Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad welcomes Steve Jackson

Last weekend, I interviewed +Steve Jackson!

I tried to get this on out on GURPS-Day, but the editing ran me past midnight and spooling the video took two freakin’ hours.

During an interview that was about 50 minutes long, we covered Ogre and the Kickstarter, Munchkin, his recently released 2013 Stakeholder’s Report, and of course we talked a bit about GURPS.

Thanks to Steve for taking the time to join me on the Firing Squad!

Firing Squad with Steve Jackson (MP3 Audio Only)

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good afternoon and welcome to Gaming Ballistics’ Firing Squad. I’m here with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games. It’s a pleasure to talk to you today.

Steve Jackson (Steve Jackson Games): Well, it’s a pleasure to be here, especially since I can do it from . . . here.

Doug: The working from home thing is never cooler than when you can do an interview without pants.

Steve: Not admitting to anything here.

Doug: I think that’s fair. I tend to get right into things and first ask a quick question about…I’ve got my Ogre Supporter shirt on – ta da! [Steve laughs] and…

Steve: No [something]’s required.

Doug:…exactly. How did you decide to go from “Gee, I’d like to re-release Ogre to “Let’s do it on Kickstarter,” and how did that process work in your mind when you decided to do it.

Steve: Well, how it worked in my mind was . . . Phil Reed talked me into it. He was very familiar with Kickstarter, and he made a very good case for doing it that way.

So I did my homework, and decided “yes, that could be very good.” In fact, two weeks after, when we got rolling on it, I was more optimistic about it than he was, because I thought it was a good fit. And Phil was rightfully cautious.

Doug: What were the biggest worries that you had, and what were the hopes that turned out soon to be fulfilled in the Kickstarter process in the terms of fundraising in terms of what could go right and what could go wrong . . . that you could anticipate before the event as opposed to what happened after.

Steve: Before the event? Well, what we were worried about maybe there wasn’t enough game fans on Kickstarter – remember how long ago this was – that there weren’t enough game fans on Kickstarter to make it worthwhile. The funding goal that we set was only $20,000 . . . that was not what it took to print it. Because I wanted to print it anyway.

That was the level that we agreed that would make it worthwhile to create a slightly different version with full fealty.

And of course that was blown away instantly. We had no dreams that it would get as huge as it did. None. That was totally not in the original thinking.

Doug: And so you raised nearly a million dollars – like 980-some odd thousand I believe?

Steve: We certainly could have broken a million if we had kept pushing at it, but we had realized we had already pushed at it too long, promised a great deal, and that it was time to tell people “Okay! Thank you, we’re gonna be good here.”

Doug: [laughs] What do you think that tells us as a gaming community about the market itself?

Steve: It tells what anybody who is paying attention has figured out in the last year anyway: Which is that Kickstarter and games are a very good fit.

Doug: Do you think it says something more about the latent revenue potential or is it something unique about Kickstarter that makes the money flow?

Steve:  I know that other crowdfunding systems have also have also worked very well. You say delayed funding systems, explain how you mean delayed?

Doug: If I said “delayed I didn’t mean it.” [It was “latent,” but there was a garble]

What does it tell you about the market – is it unique to Kickstarter that all the money is channeling to the games, or does that tell you something about over the last thirty years or so that people are still willing to drop quite a bit of money (if you like) on a quality tabletop product.

Steve: There both true, and they supported each other, and they supported each other marvelously.

Doug: So after the event and the intenseness of it, and how it sort of took over and how it took over all of your lives, and Steve Jackson Games for a while: what have you learned about Kickstarter for Ogre that you can apply to future projects. Not just Kickstarters but to your business protocols.

Steve: Second answer first – what we learned about daily business protocols is that people are not afraid of a huge product as long as you make it nice enough.

We were rightfully dinged for the delays on the product, but people liked what they got when they got it. So yay. Repeat your first part . . . Mr. Two-Questions-At-Once.

Doug: Sorry about that. It’s really what did you learn from running the Kickstarter that you can apply to future projects?

Steve: For Kickstarters: we needed to plan in advance five or six times as much as we did.

And we were written up – among other Kickstarters – in a Moneay magazine article that was posted, and the author said we had done everything right except – and this was a biggie – We had not planned for too much success . . . and that was absolutely correct.

We were having late night meetings to discuss [coughs] what to do the next day on the Kickstarter. And not if, but when we do another crowdfunding game (because Car Wars is going to happen) it’s going to be much much better scripted.

I’m not saying there is going to be no improvisation, because it’s no fun if you can’t riff a little bit, but we’ll know in advance what we can’t do or what we are willing to do. We’ll have a good idea of what we’re not willing to do, so no matter the amount of begging we get from individuals or small groups for individual weird things – some of them won’t be in the plan and won’t do them.

