Kicking Off Kaijudo’s Quest for the Gauntlet with Drew Nolosco

Pentagonal box design for Kaijudo Collector's Set of Quest for the Gauntlet

Kaijudo’s Quest for the Gauntlet Collector’s Box: Stylish and Sturdy

Back at the 2014 GAMA Trade Show I had a chance to preview the all-new Kaijudo draft experience at the Wednesday game night on March 18. I also had the opportunity to interview Kaijudo Lead Designer Drew Nolosco about the then-upcoming Quest for the Gauntlet expansion, which recently launched on May 30. On May 31 I went to Little Shop of Magic here in Las Vegas and battled several other Duelists in a sealed event using the well-designed Quest for the Gauntlet Collector’s Box to construct our decks. While we did not draft, we sunk our teeth into the new cards and had a blast. I ended up winning the tournament (and six more Quest for the Gauntlet booster packs as well as four foil promo cards). Here’s what Drew Nolasco had to say about designing this awesome play experience.

Lead Designer vs. Lead Developer at WotC

CG: So how did you get started with Kaijudo at Wizards of the Coast?
DN: So I was hired as Lead Developer for Duel Masters, because Kaijudo had not been yet announced. So when I arrived at WotC, having accepted the offer, my boss said to me, “There’s something we need to tell you. We have this new brand called Kaijudo; we’re launching the Duel Masters rules engine in the United States under this brand named Kaijudo. There’s this TV show that we’re working with Hasbro Studios to create.” And I moved into the Lead Developer for Kaijudo. So at Wizards of the Coast, we have a two-step design process. Designers drive innovation and new mechanics. Their job is to unfetter innovation. Developers take the second half of the design process and they drive balanced, fun gameplay. So that was my job. I also ran the Story and Worldbuilding team, which I still do. About a year ago, I transitioned over from Lead Developer to Lead Designer and so now I’m driving innovation for Kaijudo.
CG: So do the developers and designers ever clash?
DN: We work collaboratively, but there is a very healthy tension in this design process. By separating out balance from innovation, it allows the designers to go off into these brave, new worlds and create brave, new worlds, and really come up with gameplay mechanics that are exciting that they don’t have to worry about the minutiae of balance. They have to innovate. And innovation is best when it is freed from concerns. We look, as designers, at player experience. What’s it going to be like to sit down and play our game? What is the surprise and delight that you’re going to get when you buy a new pack of Kaijudo or experience a new set? Or discover a connection between two different cards? And then the developers take – this is the back half of design – and they say, what’s going to make this fun consistently? What’s going to make this game have legs? What’s going to make this game be the kind of game you want to play 8, or 9, or 25, or a hundred times? And the successful marriage of these two parts of the design process is really what allows WotC’s games to have that long player experience. It’s why you come back to play Magic year after year after year. We’re hitting 20 years of Magic. It’s that two-step process that really gives our games the depth and the freshness at the same time.

Individual Card Design: Karate Carrots and Iron Chefs

CG: Now how does an individual card like Karate Carrot fit into process? Is that a designer or a developer?
DN: It’s some of both. Kaijudo utilizes some of the art assets from Duel Masters. Duel Masters is a longstanding WotC game that is currently the number one TCG in Japan. And it’s been a Japanese-only product. They have some amazing and really off-the-wall inspiring art, like Karate Carrot. It’s a carrot! It’s a karate guy! When a designer looks at that card, we have top-down design where we take a thematic element. This is a carrot and he knows martial arts and we design a card around that. It’s really exciting, because you have this off-the-wall wackiness and you have to translate that into the framework of a game system, Kaijudo. He has the ability Unsliceable; he doesn’t die, he goes to the Mana Zone, so we can take elements from this and create gameplay around it. And we get this evocative card. Karate Carrot is very clearly one of the most [laughs] popular characters in Kaijudo.
CG: Oh, it is?

Matching Card Art of a Karate Carrot on a Duel Masters Card in Japanese and English Kaijudo Card

Ever Popular: The Japanese Duel Masters Karate Carrot and Its Kaijudo Cousin

DN: Yeah, yeah. It’s because he’s so unusual. A funny Kaijudo anecdote: So we, WotC, worked with Hasbro Studios collaboratively to create the brand. The Hasbro Studios writing team was responsible for the story and plot line of the TV show and we were responsible for the story and plot line of the trading card game and we successfully merged them. But we would have a lot of back and forth, so for example, they came to us and said “We think we might want a robotic chef character.” And the WotC team was like, “We have that art ready for you!” And when we went through the Duel Masters library, sure enough, there was Iron Chef. And it was this crazy piece of art. He ended up not getting used in the show…
CG: Somewhere in R&D-, you would be considered R&D?
DN: I am in R&D.

Duel Masters Japanese card art for a robotic Iron Chef

Robotic Chef? Allium, Iron Chef from Duel Masters

CG: Who’s the real guru in R&D that knows all of the Duel Masters stuff, where you’re just like, “Do we have that?” and he’s like “Yeah, we have it.” I assume it’s a guy.
DN: So there is a Duel Masters team. Duel Masters is still in production. They hit their… 5 billionth card produced. So in my group, our boss is Charlie Catino, he’s the Director of New Business and Japanese Games. There’s Shaba [Masami Ibamoto]. He’s the Lead Designer for Duel Masters and Mons Johnson is the Lead Developer. He’s also the Lead Developer for Kaijudo. He does both and they know the ins and outs of Duel Masters like nobody’s business.
CG: So they feed stuff to you guys.
DN: They feed some stuff to us. All of that art is in a database, so we go pore through that database for amazing art. The rules engine for Kaijudo and the rules engine for Duel Masters are siblings; there are some differences. But they are close enough that we can take inspiration from Duel Masters as well as new innovation to create new Kaijudo mechanics.

Quest for the Gauntlet and the Draft Experience

Kaijudo Quest for the Gauntlet booster pack cover emphasizing Draft compatibilityCG: So if we fast forward to the Quest for the Gauntlet, coming out on May 30, what different things are we going to see that might surprise us?
DN: There’s some groundbreaking stuff that we’ve done. Many of the action TCG games that are like Kaijudo have 9 or so card booster packs and one of the things that’s new with Quest for the Gauntlet is that we’ve increased the number of cards in a pack from 9 to 14. And the MSRP is still the same, it’s still $3.99 per pack. The advantage that we get off that – and the advantage the players get off that – is that they can draft using three packs. That is a very affordable draft experience. And we’ve also added in draft as a design philosophy for Kaijudo. So we’ve taken all of WotC’s cumulative knowledge about how to make great draft environments and applied them in a uniquely Kaijudo way, so starting with Quest for the Gauntlet, you’ll be able to have this amazing draft experience out of an affordable three packs.
CG: So it’s basically a $12 experience?
DN: Yeah.
CG: Which is very affordable.
DN: It’s very affordable! Previously people were trying to draft with five or six 9-card packs, because you need a certain amount of cards to make a draft successful. Those are very expensive. And we went to the retailers, which is the customers, and they said “We’d really like Kaijudo for drafting.” They were hampered by this problem of it really is kind of expensive. So growing Kaijudo means responding to the needs of the players, responding to the needs of the retail community and we met that need.

Quest for the Gauntlet and Player Excitement

CG: Are we going to see any new abilities-, what’s your term as a designer for abilities that applied across several different creatures?
DN: Just mechanics, abilities. That’s a fine term for it. We haven’t started previews for Quest for the Gauntlet cards.
CG: Right. So what we were playing in there [the Kaijudo draft preview with retailers], I recognized most of those cards.
DN: Right. That was not Quest for the Gauntlet. The draft experience that retailers had at the GTS show is that we took the design philosophy of draft and we created a special set of cards using already-printed cards that has the number of Shield Blasts, and this mechanic, and that mechanic representative of what we’ll see in Quest for the Gauntlet, but using cards that have already been seen.
CG: I know. I was really hoping that I would be able to film my experience, here’s this card, here’s this new card, because when I interviewed Kieren Chase, I know from comments that people actually were watching it in high definition and they were pausing because new cards were being displayed on screen that these fans that run some sort of wiki-
DN: The Kaijudo wiki.
CG: Yeah, they were hastily transcribing them, so eager to update their list of what the cards were.
DN: Isn’t that excitement awesome?! The steps that the fan community goes through to suss out this information is very, very inspiring. We’ll be previewing Gauntlet cards soon. There will at least two new mechanics. One of them is something that players have been anticipating, hoping that they would see, so we expect a lot of exciting satisfaction for the players.

CG: How is it going to be supported with other products?
Kaijudo Evolution Swarm 40-card reconstructed deck packageDN: There will be a deck product that comes out with Quest with the Gauntlet. It is a rather competitive deck in of itself, which means that you can take this deck to your Duel Day which is our weekly Kaijudo organized play event at retail stores and without modifying it, you’ll do fine. It’s a good deck. Our philosophy for decks is more towards great play experiences right out of the package and not so much as an intro experience. Our intro experiences are free product, free sample decks, and the Kaijudo Duel Day deck. Sample decks are aimed at people who are new to TCGs, perhaps younger players or people who are learning Kaijudo as their first TCG. The Kaijudo Duel Day deck is aimed at players who are experienced TCGers who are just coming to Kaijudo as a new TCG they’re playing, so it speaks to them on their level and it doesn’t do things like tell you, “Here’s how TCG works.” It says, “You are already a player, you are already in the game. Here are the three or four things you need to know that makes Kaijudo unique and you can take this deck and start playing with it right away.”

The Initial Tatsurion vs. Razorkinder Decks

CG: Now going way back to the launch of the whole Kaijudo brand, you had the Tatsurion deck versus Razorkinder, what was the ultimate feedback on that? In my own playing the Razorkinder deck won so infrequently against Tatsurion. Do you have a number on it?
DN: It is extremely difficult to balance decks. However those decks were actually reasonably balanced. Do you perhaps prefer a more aggressive deck style?
CG: I don’t know? But it really came down to 80-20 [in percentage of the Nature-Fire Tatsurion deck’s wins]. It was so hard for the Razorkinder to beat the Tatsurion deck against many different opponents, no matter who they were. I would always be like “Oh, you’re new? I’ll let you play Tatsurion, I’ll play Razorkinder.” I did that in the hopes that they would enjoy the game and enjoy their victory, because that’s what it turned out to be a lot of the time, but uh, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this or not?
DN: It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I’ve heard of differing results from either deck. I think, in retrospect, the Tatsurion deck has an easier time getting a board presence established and can come in slightly faster than the Razorkinder deck. The Razorkinder deck has good draws that allow it to regain control, but aggression is good.

The Roll of Vanilla Cards and Games that Teach Themselves

Rumbling Terrasaur Kaijudo card 5000 creature for 5 cost

The Very Vanilla Rumbling Terrasaur Has Much to Teach Us

CG: Do you call a generic card a vanilla?
DN: Yes, yes we do.
CG: Who made the decision, let’s have vanilla cards! Or as to what percentage of vanilla cards should we have versus ones with actual abilities? I think a Rumbling Terrasaur is just a Rumbling Terrasaur, right?
DN: That is correct. It’s a Level 5 for 5K Nature creature. So, I’m part of that decision-making process. Especially when a game is new to the market, we need to segue players from one packet of information to the next to the next. If you provide too much information at once, it’s very easy to overwhelm people and then they have a disappointing experience. You and I as experienced TCG players can look at a vanilla card and find it wanting because it doesn’t have have that level of oomph or newness and freshness, but for someone who is coming into a game, vanillas serve a really important purpose. They show you the philosophy of each civilization in terms of creatures. So, for example, Nature gets a 5 for 5K, it gets a 3 for 3, a 4 for 4. It gets creatures that give you bang for the buck, whereas, say Darkness, does not have quite as good creatures in terms of Power to Level ratio. So you get a 5 for 3k for example. And that teaches you something. And then when you start layering in the next packet of information which is Keyword Abilities. So, you’ll say, “Well, ok, my Darkness creature is 5 for 3k but it gets Slayer, which is a really cool ability that basically lets me Banish anything.” That progression of information, which starts from the smallest amount of information we can present in one card, and then layers in and in, allows players to ramp up to the point where they can process a more complex card. So vanillas are really important. As Kaijudo has matured, the proportion of vanillas to non-vanilla cards drops a little bit, because we have a more experienced player base who don’t need as much hand-holding, but it’s extremely important for your first large set to have enough vanillas to ease people into more complex concepts.
CG: What taught you that? Is that coming from you or did some Magic designers say “Hey-”
DN: So, there is institutional knowledge, which is one of the amazing things about WotC. We are very good in R&D about sharing knowledge through generations of designers. We’ve been doing this for a … long time. That knowledge becomes institutionalized. We, as designers and R&D members, add to that institutional knowledge. So some of it, yes, comes from the experiences of those who’ve come before us. Some of it comes from personal experience; I’ve been doing this thirteen years in one capacity at a company or another. Learning how to teach without a rulebook. Teaching people by just handing them cards, seeing what they learn, how they progress one from competency level to the next higher competency level has been an important learning experience in my personal development as a game designer and I’m very happy with the way that I’ve been able to express that in Kaijudo.
CG: In video games, there’s a lot of the same principles. A well-designed video game, you learn the game-
DN: As you’re playing! Yes, exactly.
CG: So that was intentional with Kaijudo?
DN: Yes. Very specifically engineered into the way that we did the first several sets.

Drew Nolosco’s Excitement About Kaijudo Draft

CG: Now you’re here at GAMA Trade Show; is this your first time here?
DN: Uh, my first time as a Wizards employee, yes.
CG: Who were you here with before or what were you doing here before?
DN: Prior to working at Wizards of the Coast, I was with a number of other companies, so I’ve been here a number of different times in my professional career. [Drew did not elaborate, but among these were WizKids and To Be Continued (Chaotic TCG)]
CG: What are you most excited about being here? Is it the 14-card draft format?
DN: It’s specifically draft.
CG: Professionally, you’re excited to see it, draft, unleashed?
DN: So, taking a game and realigning it for draft as a native experience, built into the game has been an extremely challenging and kind of monumental professional experience. It’s not often that you’re able to take something and then add in such a complex layer to it and have it come out and still be recognizably that original core thing, but with this new level of texture in it, so I’m extraordinarily proud of what all the people at Kaijudo R&D have been able to do, very particularly Mons Johnson, Lead Developer, has…. we’ve really done something beautiful.
CG: Not to put that down. That’s a great quote that you’ve done something beautiful. Are you saying that if home users somehow had come up with the number 14 (for the number of cards) for draft and they somehow came up with their own random packs to simulate a draft, you’re saying that there’s been enough thought in [your] process to-
DN: It’s not just 14 cards. 14 cards allows players to get the quantity of cards you need to draft at an affordable price point, but we’ve actually taken Kaijudo and layered in draft play as an integrated part of the design for Quest for the Gauntlet. We’ve layered in draft archetypes. So, how do civilization combinations approach winning the game in a draft environment. Each combination has a different tweak on what their theme is in Quest for the Gauntlet.
CG: So it might be very subtle?
DN: Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s going to hit you over the head. And the advantage of doing that is that you get replayability in draft. This is important for retailers because players will want to draft over and over again as they explore the depth of Quest for the Gauntlet in a draft environment. It’s good for players because there’s a lot of meat packed into this and it’s good for constructed players because there are a lot of newly interesting, exciting cards for them to add to current decks and add some new decks. It is a very dense – dense sounds like a pejorative – it’s a lot of greatness packed into one 170-card set. So it’s not just increasing the number of cards. We’ve done significant heavy lifting in adding in new design philosophy into Kaijudo.

Quest for the Gauntlet’s Story Arc and a Little Magic

CG: Now you oversee the story as well, so there’s a story element to this 170-card set?
DN: That’s correct.
CG: This is going to be horrible to any Magic: TG fan, but I’m a Fallen Empires-era Magic player so that would be the strongest example I know, but it’s considered the worst Magic set, I think, so I don’t want to-
DN: Hey! So, think about the cards that have come out of Fallen Empires that are tournament staples.
CG: I guess a Tourach sort of card…
DN: There’s Hymn to Tourach, there’s a number of cards that came out of that set. That set was more successful than you think. However, I understand where you’re coming from, having been a player at that time.
CG: Because I can name most of those creatures, the thallids, the Icatians, and so on. Will this have that same narrative feel? Maybe you can look at all the flavor text and figure out something about the Veil?
DN: The world that you’re in. I believe very strongly that you can’t tell narrative with a trading card game in the product itself, because players experience it in a completely random order. A narrative is a series of events that lead from establishing characters to a setting to a crisis to resolution. What you can do with trading card games is you can provide worlds that stories are told in and see parts of them just like any journey that you take real lands. You see parts of that land in the particular route order that you go. Travel US Route 1 from beginning to end you’ve seen part of the United States in an order that is very unique, but when you open Quest for the Gauntlet and any other upcoming Kaijudo set you will see the world of Kaijudo in order-, kind of dictated by the packs that you open, but you’ll be able to explore that world and get an idea of what’s going on.

However, on top of that, there is layered a very particular story arc. So the set of game cards provides a setting and there is a story that-, actually an extremely detailed story layered out on top of that that various other outlets will be telling.

