It was New Year’s Eve fourteen years ago when I caught a break that seemed — at least for a while — as if it would be the one that paid off. I’d quit my job to go freelance in August, doing digital prep work for a few clients I’d worked for at color shops, teaching Director — a program I’d trained myself on and with which I had a no real professional project experience — for Portland State University, doing rudimentary Web work (it was all rudimentary back then, and trying to pry some doors open in the world of multimedia by working on the newsletter for the Portland chapter of the International Interactive Communications Society.
Brad Hicks, a designer I’d worked with as a contractor at CKS Partners’ Portland office, and I were renting space from Dale Ott, a established independent designer who worked extensively with Sequent Computers, among others. Dale owned the second floor of a building at NW 14th & Marshall, across the street from Bridgeport Brewing, back before the Pearl District was the Pearl District. Bridgeport was there in 1995, but there was a dogfood factory on the block where the Safeway is now. The first floor of our building was a metal refinishing shop. A hallway on our floor had a door opening into the work area of the shop below, and the vapors could be overwhelming: I remember after working late one night that I could smell my shirt from across the room. Brad rented a room down the hallway; for $100 a month I got a 10’x9′ cubicle in the same room as Dale, his assistant, and a space very occasionally occupied by travel publisher Jim Bigoni.
The cubicle held my Mac workstation, as well as the computer I used as an internet server. I’d set up a Mac in March of ’95 on a 14.4 dialup, registered the moshplant.com domain and been running my own Web, mail, and other services using a piece of software called WebSTAR (one of the few options back in those pre-OS X days). At a time when a lot of other small developers didn’t have their own domains, I had a full access to my own server — slow as it was — and could see each transaction logged in real time.
In the fall, I’d gone to my second Macromedia User Conference. The buzz was over a new technology called Shockwave, but the seminar where they were showing it was limited in the number of attendees for some reason. I seem to recall that it wasn’t held in a regular meeting hall, and I don’t have any idea how I ended up getting in. I was a nobody. Nobody knew who I was. I didn’t know anyone at Macromedia. I don’t even remember how I found out about the seminar, but I was there.
Then I went home to wait. Shockwave for Director (one of many Shockwaves) had been shown, but I wasn’t on the beta. It wasn’t until early December that Macromedia released a public beta of Shockwave for Director. What came out then was an application called Afterburner, which took a Director 4 .dir file and compressed its data — with score and script information up front and assets following — into a .dcr file that could be viewed on in a Web browser (Netscape) with the Shockwave for Director plugin. At least, it could be viewed if you had a Windows machine, because the Mac plugin wasn’t ready for public beta. Coming as I did out of the print graphics and color retouching business, I didn’t have a Windows machine. Only one guy I knew at the time had an internet connection and a Windows machine, as a matter of fact, so in order to see my first Shockwave movie, I had to make a 50-mile round trip to Scappoose, Oregon to get Waldo (who was already working in digital video back in those days) to download the plugin so that I could see my simple animation.
They were primitive times, the mid-’90s. Everyone was scrambling to get a handle on the Web thing, and a lot of it wasn’t very pretty. Macromedia didn’t set up a listserv or a forum or anything of the sort to keep people on the public beta updated or let them pose questions. Someone just whacked together a CGI script and a form, and what we got was pretty much what you have for the comments section of a blog: a form at the bottom of a page with the comments in order of submission. Throughout the month of December, that page grew and grew in length. By the end of the month it was about 200K, which — by the standards of a day when 1K/sec. was the norm on a 14.K modem — was pretty big if you were trying to keep up on things.
Sometime in the evening, well after the hour when I should have knocked off and been thinking of an activity for midnight, I made the long reload. And there on the bottom was a lure that I couldn’t resist. It was a note from David Rogleberg, a recent emigre from a publishing company who had set up shop as Studio B, which was at that time an agency representing writers of computer books. He was looking for someone who could write a book on Shockwave and the publisher was in a hurry. I wrote an email with my name, outlining my writing credits and Director experience.
I never found out the whole story — there were rumors about a book deal that had gone south, some authors who were assigned to a more lucrative project within the company, etc. — but the hurry was a big part of it. Like I mentioned earlier, apart from my teaching gig, I’d never done any paid Director work. My only professional writing credentials were a gag piece published by the official Dungeons & Dragons magazine when I was seventeen and a short technical article written for Step-by-Step Graphics about a newspaper artist using Freehand earlier in the year, with a gap of sixteen years between the two. I’m almost certain that my undergraduate thesis is one of the shortest — if not the shortest — English theses at my alma mater. I’d never even attempted anything book-length. The audacity of thinking I could write an entire book on a barely-documented subset of a program I sort-of-knew in the wild-and-wooly field of the Web (1995 version) is only outmatched by the desperation of people who picked me to do it.
Less than three weeks later I had a contract for what became Shockwave: breathe new life into your web pages (not my choice for a title). The publisher already had a Frankenstein motif chosen for the cover (which carried through to the CD-ROM, executed by Eric Coker). I started trying to figure out what each of the limited set of Shockwave Lingo commands could be used for, what their limits were, and how those could be shown through step-by-step tutorials, something that became one of my specialties. I was able to lean on another local multimedia developer and musician, David Duddleston, for advice on the sound capabilities of that early Shockwave (as well as some sample audio). The whole thing was written and proofed in ten weeks, and it was shipping by May 1996. It looked then like it was going to be the start of a big new thing. It wasn’t, but that’s another story and since New Year’s is about new beginnings I’m going to end there.