Doug: Seems like some of the…I can’t remember if it was part of your advice to game masters in times past, but be willing to say “Yes,” but be very willing to say “No” or at least “Not yet.”

Steve: Yes. In fact we said “Not Yet” a few times when we just should have said “No.”

That’s okay. We survived.

We’re still working on delivering some of the promises, including – one of the stretch goals was “We’ll do Car Wars the same way.” And that will take considerably longer to come to head. There are other things that haven’t been delivered yet, but we’re working on it. And people don’t need it all once anyway. The point was continuing support, and we are giving them that.

Doug: I actually had not been an Ogre player. I had known of the game, way back when, so the Kickstarter was the first encounter with the game. And playing it with this monstrous game on our kitchen table with my wife actually (who kicked my butt twice just absolutely…she played the Ogre and I played the command post and we got a few rules wrong, but she absolutely flattened me twice. And having never done any of that was both gratifying for her and immediately the trash talk continued).

Steve: Other than that, did you have fun?

Doug: Oh, it was a great time. I think that actually speaks to the longevity of the game and the concept: The one player doing many [playing the many small pieces] and the other with the Ogre tank, and you get people playing Ogres vs. Ogres with lots of battles, and it’s very expandable.

I think it speaks to – and we’ll probably get around to this later – but it speaks to the benefit of a fundamentally design and resolution mechanic that’s nonetheless scalable.

Steve: Yes that… I will admit that Ogre gets that. There are other games out there that have gotten that that I really admire. The original Space Hulk. Did you ever play that from Games Workshop?

Doug: I have not.

Steve: It was easy to learn, and you were constantly blowing stuff up.

Doug: Which is very satisfying. I have an almost five year old daughter who now refers to any military vehicle as an Ogre tank. She’s like “That’s an Ogre tank!”

What were we watching recently? It was some sort of superhero thing with a giant tank. [It was Justice League Unlimited] That’s as much an Ogre tank as you’re going to see in DC comics or Marvel or whatever.

So timely…we’re going to switch topics a bit, but timely: your report to the stakeholders came out in the last 24 hours, I believe. So I read it with interest, and the biggest thing – well there are a lot of great tidbits in there – but one of them obviously is Munchkin, is and continues to be about 75% of Steve Jackson Games revenue.

So I want to go back a little bit. Munchkin won the 2001 Origins Award for best traditional card game, and depending on whether you want to call it the “star” or “cash cow” to use the old Boston Consulting Group model.

Steve: Which I don’t remember well enough to critique. So . . . I’ll go along, if you want to give me the definitions for those, I’ll tell you where it falls for us.

Doug: It was the axes are something like growth and profit, and so the high growth, high profit where you are just printing money is the Star. Low growth, low profit is the Dog, and what do you do with those – shoot ‘em.

Then there were the problem children, which were high profit, but low growth and then there was another one that was high growth, low profit. That’s the cash cow?

Steve: The cash cow would have to be high profit, low growth.

Doug: Yeah. Something like that.

[Note: Doug got this a bit wrong. The original BCG framework was growth vs. market share, with share being a stand-in for cash production or consumption, a proxy for profitability but not a direct analog. So high-share, high growth were the Stars, high share, low growth were the Cash Cows. The low-share, high growth were the Question Marks or Problem Children, while the low-growth, low-share were either the Dogs or, perhaps more pertinently, the Pets.]

Steve: In those metrics Ogre is the star because it’s profitable, but it’s also still growing.

Doug: There was an interesting back and forth on your forums, on the Steve Jackson Games Forums, where it was like “Yeah, I don’t understand how this ‘one trick joke’ hasn’t played out by now.”

Well, since I’ve played the different flavors as well, I don’t think Munchkin is a one-trick joke, but it is interesting how…how did you come up with the concept for Munchkin and how did it morph, and materialize, and mature in your mind and in your business?

Steve: Well, it was really a very typical design story . . . except that it succeeded so well. I had a stupid idea and I ran with it.

I wanted to make a card game that would poke gentle – and sometimes not gentle – fun at the dungeon crawling trope . . . and I made up some cards. A lot of them were actually drawn up on the airplane toward a convention in Arizona.

And, had some very very basic rules, and playtested it there, and basically the playtesters just wouldn’t put it down unless someone dragged them out of the chair. So I said “Okay! Got something.”

So, came back and finished it up – and there is a whole lot that goes into finishing it up: you know, balance testing and so on. But the later testers liked it just as much and I was still having fun with it. It was an excuse to tell lots and lots of stupid jokes. That’s what Munchkin remains – an excuse to tell lots of stupid jokes.

If you have to narrow it down to one trick it’s “Tell stupid jokes.” But there is more than that.

