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.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Book cover with medieval illumination for TIme Traveller's Guide to Medieval EnglandI’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot out of my world travels, but in my visit to Japan, Shinto shrine blended into Shinto shrine. European castles vary, but only so much. Is one walled town so different from the next? Don’t get me started on Baroque and Rococo palaces. There is always a sense of place, but not necessarily of those who lived and died there. How did these people actually live? In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer provides a captivating answer for the English living from 1300 to 1400. Mortimer writes of Geoffrey Chaucer, that “he can make the people come alive, with all their desires, fears, deceitfulness, lustfulness, and cheating.” But Mortimer’s description is just as apt for his own writing and because he does breathe life into 14th century England, I recommend his guide to any English teacher aiming for a better understanding of Chaucer, student of history, or fan of Braveheart, as well as to any tabletop gamer or LARPer.

Beginning with his description of Shitbrook, the refuse-laden stream on the outskirts of Exeter, Mortimer unlocks the door to a treasure trove of medieval body functions. How one goes to the bathroom in a different place or time is really one of the most common questions we all have. In the case of medieval lords, Mortimer remarks, “wherever you go, a neat pile of wool or linen will be provided for you to “wipe your nether end.” Some great lords insist on cotton but it is not always available.” Life is different aboard a ship with Mortimer outlining diversions at sea, but he returns to the subject of relieving oneself and concludes that below decks on a ship, “Every storm has seen men and women emptying their stomachs, souls, and bowels down here in darkness and fear.” Occasionally Mortimer gets a little dry, such as when cataloguing merchants’ town house goods, but he gets juicy when describing surgeons, such as John of Alberne who pioneered surgical cleanliness as well as a method of “curing anal fistula, a nasty affliction following abscesses in the colon which particularly affects men who have spent too long riding in wet saddles…” Another medical highlight is provided in a quote from the physician John Mirfield on a remedy for tuberculosis: “take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water…” On the whole, Mortimer’s writing retains a conversational and informative flow with some occasional humor. In his chapter on medieval medicine he writes:

So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning, and the extreme violence you should live a long time.
All you have to worry about are the doctors.

Role-Playing and Gaming Connections

Besides a brief mention of popular medieval games, Mortimer’s book has little to do directly with gaming itself. But since medieval Europe – England in particular – is the basis for most of Western fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a great study in improving the earthiness and sense of reality for role-playing games. Even within the first paragraph of Ian Mortimer’s introduction he poses questions familiar to any role-player after first setting the scene of a dusty London street:

The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant’s purse near the traders’ stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As for those medieval games and pastimes Mortimer details campball (football/soccer), tennis, archery, and wrestling. More intriguingly he categorizes cockfighting as an interest of boys and girls and describes cockbaiting as “throwing sticks and stones at a tethered chicken.” This is the child’s version of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, in which adults attack those animals with sticks and sic dogs on them. As for dice games, Mortimer states that they, “are are enormously popular”, which is also indicative of his present-tense style used throughout the guide to present the facts of medieval England to the reader as if he or she were really present. The last games described are board games including an early form of backgammon called tables, nine men’s morris, and checkers. Mortimer points out to his modern audience that the rules of chess differ between then and now with queens only moving one square and bishops moving only two squares at a time. These pieces were also known by different names, prime ministers and elephants respectively.

World Building for Fantasy Authors and GMs

Back in 1989 TSR released Cities of Mystery for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, featuring several dozen card stock buildings and double-sided city street maps. The box also came with a great city guide written by Jean Rabe for GMs to design their own fantasy towns and cities. How did the town come to be? How has it grown? Who guards it? The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great compliment to Rabe’s hard work. Both cover much of the same ground, but in different veins with Rabe quantifying and randomizing a town’s dimensions and occupants in true D&D percentile fashion. Mortimer is much more personal and personable, putting a human face on many medieval problems. Rabe’s prohibition on the smellier occupations, like tanning, are best explained by Mortimer. His Borough Ordinances of Worcester list includes “The entrails of butchered beasts and pails of blood are not to be carried away by day but only by night.” and “No saddler, butcher, baker, or glover, nor any other person, may cast entrails, “filth of beasts’ dung”, or dust over Severn Bridge. Also no one may shave flesh, skins, or hides but above the bridge…” In our sanitized world it is easy to forget how leather gets created or how steak gets to the plate, but in medieval society neighbors affected by the processes of tanning and butchering had to deal with their side effects on a daily basis. That the medieval English were concerned about hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness despite ignorance of germ theory is shown by their laws and ordinances. It’s also one of Mortimer’s few reoccurring themes: the similarities between past and present and withholding judgement on our ancestors. As he puts it, “Of course they are not all filthy. Many are proud of the clean state of their houses – like their modern counterparts – regardless of the judgments of people in six hundred years’ time.” After reading through Mortimer, a GM will probably question and improve on many of the basic realities of his fantasy setting. To put it more bluntly, he or she will have to decide where the high elves crap. Do prostitutes denote themselves with a special color (yellow hoods, in the case of the historical English)? Fantasy rules for peace-bound weapons abound, but what about gate and bridge tolls?

The Time Traveller’s Guide has a more specific use for GMs as well. Those dry tables of 14th century values collected from tax reports listing folding tables, brass pots, and basins are reminiscent of the equipment sections of any Player’s Handbook. While there are only a handful of weapons and armor priced out, Mortimer has the appraised values covering many other areas. A GM (or even a fantasy author) could compile the values in a spreadsheet and compare the prices to arrive at a ratio-based understanding of how a sword’s price (1-2 shillings) compares to a roast goose (7 pennies) compared to a packhorse’s price (5-10 shillings). Mortimer also details wages, inn stays, and quite importantly, fines. Don’t worry, the odd monetary system of the English is covered in Mortimer’s chapter on measurement so you can convert between pounds, shillings, pennies, and stranger denominations with a little effort. Keeping in mind the economic turmoil created by the Black Plague and many other factors, an industrious Game Master can create a table of ratios for use in any fantasy RPG with a setting like medieval England.

Food and Clothing: Medieval England for LARPs, the SCA, and Re-Enactors

While tabletop GMs will reward their players with close attention to Mortimer’s chapters on clothing and food, the two chapters are essential reading for Society of Creative Anachronism members and LARPers. Besides the costuming, most good SCA/LARP events feature food. Great events feature drink of the alcoholic variety! Throughout his guide, Mortimer presents information on the three estates of England, the peasantry, townsfolk and gentry, and the nobility. The nobility are further divided into the clergy and the secular, with occasional special mention of royalty. Just like your clothing or domicile, what you would eat or drink in 14th century England is based on your estate. Wine and spirits were limited to the well-off while the prices of ale and bread, as staples of townsfolk, were heavily regulated. Rural peasants made their own. Mortimer focuses a lot of attention on the rarity of meat, which was normally limited to four days a week due to church edicts, and the corresponding association of meat as a status symbol. While his descriptions might make a chef drool at the variety of spices and fruits on offer, what was actually included in the category of fish caught my attention. Besides whales, “seals, porpoises, dolphins, barnacle geese, puffins, and beavers are all classed as fish as their lives begin in the sea or in a river.” The prohibition on eating meat was taken quite seriously, Mortimer notes, so these sources of protein were “eaten gleefully” on the 194 or 195 days of the year when only fish were allowed.

Mortimer’s 19 pages on medieval clothing are the most engaging that I’ve read on the subject, having thumbed through a dozen or so costume books. Using the same structure of the three estates, Mortimer notes the contrasts between the dress of paupers, yeomen, and noblemen. More importantly, he lists the clothing regulations established by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 which actually restricted the lowly-born from dressing above their station. Mortimer also traces the considerable changes in both men’s and women’s fashions in 14th century England. Ever wondered about those odd pointy shoes so similar to those worn by court jesters? Read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Mortimer will satisfy your curiosity and introduce you to the ridiculous twenty-inch Crackow, which was the footwear equivalent of a Humvee in its day.

Todd Breitenstein on Zombies!!! and The Current Number of the Beast

Todd A. Breitenstein is the designer of Zombies!!! and one half of Twilight Creations. He and his wife Kerry were manning their booth at Comic-Con 2012 and he took the time to answer some questions about the Zombies!!! line of games and The Current Number of the Beast which Kerry Breitenstein designed.

