Last week we interviewed Stan!, cartoonist, game designer, and author. He gives us some insight on his career working for companies such as West End Games, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast. He also provides an update on his current work with Super Genius Games and some history regarding his time living in Japan which turn out to be great credentials since he’s writing the Japan sourcebook for Interface Zero.
Mark: You’ve been in the gaming industry a long time. Tell us a little bit about your history and the highlights of your career.
Stan!: Ok, this could take a while.. I’ve been doing work professionally since the mid to late 80’s in gaming in particular. Some friends were working at West End Games, and I started by doing freelance work for them. Between, let’s call it ’87 or ‘88 and ’94, I was doing freelance work here and there. Then I came in full time to work at West End Games as an art director. About a year later, I got the call to come up to the big leagues with TSR where, I was an editor on Dragonlance, Dark Sun and the revival of Greyhawk. After we got picked up by Wizards of the Coast, I moved out to Seattle and joined them. I became an assistant creative director on top of my design work, and worked on mostly Dragonlance’s 5th Age Game and the Marvel Superheroes adventure game. I did a lot of work for new audiences. Not a lot of it wound up getting printed, but it was a year or so of very interesting game design work. Then I wound up shifting full time into creative direction for them. I was in charge of all of the D&D worlds in the closing days of Second Edition. I wound up being the personnel guru. Most of the designers and editors reported to me for a while during the 3rd edition days. When it came time for me to stop working at Wizards of the Coast, I left and joined a 3rd party company called The Game Mechanics that I co-created with JD Wiker, Mark Schmalz and Richard Redman. We were doing 3rd party d20 products for a number of years until I went and joined Upper Deck.
At Upper Deck, I was a writer on staff for a bit, and then I eventually became the equivalent of a creative director. I was the creative content manager for all of the writers and editors involved with the flavor and world setting material for Upper Deck. When that no longer seemed like the place to be, I left and co-created Super Genius Games with Hyrum Savage. Eventually we brought Owen Stevens in as the third genius, er…super genius. Meanwhile, I’ve spent another year at Wizards doing contract work as a producer for most of 2012 and a little bit of 2011. It was a lot of fun to go back. You never know. They’ve always got different needs. I could be back there again someday. That’s just the quick where I’ve been.
As for the what I’ve been, I’ve had a lot of different roles to fill, and I’m kind of lucky that I’ve got a bunch of different applicable skills. I’ve done work as an illustrator and as an editor, as an art director, a creative direct and a writer. I’ve done game design and written fiction and comic books. So, there’s a whole lot of different things I’ve done.
Mark: Your resume is huge.
Stan!: That’s good, but people tend to really like to capture who you are in a single sentence and that doesn’t work for me. Some people think, ‘Stan! That’s the guy who designs games and also draws a bit. And other people think, ‘Stan! That’s the cartoonist guy who also designs games and writes novels. People have varying opinions of me based on how they first encountered me or the work that they’ve liked the most.
Mark: What projects are you currently working on?
Stan!: Well, currently I am working on several projects for Super Genius Games. I’m developing a new series of adventures for our Strike Force 7 setting. We’ve done it for several different game systems, but we’re focusing on Savage Worlds now. It’s going to be a series of adventures we’re creating that are meant to simulate season 1 of the fictional Strike Force 7 animated series. I think we’re just going to call it Strike Force 7, Season One and that should be coming out in March sometime, to kind of coincide with the G.I. Joe movie. We’re going to release them on a weekly basis. The whole conceit is that it’s a TV show that never existed: Here’s episode 1 and episode 2.
Amelia: You play characters in the TV show?
Stan!: Well, you would make your own characters and you would play out what happened in that episode of the TV show. It would function like any other scenario, but the coverage of each adventure is going to be what you should expect from a half hour TV show. They won’t quite be one pagers, Savage Worlds has those one pager format adventures. It’s a little bulkier than that, but not full on adventures that would stand as products on their own. They’ll be a good hour and a half or 2 hours of adventure for most people, I would guess. Of course, it’s up to you and your play styles. There will be clean, new assignments for the agents of Strike Force 7 to do as well as some fighting with Scorpion. It should be exciting. I’m really happy with the way it’s coming out. I really hope it captures the imagination of the Savage Worlds audience.
Amelia: It sounds fun. It’s good to have a game option that doesn’t go on all night long.
Stan!: Yeah, and Savage Worlds is a great game for just picking up and playing. So this idea of ‘here’s a new adventure every week’ and you can play it in an evening or less or fit it in with other stuff. Or play it all together and make a weekend of it.
Beyond that, another Super Genius thing—and this can kind of be a scoop for you guys, since I don’t think I’ve talked about this anywhere—I’m working on developing a fiction line. We’re going to start doing fiction. We’re planning to release that in electronic format. That’s one of the things that I’m focusing on, though it’s mostly the boring business stuff right now. We’re preparing to start getting writers to commit to some material for us. I don’t have anything else I can announce publicly yet, except that I’m working on it and we should be ready to release sometime in the middle of the year.