It lets the players interact and people talk about competitive-cooperative and Munchkin is not what they mean by that.

Munchkin is – at its soul – totally competitive, but if you do not cooperate during the game you will lose. You will lose.

So every turn you might very well be in a total slap them down show down with the person you helped in the turn before and vice versa. Alliances don’t stick, and there’s just always a reason to say “Well, no, I’m sorry…” You hear the words “I’m sorry” playing Munchkin. “I’m sorry, but…[mimes slapping down a card] . . . wander in the Plutonium Dragon.” Or “Oh, yeah, and the Potted Plant is enraged.”

Doug: Yeah, the enraged potted plant.

Steve: So I jumped way beside your original question, but we sent it to print with a press run of 5,000 copies, which was our standard “Sure, give it a try” number.

I had no hopes for it other than it would make people laugh. And a couple members of the staff told me I was underprinting, and I said we can always print more if we need them. We needed to very quickly. And then again, very quickly.

And that was about the time we started thinking, you know, maybe we should not just do supplements, but do one for another genre because there’s a lot of sci-fi stuff that needs to be mocked too. One thing led to another.

Steve: So I remember being on the PyraMOO, back when . . . I don’t remember how the topic came up, but you had said you never really found something…you love pirates and you love Munchkin and you never found anything satisfying.

But there was a very satisfying discussion where I believe you walked away saying “Okay. I heard enough to make a game.”

Steve: Yes. I remember that discussion: that might have been on Talk Like a Pirate day. But – the Pyramoo every talk like a Pirate Day gets reset so everybody’s speech gets translated to “pirate.” That’s always fun.

At any rate, yeah, I got useful input that kind of turned sideways some of the things that I’d been thinking.

To recap for those who were not on the MOO – the three billion people who were not there that day – I had really wanted to do “pirate Munchkin” I had had a lot of the card ideas worked out, but I didn’t say any reasonable way to do classes, because yes there are lots of different words that mean pirate, but they’re all the same guy.

The suggestion came up during the discussion that “They don’t all have to be pirates – they just all have to be scurvy mariners.” Okay…that works.

Doug: Different ships and different factions and stuff . . . and it was fun, but I was wondering if there are any other genres that you got kicking in the back of your mind that you’d love to see as a Munchkin game that are currently either stuck, or immature, or not quite ready.

Steve: I wouldn’t say stuck or immature, I’d absolutely say “not ready yet.” Because more are being worked on. But no . . .The other ones that I want to do including the ones I totally can’t talk about, I know how I want to attack ‘em.

Doug: Which I think brings me to something we’ll weave in and out of. The relationship of Steve Jackson Games and its product set to some of the 800 lb. gorillas in the role-playing game industry: How did Munchkin Pathfinder happen?

Because I was sort of on record saying that (on my blog) “This is so unlikely to ever have these companies get together,” and I was really happy to be wrong, because it potentially opens up at least speculation about other things. How did that work out?

Steve: The executive summary would be we asked Lisa and she said “Ha! Go for it!” It wasn’t quite that quick, but it wasn’t slow.

At the level below the very hugest companies, the ones that are really mass market companies now, the editors and lead designers are collegial. Attending the same conventions, dealing with the same freelancers, yeah. I won’t say we all know each other, but the longer you’ve been around the more likely it is that you know most people and can make a friendly call.

Sorry, buzzword alert: It’s a win-win. It really is.

Doug: I think that that is especially true of a game like Munchkin where you have Golarion and you have Pathfinder (or whatever) and you have Munchkin, and you have the world that Paizo has done, and there’s that…it’s as you say it’s “win-win.”

People who are familiar with Pathfinder can have a great time playing Munchkin, and people who play Munchkin get to explore some of the depth [that is Pathfinder].

I’ve played GURPS games…I’ve played great GURPS Dungeon Fantasy games in Golarion, and they cohabitate quite well together and you can easily see that. And you’ve answered my question about competitors or “coopetition” which I suppose is relatively speaking a fairly niche market you know each other and there is room for everybody to win.

Steve: No business degree here, and I’m not always up on my reading . . . define cooptation. It’s obviously a portmanteau word. What does it connote obviously other than you talk to each other, but you are competitors.

Doug: I think that’s largely what it is. There was a book…I worked for McKinsey and Company for two years 1998 to 2000 and then I got back into science, but I still keep up with some of the reading.

You have two companies that are competing. Let’s pick like Ford and GM . . . or even better: Subaru has been rumored to be licensing the hybrid drive from Toyota  – they’re competing, but the more hybrid drives get out there, the more that can get out there. It feeds on each other. The same thing is true…

Steve: Got it! Recently, Elon Musk announced that the Tesla patent portfolio would be licensed without charge to other automakers if they wanted to make good cars.

