It sounds impossible, and it might sound crazy to you. Adam Orth, Internet Enemy #1 this past spring—the Deal With It, always-online ex-Microsoft guy—is sizing up the past several months of pain and hurt and sounds like a man reborn. "It was a good year for me," he says.
"It was dark, in the beginning," he told me earlier this week over the phone, "but I got through it. It feels, looking back on it now, it feels good that it happened, and I got a lot out of it. I'm a better person for it."
This is the happy twist to a story that has gone in an unexpectedly good direction. Adam Orth is a man transformed.
Adam Orth, a 43-year-old game designer who had worked at EA, LucasArts and Sony Santa Monica, was virtually unknown on the Internet at the start of 2013. But on April 4, that changed. Orth was working at Microsoft at the time as a creative director on the Xbox TV team, back when Microsoft wasn't even admitting that they were working on a new console. Rumors were flying that the console might require an online connection. And on April 4, I reported that two of my best sources believed that an online connection would indeed be needed to start playing any game on the machine. This console would be, in a manner of speaking, a machine that required the Internet.
Orth says he hadn't seen my story, that it was just coincidence that hours later he Tweeted the following:
And then he made some jokes publicly on Twitter with a game developer friend about people complaining about this kind of thing, jokes about whether the Internet is bad outside of cities and, in what always struck me as playful un-serious banter, who would want to live outside of the big city?
He said stuff that, in many eyes, looked like a Microsoft guy justifying making a console that would require online. He likened being worried about buying an always-online console like worrying about potential blackouts while buying a vacuum.
Orth struck a nerve, and he struck it hard.
On Reddit, on the NeoGAF message board, and surely here on Kotaku as well, readers called for his firing. They raged against him, dug into his past and decided he was a jerk, railed against him in YouTube video after YouTube video and mocked him relentlessly.
This was the kind of thing people were saying:
Hey guys I brought my pitchfork. So how does this go down? Where do we go to get him fired?
Edit: I'm serious.
This guy is video game poison. Micro$oft should fire him immediately.
A week later, he was out of his job at Microsoft. All he'll say about that is that he resigned.
Orth regrets those Tweets. "It was never my intention to cause any of this trouble," he says now. "I just made a mistake. I deserved to be criticized rationally, but that's not what happened. It just turned into this epic moment in time where I couldn't go anywhere on the Internet without running into it. It was really powerful and really big and really painful."
But he also doesn't think the punishment, as it were, fit the crime. The online reaction to him was swift and nasty.
Orth: "It was never my intention to cause any of this trouble," he says now. "I just made a mistake. I deserved to be criticized rationally, but that's not what happened."
Orth says the Internet blowback made him physically sick. "I don't think I slept for the better part of the week that this happened." He had nightmares. He says he was "feeling like I'd destroyed my life and my family's life." He was embarrassed. "My family is the most important thing to me and having put myself in a position where it would drastically change and hurt our lives was a really hard pill for me to swallow."
He was ashamed. "Deep humiliation," he recalls feeling. "It's hard to talk about those things other than with those labels because it was a very painful thing." He felt like he couldn't escape it, and he didn't know what to do. "There's no handbook or anything you can use to figure out how to handle when you become a target like that."
Orth struggles now to remember everything that happened. "Details at that time are a little blurry, because everything was happening so fast," he says. "It's a really odd feeling when everyone is piling onto you like that. It's not something I can really describe well. It's a horrible, horrible feeling that I wouldn't wish on anyone. You know how the Internet is, right? There's no checks and balances for what you can say so everything just became the most super-negative thing ever."
He says that on the evening of April 4 he actually unplugged and got himself off social media. "I saw the first wave of it, and that was enough," he says. Friends still told him what people were saying. His wife read a lot of the comments. "It was a horrible experience for all of my family."
"I realized early on that getting taken over by the kind of darkness that you feel when something like this happens is very dangerous, and I decided pretty early on that I wasn't going to let that happen to me. I tried whatever I could to make it positive."
Orth says his family and friends rallied to support him. He is also struck by how much the game industry came to his support: "All kinds of notes and texts from people I knew and people I'd never met before, lending their support even when they didn't agree with me. It felt good to know that some of my colleagues were feeling for me. It was initially those kinds of things that got me to see the lighter side of this and allowed me to pull myself out of the nosedive."
He credits two developers in particular, his friends Harvey Smith and Brenda Romero, for reaching out. "They were really pivotal in helping me see that this was a bad thing and it would be better." Easier said than done, of course. "It was very hard to believe in the beginning," he says. "It felt like it would never be ok. Eventually, I couldn't deal with the negativity anymore and started taking their advice and started trying to turn it all around."
