1.20.2011

My Time at Sendai: A Former EGM Editor Speaks - Part 3

In case you were brought here by Google, or otherwise missed Parts 1 and 2, start here.  Congratulations for making it to Part 3!  I'll now assume you're either over 30 years old, or you know me personally.  I can't see any young gamers being remotely interested in any of this.  So if you find yourself saying "Dude, I wanna read about "Shoe" or Seanbaby, not these geriatric assholes I've never heard of! Eff this "Rodd" guy and his basement or whatever, I'm gonna go run around in a drab environment and shout obscenities at people I don't know online, while scoring a headshot and teabag…", then this blog post is probably not for you. Anyway…

Here Comes a New Challenger (or two)

So just like Martin had done for me, I was now trying to get MY friends into Sendai.  First was my buddy Danyon Carpenter.  I invited him and Mark Sarnecki come to visit the office one Saturday, again just like Martin had done for me.  I cleared this beforehand with Ed Semrad, and he allowed us to enjoy a day of gaming and junk food from the Sendai vending machines.  Of course the EGM office had the arcade version of Street Fighter II, a Neo-Geo upright arcade cabinet, as well as an all-in-one upright arcade cabinet with a built in subwoofer and connectors for any game system.  Not to mention multiples of every console known to man.  So any gamer going in there couldn't help but have the time of his life.  Plus they both had a chance to meet Ed and more importantly, Ed had a chance to meet them.

Apparently they'd made a good impression.  Before long, Danyon was on board, and Mark followed not long after, but not before passing initiation.  To get into Sendai, you had to play one of the most frustrating games ever and write a review afterward.  This tested both your gaming expertise and patience as well as writing ability.  Well, it wasn't really required; it was just fun to do to noobs (a word that didn't exist back then).  The game of course was Super Ghouls & Ghosts on SNES.  If you're saying right now, "What?  That game's not that hard…" then you're a liar and should shut up.  In any case, they both passed.

The Sendai crew, early 1992 posing for the National Enquirer
It was nice to have them on board, the three of us as (well as the whole EGM crew) were really a tight group, we all ate lunch together which was usually spent at the greasiest fast food place in town for about two hours, or sometimes at the local Enchanted Castle arcade.  Occasionally we'd go to the nearby Yorktown mall EB Games, to lord our awesomeness over the clerks there. It was easy to become a total asshole when you were young, rich and an EGM editor.  It was for me anyway.  Or maybe I'm always an asshole…  Since we spent so much time together, sometimes driving each other crazy, we usually opted to part ways after hours.  I believe I visited Mike Vallas' house a few times, and spent the night at Trickman's house once, playing R-Type on Amiga all night. 

EGM 31 Cover - 2/92
The Novelty Wears Off

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows; I was 18 years old, with very little street smarts or knowledge of the corporate world.  Now here I was, learning how moving from three staples in the magazine to two staples saves the company thousands of dollars per month, and why we're now moving from staples to binding, and the pros and cons of 9 point text vs. 10 point text.  I'd just gotten my "raise" after having gone to salary, and I was feeling a bit of a sting.  As I said, when I asked why my salary was less than before, I never got a straight answer.  The answer I was given, and I quote Ed Semrad, "Well if you don't like it, go get a job flippin' burgers, guy!"  I had finally figured out what was going on here.  This was a fantastic scam they had going.  Get a bunch of kids to come in here drooling over video games and working for peanuts, and if they complain, threaten to kick 'em out into the real world where their only chance to survive WOULD be to flip burgers.  Very clever.  From a business standpoint, it was genius.  Suddenly playing video games for money wasn't fun anymore.  It was a job.  Once the reality set in that they didn't seem to care about me, my job performance went downhill fast.  While before I had stayed late hours and asked Ed for more work when I was finished with my assigned projects, now I was leaving at 5PM and enjoying weekends off.

This was compounded by an incident where Steve came into the office late one night around the holidays and offered a $500 bill to everyone who happened to be in attendance and called it a "Christmas bonus".  The speculation was that he was intoxicated, but I wasn't there.  Word spread quickly the next day, and those of us who didn't get the bonus lodged a complaint, because it didn't seem fair that some people got a bonus.  They deserved it for working late?  "Hey, we all busted our asses to meet deadline at one time or another" was the general consensus.  So we were begrudgingly cut checks, with tax taken out of course, so we ended up with about $360.

The peak of my frustration with the job occurred when we began to be assigned all of the pages on the pagination that had been assigned to Ed, in addition to our own pages.  We'd worked many late hours, and this was the week in particular that I worked the infamous 36-hour shift.  That's where you work 24 hours straight without going home, sleep in the closet for a few hours, then wake up and work another 12 hours, then drive home and not even remember going from your car to your bed, then sleeping for 15 hours in your own bed and returning to work mid-afternoon the next day to meet a four-magazine deadline.  At the end of this ordeal, a meeting was called, and we were chastised for slacking off and not meeting the deadline.  They asked what we've been doing all week, and were met with silence.  As I looked around and realized nobody was going to say anything, I finally said "It's because we're doing all Ed's work." 

Portable Guy

While I was praised by Steve for standing up and sticking up for everyone, it came as no surprise to me that after this incident, I was assigned the absolute worst games that came rolling through the office.  These were terrible, awful things, which could barely be called games, hand-picked by Ed, just for me.  And where were all of the lamest, worst games to play?  Why, on the portable systems of course!  So I became "Portable Guy".  As part of my punishment, I was forced to use the two most horrible tools known to exist.  The Wide Boy and the Wide Gear. 

