A Long Time Ago in a Childhood Far, Far Away

While today I can wish that I was in London in seeing The Clash, The Damned, and the X-Ray Spex in 1977, in truth I was 8 years old at the time and thus the perfect age for the debut of Star Wars that summer. Like legions of burgeoning scifi and fantasy fans, I loved Star Wars instantly. I don’t think I ever saw a movie in the theater more than once before that, but Star Wars I saw something like 13 times. My brother and I would get dropped off at the theater at 1 pm and watch both afternoon showings, comically hiding from the indifferent teenage ushers between them so we could see it twice for the cost of one matinée ticket. We waited eagerly for the next two installments, and I was so smitten with the series that I could even forgive it Ewoks.

When I was in college, the Star Wars RPG from West End came out. Despite it being the 10 year anniversary of the first movie, there was surprisingly little going on with Star Wars when the game came out. I played a fair bit of the game over the years, and for the longest time it was the RPG I’d recommend to introduce new gamers. No need to explain the setting, you say, “It’s Star Wars; go!” The archetypes also made it easy to make characters, which was a plus.

Round about the time those Timothy Zahn novels started coming out, my interest began to wane. To me Star Wars was always the movies and just the movies and I didn’t care about the comics or the novels. Naturally, my interest perked up when I heard there were going to be new movies. I was working at WotC when these started. I remember the day the first trailer came out. We all gathered around monitors and had a shared geek moment. The trailer looked promising, so we dared to hope. The reality: Phantom Menace was a piece of shit. Still, we hoped that this was but a misstep and the rest of the trilogy would find the spirit of the original movies that seemed so lacking in Phantom Menace.

In 2001 I had an interesting opportunity. I was working on miniatures at WotC. We were planning some RPG accessory minis but we wanted to do some Star Wars games as well. I was interested in doing a spaceship combat game with two iterations. One would be a simple game using a limited number of ships and targeted at the mass market. The second would be a full on fleet battle game with scaled up rules for the hobby.

That year I made two trips to Skywalker Ranch. The first was to hand carry sculpts of our first Star Wars miniatures down there for approval. The second trip I and several other designers got to read the script for Attack of the Clones. I was hoping for a lot of spaceship combat, so i could tie in the proposed mass market game to the new movie. I was also hoping for a better movie. The script unfortunately had serious problems. After the reading, the licensing people asked what we thought. I said I wasn’t sure about this whole clone army business. It clearly seemed like a Sith plot but Yoda of all people shrugs and says, “Who cares who created this clone army we’ve never heard of before? Let’s use it and damn the consequences!” While one of my co-workers was having a heart attack that I had dared to criticize the script in the heart of Lucas country, I was assured by the licensing people that efforts were already underway to make the whole clone army thing more ambiguous, so its embrace by the Jedi would make more sense.

I was quite curious to see the finished movie. How much would it differ from the script I had read? As it turned out, hardly at all. They had a scene with young Jedi in weird animal clans and that got cut. All the stuff that I thought was problematic? Still in there. By the time the third movie came out, I didn’t even care enough to go see it. If you told my 8 year old that the fabled sixth Star Wars movie with the origin of Darth Vader would come out and I would skip it, I would never have believed it.

I eventually did see Revenge of the Sith. I was on a business trip in Ft. Wayne, IN and I stayed over on a Sunday night when everyone else had already gone home. Let me tell you, there’s is crap all to do in Ft. Wayne on a Sunday night, so I watched Episode III in my hotel room. And yeah, it was a little bit better than the previous installments, but it still sucked. The entire prequel trilogy was terrible and it’s a shame that young kids think that is Star Wars.

The only bright spot in its galaxy in the last decade has been the Knights of the Old Republic video game. That was awesome and felt so much more like Star Wars than any of the prequels. And maybe BioWare can do it again with their upcoming MMO (and if they can’t, no one can). Overall though, the Star Wars brand is badly damaged. Those prequels missed the mark so widely that bashing them has become a competitive sport at geek gatherings of all sorts. And that shit has been licensed to death. If you can slap Star Wars on it, it’s probably been licensed.

So yes, Star Wars shambles on, a zombie property bereft of the creative spark that enthralled me in my youth. And hey, if folks still like it, I have no beef with that. For me though, Star Wars is over. The original trilogy is still two and a half good movies, but that’s where my interest ends.

You can imagine my reaction then when I started getting all these e-mails yesterday asking if Green Ronin had secured the rights to Star Wars. This trip down memory lane was a very long way of saying no, no we did not. Nor would we even try.