New Products for Comic-Con and Twilight Creations’ Sales

Clad in a Slayer shirt, game designer Todd Breitenstein holds up The Current Number of the Beast at Comic-Con booth

Breitenstein at Comic-Con

CG: So, Todd Breitenstein, creator of Zombies!!!, what are your new products here?
TB:: New for Comic-Con this year since last year we have Little Dead Riding Hood. That came out last October at Spiel and Zombie Survival 2 came out at the beginning of the year. It’s obviously an expansion for our game Zombie Survival. It adds outside obstacles and that sort of thing to the inside obstacles that go along with the game. Humans 3 just came out about a month ago. It’s very cool because it’s actually set in a gaming convention loosely based on Gen Con. It has elements of all the conventions that we do. It’s a lot of fun and increases the Personality cards so when you run into a Human in the game, you have to draw one of these cards and it tells you what kind of human it is and they’re all based on gamer stereotypes, so it’s rather humorous. Also we have Go Goblin Go! which came out the same time as Humans 3. It’s a goblin racing game, it’s kind of a racing/gambling game.
CG: It’s kind of a lighter tone for you.
TB:: Yeah, a little bit. See, the cool thing about it is, is that it actually won a Design a Game with Twilight Creations contest that we held at a convention called Marcon in Columbus, Ohio a couple years ago. We brought all of the bits and everybody had three hours to come up with a game. Actually this is the game he came up with in three hours and it was just-, we were floored by it. Just said, “Look, we’d happy to publish this. Tweak it a little bit.” So that’s where that came from, so that’s why it’s slightly different than all of our other stuff. Although Little Dead Riding Hood is also a racing game and it’s a little bit lighter as well.
CG: Did I just hear that someone from Mattel possibly-
TB:: Apparently Mattel wanted to come out with a game called “Little Dead Riding Hood” and they can’t because we did it first.
CG: Awesome. Before we go back to your products, there’s been a whole ton of new zombie games either coming out or that have come out recently. I’m not really aware of older ones that are in the board game format other than yours, but how concerned are you or what do you do about that?
TB:: Nothing. You really can’t do anything other than keep on keeping on.
CG: You’re distributed in mass market shops like Hot Topic-
TB:: Are we in Hot Topic still?
CG: I’ve seen your stuff in Hot Topic.
TB:: Well, that’s news to me then. But once we sell to distributors I don’t know where they sell it, but I do know that we are in Barnes & Noble. That’s the biggest mass market [for us].
CG: Does that beat out sales through Alliance?
TB:: Oh, goodness no!
CG: So gaming shops are where you make your sales.
TB:: Oh, absolutely. They’re our bread and butter.
CG: What’s your biggest show in terms of sales? Gen Con?
TB:: Probably Gen Con… definitely Gen Con. But actually Dragon*Con in Atlanta is actually a close second.

Spiel Essen

CG: For a game designer, when should they start looking at going to Spiel Essen? Or someone with their own game?
TB:: Wow. I don’t really have any idea. I really can’t honestly answer that. It is so daunting and expensive to go to Spiel that unless you’re fairly confident you’re going to move some units of something… it’s not an easy thing to do.
CG: How did you come to that decision yourself?
TB:: Oh, see, our situation was a little bit different. I worked at the United States Playing Card company when I designed Zombies!!!. So they actually owned the rights to it for a couple of years even after we started Twilight Creations, because the division that I was working in, they dissolved in order to sell US PC which was privately owned at the time so they were grooming it for sale. Anyway, they laid everybody off from my division and this had just come out [Zombies!!!] and they’d spent a stupid amount of money on promoting it. And so, it’s a great game, they spent a ton of money promoting it, so it actually took off. We actually had a bonafide hit by the time we started Twilight Creations, so then going over to Spiel was kind of a no-brainer at that point.
CG: How many times have you done that show?
TB:: This will be our ninth year, I think.
CG: Oh, you do it every year.
TB:: Oh, yeah. We’ve done it so many times that we actually have tables and chairs in Germany for the booth and everything. We have a whole cadre of friends in Germany who help us out, which is good because my German is very bad!

Some Particulars About Zombies and Other Products

Human wielding chainsaw besieged by undead zombies on cover of Zombies!!! box artCG: One of the things that sets Zombies!!! apart from a lot of other products is the low, low cost, its price point.
TB:: That’s actually one of our goals as a company is to keep prices very low.
CG: So you can walk in and just get a complete game, for what? $15? $20.
TB:: Yeah, Zombies!!! is $30 now, but yeah the newest games that are coming out next month, The Current Number of the Beast and Zombies!!! are all priced at $19.99 and I think even the Zombies!!! Card Game, we’re talking about lowering that price even a little bit. We’ll see what the final numbers work out to be. But yeah, games are too expensive. I mean I love Fantasy Flight and I love what they do, but we’re trying to be an alternative to that. They do what they do very well and they get $50, $75, $100 for a game, but especially things like Comic-Con and stuff, they wouldn’t fly here. It’s just too expensive. On the other hand, people will drop $20 on a game. That’s the market we’re trying to hit and quite honestly that’s why I think Zombies!!! has done so well.

CG: I read in Wargame Design by the now-defunct SPI that back in the 60s and 70s people were buying their games and Avalon Hill’s, not as collectors, but as something they wanted to play, but they never got around to actually playing. Are you aware of that happening with Zombies!!!, that you might have more sales just to zombie fans, but they never crack it open.
TB:: Oh yeah. It happens all the time, especially in situations like Comic-Con here where the people who are buying it aren’t neccesarily gamers. They like the artwork and the box and the concept of the game and whatnot. We’ll even have people come back the next year and say “I bought this last year and I haven’t played it yet, but I want to buy this, this, and this.” It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen.
CG: So yeah, with me, I’m not a fan of zombies myself, but I got it because it was so cheap. You’re in a situation where you can take advantage of that.
TB:: Right. Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s why we keep coming out with expansions too. Expansions sell phenomenally. There’s a large fanbase for that little box which is kind of humbling in my experience. It’s neat.

Three zombies menace the viewer on the box art for Zombies!!! the Card GameCG: What’s been the most successful in your Bag O’ product line?
TB:: Probably the regular Bag O’ Zombies, simply because people use them to play D&D and they use them for canon fodder for all kinds of RPGs and that sort of thing.
CG: So you’ve seen tons of pictures of your little guys being used for different-
TB:: For everything, yeah! Actually Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the guys that designed Dungeons & Dragons, before they died, we used to see them every Gen Con. They’d come up and buy a bag of zombies from us. It was very cool.
CG: I’m not familiar with Bag O’ Babes.
TB:: Oh, Bag O’ Babes. In the 2nd Edition of Zombies!!!, there’s 50 guy zombies and 50 girl zombies and the Bag O’ Babes is just 100 of the girl zombies.
CG: Now what about the Zombies!!! The Card Game? How did you decide, “I’m going to move away from miniatures to a card game”?
TB:: Because one of the things about Zombies!!! is that it can take a while to play. So we were looking for something that is an alternative to that that still kept the zombie theme and the feel of the Zombies!!! board game, but you could actually play in 20-30 minutes and it didn’t take up three dining room tables’ worth of space. It really came from that. Our goal was to cut down the playtime and cut down the play space, while still keeping the intent of the original board game and I think we did that.

Todd Breitenstein’s Start in Gaming

CG: How did you get started in gaming yourself?
TB:: We always played board games when I was growing up and then after that I started playing D&D when I was like maybe 12, I think. And then just a natural progression from that. Got out of it in college a little bit, then got back into it. We started playing Magic: The Gathering and the X-Files Card Game. When the first wave of CCGs hit we were big fans.
CG: How did you get into game design yourself?
TB:: Actually through the United States Playing Card company. My wife Kerry was a big X-Files CCG fan. That was originally made by the United States Playing Card company and we got to know the guys that were responsible for that, just became friends with them. They were starting a new division to develop newer games, card games that sort of thing and I hated the job that I was in, so I said “Please, please bring me aboard so I can get out of advertising!” So I did. Honestly, I don’t think I ever really-, I never set out to become a game designer. It was just something that I lucked into.
CG: They brought you on board to help with game design?
TB:: To help more with graphics actually. My background is in journalism and advertising. I was Word boy and graphic design boy.
CG: Then how did you make the decision to branch out on your own?
TB:: Well, I didn’t. That was forced on us. They dissolved the division that I was working for. It was called Journeyman Press, which was a division of the United States Playing Card company. The owners of the United States Playing Card company were grooming the company itself to sell it. And so they were cutting out the excess chaff and waste and unfortunately Journeyman Press was one of the more wasteful things. It was very poorly run.
CG: Did you have to buy back your own rights to Zombies?
TB:: Yes, yes. Yes we did. We did that two years after we left.
CG: Because as an employee you had made it under contract with them?
TB:: Yes, exactly. They owned it. They had every right to it, but they were very gracious and sold it to me after a couple of years. But it wasn’t free! Let’s just put it that way. [Laughs]

Zombies Smart Phone Game

CG: I’m not aware of this, but do you have any apps for Zombies online?
TB:: Yeah, actually it’s out on the Windows phone right now. There will be some announcements in the very near future as to other platforms that it might be on, but I can’t say any more than that right now.
CG: Do you play it yourself?
TB:: Oh yeah. Yeah. It’s on my phone right now.
CG: How well do you do at playing Zombies?
TB:: I die a lot! [Laughs]
CG: Is that part of the game design.
TB:: Oh yeah, it says that in the rules. That’s why you start over again. You don’t just die and that’s it, because that would be very short.