I hate you, Wide Boy
Both devices allowed video to be passed from a portable gaming device to a television or in our case, video capture card in a Mac.  This was before the days of emulation, or the Super Game Boy and GameCube Game Boy adapter.  The Wide Boy was of course for use with Nintendo Game Boy cartridges and The Wide Gear was for Sega Game Gear cartridges.  These were not devices you could buy in any store and in fact seemed to be custom built prototypes thrown together just to get the job done.  Both devices consisted of an open circuit board with no protective casing.  What I learned eventually was that electronic devices have protective cases to protect not only the circuitry, but also protect the user from death.  These devices were a nightmare to use, both of them would reset and/or spark if moved or otherwise breathed on a certain way.  More than once I received a decent shock from both the Wide Boy and the Wide Gear.  Unfortunately I had to get used to it, because it was now my way of life thanks to my big mouth.

One time I spilled Orange Crush into EGMs irreplaceable Wide Boy, a secret which I kept to myself whenever anyone asked why the buttons on the Wide Boy were sticky.  It wouldn't be the last time I almost destroyed irreplaceable property at Sendai.  There was another time while everyone was away at CES, and the few of us that remained at the office became bored. SO, I brought the Jamma board from my recently purchased Super Contra arcade cabinet to plug into the Street Fighter II machine.  Again, this was before emulation; you had to have some hardware to play arcade games, which EGM had in abundance.  After we'd finished playing Super Contra, we plugged the Street Fighter II Jamma back in, and found that some of the controls weren't functioning.  We eventually realized the leads on the Super Contra Jamma were filthy, and we just needed to clean the connector before plugging Street Fighter II back in.  Unfortunately this discovery was made after I'd already soiled myself in fear I'd ruined the Street Fighter II machine.

CGR 11/91 Cover
The David White Conspiracy

Eventually I came to know and form a friendship with the guys at EGM's cousin magazine, Computer Game Review.  David White was the Senior Editor of CGR, basically the equivalent to Ed Semrad at EGM.  I found Dave to much more personable and accessible than any of the other managers at Sendai, he was easy to talk to and we shared a love of Star Trek.  Dave even took me to my first Star Trek convention which we attended with the other guys from CGR.  Unfortunately for me, Dave and Steve Harris would butt heads from time to time regarding certain aspects of CGR.  I learned that their working relationship had become strained, and one day I was finally told by Martin that Steve didn't like the fact that I was hanging out with Dave.  I knew they didn't get along, but what business was it of Steve's who I was hanging out with?

I didn't blame Martin. Of course Steve would never talk to me directly, and Martin was just doing what he was asked to do.  I told Martin I didn't really understand what my hanging out with Dave had to do with anything, and to let Steve know that it was my business who I hung out with outside of work.  This turned out to be a big mistake and was probably the second to last nail in my coffin.  Dave was let go not too long after that in what he described as "an argument over 9 vs 10 point text in CGR."  I lost contact with him after that which was a shame.

Fast forward briefly… About a year after I was fired from Sendai, I had the opportunity to attend the 1993 Consumer Electronics show here in Chicago (before E3 existed, all the latest video games were shown at CES).  It was an event that wasn't open to the public, but I was able to attend because my friend Scott Parus created a pretend company called "New Age Publishing" which allowed us to sign up for press passes to get in to CES.  While at CES I had an awkward encounter with Ed, who was of course there with Sendai.  He expressed very obvious sarcasm in stating he was glad I had an opportunity to attend the show.  And then made a point to bring attention to my press badge and say "Oh, New Age Publishing!  More like Dave White Publishing right?"  I just smiled and said "Ok, bye.", and walked away thinking, "Fuck off, Ed."

JAPAN – The Final Nail

Okay, back to the present, er past.  So now Ed had it in for me for ratting him out at the deadline meeting, and now Steve thought Dave and I were trying to undermine him somehow.  I had a feeling my time at Sendai was becoming short, maybe I'd gone too far basically telling Steve (via Martin) to mind his own business.  But I felt I was in the right defending my friendship with Dave.  There was no plot afoot at least that I was aware of.

Let me remind you at this point that all of this is based on my point of view at the time.  Just gut-feelings and vibes I felt.  I will never know how Ed and Steve really felt about me, nor at this point does it matter.  I'm just telling the story as I recall it.  And maybe my radar was completely out of whack, because it was at this point that I was chosen to go on the yearly trip to Japan with Ed.  If they weren't happy with me, would they send me to Japan?  But then again I was technically next in line, maybe it was just my turn, again I'll never know or care.

I was very nervous and excited at the prospect, and grateful for such an amazing opportunity.  Unfortunately, through a horrible lack of a sense of direction, (before the days of GPS, my current savior in all matters of driving), I got lost three times trying to get to the place I need to go to get my passport, so I was cutting the deadline close to be prepared to leave.  At the very same time, things were getting bad at home between my parents.  It was looking like a divorce was imminent.  And since I'd never learned how to manage my money, I still lived with my parents, and this was something I had to deal with firsthand every day.  All of this happening together was very stressful to say the least, and a couple nights before the trip, I was contacted at home by Ed.  He asked if I'd gotten my passport yet.  I could tell Steve was in the room, because every time I gave an answer to a question, I was put on hold.  I told Ed I had not gotten the passport yet, I had trouble finding the place and was dealing with some heavy matters at home.  After being put on hold again, Ed returned to say that Steve was coming to pick me up in a limo to take me where I needed to go.  I decided that this was just too much to handle.  I wasn't ready for this responsibility at this point in my life, and it was more important to me to be at home during this time.  I let Ed know how grateful I was for the opportunity, and apologized for my meandering on the matter, but declined to take the trip at this time.  I was put on hold again, and after a short five seconds Ed returned to say "Come in tomorrow and we'll work out the details." Puzzled, I replied, "Details of what?" Ed responded, "Your termination of employment." All I could say was, "Okay?" Ed very quickly shot back "Goodbye!" and hung up.