Mark: Writing is on its way!
Stan!: Besides that, I’m lined up to participate in the new Interface Zero that’s up on Kickstarter.
Amelia: I might have heard something about that!
Mark: How did you get involved with interface zero?
Stan!: David Jarvis contacted me. I’ve known him, I don’t know if it’s just online or if I’ve hung out with him at cons, but he contacted me, let me know that this was going on and asked if I would be interested in leading the development of a source book on Japan. Since he knew my interests and knowledge of the country, he thought that it would be cool to have someone with that kind of background involved in developing this. I lived and taught English in Japan for five years. From the time I was freelancing in the early 90s.
Mark: Was it part of the JET program?
Stan!: No, no. I was working for private schools. But I knew a lot of people who were in the JET program.
When I was over there I was a co-founder of an organization for English speaking gamers called Japan’s International Gamers Guild, or JIGG. As a gamer you would meet other English speakers and say “Hey, is anyone into gaming?” And they would look at you like any large group of people who are not gamers would and say, “What are you talking about?” And of course this is back in the 90’s before gamer culture had arrived quite as thickly as it has these days, so a lot of people just didn’t get it at all. I’d say, “You know, roleplaying and board gaming?” And they would either say, “You mean, you dress up and go into the sewers? Or “You mean like monopoly?”
I brought a bunch of games over with me, but I wasn’t really having much luck in playing at all. So I took out an ad in one of the English language newspapers. Once a week they had free advertising space. I took out an ad and just made up this organizations name. It went something like, “Japan’s International Gamers Guild is the nationwide network for English speaking gamers. Contact me if you want to join up.” It turned out that another guy, Kevin Burns, was starting a board gaming group and both of our ads went in the same week. So, we got together and decided that rather than trying to make two organizations, it would be better to make one. And since I had come up with the snazzy, name we decided to keep it. Very quickly, we got another guy named Mike Montesa. He was one of the first people to call. He ran the organization after I left the country and now is working for Viz Media as an editor on their manga. Between the three of us, we were kind of the core in launching that. It grew, and we ended up with over 100 people before I left. We would have game days and house conventions, and we sponsored the very first Magic: The Gathering tournament ever in Japan. Actually, Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield were there for it.
Amelia: It sounds like an amazing experience.
Stan!: It was, and it helped because I created a newsletter for it. And in creating that newsletter I was doing everything—writing, laying out, illustrations. That work is what served to be my calling card for getting full time work in the game industry.
Mark: What can you tell us about the sourcebook? What interesting features does it have?
Stan!: Well, the sourcebook is supposed to build on what’s in the main game, so I’m not beginning he work in earnest until the material for the main game is firm. What I really don’t want to do, is start working on something and find out later that they’ve gone in a different direction in what they’ve said about Japan, global politics, or a particular area that I wanted to develop mechanically. Then I’d find that either I’ve got to scrap the work I did—which would be painful for me—or find out they happened to like mine better and then I’m going to make other people do work. It’s a support product, so I want them to get pretty firm on what I’m supporting before I go tearing off.
Mark: You have a lot of cool things you did where, even in your history with Japan, you’ve been trying to bring people into the hobby. Recently you did a Kickstarter—I think it was a little over a month ago—for something called The Littlest Shoggoth?
Stan!: The Littlest Shoggoth! I was just doing a drawing for that before the call. I realized it would be a good thing to put up online. Right before you guys called I was working on that, trying to get that up before the day runs out. The Littlest Shoggoth is a story I wrote a couple of years ago. I think I first published it back in 2008 in a black and white edition that we printed a total of 500 copies of. It was very small, but I always had it my head that I’d like to get out to a larger audience. Thank goodness Kickstarter came along and let me give it a shot. It’s at the printer now and should be back in time to meet the goal of releasing by June.
Amelia: You also worked on the Warriors adventure game. Do you do a lot of stuff that’s focused on kids?
Mark: I’ve never heard of that.
Stan!: It’s a shame. I usually let other people say this for me, because it sounds so conceited when I say it, but by some measures it’s the bestselling roleplaying game ever. In the first year that it was out it sold 800,000 units.
Amelia: What year was that?
Stan!: Oh, that’s an awesome question. That should be around the year that Pokémon premiered. 2000, 2001, maybe 2002.
Mark: Wow, we grew up with Pokémon, but never heard of this.
Stan!: The problem was that most of the distribution was through Walmart. Let me take a look…Yeah, it was released in 2000.
Mark: We just completely missed the ball on this one.
Stan!: This game was snake bitten from the beginning. It came just as Hasbro had purchased Wizards of the Coast and there was some confusion on who was going to be responsible for which parts of it. So in the end both companies printed some, and way too many were printed. So despite the fact that 800,000 units were sold, they had printed close to 1 ½ million and it was considered a failure. Also, the larger problem it had, and maybe this is too business-y, but it had been priced as a $10 item and it didn’t sell great as a $10 item. They got into Walmart and it sold as a $5/$6 item and it sold like hotcakes, but rather than taking the lesson that ‘this is an awesome $6 product, let’s do another one that’s designed to be that and we can sell 800,000 of them,’ they learned ‘we only sold half our print run and lost our money, therefore it’s no good.’