Duel Masters as Cards?

TCG Kaijudo card showing mutated humanoid Humangoru

The Only Mutated Human to Appear as a Card: Humonguru

CG: Now they’re called Duel Masters in the show?
DN: They are Duel Masters.
CG: Right, ok. I’m not familiar enough with all the cards, but will we ever see them, the Duel Masters, as cards, in a Planeswalker kind of way?
DN: You are the Duelist in Kaijudo.
CG: So we won’t see a Gabe.
DN: No, no. But you’ll see the creatures Gabe summons and you’ll have an opportunity to summon them and sometimes you’ll recreate the experiences that you saw on TV. But more often you’ll be creating new experiences and new stories as you play through the games using those creatures. We’ve made a very conscious decision that the human characters in the world of Kaijudo don’t appear on game cards and fans reading this will immediately point out the one exception, who is the one human character who became mutated… But, in general, no, you are the Duelist, you are a Duel Master as a player, summoning creatures, and creating your own stories with them.

CG: Ok. What in particular is most exciting to you about Quest for the Gauntlet, an ability, a card, anything? Even if it’s just a name.
DN: Gargle fans will be very happy in Quest for the Gauntlet. That’s about all I can say right now. [On March 18, 2014]

All images copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Chasing the Ovoid: The Cosmic Goodness that is Chaosmos

Hand of Equipment cards from board game Chaosmos with ovular Ovoid card on topCurrently on Kickstarter, Chaosmos is a cosmic chase played out via board game for the enigmatic Ovoid, a singular item of untold power. Produce the Ovoid card at the end of the game and you’re the winner, but along the way you’ll probably have to search planets, battle your foes with futuristic weaponry, and possibly even reverse time! Each player controls a unique alien race with its own set of powerful special abilities, as well as a hand of Equipment cards. By visiting a planet cards can be exchanged with those on the planet, represented in the game by an envelope. By paying attention to rivals’ interplanetary travels and opponents’ cards (revealed by being the victor in battle), shrewd players will begin to construct an understanding of their opponents’ strategies as well as possible locations of the Ovoid. If the Clue-like sleuthing isn’t enough to whet your appetite, Chaosmos features a 35mm miniature for each of its eight alien races as well as the Chaos Clock dial, which keeps track of game turns and can be reversed or sped up by use of the Temporal Displacer card, which can move the Chaos Clock forward or backward up to 8 turns!

The great news is that Chaosmos has already met its $40,000 goal. I spoke with game designer Joey Vigour of Mirror Box Games the day after the game’s launch, on January 3, when the game had just reached 50% Funded and he revealed a wealth of information about Chaosmos’ development, strategy, and Stretch Goals.

The Development of Chaosmos

Game designer Joey Vigour from Mirror Box Games at Chaosmos Board Game at GAMA Trade Show convention

(L to R) Danny and Joey Vigour at the 2013 GTS with Chaosmos

CG: Can you describe the process of the decision to Kickstart the game yourselves, because as I know, you had several serious nibbles from some game publishers at the GAMA Trade Show?
JV: Yeah, absolutely. We debuted our game at the GAMA Trade Show in March 2013 and our original goal was to meet a bunch of publishers and find out if the game was something that could compete in this current marketplace and it had original mechanics. We were pretty familiar with sort of the classic modern games, but we weren’t really sure if it was a marketable concept because it is pretty different from what’s on the market. We met with seven or eight different publishers at that show. We had lined up several interviews in advance and we met a couple people that let us pitch to them at the show. Three of the meetings went well and we followed up several times and there was some back and forth. One company actually requested that we develop the game with a completely different theme. But ultimately we just decided that this is a personal project so we really wanted to produce the game ourselves and the only aspect of producing the game that we didn’t think we could handle on our own was fundraising and so that’s why we decided to go with Kickstarter.
CG: Ok, now what was the theme that they were interested in?
JV: It was essentially a joke. I had jokingly said “Oh, and if you don’t like space then we could just make it pirates.” And they thought that was great and they wanted pirates, so instead of Hyperspace – which lets you teleport – they wanted Favorable Winds and you know… so it’s interesting.
CG: Yeah, I guess that in many ways it could still work. I don’t know about the countdown clock (Chaos Clock) and would they be chasing Davy’s Jones…?
JV: The Chaos Clock was going to be a Kraken. It was an interesting dalliance, but the honest truth is that I’m actually pretty married to the space theme. It’s a very personal theme for me; I love space. It was always conceived to be space. It was inspired by a bunch of different sci-fi books, especially one, Interstellar Pig, that’s a space book. It just seemed totally wrong to publish it with a pasted-on theme because so many mechanics are specifically designed secondarily to the theme and they work so well with the space theme. And so we were really stretching it. Why would you be able to remotely look at an island that was thousands of miles away in the pirate theme? It just wasn’t working; I didn’t like it. There wasn’t really a lot of money on the table anyways, so this was the right decision, to self-publish.

Early Origins of Chaosmos: Joey Vigour’s Childhood and an Interstellar Pig

CG: Right. So you mentioned conceiving the game, what was the original interstellar galactic event that spawned Chaosmos?
JV: I guess I would have to go back to my childhood. When I was a kid I designed a bunch of games and one of them was a paper-and-cardboard prototype called Interstellar Pig and it was inspired by a kids’ book [of the same name by William Sleator] that I still like to this day. Very rudimentary game. Roll and move, but the book was just great. Very inspirational. I thought a lot about space and a lot about the idea of flying around and looking for cosmic treasure essentially. So several game designs later, I ended up looking back at that prototype and reimagining it as a modern board game with an action point allowance instead of rolling and moving and a lot of, sort of, unique spins on existing mechanics and then some mechanics that I hadn’t seen before at all. So the initial game design started when I was a kid, but about two years ago, 2012 is when I buckled down and decided I was going to start working on this seriously. And it took about a year of development and then the past year since March has been almost exclusively putting my ducks in a row, building up to January 2, 2014 when we launched.
CG: Sure. Now have you read the sequel, Parasite Pig?
JV: Haha, I have read Parasite Pig; I think it’s terrible, haha. I’m not a fan of the sequel. I don’t think that it has the spark that the original has.

An Evolving Chaosmos

Fat multi legged alien species Drusu from board game Chaosmos

Concept Artwork for Drusu the Scryer

CG: You mentioned getting your ducks in the row, but what has changed about the actual game since the 2013 GAMA Trade Show in March? Have you changed anything about the game.
JV: Absolutely. I guess the primary advancement since that trade show is game balance and cutting down on player downtime, because when you playtest a game with friends and everyone knows all the cards there’s not a lot of analysis-paralysis. But when we actually took it to blind playtesting, we found that players really were uncomfortable making snap decisions that they didn’t fully understand the repercussions of taking certain cards versus other cards. There’s a lot of Race for the Galaxy style choices you have to make where you have a bunch of great cards and you have to discard some of them, or in this case, leave some of them behind on a planet. That just wasn’t working, for players to have to wait their turn, so to speak. So I would say the big change in the past nine months – and it’s a wonderful change – is that you’re now allowed to start your turn as soon as the previous player says he’s finished and he can continue adjusting his hand and the cards in his envelope and make changes between which cards are in his hand and his envelope even when it isn’t his turn. So that is a dramatic change. It allowed us to cut half an hour out of the gameplay and reduce the problems of analysis-paralysis to a negligible degree.

purple-fuschia plastic sculpture of multi legged alien Drusu miniature from Chaosmos board gameCG: Did any of the alien races change? Do they all still have the same names and the same unique game-breaking abilities?
JV: We balanced the races more. That was a major change, because some aliens had amazing powers that were really powerful, but new players couldn’t figure out how to have fun with them, because they are basically really difficult powers. So we just tweaked everything until each alien now has basically a simple power and a more interesting or complex power. And so you can use both powers together in some cases or just the simple power. That was great. The alien names changed a lot in that they have really really long names, but we gave them nice, simple, memorable names. Like Vroon is pretty easy to remember. And Guriwan is a pretty easy to remember planet. Melphyuri-Ghorshi got shortened to Mel-Ghor, so a lot of positive changes in that way. It doesn’t hurt the gameplay at all obviously. Mel-Ghor’s the same planet and it’s called Melphyuri-Ghorshi by the aliens that inhabit it, but the galactic record books shortened the word [laughs] to Mel-Ghor.

CG: Now what’s the deal with this Homesick alien?
JV: Oh, the Haghouhen. Yes, so, he’s a very sad alien. He’s the last surviving member of his race. His planet was destroyed by comets and raided by Atturnuk’s race, the Cphovic Empire, so he’s the only one left. And he believes – maybe correctly, maybe incorrectly – that the Ovoid is the secret to reviving his race so he won’t be alone anymore.
CG: Ok. He’s kind of emo.
JV: Yes, he’s the emo alien.
CG: Now did you ever think of leaving some of these blank and then have as pledge levels on Kickstarter that backers actually name some of these things? How important are the names to you?
JV: Most of the names were created by my friend William Tombs. He also did most of the art, not the 3D renderings, but the art that the renderings were based on. And he is, in my opinion, like J.R.R. Tolkien. He has a whole world designed and he wants to make a bunch of games set in this universe: miniatures games and roleplaying games and novels. I think it’s great. I don’t think this particular game requires that amount of alien research in order to enjoy it. You can have Alien A, the Green Alien, or the Blue Alien or it could be like Cosmic Encounter where you have very simple alien names like Mirror, but I like a little bit of flavor. I think it is part of the overall experience and narrative as you play the game. When you remember particular sessions later, it’s more fun if you had an epic battle on the toxic planet of Atturnuk and Atturnuk reveals his Respiration Worm which is a worm that lets him breathe on Guriwan. It’s just more fun. It allows you to enjoy the game thematically as well as mechanically.

Sword-wielding alien Brute Atturnuk the Brutal from board game Chaosmos

Player Card for Atturnuk the Brutal with Space for Hyper Tokens and Special Abilities

CG: Now any changes in the technology cards, the Equipment cards?
JV: There’s been some changes. One example is, there was a card called Cosmic Fear which forced your opponent to lay down all the combat cards that he was going to play all at once. That way you could decide whether you needed to waste that extra Ion Grenade in order to beat him or if you could save it. But that card ended up being too powerful, so it ended up being changed to a single-use card which goes to the Void after you’re done playing it. It was too powerful, because no card in the game should feel like a must-grab. Everything needed to be equivalent or equivalent in that they’re all good situationally. That was the biggest change, I would say, in the last six months, is weakening that card a little bit.

Mirror Box Games and Chaosmos at BoardGameGeek.Con

“BoardGameGeek.Con is a must-go. It was the greatest con I’ve ever been to.”

CG: I want to return to the must-grabs in a second. Changing topics just a little bit, what was BoardGameGeek.Con like for Mirror Box and what’s it like for the rest of us who have never been there? Tell us about it.
JV: BoardGameGeek.Con is a must-go. It was the greatest con I’ve ever been to. It was a convention for gamers; there was all sorts of gaming. I would walk around around and see Tom Vasel playing games with people that he’d just met at the table. I saw Rich Summer from Mad Men playing games. He’d walk by and sit down and he’d start playing a game. And he’s an actor, you know, and they’re not and no one cared. It was just amazing. We had a giant display in the main hall near the Hot Games section so we got a lot of traffic. Over a hundred people signed up to our email list and probably a 120 people played our game so almost everyone who played our game jumped on to our list. That’s a big deal. When you’re going to other conventions, a much smaller percentage of people are interested in backing your game later. We went to the right convention for our game.
CG: So at Gen Con, attendees buy tickets to play in events, does BoardGameGeekCon have a similar mechanic or do people just come and if there’s room they play?
JV: It’s expensive. It’s 80 or 90 dollars for the con, but you just walk into the board game library and they have every game ever and you check out whatever you want and hopefully you return it in a timely fashion and they don’t have to chase you down. And you play and you just play all day. And you can check out the Hot Games table(s) where all the cool games from Essen are being demoed. There’s a lot of prototypes. There’s a special section for prototypes and then there’s a lot of events, special events, that are going on. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to get outside of my exhibition hall that much, but it was just an amazing experience.
CG: Ok, so you definitely want to go again?
JV: I will go every year from now on.

CG: Ok. So how many demos and play tests do you think you’ve done now?
JV: Well, let me see. I would say it has definitely been, in the last year, we’ve probably played something like 1,000 sessions, because we had three and sometimes four copies of Chaosmos being demoed simultaneously at BGGCon for the entirety of the con. So, yeah, probably 1,000 games and quite a few blind play tests. We’re now testing a 5th-player expansion and we haven’t done our blind play tests for that at all. So that’s our next big hurdle, is to find the time to do blind playtesting with a fifth player.

CG: How many prototypes are there now?
JV: In this final version – we changed our board, that’s another change, that’s another thing that changed since the GAMA Trade Show is we reduced the number of stars between the planets – this version, there’s seven copies and they’re all checked out by reviewers right now. And there’s probably twenty prototypes. Then there’s three original prototypes where we 3D-printed the aliens and got them hand-painted. So hopefully we’ll get those all back. We used a company called Sculpteo for the 3D ones. And then all the other copies, as soon as I get those back I’ll probably chuck them because you never want to go back to your old version. The worst thing is when you show up to do a demo and you realize you packed the board from six months ago.

Must-Have Aliens, Equipment Cards, and Strategy

CG: You mentioned must-grabs and so on, is there a particular alien race that everyone seems to envy or want to play?
JV: A lot of new players like Atturnuk the Brutal because his miniature features a giant sword. A lot of people choose him. People who like backstory and who actually read the flavor text on the alien character sheets choose the Haghouhen a lot. A lot of people like Clokknid. They like robots for some reason. He’s a series of interlocking robots connected by an artificial intelligence that governs them all. A lot of people like that for reason.
CG: Has anyone started talking in a robotic voice for him?
JV: We have found that certain players do the voices and they do the voice from the moment they see the art for the character to the moment the game is done. That has been a strange experience. One guy is actually a voiceover artist. He was at our playtest we did just prior to the GAMA Trade Show in early March and he invented a voice for all eight aliens plus some other bonus aliens that we’re tweaking. And he recorded a little intro with all the different aliens. So I think we’re going to release alien profile videos using his various voices for the aliens. That’ll be fun.

Equipment card Telethwarter Trap for board game Chaosmos says Booby traps when Face UpCG: The Equipment cards break down into Traps, Bases, Weapons and?
JV: So, yes, there are different types of Equipment cards. There’s Advanced Weapons; there’s Primitive Weapons. There are counters to all of the Advanced Weapons. Most of the cards are unique. There’s a 70 card deck and most of them are unique. There are Tactical cards which actually go face up on a planet. It could be face down just like any other card and you could take it into your hand and move it to another planet and come back for it later. But if you set it face up, then when another player lands on that planet, if he doesn’t have the Signal Jammer, he’s going to get trapped and the Trap would banish him back to his home planet and his turn would end. But there’s only three Traps in the game and they’re valuable, but you have to be careful how you use them, because they fill up your hand if you carry them around and then if you Trap a planet that doesn’t end up being important you’ve sort of wasted your time and your Trap. Vaults are interesting because they don’t protect a planet from prying eyes, in that if you land on a planet that’s Vaulted, you can still look at that envelope, but you can’t take anything. It’s a Magnetic Vault. You can’t take anything unless you reveal a Key. So you can hide the Ovoid on Pendra and if I land on Pendra I’ll announce “Ok, there’s a face-up card.” I’ll get to peak inside and see the Ovoid and I’ll know that you left it there and you’ll know that I know that it’s there, but if you hid the key on a different planet, then I’m gonna go on a mini-quest to find the Key, so I can come back and open the Vault. But by then, maybe you’ve figured out another way to get the Ovoid back. So a lot of second-guessing of what other people are doing. And then there’s also Bases that protect the envelopes with the combat cards that you store inside the Base.

Equipment card of cubic Vault that reads Locks when Face Up from board game ChaosmosCG: So do some players forego playing Bases and Traps and just choose to play with Weapons? Is that viable? Are you able to play the whole game and beat it just choosing Weapons to use or can you be totally defensive and just collect Counters?
JV: This is, I think, the element of the game that I’m most proud of. People often ask, “What mechanic are you most proud of?” I think figuring out a way to the balance the game to a degree where we’ve yet to figure out an automatic game-winning strategy, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. Some players collect Weapons and Weapons are important because when you beat somebody in combat you get to look in their hand and take a card so that’s a way of discovering the Ovoid if somebody’s carrying it. If somebody isn’t carrying the Ovoid – if they’ve hidden it somewhere – you could beat them a hundred times and not get the card you need to win. Some players play with Vaults, they love setting Vaults up and deactivating the Vaults and moving them to other planets and then reactivating them. Some players like sticking all the Weapons they can get inside of their Base and then finding more Weapons and teleporting those Weapons into the Base using Hypertube cards. I personally think that the reason the game is so balanced in regard to strategies is the psychological element is more powerful than the mechanical element of which cards you have, because if I think that you are setting the Ovoid inside a Vault on Guriwan and I spend the game looking for something to break in there and steal it, and you’ve actually outsmarted me and you moved it earlier to a different planet that I hadn’t even thought of, then you’re going to win and I’m going to lose even though I might have all the Weapons in the world, and a Key, and a Signal Jammer that breaks Traps. It’s all about the Ovoid. It builds, and builds, and builds over the course of the game and it comes down to who has the Ovoid. So yeah, it’s a battle of wits.

