Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gaming: Why I Left

When my non-gamer friends find out what I used to do, I get asked two questions. The first is usually "How do I become a game designer?" Answer: Sell your soul. But the second question is often "Why'd you leave?" The impression out there, even among gamers who aren't in the industry, is that game design is hella cool. Tell me that when it's 1am, your press deadline is the next day, and you're proofing blue lines until you can't see straight. Or when your boss is standing over you and saying "Write faster! Why can't you write faster?! You don't need to eat lunch...."

Despite all that. It is a very cool job. There were the networked Starcraft parties late into the night. And sitting around debating whether to use the word "sapient" or "sentient." Going to see the X-men movie as an office outing. There are things to recommend a career in game design.... There's the joy of seeing your name in print, or having someone ask you for an autograph. I even had a stalker for awhile. Too bad he was a fat guy dressed as Supergirl. Anyway.

I was working for Decipher as a line developer. People ask me what that is, and I think it's a misused term in our business. A line developer is a managing editor. He or she is in charge of the product line. He comes up with the schedule, outlines the books, hires the writers, reviews their work, then completely writes the game by himself. There's also art direction (telling the artists what you want to see) and proofing blue lines. (When you send something to the printer, they send you back your book printed in blue ink. This is so you won't mistake it for a printed book, and so they can clearly see whatever changes you write in the margins. It's also so you can develop myopia later in life.)

I was deeply unhappy in my job. I had spent the better part of two years writing 5,000 words a day. ("Write faster, dammit!") I was also recently divorced, and the dating scene in LA was pathetically sad. Hint: Women in LA are only interested in you if you can help their acting career; dressing up as Wonder Woman doesn't count. So I thought I'd move back to New York. I made arrangements to become an out-of-house writer. We had Steve Long and Kenneth Hite on staff as telecommuting writers, and I figured I could do that, too. I guaranteed them 5,000 words a day, which would be clean (meaning they could go right to press with them, without much editing). Decipher agreed, and I moved to New York. Jesse Heinig was hired as line developer. I wrote parts of the Alien book from here, in fact.

Then, I got a call from Decipher thanking me for my service. Uh, what? Jesse was the line developer, and I'd helped them through the transition, so it was time for us to part ways. No, they didn't need a telecommuting writer. What did I mean we had an agreement? I maintain I was fired. They maintain I quit. I maintain the people at Decipher are douchebags. And since the company is functionally out of business, I think I'm right.

So, why didn't I just go to work for someone else? It was a little thing called D20 and the Open Gaming License. This was designed as a system-killer. Ryan Dancey at Wizards of the Coast admitted as much. Why would someone design their own rules, when they could use the D20 system and gain more potential sales? Everyone who plays D&D would buy your game! You'd make tons of money! It was a great idea, except it destroyed creativity. Which was what WotC wanted.

There used to be all kinds of great games out there. Deadlands, Fading Suns, Little Fears, Blue Planet... Those companies that did D20 versions of their games soon died on the vine. I know people will argue this with me, but from where I sit, D20 killed off Holistic and Pinnacle. They put out D20 versions of their games, and were soon out of business.

The problem was that people forgot that the rules informed how the game played. If you were playing Fading Suns D20, you were essentially playing D&D. If you played Deadlands D20, you were playing D&D. It was like that future from Demolition Man, where every restaurant in the future is Taco Bell. You can eat out, but you'd better like Chalupas, because that's all you're getting... Every game felt like every other game out there, which is to say they all felt (and played) like D&D.

At the time I was looking for game design work, the only thing people were interested in was creating D20 games. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to create vibrant, interesting games. Games that were maybe a bit wacky or unique. No one wanted that. They wanted to hop on the D20 money train. And that train led right off a cliff.... There was a glut of D20 product out there. You all cannibalized each other's sales. The consumer couldn't distinguish AEG's setting from Joe's Homebrew Campaign; there was literally too much product on the shelf to look at.

So I left. I walked away. I saw no point in creating content for Hasbro toys, essentially free of charge to them. I suppose I could have gone to White Wolf (hey, I'd dress up like a goth for enough cash) or some other independent-minded company (Chaosium would have been nice...). But at this point, I was disgusted by the entire hobby games industry.

And that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing. I was going for an uplifting close, but I really don't have one. I've been out of the business for ten years now. I still cling to certain design principles, which I'm glad to share here. But my design days are behind me.


  1. Following.

    Thanks for posting this. I'd like to read more about working during the d20/OGL era - and would definitely like to read more about the design principles you mention.

  2. Well, keep reading dude. Been posting about it all day. Hey, thanks for joining, by the way. =)

  3. Good to see you again, Ross, and nice to see that someone else still remembers Blue Planet fondly :D


  4. I always felt a little unclean being associated with the Decipher after I saw how they handled the end of your employment. I should have seen it as a sign of things to come, though. *shakes head* Might have saved me a few headaches before I finally jumped ship...

  5. Believe me, d20 didn't kill Holistic. It just happened to hit as the RPG side of the industry was slowly dying -- fewer stores stocking RPGs to make room for Heroclicks and card games. RPG books take time to read and don't fly off the shelves as quickly as card booster packs. Fewer kids playing RPGs, which became a feedback cycle with less RPGs on the shelves and so even fewer kids ever seeing them. Also, Holistic had to contend with shenanigans in the computer game side of the business that wore me out. All that said, Holistic still exists and is overseeing a Noble Armada tablet game, as well as Redbrick's Fading Suns 3rd edition.