Mark: I guess they figured they had the card game.
Stan!: Well, they had the card game already. This came out afterwards. I was doing it at the same time when Wizards was working with Japan to get the card game to come out. This same era I worked on a bunch of games like that for Wizards, most of which didn’t get released, there was a Harry Potter Roleplaying Game.
Amelia: What a great idea! Why doesn’t that exist?
Stan!: You know, let’s just say licensing, because that’s the one that won’t get me in trouble. We wanted to release that, and just in the end it wasn’t possible. Another thing that got caught in the same gravity well was a Harry Potter Choose Your Own Adventure book that I wrote. It’s done. I still have a copy of it. It was all the way through editing and then we found out that we could never publish it.
Let’s see, we had a game based on Crocodile Hunter that we were working on. There was some talk for a while of revamping the brand of Centipede, the old arcade video game. There was a possibility of an animated series and novels and other stuff. We had worked on a game to go with that. So I’ve been involved with kids games for a while.
Because of that, editors of Harper Collins contacted me when they were thinking about doing a roleplaying game for Warriors, just to consult about whether or not what they were doing was possible. After talking to me and me assuring them that it was possible and citing examples from [talking in a funny voice] my illustrious career, they asked me if I was interested in producing it. I said I absolutely was. That was a lot of fun. It’s great to have an audience like that. This went to readers who had no idea it was possible to play a roleplaying game—a storytelling game. Creating something that would appeal to them and was not necessarily defined by the expectations of a roleplaying audience was a challenge, and a fun challenge. It was a good time.
Mark: What would you say to parents who want to get their kids into roleplaying games?
Amelia: What kind of themes are good for kids?
Stan!: It depends on what age the kids are. After a certain age you can just give them games and let them go. Kids naturally role-play. You see that when you take out any board game and they start acting out their piece. The Pokémon Jr. Adventure game was mostly about storytelling. The game aspect was very minimal because it was for 6 year olds. There’s not a lot of game that you want to put in for that audience. On the other hand, warriors is aimed at as low as 8, but it’s mostly for 12 to 14 year olds. It’s moderately complex, because they can handle it and that’s what they want: to find a game they like and be able to play around with it a bit.
The younger they are, kids just like telling stories. And kids in the younger age range, 5 to 8, they really like rules. They may try to test them, but it’s easy for them if you say, ‘you can do this or this or this. But choose one.’ If you give them an open canvas and say, ‘You can do anything you want,’ it doesn’t work as well. I would say, find a way to get a simple, what we would call a mechanic involved and let the rest be storytelling and free form role-play. When we did the Pokémon Adventure Game, it was intended to be the start of a whole series of games that were basically supposed to teach kids, and in particular parents, what roleplaying was. So when they got to be in their mid-teens, they were ready to jump into D&D.
Amelia: And their parents would be less confused
Stan!: Yes, right. Nobody would be like “Oh, what is this? I’m not sure.” It would be the next logical step in this chain of storytelling games that you were playing since you were 6 or younger. I pitched—and there was a time when Wizards was seriously considering doing—a Hello Kitty game for ages 4 and up. So, we could have gone from there. The plan was at each stage, we would bring in some experts on child development and child socialization and identified different areas where the kids are open and able to learn different concepts that are part of roleplaying. And concept for the Pokémon Jr. Game, was that you have a character that is not you, that you control. There is a random element that decides it, and you can tell this character to do something and you see if it works. The mechanic, like I said, was very simple. You had a Pokémon card—we wanted to get cards in because everyone associated Pokémon with cards—and the card that was built for this game represented your Pokémon and it had two powers on either side. When it came to a situation in the story when the Pokémon had to do something, then he could use one of his powers and each one had a very similar “Roll a die, if this result happens, then you’re successful” Or “then here is what happens in the story.” It also had to have the fighting mechanic in it, so most of them had “You can do this much damage in Pokémon battles.”
Mark: There’s a lot of opportunity for choice, but not too many options.
Stan!: Right, with younger kids, the parent or narrator person certainly has to craft a lot of the story more firmly and then give the players choices. It doesn’t have to be A or B. It could be A, B or C, but you put them in a clear situation and say, “Do you want to this, that, or the other thing,” and when they do, you tell them what happens. Then you give them ways to take what you said happened, and run with it for a while. You’re not trying to control your kids’ entertainment. You’re trying to teach them the fun of storytelling. You want to give them the ball, and let them run for a while. And then corral them back together, point them in another direction and let them run that way for a while.
Mark: No GURPS for the five year olds.
Stan!: That, I would say, is a very good general rule.
Mark: Well, I think we’re all out of questions. Thanks for coming on!
Stan!: Thanks, have a great night!