Friday, November 16, 2007

Me and Carmen Sandiego

In late 1991, there appeared in the SFWA Forum, a letter from a project manager at Broderbund Software, the company that developed and marketed the popular "Where in the (World, USA, Time) is Carmen Sandiego?" computer game.

The next Carmen Sandiego project was to be "Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?" So the project manager had the idea of getting an SF writer to write material for the game.

If you've never played any of the Carmen Sandiego games, the basic gimmick is similar to the old text-based D&D style games. Carmen Sandiego is the ringleader of a criminal gang and the gang has stolen something valuable and rare. At any given point, the player is given a "clue," possibly information from an informant, possibly an artifact, something. They then deduce the next destination for the Carmen Sandiego crime gang, go there and get the next clue. Eventually the player recovers the stolen item, but, of course, Carmen Sandiego herself is never caught.

The Carmen Sandiego style for the "clues" was distinctive, based on puns and other word play. Those writers who wanted to apply for the job of writing for the game were told to submit some samples. My research consulting business at that time was pretty part-time, so I contacted the Broderbund manager and sent in some samples.

I also had a leg up in that Broderbund was just across SF Bay from where I lived, so I could actually go and interview in person. I also had a reasonably good idea of what the tech contract going rate was in the Bay Area, so I knew what sort of money to ask for.

Anyway, long story short, I got the gig. Then the mutations began.

First, the original project manager left to go to Lucasfilm's game division, so I switched contacts before I'd even begun work. That was fine, and par for the course, actually. Then there was the thing about the "on-line database."

See, most of the Carmen Sandiego games come with a reference work, a book of some sort, like a World Almanac, or a history reference. "Where in Space…" had a small little pocket astronomy book, but it was really cheap and there wasn't that much to it. So they asked if I would be willing to write a sort of an "overview of the Solar System" database that could be included in the game (the game was confined to the solar system, for which, thank god, because all of space would have been just too overwhelming). Sure, I said. Heck, these guys were paying by the hour, after all.

So one writing project turned into two, and it was a research project besides. I got to go down to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, to every used bookstore in a town filled with used bookstores, and buy up every popular text on the solar system that had been written in the last 20 years or so. Actually, I didn't limit myself to popular texts. I'm a nurd; who knows what sort of cool thing I might find in Annals of the IQSY 5 Solar-Terrestrial Physics?

Meanwhile, I was writing clues. I'd been told at the start that there would be two or three writers working on the project, but sometime around the middle of it, I was told that I was the only one left.

Well, hi ho, just crank out the clues, of varying difficulty levels, and try to keep it clever. The one that the new manager, Dave, loved, was this one:

>He told me to say, "Did you pet her," five times really fast and I'd figure it out.

Difficulty level of only 1, but good for a chuckle.

As nearly as I can reconstruct from the dates on my files, the gig lasted for about 6-8 months, and it was nearly full-time pay for part-time work, almost all of which I did from home. I got to research the geography of the solar system, learned many of the named features of most of the satellites in the outer solar system by heart, and accumulated a substantial library of source material for anything I might be curious about. It should probably be noted that most of this material is now on-line, one way or another, including some information that we either had a devil of a time locating. What is Skynd Crater named after, eh? Yeah, yeah, you bastards, you've got Google to help you. All we had was the head librarian at JPL.

So it was informative, and it was also fun. Plus, the money from that gig, which would not have come my way without my SFWA membership, remember, probably outweighs all the other money I've made writing SF. And remember, I wasn't being paid huge sums by Broderbund. It's just that writing fiction pays suck all, unless you hit a jackpot, which I have not. Still and all, both the fiction writing and the Carmen Sandiego gig have added well into 5 figures to my income over the years, but together they don't crack 6 figures, unless you assume that I put all my writing income into the stock market, beginning back in 1983 (which may not be that wrong an assumption, come to think of it).

But "Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego?" was not a jackpot, either for me or for Broderbund. Dave, the project manager left Broderbund shortly thereafter, and I was not able to continue the association, partly because the company hit some hard times and wound up being acquired by The Learning Company. And "Space" did not sell that well, as I told Dave was likely at one point or another.

You see, the other Carmen Sandiego games are aimed at kids who are in elementary school, children aged 6-12, I think, is the target audience. But the "Space" game had pretty strong science fiction elements to it, and that's a YA market, which is more like 13-18. It was not a bad idea to try to expand the age reach of the franchise, but I foresaw it as being a hard row. A 14 year old is trying to cease "being a kid," and playing a game that has "grade school" associations isn't going to help in that quest.

I thought that there was the possibility for some SF YA book tie-ins, and that those could help expand the market, and, incidentally, make some more money for me. There I ran into a brick wall. Broderbund had signed an exclusive deal with a publisher for tie-in books, which was fine. What wasn't fine was that it was impossible to contact the editor in charge of that putative line of books. I spoke with her exactly once, after weeks of trying to call her. It turned out that she'd answered the phone by accident. There had been so many cutbacks in the editorial staff and she was so overloaded that she'd taken to filtered all calls through voicemail and she only answered the ones that represented some crisis or another. Since adding another line of books to the deal was never going to be "a crisis," I was SOOL.

If you want to do TV and movies, move to LA. The San Francisco Bay Area is good for working in computer/video games. For book publishing, live near New York.

I could never figure out how to be in three places at once.


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