When I arrived the next day, I was advised by Ed that I would have to pay back the cost of the non-refundable plane ticket that was purchased in my name.  I laughed and said it was going to be a little tough without a job.  Ed let me know a bill would be sent.  To date I have never received it.  Either the multi-million dollar company was somehow able to weather the cost, or it got lost in the mail.

Catch you next month for those last two, Ed.
From EGM 35 - 6/92
End of a Short Era

I look back and realize that at the time, I wasn't ready for any of this.  It was a terrible first job for me to have.  I learned no responsibility; my first life lesson into adulthood was that you don't have to work hard.  Just drop out of high school and you can be a successful editor for a national magazine.  I was terrible with my money, and never learned how to manage it.  I thought I was better than other people, and turned into an asshole.  This is what happens to people who make a ton of money at a young age, and never learn the important lesson I learned after I was fired from Sendai.  That lesson was humility.  Although I missed the people and the environment, getting fired was the best thing for me at that time.  As I gathered my things from my desk in a haze of disbelief, I wouldn't understand that lesson.  It wouldn't be until years later when maturity set in that I'd really get it and appreciate the path my life took.  As I slung my backpack over my back for the last time and said goodbye to my friends, I turned to leave and locked eyes with Steve in the hallway.  An awkward encounter for both of us I'm sure.  He looked at me as if to say, "You have something you'd like to say to me?"  Somehow, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't worth saying anything, positive or negative.  I could tell him what I thought of him at the time, or I could plead for my job back.  But in the end, neither was good for me right now.  Somehow I knew that turning and walking away was the right decision.  Eventually I watched from afar as each of my friends were either fired, or quit because they couldn't take it anymore.  The few who toughed it out and stayed on were rewarded for their hard work by being let go when Steve Harris Sold EGM to Ziff-Davis, in favor of college-educated people who could be paid startup wages.  I made the right choice that day.  So, playing video games for money; not as glamourous as you might think.

As I mentioned, I attended Lutheran school as a youth.  I believe the most important thing I learned there was the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  If you don't get it, it just means don't be a dick.  I show the utmost respect to everyone I meet, and I don't think it's too much to ask for a little respect in return, even from people who employ me.  This was the first job I lost to my stubbornness in holding to this belief, and it certainly would not be the last.

Look Closely... From EGM 21 - 4/91
I would just like to say that I didn't write this blog to discredit anyone, or out of some sort of vengeance or spite.  I'm simply recounting the events as I remember them.  In order to tell the complete story, I chose to recount the good as well as the bad.  I wrote this blog simply for the sake of telling an interesting story that happened to me once, which most people won't ever be able to experience.  I don't blame anyone or hold any grudges, in the end it was my own stubbornness that led to the end of my career at Sendai.  I have nothing but respect for Steve Harris as the man who created EGM, and the man who again holds the reins there.  He's a great businessman, but in a boss/employee relationship, we weren't a good fit.  Given the opportunity, would I do this again?  Probably not.  Gaming is different now, and I'm in the minority when it comes to what's hot and what's not.  I'll take a game of Pac-Man CE DX over a game of Black Ops any day.  A disembodied hand holding various weapons in a drab environment is not a video game, people!

Although there were ups and downs, the day to day enjoyment of the environment and the people is what I remember and miss most.  I was very fortunate that I was able to work with three of my close friends, and the rest of my co-workers were unique and amazing people who became my friends.  Again, gaming has changed.  My experience would be impossible to repeat today.  Nobody would dare hire someone to a position like mine without a journalism, desktop publishing or graphic design degree.  Reading this, you can see how very lucky I was that the circumstances fell into place the way they did.  I was able to work on EGM during what I consider to be the golden age of gaming, and I helped make an indelible mark on popular culture.  I was given the opportunity to learn some amazing skills which I still use to this very day to design this blog.  You won't see my name when you look up any past history of EGM, and I like it that way.  I know my role in the grand scheme, and I'm proud to have played it.

In Closing...

EGM/Gaming FM crews, SF Tourney 2001
So what happened after Sendai?  Well I've been everywhere from the top of the mountain, to the bottom of the barrel. Right now, I exist somewhere in the middle and that's fine with me.  Thanks to the greatest wife in the world, I did eventually get my GED five years after high school, graduating in the top 10% nationally which I remain proud of.  Along with Mark and Danyon we co-founded Gaming FM, an internet radio station that played video game soundtracks.  The story of Gaming FM is one for perhaps another day.  I do still have contact with most of the Sendai crew, Mark, Danyon and I live within five minutes of each other.  I don't see any of the other guys nearly as often as I'd like.  We did get together a couple of times to have Street Fighter tournaments at Mark's house, and we were reunited more recently at the funeral of fellow Sendai staffer Andy Baran, which I spoke about before. Wives and/or children are the priority now, but hopefully another Sendai reunion opportunity will present itself soon.

