The summer of 1997 was a turning point. After wandering down various roads, unsure of what I was supposed to do with my life, I had recently finished all the college I was willing to take. Hopeful that my aptitude for a newfound love of 3D modeling and animation was enough, I had applied for a job with the only gaming company that I knew of in my home state of Texas: id Software, makers of such classics as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
I never heard back, but something else happened that summer that changed my life forever.
I still hung out with my best friend from high school on occasion, and one day he called me, excited, to tell me about these guys he had met that were building a “virtual internet” and looking for someone with 3D skills to help them out. Now, I had obviously heard of the internet, but hadn’t really used it beyond the rote research effort for school. So it wasn’t the “internet” part of “virtual internet” that excited me—it was the “virtual” part.
A bit of an explanation may be in order. In the mid-90s, there were some really visual websites starting to pop up, but much of the internet was still very dry, text-based websites. The idea of a virtual internet centered around the idea that interacting with internet content could be more like navigating the physical world. Years later, Second Life would realize some of that vision, creating a 3D video game-like environment full of user-created avatars that could interact with each other and travel to areas of the Second Life world to visit other users, chat, or whatever. Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse is basically the same thing, but you have to wear swim goggles to use it. Also, NFTs! Good luck, buddy.
The optimism with these guys was infectious, though. I ended up hanging around their office quite a bit, sketching character ideas and environments and watching them map out this ambitious idea. It’s a well-established startup trope now, but nothing I made ever saw the light of day, because these guys spent more time rollerblading in the parking lot and playing Quake on the projector in the conference room than working. One day, I came by and they were moving out because the money was all gone. Looking back, that’s hilarious, but it was really deflating at the time.
But—like so many times in life—this chance encounter sparked a new interest, this time in the internet proper. I spent the next couple years learning Flash, HTML, and (eventually) CSS. I built fansites for The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Angel, both for myself and for other “webmasters”, as well as dozens of versions of what would eventually become this website. And all of that investment paid off: first an internship at a small web design agency, then a full-time job at a slightly larger one, and then another huge change in moving to a different city to work in the completely different world of enterprise web applications.
There’s absolutely a lot of dumb luck to this story, but I often think about this and other moments in life where I scraped against something unexpected, and a spark was created. What would life be like if I hadn’t caught that spark and used it to light something much bigger?