Doug: Exactly. Becasuse the biggest thing that matters in some of these things is infrastructure. So coopetition is, we’ve got this gaming infrastructure is…and the thing about it is…another place this would be in martial arts.

All the different styles behave very much like they’re competing with each other, and in a way they are, because if you’re signing up with classes in one style you’re not going to go to another. But, the fact of the matter is that with all the people in all the styles (at least in the US) it’s going to be just stomped by people who play football or soccer or some of these other things.

These stylists would do better to say “Yay, martial arts . . . and everyone has a niche which they can explore, and mine is this. But it’s good if you do this too!” than “oh this other thing sucks” and this guy sucks” and what it becomes is no one wants to go into it, where everybody wants to play football.

It’s hobby gaming and a potential niche market and I was just trying to suss out your take on the dynamics of how that works.

Steve: From our side at least anybody who makes tabletop gaming more popular is helping us. Whether we go out for a drink after the show or convention or not. They’re helping us.

Doug: Ok. That makes sense. Excuse me. [Doug’s 5yo daughter enters, stage left]

Doug’s Daughter: This is a scary part.

Dad: This is a scary part? Well, sweetie, I’m kinda busy now.

Daughter: It’s when Batman sees. . . it’s when Joker sees Batman’s skeleton flashing.

Dad: Well, I’m sure it’ll be OK. You’ve seen this movie [the Lego Batman movie] five or six times.

Steve: That Joker, he’s not to be messed with.

Dad: Shannon, this is Steve Jackson. This is the gentleman that I write for.

Steve: The Ogre is my fault you can blame me.

Dad: Yeah, he came up with Ogre. Okay, sweetie, I’m going to need you need to either play with your Legos, or step out for a second. Okay? Love you.

Daughter: Love you too.

Doug: And then we edit.

Steve: Oh, I’d leave that in. I was just thinking, you know, it’s too bad you can’t keep the visuals of that [both laugh].

Doug: She is a hoot. She’s sat in my lap as I gamed before, and we do storytelling together and she’s this close [to starting to game] . . . and this actually gets into the next question. How badly do I need to get Shannon into Adventure Time?

Steve: Well, how much does she like the cartoon?

Doug: She’s never actually watched the cartoon, but we’ve read the books. I think she’s into that.

Steve: Well . . . [shakes head] I’d try it. I’d try it.

Doug: Do you think there is a market for this sort of dimebag of awesome that we can throw at kids? Is Munchkin Adventure Time or Munchkin Princesses geared towards a younger set, or is it taking adventure of the fad that is Disney…I don’t know if “fad” and “Disney Princesses” goes together. . . it’s been 30+ years of beating us over the head with it.

Steve: Yeah, give me a fad like that every time. No. Those cards are both aimed at the adult viewership. We still think of Munchkin as a game for teens and up.

We know perfectly well that some families are playing with it, and that’s great, and one of these days there will be a Munchkin game aimed at the younger set. But that’s going to be our answer, rather than to…I don’t want to say it, but everybody will understand, but better than to dumb down Munchkin.

Doug: But as the father of a precious, but near-five-year-old: Dumbing it down is exactly right. Conceptually, kids get certain things, and they don’t get certain things.

Actually, if I could lobby, one of the things that would be kind of awesome is if there was a way to do something for that set, where you could truly would have a cooperative Munchkin, where the kids could play together to defeat the Plutonium Dragon or something like that. Because sometimes these kids get mean [laughs].

Steve: I’m not sure that’s Munchkin.

Doug: Yeah, it may not be, but a kids game that borrow some of the themes that encourage cooperative play, and resource management, and sharing? Well at least one person would buy it.

For the geek set that want to play games that are understandable, and in-genre with their kids. I think that would be fun. Obviously, everyone could probably come to you with their great idea.

Steve: What you’re basically looking for is a board game implementation of Gauntlet.

Doug: Yeah. Sure.

Steve: Red Elf needs food.

Doug: [laughs] Overall since 2001 till now…how has Munchkin, other than basically dominating your topline, how has Munchkin changed your company?

Steve: Completely? [laughs].

Doug: Yeah, but what examples that you . . . obviously it’s been a journey…how would you in 2001 till now…I think people would say Steve Jackson Games, you started with Ogre and the tabletop games, and it sounds like you’re almost breaking into a mass market company that happens to dabble in things like roleplaying games and other things.

What is your viewpoint on your core-competency at this point?

Steve: [exhales] Well our core-competency is still at coming up with game ideas and getting them to market in a reasonably inexpensive packing.

Ogre was an experiment in saying “OK, let’s do it fancy.”

My own personal core-competency is less in business, and more in telling stupid jokes, which is why Munchkin is such a wonderful fit for me.

