Time’s Up!

I spent the day working on 40K and drinking coffee. I had noticed earlier in the week that the Buzzcocks were playing El Corazon and this afternoon Nik and I decided to go. We left the house around 9 pm and headed downtown. There were two opening bands, both LA-based. The Strays and the Adored are both keen students of 70s punk but their sounds are different. The Strays have a definite Clash vibe and they even covered “Spanish Bombs.” The Adored were right on the border of punk and new wave, playing power pop with punk attitude. I liked the Strays better, but the Adored were OK too.

During the long wait between the Adored and the Buzzcocks, I ruminated on the fact that Buzzcocks “Spiral Scratch” EP was released exactly 30 years ago. How weird is that? I saw them several times in the late 80s/early 90s, when they first got back together, but it has probably been 15 years since the last time. I had picked up their 2003 LP and found it pretty good though, so I had hopes the show would be worthwhile. This week I could use the distraction.

When the Buzzcocks finally hit the stage, it was like they did two shows in one. The first seven songs were all newer material, none of which I’d heard before. It was good too and I think I’ll have to pick up their new album, “Flat-Pack Philosophy.” I was just beginning to wonder if the whole show would be new songs when they kicked into “I Don’t Mind.” Then I thought, “OK, cool, so they’re going to mix up old and new stuff now.” But no, the next 12 odd songs were a total greatest hits package, from “Breakdown” and “Fast Cars” to “Noise Annoys” and “Autonomy.” They then came back for an encore, did one song from their 2003 record, and then closed out the show with “Orgasm Addict.” “Ever Fallen in Love?”, and “Oh Shit.” So basically, they played about two-thirds of the “Singles Going Steady” LP and there’s really nothing wrong with that. I would liked to have heard “Time’s Up,” “Boredom”, and “Love Battery”, but the Buzzcocks just have too many great songs. The performance wasn’t as energetic as the first time I saw them (1989 I believe), but that’s no big surprise. Pete Shelley looks like your pudgy gay uncle these days. Steve Diggle was still way into it though, jumping around and pumping the crowd up. He was clearly having a ball and that’s always a good sign. Overall, a fun time.

In the morning I’m leaving for an unexpected trip to the East Coast. I have some family business to attend to but I’ll be back later this week. You probably won’t see any updates from me until the end of the week.

And That Was the Worst Business Decision I Ever Made

Way back in 2002 I first decided to put together what were later dubbed the “Advanced” series of d20 sourcebooks. The idea was to do a companion volume for each of the core D&D; books and to have ex-WotC designers write them. We hoped we might get some gamers who had yet to give third party books a chance to check them out, so they were very much pitched at the core D&D; fan. All in all, a perfectly reasonable idea and one WotC itself would later pursue with the DMG II and PHB II.

By the time we decided to do the full series, the book that would later be dubbed the Advanced Bestiary was already being written. It was originally going to be a stand-alone book, but since it made a perfect companion to the Monster Manual it made sense to make it part of the Advanced line. Better to hook someone on a series than just sell them one book that’s unrelated to anything else.

The original plan had the series debuting in late 2003. We even took out ads in Dragon saying something like, “This is the must have series of 2003.” Then the problems began. The author we had lined up to do the Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide went back to work at WotC and they wouldn’t let him do the book. Another author was late turning over. And not just a little late, but like 9 or 10 months late.

Soon it was 2004, so the marketing money spent on Dragon ads was already wasted. We decided to revise the order the books would come out so we could at least get the series started. Then an editor was late by three odd months. Meanwhile, the RPG market in general and the d20 market specifically were declining month after month.

Finally, after several years of effort on the part of a lot of people, the first of the series (the Advanced Bestiary) was ready to go to print in September of 2004. By this point it was clear that d20 was on the rocks and was unlikely to turn around. So I had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger and start publishing the Advanced series. The outlook was not great. We had commissioned these books in a different era, when we were enjoying far greater sales on d20 books, so the contracts were generous. Plus they were all big hardbacks, which are expensive to print. If they performed at the same level as other d20 books from that period we were looking at a break-even proposition unless these books broke out.

I should have been cold and rational about it and just cancelled the series right then. I really hate to waste work though and a LOT of people had worked hard to put these books together. Soon I found myself rationalizing. “Many d20 books are niche but these are core, so they’ll do better. Surely having one of the designers of 3E onboard will be a help. These big hardbacks are perfect for the book trade. We’ve talked so much about these books that canceling them now would make us look bad.” And so on. It didn’t take long for me to talk myself into moving ahead with the Advanced series. I knew I was taking a risk but I figured we’d at least break even and I was willing to take that chance.