The Sendai Crew 2009 - Andy's Memorial
One last thing before I close…  I tried to remember of all the "little moments" my old brain could come up with during my short, but unforgettable time at Sendai Publishing Group, to give you an idea of what it was like to be there day to day.  I will never forget any of those people, whether I got along with them or not.  Despite everything, I look back on Sendai as a positive experience and I worked with some pretty awesome dudes!  So I leave you with my EGM memories, in no particular order:

  • Steve Harris announcing in his typical deadpan style, "We'll be having a Christmas Party. If I'm feeling jovial."
  • Steve walking in with a copy of a rival magazine who had just filed chapter 11 bankruptcy, and shouting "CHAPTER 11!" over and over as he tore pages out of the magazine and threw them about.
  • Watching Steve type.  The man typed faster than any human I'd ever seen, without errors.  The computer would spend 30 seconds catching up.
  • Mark Sarnecki scanning his middle finger, printing it out and hanging it on his cubicle wall, only to have Steve discover it and state, "That's pretty funny.  Waste of resources, but funny."
  • Ed Semrad walking into the office with an optical disk in his hand, forgetting why he came in and returning to his desk at least three times per day.
  • Ed calling every Japanese game "Stupid Ninja Kids" when he wasn't sure of the proper title.
  • Ed calling everybody "Guy".  Everybody.
  • Being asked by Ed to clean the basement storage cages out, and being specifically told to throw all the old junk in the dumpster. Then pulling our cars up and filling our trunks with ridiculous amounts of swag.
  • Ed's love of burnt popcorn and stinking up the office to enjoy it from the microwave.
  • Ed walking around the office in socks, and Danyon copying the behavior, prompting us to start calling Danyon "Ed Jr." for a while.
  • Danyon getting angry whenever we called him Ed Jr, and stating each time either "You will have no tires." or "You will die.", and then Trickman mimicking him while pushing an invisible pair of glasses up the bridge of his nose.
  • Mark and I changing Danyon's screensaver to random items we scanned around the office, like a bottle of Windex, a toilet paper roll, an image of Nintendo World Champion Thor Aackerlund, and some action figure.  Danyon told on us. 
  • Martin writing a song about my fear of driving in the snow. I'm not reciting the lyrics, although I do remember them.
  • Andy Baran doing something really funny while I pretended to be annoyed, and then laughing my ass off after he left.  I miss Andy.
  • Mike Vallas introducing us to anime through a lend of Project A-Ko which Danyon, Trickman and I watched at Mark's house. Changed our lives. 127 panty shots.
  • Vallas' PERFECT impression of "Guy sitting on crate" in Guile's Street Fighter II stage.
  • Martin, Trickman, Mark and I taking a road trip to Martin's aunt's farm in Wisconsin, listening to video game soundtracks the whole ride. 
  • Martin throwing an empty box at me that he pretended was heavy.
  • Paper clip fight, turning into rubber band fight, turning into pen fight, turning into eraser fight, turning into EGM back issue fight.
  • Mark throwing everyone's jacket from the back of their chair onto to the floor.
  • Whenever an optical disk went bad, we'd stick on a Post-It labeled "Corrupt" so we knew not to save to it.  It then became common to come back from lunch or the bathroom to find that someone had marked your mouse, mouse pad, computer, monitor, TV, game systems and even your soda can "corrupt" as well.
  • Eating LOTS of junk food and soda from the snack machine.
  • Mark and I sticking SNES EEPROMs all over Danyon's cubicle walls.
  • Mark and Vallas recreating the basement break room in exact detail, but inside one of the locked storage cages.  The people in the other suites loved us.
  • Mark slipping into a meeting room in the next suite during a presentation to sneak donuts. Again, people in the other suites, just so happy to have us.
  • Mark jumping up and down in the elevator and setting off the emergency alarm.
  • Various people sleeping behind the Neo-Geo machine, in closets, or under cubicles.
  • Ken Williams' computer playing the last boss music from Streets of Rage every hour.
  • For Sendai staffers only: "HI I'M EDNA, YOU GONNA EAT THAT?",  "HIPPO!", and "I FOUND MY LUCKY POT!"
  • And finally, playing "Mega CD title screen" with our mouse pads.  You can too, it's simple.  Just watch the video below, hold your mouse pad in front of you and follow along.  You have to sing the song though too.


I actually got a little choked up writing that list.  Congraduration! See you next! Huge Success! Thank you to the father of American Karate, All your base, and all that.

-Ray (Radd) Price (Not the country singer)
01/2011

1.18.2011

My Time at Sendai: A Former EGM Editor Speaks - Part 2


In case you missed it, Part 1 of this blog post can be found here.  And now, on to Part 2:

The Video(game)tapes

Now that Martin was employed at EGM, we set about making arrangements for me to spend the weekend at his dad's so we could hang out and try some of the latest games, most of which I'd never seen before.  Remember, back then there were no Internet trailers (or Internet at all, funny to think about such a time being a mere 15 years ago), so I'd only seen pictures or read descriptions of most of these games.  But pictures of course can't compare with seeing, hearing, and playing.  Martin had also spoken with his boss, the Editor-in-Chief of EGM and Founder of Sendai Publishing (and my future boss as well), Steve Harris.  Steve had given permission for me to come and visit the office with Martin.  I probably didn’t stop smiling the entire weekend.