But we have grown – you saw the Stakeholder’s Report – that’s seven years of growth. If we were a publically traded company people would be falling all over us.

Doug: It’s true. Seven years ago encompasses a time period where one of my first roles as manager was involved in a force reduction during the 2008-2009 reduction, and the seven or eight years of growth spans that time period. So to be profitable [and growing] in what was really a terrible time for the global economy is quite a feat as both a designer and business person.

Steve: Games do alright in a bad economy, as long as they are not terribly expensive games, because the hours of fun per dollar with a board game is so much greater than from a movie, or from a modern computer game.

Now not necessarily from a little free app. You would worry that little free apps would cut into what we’re doing, because if it’s a good little free app, the hours of fun per dollar are infinite. But you’re not sitting around the table with your friends . . . and sitting around the table with your friends is a great goodness.

Doug: I agree. I don’t know if you know Brett Slocum, but his blog…

Steve: Oh yes. He wrote more than one GURPS thing.

Doug: Yes he did. And I believe his blog is titled “the art of joyful sitting amongst friends.” It reminded me of that.

Steve: In its style, he’s obviously influenced by Dr. Barker in that – but Brett is a big Empire of the Petal Throne fan. That sounds very much like a book you might find in a Tekumel library, doesn’t it?

Doug: It does and it would be very self-consistent with what he likes.

So perfect segue way into roleplaying. The work that I do for you is Pyramid, and that one grappling book, and so I wanted to talk a little bit, if you would, about roleplaying and its history and hopefully its future.

You’re really…Steve Jackson Games is one of the only companies with a line that has maintained the last 35 years as a constant going concern. There are a couple.

Steve: We are the second oldest game company that’s still doing business under the same ownership and with the same name. Greg Loomis’ Flying Buffalo is the oldest.

Doug: Okay. How did that work, and what’s responsible for that longevity? What went right for you that went wrong for others?

I just read a fascinating story about how Gary Gygax was in and out of TSR. I don’t know how much of that is true.

Steve: It wasn’t all his own idea.

Doug: I don’t know how much of that history is…a lot of it seemed pretty well factually supported. There were documents and stuff.

How did that work for your company, you’ve got GURPS  and other roleplaying game pieces that have maintained themselves for almost, but not quite, as long as I’ve been alive. What did you do right and what did others do wrong that you are willing to speculate about?

Steve: Okay. Implicit in that question is the idea that keeping the same line going for decades and decades is necessarily right. It’s not necessarily right. You could make a good argument now, and you could have made a better argument five years ago, that GURPS ought to be turned off, because the market for table roleplaying had really shrunk by faster, easier to learn table games.

But I’m loathe to quit doing something that people like. And because we are not at all a public-traded company, I can get away with saying “Fine. This particular marginally profitable thing may not have played out yet, so we’re going to continue, and we are going to continue to try and develop it.” I can get away with that and someone who lived or died on quarterly returns cannot.

Doug: What would it take to revitalize the tabletop face to face roleplaying scene . . . I would include Google Hangouts – almost all the gaming I do these days is over Google Hangouts, video chat with four or five people You’ve got the Roll20s or the Fantasy Grounds, Maptool or whatever.

What do you think would need to happen to …I don’t know if we’ll every see 50, or 100 thousand-copy print runs if you ever did. What would it take to make it more viable to expand a roleplaying game instead of maintain it.

Steve: Well it’s not like I haven’t given that thought.

Certainly really good virtual table-tops are going to help a lot. I’ve been thinking about virtual tabletops for oh, maybe 20 years? And a couple of times I have gotten set up with people who were working on projects like that, but they’ve always cratered usually before they were worth talking about in public.

A really really amazingly good VTT, even if it were only for D&D, would help roleplaying a lot – although it wouldn’t necessarily help D&D’s competitors, it would tend to inspire those competitors.

A really good simple roleplaying game that was based on a popular license would bring a lot of people back to it – in theory. But people have been saying that for years and there have been games that came out within popular licences, and they have had good sales within gaming but they have never broken out.

I don’t know what it would take to make people who have never roleplayed before pick it up. But honestly, you will get your better renaissance from making it possible for all the people who used to roleplay but don’t anymore to pick it up again.

Doug: Especially since most of those people, instead of being college students who are deciding between top ramen and the latest GURPS release are maybe looking at BMW vs. keep the old car.

Steve: When we were in college, we all had more time than money, and for a lot of the Boomer generation especially that’s switched. Some the boomers are retiring, and some of them now have both money and time.

Doug: Exactly. I remember telling some of my friends who were about ten years younger who where in school, who said “I don’t have any time” and I said “You say that now…”

And I said the same thing when I was in school [Steve laughs] and grad school, and as I move through life you don’t realize how much time you have to use, and to waste, until you got more and more responsibilities that get piled on.