And that was the worst business decision I’ve ever made.

What I couldn’t know at the time, of course, was that the first two of the Advanced series would come out during the period of Osseum’s implosion and that we could never see ANY money for the lion’s share of the sales. The third book, the Advanced Game Master’s Guide, we released afterwards, but it was always going to be the worst seller. So after all the planning and effort that went into those books, what I was left with in the end was a big pile of bills. Now I can only dream of how lucky I would have been to simply break even on these books. Instead I’m still paying down debt on the worst debacle in the company’s history.

Now the Butthole Surfers say, “It’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t.” It is also said that you have to be ready to murder your darlings and that I think is more applicable here. By all rights I should have cancelled these books back in 2004. If I had GR would have lost some money on the advertising and maybe the cover art (though likely we could have used the covers for something else). It would have been much better to lose that small amount of money than what transpired.

It all looks so simple in hindsight, of course. The thing about being a publisher is that you have to take risks. If I wasn’t willing to roll the dice, Mutants & Masterminds would not exist, for example. What can I do but learn my lesson, move on, and try to do better next time?

Not Much Fun in Stalingrad

I recently had a chance to watch Stalingrad, a documentary from 2003 about the “turning point of WWII” that debuted simultaneously in Germany and Russia. It’s divided into three parts, the Attack, the Kessel, and the Doom. Like most war docs these days, it uses a mix of archival footage and interviews with survivors. Both Germans and Russians are interviewed, though as usual the Italians and the Rumanians are not. The film covers the broad outlines of the campaign and gives the veterans a chance to tell their (often horrific) stories about the battle. One real bonus is that the filmmakers got access to Russian archives, so there’s some footage that’s been rarely seen in the West and one genuine revelation about the battle. Most accounts end with the German surrender and 90,000 prisoners marched off to captivity, only 6,000 of whom would return from the gulags. What Stalingrad asserts is that up to 10,000 German soldiers continued to resist the Red Army after the surrender, living in the sewers for over a month and harassing Soviet soldiers until they were finally captured or killed. I’ve read a lot of books about the battle of Stalingrad and have never heard this story, so that definitely piqued my interest.

My criticisms of the film are minor. First, it did not ID the names and units of the veterans when interviewing them. This is very common on the various History Channels and it would have been nice if Stalingrad had used the same format. Second, I would have enjoyed a little more tactical depth. The battle is discussed in very broad terms and I would have liked to see a bit more detail. The film was made for a general audience, so I understand why they focused more on the individual stories of the veterans though.

The American DVD is unfortunately dubbed and I found that really annoying. I was hoping I could turn it off and get subtitles but no. They even dubbed Hitler when showing archival footage. It just sounds wrong to have some voice actor trying to do Hitler. Weirdly, the DVD extras include additional interview footage that didn’t make it into the film and that is subtitled.

Overall, Stalingrad is well done. If the phrase “3-hour Stalingrad documentary” doesn’t immediately send you screaming from the room, I recommend checking it out.

Live from Comic Con: Snakes on a Plane!

Eric and Rick are down in San Diego at Comic Con. Since I can’t be there myself this year, I’ve agreed to host their reports on Snakes on a Plane. Eric’s opening message follows and there’s a link below to Rick’s pictures of the Snakes on a Plane booth being constructed in preparation for the show. If you can’t go to the snakes, I will bring them to you!

“In the current era of hype surrounding a major motion picture release, one film is taking a different approach. Instead of creating a slick marketing package, fancy titles or cashing in on someone else’s ides, the most original action film of the summer is using one approach. Honesty. The title of the movie says it all, “Snakes on a Plane.” This film is based around the simple idea of there’s a plane and killer snakes escape their cages to terrorize the crew and passengers at 30,000 feet. Staring Samuel L. Jackson, the upcoming movie tries not to hide anything. There’s snakes, there’s a plane and classic popcorn, over-the-top action ensues. Another honest approach is their marketing plan. A few select bloggers (I’m one of the lucky few) have been selected to interview Samuel L. Jackson, David Ellis (director) and Jules Sylvester (snake handler) while attending San Diego Comic Con. Also, we are going to be able to tour the Snakes on a Plane booth before the show opens. So check back later for more exclusive coverage of Snakes on a Plane and our interviews.”