Orth: "I basically hit a reset button on my life. When I realized that that's what it was going to take I just totally embraced it and totally went for it."
April was terrible. In May, things changed.
"I decided that I wasn't going to let this define me, and I wasn't going to let it destroy my life. I just started being creative and focusing on raising my daughter. I had probably the greatest summer of my life not doing anything—not working, not worrying about it. From May to September I just lived life and didn't worry about what happened."
He changed his diet and lost 50 pounds. "Mentally and physically I was transformed by what happened. I did a lot of changing as a person and as a parent. I basically hit a reset button on my life. When I realized that that's what it was going to take I just totally embraced it and totally went for it." He says he rebuilt who he was as a friend, as a developer, as parent, as a husband. He found himself becoming more patient and open-minded, less likely to criticize things without knowing the whole story. "I appreciate things that I maybe didn't before." And he got more creative, dreaming up an idea for a new game that he's now working on. He's moved to Santa Monica. He's gone indie. His shop is called Three One Zero games.
Part of Orth's year-long journey involves me. I'd met Orth early in the year at a gaming event and had kept in light contact with him. Nothing major. Our interactions were pleasant. I'd heard about him before; heard good things, also heard from people who he'd been gruff with or snarked at online. He wasn't a source, but he was a person in the gaming industry who I'd crossed paths with. In March, he brought a hat to the Game Developers Conference, took as many pictures of gaming people wearing it as he could, made a Tumblr out of it and I posted about it. We were, at best, associates or new acquaintances.
When I ran my story about Microsoft's new console possibly requiring an Internet connection, I was stunned to then see Orth write his Tweets. I don't think we'd spoken about that story. He certainly wasn't a source for it. But there he was on Twitter, a Microsoft guy and, to me, this was a possible corroboration that my reporting was correct. Before the story ran, we communicated through an intermediary who asked that we try not to make things worse. At the time, all the "deal with it" and stuff about living in cities was pissing people off, but it seemed peripheral to the real news, that this online-required new Xbox was possibly that much more a confirmed thing.
I felt bad for Orth, though. I believed it was right for us to report about his on-topic Tweets, but I didn't think the guy deserved to be fired, especially if he was not inadvertently confirming Microsoft's plans (turns out, of course, that they were indeed planning a console that would require an Internet connection; a plan since reversed).
A day or so after our story ran, I sent Orth a private message. I expressed my sympathy for what he was going through and said I hoped we could still be in touch in the future. I meant it to come off as, "hey, that sucked, I'm sorry it's been rough, I look forward to when things are so normal that we can just casually chat again." But in 140 characters and a dark time for Orth, it didn't come off that way. "It felt like, 'Sorry I poured gasoline on the fire but let's keep in touch,'" Orth says.
I'd heard that Orth was angry with me. And so I was surprised that by June he and I were crossing paths at E3 and he seemed still a bit rattled by things but doing ok. I was also surprised when, several weeks after that, he told me he would be in New York and wanted to have lunch. "I wanted to straighten that out with you," he tells me now. Our lunch was off-the-record. We talked a lot about who we were, what we'd done in our lives and what we valued.
At the end of our lunch, Orth asked me if he could take a photo of me at our restaurant. He liked to keep a record of the people he was hanging out with, he said. He Tweeted it. I didn't see it at first. He'd made his Twitter feed private. But shortly after our lunch ended, he added me as a follower. One of his game developer friends saw the photo and replied that it was as if hell had frozen over. "I mark that encounter as a big point of moving forward in my journey," he says. Frankly, I'm flattered and glad to have helped him find a happier place with that lunch. I don't regret our reporting, but I do regret any pain I caused him with a tactless private message.
Orth expects the kind of Internet rage he went through to keep burning. He's past it, but he knows that soon, someone else will become the new Adam Orth. "There's no way to stop it," he says. But he's heartened by signs that some game development studios and Internet companies are trying to find ways for the pockets of the Internet that they're involved with to be more positive.
He does warn people to watch what they say on social media and to be really clear on what their employer does and doesn't allow. And he wants anyone who gets abuse like he got to keep their chin up and trust him that, as Smith and Romero told him, things get better. "It's not always going to be like this."
Orth: "I often tell people that this was the best thing that ever happened to me. It's hard for people to hear that, because they saw what happened."
It did get better for Orth, which leaves him saying things that he'd have never expected to say months ago, things I'm still surprised to be relaying.
"I often tell people that this was the best thing that ever happened to me," Orth says. "It's hard for people to hear that, because they saw what happened...But, you know, it was an amazing, life-changing experience for me. I wouldn't want to go back to the person I was before then."
He screwed up. He got mauled by the Internet. He changed. Really, he took his most famous advice to heart. He dealt with it, and he dealt with it well.