The Current Number of the Beast

Satanic devil playing with dice on cover of Twilight Creations Current Number of the BeastCG: What’s the genesis of The Current Number of the Beast?
TB:: Honestly? We were playing a game in the driveway at home listening to the radio. Actually the hardcore heavy metal station on Sirius satellite radio and they do a countdown and it’s called “The Current Number of the Beast” and we thought that was hilarious. So we wrote it down kind of thing. We went “We should design a game called the Current Number of the Beast”. Long story short, when we sobered up it was still hilarious. And so Kerry actually got to work on it and she came up with a dynamite little game.
CG: So your wife’s the designer?
TB:: Yeah. Actually she’s a better designer than I am by far. I’m a better tweaker. I’m better at taking what she comes up with and making it better, but as far as initial design, she’s way better than I am.
CG: What caught my eye about it is that I can’t imagine this product in the 80s, the controversey it would have caused.
TB:: Oh yeah. That’s kind of what we were going for.
CG: Now it doesn’t seem tame, but it’s-
TB:: It’s almost inane now. The world has definitely changed hasn’t it?
CG: So is this something that you yourself would play now? How much game playing do you actually do now?
TB:: Actually we do more now than we have in the past few years. I’ve been doing this personally with Journeyman Press and on our own and everything for 13 years now. There was like maybe a three or four year stretch a few years ago where it was like, “OK, if I never see another game, it’ll be OK with me.” And then about a year ago or so we started actually playing more stuff again. Actually a lot of Fantasy Flight, Mayfair, and Z-Man Games stuff. Like Wiz-War, I love Wiz-War. And my wife and I we always play a lot of Scrabble. Scrabble’s our favorite game. We can play Scrabble sitting here at the booth. We have DSs, so we play on them.
CG: Who usually wins at that?
TB:: That’s usually about 50/50. She’s a better player, but I have a better vocabulary. Yeah, it’s about 50/50, although I won two out of three games yesterday.
CG: What was your reaction to The Current Number of the Beast? Did you majorly react or did you just say, “Ok, this is a good idea, let’s see what we can do with it.”?
TB:: That was one of the few times where I went “Wow, that is very very cool.” I’ll put it to you this way. Usually when we design a game and get it playtested, playtested, playtested, and get it out to the manufacturer, it becomes “OK, I don’t want to see this again for 6 months or so”. This one we sent to the manufacturer and we continued to play it. We’ve played it a couple of dozen times already this weekend back at the hotel. It’s that much fun. It’s that solid of a game. It’s quick, it’s down, it’s dirty. The cards are fun. It’s just an awesome game. But yeah, that one was one where I went “Wow. I can’t wait to show this to people.”

Twilight Creations and Organized Play

CG: Is the company pretty much you two?
TB:: It is Kerry and I, yes.
CG: Do you have demo guys?
TB:: Oh, yeah. Like at Gen Con and stuff we have a group of people who help us out.
CG: Fans?
TB:: Yeah. They’ve turned into friends over the years. Even at Spiel we have half a dozen guys that live in Essen and Dusseldorf and stuff that help us out.
CG: But it could be you at other shows demoing the games?
TB:: Yeah, if it’s a small show, it’s just her and I. Like Dragon*Con, it’s just her and I, not that Dragon*Con’s a small show.
CG: Have you ever realized something about a game while demoing or do you try to have the game so figured out by that point-
TB:: It happens. That happens every once in a great while. I can’t think of any examples off-hand. Generally it’s seeing uses for things that we didn’t. For example, the promo card for this year, What The Hell? Ten Years, I was reading it earlier today and went, “Wow, this is a lot more powerful than I thought it was.” Because I thought of a new use for it.
CG: Powerful?
TB:: Yeah, exceedingly so.
[Some conversation about the absence of organized play from Twilight Creations.]
CG: Why have you chosen not to do organized play?
TB:: It’s not even a choice. Organizing organized play is, it’s like herding cats. We’ve tried so many things over the years to get people to go out to game stores in their area and demo for us and stuff. Everybody just always wants “Send me every one of the games you make and I’ll be happy to do that” and that’s just giving stuff away at that point.
CG: So it’s not cost effective?
TB:: We haven’t found a cost effective way of doing it, no. If you can figure out how to do it, I’d be happy [to know].
CG: How do you feel about the concept of organized play?
TB:: Oh, I think it’s great, but to actually get people to go out and do it is the problem. We have a couple people throughout the country that’ve actually been with us pretty much from the beginning who still go out and show people the games and demo at game shops and stuff…
CG: So it’s not that you don’t see Zombies!!! as something to play competitvely…?
TB:: It’s more of a beer and pretzels game anyway. It’s not so competitive. People do run it in tournament format, but it’s not something that we actively promote or anything. It’s more of a social sort of game. Toss in a movie, open a beer, and kill some zombies.

CG: Wrapping up, any exciting new stuff coming up? You’ve got the phone announcements forthcoming.
TB:: There’s some big news in the next month or so on the video game front for Zombies!!!. We’re doing a Zombies!!! scenario book this fall, maybe the beginning of next year. We’re going to keep on chugging along.

Jerry Grayson on Hellas, Godsend Agenda, and Atlantis

I interviewed Jerry Grayson on May 2 at his home in Las Vegas. He is the designer of Hellas and Godsend Agenda. His publishing company, Khepera Publishing, will also be releasing the forthcoming Atlantis: The Second Age. As I interviewed Jerry, his gaming group slowly trickled in to play a 2nd Edition game of Dark Sun.

Jerry Grayson’s Secret Origin as a Gamer

Hellas author Jerry Grayson poses in red Dungeons & Dragons t-shirt

Hellas and Godsend Agenda designer Jerry Grayson

CG: So how did you get into gaming, Jerry?
JG: Oh, God. I got into gaming in 1980. My friend across the street, his father ran a D&D game. So you’d go over there and be like hey, what are they doing? And he’d be like “Playing D&D!” So then you’d go over there and you’d watch and my friend would play, but there wasn’t room enough for me to play. So you’d go over there and watch and go “Oh man, I wish I could play!” And then one day, a seat opened up at the table, and I got to actually play D&D.
CG: Who did you play as, do you remember?
JG: Oh gosh, I can’t remember. I was-, I can’t remember. I was probably some Elf or something. The only thing that I can remember about that is going down a river on a boat and there was a killer whale there. That’s all I can remember about that game, but I remember that that was so awesome to me, because it was such a new experience and a new way to play make-believe that it really imprinted on me. Then later on, my friend who lived next door actually got the Basic and the Expert sets, so my brother and I, we made characters for that and we played. We made it 3 rooms into a dungeon and then I was killed by a fire beetle and that was awesome. From there it just went on. We started playing D&D regularly. Then one day a friend came; he had a milk crate full of role-playing games that he’d gotten at the swap meet. He’d bought them at the swap meet a while ago and he brought them, because he was never going to play them. And in there, there were other games. There was Call of Cthulu, there was Aftermath, there was Danger Unlimited, Stormbringer, oh gosh, I want to say Dragonraid was in there, but I’m not sure. But there were just a bunch of games and it was just kind of weird, because when you’d read them, you’re like “Ok, well how do I roll to hit?” Because I don’t know if you’ve ever played any of the Chaosium games, but they’re all percentile-based, which is kind of weird, because if you’ve come from just playing D&D and all of sudden you’re like, “Well how do I hit? What’s my Armor Class? Oh! These games work different.” So then we started playing Stormbringer. From there I started playing all sorts of stuff. The TMNT stuff got me into Palladium, then Robotech, and then RIFTS. I also was playing DC Heroes…
CG: From Mayfair, right?
JG: Yeah, from Mayfair, which is like my all-time favorite game ever. And then just a ton of games, we would play like just about anything, or at least I would. And then we’d have that one stable game group and all they’d play was D&D. So then you’d go “Hey, guys, why don’t we play this, I’ve got this one game, Dark Conspiracy, do you want to play that?” And they’re like “I don’t know.” What else? I tried to get them to play all sorts of stuff, but they would always stay with that. Once that group kind of broke apart then I kind of inherited everyone and then we started playing you name it.

One of the first games we played was probably RIFTS because it was probably in the late 80s like ’89 or so, so we started playing RIFTS, but then we would do DC Heroes. I hipped them to that one. Then we played Dark Conspiracy for a while and then lots of GURPS. I ended up playing a lot of GURPS. Played some Vampire, but funny enough, I played Vampire using GURPS. I would play in Vampire games, but when I’d run it, I’d end up using GURPS for Vampire for some weird resason, which is weird, I don’t know why, but that’s the way we rolled I guess. But we played a ton of games and then gosh, like the mid-90s we started doing the LARPs and that’s where I met Janet, my friend [who had arrived to play AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun].
CG: What did you LARP as or what sort of LARPs were playing?
JG: We did mostly Vampire LARPs. Every once in a while, you’d do like a fantasy one. I ran an In Nomine one. We did In Nomine, we did a little bit of everything. Throughout that we just played a ton of different games. Gosh, I’ve played a lot of different games. Probably not as many as some, but you know, enough to go “Ok, I know what that is.” or “I know what this is. I know what this mechanic is from. Or this game plays like this.” When we first played Over the Edge or Feng Shui, you’d see those mechanics in later games.

Origins of Hellas: Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Space Becomes Greeks in Space

Sorceress woman on cover of Wine Dark Void empties a chalice

Goddess Aionisia from Hellas: Wine Dark Void

CG: What was the genesis of Hellas?
JG: It’s funny because when I was looking at this computer, I found some of my old notes on it. Hellas comes from me playing Dynasty Warriors. It’s a video game.
CG: For NES, right? Oh! No, no.
JG: Dynasty Warriors, I played it on the Playstation and XBOX, but you know, it comes from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I played on the NES, but basically you just run around and you’re killing stuff. You’re like one of the heroes in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
CG: Liu Bei.
JG: Exactly. Liu Bei or Cao Cao, whatever. And you just run through and there’s tons of soldiers that come at you, you just kind of murder them up. And I was like “This would make such a cool role-playing game. If you were one of these guys.” So originally Hellas was going to be Romance of the Three Kingdoms in space, because I had this whole thing set up where you had the Forbidden City and instead of a city, you had a planet. And the Emperor was served by all these AI or cybernetic eunuchs that sequestered him away and then you had these warriors, because the Empire was fractioned was being destroyed and you had these heroes. And then I kind of got lazy, because in order to do that, or at least in order for me to do it, you had to do all the research for it and I didn’t think I could do it justice. Plus, that book is pretty dang thick, man. That thing’s like a little Bible, it’s like a million pages long. So I figured, well, I could still do it, but I’d just use Greek mythology.