Geek Dinner: The Event

Geek Dinner #77: Seattle Game Designers Assemble took place Saturday night (see my previous entry for the set up if you don’t know what I’m talking about). The fact that we were hosting dinner #77 was a good sign to an old punk like me (1977 being the high tide of the 70s punk rock explosion and all). And indeed everything clicked for the party and it seemed like everyone had a great time. I know I did.

The Wine
Stormhoek provided us with two bottles each of four different wines: Shiraz, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio. Nicole and John loved the Pinotage. Naturally, that was the one I didn’t get to try in all the hubbub. My favorite was the Pinot Grigio, and the Sauvignon Blanc was also tasty. This was no big surprise, as I’ve finally admitted that I prefer white wines to reds.

The Food
As always Nicole went to town with the cooking. As I’ve often said, she loves to cook and I love to eat–and that explains a lot. She’s already provided some recipes on her blog for those interested in things culinary. She served prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with citrus dip, lasagna rolls, mushroom salad with truffle oil, North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwiches, salad nicoise with seared tuna, and a summer fruit trifle with triple sec-flavored custard. I contributed a double batch of my hummus and prepared a cheese plate with Sage Derby, Brie, Danish Bleu, Aged Gouda, and an English Coastal Cheddar. I think the pulled pork and the trifle were the clear favorites. She made a lot of each one and it was all gone by the end of the night. My lunch plans for the week were dealt a blow without the pulled pork, but at least our guests left sated.

The Guests
Seattle, as many of you know already, is lousy with game designers. We invited over 40 people and had about twenty attendees. While we missed some friends who were out of the country or otherwise committed, the house was crowded and there enough guests that a couple left before I ever really got a chance to chat them up (good excuse for a next time). Amongst our guests:

Mike and Lisa Pondsmith: They are best known to hobby gamers as R. Talsorian, publisher of the Cyberpunk RPG. Mike also spent some years in the computer game biz at Microsoft and later Monolith.

Wolf and Shelly Baur: I worked with Wolf at WotC and previous that he was at TSR. He has a Joe job at MS but still does RPG work for WotC, Privateer, and Paizo and he’s also doing an interesting patronage project to see if this model can work for RPGs. Shelly has also been writing for Paizo’s Dragon Magazine these last few years. She can also break your neck with her Iron Palm technique.

Phil Boulle: Phil is a recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest, having left White Wolf after a long stint there to join the computer game world in Vancouver. He’s working at Relic, who do the 40K RTS Dawn of War. I joked that like me he must spend all his day thinking about 40K now. We were delighted he came down from Vancouver for the party. He brought he fiancee Sarah, who we hadn’t met before.

Eric Cagle: Another former WotC co-worker, Eric just recently went to work for Privateer. He’s also been doing freelance work for us lately on the WFRP line and is also starting a 40K project. He also brought his fiancee, Tina. She was nice enough to bring a quiche, but we just chuckled. Clearly she had never been to a Nicole-catered event before.

John and Jenny Tynes: We had thought John and Jenny wouldn’t be able to make it due to an illness but a last minute rally allowed them to attend. John of course is best known for his days at Pagan Publishing and his gold membership in the Cult of Lovecraft. These days he’s working at Flying Lab on the Pirates of the Burning Seas MMO. Jenny is an old school WotCite who now works for Hidden City.

Peter Adkison: Everyone’s favorite “gaming mogul”. He’s of course best known as the former CEO of WotC and the man who saved D&D.; These days he runs GenCon and Hidden City (and is thus Jenny’s boss).

Evan and Rona Sass: Evan is Green Ronin’s beloved webmaster. He was part of Rubicon Games years ago and the original Games & Gizmos retail stores here in Seattle. His lovely wife Rona was looking at the boardgames in the living room and commented that I had a lot of games. I said, “If you think this is a lot of games, you need to come upstairs and see the office.” Once Evan was assured that coming to my office was not a euphemism for anything, I brought them upstairs and showed her the depths of my insanity.

Jon Leitheusser: Until just recently, Jon was the Director of R&D; over at WizKids. He’s edited several Mutants & Masterminds books for GR over the last 18 months or so. Now that he’s got a little more time, we’ve just contracted him to co-write one as well.

Marc “Sparky” Schmalz: Sparky works part time for Green Ronin doing graphic design on top of his day job in the computer field. He’s also one of the Game Mechanics, whose d20 books GR publishes. He’s also a WotC survivor.