At the time I was still playing my NES, so the idea of playing Super Nintendo for the first time, as well as Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx CD and a few Japanese-only games and systems was too much for my tiny brain to handle.  It would have already been a fun weekend just spent with my friend, but add all the games, plus the fact I was going to visit EGM's offices, and you've got yourself one over-excited gamer. In the week prior I'd been telling my other friends what I was doing and they had suggested that I record our gaming sessions so they could see all of the games as well.  Martin made this no problem, and I ended up with three full videotapes of the latest games, including Actraiser and Gradius III for SNES, Ys Book 1&2 for TurboGrafx CD, and Castlevania III for NES.  Why a NES game?  Because Martin had the Japanese version of Castlevania III which included an extra sound chip (Konami's VRC6) to give the music an extra kick the U.S. version did not have.  Cool stuff!


A Trip to the Office

The next morning, Martin and I headed out to the Sendai office.  I nearly peed myself in anticipation.  When we arrived, the first thing I noticed were giant posters of some of the past EGM covers adorning the walls.  Inside the office itself were about six cubicles with various people (I'd come to know very well later) typing away.  Martin sat me down at a table and laid some games on the table that hadn't been released yet.  Some were beta, some were review copies, some didn't even have an outer case, just an EEPROM with the game title written in Sharpie on a white label.  He had a couple things to take care of at his desk so he left me to play.  After a while Martin returned with an older fellow, very tall, balding, maybe 50-ish years old.  He introduced me to Ed Semrad, EGM's Senior Editor.  I smiled and shook his hand, this was so damn cool!  We talked about my possible future involvement at the magazine, and I tried desperately to play it cool and let him know that I was very excited at the prospect, when in reality I was ready to hump his leg on the spot for a job.

Martin then suggested we get lunch then he'd show me the rest of the office and maybe he'd try to find Steve.  As I looked around the office, I was surprised how small and modest an operation it was.  There were really like less than ten total people putting these magazines together.  It was amazing how they made it all work so well.  They didn't even own the building; they were just a single suite in an office park.  You'd never know they were there.

Meeting Steve Harris

File Photo - Courtesy Google Images
My first meeting with Steve is one of my favorite stories to tell.  Martin and I made our way down a hallway to a room where we found a couple guys who didn't look much older than we were, messing with an office phone.  I figured they were a couple of Martin's co-workers, but Martin quickly said, "Oh here he is!"  Martin introduced me to Steve Harris, and his buddy Steve Ryno.  Steve didn't have much to say to me directly, except "Shh, Shh!" as he and Ryno laughed and pressed buttons on the phone.  As it turned out, Steve had just gotten the office's conference line installed and was eager to test it.  So he was calling the Lombard 7-11 and the nearby Lisle 7-11 stores and connecting them to one another and listening to the ensuing chaos.  We all laughed hysterically on speakerphone mute as two irate Pakis screamed at each other arguing over who had called who.  I suppose this is what happens when a man in his early 20s has too much time and money on his hands.  But at least I got a good laugh and a good story out of it.

Eventually Martin and I said our goodbyes and I headed back home with every issue of EGM past and present, and three videotapes full of unreleased games to show my friends.  I was hero for a day as I played the tapes back for all my friends.  It was a weekend I still look back on with fond memories despite the fact I eventually worked there myself.  Martin and I really had a great time.

The Call

After a few months of meandering around, I finally got the call I was waiting for.  Martin asked if I was ready to come on board the EGM staff.  Now bear in mind, at this point I was a high school dropout.  But it seemed like it was more important to Steve that people who loved and played games were writing for the magazine rather than journalism or desktop publishing/graphic design majors.  As I mentioned, my early education was excellent, and as I look back at some of the things I wrote in the magazine, I'm still proud of my early writing, spelling and grammar skills despite my "dropout" status.  Granted maybe some of those articles were fixed up in editing, but still I feel I did alright on my own.  So here I am, dropout gamer nerd, being handed a controller and told to play games for cash.  Oh, and also, we're going to teach you QuarkXPress and Adobe Photoshop, all the major desktop publishing and graphic design tools to put the magazine together.  What more could I ask for?

So Martin had me sit down with each of the guys in the office for a bit to get to know them, and also to learn the ropes.  At this point I met Ron Marciniak, Mike Vallas, and Ken Williams.  About the same time as my hire, another soon to be famous face entered the office, Terry Minnich, who would eventually become "Trickman" Terry (because he ended up working on the “Tricks of the Trade” section).

The Daily Grind

So the way it worked was this:  At the beginning of each month, we were given a "pagination" which was the projected layout of the magazine for the month.  There was a list of every page that was to be in the issue, and next to it, a set of initials that would indicate who was assigned to work on that page.  The pages weren't passed down a line to a person of a certain expertise.  Everyone handled their own pages from start to finish. So we'd see Ed Semrad, who was the keeper of the new games in his office. Then we'd play the game in its entirety, and we weren’t always assigned a good game.  Some of them REALLY sucked, but you had to play.  As we played, we used video capture software to capture photos along the way.  Then once we had the idea of the game, and enough pictures to make a layout, we'd open a QuarkXPress template to insert all of the content.  If we were lucky, the company included artwork for us to use on the page.  We'd cut and paste images and artwork, then create a sweet looking background in Photoshop 3.0, which would usually be lightened 200% by Ed in the editing process to make the text easier to read.