So I decided to do the Greek stuff, because I’m familiar with it and you can do a lot of neat, iconic things with it. So Mike and I, Mike Fiegel-

CG: What’s your background with Mike?
JG: I first met Mike when Mike did some editing for me for Godsend Agenda and then we became friends. I was doing Godsend Agenda which is a superhero game, or a superheroic game, but you know, I’d done a couple supplements for that, but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to do a science fiction game. So I wrote all these notes, and I came up with the Three Kingdoms idea and all sorts-, I had one that was almost like Buck Rogers/Flash Gordony one, one that was going to be the Three Kindoms. Once I decided to do the Greeks in space idea, I contacted Mike. So we went back and forth where basically I sent him a treatment and then he would send back ideas and we created it from there. There’s some notes on there [his computer]. When you see them, it’s so different and you can kind of see the progression. I wish I could find those notes to see where we started and what we eventually ended up with.
CG: When was this?
JG: This was in 2006, we did this. Godsend Agenda came out in 2002. The second edition of Godsend Agenda came out in 2006, so it must have been like 2007-2006, somewhere around there to put these things out, because it’s only really me and Mike. Yeah, it’s usually about 18 months from start to finish to do one of those.
CG: And back then in 2006ish there really wasn’t a Kickstarter, so you’re funding everything yourselves.
JG: Yes, Hellas was funded from Godsend Agenda profits. That and my 401k from a job I had, which was just kind of sitting there, so I just took the money out from that. Most of it comes from convention profits, because that’s really where like, if you’re a publisher, you end up making the money is at a convention, because you really don’t make as much through distribution, but at conventions, you can make, a ton of cash. I was flush with cash and just nuts. I couldn’t spend it fast enough on heroin, so I figured I should do something else like make a role playing game. So yeah, that one came from there, so we talked about it, went back and forth, came up with some ideas, kind of codified what we would do. Then, I went to England for a convention and on the plane ride back I wrote most of it in this little book, how everything would be unified so that it just wouldn’t be a kitchen sink, hodge podge, in space, which I really didn’t want. That’s what, hopefully, I’ve achieved is made it really tightly focused in what it does, so that when you think about playing Greeks in space, you’ll think about Hellas. Just like with, let’s say with arcane survival horror, you’ll think about Call of Cthulu or something like that, so that it cannot be mistaken for anything else, except for what it is is. So when people have asked “Can I play Star Wars with it?” You’re like “Well, you can, but it won’t work as well for Star Wars as it will for Hellas.” Some people are like, “Well, can I convert my Traveller game to it?” It’s like, “You could, but it’s definitely not going to feel like a Traveller game. It’s going to feel like Hellas with talking dogs and pod people or Kafers or whatever.” I’ve attempted to make it its own beast. There’s a lot of mechanics in there that feed that, or at least hopefully, they feed that.

Hellas‘s Mythological Roots

Winged angelic Nephelai and snake-like Gorgeon from Hellas

Races Available in Hellas: Winged Nephelai and Naga-like Goregon

CG: Did you return to Greek mythology yourself in preparation and reread a whole bunch of classics?
JG: Yeah, you had to read the Iliad. You had to watch a whole bunch of sword and sandal movies and try and figure out and distill what that essence is, kind of like with the new One Ring game, with that one, with the Lord of the Rings One Ring game, where it’s not D&D. Because it’s easy just to make it, ok, here’s space. And here, they’re wearing some helmets with horse hair on top and that’s it. But to make it so that it feels like it, you have to figure out who these heroes are. Or what makes Greek heroes different than just another superheroic character in other types of fiction. So you kind of have to figure out who they are, figure out what makes that particular thing neat. Because, let’s say for instance, if I was to do it with Celtic mythology or if I was to do it with Hindu mythology, I’d have to figure out what makes that work that way. Or even Egyptian mythology, because some folks have asked “Are there Egyptians? Are there space Celts?”
CG: Yeah, I asked that too.
JG: It’s like, no, because if I did that, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t resonate the same. Because a Greek hero is a particular type of hero who is different from like the Celtic hero. In order to do the Celtic thing, we’d have to do like the Celtic sagas that happened or were written. Or the Egyptians, which are really weird. Their mythology is, it kind of makes you drunk when you read it, because it’s like a million different gods and there’s a god for this, a god for that, and these gods do this and they kind of overlap. It’s like kind of a really muddy water color, the Egyptian mythology. You know it’s cool, but I’m not making Stargate and that’s what people want, which is cool because that’s kind of what Godsend Agenda has, like the essence of Stargate in it, but I wanted to make something that felt authentic as opposed to a pastiche of Greek adventure.

CG: Which Greek heroes were you particularly drawn to yourself?
JG: Well, you got your Perseus, your Thesues. What I really liked was Achilles especially in the Iliad, when you read that, how much of a bastard he is, but he’s like the greatest. He can back it up though! It’s like, yeah, I am a jerk, but I can back it up, because if anybody says anything, I’ll just stab you or whatever. He’s kind of a great character because at the beginning of the story, it’s just them kind of being pissed off with each other and arguing, because Agamemnon took his prize. And he’s just like “Nah, I’m not going to do it.” And then as the story goes on Odysseus is always cool because he’s the crafty one, especially in the Iliad, his misadventures, stealing horses. It’s like, he’s a car thief. It’s like “We’ll go over there, steal some horses, we’ll stab up some people while they sleep, then we’ll roll back” type thing. These characters are just, they’re really neat and big, because they’re painted in such broad strokes. But then they have this crippling Fate/failing that just like destroys them, except for Odysseus because he manages to make it out after 20 years. All those guys, they just manage to end poorly. Like Jason ends poorly. It’s like, you get home, you have your hot wife, you guys have some kids, you dump her, you get a new wife. She kills your kids.
CG: Medea.
JG: Yeah, and you end up all alone on your old rickety boat and then you die because the mast falls down and hits you in the head. That’s not, you know, like the way that most people in a role-playing game would want to die, but in all these Greek myths, you know, these characters died horrible, sad pathetic deaths. Hercules, being burned to death by the poisoned cloak. Theseus was kind of a bastard too when he left what’s her face on that island. Like they get off that island and it’s like “Yeah, babe, we’re going to be together forever.” He just kind of leaves and bones out.
CG: And his father.
JG: Yeah, and his father jumps off a cliff! They all have really neat things, but I really like Odysseus and Achilles, I guess, if I had to pick, just because Achilles was just an absolute bad-ass and Odysseus was incredibly crafty and well-thought out.

Epithets as Game Mechanics

CG: His epithet is wily Odysseus frequently. So epithets in Hellas are a game mechanic, right?
JG: Yeah, in Hellas that’s a game mechanic. It allows you to break the rules. It allows you to do one thing that is impossible, but that your character can do, because you’re a hero. So in other games, they’ll give you like maybe a +2 bonus or this, because they want to keep it balanced, but if you’ll read Hellas, Hellas is completely unbalanced and doesn’t even make any pretense to be balanced. If your character is let’s say Bronzed-Arm Dorios and if you define that epithet as being really strong, then if the spaceship is trying to get away and you could just say “Ok, well, I hold it.” Just cause in myth, in those myths, they would do just ridiculous things. They wouldn’t do it all the time. Like Hercules in his labors, he would struggle with some stuff, but then other stuff, he’d just divert a river. Like “I’m going to divert a river.” And you’re like “Well, that is crazy, Hercules,” but then he’d struggled with other stuff, like fighting a lion, but it’s like, if you can divert a river-, well, I guess he did choke out a lion, but you know, he shouldn’t have as much of a problem, if you’re doing your Popeye to divert rivers.
CG: Where did the space aspect come in? I saw that you like Ice Pirates
JG: Oh, Ice Pirates! Galaxina,
CG: Flash Gordon.
JG: Flash Gordon, definitely Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon the comic strip and Flash Gordon the movie. Because I wanted to do a science fiction game to begin with and just to add a Greek overlay on the top of it, which adds really great visuals when you look at the artwork. The artists who did the artwork, they’ve done a really good job of making it look distinct. It doesn’t look like any other science fiction. And that’s because of the artists being so awesome.

The Art Direction in Hellas

Computer-generated spaceships battle in outspace in Hellas

Ships designed by Grayson clash in space.

CG: Now are you one of the artists?
JG: I do some of the art. I don’t do any of the great art. I do all the auxillary art and I do all the layout. If you look at the core book, there’s some of my artwork that was snuck in there, that’s in there where there would have been white space. It’s like, ok, there needs to be a piece of art there. So then I’ll draw a picture or I will do some type of design work. All the CG artwork is mine, because that was easy to do and it’s cheap because I don’t have to pay myself. But for the most part, all of the artwork that screams Hellas or all the stuff I use in promotion, that’s a different artist. That’s Nathan Rosario, does all that artwork.
CG: What about all the ship designs?
JG: That’s all me. And that’s because I wanted the ships to kind of look like Greek ships so if you look at any of the spaceships in profile they kind of look like a bireme or trireme, Greek vessel. Except when you turn three quarters, and you see the rest of the ship and it looks kind of weird and futuristic. I wanted it to kind of not look like your standard spaceships with all the goofy spaceship trappings. I wanted to make them look kind of like everything else, uniquely Hellas. Like you’ll never ever see any other kind of lame, crappy, kind of spaceships like you see in Hellas anywhere else, I can guarantee.