Chaosmos Stretch Goals: Player Shields, Components, and Miniatures

Player shield with alien Drusu used to shield information from other players in Chaosmos board gameCG: So we’ll be talking about some other stretch goals in a bit, but what will players do if the Player Shields remain locked? What’s the role of the Player Shields?
JV: When you’re opening a planet, first of all, it’s important that no one knows what cards are there. If you’re not sitting far enough away from the person to your left and right, there’s a chance if you’re not accessing your envelope under the table or off to the side that they could accidentally catch a glimpse of some of the cards. Anytime that you’re manipulating cards face up as well as face down, there’s the chance of accidentally revealing information and information is key in this game. Part of the concept of the Shields is it’s more just a matter of do players want them? Is it something that they want to tell their friends to back the project so that we can get to that level? I don’t think that it’s a critical game element; we’ve played the game for two years now without playing with Player Shields. We did make some recently as a test and it seemed like people were responding to it. It adds an element of three-dimensionality to the tabletop. Because you can look across the table and see what race I am and what my special abilities are quicker than just looking at my alien sheet.

CG: Ok. Onto some stretch goal stuff. Your first few stretch goals, can you explain the differences in components, between the 1.5 millimeter tokens and the 2 millimeter tokens?
JV: Sure, so, all of the Hyper Tokens are cardboard chits. So thickening them to two millimeters would be great because it makes them easier to pick up and it has some weight to it. I think it’ll be fun to thicken basically all of the cardboard in the game. In addition, there’s Landing Markers. Every time you land on a planet you’re going to be leaving your flag behind to remind people that you were there last. So all these 56 markers in the game – rather than just putting a thin sliver of a flag on a planet, it’ll be fun to have a nice, meatier meeple to leave behind.
CG: What can you think of that’s a comparable 2mm product?
JV: I don’t know the exact size of other games. Fantasy Flight uses a lot of 2mm cardboard in their expensive titles. Descent, Twilight Imperium. The flags in Twilight Imperium are great. So we want to upgrade components to that. Right now we’re working with Panda GM. In my opinion they make the best components in the industry. They make Merchants and Marauders and they make Eclipse: great component quality.

CG: So also for component quality, which is your second Stretch Goal, for the playing cards you have this upgrade from greycore to bluecore. Can you explain that to us?
JV: When I was a kid I had Magic cards that went through the washing machine and then dryer and you could still read them and play with them and those are bluecore. It’s a level of cardstock where there’s actually a core inside the paper which keeps it sturdy to a degree where you can play with the cards for years and years and years and they’re still playable, they’re still readable, they’re still in good quality. A lot of games, especially Kickstarter games, come out with greycore. It’s just a significantly lower quality paper. So greycore is still playable, it’s still great, but if you’re going to love a game and be proud to own it, you’re going to want to have bluecore because that’s the Magic: The Gathering quality.

The Chaosmos Miniatures

Grey plastic sword-wielding miniature of Atturnuk the Brutal for Chaosmos board game

35mm 3D Plastic Sculpt of Atturnuk the Brutal

CG: Also, I’m always a fan of miniatures in board games, but how important are the minis to Chaosmos?
JV: I think it comes down to the thematic experience. It comes down to when you’re a kid and you play with miniatures it’s something that’s meaningful. I don’t remember any of the hex and counter games that I played when I was a kid. I mean I owned Starship Troopers and Diplomacy and I don’t really remember those games, but I remember the games that had miniatures, even the bad games with miniatures, so it comes down to does the game inspire the thematic in us? So I guess you could play the game with little pawns or cardboard player stands, but to me, it’s a miniatures game. It was always intended to be a miniatures game even when I was a kid. My brother, who is the primary sculptor in the family, would make little Play-Doh creations that we would put in the oven and we would play with those miniatures, so to me it really comes down to theme. The game is a thematic experience and my favorite thematic games all have miniatures.
CG: And why the 35mm scale?
JV: This is not a 4X game and you’re not going to be moving large armies around. You have a detailed, single alien that you are playing the role of. Warhammer 40K would use 28mm for the size of a figurine, but 35mm it gives it enough attention to detail so you can easily see that the blue alien has a bunch of extra arms and his special ability allows him to hold extra cards and Vroon the Adventurer has a jetpack and he can move an extra movement action. Each alien’s miniature relates to their special ability in a way that even kids who play the game, instantly remember what they’re special ability is because of the miniature. So the 35mm, the larger size miniature, I think, adds to the fun.

CG: If we can imagine, right now you’re sitting at 50 percent funded. Let’s say you were at 3 percent. Would you ever ditch the miniatures if you needed to?
JV: Well Kickstarter is an interesting thing because when somebody backs your project, they’re believing in you and you can’t undermine them later and say, “Well, we’re keeping your money, but we’re not going to give you what you backed for.”
CG: Right. So you’re saying that maybe that’s why they backed you in the first place, because they want the miniatures?
JV: I think it depends on the backer. I think the family and friends who backed the project really probably don’t care about what they get in the end. I think the important thing is keeping our word. If our Kickstarter was a disaster but we could maybe figure out a way to make it work, I think you can always relaunch a project, but I had total faith that the project was complete and the miniatures were a critical component of that and as long as we’re honest with people about why we love miniatures and the component quality of the final product… I think everybody who’s backed us, loves the miniatures. We haven’t had anybody really say that they wish they could have the game without miniatures.

CG: Yeah, don’t you have Kemet behind you in your video?
JV: Yeah, probably! I love Kemet. I just played Cyclades recently as well and those have awesome miniatures. To me, I would rather play either of those games over any hex encounter game even if it had superior mechanics. It just excites my mind for whatever reason!
CG: Right, I share that with you. It’s also exciting to see the miniatures in this. Of course, you also have Twilight Imperium back behind you and you must love those figures and those ships too.
JV: I love Twilight Imperium. I play it more than anyone I know on the internet. We played six or seven times last year. My goal is to play at least six times again in 2014 and I think I worked it out that if I play at least six times in 2014, it’s one fifth of one percent of all my free time.

Hyper Tokens, Strategic Advice, and Chaosmos’ Dice

CG: Is the number of Hyper Tokens you have public knowledge or would you shield that as well?
JV: No, that’s public knowledge and you only have three and you don’t get them again. So you wouldn’t be able to hide it even if you wanted to. Hyper Tokens are a very valuable resource. It’s sort of like when you’re out of other options and you’re like, “I got to get to that planet before he discovers my entire cache of weapons or he gets the Ovoid,” or something like that, then you can expend the Hyper Token. But it’s generally really dangerous to do that, because when you use one, it’s such a big deal. It’s an immediate red flag. So this is another way to deduce what’s going on in the game and why it’s not a complete fog of war, because when you Hyper Token over somewhere, you’re probably not bluffing that there’s something good over there. You might be; there might be an amazing, clever reason that you’re bluffing. Generally speaking it’s a red flag that something awesome is going down on that side of the map.

CG: So you can just discover right at the beginning of the game that you have the Ovoid, right?
JV: Absolutely. You might start the game with the Ovoid, but it doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage. In fact, in many ways it gives you a disadvantage. If you carry it with you, it just fills up your hand, it’s a completely useless card until the last turn. Not to mention the fact that if someone suspects that you have it, they are going to come after you in such an aggressive way, it will be hard for you to gather items on planets because there will be people trailing behind you. So having the Ovoid… I don’t think it’s an advantage at all in the early part of the game. In the mid-part of the game, yeah, it’s nice to know where the Ovoid is, but I personally don’t carry it with me because it’s just too dangerous. They’re so many super-powerful weapons that are only good for one battle – so most of the cards are permanent; they go back to your hand after you use them. But some cards, like there’s Nano Fabricators that duplicate weapons and there’s Ion Grenades that are +3 in combat, but then they’re discarded. So if you really want to, you can probably win any single combat just by using these special cards, but you have to be tactical as to which combat is the one that you really need to win, because losing combat in this game, it really doesn’t matter that much. The other person will take one of your cards. He’ll get stronger and you’ll get a little bit weaker, but then you’ll land on a planet and you fill up your hand again and move on. It’s not a big deal. But if he takes the Ovoid from you because he won a battle, that would be a critical battle.

Two dice, one red one blue with numbers on them and a circular mirror for Chaosmos board gameCG: What’s the Ovoid on the dice mean?
JV: So, it’s actually a Mirror. The Mirror mirrors the other die. If you roll a 3 and a Mirror, then that’s a 6. If you roll a 5 and a Mirror, that’s a 10. If you roll two Mirrors, then that’s Infinity and you would instantly win that battle.
CG: Oh wow. But do you get into Infinity +3 versus Infinity?
JV: No. Somebody asked me that. I don’t think that it’s ever happened. Maybe it’s happened once. But if you both roll Infinity then both players are immediately banished back to their home planets and their turn ends. I was thinking about this because I saw the movie The Avengers and at one point Thor’s hammer strikes Captain America’s shield and bad things happen. And I thought that was a pretty funny moment, so that’s what happens when both players roll Infinity.

CG: Ok. Alright. Good luck with Kickstarter!
JV: Thanks!

All game images and artwork copyright Mirror Box Games and used with permission.

Interview with Mike Prinke on Heavy Gear Assault

Heavy Gear Assault Blue Hunter Advertising on KickstarterOn May 13 I spoke with Technical Designer Mike Prinke for quite a while about the Heavy Gear Assault video game from Stompy Bot Productions. Based on Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear Arena, Heavy Gear Assault is currently on Kickstarter seeking to raise $800,000 by June 29. Mike Prinke is with MekTek Studios, the actual development studio coding and designing the game. We discuss most of the game particulars early on, though we do discuss the possibility of a single player campaign and expanded areas of play near the end of the interview. We also talked about his intriguing Super Smash Quest RPG that helped inspire him to pursue video game design, his education in digital game design, and his theories about choice-driven narratives.

MekTek Game Development

CG: First off, what does a technical designer do?
MP: Depending on the studio, the title can vary in meaning, but in the context of this team, basically I do a respectable portion of the gameplay programming for the game. Generally I help direct the team’s efforts in such a way that it’s consistent with the design team’s vision for the game mechanics. Basically I serve as a little bit of a middle man between programmers and designers in order to make sure that the game’s vision stays on track and the programmers don’t go off and just do their own thing. If they need more details on how something works I get it for them and I put it in terms that make sense to programmers, that make sense in terms of implementing the gameplay. So basically to put in layman’s terms, I’m the guy who figures out how to make the game work.

CG: What’s MekTek’s role in this versus what Stompy Bot is doing?
MP: MekTek is the developer of the game. It was originally started as a modding group that developed a set of mods for Mechwarrior IV called The Mech Packs, which expanded the game’s number of mechs by about 136, I think. And they also supported it after Microsoft stopped hosting servers. Eventually they wanted to go legit and become a real game developer. Now they’re developing Heavy Gear Assault. Stompy Bot is a publisher that was started up as a sister company to act as the publishing umbrella for Heavy Gear Assault and is looking to expand to encompass other independent productions as well.
CG: Now Gear Up 6 has an interview about Heavy Gear Assault with, is it Jack Mamais? [French production.]
MP: Jack Mamais [Muh-my-is].
CG: So you’re working under him?
MP: That is more or less correct. Jack is the fellow who introduced me to this bunch. He got me into the production. I’d been working with him on another project for a couple of months before getting involved with Heavy Gear Assault. And yeah, he introduced me to Vince, and that’s how I got started on the team. He is the Creative Director of Heavy Gear Assault, but Vince McMullin is actually my direct boss. He’s the actual head of MekTek. Jack is the Creative Director of the project though.

CG: Do you telecommute basically? Do you work from your home or do you work in the design studio?
MP: I am working from home. I am working from my home in Chicago, Illinois as a matter of fact. Basically the whole team is remote at the moment, simply because we’re just putting together the funding to make this game, let alone actually get a studio that everybody could go to work at each day. Everybody’s working from their own computers from home or – very occasionally – from an office somewhere. I know that there’s a couple of guys in Savannah from SCAD [Savannah College of Art Design].
CG: SCAD being the Savannah College of Art and Design, which you’re an alumnus of yourself?
MP: Yes, that is correct. But basically what we do is we host daily scrum meetings. Scrum is a development technique that’s used for organizing a software production. More specifically it’s called Agile actually. Scrum is a part, an aspect of Agile.
CG: Ok, I thought you were using rugby terms on me. So what’s a scrum for you guys? What’s Agile?
MP: Agile is the development method that we use to develop this game. It’s basically the process of organizing a group of developers into a series of what they call sprints. Or what they also refer to as scrums. So there’s the programming team, the art team, the marketing team, and the design team, right?

Wildcat Razor Artwork for Heavy Gear Arena

The Heavy Gear Arena Wildcat Razor LOOKS Agile

Each one of them is running their own scrum and it’s a two-week spring we call it (…usually a two-week sprint). Basically we just collect together what our goals are for those two weeks and say what feature do we want to have online and running by the end of these couple weeks. And we break it down into a list of tasks that goes on our sprint board and people just try and take whatever task they think they can do within the next day or so. They each have a time estimate allocated to them. And each day we have what’s called a sprint meeting and in the sprint meeting we just go around. In the group, there’s a person designated as the scrum master who is hosting the meeting and kind of keeping it organized and on track and you go, “Alright, so, Dan, what’d you do today?” And he’ll explain what he got done in the past day since the last meeting. You just go around in a group like that until everybody’s settled. It takes usually about ten minutes or so and then if anybody’s got any big issues, then they voice what’s going on, what they need help with or what feature has to get done before they can continue and after that’s finished, everybody just gets back to work.

Basically these daily meetings are what’s responsible for making sure that our team can – despite basically being all over the globe, and I’m not kidding about that. When we say that we have one of the most remote teams out there, there’s me in Chicago, a couple of guys down in Savannah, Georgia, there’s Vince reporting out of Canada and that’s where Stompy Bot’s headquarters is, there’s James Taylor in California, there’s Dan Lopez in Spain. We’ve got another fellow named Alexander in Serbia; just loads and loads of people just all over the globe reporting in for this, but because we keep to these daily meetings the team’s energy stays up and we keep motivated.

Heavy Gear Assault Hunter Gear with battle damage and shining red laser light

Heavy Gear Assault’s Scorched and Damaged “Race Car” Northern Hunter Model

Heavy Gear Assault’s Development and Gameplay Specifics

CG: Great. So where is Heavy Gear Assault at in terms of development?
MP: Very, very early development. I would call it pre-alpha. We had a pre-alpha build that was playable for GDC (Game Developers’ Conference). It was not as much as what you would call an alpha build of the game as a multiplayer damage test, where we were just trying to make sure we had basic multiplayer working and trying to make sure that we had the basic damage system working before we moved on to the real deal of integrating all of our features and smoothing it out and making sure it plays very smooth.
CG: So what gears did you have available for that?
MP: Just the Hunter.
CG: Ok, so it was Hunter versus Hunter.
MP: It was pretty much Hunter versus Hunter. We would have loved to have gotten another gear in there, but at the moment we’re still trying to raise the funds to pay people to work on this.
CG: Ok, ok. So that is pretty early on then in terms of video game development?
MP: It’s very early on, yeah.

Heavy Gear Assault’s Showmanship

CG: So when you showcased this, well, would you even call it showcasing it?
MP: I certainly would, yeah.
CG: Did you have any of the showmanship aspects of Heavy Gear Assault in play?
MP: A very small portion of it, like ten percent of what we would like to have was actually present in that we did have some of Epic’s newer particle systems ready. We did have at least playable animated gears and whatnot. We had what I would consider to be the bare minimum for the presentation for this game and at present time we’re working on some much, much more ambitious features. In fact, I’m actually taking time off from a very exciting destruction demo that we’re going to be showing off soon.
CG: Oh yeah? Well, thank you for your time for that.
MP: No problem.
CG: Will the showmanship then be similar to wrestling games for console systems that had a popularity meter? Will it be something like that?
MP: We would very much like to have mechanics like that in there. That’s actually one of the more exciting aspects of working with Heavy Gear Arena as our base, that we can introduce another dimension of mechanics like that apart from just Gears fighting each other. So all of a sudden it’s not just can you blow up the other team, but there’s an element of how stylishly you can do it. There’s an element of how much you impress the crowd doing it. I think we’re actually looking to that as a potential counter-measure to camping. But yeah, that is something that we definitely want to do and we’re looking at embellishing on the movement system to kind of help supplement that.