Bear in mind, all of this work was done on Macintosh IIci and if you were lucky, Mac IIfx computers with about 300MB of RAM (corrected by Mark, 300MB HDD and 8MB of RAM) and then saved on Magneto-optical drives that were prone to occasional failure.  It wasn't always the fastest work; a lot of what we were doing was cutting edge stuff.  But the computers were also top of the line, so upgrading really wasn't an option.  Also slowing down the work was the fact that we were all 17-22 year old gamers, geeking out over the new games each of us were playing, or breaking into random office supply fights and MANY practical jokes.  It really didn't matter, there wasn't really a stringent schedule placed upon us by Steve, as long as we were there 8-10ish and put in 8 hours and any required overtime to meet deadlines, it was okay.  So it was really up to us how and when to work.  If we slacked off a bit through the week, or slept behind a Neo-Geo arcade cabinet for a few hours (which would actually happen), then we were going to pay for it by working through the weekend and possibly into the late hours of the night.  We always met our deadlines, and things flowed along with precision for the most part with very little personal supervision.  If you've ever seen the movie Grandma's Boy, it's pretty much spot on.

Working for Steve

So what was Steve like?  I honestly don't know.  I didn't know him well at all.  He was relatively tall, with long black hair, mid-20s.  Very distant and inaccessible as a boss, he definitely sat on a level above the rest of us, and although he was maybe five or six years older than me, he was the most intimidating man I'd ever met, next to my own father.  He had a gold placard on his desk that read "Steve Harris: God-Emperor of Sendai".  I'm not kidding; he really had that on his desk.  I only saw his office a couple of times; he had the biggest desk and office chair I'd ever seen.  If he ever had something to say directly to one of us, it was usually said through Martin or Ed.  I spoke to him myself only a few times.  Some of the guys who worked there hung out with him outside work, taking rides in his Lamborghini and the like.  I was never one for the "bright lights-big city" lifestyle, so as exciting as it was to work there, I opted to end my day and resume my life at 5PM, to play the video games I WANTED to play.  I heard Ken Williams in a podcast describe Steve as a shark, which I thought was a pretty accurate analogy.  If you stood up to him, he respected you.  But at 18, I was far too young and intimidated to understand that.  I only knew an irrational fear of losing my job; he definitely commanded a presence when he entered the office, which wasn’t every day.

My direct supervisor was Martin, and I usually dealt with him or Ed Semrad when it came to matters of day to day operation.  It was Ed who gave me my very first game to write about.  It was a one-page spread for Heavy Nova on Sega Genesis.  I started at Sendai in late September 1991, but my name wouldn't appear in the magazine until November, and my Heavy Nova Spread didn't appear until a few months after that.  Usually while we were in mid cycle on an EGM issue, we'd receive another pagination for Mega Play (the all Sega Magazine), then eventually during that month a third for Super NES Buyer's Guide (Dubbed SNBG or "sneezebag" by everyone in the office).  We'd all do pages where and when we were needed and shuffle positions in order to get all three magazines out in that month.  One such shuffle saw an opportunity to for me to join the Mega Play Review Crew as G.O.G. (God of Games) for the remainder of my time at the magazine. I didn't make the name up; I just took over the role from Ron Marciniak when he left Sendai for college.

It was when I joined the Mega Play Review Crew that I began to learn a couple of fun facts about life at Sendai.  First, making a page for Mega Play was very simple. It usually involved taking a page from EGM, changing the color scheme, shuffling the layout around, and changing the bit that read "Electronic Gaming Monthly" to "Mega Play". Also, more than a few times I began to find that some of my Review Crew scores for particularly bad games were changed during the editing process.  You have to understand, that when you play every game ever released day after day, you see a lot of really good games, but also a lot of really bad games.  A game that I rated at a 3/10 and blasted for terrible, unimaginative game play and graphics/sound would suddenly be rated a 5/10 and the review re-worded to put the game in a more favorable light.  When I asked around the office, I was told "Ed said we have to be careful not to piss off certain companies".  Some people in the office began to speculate that Ed was getting kickbacks from companies to rate the games higher.  I don't really know if this was true, I guess it's possible but who knows?

The Flaming Dragon Punch

This story was bound to come up in this writing.  This was how I left my permanent mark on gaming culture.  By now everyone who has followed EGM knows the story of the mysterious Sushi-X.  He was in reality a very American (non-ninja) named Ken Williams.  Ken's job was simply to play Street Fighter II, and he excelled at his job.  Street Fighter II became a phenomenon, not just in the world of gaming, but in the Sendai office as well.  It became a high priority for EGM to cover this game as much a possible, so Ken played it and played it and laid out page after page about it, from tricks and tips, to strategy guides and history.  Ken himself was a solitary fellow, who didn't like to be bothered, and hated answering questions about Street Fighter II.  He just wanted to be left alone to work, and didn't seem to like people.  As fate would have it I ended up sitting next to Ken in the office.  I actually found him to be a really nice guy despite the first impressions I got from him. Ken liked me I think because I didn't play Street Fighter II along with the rest of the office, and didn't bother him with questions about it.

Occasionally Ken would need someone to assist him with capturing gameplay images from Street Fighter II.  Since I sat next to him, and he knew I wouldn't bother him with the nuances of the game, he'd ask me to help out.  He'd teach me certain moves and I'd execute them while he captured the images.  In doing this day after day, I slowly began to understand what the rest of the office saw in the game and began to play and enjoy it myself.  However, I was always careful not to overstay my welcome with Ken, even though I was now a huge fan of his work with Street Fighter II.