Caucasian woman dreams of Slipspace and Spartans

An example of Grayson’s own art, The Dreamer

CG: Now you’re a graphic designer by trade?
JG: Yep, graphic designer.
CG: Where did you go to school?
JG: Went to community college here in Las Vegas and just a lot of online tutorials and stuff like that. So I went to school for it in 1992-93. When I went to school they were just starting to use computers to do stuff. So I was learning how to do stuff on wax boards and stuff like that, I don’t know if you know what those are, but when you would lay out a page, basically you would run it through this machine and it would put hot wax on it, so it’d be sticky. And then what you would do is you would take your text and you would put it on that board and just kind of lay it on there and lay it out however you wanted it. And if you didn’t like it, you’d peel it back up and re-lay it out. If you wanted a title, there was this machine where you would type in the title and it would print a title and you could put that on there. You used a lot of Zipatone, a lot of Xacto knives, a lot of rubylith stuff, a lot of stuff you will never ever see anymore being used, but that was the way I learned how to do it.
CG: Pre-Illustrator.
JG: Yeah, exactly, before people were using computers regularly, that’s the way you would do it. You’d get a board, run it through, and it’d be kind of gridded or lined out and you could kind of line stuff up. Yeah, I couldn’t imagine laying out a book like that anymore, because that would make me cry a little bit.

CG: How much do you think, as an RPG developer, that it has helped you to have the graphic design background?.
JG: As an RPG publisher, it’s helped me because there’s a lot of expenses I don’t have to pay because I can do them all myself. I can lay the book out. I can draw some of the artwork. If the artwork needs a touch-up or recoloring I can do that myself. Logo designs I can do myself. Just the visual look of the book. So when I decide I want a character to look like this, I can draw it and send it off to the artists and they’ll send it back. Also I think that it helps me with the relationships I have with artists, where with other games I’ve worked on, like I’ve done some stuff for Disk Wars, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?
CG: No.
JG: It was from Fantasy Flight Games, it was a pog game, it was really awesome. It was a little pog game where they had little art on each one of the pogs and it was like a wargame. You’d just flip the pogs and they’d land on each other and they’d fight. That game was fantastic. Doing art for that you would get like an art brief and it’d be kind of weird and complicated and all kind of weird stuff that the art director would put in there. Sometimes these art directors are not really artists, so they really don’t understand. But with me, it’s like, “I need a guy with a squid face!” And he’ll give me a squid face. And I’ll be like “That’s fantastic! That’s exactly what I was looking for.” Or I’ll send him a picture of Ben 10, because that’s kind of what the Zintar are built on. The Micronauts, I dont’ know if you’re familiar with that comic book or the toy line. The Micronauts and the alien from Ben 10 are the Zintar. So I would just send them. And also I’d just let them have fun, so it’s like “Ok, give me these four pieces, and I’ll pay you for a 5th piece, but you do whatever you want to do as long as it fits into Hellas.”

The Myrmidon Ant Warriors

Black and red line art image of Greek Hellas god holding staff Aemoton

Hellas deity Aemoton

CG: Now what’s the origin of the Myrmidons because they’re pretty interesting as a species.
JG: The Myrmidons, it’s me wanting to do an insect race, but not the way that they were done in other books. Because every other time I’ve seen someone do the Myrmidons it’s always been a big ant. It’s been a big ant in armor. And I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be cooler if you know, like, kind of like how they were described as like these ants that turn into men, what if it was like an entire colony that was one entity? Then to figure out how to make them work, I just threw a queen in there, she’s like the controller-
CG: She’s the brain.
JG: Yeah, exactly, so she controls the entire colony, but the colony is shaped like a normal human being.
CG: I think Traveller has something slightly similar, but this was your-
JG: I know that they have the Kafers which are these giant bugs, that you beat them, they get smarter. The more adversity, the smarter they become, but I’m not sure of anything else, but then again, I’m not a huge Traveller-
CG: There’s something called the K’kree or something that have a herd. So the PC is 40 different individuals. 40 things make the PC.
JG: Now are they the horse guys?
CG: Something like that. They’re the herbivores.
JG: Right yeah. Those guys. I just wanted something that would be unique, that I hadn’t seen before. And also, you ever watch the old Spiderman cartoon?
CG: Yes.
JG: Remember Swarm? [Laughs] He’s kind of like Swarm, a whole bunch of insects. Not necessarily just ants, but just insects, that this queen manages to gather up psionically and makes it go. And I thought it’d be cool. I’d love to see it in a movie. I’d love to see a Hellas movie, so I can see these things come to life.

Hellas Playing Mat, Event Cards, and the Omni System

Yellow spaceship from Hellas RPG vaguely W-shaped

Amazoran Cruiser designed by Grayson

CG: Now as for Hellas, I saw when we played the game there was a huge playing mat which we didn’t use, what’s the deal with the playing mat or the cards?
JG: The cards come from me wanting to have cards so I make them pretty, do a Kickstarter for them so I can get a set printed for myself. Then, like, since you helped me with it, you can have a cardset. The cards come from, if you’ve ever played Torg?
CG: Yes! Ok.
JG: The Torg drama deck, where these cards would do neat and interesting things or gosh! I can’t remember the name. Jonathan Tweet put out a game. Ugh! I can’t remember the name of that game! It’s a game with nothing but cards. Everway! Which is nothing but cards and the cards explain stuff that you can do. And they kind of help you with mental creative exercises, so that’s what the cards are. And what the mat was is that it’s really expensive to do a GM screen. It’s a lot cheaper to actually just print a poster. So what the mat is is basically it’s a huge GM screen.
CG: With the rules?
JG: Yeah, that everyone can use. So if someone’s like “How much does it cost to raise an attribute?” It’s like “Oh, it’s right there on the mat.” So as we’re playing, you can sit there and look at the mat. How much glory do I get for this? Oh, it’s right there on the mat. So it’s basically a big GM and player screen that everyone can use. I made it so that the cards can sit right in the middle. So that you could have your card deck, which has all sorts of goofy stuff that you can do and goofy stuff that can happen. It has different plot twists on it, so if things are getting stale in the game, you can just flip a card and the guys with the machine guns bust in and start shooting. Or you find out that your lover is your sister or something weird like that, where it’s like “Wow, I didn’t expect that to happen in the game,” but the cards kind of move stuff like that along.

CG: Backing up, how did you pick which rules system to use, because you use the…?
JG: I use the Omni System for Hellas, but since I’ve also done stuff with the d6 system which was the system for Star Wars and a few other West End Games games, Hercules and Xena was one of them, which was an awesome game. That’s another game that feels distinctly like Hercules and Xena, the way they’ve done that, which is really awesome, I took a lot of influence from that or stole a lot. So we played it at first with the d6 system and it just didn’t work as well. The problem that I was having was that the dice couldn’t-. It just didn’t feel right, it’s like when you listen to like music and you hear the demo of a song and then you hear what the song actually sounds like at the end and you’re like “Wow, I’m glad they went with that.” That’s kind of what it was. It was like, ok, it works, but it just doesn’t resonate right. It doesn’t feel right. It’s a little too heavy. But with the Omni System, with that small chart where basically everything happens on that chart, and it all runs off of intent, and that’s what your intent is, then that’s it. If your intent was to jump across the cliff, there’s not a lot of rules for jumping across cliffs, it’s just basically, what’s your intent? Here’s your modifier. If you succeed, you succeed.
CG: You can call upon a god and say “Great Hoseidon, aid me in this jump!”
JG: Exactly and that will actually give you bonuses to make that jump and that’s what I liked about the system. It was originally created for Talislanta. So I talked to the guy who owns Talislanta, or the creator, Steve Sechi. He said go ahead and use it so I just took the system and modified it for Hellas and made it a Hellas system and it works. Right now I’m in the middle of revamping it and taking out some of the artifacts that were left over from Talislanta and kind of streamlining it a little more.
CG: This is going into the recently Kickstarted-
JG: Yeah, the Revised. Which we also used for Godsend Agenda.