Speaking of Dungeons and Dragons and bomb throwing, do you think it’s a truism or a misstatement to say “As goes D&D…” (and when I say D&D,  I don’t just mean D&D 5th edition, but Piazo, and the core of it): “As goes D&D so goes the hobby.”

Steve: Short answer: True.

It used to be a joke that if D&D catches a cold, everybody is going to sneeze, but in the last few years that joke has been told more about Magic (the Gathering) than it has about D&D, because Magic is the difference for many game retailers even now between profit and not profit. There are a lot of things they like to have on the shelf, and Munchkin is one of them.

But if a meteor is going to fall on Hasbro’s headquarters. . . please let it fall . . .  because if it’s going to fall, let it fall on D&D. Because Magic is what’s more important to the hobby now.

Doug: Interesting.

Steve: But mostly let it not fall there. We don’t need anything to happen to any of the tent poles.

Doug: That makes a ton of sense. I enjoy both. I recently played a Swords and Wizardry game, and I’ve looked at the new D&D edition, and I like it. It reminds me of what I bought in the box set when I was a kid.

But there are things that you can’t do, or do less well, than you can do in GURPS – as a example. It doesn’t make one better or worse, but it serves different needs in the hobby itself.

Steve: As the French say “That’s why there are lots of kinds of cheese.” Different games do different things well. You have rule sets that are specialized for one genre and you have rule sets that are specialized for one style of gaming, and then you have rule sets that somebody just wrote.

Doug: Do you think that…I’m going to focus on GURPS, because I write for it, and play it, and it’s the focus of the blog in many ways – though I do try to branch out because it can be a inclusive hobby when people are in the mood to be inclusive.

Steve: Breaking in on that and that’s completely good with me, because the whole intent of GURPS – and we’re still trying to do it – was to support anybody who wanted to roleplay.

The idea was that the system could shake out of a worldbook and leave you with just reading the info. The more complex, the more mature the system its gotten, the harder it is to write a book where you can shake the rules out and just look at the background.

But the last time we did a survey – and it’s been a long time – but the last time we did a survey that asked this question, fewer than 50% of the people who bought GURPS books were actually going to take them home and use them in a campaign.

There was a huge contingent that were going to take them home and work them into a campaign for another system, and there was a significant contingent that didn’t roleplay – divided between the ones who thought they might roleplay one day and who really liked reading the books, and the ones who didn’t think they would . . . but really liked reading the books.

Doug: You’ve probably heard the story about GURPS Bio-Tech being used as a college textbook.

Steve: A number of them have been used as college textbooks from time to time. What course was Bio-Tech used for? Futurism?

Doug: Genetics, I think.

Steve: OK. Interesting.

Doug: Becasuse the information was as up to date as anything that had been released at the time.

Steve: Some of Pulver’s speculations could scar people for life [both laugh]. That’s why they were so good.

Doug: That’s one of my things…I think maybe I even said that too him – maybe it was during the Pyramid Panel.

I said “Transhuman Space is a beautiful thing, and I love to read books in it, but it terrifies me to game there, because it’s such a deep world, that it’s very difficult to approach.”

Steve: It would be a scary place to live. One thing about Transhuman Space,  if you look in that background, even the one-percenter’s in that background have a lot to worry about. A lot of them don’t know it. There is uncertainty in that background on a very deep level.

Doug: It’s almost as more accurately described as a horror-genre as it is future as science fiction, because almost everything in it conflict, and strife, and lack of humanity and lack of humanity. It’s a deep background that’s a dark ocean beneath the surface. Yeah, it seems like there’s glinting sun on the water, but that’s just the top surface.

Steve: Right.

Doug: In terms of roleplaying as an ecosystem, and GURPS specifically. Granted entirely hypothetical – but if you could…if we could guarantee that it would be hypothetical and would return enough profit to make it worthwhile – so we’ll take [away] the constraints that really exist. Because you know, like in the Report to the Stakeholders, everything else is a non-priority. And roleplaying and a couple of your other lines fall into that . . . and that’s appropriate as a business person.

What would you like to see the GURPS ecosystem look like 5 to 10 years from now?

Steve: More writers, more variety of writing, more digital material available, and again, a really good VTT would be wonderful. We’re talking about a couple of things that – that might…oh, man, buzzword alert…strengthen the community.

But seriously: Ways that might help players and GMs and writers and would-be writers talk to each other more, and see what comes out of it.

We’re not really at a full crowdsource setup yet, because as you yourself know all too well – writing for GURPS is not easy.

You don’t just sit down and scratch off a GURPS book and say ha ha! That’s done now.