Computer Generated Artwork Showing Dueling Gears in Heavy Gear Assault with Cheering Fans

Showmanship Will Be an Important Gameplay Aspect in Heavy Gear Assault

Weaponry in Heavy Gear Assault

CG: I personally tend to be a camper, but as I know, it’s boring for people to watch, when someone’s camping, right? [He laughs] Is it too early to even distinguish between Vibro Katanas, Vibro Axes, things like that? Or is there already a difference in gameplay, in terms of look and feel? Does a Vibro Axe have a different animation and occupies a different amount of space on the screen than a Vibro Rapier or something else?
MP: Right, right. It’s a little bit too early for me to talk about the specifics of that. We are working on differentiating them, but at the moment most of the differentiation we’ve got is between one-handed weapons and two-handed weapons.
CG: What would some of the two-handed weapons be?
MP: Polearms?
CG: Like a Vibro Halberd, ok.
MP: Yeah, the Vibro Halberd. There’s a lot of people on the project who would really, really love to bring in the two-handed chainblade. There’s a couple of two-handed weapons. Let me actually bring up a list really quick that I’ve got, that I can maybe drop one or two of them for you, that we want to have in the game. We have a whole animation list here that we’ve been going through. At the moment, we only really have the one-handed weapons and the shields ready for anything. Polearms… are a big thing. And then, yeah, there’s a sort of distinction of two-handed melee where we’re assuming a two-handed axe or a two-handed sword of some sort.

Cool Heavy Gear Arena Black Mamba Gear with Sword and Gun

In Both Heavy Gear Arena and Heavy Gear Assault a Mixture of Melee and Ranged Weapons is Preferred

CG: Ok. So what’s the coolest weapon so far, I know it’s so early in terms of where the game’s at, but for right now what’s the coolest weapon for you?
MP: Rocket Pod.
CG: The Rocket Pod? So do you distinguish between a Light Rocket Pod and Medium Rocket Pod?
MP: We do. And right now it’s the Light Rocket Pod (LRP), to be very specific. We’ve sort of got this model where we start with ground-level and work our way up.
CG: And can you fire a volley or do you fire one at a time?
MP: It’s a volley.
CG: So it’s an LRP, what number is it?
MP: It’s the… let me double-check on that… it’s the LRP 32. It’s a 32-set Rocket Pod.
CG: And how many does it fire at the same time?
MP: It fires one at a time in a sequence.

Heavy Gear Assault Combo Chains and Macros

CG: Cool. So these combo chains, they set Heavy Gear Arena apart from Heavy Gear Blitz, but to me the concept seems native to video games. Am I correct? Are we going to have those fighting game combos in this game?
MP: Yes, in fact! That is one of the core features that I’ve been working. I’ve got more or less some of the implementation for it ready. It’s just that we need to fill it in with a few more art assets before it’s really worth looking at and testing. You know, it’s all well and good for me to be doing my derpy programmer art Gear swing with a programmer art polygon nail bat, but in order to actually test it out, we really need some much more strongly differentiated animations of weapons to make sure that it works properly. But yeah, that’s a system that I’ve been working on. We’re referring to it in our game as the Macro System, in terms of the in-universe terminology that we want to use to describe it, but the combos as they are set out in Heavy Gear Arena are the core inspiration for how that system works.
CG: What are you calling it? Macro?
MP: Macro moves.
CG: Like a computer macro?
MP: Yeah, that’s exactly the idea. In the universe lore, Macro Moves are basically what they sound like. It’s a control macro that you can bind preset Gear movements that would be normally too complex for a human being to manipulate a Gear into being able to do, but you make it so that you can just press a button on your controls and it instantly does it. And it’s like wow, that is perfect, that fits the concept of developing melee combat and combos and special attacks and whatnot. That fits it so well and it’s such an easy concept to implement. In terms of chaining them together, that’s something that I’m still working on a little bit internally, but yeah, we are planning on having a system where they chain together like in Heavy Gear Arena.

An Arena for Heavy Gear Assault Work in Progress Shot

Concept Art of the Khayr ad-Din Arena’s Design Where Gears Will Battle in Heavy Gear Assault

Mike Prinke on Getting Art Updates

CG: When you receive that artwork is that really exciting for you guys as programmers where you finally instead of having whatever kind of skin on something… can you describe that feeling?
MP: [Laughs]. Polygon nail bat. It’s a very, very gratifying moment when it does happen. The thing is, at the moment, it happens very, very few and far between because most of our resources for art are dedicated to fleshing out the arena. We’ve got a very small handful of people who work on the Gear and the weapons right now. I think John Davidson does the weapons. The thing is that we don’t get them very often at the moment because of just the way things have been organized and the shortage of resources that we’ve been having. But when we do get them in, yeah, it’s quite nice. I remember when we first replaced our old derpy Hunter with the current shiny sexy race car Hunter that we’ve got now and it was just like “Oh, my God, is this what our game’s going to look like?!”

CG: Do you know type of Hunter it is? Is it just a regular Hunter?
MP: It’s a… a high-performance Hunter that’s been…Let me think here. I want to make sure that I have my lore straight. It’s a high-performance Hunter, that’s what I’ll go with. It’s a high-performance Hunter that’s been customized by Paxton Arms with their equipment is how I describe it.

The Gears of Heavy Gear Assault

CG: Now do you know in terms of those scrums and sprints, what’s the next gear that you have planned?
MP: It’s the Jager.
CG: Which, of course, is the Southern version of Hunter.
MP: Yes. And while we’re at developing the Jager, there’s a couple of changes to the Medium Gear systems that we’re doing and we’re using the Jager as an opportunity to explore stuff I really can’t get into, that will be very, very exciting. We sort of had this debate about whether we’d be doing the Jager or the Spitting Cobra and the thoughts were that we’d get more bang for the buck out of refining what the Medium Gear does before we move onto the Assault classes and the Light classes, but those will be coming, of course. I’m not saying that those aren’t coming. It’s just that the Jager has a couple of fun systems coming along with it that we sort of didn’t get in with our last technical design pass on the Hunter and we’re sort of fleshing it out a whole lot.
CG: So it also sounds like the next move would be up to a Spitting Cobra or Grizzly instead of necessarily engineering gears.
MP: Um, yeah, that is probably the way that we’re going to do it, yeah. I mean the way that we’re developing our future Gear systems, it’d be just crazy if we had to model every single Gear from scratch and give it unique animations, right? So we want to have a system where we’ve got Light, Medium, and Heavy Gears. Or I should say Light, Medium, and Assault Gears and we have the ability to sort of construct them more modularly, not to the point where it’s like Heavy Gear 1, where you can have ape arms on a Light Gear [oversized arms], but to the point where we can more easily trade in and out parts and more easily chassises for the Gears without necessarily having to reconstruct the whole way that the rig works for their animations and whatnot. Basically we’re looking at a way we can develop them smart instead of work ourselves to death in developing these Gears.

Concept Artwork of Heavy Gear Assault Gear Hunter Blazing Away at Enemy in Distance

Concept Artwork of the Heavy Gear Assault Hunter From Stompy Bot Productions

Hand Grenades, Hard Stuff to Code, and Gravity

CG: Now Grenades and Heavy Hand Grenades, do they exist in Heavy Gear Assault or will they?
MP: Yes. We haven’t prototyped the grenades just yet.
CG: Because that would be a whole separate subroutine or subprogram for you guys? You’ve got to help me out here with the video game terms.
MP: That’s not a subroutine or a program. That’s just a separate implementation of our inventory object is all. And that’s-, to be fair, that isn’t a very difficult one to put together, which is why we haven’t prioritized it. We sort of focus on the harder stuff to implement first. And then once we’ve got that, we can create variations on that very easily and we can fill in the blanks in between as needed.
CG: So what would be some of the harder stuff?
MP: The Rocket Pod [laughs]. The Rocket Pod and the various tracking systems that go into developing tracking rockets versus the wandering systems necessary for making the rockets kind of spiral and whatnot.
CG: Oh, ok. It’s going to look very cool.
MP: Yeah. Those are very complicated projectiles to put together compared to say, the Light Auto Canon’s projectiles.

CG: And will there be gravity drop or is there gravity drop?
MP: Um, yes, there is! Depending on the projectile and its mass, it can experience more or less gravity drop, but yeah, we definitely want to preserve the simulation feel from the previous games and we want there to be a very strong element of skill in mastering these weapons, so you’re not going to be pointing instant-hit laser tag guns each other, well unless you’re using lasers, but yeah, you’d expect that. Yeah, the projectiles, they all have a velocity that they’re moving at. You’re going to need to lead targets and you’re going to need to account for projectile drop to some degree. But getting back to your original question, some of the harder things to implement are environmental destruction would be one thing. The physics in secondary movement are something that we’re putting a lot of work into. The damage system in general for Gears is something that we’ve put a whole heck of a lot of work into. It’s one of the things that I think is exciting about playing a mech simulator, is you can blow a mech’s arm off, you can blow a Gear’s arm off, and it’s still functional. It’s missing a limb, but it’s functional.
CG: Ok, so that’s some of the funnest parts about Mech Warrior and some of your developers have been involved in the MechWarrior franchise, right?
MP: Yes, Jack Mamais was the director of Mechwarrior II Mercenaries. So one of the things that he advocates here that he strongly advocated there was very dynamic damage systems on the Gear. He loves-, he’s very much into adapt to survive kind of combat.

Heavy Gear Assault vs. Heavy Gear Arena: Limb Destruction

CG: That may be a perfect segue because I think that’s a big difference between the tabletop Arena and Heavy Gear Assault would be to actually destroy individual limbs and parts, is that right?
MP: Yes.
CG: But that’s what we would expect in a video game environment?
MP: Yes. In a tabletop environment, you know, I have lots of experience actually developing tabletop games as kind of a hobby. The sort of operative word there is K.I.S.S. You want to keep it very, very simple because human beings have to keep track of all this bookkeeping that you’re doing on a character sheet. It’s more sensitive than people give it credit for in that context, if you have math that goes into just one digit too many, then people are not going to want to play that game. That’s one of the reasons that I favor actually second edition D&D over newer editions because it doesn’t go into double-digit math all that often and I can just do it in my head much quicker. Not that I have a problem doing double-digit math or anything.
CG: Of course not.
MP: [Laughs]. It’s just really, really super fast. But suddenly we’re dealing with a computer game and all that stuff that would have been on Dream Pod 9’s wish list, we can do, because the computer’s just looking at it for you.

Old-Style Heavy Gear Artwork with Cartoony Design Versus New Style

Heavy Gear Arena Artwork From Dream Pod 9 Has Changed Over the Years

Mike Prinke’s Tabletop RPG Days

CG: Right, right. So you just touched upon several different things that I also wanted to talk to you about. What’s your background in tabletop gaming. I can tell that you’re a hardcore gamer there.
MP: Uh, yes. I got into tabletop roleplaying games when I was around like eleven or twelve years old. My sister introduced me to second edition Dungeons & Dragons. Prior to that I’d experienced roleplaying games in the form of video games and they were always a sort of magical type of game to me in that the characters felt more real, the worlds around them felt more real, as opposed to something like Contra or Mario Brothers or something like that on the Nintendo. Playing a roleplaying game like Baldur’s Gate or some of the earlier Final Fantasy games was a more immersive experience and a more enriching experience, almost like reading a novel in a way.

And then I got introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and suddenly it was that plus ten times more, it was that, plus the ability to sort of do anything that your imagination could come up with and that absolutely fascinated me. And the idea of being a Game Master fascinated me. Suddenly I could not only be the player character, the hero, I could play all of the villains and all of the NPCs and whatnot. I could play all of the monsters and that was something that fascinated me, so very quickly I got into wanting to be a Game Master for tabletop RPGs and I started trying and failing to run games of Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. I was a bit young to fully understand the rules, so I ended up, I think, making up a lot of stuff as I went, but eventually I got the hang of it. I got into third edition D&D as I went into high school and I got the hang of those rules and ran games with my friends and whatnot.
CG: Now were you doing your own setting or were you using a published setting?
MP: I always developed my own setting, in fact, the one and only exception to that rule of mine-, I just found it more interesting to develop my own settings and my own stories, it’s just how I am. The one and only exception is actually Shadowrun, because what else are you going to do with Shadowrun other than run the Shadowrun setting? [Laughs] But after that, I got into-, it was really difficult to organize roleplaying groups for me is the thing. High school was a busy time. It kind of was the time when my friends and I were all splitting up and going separate ways. We were all old enough to have cars and go places, but we were also all old enough to be too busy to go places? I ended up running games on IRC, on mIRC, on
CG: Oh wow!
MP: That’s where I got started homebrewing games. And usually I would homebrew them based on some existing intellectual property like I was a big fan of Phantasy Star for the Sega Genesis and that’s spelled with a “Ph” instead of an “F”, because Sega is weird like that. I was a big fan of that and I wanted a game that felt like that, but that wasn’t Star Wars. So I’d make a Phantasy Star RPG. The big one that I got involved in that was really, really weird was Super Smash Quest.
CG: [Laughs] Uh huh.

Super Smash Quest

MP: That’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a roleplaying game based on the Super Smash Brothers fighting game series. I had a friend in middle school who wanted to try doing that. I was like “Are you crazy? That wouldn’t make a good roleplaying game!”
CG: And are people typing out /me and typing what they do?
MP: Yeah.
CG: Was anyone hitting someone with a trout?
MP: Uh, yes, very, very often!
CG: Did you have a response for the IRC trout-hitting/slapping?
MP: You know, we never statted that.
CG: Well, I meant, did you find it annoying and did you have to punish people or you just tolerated it?
MP: You know, people dropped it pretty quickly. They would just get bored with it. They would get bored with the colored text eventually too. But yeah, Smash Quest was interesting. The idea behind it was basically set after the tournament that happened in Smash Brothers Melee. Bowser and Ganondorf, being the sore losers that they were, left the stadium and decided to vow revenge against it and see it destroyed. But the stadium is like the nexus of all worlds or something like that in the Nintendo universe and so it absolutely cannot be jeopardized and if they ever destroy it, it would cause who knows what to happen. And so the thing is, is that the stadium doesn’t have it’s own guardians, right? The different worlds have their own guardians. Mushroom Kingdom has its guardians. Hyrule’s got Link and Zelda and Lylat has Fox McCloud and StarFox Team. But the stadium doesn’t have its own guardians, so Professor Oak and Egad from the Mario and Luigi games put their heads together and came up with a device called the Fighter Remote that would enable them to give the powers of the Smash Brothers fighters to ordinary fans.
CG: Ah, ok.

MP: And so the idea behind the game was that the players were fans of the stadium, ostensibly playing themselves, given the powers of the Smash Brothers fighters. And what you’d do in it, is you’d collect their moves, almost like Pokémon, with different B Button moves. So you’d get Fox’s blaster and Pikachu’s Thunder Shock and all that stuff and you could make a custom move set out of that. And that’d really capture the Nintendo spirit while also making it a fascinating tabletop game in that there was a lot of trading going around. A very, very active economy among the players. And the format of it was very mission-based, so if you could imagine, a Nintendo-version of X-Men or a Nintendo-version of Star Trek where there’s away missions and whatnot and everyone goes into the command center and Mewtwo gives them their orders. And it was Mewtwo because he was the most like Professor X. [Laughs]
CG: Did you ever watch Centurions, the cartoon?
MP: You know, I feel like that’s a familiar name, but I never saw it.
CG: Oh, they could dial-up their powers. They could name whatever particular power set and it would teleported to them, but yours they actually had some device or ability that they could trade amongst themselves?
MP: Yeah, they basically had the ability to trade powers with each other. That was all very Pokémon-inspired, where there was literally an electric chair powered by Pikachu that would let them transfer their moves between their brains is kind of how it was. It was very cartoony, but it was also immensely popular. We had about 50 players in that game at a time.
CG: Oh wow, 50?
MP: 50, yes. And they all wanted to play at the same time, but they couldn’t! Like we could at the very, very most support 12 players on a mission. We had to kind of pick and choose how we did it.
CG: Was this the late 90s or when?
MP: This was early 2000s, around 2001 and 2002. But it was a very, very successful RPG and it sort of bolstered my interest in developing tabletop RPGs, so since then I’ve developed a couple of others, ranging through different topics. Mostly I’ve been focusing on developing an original concept, but I’m not here to talk about that thing just yet.

Mike Prinke’s Miniature Gaming

CG: Yeah, we’ll have to talk about that some other time, Mike. Were you playing any miniature games at this time or war games?
MP: I didn’t get into war games for a while actually. I had wanted to get into Warhammer 40K and I had a friend who had a really impressive Tau army, but I couldn’t get into it because it was just too bloody expensive. Looking back, Warhammer miniatures are actually more affordable now than Legos so it probably would have been perfectly ok, but for whatever reason, my parents didn’t want me to get into it. They were like “Oh no! It’s too expensive, you shouldn’t- You aren’t going to paint those things!” and that kind of thing. A lot of discouragement there. But as I got into grad school at SCAD, there was a vibrant Warhammer 40K community, and I was like “Alright, I can try getting into this.” So I picked up Assault on Black Reach and decided I was going to start a Space Marines chapter called the Neon Knights.
CG: Uh oh.
MP: Their colors being a very dark Gunmetal Grey and variety of neon colors for trim. And now I’ve got a Tau army that I’m working on.