Originally published on on LiveJournal on December 16, 2010. 

My Warcraft Problem

When I got my first job working on a MMO four years ago at Flying Lab, I thought I should become more familiar with World of Warcraft because it was the clear market leader. WoW was and continues to be the standard, so I figured it’d help me in my job to be better acquainted with it. So I got the game and the latest expansion and spent the required hours patching and updating. I played for one afternoon and found it intensely boring. Was the game really supposed to suck me in with starting quests like Kill 10 of Monster X? I figured I’d get back to it, however, so I kept paying the monthly fee. My co-workers assured me that if I got deeper into the game and joined a guild, I’d enjoy it a lot more. I just never did though because I was working FLS, running Green Ronin, and trying to have a family and social life and that kept me plenty busy.

A year later my credit card expired and I thought that was a sign. At this point I’d invested a couple of hundred dollars into WoW and had one play session to show for it. I did not update my credit info and figured that was that. Then four or five months later I was looking at a bank statement and noticed I somehow was still being charged. So I e-mailed Blizzard and explained the situation. I told them I had played their game exactly once. I was clear with them that paying for that first year was on me though. I could have cancelled but I didn’t, despite not playing, and that was no one’s fault but my own. However, I had not given them my revised credit card info and I felt they had no right to keep charging me. In fact, I was at a loss as to how they even did it. The response I got: “It is not Blizzard’s policy to refund money.” I exchanged three of our e-mails with a custserv rep, always remaining polite and trying to be reasonable. I got the same inane response every time: “It is not Blizzard’s policy to refund money.” I called my bank and explain the situation. They said Blizzard must have “pre-approved” my card for six months before it expired and I could fight it but I’d probably lose. So I formally cancelled my account and sent a final e-mail to Blizzard that I asked be kicked up to a manager. I explained my issue again, remaining polite, and said that this whole encounter was making me think less of Blizzard. Did they really need to squeeze that last $60 out of me? Naturally, I received no response and no refund. It’s not their policy, you see. Of course, it’s not my policy to be ripped off.

So now I’m back working in the MMO field at Vigil and just like at FLS, people talk about WoW all the time. It’s a constant reference point, both positive and negative. “We want to do X like WoW, but Y very differently. And oh, this bit is like the Blood Fuck Canyon section of WoW.” It’s gibberish to me, especially when they use the leet acronyms and such. Now on the one hand I’d like to be able to do my job better and I could participate in these conversions more meaningfully if I knew WoW. On the other hand, those weasels bilked me out of money and I’m not keen to reward that behavior by reactivating my account. My righteous indignation is at my war with my dispassionate professionalism. Which side do you think should win?

Originally posted on LiveJournal on November 14, 2010.

In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future There is Only Pramas

As most of you know I spent three years working at Flying Lab Software on the Pirates of the Burning Sea MMO as a writer and then creative director. That ended last October and since then I’ve been concentrating on Green Ronin. It was nice to get a breather after working two jobs for all that time. The factors that led me to take the FLS job reasserted themselves after a few months though and earlier this year I started looking for another day job in the computer game industry. After much searching and many interviews, I have found the sort of position I was looking for at a good company. As an added bonus, it’s on a property I know and love.

Yesterday I accepted a position at Vigil Games, which is part of the THQ family. I’ll be a senior designer on the Warhammer 40K MMO, Dark Millennium Online. This is a narrative design gig, so I’ll be writing dialog, mission text, background material, faction info, and so on. In other words: the stuff I’m best at.

The wrinkle is that Vigil is in Austin and I’ve been in Seattle since 1997. Certainly I never imagined living in Texas. I hate hot weather for one thing. At least it’s Austin though, which is sort of like the West Berlin of Texas. Now my step-daughter Kate has just started high school and after all her years at that stupid hippie school she’s finally at a school that she seems to like and I don’t want to rip her away without notice. Nicole and I also own a house here, so it’s not easy to just pull up stakes on move on. So the plan is that I’m going to go to Austin, get an apartment, and work the job. Nicole and Kate will stay here at least until Kate finishes her first year of high school. Next summer we’ll assess where we are at and look at a full relocation. Not seeing my family regularly is a downside for sure, but I’m willing to do it if it means relieving the financial pressure on us.