Because for it to have the name on it, there has to be system stuff.  Yet it has to be possible to read past the system stuff. That’s a high bar.  And anything we can do to help people make that bar will be very appreciated by the ones who are reading it and would like to see more.

I’d love to see it become economically feasible to do licensed products, but right now the market is not favorable for the kind of license where you have to pay in advance for or a big guarantee – you just can’t sell enough. It’s not like it was 15 years ago.

Doug: Right. That kind of … you get into the niche of niche thing. You have to have so many people interested in that particular licence that they’d buy it just because regardless of whether it’s a GURPS or whatever.

Steve: Or your roleplaying community has to be so huge that you get enough of those people anyways. Especially with a science fiction or fantasy licence, especially fantasy which crosses over so strongly – most roleplaying out there is still fantasy roleplaying. That’s just the way it is.

In the glory days, we did some licenses that even at the time might have been considered a little bit obscure by some gamers, but I was delighted to be able to do it. But now . . . it’s got to at least pay for itself and make people think good thoughts about us.

Doug: Do you think that the future . . . I could also see two parallel paths existing. Because the Discworld Roleplaying Game, which is about to come out, is a GURPS core, but it’s written for Discworld. It’s a little like the experiments you did with Powered by GURPS I think.

Steve: Right.

Doug: Do you think that there is a future for more “We’re gonna do X, and we’re gonna take this Pyramid idea that’s not going to be appropriate for all GURPS, but it’s perfect here, and we’re going to write that into that rule book in a hardback or digital release”  which doesn’t matter to me; but to some people it matters. But we’re going to take the rules that are perfect for that, and we’re going to release the Guardians of the G …I should do that…

Steve: I understand the question. I have to waffle a little bit. We have no plans to do that, but we’ve certainly never sat down and said we’ll never do that. The next time something comes up where that seems worth considering, we’ll consider it.

Doug: It seems like that’s an interesting thing, because to your point about more money than time.

Right now, I have a campaign that I had to put on hiatus, because I don’t have time to run it. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s not that I don’t have the willingness.

The first thing I had to do, and it’s kind of funny, because I like to write rules, and my Pyramid submissions are largely that, and I had to say “Dear God if I had to take all the rules I wrote that I thought were a good idea, and use them in one campaign I’d shoot myself in the head.” There is just too much.

If you take the entire GURPS universe, and say OK, well, every gamemaster has to sort through everything in order to run the kind of campaign they want . . .having some filtering done for somebody is a great thing. It cuts down barrier to entry to get into it.

On the other hand, having all the toolkits is awesome. There is no genre and no playstyle that is really and truly out to lunch. Though some of the gonzo stuff doesn’t fit well into finite point-based system.

Steve: Right. But that’s cinematic anyway.

My idea of the perfect roleplaying session is one where the players don’t need to know the rules. But that puts a huge burden on the GM. Some GMs carry that burden without thinking about it. They’re just automatic great gamemasters – Aaron Alston was like that. It was wonderful to play with Aaron. But most of us have to open the book every once and a while.

Doug: Which brings me at least to the end of the formal questions and stuff, but as always I like to give my guests the parting shot. So is there anything you’d like to leave the community that will watch this video with this as we sign off?

Steve: Hi! Pick on your friends who don’t play games but are decent people to have around the table and bring them in. the hobby grows virally. Play games with people.

That’s what makes it happen. Come to our forums, be part of the community, help us crowdsource what games will be like in the next ten years.

Have fun?

Doug: It does seem to come down to it, doesn’t it?

Steve: Oh! Something that you might do if you can: give people a link to the stakeholder’s report since we talked about it.

Doug: When I did the ALS Ice Bucket challenge I said “You know what? I’m going to put the website in the video.”

Steve: Right. Oh, yeah. Phil Foligo just tagged me on that, and I have barely had a really healthy day this month. I’m going to have to figure out a way to Munchkin that, because I’m going to do it – but evil Stevie has got to change the rules somehow. Evil Stevie is not in great shape right now.

Doug: Patrick Stewart did a great one where he filmed himself writing a check, and grabbed a ice bucket, and put two cubes in a tumbler, and drank some good scotch. That was his version of the ice bucket challenge.

Steve: I’ve heard Hawking did a great one, but I haven’t been able to get the video to play.

Doug: I haven’t seen that. The 501st Stormtrooper legion did one, where someone came with a bucket for Darth Vader and he used the Force on him and had it be dumped on someone else. That was a pretty good send off for that one.

One last thing that probably won’t make it, have you heard of the Pyramid Writing Club? Christopher Rice started an informal group, and I’m part of it, where we encourage amateurs to come through with their ideas, and we help them with the style guide and the formatting and “do it this way, not that way.”