Heavy Gear Blitz, Arena, and References

CG: Do you have a Heavy Gear Arena force or stable of Gears and what about for Blitz?
MP: Unfortunately I don’t have any Heavy Gear miniatures right now. I’m sort of been meaning to pick some up, but my wallet’s been a little bit thin. This is actually a little bit odd, but I couldn’t find Heavy Gear Arena or Heavy Gear Blitz miniatures at any of my local game stores anywhere that I’ve ever been in fact. The only pictures of game stores selling it that I’ve ever seen have been from Canada. I don’t know where they sell them or even if they are sold anywhere in my state right now, being that this is Illinois and it’s a very backwater state, except for Chicago. But yeah, I’ve just not been able to track any down is all. As for ordering them online, by the time that looked like a good option, I just didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend on it.
CG: You kind of fooled me because you’ve gotten deeply into the lore, right?
MP: Yeah. Dream Pod 9 has provided us with a very, very nice collection of books, so I’ve got all the rules for virtually every Heavy Gear game that’s ever been, sitting on my hard drive right now, ready to peruse if we need to figure out something about our mechanics. And we’ve got a technical manual, which we’ve had to very, very closely study in order to get into the damage system and whatnot and how that should work, being that there aren’t any particularly detailed rules about that other than a Gear can get damaged.
CG: Exactly, it’s just damage boxes.
MP: Yeah. So I’d very much love to get a hold of some of the miniatures though.

CG: What faction were you looking at?
MP: Personally, I’d really like to pick up the Nu Coal minis. No particular reason for it, they’re just really, really slick looking minis. But if I had to pick runner-up, it’d be the North. I dig the more angular design, it speaks to a very classic sci-fi sensibility to me. It kind of reminds me a little bit of early Star Wars kind of designs if you applied it to mechs. That probably sounds very silly, but if I had to put it into words, that’s the best that I can do. Of course, I have very fond memories of playing a Kodiak when I was into Heavy Gear, the video games.

The Activision Heavy Gear 1 and Heavy Gear 2

CG: Yeah, so tell me about those Activision titles.
MP: Man! What can I say about them?
CG: So you played both of them?
MP: Yes, I did. I played both of them. My memories of Heavy Gear 1 are, at this point, so early that I can’t really recall much about it. And my experience with Heavy Gear 2 was mainly with the multiplayer, where I was in a guild, and I can’t remember what the name of the guild was for the life of me. I was in so many guilds at the time. At the same time, I think I was into Tribes 2 and I was in a guild there.
CG: Is it safe to say that you played the heck out of Heavy Gear 2 though?
MP: Yeah, I played a lot of multiplayer with my guild in Heavy Gear 2 and I was never much good at it, is the thing. Because that was right around the time when mouse control started to actually work? And I hadn’t gotten it through my head, because I was stupid and like 12. So I was still trying to aim with the arrow keys and PageUp and PageDown on my keyboard.
CG: Oh yes.
MP: So I got really good with rockets. I got really good with bazookas basically.

The Cartoon

CG: And did you watch the old CG cartoon? Did you ever see that?
MP: No, I never did. I didn’t know that one even existed until I was on this project and people started comparing us to them.
CG: Uh oh! How did they compare?
MP: Generally the reception to the cartoon is rather negative.
CG: Yes! [Read my negative review of Battle for the Badlands here.]
MP: Because it’s a bit off-canon from the actual lore of Heavy Gear, I think. At least that’s my understanding of it. And basically people get a little bit anxious, they get a little bit, what’s the word I’m looking for? Blast it!
CG: I don’t know, anxious I think would describe how some fans would be.
MP: People get a little bit anxious about the fact that we’re using the arena setting when they feel that the cartoon wasn’t necessarily representative of how they pictured the Heavy Gear universe. And the thing is is that we’re not drawing from that cartoon, we’re drawing from the Heavy Gear Arena rulebooks. We’re drawing directly from the canon, so if there’s one thing that I’d like to set people’s minds to rest about, it’s that we’re sticking to the canon on this thing. Like, there’s a few things that we’re supplementing here and there, but usually it’s extrapolations of what’s in the rules or extrapolations of what’s in the tech manual into rules for this game. And we’re working very closely with Dream Pod 9 and we’ve even got a guy who was a marketer at Dream Pod 9.
CG: Yeah, John, John Nguyen.
MP: Yeah. We’re being very, very careful about that. Other than that I don’t have any familiarity with the cartoon.

What Mike Prinke’s Been Playing Lately

CG: In your Ten Survival Tips over at GameCareerGuide you advise future game designers to keep playing games, what have you been playing lately yourself?
MP: Let me see here. Let me bring up my list and think about that. This week has been crazy so I need to refresh my memory. Lately, let’s see, every so often I love to go back and play FTL, I think that’s a really, really awesome game.
CG: Ok, FTL, Faster Than Light?
MP: That is correct. Basically you command a ship and you’ve got a nice little top-down view of the inside of your ship and the crew and whatnot and you make jumps from star to star and sector to sector trying to outrun a rebel fleet that is just tearing apart the Federation, to deliver a message explaining what the rebel fleet’s weakness is. Basically the whole game is procedural and it gives you random missions and random events all the time, so no two play-throughs are the same. And there’s a number of ships and a number of races and things that your crewmen can belong to that give them different bonuses. Every play-through feels very, very unique and very, very exciting and it’s a very difficult and strategic game. A lot of very strong elements of meaningful decision-making to it, more so than a lot of AAA games do that try to be non-linear, simply in that they give you a goal, and tell you “However you want to accomplish it and whatever objectives you want to pursue on the way, that’s up to you. We’ll just supply the world and let you do it.” That’s a game that I return to fairly often. It’s something that you can play in an hour or two. Very often you can get lost in it where you play it over and over again, but what else here? I picked up Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and I’m looking forward to playing that that more than I’ve actually played it. Basically I bought it and then immediately had to go into hardcore development mode. Prior to that, it was a lot of Metal Gear Rising and BioShock Infinite I had to pick up, because well… I had to pick it up. It wasn’t a compulsion on my end to pick it up. Everybody was telling me to pick it up and saying “Oh yeah, it’s way better than BioShock.” So I picked it up.
CG: And do you agree with them?
MP: Uh… do I really want to get into that in this interview?
CG: Let’s say no, and keep it briefer, I suppose.
MP: Not particularly. I vastly prefer the first one. [BioShock]

Shadowrun Campaign via IRC

CG: Ok. But you’ve been busy playing several. Are you still doing any tabletop games?
MP: Yes, I am running a Shadowrun game, in fact. It’s been on a little bit of a hiatus since we’ve been very busy with our preparations for Kickstarter, but yeah, I’ve been running a Shadowrun game that takes place in Los Angeles in 2072.
CG: Do you run that in person or online?
MP: It’s online. It’s basically the same group, the core group of four people, from back in my days running Smash Quest.
CG: And what platform do you use for it now?
CG: Oh you still use mIRC! Ok.
MP: Oh yeah. It’s been on my computer for about ten years.
CG: Wow, ok. For me, that dates me to a particular era of my life, when I was using mIRC, but ok. So you use its file send function to send files to people and things like that?
MP: Not particularly. We run our games almost entirely with text. Like typing descriptions and things. It gets a little bit slow. Personally I want to use this map program called Roll 20. I’ve got one guy who just doesn’t really want to use maps and I’ve got one person who doesn’t want to do voice chat, because she’s really shy, so I’ve got to stick to mIRC for the sake of that for right now.

CG: Now did you ever get into MUSHing or MUDing?
MP: Uh, no, I never did.
CG: Ok, but you roleplay via text over the computer which is like, it’s basically like tabletop roleplaying, but you’re describing everything.
MP: Yeah, it’s just you get into a lot more description and people end up taking the roleplay aspect of it, of staying in character and whatnot an awful lot more seriously. The thing is that does come at sort of the expense of the strategic element of gameplay. You end up doing a lot less rational decision-making and a lot less planning and looking over information and detective work and whatnot than you do character-driven storyline and stuff. And personally I prefer to be doing the strategy and the detective work. I prefer to have the players looking at a floor plan almost Oceans 11 style, figuring out how they want to get through it, all the while giggling to myself about the traps they don’t know about. [Laughs] That’s where the pleasure comes from for me. But I do get a good portion of that running it through mIRC at least.

CG: Have you tried the Shadowrun Missions or do you just make your own adventures?
MP: I am making my own adventure for this one. This is actually only my second attempt at running Shadowrun. My first one didn’t go too great. I had a very vague understanding of the rules the first time. This time I sort of gave each player their own introductory session so I could both get the feel for who they are and what they want to do as players and also to get a feel for the different game mechanics, because Shadowrun is very dense on different sets of mechanics. It’s got a different set of mechanics for hacking, it’s got a different set of mechanics for the astral plane and magic. And then there’s the normal combat, there’s all this stuff. Like practically different worlds that the characters look through, but that’s one of the fascinating things about playing it. I went through them one at a time and I’m like “Ok, now this is making sense. Now I can fit this into the context of how I do it with all four of them.” Now I can kind of put it together in the context of how will all four of these characters work together? When am I going to have the hacker doing the hacking? Cybercombat. What are the other players going to be doing while the hacker’s doing that? That’s sort of a lesson that I took away from video game design is that aspect of getting yourself acclimated to the mechanics sort of one at a time.

Academic and Professional Game Design

CG: So that actually is something I wanted to touch upon. So you were at SCAD and then as an undergrad you did do a bit of video gaming design as part of your college experience?
MP: My undergraduate degree was at Michigan State University and the major that I did was Telecommunications/Information Studies Media, the specialization for which was game development, Digital Game Development. That program was going through a lot of growing pains at the time. I’ll supplement a little bit, because it’s actually a nice bridge from one of my previous talking points here. My success with Smash Quest and other tabletop games was what eventually bolstered me to want to go into developing digital games, because when you manage to develop a game that can keep 50 people riveted to their computers-, and we did sessions very frequently, like we did them once a night.
CG: Oh wow, ok.
MP: Yeah, it was really, really intense. When you can do that that successfully, you sort of sit there and think, “Hmmn, maybe I could develop games professionally.” And so that kind of bolstered me to wanting to be a digital game developer. And then, of course, there was another aspect to it, where I actually did and still do derive a bit of inspiration from George Lucas. The Star Wars films had come out on DVD at the time that I was about to go to college and with them there was a documentary called Empire of Dreams and the story basically showed me that George Lucas was a normal person like myself. He was not this extraordinary godlike human being that just pulled gold out of his rear. He was a normal person who put his pants on one leg at a time. And I sort of thought to myself, “If he could chase his dream in the entertainment industry, why can’t I chase my dream in the entertainment industry?” Which at that point was video game design. And I wasn’t even thinking that I was going to do video game design for a while. I thought I was going to do English as my major or something. Then I went to Michigan State to get back on topic here. Basically if you wanted to do video game development, that was hosted in Telecommunications and it was supposed to be cross-disciplinary, but the Art Department really didn’t want to have anything to do with us, because they were a Fine Arts department and didn’t really do commercial art.
CG: Yep, just like I’m sure with Graphic Design, they probably looked down on that.
MP: Yeah, actually graphic design was included in the Art Department and they didn’t care for us much either. Then there was Computer Science and they were more cooperative with us, but at the same time, they still didn’t really take game development seriously. Because what would happen is there’d be 300 students sitting in a lecture hall and the professor would go, “Ok, how many of you are here because you want to make video games?” And about 290 of them would raise their hands. And the professor would be sitting there thinking, “Arghh. None of these people are going to be in my class next year. None of these are going to make it into the advanced computer science courses.” And that was all too typically the case. By the time anyone got into Computer Science video game development classes – and there were a few – there was an engine-development class, for instance. By the time they got there, there’d be maybe 10 people taking that class. There’d be maybe 15 people taking a computer graphics class and that’s all just about developing a 3D rendering engine. To get there, you’d have to spend like four years doing computer science.

Meanwhile the bulk of the game development program was done in Telecom. You’d just have to do a couple of Telecom courses before you got into the game development courses, so that’s where I set my primary focus, the issue being that it didn’t really help to develop as much of a core skill as I’d put it. Everybody who’s doing digital game development, I think, has got to have a practical skill. Everybody’s got to have something that they can do on a team that they will do no matter what type of game they’re developing. Let’s say that you really aren’t interested in sports games or something like that, but you have to work on them, because you need to eat. If you’re not interested in sports games, but you’re interested in technical design or gameplay programming, then it doesn’t matter that you’re working on a sports game, you can work on the animation integration for the sports game. Then you’re doing an integration of animation technology, you’re doing physics engine stuff. That stuff interests you, so it doesn’t matter what type of game you’re making. The problem being that Telecomm was a bit of a hodgepodge at the time. It’s a lot better now, as I understand it.

So we didn’t develop much in the way of core skills, so I was sitting there like, “Ahhh… I feel like I need more training.” So I went to SCAD to do my graduate degree. Besides that, I had things I wanted to explore about game development. I had theories and ideas and things that you really didn’t get into them during undergrad and I don’t think anyone gets into them during undergrad, despite a lot of talk about how hot the student scene is right now. For instance, I did my graduate thesis on the psychological architecture of choice-driven narrative in games. Narrative in games is my big passion. In undergrad, I didn’t do anything with it. I was just feeling fortunate to have a character moving around on the screen. If something worked, it was a miracle. If we had a player model, it was a miracle. Whereas in grad school, you can actually finally start approaching those theoretical ideas – those philosophical ideas, I should say – that define the way that we think of games really and actually explore them and actually do a formalized study out of them. The kind of thing that I was expecting to do going into a game development academic program, but for better or worse we stuck to the basics until I got to grad school.

Game Design Theories: Choice-Driven Narratives and Morality

CG: What got tossed out or what got challenged? What was that experience like?
MP: It was interesting because not many people-, I shouldn’t say people didn’t challenge my theories, but they generally challenged me to formalize them more, to come up with evidence, and cite articles and things. The stuff that I was concerned with was mainly narrative, the development of narrative through games, this idea that-, and people do contest me on this thing. I believe that narrative and gameplay, mechanics I should say, complement one another. I believe that you use one to reinforce the other and that neither of the two need necessarily be considered mutually exclusive ideas. That’s how I look at it, at least. I also tend to believe in very focused form of storytelling in a way that gives you more breadth of decision-making than if you were to make a game that spans the entire universe of your story. Typically I feel that that’s a mistake that roleplaying games make all too often, is just trying to encompass too big of a story, too big of a scope, where they absolutely must go into everything that happens in the entire universe of this game and as a result, none of it gets focus, and there’s a lot of tell don’t show or as it were, tell don’t play.

I believe in the idea that if something is important to your story or to your characters, that you should make it tangible in some way. Character traits, I believe, you can make into tangible game mechanics. As an example, I point out something like Devil May Cry where the character Dante is the showboating jackass basically and the mechanics encourage you to be a showboating jackass. It’s not just about surviving the battle, it’s about showing off. It’s about doing tricks almost more than survival against demonkind. It’s very much the Tony Hawk of hack-n-slash games. And that, I found, was a very inspiring thing for me. There I am trying to apply concepts like that to a choice-driven narrative and people are like “Are you crazy?! Don’t you want to talk about Mass Effect? Isn’t that the best kind of choice-driven narrative there is?!” And I’m like, “Ehhh, I don’t really think so.” So if anything I think I spent a lot of time challenging other people, but I did get challenged in that I had at least one professor who was like, “You know, when I play a game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls, it seems to me that the matter of doing a choice-driven narrative doesn’t really matter because I experience it the way I experience it. And all the other possibilities basically go ignored. And sure, if I talk to people about it, fine. Basically I play it once and that’s the way I play it and it’s done.” So I needed to convince people at the same time that I was trying to tell them choice-driven narrative really gets overblown, at the same time I also needed to convince them that it was worth exploring. Sorry, I’m sort of remembering this as I go. I’m sorting of thinking aloud in a way.
CG: Yeah, you’re maybe saying in Fallout 3, that maybe you’d like to experience what Megaton is like if you don’t blow it up, versus if you do to go over to that Tenpenny Towers or whatever?
MP: Yeah, yeah. Where that comes in, where I was finally able to break the surface of that discussion was in the end, it’s not necessarily a matter of player agency. It’s not necessarily a matter of the player getting to make choices that make huge impacts on the world around them, that change literally the whole course of the story. Because there’s only so much of that you can do in a digital game at all. At the end of the day, it’s in 1’s and 0’s, it’s kind of set in stone. There’s only so much leeway you’re able to program in. The real appeal of choice-driven narrative, I postulate, is that there’s this aspect of personalization that you experience, of interpreting the story, that makes it worthwhile. So when you blow up Megaton in Fallout 3, you’re interpreting your character and the values of the story, whatever you may perceive them to be, in a different way from someone else who’s doing the same thing. It’s kind of an extrapolation of the Holodeck concept in kind of a way. Instead of exploring a story as a linear thing, as kind of being fed the story and the values that go with it, you are exploring them tangibly. You are getting hands-on experience with the themes through the interactions that you have with the game. And that particular interaction in Fallout is a very strong thematic point in that story where you’re basically making the decision about how the world should be treating itself, how it should run from this post-apocalyptic state it’s in. Should we be trying to eliminate these pockets of poverty by just getting rid of them or should we give them a chance to grow and rebuild themselves? That’s a major theme and they give you an interaction that lets you get hands-on with it. And those are the moments that I find are the most powerful in a choice-driven narrative. Likewise if I look at something like Heavy Rain, for all that game’s faults and its story, a simple moment like Ethan Mars going to his refrigerator and having to decide whether he wants to drink beer or whether he wants to drink orange juice while his son watches cartoons in the background can make a world of difference for your perception of that character. Or you can be a pig and drink both.

