A Ziff-trospective, Part II: Mere Anarchy

When last we spoke, I promised to tell you some dirty little secrets about the Bad Old Days of EGM, OPM, and assorted magazines, in their original home in Lombard, Illinois. And I have no intention of shirking my duties.

But trying to hang these all together in some sort of coherent narrative would a.) take way too long, and b.) probably not make any sense anyway. There was a lot going on, as you’ll see, and if I were to try to hem everything up all pretty it would probably come off as some sort of fevered drug-dream. So instead, let’s peek in on some memorable moments, some iconic people, things, and events that represented that whole heady, smelly time.

Let’s start with the Cone of Violence. It’s as good a place to start as any. Now, enough has been said about this device that I’m not going to waste much time describing it except in the simplest terms: It was a full-size traffic cone, heavy as these things are, positioned appropriately next to the Blitz machine… Oh, I haven’t told you about the Blitz machine? Yeah, we had an NFL Blitz arcade machine in the office, positioned directly in front of the main door so that you couldn’t possibly miss it. “Oh, I was just heading down to the break room for a soda, but I guess I could squeeze in one game.” It’s a wonder we ever got any work done. Anyway, games of Blitz could get pretty heated, thanks largely to what has been variously called “CPU assist,” “rubberband AI,” and “bullshit.” See, what happened was, as soon as one player opened up a big lead, the game would start causing him to fumble the ball, throw interceptions, miss easy passes — pretty much do everything but trip over his own shoelaces. This made some people angry.

But it made Crispin Boyer positively livid. Now, Crispin is truly one of the nicest, mild-mannered fellows you could ever hope to meet. Honestly. The only exception I ever saw was when he was losing at games. And boy howdy, did he have a temper in those days. The Cone of Violence was really primarily for him. He’d lose a game of Blitz, and rather than rabbit-punching someone in the throat or throwing a chair through a window, he’d pick up this heavy rubber cone and slam it, repeatedly, upon the ground. This generally served to dissipate his wrath.

Except the one time. I remember watching Crispin lose an epic seesaw battle of Blitz by a hair’s breadth. He had built up a legendary lead, only to see it slowly whittled away thanks to CPU assist. In the end, he lost by maybe a single point. I mean, he got seriously, seriously screwed. And I remember him looking at the Cone of Violence and sneering, kicking it almost nonchalantly out of his path, walking over to the closet nearby — you know, the kind with the accordion doors? — and tearing the closet door clean off. Like tearing tissue paper.

It was awesome.

No, we had absolutely no respect for our environment in those days. The office had been occupied by EGM for long enough that it had built up a healthy amount of normal wear and tear — and it wasn’t exactly nice to begin with. Plus it was populated primarily withtwentysomething guys. This combination does not breed reverence for one’s surroundings.

You could see it in the way we staked our territorial claims. Walk into EGM in the mid-’90s and you’d see an environment I lovingly referred to as “the Shantytown.” See, a regular office has cubicles of a fairly standard size. But EGM’s cubes were separated by movable walls…which meant that every so often someone would try to annex new territory. After seven or so years of this, the layout had become almost entirely organic. One cube might be just big enough for a desk and a chair, while the one next door would be a palatial manor with fountains and servants’ quarters.

I remember someone — I think it was Shawn Smith — had a cube so small you literally had to turn sideways to get in. There was room for him to sit at his desk and maybe enough room for one other person to stand awkwardly close. But the funny thing was, to get from the main walkway into his cube — a distance of about three feet — you had to make two 90-degree turns.

Meanwhile, the guy next door had a full-sized Killer Instinct arcade cabinet in his cube. I shit you not.

In all the years in Lombard, though, I don’t know that anyone was ever more audacious about cube expansion than Shoe. When I started in 1996, just a couple months after he did, he had a small desk wedged into a corner between a real wall and movable cube-wall. (I remember this clearly because his desk was the place where I first saw Mario 64.) By the time we left Lombard in December of 1998, he had added three more wall sections, a full-sized bookshelf, and a couch. Not a love seat, a couch. I swear to God this is not an exaggeration.