I was fortunate enough to be present for the greatest April-Fools joke in gaming history, EGM's infamous Sheng Long trick.  This was where EGM's tricks section included a fabricated and convoluted method to reach the final boss.  If you did it right, a "hidden" character named Sheng Long would appear and defeat the last boss in an instant, and then fight YOU!  This idea and all the Photoshop design work was done by Ken.  He used pieces of other characters, re-colored and pieced together to create a very convincing looking new character who was able to execute the moves of all the other characters in the game.  As I sat next to Ken and watched this idea take shape, I suggested that when Sheng Long executes one of the game's signature moves, the Dragon Punch, Ken should add flames to the punch.  I'd noticed that the game's final boss, Vega (or M. Bison if you prefer the U.S. names) had a single frame of animation in his fierce punch where flames came off his fist.  He copied and pasted the flaming fist, and Sheng Long gained a FLAMING Dragon Punch.  I was always proud of my contribution to the gag, but never imagined it could go further than that.

In the weeks that followed the publication of the April 1992 issue of EGM, the gaming world was sent into a frenzy as people dumped quarter after quarter into Street Fighter II machines in a futile effort to duplicate the impossible trick.  EGM began to receive letters and calls about the trick.  Likewise Capcom, the game's developer apparently had too, as they'd actually changed their corporate voicemail to state that they have no knowledge of the trick and to contact EGM for more information.  Oops!  We all laughed and felt a bit of pride at Ken's accomplishment.

In the months that followed, Capcom announced a new version of Street Fighter II called SUPER Street Fighter II.  Among the changes from the original version, it was possible to reach a new "hidden" character that would come out and defeat the final boss in an instant and fight you...  Sound familiar?  While the hidden character didn't have the flaming Dragon Punch move, they did add flames to Ken's Dragon Punch (Ken the Street Fighter II character, not Ken Williams... Phew, confusing)!  So we laughed and patted Ken on the back for making history.  But I always tell people I invented the flaming Dragon Punch because of my contribution to the original gag. 

Payday and Controversy

So how much did an Associate Editor at Sendai make in 1992?  I was paid $8 per hour when I started, which with overtime came out to about $600 every two weeks give or take depending on the amount of overtime.  Sounds like peanuts right?  Wasn't this EGM?  Well think about it, in 1992 that was a LOT of money, ESPECIALLY for an 18 year old who dropped out of high school.  I remember blowing my first paycheck on a new VCR and a Super Nintendo with F-Zero and Pilotwings. Eventually I'd blow another paycheck on a Super Contra arcade cabinet.  Being young, dumb and rich was a bad combination for me.

Eventually we went to a salaried system, after which I made a flat rate of $421.05 every two weeks.  Why LESS? I asked the same question when we went to salary and never got a straight answer.  This was the first time I began to feel cheated by my bosses, and it would begin a downward spiral that would eventually end my time at Sendai.  More on this in Part 3...

1.16.2011

My Time at Sendai: A Former EGM Editor Speaks - Part 1

Happy Birthday Radd's Basement!
On the second anniversary of this blog, I look back and realize I’ve never really talked about my time at Sendai (as an assistant editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly) in any sort of detail. I got on the subject with a friend recently, and thought it would be fun to recount my brief but life-changing adventure in the video game industry. The view from that side of the fence is a bit different than you might imagine. Maybe you’ve been there yourself and you're interested in another perspective, maybe you want to hear my story, or maybe you’re just plain bored. For those who don’t know the story, or don’t know the whole story, here it is…

The Birth of a Gamer

If you open an issue of EGM from November of 1991 to May 1992, you’ll see the name Ray Price listed in the masthead as Assistant Editor. Masthead. I didn’t know what that word meant until I worked there. Anyway, Ray Price is me. I worked at what was at the time called Sendai Publishing Group, situated at 1920 Highland Ave. in Lombard, IL, a mere 30 minutes from my home at the time.  Although the building is still there, the office is not. Sendai Publishing was the home of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine (among others, such as Mega Play, Super NES Buyer’s Guide, Super Gaming, Computer Game Review, etc, etc…). I’m your average, everyday dope who had the good fortune of a visionary father who brought home "Fairchild Channel F", arguably the first home cartridge-based video game system when I was a mere four years old. While growing up gamer is commonplace for today’s youth, back then I was a rare breed whose earliest memories were of gaming, and who in turn grew up living breathing and sleeping gaming. I didn’t enjoy board games or card games, and still don’t. They don’t challenge me the way video games do. 

I grew up in Cicero, IL. A nasty, horrible, cramped south side of Chicago suburb, situated near a horse racing track, sewage treatment plant and next door to a tavern. Graffiti and regular burnings of our picnic table were common, as was holding your parking spot on the one-way streets with kitchen or lawn chairs. These were the stomping grounds of late notorious gangster Al Capone, and just a delightful place to live. That last bit was sarcasm.  Fortunately my parents had the good sense to never allow me out of the house, so I developed quite an imagination and being left-handed, a creative mind as well. Unfortunately I couldn’t draw, but I did build things, (usually out of Legos) and eventually write things to express myself. Because it was such an awful, terrible, filthy neighborhood I wasn't sent to the public school, but rather to Redeemer Lutheran School in Cicero. It’s not there now. In fact nothing in that town is written in English anymore, so I couldn't even tell you what IS there now (that's not racist, that's a fact).  Anyway, I was one of eight or so kids in my class, so my early education was excellent, which is why today I can do basic math without a calculator and jot down semi-coherent ideas with a keyboard, or God-forbid even a pencil and paper.

So what does this have to do with me working at Sendai? How does an average chump reach such a lofty position in the world of gaming? Well it was at this humble Lutheran institution that my road to Sendai would begin. Among the friends I made there were Paul Ojeda, who would also end up at Sendai, but at a much later date than me, and Martin Alessi, who gamers everywhere would come to know as one of the famous EGM Review Crew.