So what does this mean for Green Ronin? Not a whole lot. I will continue to run the company on nights and weekends, which is the way it was for three years when I was at FLS. I will continue working on Dragon Age, though that’s likely going to be the only design work I’m going to take on in the near future. Thankfully, we have Jeff Tidball onboard as Dragon Age developer and he’ll be pushing the line forward. Set 2 is almost done, so this is actually fairly good timing for me.

The next few weeks are going to be crazy leading up to an initial move mid-October. I’m heading up to Edmonton next week to meet with BioWare, returning in time for the Green Ronin summit and 10 year anniversary party. Then I’m going to Chicago for a week for Riot Fest, a five day punk rock festival that I’m so looking forward to. I’ll finally get my chance to see Articles of Faith, one of my all time favorite bands, as well as groups like Negative Approach, The Effigies, and Naked Raygun. I’m staying with Ken Hite (thanks, Ken!), which means there will also be war gaming and good eating. I hadn’t planned it this way, but the Chicago trip is going to be a last hurrah before the biggest change in my life since I moved to Seattle all those years ago. I plan to have a hell of a time.

Originally published on LiveJournal on September 23, 2010. 

The Hows and Whys of the Green Ronin Pre-Order Plus Program

Earlier this year Green Ronin experimented with some pre-order bundle deals in which you got the PDF of the title for free if you pre-ordered the book. Starting with DC Adventures, we’ve modified that so you can get the PDF for only $5 when you pre-order the book. While this is still a savings of $10 to $15, we’ve had several people ask about the change. This post will explain how and why we settled on the new standard. I will warn you that it’s long and involves a lot of business talk. If that doesn’t interest you, you’ll probably want to skip this post.

So let’s start many years ago when Green Ronin first started to sell PDF versions of our products. We treated the PDF and the book as entirely separate products. If you wanted both, you paid full price for both. We viewed this like a novel and its audio version. Same book, yes, but different formats. No one argues that you should get a free audio book with the purchase of the physical book.

That was the state of affairs for years. It wasn’t until the Dragon Age pre-order that we tried using the freebie PDF as a premium. That worked really well, but it was not without consequences. We were concerned that in the long term our PDFs would be devalued, that they would be seen as giveaways and not something with intrinsic worth. We also got complaints from retailers about the deal. They said that such a deal was unfair to them because they could not match it. It encouraged direct orders and dissuaded gamers from supporting their local stores.

Now I love a good game store and Green Ronin has always tried to treat our retail partners with respect and fairness. Some of them thought we should simply extend the freebie PDF offer to them but that wouldn’t have been great for us. As I explained, our original standard was that PDFs and books were separate products. We had a fair number of customers that would buy them both, so when we did the freebie offer we were knowingly losing some revenue in order to encourage sales of the print version. We felt OK eating that to get the full MSRP on the book. However, we do not get full MSRP when a retailer sells one of our books. We get 40% of the cover price at best. So I posed the question to some of my retailer friends. “We are giving up revenue from some PDF sales when we make this offer. What are you willing to give up to get the same deal?” Their honest answer was nothing. Retailers are just as strapped as everyone else so they weren’t willing to make sacrifices on their end, particularly in a category (RPGs) that is shrinking in many stores. I realized at a certain point this was a nut I was going to have to crack myself.

A secondary problem to the revenue was delivery of a PDF to a customer who ordered something in a retail store. The folks at Evil Hat just give PDFs to retailers via Dropbox and let them hand the files out in any convenient way. With the licenses we have, that simply wasn’t an option. We needed a method that could be tracked and reported.

So ultimately what I needed was a deal that was still attractive to customers that could also be offered to retailers without causing us to lose revenue and whose sales I could track precisely. Trying to meet all these criteria is how the current deal took shape. Evan Sass, Green Ronin’s hard workin’ webmaster, solved the technology end of the problem. He told me he could generate one use codes for our webstore that would provide a discount on a PDF. Since all this traffic would then flow through the webstore, it could be tracked for reports.

Now it was also important the retailers have access to the same deal that we offered. If we gave away free PDFs but they had to charge $5 for theirs, that wouldn’t be real attractive to them. We decided that $5 was a fair price for customers to pay for the PDF when pre-ordering a book. The products we are talking about typically have a PDF price of $13.50 to $20, so getting one for $5 is still a deal. That $5 we get for the PDF makes it financially sensible for us to offer the pre-order deal through retail stores. So retailers can match the deal we have in our webstore and customers can choose to order through us or support their local stores. The ideal outcome is happy customers, happy retailers, and happy Green Ronin.