Godsend Agenda: Superpowered Aliens as Gods

Cover for RPG Godsend Agenda by Khepera Publishing showing god battling snake godCG: Conveniently enough, what’s a brief overview of Godsend Agenda. It’s superheroes in space?
JG: No, because funny enough, it all just happens on Earth. If gods walked the earth, they’d be considered superheroes now. And what the Godsend Agenda is, it’s basically this Galactic Empire, their way of taking over planets. Basically they will come to a planet and instead of bringing millions of troops to pacify the populace of the planet, they’ll bring 12 people. They’ll set themselves up as gods and then the populace will just kind of fall in line, because they’ll fight amongst themselves until it’s over. And they’ll wait like a couple thousand years for it to happen, because these guys are essentially immortal. And in Godsend Agenda, what happens is a prison ship from that empire crashes on Earth, the prisoners get out, and they use the Godsend Agenda to set themselves up as gods. So you’ve got the Egyptian pantheon, the Greek pantheon, and all these people were actually prisoners or political dissidents on this prison ship. So the game can be played in a bygone era, so you could play it as a fantasy game where you’re a god back in the olden days or-
CG: The PCs all take the role of a god?
JG: They can or they can just be superheroes in this world, because essentially if these gods actually did live today with the media and multimedia and stuff, you could still be a god, and you’d still be worshipped. And that’s where you get more of your power from is from glory. The more glory you have the more power you have, but they would be pop stars. If Hercules lived today and people were telling his tales, you’d see him on red carpets and at places, but you know, he might go out and punch someone in the face or pick up a car and throw it. So you have that with Godsend Agenda and there’s a secret history behind it.
CG: There is a lot of overlap between the two, huh?
JG: Yes, because that’s one thing that I really like is just mythology.
CG: And the Greek gods were petty and it’s the same way with Godsend Agenda, right?
JG: Well yeah. Well, because they’re just people. They’re not necessarily a higher life form; they’re just a life form that knows how to-. Even with humans, you can learn how to use this energy called ka in Godsend Agenda and once you learn how to use it, you can use it for good, you can use it for bad.
CG: Like the Egyptian ka?
JG: Yeah, yep. Like where you have your ba and your ka. Basically I just took ka, that piece of your spirit and just made that an energy form in Godsend Agenda where like, if you learn to manipulate it, you can do anything you want and that’s what they do. But yeah, mythology runs through all the games. Like right now we’re working on Atlantis, which was an older game, made by the same guy who made Talislanta. So I bought the rights to that and I’m going to rerelease that soon, which is funny ’cause all three games have Atlanteans in them. All three games have Atlantis in them. So there must be something going on with Atlantis that I’m trying to work out that eventually I will work out and my work will be done on this planet and I can have my apotheosis and go someplace cool.

CG: Who’s Khepera Publishing? Is that you and-
JG: Just me. It’s basically me. Mike Fiegel has a company called Aethereal Forge and through that he produced Ninja Burger. So he does that. He created Ninja Burger, he did a role playing game called Vox, which is really awesome. He also did a game called Power Girl, which is kind of like a superheroic kind of Sailor Moonish game, but he’s really really clever, Mike is, and he comes up with a lot of really cool ideas. I liken him to-, there’s John and then there’s Paul from the Beatles. So that’s what we do. But…look what happened to John. So I don’t know which one of us is John. I’m going to say that he is so that I can just grow old and turn into an old lady like Paul McCartney. Yeah, that’s what we do.

Jerry Grayson’s Favorite D&D World: Dark Sun and Experience Playing Hellas Himself

CG: So, right now though, you’ve played so many games, but tonight as we wrap up, you’re about to play Dark Sun, 2nd Edition.
JG: Oh yeah! This is my favorite D&D world. There’s Dark Sun and then there’s probably Greyhawk, which are probably my two favorite D&D game worlds and even though 2nd Edition gets punched in the eye a lot, it gets choked out and throttled like-, yeah I really like 2nd Edition over 3rd Edition or 4th Edition. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, like “Back in my day, we used to,” but it’s easy. I can look at a stat block in 2nd Edition and completely understand what the monster does as opposed to going “Ok, he’s got a mobility feat, he’s got this move through this-” It’s like what the hell does all this stuff do? In this, I know that this huge spider has Type A poison. It will kill you or you’ll take 15 points of damage and that’s it. It’s simple.
CG: You’re playing 2nd Edition straight up with THACO and everything?
JG: Oh, we’re going hardcore, man. I’m going Iron Man. I’m attempting to run this game as written. So as it is written is the way I will run it, with all its weird warts and idiosyncracies, it will run that way. Hopefully it will run well, but going back and actually playing it now, since you start playing all these other games, when you look at some of these rules they actually make perfect sense. You know, when you’re a little kid and reading them, you’re like “That doesn’t make sense.” or “This should work like this and if I was doing it, it’d do it like this.” But when you go back and play it now, you’re like “Oh, this is actually kind of awesome. I wish I could rewrite this game and make it my own.” Which I thought about doing today. I was thinking “I should just rewrite 2nd Edition.” And I was like no, because that would actually take real time.
[Players have been showing up for his Dark Sun game.]
Jerry’s Player: And involve a lawsuit.
JG: No, well not if I changed it enough. If I changed it enough, it’d be Jer Edition. It’d be A Jer and Jer. We could be playing some J&J in here, but yes, Dark Sun, which is probably my favorite D&D fantasy world. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it, but yeah, it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy game. It’s what happens after all the cool stuff happens and this is what you end up with after that big battle to save the world in other role playing games, this is what you’re left with. It’s just a burnt-out wasteland with slaves and cannibals and just weird stuff. You could shoot a Tupac video in Dark Sun with people with goggles.
CG: “California”…
JG: Exactly, you could have people with baseball bats with spikes in them and yeah, they actually got weapons like that in Dark Sun. So it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy game.

CG: And you’re running it, but did I hear you correctly that you have only played Hellas twice now?
JG: That I’ve not run?
CG: Right.
JG: Yes. Haha. I’ve only got to play it twice that I’ve not run it. Other games, Tony ran Godsend Agenda, I got to play that, and I think that was probably the only time I got to play that one. Yeah, every other game I’ve managed to be a player in. In Nomine, we used to take turns, like you’d get extra experience points if you ran the game, so then I’d play a character and someone else would run the game. But yeah, Hellas I’ve only got to play twice and I’ve realized it really sucks, so I wouldn’t play that game. That game’s ridiculous. I’d rather play, what’s a good game? Fantasy Imperium, remember that game? [Someone suggests Star Children] Star Children‘s actually pretty awesome. But yes, I’d definitely play that one. Yeah, I don’t get to play. I’d like to play Hellas more. I’m curious, because I come up with these characters when I’m writing ’em. I’m like “Yeah, that guy would be bad ass!”

CG: Who wrote all the stories in Hellas?
JG: That’s Mike. Mike did all the fiction. All the other stuff that makes no sense, like the mechanics and all that crap, I wrote. All the fiction, those chapter pieces, he wrote.

Khepera Publishing’s Relaunch of Atlantis

CG: What would the street date be for Atlantis?
JG: Well, Atlantis comes after I get done with the Revised Hellas and Sword and Sandals. I’d like to be done with those by the end of June. I’d like to be done, but, you know, that doesn’t mean anything. I’d like to be done with both of those by the end of June and complete Atlantis. Because I’ll fiddle with it, but I haven’t gone hardcore into that one. That, in theory, could be done by the end of the year. The system’s written, because it’s going to use-, because originally I wrote the system [to be used] for Atlantis. We cleaned it up, then we started playing Godsend Agenda with it, cleaned it up some more, now I’m putting that into Hellas and so all those games will run using the basic core, but they won’t necessarily be compatible because Godsend Agenda‘s a completely different animal than Hellas is, which will be a completely different animal from what Atlantis is. Atlantis is going to be kind of Conan-y. It’s going to be that weird sword and sorcery. Like 70s sword and sorcery fiction is what I’m trying for with that one. Like when you’d read books from Tor or Daw, back in like the 80s and 70s, the way they were just, you know, nothing was written to be a three-part book. You don’t get any Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones stuff. It was just weird shit that was happening out in the wilderness. They would cut something up and somebody’d do a spell and they would swallow half a planet. It’s just weird. And that’s what I want to do with that. I want to do an old school Da or Tor book that is Atlantis. That’s what I want to do. And then people will hate it because there’s existing fans for the original game. You know what I will do? I will George Lucas them away from Atlantis. I will make something that will so completely annoy them because I got rid of all the elves, there’s no elves, got rid of all the dwarves, and it’s just your goofy sword and sorcery, you know, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan, Elric, and all those crappy novels you read in like the early 80s, late 70s, just bad wrong fun. That’s what I want to do.

All Hellas and Godsend Agenda images copyright Khepera Publishing, used with permission.

Arel and Ro-El Cordero Talk Yards: The Game of Inches at the GAMA Trade Show

I am not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoyed going to Cal games when I lived in Berkeley. I also enjoyed playing Yards: The Game of Inches at the GAMA Trade Show after meeting brothers Arel and Ro-El Cordero. Arel got his PhD at UC Berkeley, while Ro-el went to arch-rival (and inferior) Stanford for his undergrad. I very much enjoyed trouncing Ro-el the evening after the interview in his first miniature war game ever, Dark Age. We also all played Jabba Dabba Du from Sirius Games that night, but the Bay Area residents had a lot to say about their own game, Yards. They had to actually tell me that football is referred to as “the game of inches”, because I was puzzled by the fact that their prototype board wasn’t based on inches. The game is played on a gridded board with formation cards with 8 wooden pieces a side. Each turn the player can always move a playing piece one square OR make use of the game-changing formation cards to move one or more player pieces multiple squares. There aren’t really any downs per se, but possession changes when the ball carrier is tackled. Unlike actual football, the winner of the game is the first to score a touchdown, field goal, or safety. Craven Games will be following the Corderos’ progress on Yards as they turn their game design into reality.

Overview of Yards and Its Creation, Response to Yards

Cover image of football board game Yards

Yards box art courtesy Arel Cordero

CG: So I’m here with Arel and Ro-el Cordero, two brothers with their game Yards: The Game of Inches. We just played a demo of the game, it probably took about an hour, is that usual?
Ro-el: It was a little long, but we also had a lot of chit-chatting and-
Arel: Yeah, the game is so designed so that it should be around half an hour once you know the rules.
CG: Sometimes half an hour, but you guys have also played for half a day?
Arel: That was before we introduced the field goal mechanic. That was partly the reason-, in fact, the only reason that we introduced that mechanic was to make the game end.
Ro-el: Yeah, there was that one day that we played on and off for the entire day.
Arell: Yeah.