Coding Morality in Game Design

CG: Yeah, but what about the moralizing factor of that? Sometimes it seems like you have to figure out what the designers’ moral values are, because to us playing it, we go “That’s not bad. That’s not good. Why did I lose Karma?”
MP: That’s kind of an issue with choice-driven narrative systems, is that developers too often oversimplify it to good and evil, when, in fact, there is a huge breadth of themes that you could explore and good and evil are just one theme. If you look at something like Infamous, right? There’s a game that’s pushing the good evil thing and in a way it’s not terribly inappropriate because you’re looking at electricity and positive and negative polarity as a way to kind of connect that in, but the thing is, that’s not really what about the story is about. It’s about surviving in this city and this idea of responsibility versus selfishness. But instead of picking up on responsibility vs. selfishness, they picked on good and evil. And you can consider one value or the other to be better or worse depending on the circumstances that you’re in. If it were simply a survival situation and they said “There’s only so many resources to go around, how are you going to allocate them?” then it might have come off very differently, but instead they literally had a Good Evil meter and they had to shoehorn good and evil decisions into every beat of the story, even when there really wasn’t a difference between which one would get you further. Like very early on, there’s a scene where you can either electrocute a guy to death or you can tell him that his wife is dead and i’m sitting there going “Number 1, why do I have to electrocute him to death? Why can’t I just knock him out through the bars? Why can’t I just stun him. Number 2, why is that even a thing thematically? Why would I even think about killing him just to get past this door?” It’s a moment that’s there purely to introduce you to this mechanic of the Good-Evil Meter and there’s so many of them throughout that game.

Likewise there’s the idea of good and evil points in general, which I think is a flawed model for developing the concept of morality and decision-making in games. If you think about the decision-making process, there’s a model of decision-making called rationality. Limited rationality is the more refined way of looking at it. It basically postulates that people look at the world through a lens of risk versus reward and it’s dictated by what preferences they have for what sorts of variables they want to maximize and minimize and what options they think they have as far as getting it accomplished. If you think about good or evil points as a resource in that context, you can’t trade them. The rest of the world doesn’t work on good and evil points. You can’t go to a store and trade five points of evil karma for something. It basically has no tangible value to anyone except in very, very few peculiar instances that I think have influenced the scope of narrative-choice in a way that really shouldn’t have. Particularly, I’m thinking of Knights of the Old Republic where yeah, good and evil points are perfectly appropriate. It’s Star Wars. Literally the whole world works on this idea of Light Side and Dark Side energies conflicting, so that is absolutely a tangible resource in this world. But everybody sort of looked at that and said, “We should do good and evil points too. This is really cool.” And then it sort of went downhill, because they weren’t doing Star Wars. Star Wars is the only setting where that really works.

That’s where I think the morality idea kind of falls off. You shouldn’t be looking at it as the idea of exploring morality, because morality varies from person to person. The ideals that motivate what’s good and evil in our minds are basically… any ideology can have a very different way of looking at killing, for instance, any ideology can have a very different way of looking at a mundane thing like eating meat. It’s a question. When you talk about ideology, basically the only way you can possibly write a story is that the ideology is taken for granted. That’s the whole message behind Star Wars, in fact, is that the ideology is taken for granted. It’s the most basic type of story to tell is a morality play where you are just showing the audience what good is and what evil is and equating it to some set of values. In Star Wars, it would be probably freedom versus power. That’s really the operative theme and it’s explored through a mask of good and evil. But the key to it is good and evil are taken for granted and they don’t spend a lot of time asking what good and evil are, they just let the story take it for granted, and the action unfolds, and you get to spend time enjoying this great adventure. But then you get into something like Shadow the Hedgehog, which feels the need to belabor whether or not the lead character is a good guy or you play something like Fable. You play something like Fable which belabors the question of are you good or are you evil. Or Infamous, which belabors the question of are you good or are you evil? And by the time we get done answering this very, very basic question, not only is the game likely to be wrong in the player’s mind, but the game is also going to be over.

Story Arcs in Heavy Gear Assault? Campaign versus Arena

CG: We’ve just been talking a lot about story arcs and narrative. As far as gameplay and story arcs, will there be one in Heavy Gear Assault.
MP: [Blows air] One of our stretch goals is to try and develop a campaign. That requires a lot of resources to develop a single-player or co-op campaign, that requires an awful lot of resources, more than I think that people imagine. Single player is, on one hand, easier to program because you don’t necessarily need to do the network programming aspect of it. On the other hand, it’s more costly because you need more cinematic stuff. You need to spend time developing single player levels which you balance very differently from a multiplayer level and are much harder to test, in fact.

There’s some fun stories about what the Ratchet & Clank testing team had to go through, where they had what’s called Help Desk, which is this pop-up that comes up, telling you “You can jump over obstacles if you press the X Button.” Basically if a kid, a 3-year old kid is playing, they stay in the room too long, right, imagine having to test every single one of those. Every single message like that. If you’re building LEGO Star Wars and you’ve got messages like this that help kids through the game if they sit there for like ten minutes in the same room, imagine being the guy sitting there at the test machine moving the character through the levels sitting there for fifteen minutes desperately trying to maintain your concentration while waiting for this message to pop up so you can confirm that it pops up and that it doesn’t have spelling errors and that it stays up long enough to be readable. And then all somebody has to do is say “Hey, Mike!” over your shoulder and then you look away and then you look back and you see the pop-up disappear and you’re like “Oh crap!”

That’s the kind of thing that you have to test in a single [player campaign], and I’m not saying that Heavy Gear [Assault] would need a system like that necessarily, being that it’s a core PC game, we know that generally we’re looking at a more adult audience that can put things together for themselves. Not that we need something like that, but every interaction in a level, every scripted event in a level, right down to a simple piece of background scenery needs to be tested and confirmed, every elevator, every door has to be tested and confirmed without bugs. That process in of itself takes a whole lot of time and more people than we’ve got on this project, let alone the art resources and the level design resources necessary to create it.

CG: What fills that narrative gap then? Is it the level designs or different arenas? Different arena configurations?
MP: In terms of the narrative experience that we definitely can deliver, yeah, we’re filling in multiple different arenas in different locations. Mostly centered around Khayr ad-Din, but spread out a little bit. There’s some talk among the team of exploring a couple of other cities. And then ideally there’s a sort of, how to put this, there’s a big interaction to this that I don’t necessarily want to give away yet. What I will say is that there is we’re trying to do a little bit more than just develop a standard free-to-play game, where you just drop into a map and that’s it. We’re doing a bit more than the bare minimum Death Match sort of thing. We’re looking at a very unique system for developing player lobbies and whatnot. And we are looking at developing a stronger narrative experience through the different events that are kind of going to go on in the community. We’re looking at really using the community as our means of developing a narrative as opposed to a single player campaign at the moment. We do really want to do the single player campaign. We’ve got just awesome ideas in mind for how we’d like to develop it and the types of mechanics we’ve got go into so much more detail than the previous Heavy Gear video games, that we think we’d be able to make the most awesome single player campaign that any mech simulator has ever seen. I don’t want to say on a scope that you’ve never seen before, but there’d be interactions in ways that you haven’t seen before. Particularly revolving around your relationship with the machine, with the Gear, right. Most mech simulators are content to have you play as the mech and that’s it.
CG: Right.
MP: Our perspective is that you are not just the mech. You are the pilot and you have a mech. And that’s about as far into that as I can go.
CG: Ok, so I’m picking up, and you don’t have to say anything to this, but maybe you could exit the mech.
MP: Maybe. [James Taylor confirms this in the GDC 2013 Interview by IndieStatik]

North vs. South, Peace River and Nu Coal

Heavy Gear Arena Gladiator with Dual Machine Pistols

Peace River Gladiator Miniature for Heavy Gear Arena

CG: OK. Do you think that players will naturally want to echo the North vs. South divide, things like that?
MP: Players will definitely have their preferences for what types of Gears they want to use. Already in the community there’s that debate happening on the Facebook page where people are going, “I’m totally sticking with my babies, the Northern Gears.” And then someone looks at a piece of Lorenz’s concept art of the Hunter versus the Jager and they’re like “I don’t know. For that Jager, I think I could be convinced to go Southern.” They just naturally want to partition themselves on North and South. I think if that’s what they want to do, just let them do it and have fun with it. If that’s where they perceive the fun of this, if they want to faction off, and they want to kind of cheerlead their side, then more power to ’em. Although we would like to explore the mechs outside of just the Northern and Southern sets of Gears.
CG: Yeah, Peace River definitely.
MP: Peace River is one of our stretch goals and then, yeah, Nu Coal is another one of our stretch goals, I think.

Kevin Siembieda on Robotech RPG Tactics

On Monday, April 15 I called and interviewed Kevin Siembieda over the phone about the upcoming Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarter. While other legendary RPG designers have worked on multiple game systems over the years, Siembieda has spent the last three decades delving deep into his own Palladium rules system producing titles at Palladium Books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beyond the Supernatural, Ninjas & Superspies, Heroes Unlimited, and of course, RIFTS and Robotech. As of April 18, the Kickstarter from Ninja Division is LIVE and seeking to raise $70,000 in 32 days, but he had a lot to say on Monday about his playtest experience with Robotech RPG Tactics, the newer post-2005 edition of the Palladium Robotech RPG, his experience wargaming, Kickstarter, and RIFTS.

Banner with Valkyrie Robotech artwork but text reads Robotech RPG Tactics Now Being Funded on Kickstarter. Join the Cause

CG: First off, Minmei or Lisa Hayes?
KS: Oh, I’m a Lisa Hayes guy. I like women who are mature. [Laughs] As simple as that.
CG: What’s your favorite song that Minmei sings though?
KS: “We Will Win”, no question about it. That fight scene was epic.
CG: You just had your birthday. How old did you turn?
KS: I am 57. I feel like 27, but the white hair says otherwise.
CG: You’ve had that for some time, right?
KS: Yeah, I started turning grey when I was in my twenties, so yeah, my hair turned silver about ten years ago. It just gets a little whiter, but blondes have more fun, so I’m enjoying being a platinum blond.

Siembieda on Robotech Eras

CG: There seems to be a vocal community of fans desperate for the Masters and New Generation sagas, do you have anything to tide them over? I know you mentioned recently that hopefully you’ll be including them, but any further news on that?
KS: There is no “hopefully” including them. I mean, when we started this project, our goal from the very beginning was to do all eras of Robotech. So that has been our plan from day one and that continues to be our plan. It’s easier to tackle them pretty much in order, starting with Macross, so that’s what we’re doing. We plan on banging out pieces for every era of Robotech.

Resin sculpt of Robotech RPG Tactics VF-1A Valkyrie Miniature with UEDF Fleet in art background Palladium Books and Ninja Division

New Sculpt Unveiled for Robotech RPG Tactics: The VF-1A Battloid Valkyrie

The Newer Edition of the Robotech RPG

CG: For someone like me who played Robotech from Palladium back in the ’90s, what about the newer edition of the game, what are some reasons for someone like me to pick it up and take a look at it?
KS: If you’re talking about the current role-playing game, let me just clarify for people who may not be familiar with the game line or haven’t looked at it in a long time: back in 1986 we came out with the Robotech role-playing game that was based on the Harmony Gold anime series and it was hugely popular. And we had that license for like fifteen or seventeen years, I forget what it was, where we let it go after a while because we just kind of thought that we had done everything we could with it and other things were happening.

Then in 2005 we got that license back and one of the big differences is back in the ’80s and ’90s when we originally had the license there was not the wealth of information that we have now. And even Harmony Gold as the licensor didn’t provide us with the kind of information we needed to do what we as fans [saw as] a truly accurate representation of the television series. For example, Southern Cross, we had a bunch of cool animation/artwork/model sheets, but we had no information as to what a lot of that stuff was. You got to remember, this was back in the day before the internet or just as the internet was starting to take off and a lot of this information just was not available. Harmony Gold didn’t have it, we didn’t have it, and I think in the earlier days of Harmony Gold, they were really focusing and looking at Robotech as being their unique extrapolation from original material, which of course, it very much is, but in the advent of the web and the world getting smaller, where everything’s at your fingertips, there’s just a lot more information available about the original material and I think the new generation of creators at Harmony Gold, such as Tommy Yune and a bunch of other guys, sat back and said “Gee, it’d be cool if this stuff was more accurate and was more representative of what you see in the TV series. That’s some of the fun we’ve really been having with the re-tool of this; when we launched Robotech in 2005, we really looked at it as if we had never seen the license before and we gathered all kinds of information. This time Harmony Gold had a wealth of information they could share with us and input and ideas and stats on the various ‘mechs and weapons and characters and things. We dug up even more and so little bits of it are still extrapolations of things.

For example, Southern Cross in particular, there’s just a truckload of new material that people have never seen before. I mean there’s power armor and robots and drones and vehicles and a ton of weapons that are all part of the Army of the Southern Cross and it really makes Southern Cross or the Masters Saga, so much more dynamic and exciting and fun, because there’s just tons and tons of what I call “toys”, like I said, weapons and power armor, all kinds of stuff that you get glimpses of in a TV show, but there’s never really been a lot of information on, so that’s been a blast for us, to do stuff like that. We really just feel like the representation of what we’re doing is so much truer to the TV show than our first run with the series and it’s been a blast doing that. So there’s just a lot of good stuff.

And then when you were talking about Robotech RPG Tactics, that’s even going beyond the strictly roleplaying stuff. With RPG Tactics we’re taking the Robotech environment and the characters and mainly focusing on the mecha and the combat and coming up with an extrapolation on the roleplaying game that enables people to basically play a fast-paced, combat-oriented tabletop game. So you’ll actually have one 1:285th scale plastic figure, what we’re calling game pieces. The detail is just beautiful. You’ll be able to play skirmish games, you’ll be able to scale it up to mass combat. It just brings a whole new dimension and the fact that you’ll now have these beautifully sculpted and detailed figures, that’s wonderful, because obviously in a combat game scenario you really need to see your figures and know where the guy is, where that character is or where that mech is, and where he’s going. We have all these tight, very formal, very crisp playtested-like-crazy set of rules that allow you to really engage in a broad range of combat. It’s just a blast.

White-haired RPG Designer and Legend Kevin Siembieda smiling in crowded Gen Con Exhibitors' Hall

Living Legend: Kevin Siembieda at the Palladium Books Booth at Gen Con 2012

And then for Robotech collectors and fans, these figures are gorgeous. As a fan myself, if someone else were producing this product, I’d want to buy it just because I want the damn figures on my shelf! I’ve never really been a tactical combat guy or a wargamer, so that has limited appeal, although I think this game for me personally as a roleplayer and a Robotech fan, this game is so fun that a lot of people regardless of what their orientation is for Robotech can pick it up pretty easy and have a lot of fun.

Kevin Siembieda’s Wargaming Experience

CG: You’ve touched on a couple of things I wanted to ask you about. So you said you’re not much of a miniature wargamer yourself? What have you played?
KS: For me, I’ve dabbled with a few things. I played a couple of homegrown things with some friends in the past. I’ve played Ironclads a million years ago. I played Battletech. I’m familiar with the market, so I’m familiar with some of the games by Fantasy Flight and of course, the Warhammer 40K stuff, but I’m very much a roleplayer.
CG: So yeah, you don’t have a Warhammer army yourself?
KS: No, sir! [Laughs] But I have plenty of friends who do and that’s the beauty of this product too. For role-players, the pieces are really nice to have too whether they’re just display pieces or whether they represent your character as you’re playing through the game. It’s nice to be able to position them, so everyone knows where their mech is and what their characters are doing. That’s the beauty of this game. The way we approached it is to try to create a game that would have really broad appeal so that any number of Robotech fans can dive in and find some use and find some pleasure with it.

Robotech RPG Tactics 1:285 Scale

CG: Now why the scale of the 1:285th, is that going back to Battletech and other things, that that’s just the micro armor scale?
KS: Yeah, again, we know enough and, of course, the Ninja Division guys know that market inside and out, because they are the guys from Sodapop Miniatures and Cipher Studios. And yeah, they felt that was the best scale, because it coincides with a number of other games and that way you can always mix and match, for those who want to do that. You can mix and match different models and miniatures from other games, especially depending on how far you want to take this stuff. You can have different creatures and mechs and stuff that could be from alien worlds and things, because ultimately all the games you’re only limited by your imagination, so we wanted people to have a wide range of possibilities. Plus, it’s also the scale that most people seem to really want! When we ourselves started to explore this market, we put the question out there and asked the gamers what they really wanted to play and the overwhelming response was the 1:285th scale. So if that’s what players want, then that’s what we’re going to give them. [After the interview, Kevin Siembieda also mentioned the ease of finding terrain in the scale as another contributing factor.]