With the ideas hammered out, I decided to create a formal program, which we call GR Pre-Order Plus. In its final form, it works like this. When we have a final PDF of a book or boxed set that’s ready for sale, Evan generates webstore discount codes and sends them to Bill Bodden, our sales guy. Hal Mangold or Marc Schmalz creates a flier about the deal that retailers can print out and put up in their stores. Evan puts that in the Retailer Support section of our website, so it can be downloaded. Bill then sends out an e-mail to the retailers in the program, telling them about the new title and pointing them towards the flier. He then sends 10 unique codes to interested retailers (and they can get more if they need them). While that’s going on, Marc preps the final PDF files and then Evan uploads them to our website. Everything is now ready.

On release day Evan posts an announcement on greenronin.com and any of our other sites that make senses (mutantsandmasterminds.com for M&M books, for example). This message relays the basic deal: pre-order the new product and get the PDF of same for $5. We point out you can get that deal from us or participating retailers. On their end retailers make the offer in their stores and hopefully use the fliers we have created. When they take an order, they give the purchaser one of the codes we provided. The buyer can then take that home and use the code to buy the PDF for $5 in our online store.

You will note that for a simple deal it actually requires a fair bit of work and coordination to pull off. We are willing to do that because we believe retail stores are a valuable part of the gaming ecosystem and we want to support them and their gaming communities. At the same time we want to assure a reasonable return on all the hard work we’ve put into our games. I believe this program is a fair one that still offers a good deal to gamers at the end of the day.

If your local store is not participating, point them here for more info:http://greenronin.com/retailer/2010/07/green_ronin_pre-order_program_.php

We currently have two items up for pre-order, Blood in Ferelden for the Dragon Age RPG and the Freeport Companion: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Edition. They will be joined shortly by Aces & Jokers, the final book in the M&M 2nd Edition line. You can find out more at http://www.greenronin.com.

Originally published on LiveJournal on August 24, 2010.

Another GenCon Down

It’s the Monday morning after my 21st GenCon and I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel grabbing some free wifi. Nicole is crashed out upstairs. She went to the Dead Dog party after our traditional Green Ronin dinner and then it seems to Steak & Shake in the middle of the night. I don’t expect her to get up for a bit so I thought I’d scribble down some thoughts about the show.

The big news for GR was, of course, the launch of our DC Adventures RPG. Fans didn’t have long to wait after our initial announcement in May, but Thursday was a day we’d long anticipated. It took three years from the beginning of our negotiation to the release of the game, and that doesn’t include the proposals and such we did back during the Black Industries era when it seemed we might do a DC game for them. The response was fantastic. Gamers rushed in when the hall opened and we had a line that wrapped around our booth. We brought 300 copies and had sold so many by Friday that we had the warehouse ship in more on Saturday. By Sunday they were all gone. Dragon Age too did really well. I thought I had brought enough for the whole show but we sold out on Friday. Brought more in Saturday and sold those out on Sunday too.

And gaming? Yes, I actually got to do some. On Thursday night I ran a Dragon Age game for Wil Wheaton, Jeff Tidball, Will Hindmarch, Andrew Hackard, Evan Sass, Nicole Lindroos, and my step-daughter Kate. I wrote a new adventure before the show and everyone seemed to have a fun time. The characters were 5th level and Grey Warden recruits. After completing the adventure and acquiring some darkspawn blood, they went through the joining and ended the session as full Grey Wardens. None of them died in the joining either.

Kate was a riot. She had been nervous about the idea of playing before the show. I told her that she’d either be playing or watching, so she might as well play and have fun with us. Then she was the one who found the missing Grey Warden early in the adventure, and she who solved the riddle later in the adventure. On the way back to our hotel afterwards, she asked if I could run Dragon Age for her nerd posse back home. She is a next gen gamer for sure!

Saturday night I played in a Pathfinder game with Rob Schwalb, Steve Kenson, Evan Sass, Marc Schmalz, and Crazy Todd Miller. My old friend Bill Simoni ran the game and it was a good time. Bill was the guy who kept me playing AD&D in college when I was otherwise exploring the further reaches of RPGs. We don’t get to game too often anymore so we try to get together when we can and GenCon is a prime opportunity. Crazy Todd is also a member of my college game group, so it was like old times except with the addition of the unique roleplaying styling of Rob “Dr. Evil” Schwalb. I think we’ll all remember Rob’s hilarious quest for a “shady seamstress” early in the game.

