter set up was, as it turned out, the only one. I went to a place called StormFront Studios in San Rafael. It was totally cold; I really didnít know much about them. The interview process lasted the whole day, and by the end of it, I knew they were doing things right. The owner, a real star named Don Daglow, just blew me away: he had been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and he had not only survived, but prospered. But more than that, he was humble. He pointed to some awards on the wall and told me, "Those are the most dangerous things you can get in this business. They can make you forget how you came by them. They can lead you to believe that youíve arrived, that you can sit back and relax, that youíre someone special. Thatís how a company dies."

StormFront is a hive of activity. No cubicles, no politics, just a great sense of pride and teamwork. Thereís paperwork, to be sure. Thereís even an employee handbook. But thereís also the feel that, if you stumble, your teammates will give you a hand up. People care, here, and management goes the extra mile to keep it that way. All in all, itís a hell of a balancing act, one that I admire.

Iíve been with Stormfront for just a few months shy of a year now, and, of course, weíre behind schedule. Iím working on the PlayStation as the graphics guy, and itís not easy: anytime you start a project late in the life cycle of a console, the bar is much higher that it was at the introduction of the machine. But what can be done once, can be done again, and we will be certain to do it at least as well as anyone else. We have no doubts.

My friend and teammate Mario just started in the biz a few months ago, and heís the type of guy who makes it in this biz: heís sharp, and he busts his ass like a real pro. Heís lucky to have started here, in a stable company that has a good reputation with publishers. I like to tell him so when the going gets really tough, just to see if I can piss him off, but he just grins and shakes his head.

Iím still here, fighting the uphill battles, because only the hard won victories are worth savoring. You know I wouldnít want it any other way.



- Matt 'Thraka' Gilbert is a console programmer, currently working at StormFront Studios. These are his own ravings, and have nothing whatsoever to do with his employer.


Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Behind the Curatain is © 1998 Matt Gilbert. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.