(Something else comes to mind while we’re in this section of the building. The real wall that made up the west end of Shoe’s estate had the game closet on the other side. This was a room about the size of your average half-bath, filled with racks and racks of old games. It was always kept locked, and only a few people had the key. Which was why one enterprising strategy-guide editor, who happened to also sit adjacent to that wall, punched through it one night to grab handfuls of whatever he could reach. If memory serves, this was the same guy who prompted the institution of a no-shorts policy by showing up to work in cutoff sweatpants with nothing on underneath. That’s class!)

Anyway, this quest for territory manifested itself in different ways. In some cases, people would move the boundaries of their cubes in increments small enough to not be noticed. In other cases, guys would just spy an empty area and move in. That’s the route I took when the last mail guy left. See, the office got so many packages on a daily basis — most of them games — that it was originally deemed necessary to have a full-time employee sorting them out and distributing them to the editors. But when the third guy in a row was found to have been skimming free games from the FedEx haul, the position was permanently eliminated. Which meant a space had opened up — and not just any space, but a legitimate room. With a door. So one evening, I grabbed all my crap and moved in.

OK, sure, it was technically a kitchen. Yes, it had cabinets, countertops, and a sink. But by God it had a door. And really, you don’t realize until you have it how useful running water can be in an office.

joeofficeCabinets and counters, blessed darkness and quiet. (Not pictured: sink.)

By that time I was just happy to have a place to retreat from the insanity. Because sometime between 1996 and 1998, the stars aligned just right and we ended up with a group of very active, very rowdy guys. Many stories have already been told about the extracurricular activities that went on in that building, from Decapitato to creative re-signing. But did you know that at one point we started regular Lazer Tag games in the office? The rules were: Anywhere you could get to was fair game. Bathrooms, the offices upstairs — even the basement was technically in play. I still remember my sweetest kill. I’d noticed that one player had gotten into the habit of trying to surprise people by taking the elevator upstairs and camping out by the open stairway. So I hit the elevator button, got in, and let the doors close without selecting a floor. Shortly thereafter: Ding! Zap! Game over.

Have I mentioned we were a bunch of friggin geeks?

Anyway, this is all preamble, really, to the pinnacle of irresponsibility: The Last Night. See, in 1998, with the industry growing steadily in respectability, it was decided that the magazines would all be moved out of that stained craphole in Lombard and into a swank, newly redecorated office building a couple towns over. I think someone up the ladder hoped that in a more professional environment we’d all act more professional.

Oh, those poor, misguided people.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we entered the new office we had to leave the old one. And that meant that there would be a day when we would all walk out of that shanty town and never come back.

Did you think we were irresponsible before? You have no idea. I can honestly say I understand now how rioting starts. Understand me: I’m not saying what we did was anything close to rioting. It’s just that by the end of the night a group dynamic had taken hold that, had it turned in a different direction, could easily have gotten ugly. And I imagine that’s how things get started when the real shit goes down.

Fortunately, we were just a bunch of geeky kids, so the activities that went on that night were only mischievous, not malicious. Unfortunately, we had all recently been sent baseball bats as a game promotion.

Many things were destroyed that night. Mostly these were confined to bits of non-functional furniture and other things destined for the garbage dump. We played home-run derby with old game CDs. We tore apart sagging plastic desks. We flattened busted metal filing cabinets.

filecabinet3Oh hey, look at that slide in the lower-left — that’s how we used to get game screenshots from publishers. On photographic slides. Really!
filecabinet2You’d be amazed how satisfying this is. Also, note Shoe’s expanded cube in the background. Did you think I was joking? You can even see a corner of his orange couch peeking out.