Super Mario Bros.

Let’s fast forward past some really boring crap after Kindergarten. By 8th grade, I’d graduated from the Fairchild to the Atari 2600. I was enjoying classics like Combat and Pac-Man (because they came with the system), and even E.T. (Yes I owned a copy that didn’t end up in the infamous landfill, pretty sure I still do). One day, Martin invited me over to his house to play his new Nintendo Entertainment System. I was skeptical, I really loved my Atari. But he assured me that I’d never seen anything like it. My life changed that night. He flipped the door up and slid in the Super Mario Bros. Game Pak (because Nintendo called their games "Game Paks" not "cartridges" to distance themselves from the video game crash of the 80s). My mind was completely blown. I’d never seen or heard anything like it. From that day my entire life was focused on having this in my home too. I didn’t want to go home that night. But I eventually had to return to my stinking, Nintendo-free house, if for no other reason than to eat food to survive. But 8th grade graduation proved lucrative and I soon owned my own Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Bros Game Pak™. I think all the time before that could be considered casual gaming. The NES turned me hardcore gamer. Shortly after, my parents moved me out of Cicero, IL to Lockport, IL, (a small town situated at the ass-end of nowhere) where more of the Sendai legacy would take shape.

...and the rest

I kept in touch with my friends from Cicero while I began attending Lockport High School. There I befriended a few strange fellows who would also join the Sendai ranks at one point or another. I could never be found in a hallway or a classroom without a copy of the Nintendo Fun Club Newsletter (the predecessor to Nintendo Power). While in Freshman Biology class a strange bit of good fortune occurred. The fellow that just happened to sit at my lab table (who would become my lab partner and eventually stand up at my wedding) was also an avid gamer. He asked to page through my latest issue of NFCN (it was issue 3 as I recall). His name was Mark Sarnecki. In English class later that same year I was again asked for a lend of the NFCN by a tall and deep-voiced fellow with glasses named Danyon Carpenter who would eventually be best man at my wedding. Finally, I came across a wonderfully smart and hilarious fellow named Scott Parus who joined us in many tabletop role-playing adventures, paintballing weekends and gaming nights. I introduced the three, and we became an inseparable clan of high school nerds with aspirations of… Well, no aspirations really, just a need to laugh, have fun, roll dice in role-playing games and play video games. All of these names would eventually appear in the pages of EGM. Danyon as Senior Editor, Mark as Associate Editor and Scott would go on to inherit the mantle of Sushi-X from Ken Williams for a time. It was also during our role-playing days that I created my “Radd” moniker, for no other reason than it was a cool “future-heroic sounding” name for our Robotech RPG.

Four years passed. I was 18, failing out of high school and on a road to nowhere. I’d never started drinking, smoking or doing the reefer; I and my cohorts had remained very "White and Nerdy" (borrowed from a Weird Al Yankovic lyric,  further solidifying my geek status). They were at least going to graduate; I didn’t have much but my love of gaming.
  • By the way, a side note for those thinking that I was failing because of excessive gaming, I assure you that was not the case. I was failing because I’d become bored with my education and felt I’d learned all school had to teach me. I just wasn’t getting anything out of Shakespeare and Advanced Algebra. And being a gamer, I wasn’t exactly popular, and high school kids can be cruel as any non-popular person knows. Gamers weren’t common back then. There weren’t Halo parties back then. I was different and therefore scheduled for daily ritual punishment by the “normals”. I’m not blaming my failings at the time on anyone else; high school just wasn’t my thing, I tended to walk to the beat of my own drummer and still do. I have never really wanted to be a part of the “system” if you will. I’ll leave that to you “normals”.
A New Hope

At this point I was still keeping in touch with Martin on a semi-regular basis. One day he called and asked if I’d seen the latest issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly.  “Dude, first images of the Super Nintendo!”, were his exact words.  Although I'd never heard of the magazine, I dropped the phone and flew to Jewel to pick up a copy. I was really excited to see the Super Nintendo, but I noticed the magazine also had a wealth of engaging gaming news and information I wasn’t used to seeing.  Remember, gaming wasn't mainstream back then, so there wasn't much out there to appeal to us.  So seeing this magazine really made me swell with pride that I wasn't alone in my love for gaming.  Going back through history, this was the second issue of EGM, of which I still own a single copy which is not for sale at any price before you greedy punks ask! It then became a regular purchase for the next few months, and on release day my friends and I would tear through the latest issues like wild dogs, hungry for the latest news from the world of gaming.

Just before high school ended I got another call from Martin. He was excited to tell me some big news. He explained that out of curiosity he’d skimmed the opening pages of EGM and happened to notice they were based in Lombard, IL. While Martin still lived in Cicero, as luck would have it every weekend he saw his dad, who just happened to live in Lombard. So he dropped in at the EGM offices, explained his love for gaming and they gave him a job! WOW! How awesome is that!? My friend WORKS at EGM!! For the few hardcore gamers like us in the world, it was a dream job! Hell, it was a dream to even know a guy who worked there (or so you would think when you were an 18 year old gamer who was going to fail high school and had no plans for life after getting kicked out of high school for not showing up).  So I had to ask, “Are they hiring?” He replied, “Not right now. But eventually they will, and your name has been mentioned. I’ll get you in here.” I wanted to cry. This was my dream come true. This was how I was going to spend my life. Who needed high school? I had gaming. And it was going to carry me through life like a cool spring breeze.

Or was it?

It’s 1:30 AM and I'm tired.  Continued in Part 2.