CG: What was the genesis of the game?
Arel: So I actually had the idea for the mechanic sort of spontaneously on a flight, the idea of using patterns on a grid. Ro-el and I had been, before that, playing a bunch of games like Stratego was one that we’ve always played together over the holidays. I liked the idea of a grid. I wanted a sports analogy. I’d been thinking of like maybe hockey or something else, soccer, and I had some ideas for a mechanic, but nothing really seemed to work, and then it just kind of came to me to do this and I went through lots of iterations.
CG: And how do you as brothers split the design or duties or what you’ve done with it, as far as the game goes?
Arel: It’s been very organic. It’s basically been a labor of love. I was doing this through graduate school and trying to graduate at the same time, so over the years, we’ve basically played a lot together and that’s how it has been evolving is through playtesting and playing it with other people.

CG: So part of the reason you’ve come to the GAMA Trade Show is to solicit interest in it or see what options are available to you, right?
Ro-el: Yeah, I think to solicit interest, but also really since we’re-, we just kind of came out to Orccon a few weeks ago and that’s when we first got exposure to people and started hearing about, you know, what the process is to get the game manufactured and published and distributed and in stores and retail, so we really, on the other side, came here to get information, to learn, to meet distributors, to talk to other game manufacturers, and find out, you know, how did they go through the process, and also to look for retailers and see what their reaction’s going to be like, whether they think it’s something that they would want to carry, so we can start kind of planning.
CG: What has the response been to the game in general?
Ro-el: So far the response, in terms of game play has been very good. I know at Orccon we got a lot of really good feedback, a lot of positive comments and liking it, and then, obviously it was a very strategy-heavy crowd, definitely a gamer crowd. We got a lot of very nice, very fine-tuned suggestions, but on the whole, I think I was pleasantly surprised at the feedback we were getting were all small variations or additions or things we could do as an expansion, but everyone kind of seemed to be pretty positive on just how the pace of the game, the kind of asbtractness of it. We got some people who didn’t like football who played the game and liked it, said that it didn’t have to be so footballish. And we got some people who were more into the football and not so much into the game who happened to walk by who also said, you know, well you know, “I can like this”.
Arel: It’s abstract enough that it can hopefully appeal to people just on the gameplay.

The GAMA Trade Show for New Game Designers

CG: You guys now are Contributing Members to GAMA, to the organization, so how did you guys make that decision that you thought that GAMA was going to be worth it? Did someone recommend GAMA?
Arel: Actually, yeah, someone did recommend it. We were at the Strategicon event-
CG: Just weeks ago?
Arel: Just a few weeks ago, yeah, and this was our-, my first game con and also the first time showing Yards to an event like that, in the public. We’d shown it to game testers, but not really the public. But there I met up with other designers, other people in the industry, who really gave us a ton of really good feedback and spent the time with us and GAMA was one of the things that we were strongly recommended to attend, just because it’s so informative, a lot of great people here.
CG: So you guys have found it to be informative then?
Both:: Yeah.
Arel: Absolutely.
Ro-el: It’s been a good contrast, I think, to Orccon, where Orccon was players, right? Really people who would be playing and buying the game for themselves, consumers, which was really good for us to get to play, the playtesting people, that kind of feedback, whereas here, it’s really more about going to the workshops and learning about the business side of the process and kind of end to end, how do you get your games into the hands those consumers that we were playing with at Orccon.
CG: Has there been a particular seminar so far that’s been valuable to you guys?
Ro-el: Yeah… The intellectual property one was very…
CG: With, I think, Greg Silberman.
Ro-el: Yes! Yeah, that was really interesting.
CG: Are you more inclined now to possibly look for a patent? Is that what seemed applicable to you guys?
Arel: Like it really depends. We’ll talk it over on the specifics. I mean, actually one of us, it’s an investment that you have to weigh out to see whether it’s worth it. We’ll have to talk it over.
CG: On the other hand, you summarized the game as what? Grid movement?
Arel: Yeah.
CG: So it’s grid movement. Is that something that you can really protect?
Arel: Depends, yeah. The feedback I think I’ve gotten the most of, which I’m kind of glad for, is that there is a novelty to the game, the mechanic, I think it appears to some extent in a few other games, but the use of these patterns, and the ability to chain and rotate them, is kind of a novelty.

More Game Design Aspects to Yards

Overhead image of Yards game board, wooden pieces, and game cards

Yards board and card images courtesy Arel Cordero

CG: What do you guys think of as a price point for the game?
Ro-el: Well, we’ve been kind of thinking somewhere like in the 25ish.
Arel: Yeah, 20 ideally, and depending on the cost of manufacturing, 25 that would be the ballpark, that we’d want to aim for.
CG: Which seems reasonable.
Ro-el: Yeah.
CG: It’s very generic, it’s not themed.
Ro-el: Yeah, there aren’t so many pieces that it’d make sense to charge 80 bucks or something for it. There’s kind of enough to it that 5 or 10 dollars would be invested to manufacture it.
CG: Who did you guys turn to for prototyping?
Both:: Oh, we did!
Arel: We did the prototyping actually.
CG: Even these? [The playing cards, I think]
Ro-el: We bought the wooden pieces online and painted them ourselves.
CG: Ok. What about the boards?
Arel: We made them ourselves.
Ro-el: Yeah, we basically cut the board, got the board at an art store, cut it, taped it ourselves, printed it.
CG: So the artwork right now, is this just clip art, or is this-
Arel: No, no, I commisioned art. I have a license for the artwork, but, yeah, this was-, I have the rest of the box art as well. That’s … I’m happy with.
CG: Have you guys started thinking of what age will your suggested age range?
Arel: So we’ve labeled it for 10 and up, in terms of game play. One thing that we learned here is like we’ll have to consider other types-, like choking hazards, et cetera, to decide what the actual age.
CG: They pointed that out?
Ro-el: Yeah, two people. Someone else came up a few minutes ago while you were playtesting. You have to put basically 13 up, otherwise you have to go through an extra set of testing that can be a couple more thousand dollars potentially. So it’s possible right now, we have it 10 up, it’s possible we might actually print it with a different age.
Arel: Or have bigger pieces.
Ro-el: Yeah, or have bigger pieces, yeah.
CG: I also imagine that one of the distributors or at least a publishing company, they could make that decision, for you guys.
Ro-el: Yeah.
CG: So at this point, you’re not thinking of manufacturing, distributing by yourselves, right? You are looking for someone to partner with?
Both:: Yeah.
Ro-el: It seems to be what we’re looking for, it seems that the most direct path to consumers is really to find a distributor who has access to al lot of different places, or several distributors.
Arel: Plus these prototypes take a ridiculously long time to make. In terms of cutting the cards, and painting the pieces, which could be expedited, but we’d really like to partner with someone to be the manufacturer.

More About the GAMA Trade Show

CG: At this point it’s still Tuesday night at the show, so is there anything else that you’re looking forward to at the GAMA Trade Show 2012?
Ro-el: Yeah, there’s a Domestic Manufacturing talk, I think, tomorrow. I forget what the title of it is.
Arel: 101 and 102.
CG: I think you’ll get 102, because I went to 101.
Ro-el: Yeah, it sounds like they switched it, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s actually where we met [laughs].
CG: You will get, there’s also international on Thursday maybe.
Arel: So that’s one thing we’re really looking forward to.
Ro-el: Yeah. So I think the next step for us really, I think, is once we kind of can figure out what it’s going to cost, we’re probably looking at doing something either with Kickstarter or, at least if we know how much it’s going to cost, then we know how much we need to invest in it, if we’re going to do it ourselves or get it Kickstarted, give us more or a better idea of what we need to aim for in terms of raising money.
Arel: And also for me, the expo, I’m really looking forward to see.
CG: The exhibitors’ hall? And then which one of you usually wins? [Both: laugh]
Ro-el: We could flip a coin and answer that, I think.
Arel: We could determine that in a tournament. I think it goes back and forth a lot, which is my way of saying that he has been winning lately. No, I sometimes win.
CG: I don’t know if you guys have heard this, but besides maybe a lot of buzz about Kickstarter, in a lot of different seminars we’ve been to, there’s also a lot of talk about Organized Play, so it sounds like you’re almost-, you mentioned tournaments, is that something you’re already thinking of, like this would help the game?
Ro-el: Yeah.
Arel: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one thing I want to find out more about, how people are organizing Organized Play here, but it’s a football game, so I think it really lends itself well to tournaments, because those already exist in many different forms in football. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time to be able to have a tournament and actually be able to compete with other people. I might be at an unfair advantage having created it, but I still would want to participate.
Ro-el: Something that I think we’ve thought about and we’ve actually done this at a smaller level, is taking it and playing it at bars. It’d be great to have it at a game night at a bar, a local bar, and bring 10 copies, and have a little mini-tournament there or just have people play.
Arel: It’s a good game for beer. Two people over a beer, that kind of thing, I think. Actually the first time it was playtested by two other people was at a bar and it was a lot of fun to watch, because people were kind of crowding around and it was kind of like watching a game.
CG: It’s also a good game where maybe your opponent’s drunk, you can maybe take advantage of that.
Arel: That’s actually one of the benefits, yeah.
Ro-el: Or you could take a shot every time you get tackled, there’s also that potential.
CG: Well, I’m going to leave that in, but I think you will probably leave that out of the game rules. Thank you guys.
Arel: Thank you very much.