But the destruction was really just the beginning. The night became a series of escalating dares. Oh, you’re going to flatten a filing cabinet? I bet you won’t slip this week-old pizza under the door of the office upstairs. Oh yeah? Well, I bet you won’t rearrange all the letters on the building directory. Oh yeah? Well, I bet you won’t set a remote-controlled car on fire and drive it around outside until it melts into a plastic puddle! Oh yeah? Well, I bet you won’t move this abandoned car from the parking lot into the lobby! (Turns out we actually couldn’t do that last one; it had sat there so long that the tires had fused to the pavement. We did try, though.) And I’m not one hundred percent certain, but I believe someone may have attempted to ride a wheeled office chair down the stairs.

No way did we get our security deposit back.

And in between these events, we sat around, drank beer, and traded stories about all the weird shit that had gone down in that building. And I’m not talking about our childish pranks, I’m talking about legitimate weirdness and/or profoundly unethical behavior that I was fortunate enough to never witness firsthand. But oh my, the stories: an editor and a copy editor discovered in flagrante delicto in an office…another editor rumored to be trading coverage for “happy endings”…many many bits of pricey schwag gone mysteriously missing…lawsuits and allegations, intraoffice adultery, suspicious hirings and firings, blackmail and hush money. Crazy times that I’m glad I missed most of.

I remember sitting in a circle around a mostly-empty twelve-pack. The mischief was winding down and most of the staff had gone home. We were surrounded by a wasteland of debris: smashed furniture, shattered discs, a carpet of old press releases. And in walks someone from administration, who’d been staying late packing up the important things we were actually taking with us to the new place. She looks at us, looks around, shakes her head, and walks away without a word.

That pretty much summed it up.

Next time: Do nicer offices instill a greater sense of responsibility? Do the words “midnight Home Depot run” give you any hints?

16 Replies to “A Ziff-trospective, Part II: Mere Anarchy”

  1. I didn’t get to live the Lombard days, but I do remember hearing one story that involved a BB gun on the third (?) floor and a dude driving around in the parking lot with a target that could only be hit through his open sunroof.

    I wish I’d seen that.

  2. Thanks for filling in my memory’s gaps of the Last Night in Lombard! You know, I’m pretty sure the old door code still works. Road trip! And that so-realistic-you-can’t-buy-it-in-the-U.S. bb gun was Jim Mazurik’s. I think Nelson’s car was the moving target. Our old neighbors in that office park probably hold an annual picnic to celebrate the night we all disappeared, drunk and shirtless, into the darkness.

  3. Yes! I completely forgot about that gun! It wasn’t really a BB gun though, was it? I think it shot rubber pellets, that didn’t really hurt too bad if you got hit.

    Well, anywhere except the eye.

  4. OMG that night must have been so freaking crazy. And also fun as hell at the same time! Wish I could have been there to see it.

    I almost died from laughter after reading Crispin’s comment.

  5. I remember taking several whacks at that evil file cabinet, it was about 1/16 it’s original height when we finished it off. I think even Steve Harris stood in the backround with a look on his face that was a mix of “My God, what did I unleash”, and “Am I really seeing what I think I see?” then a shrug and exit stage left. Probibly past Crispin’s office in the elevator on the way out.

  6. Regarding the Lombard ofc..does “fighting cats” ring a bell to anyone?

    And, I’m anxiously awaiting the “midnight home depot run” story. I know about it…but never did find out where the repair was actually done. I just remember coming in to work and the “supplies” left in a nice tidy pile on my desk “just in case” there would be more repairs necessary in the future. This happened to be on a day of a “town meeting”.
    I think the activity that warrented the repair may have been human “bowling” with the chairs I had arranged for the meeting. Can’t wait to hear the real story.

  7. Man, these are so good. I can’t get enough. Has anyone ever heard from the people that worked in the other offices, ever?

  8. Midnight Home Depot run !! I remember this story from RadiOPM’s final Podcast. Shhhhhh…. Not giving it away though..

  9. I remember Joe covering himself in Nestle Quick syrup, lighting a baseball bat end on fire and stomping down the hall screaming “KISS ME, I’M A SPARTAN!”

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