Wendy Wallace: Wait, can you guess? That’s right, another ex-WotCite! Wendy was one of the good brand managers at WotC. She was on the Magic: the Gathering team for many, many years. Nowadays she’s at REAL.

Seth Johnson: I first met Seth when he worked for Human Head but these days he’s a designer for WizKids. He’s co-writing that M&M; book with Jon. Sadly, Seth had to leave early because he had too much work to do before ComicCon. Hopefully, the Go-Go impersonators at ComicCon will make it worth his while.

Michelle Lyons: Michelle was an editor at WotC after my time but got to enjoy the same fun layoff experience as many of the folks on this list. I forgive her for being another devotee of the ancient cult of Shadowrun (yeah, like you, Kenson!). She edited our just-released Golden Age book for M&M;, as well as our Red Star book from a couple years back. Michelle’s currently working at MS.

Jess Lebow: Jess used to work in the fiction wing of WotC. We were laid off on the same day and later shot machine guns in Vegas (these two events are unrelated). He was the story guy behind the Guild Wars MMO but after some shabby treatment left there to go work for Mr. Tynes at Flying Lab. Now he’s learning the fun of pirates. Yarrr!

Rick Achberger: Last but certainly not least is Rick, my weekly opponent in wargames and minis games. He’s also one hell of a graphic designer. He worked with me on the Chainmail line at WotC, as well as his beloved Star Wars. For the last several years he’s been working at Pokemon USA, as well as freelancing on GR projects like Torches & Pitchforks and the Nocturnals: A Midnight Companion. Soon his Desert Rats will feel the wrath of my DAK.

The Wrap Up
People showed up promptly at 7 and the last guests rolled out around midnight. No one was shy about digging into the food, which was delicious and plentiful. I had a nice time catching up with some friends I don’t get to see all that often despite living in the same city. Late in the evening someone produced some cigars and a group of us went into the backyard to light up. It was a lovely cool evening with just a light breeze. As I stood there chatting with friends, puffing on a stogie, and enjoying a glass of Savignon Blanc, I was able to put aside the worries of daily life for a brief time. Clearly we should have parties more often.

Big thanks to Stormhoek for sponsoring our Geek Dinner. If you see their wine in your neck of the woods, do try it out. We give it our Geek Seal of Approval.

Nicole has links to pictures and recipes over on www.nikchick.com.

Geek Dinner: The Set Up

About a month ago I was reading the blog of my friend-for-life Cecil. She had just been to a “Geek Dinner” down in LA. This South African winery called Stormhoek was trying to do some out of the box marketing by sponsoring “100 Geek Dinners in 100 Days” and Cecil was reporting in from one such event. It sounded like a fun time, so I left a comment in her blog: “I’m a geek, I like wine, how do I get a winery to sponsor a dinner?” Within 24 hours someone from Stormhoek had responded to my comment and given me an e-mail address. I dropped him a line, explained what I did for a living, and suggested a Geek Dinner for game designers. Nicole and I picked a date and added the event at the wiki (http://thehughpage.com/Stormhoek’s_100_Geek_Dinners_in_100_Days). The Stormhoek folks were really nice and quite enthusiastic. As Nicole was planning the menu, they sent us signed and numbered prints for the guests and eight bottles of the wine for the event.

Last night we had the Geek Dinner, “Seattle Game Designers Assemble” (though technically we did also have one Canadian down from Vancouver). I’ll talk more about that in my next entry (must get back to work now) but the Reader’s Digest version is: damn, what a good time.

Some Genuine Praise

It’s a truism on the internet that posters and bloggers are far more likely to bitch than write something positive. It is with that in mind that I’d like to praise Battlefront for the way they’ve handled the 2nd edition of Flames of War (a WWII minis game).

The new $50 hardback game is due out in August. To ensure that the lion’s share of the fanbase moves to the new edition, Battlefront printed up a 164 page digest-sized book (in full color no less) that provides the entirety of the rules section of the new edition. They then sent these out to retailers who carry the line. If you had a first edition book, all you needed to do was go to your local store with it, get it stickered on the credits page, and then receive the digest-sized rules…for free. You could also handle it via the post if you had no local retailer. Thursday was the release day and Rick and I showed up at Oroboro. We got the new rules from Steve without a hitch and they also had the two new mid-war army compendiums, which collate all the previous army books, update them to the new rules, and add in some new options. I picked up Afrika and Rick got both that and Ostfront. I was impressed that the whole thing went off just as announced and really impressed at Battlefront’s strategy for the new edition. How can you complain about a new edition when the rules are given to you for free? I can only imagine what it cost to print all those color books, as color printing is much more expensive than doing it black and white. Frankly, I would have been just as satisfied getting a free black and white rulebook, but the color book is mighty cool. Big kudos to Battlefront.