GAMA Trade Show Manufacturing Seminars

Larry Roznai of Mayfair Games: Domestic Manufacturing 101

I only caught the tail end of Larry Roznai providing advice to would-be manufacturers and game developers at the Domestic Manufacturing 101 seminar. Larry has a strong, confident personality and a very colorful vocabulary, so I can only imagine what I missed earlier and cannot post one of the more evocative expressions he used. He also loves working at Mayfair Games, where he is company president, and being surrounded by games and gamers, claiming happily, “this is nothing like a real job.”

One of the benefits of domestic manufacturing that Roznai covered when I arrived is the increased chance of getting credit from a printer. If a company can get 30 days credit, that is money that can be used elsewhere for those 30 days. It may require an extensive and intrusive credit check, but it can be worthwhile, according to Roznai. Credit terms are much harder to obtain with foreign companies.

Someone asked about cover art and where it fit into the schedule. Roznai affirmed that artwork is necessary for a distributor to solicit interest from retailers, but the entire game need not be finished. He advised that the artwork should be included in the cost of the first printing, as well as all of the tooling, and that these expenses not be amortized.

Then the question of Kickstarter came up and why Roznai thinks it may not be good for a manufacturer. To Roznai, making deals on Kickstarter is selling the cream of the crop. It can potentially exclude the retailer. Either Roznai or another attendee cited Darwyn Cooke, “You can piss off your customers, but you should never piss off your retailers.” Game manufacturers should want their audience of “1500 hardcore mother geeks” buying their game from retailers. Several attendees did not agree and voiced their differing opinions.

They also spoke up with their own experiences. Don’t go up against a Magic release, one warned. Another pointed out that releasing your game the week of Gen Con can actually kill it, because gamers are already spending their cash elsewhere that week. As for how often to contact a distributor about your game, Roznai said you “can’t go to a distributor often enough to pimp your game.”

Overseas Manufacturing

I and many other attendees crowded into the Overseas Manufacturing seminar, hosted by AEG and partner Panda Game Manufacturing.

John Zinser, AEG

John Zinser, President of Alderac Entertainment Group, shared his experiences with overseas manufacturing, which AEG has been doing for 4 years now. The initial move to overseas manufacturing surprisingly wasn’t motivated by domestic costs, it was actually a customer service issue for AEG. When the collectible card game industry collapsed, domestic printers started scrambling and the level of customer service AEG received dropped. As the makers of Legend of the 5 Rings, this was of major concern to Zinser and he has found that in China and Germany there is a higher level of customer service.

Another draw of overseas manufacturing is the difficulty in finding good plastics in the United States or at least Zinser hasn’t found them yet. This meshes with the fact that Reaper Miniatures has initially done its plastic Bones line overseas, even though they plan on bringing production in house.

Overseas manufacturing is about relationships, systems, and check-ups. If you’re manufacturing in China, Zinser says remember that:

  • no deal is ever completely closed
  • the wider the parameters, the more leeway the manufacturer will take

Even for domestic manufacturers, or those in Germany as well as China, Zinser advocates providing them with examples of other manufacturers’ quality. The manufacturers will in turn use the samples as their own benchmarks for quality.

When AEG started overseas manufacturing, they made many mistakes. They got back a “myriad” of things, some amazing to Zinser, and others from the exact same partners that made them “cringe”.

AEG Production Manager David Lepore

Zinser introduced Dave Lepore, head of production at AEG Games who began outlining his work process at AEG though Zinser occasionally contributed an explanation or made a few suggetions.

Lepore’s lengthy process begins when he talks to AEG’s game developers who already usually have a basic knowledge of the components they will want for the game. He begins to quote out the product to suppliers. If a developer initially comes with a game that has 100 cards and then wants 150 cards after revisions, it will probably necessitate a new quote.

To help in the process Lepore uses a preliminary specification sheet, listing whether tokens are wooden or plastic, what sort of punch card will be used, and so on. As the game moves on, he gets a list of final specifications. Next AEG prints up a protoype of the game in house, using the “fiddly bits” from other companies to test the production aspects of the game.

After the final specifications are complete, he then gets quotes from at least 3 suppliers if not more, including 1-2 domestic suppliers. He builds a spreadsheet to look at all the numbers and requests samples from the manufacturers of similar products, components and things like the plastic vacuum trays that organize most board games’ pieces. He gets very specific, what does Company X’s matte varnished punch board look like, what does your linen texture feel and look like? What about their matte texture? 280 gram cardstock versus 300 gram cardstock, Lepore requests it all.

When they arrive he labels the samples and begins to catalogue the advantages. A product might have great depth of print quality. That gets noted. The costs do as well. Sometimes costs are plainly divided as line item costs, while other companies return quotes with blanket costs. Obviously having line item costs gives Lepore more insight into how a change in the game could affect the cost. This process takes about 1-2 weeks. Any manufacturer taking much longer doesn’t want the business enough.

Lepore suggests soliciting the opinion of manufactuers who oftentimes will know about possible subsittutes or other ways of making a game from past experiences. On the other hand, no matter how impossible your need is, Chinese manufactuers have the attitude that “we are going to find a way to do it.”

Once the manufacturing company has been selected, the work doesn’t stop. Dave Lepore looks over an electronic proof of the game in house. He reviews barcords, SKUs, and legal text. It should have already been reviewed by the designers’ project leads who must insure that all 20 of their 20 cards are actually in the soft proof. Lepore then makes a digital proof, and again looks the game over. The digital proof is the last opportunity to get a feel for the color and feel of the game. Dave looks at color balance, graphic artififacts and remnants like little white lines unseen on the computer screen or boxes appearing in print that are not displayed on screen.

Having approved the digital proof, AEG sends the game to the manufacturer.

As soon as possible, they want the production sample, the first of the game to come off the line. According to Lepore, he has a “huge” checklist that he goes over to ensure the product is what it should be, including dropping the box from at least 2 feet up and checking to make sure that images and text aren’t reversed. The clearer you were about the quality and the more samples you provided to the manufacturer of what you expect, the better the result. As for what happens should the production sample be off, it depends on the terms you have set up with your manufacturer.

Michael Lee from Panda Game Manufacturing

Box art for Eclipse made by Asmodee Games

Eclipse box art courtesy Asmodee

Fortunately there was an overseas manufacturer on hand who then covered his end of the business. Michael Lee from Panda Game Manufacturing in China was AEG’s guest at the GAMA Trade Show. The manufacturer of titles such as Pandemic and Eclipse as well as being a partner with AEG, Panda has been very busy over the last 18 months, especially with the Kickstarter craze.

Lee suggested that game developers keep things simple for their first game stating that “even experienced publishers make mistakes” when new to overseas game manufacturing. He advised that beginners choose one thing to tackle, two at most. Games combining multiple materials and technologies won’t make good first time overseas ventures. Plastics are particularly challenging.

Lee stressed the need for a very good graphic designer to avoid many common pitfalls he has seen, otherwise there are problems for those who don’t understand bleed or the need for CMYK colors. Lee cited Z-Man Games as a company with a very strong working relationship with Panda Manufacturing and strong knowledge of the process; Panda can get through the production process on a Z-Man game in 10 days.

He also warned new developers not to undersestimate their own pickyness when it comes to what they want from their game and how that can add time to manufacturing. In his experience, they can be very protective of their baby. On the other hand though, the manufacturers that they might be dealing with might not be board game manufacturers. I believe that Zinser and Lee both agreed that there are 4 to 6 good manufacturers to work with in China.

As for how long the process takes on his end, Lee said a good estimate is 4-5 months from FTPing your files until the product should arrive at the warehouse. First time designers should factor in a couple of extra weeks of buffer time. Shipping alone is usually 5 to 6 weeks. The prepress process usually takes a month on average, but it could take as long as 6 weeks or more. Lee reaffirmed that the average Euro takes 4-5 months. Once the production sample is ready, Panda FedEx’s to the client “and hopefully you’ll smile”. Sometimes, he said, the fault is with the manufacturers and they will work to correct it at their cost.

Shipping was the final topic that Lee and also Zinser spoke on. A large container is 40 feet, while a small is 20 feet. 5,000 Pandemic games fit into a small container. When shipping, it is best to:

  • get one 40 foot container rather than two 20 foot containers
  • fill your container or fill exactly half a container
  • share your container with another American client if you are not filling it entirely to split shipping costs

Shipping costs vary depending on the season, but in March 2012, when they spoke, costs varied from $3,500-$4000 for a 40 foot conainer. That is the cost for the trans-Pacific freighting, but to actually go from the manufacturer to the receiving company’s warehouse door-to-door, could vary from $3000-$6500.

A Few More Thoughts on Manufacturing

Michael Lee has written his own overview of how board games are manufactured at PlayTMG. Speaking to several other attendees later about the manufacturing seminars, everyone consistently agreed on how much value they took away from them. Larry Ronzai held a second Domestic Manufacturing seminar later, which I did not attend, one of many other manufacturing seminars offered at the GTS including Demystifying QR Codes, How to Work Your Booth, and the mammoth New Manufacturer’s Orientation. Most gamers, myself included, have a few games or gaming products they want to develop. The GAMA Trade Show does seem to be the place to go for starting your game company. I should also point out how friendly and welcoming GAMA members are to their future competitors. This was also the case at the retail seminars. The focus is on growing the hobby and industry and providing better games.