Friday, May 17, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 4

In the last installment of this scintillating story, I was still in New York, attempting to write fiction and learning by doing. By the end of the 1980s, I had a family. Although we would have liked to have stayed in Manhattan, we couldn't afford a larger apartment that could accommodate a toddler. We really didn't want to move to Brooklyn or Queens or New Jersey... so we investigated leaving New York altogether and going back to Austin, Texas, a city my wife and I both loved. So, in 1990, we moved across country.

I had a crazy idea that I would go to school to be a court reporter. That way, I'd have a day job that would provide me with "material" with which to write mysteries and thrillers. So I enrolled in court reporting school--and surprisingly, I was pretty good at it. I even made "student of the month" the fourth month I was in the school. The problem was that I hated it! I really couldn't stand it. After four months, I realized that it was a mistake. So I quit--without a clue as to what I would do instead.

But then one of those doors I keep talking about opened! It just appeared by chance, like they always do. The newspaper's classified section had a want ad--a computer gaming company in Austin needed writers, programmers, and artists. Duh, that sounded like the job for me, since I already had experience. It turned out to be Origin Systems, a very prestigious company responsible for the Ultima and Wing Commander computer games (remember, this is before Windows, and really before console videogames...these were games played on PCs in DOS). So I applied... and I got the job as a full-time writer. I would be paid to write fiction.

I was immediately made Head Writer for the next installment of the Ultima fantasy series, which turned out to be Ultima VII--the Black Gate. (My official credit was "Screenplay and Story Direction.") This was one of the biggest gaming franchises at that time. The experience was like working on a major motion picture. The game had a huge budget and a very large staff (for the time). I was actually in charge of a team of writers, it was that complicated. My job was to come up with the main plot/storyline of the game, and then my team and I would write all the characters' dialogue ("conversations") and sub-plots.

Again, the theatre training came in very handy. By then (1991-1992), graphics had come into games, so the products were more cinematic than before. I had to "stage" scenes, create storyboards, and juggle the pieces of an epic story.

The game, published in 1992, was a huge international success. It led to more doors opening for me that, once again, I never expected. Another gaming company (MicroProse Software), based in Maryland, recruited me to be an actual "Game Designer," and for more money, so I moved my family across country again. There I had even more creative freedom. A year later, another big company (Viacom New Media) recruited me to come to the Chicago area, so I moved the family across country again. I also managed to slip in a freelance project for an even different company (Cyberdreams) in-between those last two gigs.

Thus, counting my two years in the 80s in which I wrote for computer games, I ended up spending a decade working in that industry. I was still working for Viacom when a very big door opened for me in the mid-90s. A very big door. More like a gigantic gate.

WHAT I LEARNED: I learned how to work within a collaborative team structure. Again, project management skills were extremely important. I learned to look at the "big picture" of a large storyline; I had to create different parts of a story at different times in a non-linear fashion. I also learned what it's like to have a franchise owner looking over your shoulder. In many ways, this was my first "tie-in" work, that is, being paid to write for someone else's universe and characters. This knowledge, as it turned out, would prove to be invaluable.

Tune in to Part 5 and go through that big gate with me...


  1. Raymond, you have had a fascinating life!
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Raymond, your story gives me hope that things will happen as long as I recognize the opportunities and (fearlessly) jump on board!