Steve: Oh, awesome [big smile].

Doug: I think we…I counted it up we have almost a hundred thousand words submitted to Steven through that group.

Steve: Awesome.

Doug: And we just saw one or two of the original articles that have come through be tapped. So it’s sort of an embarrassment of riches. That is something that we took into our…

Steve: That is wonderful, totally paying it forward. Thank you.

Doug: Yep. No problem! It’s been a lot of fun and I use, it because I get a lot of peer review, and my stuff gets stronger.

As you said, the style guide is intimidating. The formatting guide is intimidating, the amount of information you have to have is intimidating and there is a GURPS way of doing things.

Steve: Mmmhmm. [nods in agreement].

Doug: To say “Well, I don’t like that, I’m going to do this” even though however many books do things differently. People need to be guided through that, so they are producing good content.

Steve: Yes. Okay.

Doug: OK, thank you very much, Steve. Bye bye.

6 thoughts on “Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad welcomes Steve Jackson

  1. Doug, Evil Stevie:

    You guys were talking about ways to grow role-playing, and you missed on one that literally walked into the room: Doug's daughter. RPGs have become a hobby for middle-aged and older men. For gaming to not only grow but also survive at all, we need to get kids into it again. Doug and I close enough in age that he would have similar experiences, and we got a red box with a simple game that was on our Saturday morning cartoons. Our friends played it. I know there are kids RPGs and I've run a few with my kids, but there has been nothing like a big touchstone that let kids say, "Hey, cool!" then grab a cheap, easy game and sit down with their friends to do it.

    I'm not sure of how to do it, short of Wizards putting out a kids version of D&D and pitching it with some big mass-media property, but we need the kids.

  2. Well, no, what we need is a little harder than that. Hero Quest was a pretty good thing for gaming in the late eighties and we haven't really seen an equivalent since but I don't think it's the right answer for today. Chasing what worked then won't carry us forward. What we need is the introductory product that hits the sweet spot for tomorrow. Hasbro's D&D Kre-O might be it but I often think that something with more realistic modular action figure character building might be the thing. Something tactile but also with broad appeal. I look at the success of Minecraft and wonder about that too. Depending on where home 3D printing goes, a series of parts for action figures, vehicles, and buildings coupled with a very simple rule set (based on GURPS of course) would allow a kind of open ended world building unlike anything we've seen before. It's probably not great for my store, of course, but I think it would depend on where the 3D printing industry goes from here. I suspect they'll follow the printer model and have cheap machines and proprietary material cartridges that make mass printing of anything prohibitively expensive. Which might mean 3D printers will be on sale cheaply at garage sales next to the bread makers a couple years after they're the hot new appliance. But it also might open a window for stores to run 3D printers and supply printing of models in store. It's hard to predict where that technology is headed but it's already had a dramatic impact on the miniatures industry with printed masters becoming the norm. Printed moulds will probably follow sooner or later.

    But even then the product would need to have compelling subject matter with a broad appeal to bring in new role players. Something that hits the zeitgeist like Warhammer 40000 did. Even if it is crude graphics and square blocks as it was with Minecraft. The zeitgeist, she is strange sometimes. Settings and artwork generally sell more games than rules. I have my doubts about licensed games. They're expensive and generally short lived once the initial sales boom dies off. Personally the gaming industry is at its best when it is creating new products rather than recycling old and tired ones. But as is often the case, whatever it is, it'll happen so fast and suddenly that we'll be looking back at it and scratching our heads twenty years later.

  3. I wonder about if a GURPS kickstarter could get anything like Ogre's. My instincts say probably not, but for a hypothetical maybe for a Powered by GURPS.

    Even something like say the previous Hellboy RPG if each stretch goal had added more comics, story, minatures etc

  4. Finally got around to watching. Congratulations on getting Steve to take part, and on an excellent interview!

    The discussion of where GURPS could go in the future is especially interesting. On one hand, I'm with those who'd like to see it a more vibrant and profitable part of the business, ensuring its ongoing longevity. On the other hand, it doesn't matter hugely for many players, as we're blessed by that "embarrassment of riches" – more great GURPS content already than we could ever fully play in a lifetime. (That said, it's always fun to read new titles, and more books means new favorites for more people…)

    GURPS and another topic you discussed, bringing new and young players into the hobby, make for a topic worth discussing more. Narrowing and polishing GURPS into lines for specific genres (Dungeon Fantasy, etc.) is a long-established thing; could there be a GURPS Basic, and maybe a line, geared especially to really young players? Highly cooperative, flexible enough to handle mixed genres and kids' wildest character ideas, drawing heavily on modern video games and fiction…Seems to me GURPS could be much better at that than systems bound tightly to combat and pre-determined character classes.

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