Daily Illuminator

November 18, 2014: The DI: A Meditation On Quality

Wow, the Daily Illuminator. Hello. It's been a while.

You learn some interesting things about quality, if you look long enough at the right people. Steve Jackson is the one the people I've looked at for a long time, and if you're reading this it's probably because you also think he has an interesting take on quality -- he only does great stuff, absolutely, but over years and years of watching him, while he doesn't always move as quick as he'd like, he's never been any slower than he had to be. He gets things out about as quick as they can get out, and they're almost always more than good enough.

Sometimes they're even great. When I was a kid, pressing against my early teens, I first came across Steve Jackson Games, and while it would be a long time before I ran into anyone else who'd ever heard of them, everything they put out was as professional as a twelve-year-old could discern, a real publisher doing consistently non-sketch work. We have a whole generation of people for whom great graphic design is one of those party tricks you pick up with enough spare time, making party fliers for friends, but this was in a time when you had professional publishing and you had wide-eyed unshaven dudes hawking photocopies on card tables at sparsely-attended game conventions.

I'm not accusing Steve Jackson of being shaven, here. What I'm saying is that everything he did crossed a clear threshold of goodness. I worked with Steve for about four and a half years, over which I learned more from him about quality than I think I ever got out of anyone else. That's actually where the Daily Illuminator, which I think is the oldest blog in the world, came from.

In late 1994, there were fewer than 20,000 websites. I mean, that sounded like a lot back then. In about a year, there'd be more than 600,000 sites, so really the Internet was just getting started. Three years later, there'd be 10 million sites. In 1994, though, the interests represented on the early Internet were skewed more toward its geeky origins (no surprise). The summer before, an amazing thing had leaped out into the gaming scene, a game called Magic: The Gathering. As the first collectible card game, now a powerhouse category of gaming, it had a tremendous influence on the direction of the industry at large. At Steve Jackson Games, we worked extremely hard to translate Steve's classic game, Illuminati, to this new medium.

It was a pretty urgent endeavor, at the time. The company was in trouble for a good many reasons, not the least of which was Steve's insistence that a game he'd been aggressively developing -- and expensively marketing — for years was in fact not going to work, and he'd rather shelve it than squeeze something out which, yes, might make a lot of money, and might enrich some partners, and might provide years worth of steady income from supplements, but it would not be good, and so it was not going to happen. The book I'd been working on, also expensively marketed, was pulled by Steve just a month before it was supposed to go to the printer because he didn't think it was good enough. And he was right, it wasn't.

I personally was shattered on the other side of what we had to do to get that game to the printer, along with the issue of Pyramid Magazine that would help promote it. But I had this idea that the magazine -- and our usual company organ, "Where We're Going" -- would lag too long behind publication to affect the early sales we needed to create a wave of positive interest around the game. So I had this idea that we put up a web page, something like a .plan file, which would keep fans appraised of the status of the game, and celebrate when it finally came out. In the future, we could go on about what we were doing in general.

For weeks, Steve bugged me to stop talking about it and to actually do it. I told myself I was too shattered after slipping Illuminati: New World Order off to the printers, and I needed more time to get my head together. I told myself I needed to figure out how HTML tables worked, since clearly you'd also need something like a little calendar off to the side of the page, so you could see where posts had been made in days past and click through to read them.

Steve, of course, took a proper measure of the situation and, opening an empty file, began typing. He posted the link off the main SJGames page and people began viewing it. He invited me to contribute, and I made some posts over a couple of years. Four days into the launch of what we now recognize as the world's oldest blog, I became its second writer. If I'd had a better grasp at the time of the difference between good and good enough, I'd have been the first. That title remains Steve's. It's one of his strange gifts, his sense of quality. It taught me that you can't simply hold the bar high or low and expect a consistent outcome. All you can do is take a good measure of the situation, consider what you have to work with and the time you're given. Then you jump as high as you can and, if you've done it well, then you'll soar right over the bar you've set.

I literally can't believe that I'm talking about something that happened twenty years ago now. The Internet is a different place, certainly, as much as it was ever any one place. From the early tens of thousands of sites, many tens of millions of sites and blogs and pages have bloomed. The quality of the content varies widely, but good things still get out there. And over the last two decades, Steve Jackson Games has rolled forward, doing things more than well enough. Maybe Steve would've wanted some of his efforts to have come out better, but that'd only make him human. What makes him interesting is the same thing that makes the Daily Illuminator interesting even after twenty years: he keeps doing what he's doing, just like the Illuminator keeps rolling along.

– Derek Pearcy

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