Palladium Books and Ninja Division: The Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarter Campaign

CG: Now what is Palladium Books role in Robotech RPG Tactics exactly? Are you in partnership or is one of you the licensor? How is that working?
KS: Yeah! Palladium is the licensor. We have the rights to the Robotech property for roleplaying and various other things. We’re also going to be the publisher, so we’re bankrolling all of this. And of course, we’ve had input with game design, because while I may not be a wargamer per se, I certainly know Robotech inside and out, know what feel we need for the game. And game design, the fundamentals of game design, apply to most mediums so you want stuff that’s fast-paced and fun, that creates the television experience. It’s all translation. We’ve been working with Sodapop/Cypher Studios/Ninja Division guys to achieve all that.

CG: Who is actually masterminding the Kickstarter campaign? Are you behind that or is Ninja Division doing that?
KS: Well we’re working really closely with the Ninja Division guys, but they are the guys behind the Kickstarter. It’s simply a matter of they have the experience and we don’t.
CG: Right.
KS: So yeah, we’re deferring to their expertise.

“As a Robotech fan, I mean this is just a product that I would kill for. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve wanted to see for the last 25 years.”

CG: I know you’re just as excited as the fans for the Kickstarter, so what are you personally looking forward to getting your hands on?
KS: [Laughs] Oh my gosh! It’s one of these things that’s been killing me! Because Ninja Division doesn’t want us to reveal a lot of what is going to be in the Kickstarter or what’s going to be in this game line. It’s been sort of killing me not to be able to tell people that yes, there’s going to be all the Destroids and yes, the M.A.C. II Monster is freaking gorgeous! And all the figures are gorgeous. As a Robotech fan, I mean this is just a product that I would kill for. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve wanted to see for the last 25 years. So it’s a double kick for us that we get to be the guys who can do this. It’s been very exciting!

Two legged mecha M.A.C. Monster from Macross Sourcebook as line art with huge shoulder-mounted guns and guns on hands

The M.A.C. II Monster: Wait for Kickstarter to See the “Freaking Gorgeous” Sculpt

Kevin Siembieda’s Robotech RPG Tactics Playtest Experience

CG: Are you going to be more of a Zentraedi guy or more of the United Earth Defense Forces?
KS: When I was playtesting I actually played the Zentraedi, so both sides are fun to play.
CG: So you also just answered another question I had. So playtesting: you’ve definitely played the game quite a bit yourself?
KS: Oh, heck yeah! For me, it’s been a learning curve. But I think that worked really good, because I asked a lot of the lowest common denominator questions. One of the things I found, for example, is while the game designers were focusing on certain elements of the game, I – as just a Robotech fan with very little war game experience – I stepped in and when I’m playing the war game, I’m like “Well, why can’t I do this?” And “Why can’t I do that?” And “Can my character do this?” And when they didn’t have an answer, I’m like “Well, why not?” [Laughs]
CG: Do you think that you have shaped the game a bit or did they just explain more of wargaming terms to you?
KS: Oh, well in some cases, it was a matter of “Ok, these are common tropes in this kind of game and this is why we do this.” And in other cases, “Oh yeah, gosh, why can’t we do that?” And “You’re right, it should be faster.” Or “It should be able to do this.” Yeah, I definitely contributed conceptually to what the game should be and my focus is simply to recreate the television experience. If you see it on TV, you should be able to play it. If you couldn’t, it was like, “Well, we need to fix that.” And that’s what the guys who know the rules sat down and did.

CG: I forget the technical name for this, like the Alpha Missile Strike [Macross Missile Massacre], the thing with all the missiles swirling around in the air, but is there an in-game equivalent to that?
KS: Oh yeah, absolutely. Again, at the risk of being a nerd (but that’s what I am)… everything you can see in the television show, we are trying to provide in the gaming experience, so, yes! You can have an Armored Valkyrie or a Super Valkyrie just loaded up with missiles and unleash! You can have missile volleys, you have all kinds of great stuff. Again, everything you can see in the show is pretty much there. There are some exceptions and some modifications and some elements – like a lot of the playtesters have brought up questions about three-dimensional play and… there’s some things of sitting back and saying “You know what? These will be saved for advanced rules.”

CG: Ok. I think even with Ninja Division and the Youtube video, I think they mentioned that one of your characters could be Miriya or play as Roy Fokker, right?
KS: Yeah! Well, I don’t know how I can reveal this quite yet, but yeah, there’ll be mechanisms in there where you can actually play specific characters or use the specific characters as part of your squadron and their inclusion gives you and your team bonuses and such. And then, yeah, especially for roleplayers, it’s easy enough for you to just put your own character in there or a specific TV character and “This model represents that character or another character.” Go to town, man! Just have fun!

John Cadice from Ninja Division on Robotech RPG Tactics at GAMA Trade Show

CG: Were you playing with a measuring tape?
KS: Yeah, yeah! We were using laser pointers and measuring tapes, yep.
CG: So it’s not a hex or grid? You were measuring in inches or centimeters?
KS: Right. I believe it was inches?

CG: Is it a game with alternating activation or do you just sit there while your opponent moves all his figures and then you go?
KS: That’s one of the things that we’ve been fooling around with and… [Kevin Siembieda later clarified:] The fact of the matter is that Robotech® RPG Tactics™ is most definitely turn based. It uses a fast-paced turn system with players trading off activating squadrons during each turn. This helps ensure that a player never has to sit and wait for long periods of time while his opponent is moving and attacking with his entire army. One of our main goals in the design of this game is to keep the action fast and reflective of the action you see in the anime.

CG: What about M.D.C. [Mega Damage Capacity]? Is there an MDC stat or is pretty much all the damage MDC anyways?
KS: Yeah, it’s pretty much all MDC, but yeah, there is an MDC stat. You know, obviously it’s not the same as in the games. [Garbled.] You don’t have to pull out a calculator to do the math, but yeah, it’s basically an MDC equivalent.

CG: Ok. So someone at Ninja Division had to point out all the units to make them equivalent, like one Zentraedi Battle Pod is worth how many ever Destroids?
KS: Oh yeah.
CG: Did you have any input on that or you left that to them as wargamers?
KS: I pretty much left a lot of the real nitty gritty to them as wargamers, although again, it was one of these things where… you know, in the course of all this, because we have been really working on this for- oh God, it’s probably close to six months now, that we fooled around with everything. For example, I think the game started out with a-, in fact, I know the game started out with three Zentraedi to one Earth Defender. And then we adjusted that to two, and then we adjusted it to one and a half, and that was really imbalanced. And then I think we’ve ended up back at what we originally started with, as three Zentraedi to one Earth Defender.
CG: Ok. And we’ve seen Rick Hunter do that many times easily.
KS: Yeah, exactly! And again, we all rewatched the TV show, we all talked a lot about it amongst ourselves, and then we sent in our input to the various people. We had weekly discussions, telephone conferences with the Ninja Division guys and some of our own guys. A few of the playtesters really know their stuff too. We got some really valuable input from a lot of the playtesters and we had a lot of playtesters, because we really wanted to get a lot of different views. In fact, one of the things we did when we sent stuff out to various playtest people is we tried to do a range from experienced tabletop gamers to guys like me, who have never or rarely picked up a war game, to guys who can quote from twenty different systems and armies of, like you were saying earlier, Warhammer. Here’s my 400 Warhammer figures or whatever game they’re into. So we really did want to get a good range of input and see what people who were experienced and inexperienced thought. People who knew Robotech and who didn’t know Robotech. So it’s been really, really an experience getting all that input.

CG: Are there any weird stretch goals for fans like Rick’s civilian plane? Or floating giant fish out in outer space, any weird stuff like that?
KS: [Laughs] You know, I don’t really think I’m at liberty to say.

Timeline for Kickstarter

CG: Haha, ok. Any update on when that Kickstarter will be? I’ve heard April 19th at the latest, but I also heard this coming Saturday. Any update on that?
KS: Yeah, we are shooting to get that up as soon as possible. The 18th would be ideal. We’ve even been talking about doing it sooner if that would be possible, but it looks like the 18th is probably a solid date, but certainly within there, give or take a day or two. We need to do it right. And right now, the Ninja Division guys are just-, since they’re doing 99% of the work on the Kickstarter itself, I mean they’re just busting their backs right now to get it all up and done. We’ve been going in and mostly pointing, you know, “Change this. Fix that. Tweak that. Here’s a better image. Here’s a suggestion. Here’s a this. Oh yeah, that’s approved.” That sort of thing. And they’re doing all the heavy lifting on this, so whatever they can get done and how quick they can do it and make it look good. Because we don’t just want to crap it out. And, of course, Harmony Gold has to take a look at it and approve it and hopefully that’ll simply be a matter of a quick look and approval, but that could be… some delays if they want us to change something or tweak something, but they’ve been great to work with so far. We’ve been getting good, quick approvals from them. They’re super-excited about this project too. On 04.16.13 Kevin Siembieda emailed that the Kickstarter will be THURSDAY.

Robotech Live Action Movie: No Real News

CG: Of course they should be. So the pressure’s on for me so I need to type this up pretty quickly. Do you know anything about the Live Action movie or is that in development hell? What do you know?
KS: Uhhhhh, yeah, I guess I don’t really know anything officially.
CG: Ok, so obviously it would benefit everyone involved, but you also have no control over that, right?
KS: I have absolutely no control over that and I’ve heard some rumors that it’s in development – and by the way those rumors did NOTcome from Harmony Gold, so … I really don’t know if it’s in development or not.

The 2006 Palladium Plea to Fans and Kickstarter

CG: You made a very public plea years ago in 2006 for funding and support from your fans. So now in conjunction with Ninja Division, you’re going to be Kickstarting; do you see those as any different?
KS: I guess yes and no? It’s different in that the circumstances were certainly different, but yeah, ironically we kind of did crowdfunding before we even realized-, well, actually before crowdfunding even existed. In 2006 we were just in those desperate straits of having basically been sabotaged with embezzlement and theft that put us on the verge of bankruptcy. And we were in desperate straits and there was just no way to raise the kind of revenue we needed to stay alive and I came up with the idea of-, gosh, we’d been around at the time for 25 years and what if we went to our fans and said, “Hey, this is what’s going on. We’re in desperate straits. And if you’re planning on buying books, please buy them now.” And “Here’s a bunch of special items, prints and things, T-shirts that we’re making now to fund all this and keep us from going out of business.” The fans were just phenomenal. It was unbelievable. It was nothing short of a miracle. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which is pretty incredible, because they turned a nightmare situation into something wonderful and beautiful. Because in addition to just the financial support we got all these emails and phone calls and letters, just espousing how much they loved us and the products, you know, “Thank you for doing these.” And “We’re not going to let you go out of business.” Yeah, it was pretty incredible! But obviously this is a much more formalized thing. I think crowdfunding through companies like Kickstarter is fantastic! Especially in the new, sort of global economic environment that we’re in. It’s so hard to find one or two investors willing to pump in X amount of money and it’s great if you can go to the people who actually know your stuff and love your stuff and want to support your stuff and get them to put in the money. It’s a win-win for everyone, because they get cool product and you get the resources you need to do those cool products. Yeah, it’s a great idea.

Siembieda on RIFTS and Possibility of Rifts RPG Tactics

CG: There were RIFTS miniatures in the 1990s produced with RAFM. Any comment this early on on whether we might see a Spider Skull Walker in resin anytime soon?
KS: [Laughs] That’s a great question! I don’t know about someday soon, but yeah, we would love to see that. We would love to see a RIFTS tabletop game and yeah, wait till you guys see some of the designs in the Northern Gun books. Oh man! There could be some beautiful, epic RIFTS battles, man. It’d be great, yeah. We’d love to see that. But we’re not counting our chickens before they hatch and we have NO plans. I don’t want to start any rumors. We have no plans to do a RIFTS tactical game at this time.
CG: None? Really? Ok. So at least this will give you guys a chance to see how the process works and so on with Kickstarter and everything else. If you did it, it seems like Kickstarter [or crowdfunding] would be involved.
KS: Oh yeah, absolutely. If we did do a RIFTS RPG Tactics game line, we would certainly do it as a Kickstarter-funded thing. I’m not saying we’re not going to do it, I’m just saying that we’re trying to stay focused [laughs] on what we have now. Once we launch this, if it’s as successful as everyone seems to think it is- because everyone from the Ninja guys to the gaming base that we are tapped into to our distributors, – everyone seems to think that it’s going to be a big deal. Everyone seems excited about it. So yeah, if this is the success we think it will be, then after we have Robotech in all eras of Robotech in the pipeline to come out as part of this game line, then we’ll think about what we might do with RIFTS. But yeah, I think it’d be a hoot to do it.

The Success of RIFTS

CG: RIFTS, compared to Robotech… RIFTS of course came out later, but it seems to be the flagship product for Palladium Books, right?
KS: Yeah! Oh yeah, in fact our first big hit game was Ninja Turtles. Our next big hit game was Robotech and then our – chronologically – our third big hit game was RIFTS. But RIFTS eclipsed both of those. Yeah, it was just a mega-hit. People love the thing. It’s been around for twenty-some years now and still going strong.
CG: Any figures on number of books published for RIFTS?
KS: Oh god! [Laughs] Including sourcebooks and things? Millions. I think the- Oh gosh! I should have those numbers at my fingertips. I think RIFTS Core Rulebooks alone- I should say the RPG and the RIFTS Ultimate Edition, you know, the two versions of the core rules have sold something in the neighborhood of 350,000 copies. So yeah, it’s pretty strong. There’s got to be a dozen source books for Rifts – World Books – that have sold 100,000 copies all by themselves. But a lot of that goes back to the heyday of the ’90s when RIFTS was kicking and roleplaying was just hot. The first six Rifts titles all hit 100,000 or more. So, yeah. It was big! When we came out with RIFTS we printed 10,000 copies and thought, “This is a three month supply if the game is as hot as we think it will be.” And we sold out in three weeks and we were like “Holy crap!” And we pressed 20,000 the next time around and that sold out in like two months. Yeah, we knew we had something special at that point.
CG: Well, I wish you the greatest of success in a similar way with Robotech RPG Tactics then!
KS: Thank you, Brant. I appreciate that.

Kirby Krackle’s Jim Demonakos on Gaming, Nerd Rock, and Conventions

Jim Demonakos is the songwriting partner of Kyle Stevens. Put them together and you get the superheroic sounds of Kirby Krackle. For more on Kirby Krackle’s most recent CD, Live in Seattle, be sure to check out the small article and video I did with Kyle back at Comic-Con. As Demonakos revealed when we spoke at the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival which Kirby Krackle “headlined” on November 3, he also has a secret identity deep within the world of comic books, or maybe it’s not such a secret. Jim Demonakos is one of the writers of a successful New York Times best-selling graphic novel and the director of the Emerald City Comicon. Demonakos is also a newlywed and shared his thoughts on gaming, Kirby Krackle, and Las Vegas.

Jim Demonakos the Gamer

Box artwork for Zombicide featuring Survivors fending off attacking zombies

Zombie Apocalypse? Demonakos is a Zombicide Fan

CG: How did you get into tabletop gaming?
JD: Well as a kid, especially if we’re talking board games, I was into all of the classics. Played a lot of Monopoly as a kid, Scrabble, Risk, and Chutes and Ladders, all that. As I’ve gotten older I really like a lot of cool tabletop games. For example, I have a biweekly Zombicide game. I backed it on Kickstarter, totally great back, like I was really happy. We’ve been playing it now, like I said, we have a group of five of us and we just do all the campaigns. And there’s a cool Kickstarter-only campaign which is like a super-hard map: you go through five different scenarios.
CG: What level did you back it at?
JD: Just the $100 level or $125. Basically I got the game and all the extra zombies, and then three extra characters which have already come and then there’s another three coming in March. I also backed their other game that’s not out yet. Sedition Wars?
CG: Yeah, Sedition Wars. Mike McVey.
JD: So I’m looking forward to that. I play a lot of Catan and… Carcassone. Also I really like Ticket to Ride. I just tried the Northern Edition and thought that was super cool as well. A lot of boarding gaming fun.
CG: So Zombicide for you has really lived up to the hype?
JD: Yes! Yeah, I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I think it’s because it’s nice that we’re playing all together, so you can try to make a strategy and be like, “Well, why don’t you try to go for the token and we’ll hold off the zombies over here. Why don’t you get in the car? Oh! You have the Molotov, well then gather all these guys here. You’re Slipper so I can get out of the way. Alright!” I think there’s a really fun cooperative element to it instead of just-, not that I don’t understand Carcassone where it’s more versus, but I think that Zombicide for sure, I was extremely happy with my purchase.