As for the new edition itself, I haven’t fully digested it yet, but it’s looking good so far. The rules are much better organized, the writing is clearer, and there are plenty of examples and diagrams. Sad to say they didn’t fix my #1 pet peeve about the game (the way flame throwers work), but the rules for assaults and aircraft look much improved. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to unleash my DAK soon and find out how it plays in comparison to 1st edition.

Porn on the 4th of July

I was reading the new issue of Game Trade, the distributor Alliance’s monthly pre-order catalog and magazine, when I noticed they had a product spotlight on the Book of Erotic Fantasy. This is odd, because this title came out several years ago (and caused a fair bit of controversy with its “elf pron”). Even stranger, it was in the middle of the White Wolf section, despite being published by another company, Valar. Then I noticed that the book now had a White Wolf product code. I think I must have missed a press release somewhere.

The Travel Mambo

Usually my summers include a lot of travel, mostly for conventions. There have been years when I’ve done Origins, ComicCon, and GenCon in the span of six weeks. Then in the fall things calm down. This year the opposite is developing. I’m going to GenCon this summer and that’s it, but I may have up to five trips in the fall.

Origins is going on right now. I’ve only missed one since it moved to Columbus in the mid-90s. Although I was glad not to have to stress about planning a trip, I had wondered if I’d wish I was there once it happened. To my surprise, I really don’t. It’d surely be nice to spend some time with the GR crew and other friends, but GenCon is in six weeks anyway. As it is I’ve been able to stay here and work on 40K and that’s for the best.

I was morbidly curious about the Origins Awards, though like last year GR declined to participate. The winners were announced this morning and the very first one listed was 2005 Game of the Year for Warmachine: Apotheosis. The trouble: Apotheosis is not a game, it’s a supplement. This makes it a rather funny choice, particularly when Warmachine itself already won an Origins Award for Best Minis Game a couple of years back. I think this is the sort of thing that continues to undermine what good intentioned people try to accomplish when they volunteer to work on the OAs. If the category is really Product of the Year, fine, make it so. It is not unreasonable to expect that an award for Game of the Year actually be a game, however. (And to be clear, I’m not knocking on Privateer. They are a fine company and make some great minis.)

This morning instead of standing in a booth at a con I was at Salty’s on Alki for a belated birthday brunch with Nik and Kate. Salty’s is right on the water and has an amazing view of downtown Seattle across the bay. Their brunch is terrific and we hadn’t been there since last summer, so we made the most of it. I’ve spent the rest of the day working but that’s a lot easier when one is fueled by smoked salmon, raw oysters, crab legs, prime rib, key lime pie, and chocolate mousse. Good stuff.

Superman Returns (Spoilers)

Went out with the family to see Superman Returns at the Cinerama last night. It was a pretty funny scene. Lots of people in their Superman wear, including an entire family down to the pajama clad 5 year old (complete with cape).

Spoilers follow.

I basically enjoyed the film. The new Superman was good and looked about perfect for the part. Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey also did well. The FX were nicely done and certainly Superman flying looked a lot cooler than it did in the Christopher Reeve era. It had some genuinely funny moments without becoming campy. I did, not, however, like the film as much as I had hoped. I basically had three problems with Superman Returns:

1) Lex Luthor’s evil scheme is just deeply stupid. Who the hell wants to live on an island made of crystal? When Kevin Spacey did the big reveal, I sat there thinking, “That can’t be the real evil scheme, can it?” Apparently so.

2) You never get the sense that Superman lives in a world of superheroes and supervillains. Thus most of his heroics are about stopping disasters. This is fine as far as it goes but man, it’d been nice to see some good superhero vs. villains fights. As it was one of the few times Superman is actually in a fight he’s so weakened by kryptonite that three goons Rodney King him.

3) The movie was too long by 20 minutes. At the end when he’s plummeting from space, I thought he would catch himself inches above the earth in a scene reminiscent of his childhood flashback from early in the film. Instead we got 15-20 minutes of complete tensionless “is he going to live” bs. Like there was any doubt.

Final verdict: entertaining but not as good as X-men 2. And really, I’d think I’d rather have seen Bryan Singer finish X-men 3 instead of doing Superman Returns. That would have had the added benefit of saving the X-men from the Brett Ratner.