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A Ziff-trospective, Part I: The Lombardening

In my most recent post over at 1UP, I started musing a bit about some of the good times I had in my ten-and-a-half years at Ziff Davis Media. With EGM having closed just shy of its 20-year anniversary, there’s a lot of this going around, I understand. Shoe and Crispin did plenty, in written and verbal form; Mielke wrote The Compleat Milkography, Vols. I – XXIV; Greg Sewart rebutted with a different perspective; and C.J. reposted some classic musings of his own. And that’s just a small sampling.

Look, I never claimed to be a trend-setter.

The thing is, I’ve noticed some gaps in others’ accounts. Some gaps that need filling. And by God, I’m just the man to do it.

Plus, I have pictures. Incriminating pictures.

And so, I present to you the first in a four-part series: A Ziff-trospective, Part I: The Lombardening.

Pretty much any story anyone tells about Lombard includes mention of it being the most suburbiest of suburbs. And oh dear lord, it is. (Or at least, it was the last time I was there.) But do you think that mattered to a 22-year-old kid, fresh out of college, new to Chicago, and starting his first day of work at a videogame magazine? No. No, it did not.

It was June 24, 1996. A bit more than a month previous, in anticipation of moving from my hometown of Cleveland to Chicago, I had answered an ad in the Chicago Tribune for “Writer / Game Player” with a resume (thin) and writing samples (laughable). Both, I learned later, had been promptly lost, but my cover letter had stuck around on someone’s desk long enough to make some sort of impression. So I got asked in for an interview, impressed the hell out of everyone by showing up in a tie, and found myself reporting for work at the offices of Sendai Media the following Monday.

Let me tell you what I saw the first time I walked into this place. You drive up on the outside to a very plain, very institutional-looking, brown-brick building. Three floors, darkish windows — pretty much the epitome of the anonymous late-20th-Century office building. (Come to think of it, here: see for yourself.) You open the doors into a modest, tiled lobby, facing a bit of ugly abstract art that’s inexplicably blocked off with velvet ropes. You go up an open stairway to the second floor. Straight ahead is Reception, but if we’re going to EGM (and we are), we’ll turn left. Swipe your card and open the door.

You walk into a long, low room, harshly lit in zombie fluorescent. You hear electronic noise, some laughter, more yelling. You smell something funny. Crammed into this room are somewhere around 30 videogame geeks, most in their early ’20s, some in their late teens. Many have not seen the inside of a shower in days. (Some have not seen the outside of this building in as long.) They’re scattered in an apparently random distribution, separated from one another by raggedly arranged temporary walls, carpeted in hideous light-blue fabric, chin-high and wobbling. The carpet is stained. The furniture is plastic.


A representative section of the EGM offices. (Though this is technically the OPM area.)


The entire office wasn’t quite this messy, but it wasn’t far off.

Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, this ain’t.

But then you notice that every desk has a TV. And every TV is surrounded by a scattering of game systems. And the break room has a Mortal Kombat machine. And as ridiculous as it may seem, you are about to begin a new career writing about videogames. You will be paid for this. (Given the hours, it comes out to less than minimum wage, but let’s not talk about that now.) You will be working alongside a group of passionate young adults every bit as geeky as you are. You will show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt. And when you’re there, you will play games.

Maybe Heaven smells better, but it ain’t as much fun.

So there I was on my first day, trying not to make an ass of myself in front of my new colleagues, whose names I still hadn’t quite gotten. Luckily, by the time lunch rolled around I was saved: Dan “Shoe” Hsu and Crispin Boyer, two other newish hires, took pity on me and dragged me along to lunch at their favorite deli, right down the street.

I was still in a daze, which may explain why I never told them about the enormous roach I saw burrowing through the salami.

Sorry guys. Now you know why, anytime you asked me to come along to the deli after that, I always had plans.

I don’t remember anything else about my first day. But tomorrow I’ll tell you about Day Two.

No no, I kid. I have no interest in walking you through each step of my career. I just wanted to set the stage a bit, give you a frame of reference for the stories that are to come. I hope I’ve been successful.

Next time: the truth behind the Cone of Violence, the claiming of territory, and photographic evidence of the Last Days of Lombard.



1: Ryan Murtha on February 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm

I love hearing stories of the old Lombard days of the Ziffers. Did you ever take part in games of Decapitato? Or was that a different office?


2: Joe Rybicki on February 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Oh hell yes. I’m not sure why the building lost power as often as it did, but hurling a deadly ring down a long darkened hallway was a pretty sweet consolation prize for not being able to get any work done.


3: Nick G on February 18, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Oh I cant wait for you to finish this. The cone of violence story on a life well wasted made me cry i was laughing so hard.


4: sewart on February 18, 2009 at 8:51 pm

I love you and love your stories…

In the most manly way possible.


5: Davin on March 5, 2009 at 1:44 am

Hey, Joe. Love these stories. Keep ’em coming.