Band members Jim Demonakos and Kyle Stevens sitting behind merch booth at comic book convention

Kirby Krackle: Jim Demonakos (L) and Kyle Stevens (R) at Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival

CG: Are you playing with Kyle or are you playing with different friends?
JD: No, I don’t actually like Kyle. It’s a weird thing. [Laughs] Yeah, we get together enough. We see each other enough with Kirby Krackle stuff that usually when it’s social time, it’s hey, let’s go get dinner or let’s see a movie together, but we actually don’t game together. We tried weirdly – just to go into a video game mini-rant – we tried to video game together when DC Universe Online came out. It was such a cluster. Nothing was working right. We were both on our cell phones trying to coordinate. The audio’s not working on our headphones-
CG: Over PS3?
JD: Over PS3. It was horrible. It actually made me return the game. I was like, “Well, I wanted to play this with Kyle, wanted to do something fun, and now I’m just done with this.” But I haven’t really video gamed in a while. I’ll play super casual stuff on my iPad, but it’s more board gaming these days for me.

CG: Did you ever get into miniature wargaming with Privateer Press up there, Wizards-
JD: Yeah, like actually the only one I did for a long time was Heroclix, that was the closest I got to miniatures. I never did D&D Miniatures, Games Workshop, 40k.
CG: And did you ever get into Magic: The Gathering? You’re in Wizards of the Coast territory up there.
JD: You know what’s funny? Literally everybody I know – except for Kyle – plays Magic and I just never did, but not for lack of interest. Listen: Magic, just like any other hobby is expensive, you’re going to spend money and do your decks. I always just spend all my money on comics. As a kid that was my thing. I thought Magic was totally neat, I just never did it. I was just happy to keep buying more Fantastic Four comics and keep being on that path.

Songwriting for Kirby Krackle

CG: Now you’re obviously the silent half of Kirby Krackle.
JD: Yeah, I’m the Bernie Taupin to his Elton John.
CG: Ok. So do you guys actually work collaboratively or you actually write most of the songs?
JD: So I write the songs with Kyle. Kyle writes the music and I help write the lyrics along with Kyle. So I write. That’s pretty much what I do; I’m a writer. I released my first graphic novel earlier this year. I’m totally OK with not being on stage. I don’t pretend I’m a musician. I’m a lyricist and I’m totally cool with that. It’s my job in the band and I love it.

CG: Do you start singing your owns songs while you’re doing tours, like going “Up Up Down Down B A Select…”?
JD: I will say occasionally I do, but I like to sing. I’m an in-the-shower, in-the-car kind of singer. I’m not very good. I like karaoke a lot because it’s ok if you’re terrible, because I am. Karaoke’s a lot of fun. I do occasionally get one of my own songs stuck in my head. It’s like, “This is weirdly annoying because I’m the one that wrote it and yet it’s really catchy.” For example, “Up, Up, Down, Down”. Especially when we’re at conventions because we talk about it a lot, like “Going Home” gets stuck in my head.
CG: Ok, which is about leaving conventions.
JD: Yeah and so those are a couple that will just pop in my head. And also if someone says something that’s similar to a lyric, because you know our stuff is pretty broad, so sometimes someone will say something and it’ll just get me on the track of one of our songs and then that’s stuck in my head for a little while until something else kicks it out.

CG: If you’re doing a “Vault 101”, have you both played Fallout 3.
JD: Yes, totally. We’re both super into the game and that’s how that came about. When we both get excited about something it makes the song-, like we’re both big Green Lantern fans, that’s how we wrote “Ring Capacity”. There’s occasions where I’ll be a bigger fan of something or he’ll be a bigger fan. The one thing I can think of offhand is “Take it From Me.” I’m a huge Megaman fan and he’s only casually played, so when we wrote the song, I was a little more driving because I was like “There’s these robots, there’s these things.” And he’s like, “Cool, I know all that because I’ve played it.” But he doesn’t have the sort of depth because it’s not a game he was super into and then the flip side will be true as well. We’ll go to write something else and he’ll be the more knowledgeable one and I’ll be familiar enough that I can contribute, but not as much where I get those deep references.
CG: What was your favorite Mega Man power?
JD: I always thought that Cut Man was pretty cool because he had the open blades. Weirdly I always thought that Bubble Man was fun-, I guess it technically was Water Man depending on how it was, but the bubbles would do more damage because you’d actually shoot out more than one bubble. Like a Mega Blaster, you’d only have one shot, obviously over and over, while this one, you could do a little more damage and that was good.

Guitarist and singer Kyle Stevens playing live performance as Kirby Krackle in Las Vegas library

Kyle Stevens Performing Live

CG: Does Kyle handle all of the musical arrangements?
JD: Yes, that’s all Kyle. I do feedback as in, “I don’t like how this sounds.” I use the vocabulary that I know like, “Listen: I want it to sound more dun-dun-dun-DUN, does that make sense?” And he’ll be like, “I get what you’re saying.” Because I don’t have the right knowledge to go like “Can you make that a D Minor? Or an A or whatever.” I’m like, “There’s a certain feel to it. I want it to feel like this.” And I’ll try to express it, but generally 99 times out of a 100, he’ll be like “This is what we’re working on arrangement wise.” There’s very few times where we’ve had a real disagreement of how much or how little we like something. It works out well.
CG: Does he record the drums himself?
JD: No, no. So he’s guitar and vocals, we have a drummer, a bassist, another guitar, and keyboards.
CG: I have never seen these other people.
JD: Correct. Not here. If you come up to Seattle for Kracklefest we have a band. Here PJ’s doing drums for us, so you’ll get a White Stripes-
CG: PJ Perez? [A Las Vegas A&E weekly newspaper contributor, comic book writer/artist, occasional scenester, and apparently a drummer.]
JD: Yep! So you guys will get a White Stripes situation which makes PJ Meg but that’s ok, that’s fine. That makes Kyle Jack.

Emerald City Comicon and The Silence of Our Friends

CG: It also seems that you guys have a pattern built up with conventions. You’re up in the Seattle area, so you go to Emerald City, San Diego… now you’ve been to Vegas three times?
JD: This is our third time, yep. Our standard conventions, what we’ll do: we always go to Calgary and we always go to Toronto. What we tend to do is do every other year on other shows, so for example we did C2E2 a couple of years ago in Chicago and so we’ll do it again next year. We skipped New York, but we did it last year, and we’ll probably do it next year. That’s one of the things where we’re just figuring out what to do. We can only afford to do so many conventions, so we go to ones that we have a good audience at and we have something to bring back, but we’re always open to trying new shows. Like we did Phoenix [Comicon] years ago…
CG: And that show’s been growing and growing.
JD: Yep and so the guy who runs it asked if we’d be interested in coming out in 2013 and we said yes, so we’re probably going to Phoenix. There’s definitely our standards, the few you mentioned and then there’s everyone else, which we’ll figure out.
CG: Vegas has to be the smallest. I mean this year this is actually starting to look slightly like a comic book convention.
JD: Yeah, there’s dealers outside, there’s an artist’s alley, and a good crowd. No, I agree. And you guys just launched a show here, the Las Vegas Comic Expo.
CG: So you guys are always checking. Who’s scouring?
JD: It’s me, because I-, so I run – I don’t know if you know – Emerald City Comicon. That’s my convention.
CG: No, I didn’t.
JD: That’s my job, is that. Part of my job is awareness of conventions around the country. Knowing about the Vegas show was just one more [show]. This is super cool. And we came and actually checked it out. Coincidentally that show was going on.
CG: Back in September?
JD: End of September, because I was here for two days, because I got married in Vegas last month. It just happened that the Comic Expo was also happening. So yeah, I’m always pretty aware about shows and their ins and outs.
CG: But at the same time you’re writing a bunch of songs.
JD: Yeah, it’s a great creative outlet, like I mentioned before, I wrote a graphic novel.

CG: Let’s talk about the graphic novel!
JD: It came out in January. It was totally a great experience. We spent four weeks on the New York Times best seller list, which I thought was great for a first time thing. It’s called The Silence of Our Friends and takes place in 1960s Texas. It’s about two families struggling with a racial divide going on during a pretty heavy time during the Civil Rights movement. It follows these families at some real events that happened at Texas Southern University.
CG: And where are you from?
JD: Seattle. But my buddy that I cowrote the book with, he grew up in Texas, so it’s a fictional autobiography, because a lot of the stuff is from what he remembered as a kid and we interviewed his dad about events that happened during that time as well, so a lot of research. And Nate Powell – he won an Eisner for Best Graphic Novel a couple of years ago – illustrated it.

CG: When you’re here though at the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival, this is almost nothing, right?
JD: This is a lot of fun! We have a great time here. Like here I’m an exhibitor, there’s two different mentalities. It doesn’t matter the scale of the show; if you’re not running it, then it’s not your problem. Here, it’s like “Cool. Tell us where to be! Here’s our table. I’m going to just sit around and talk to people about music.” I’m 100 percent cool with that.

CG: Are you a Marvel guy or DC?
JD: I would say I grew up a Marvel guy. I would say Marvel. There’s DC books that I love, like Green Lantern and Batman and a couple others, but I’m pretty much a Marvel dude.
CG: Well, you probably started following writers now, where you like the writer.
JD:Yeah, for sure. It doesn’t matter what they’re working on, I’ll check it out. Sometimes I don’t like it, but sometimes I do, depending on what it is. I definitely follow a lot of writers.

CG: You’re in the industry in a different area-
JD: I also own four comic book stores as well.
CG: Ok. How much do you let that affect Kirby Krackle?
JD: Not a lot, aside from just familiarity with comics, which is what a lot of our songs are about. We don’t really mix, I guess. I know a bunch of professionals from working Emerald City, some of them know Kirby Krackle and like it, some don’t care. They’re kind of, for me, two separate worlds.

CG: Do you have plans to do another graphic novel?
JD: Not offhand. I think for right now I’m really keeping busy with all the other stuff I’m working on. We’re working on a new album, so that’s taking up a lot of writing time. Again, in terms of creating the graphic novel, that was definitely something I enjoyed. I haven’t found inspiration enough of something that I want to do for another graphic novel, if that makes sense. When I have a story to tell, that’s a format that I’m very happy with.

CG: So do you think for this coming Comic-Con in 2013 you’ll have a new album yet by then?
JD: Probably. Our goal right now is maybe end of April, but we’ll see, but by July, we think so. By July.

Game On with Nerd Punk Band 3d6

Band logo for nerd punk rockers 3d6 with text 3d6

I first heard 3d6 on my friends’ podcast, the GUBAR Podcast, and then saw them at a backyard show and was blown away by their catchy melodies and great gaming lyrics. Damage is the first album from the Las Vegas locals, which I highly recommend. 3d6 recently played the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival and introduced a great new song about saving throws, “Save Does Not End”, which bodes well for their forthcoming follow-up album. For more news on it and upcoming shows, check out their website at 3d6 is David Thomas, Anthony Bassett, and Rudy Thomas.

CG: First, you have a new lead singer since recording Damage, but he’s not really new to you guys. Who do we have in place of Jimmy?
Anthony: We moved things around quite a bit. Dave is our singer now, in addition to being our guitar player. I’m our former drummer and now our bass player. Our new member is Rudy, David’s brother, who is now our drummer.

CG: So, your second song on Damage, if you had to pick one who would it be? Queen Amidala, Princess Leia, Seven of Nine, Lara Croft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “the blue chick from Avatar“, Jessica Rabbit, Mystique, She-Hulk, Arwen, Legolas, Starbuck, Scully, Olivia from Fringe, Marge, Leela, Lois, or Cheetara?
David: For me, I think I’m gonna have to go with Mystique and Leela. But Jessica Rabbit and the Avatar chick are good ones too. Mystique just lets it all hang out but Leela is independent and will probably dominate you in the bedroom. Blue girls and one-eyed alien chicks.
Anthony: Though Princess Leia was my “first”, I’m going to have to say Seven of Nine. A close second would be the combined Jessica Rabbit and Arwen. I try not to fantasize only about individual women, if I can help it. What’s that the Vulcans say? “Infinite diversity in infinite combination?”
Rudy: She Hulk looks fun.
CG: Now which one “is the shit”?
Anthony: Caprica 6 from Battlestar Galactica, obviously.

A Band of Gamers

Nerd Punk Musicians David Thomas and Anthony Bassett of band 3d6 playing guitar and bass at Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival

Guitarist David Thomas and Bassist Anthony Bassett

CG: How did you guys get into tabletop gaming?
David: Watching movies and playing fantasy games all my life made me want to try D&D when I got older, but I didn’t want to admit it to anybody. But everyone has played Monopoly and such, you just have to find the right people so that you can enjoy it together. I personally love cooperative tabletop games. Going head-to-head can get nuts. Like that B.S.G. game where everybody just lies to each other.
Anthony: I had been playing board games since childhood, but I started playing table-top RPGs in college when I fell in with…that crowd. My first was a Star Wars RPG, in which I played an Ewok Crime Lord named Jingy. When Dave and Jimmy and I were in a Weezer cover band together, we fired up our own D&D game, and we just kept going.
Rudy: Older nerds showed me the way. Nerdism is something that is passed down.
CG: What do you guys play now?
David: I really love to play some Arkham Horror. Heroclix was cool too but I honestly only played it once. I would still love to get some more D&D games going! 4th edition!
Anthony: It’s hard to get everyone together for ongoing campaigns, but we had a nice D&D game going for awhile. We’ve also spoken of firing up a game of Dragon Age table-top RPG. And no, NOT because the base roll is 3d6, but that is rather awesome. Due to scheduling restrictions, we generally find ourselves playing board games, like those D&D dungeon crawl games (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of I-Shart-Alot, etc.) and other co-op, multi-player games. My shelf looks like a Fantasy Flight catalog. I also have a pretty good collection of Heroclix.
Rudy: Arkham Horror, a cool pirate game called Sword and Skull, and D&D games.
CG: Does the band game as a group ever?
Anthony: Yes. But it’s hard to get everyone together that often. When we do manage to find a time to get all of us in the same place, we usually end up using that time for practice, writing, or recording. But it certainly does still happen!

3d6 Bassist Anthony Bassett in a red box D&D shirt holding tshirt that reads don't eat poop and CD of album Damage

Don’t Eat Poop: Bassist Anthony Bassett Shows 3d6 Merch at Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival

CG: What’s the story with “Ranger”? Whose character was that?

Anthony: “Ranger” is about Grikthor Blackfoot, Dave’s character that only got to level 3 or something like that. Right around when he graduated from college, Dave ended up moving out to California with family for a few months, and it was hard on the party, so we thought it best to kill him off. Anthony was the Dungeon Master at the time and he weaved our sadness into that series of game events. Jimmy was so moved and inspired by it that he turned the epic story into lyrics, and had Anthony set it to music. It was a sad day, but an honorable way to die.

The Musical Side of 3d6

CG: Musically what are your influences?
Dave: I listen to a lot of different music, but one of my all time favorites is Mars Volta. I say it so much it bothers people. When it comes to 3d6, I feel like my interests in The Dead Milkmen, Green Jello, The Descendents, old Pennywise and Offspring start to come out. For some songs, I just think about what I was writing when I first started learning guitar. It was much more primal and power-chord based. But I also love technical stuff, hip hop and metal. Frank Zappa, Eyedea & Abilities, Black Dahlia Murder…I could go on for days.
Anthony: I grew up playing violin, and ended up going to school for music, so I listen to a lot of the more academic stuff like classical and jazz. I also really love metal and funk. But I think in 3d6, my love of bands like Weezer, Offspring, and Green Day comes out most clearly. You can tell I was a child of the 90s.
Rudy: I see things and think about what they sound like.

CG: Which is your favorite 3d6 song?
David: “I’m A Nerd” because the lyrics are so true. I can sing that song any night and mean it.
Anthony: I want to say “Robot Overlords”, but I’m also extremely proud of a couple of our new songs that have yet to be played in public. You’ll have to wait to see which ones I mean. I’ve said too much already…
Rudy: Our new song, “I Killed A Dragon (And You Don’t Even Care).”

CG: I’ve only seen you at your backyard show and at the library of all places, but do you guys play out with other punk rock bands at bars and regular shows?
Anthony: We’ve played with a variety of bands from all over. We enjoy playing at the Double Down Saloon, and the Cheyenne Saloon has always been there for us, too. We particularly like teaming up with Geezus Cryst & Free Beer, as well as Time Crashers. Those guys have a sense of humor. Please check them out immediately. We also play a lot with our friends, .Bipolar, but they are pretty damn metal.

Nerd Punk Rocker Rudy Thomas Playing Ludwig Drums at Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival

Drummer and New Addition to 3d6 Rudy Thomas

CG: Who are you aware of out there that also has a real gaming focus. There’s the Double Clicks with whom you’ve played before, but anyone else?
Anthony: We loved playing with The Doubleclicks, and we also recently played with The Protomen – who have a brilliant Mega Man-themed rock opera thing going on. But other than that, we haven’t really seen many other bands who sing about gaming. Most of the time, there will be one or two members from one of the other punk bands who will come up and say that they play D&D or Skyrim but a lot of people are afraid to admit their nerdy interests. We did just play with Kirby Krackle, however, and those guys are legit nerds.

CG: Any plans for a follow-up to Damage? What are your plans for the future?
Anthony: We are almost finished recording our second album, “Space Fapping”. We definitely want to do some more music videos, but most of all, we would like to play at PAX, and/or Nerdapalooza, or things like that. It can be hard to get the nerd fan-base to leave their computer chairs and gaming tables, so we gotta work our way to where they already gather.