Bill wrote a cool adventure involving a murdered mage who wasn’t really murdered at all. He outdid himself on presentation too, with beautifully painted minis and 3D terrain and props. I played a sorcerer and wreaked some major havoc. It’s been ages since I played a d20 game, so I had to dust off my knowledge base. As I said at the time, it’s been a long time since my square has been threatened. Considering he’s been working on 4E for the past three years, Schwalb’s recall of 3.5 era rules was impressive.

The only real downside to GenCon was my increasing exhaustion as the show went on. I did not sleep for more than 4 hours any night until Sunday (when I got a glorious 6 until coughing with con crud woke me). Saturday after Bill’s game, I feel asleep for 2 hours and then awoke. After staring at the ceiling for awhile, I grabbed my laptop bag and went to the lobby at 5 am. Pretty ridiculous and it’s no surprise that I’m feeling like crap now. Hopefully, the flights home won’t be too bad later today.

Overall though, pretty great GenCon. I had the chance to catch up with many good friends, do some profitable business, find new opportunities, and even play some games. I do regret I didn’t get more time to walk the exhibit floor, but the Green Ronin booth and various meetings kept me ridiculously busy. I did manage to buy and trade for a few things and I may blog about that later. Right now I need to see about getting some fried chicken and waffles before I leave town!

Originally posted on LiveJournal on August 9, 2010. 

Green Ronin: The Early Years

It was a decade ago this month that Green Ronin released its first product at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. I remember getting that first box of games and cutting it open on the convention floor. I could have no idea that the company would still be going 10 years and well over 100 products later.

In the beginning it was just Nicole and I. I was working at Wizards of the Coast in the company’s first attempt to do miniatures games. I had previously worked in Roleplaying R&D, mostly on Dungeons & Dragons, but moved over to the new minis division because it seemed a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what could be a major new part of the company. By early 2000 I had been working on the game that ultimately came to be known as Chainmail for a while, and I found I missed doing RPG work. It would also be fair to say that I was frustrated with my job and WotC’s corporate backstabbing environment.

In February of 2000 I decided to go ahead and start my own company on the side to do roleplaying games. The goals were modest. We’d try doing two books and see how it went. Having previously been part of a small press RPG operation (the original Ronin Publishing), I was under no illusions.

Our first release was Ork!: The Roleplaying Game. Back in college my friend Crazy Todd had run this fun and totally zany campaign in which we all played Orks. It was in theory an AD&D game but really the rules amounted to Todd saying, “Roll some dice,” at appropriate moments. I suggested to Todd that Ork could be a fun beer and pretzels RPG and that I’d design a set of rules if he wrote up what was dubbed “The World of Orkness.” We aimed for a short, punchy game and succeeded in bringing it home in 64 pages of wackiness.

At the same time the Open Game License was under development at WotC and with it the idea of D&D3 as the “d20 System.” I remember sitting in a meeting with most of R&D about the OGL and d20. Many folks were dubious about the whole endeavor. One argument made at the time was that third party companies could do products that WotC itself had trouble doing profitably. In other words, adventures. And I thought, “I bet I could turn a profit selling an adventure when D&D3 hits the shelves.”

That thought led to Death in Freeport, our second product. It debuted at GenCon on the same day as the third edition D&D Player’s Handbook. Atlas Games also had a short adventure out that day by John Tynes. If you wanted to play some third edition D&D on August 10, 2000, there were exactly three books you could buy. That’s how I justified doing a print run that was, by any normal standard, insane. A gamble certainly but one that did actually pay off. Death in Freeport was a hit, we sold gobs of it, and soon the d20 market exploded.

If I was rash, I wold have quit WotC right then and gone full on with Green Ronin. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had. I tried to be sensible, however, and still believed that we could make a traditional miniatures business work at a company that simply didn’t understand it. So I stayed on after the Hasbro buyout, but ultimately was laid off in 2002. By that point Green Ronin was thriving and I just stepped into doing the company full time. Hal Mangold, who had helped us out with cover design early on, came on as well and the core of the company was set.

Since then we’ve had highs and lows, successes and disasters, great times and dire times. I never thought we’d last as long as we did, but now that we’ve hit that 10 year mark, I can look back at what we’ve achieved and feel proud. Next week at GenCon we’re launching the DC Adventures RPG and starting another new chapter of our history. How many more will there be? Hell if I know, but as I said back in 2000, “Let’s put out good games and see what happens.”

Originally published on LiveJournal on July 30, 2010.