Going to California

Making Magic — 2

When you’re working at a place that had been raided illegally at gunpoint, certain things get your attention more than others — like when Federal agents surround a barn-full of people not a hundred miles from you, clumsily kicking off a multi-hour gun battle and extended stand-off.

The Branch Davidians, targets of the raid, claim that the authorities shot first, though clearly they should have understood that after killing four agents who were trying to break into their illegal armory, there would be no talking their way out as though it had all been some kind of misunderstanding. I think everyone understood what had happened quite well: the agents had badly bungled a gunpoint raid of a compound full of people with a tenuous grasp on reality, and the compound’s relief at the validation of their persecution complex manifested itself in a deliberate and well-targeted hail of bullets. At the same time, it was incomprehensible how someone could believe for any period of time that a group of people who’d convinced themselves that the world was about to end could merely say, “Okay, fair enough,” and hand over their carefully cultivated arsenal without complaint.

Still, while we had no special affection for apocalypse cults, at least we had a good model for how far we could trust them. We didn’t trust the government at all. A friend of ours tried several times to get past the security cordon that had been set up just outside of Waco, Texas by the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, if nothing else than to verify what we were being told about the situation. To our surprise, he was never able to get close enough to take a look or to some photos. We simply didn’t think they would be seriously locking the place down. It was a big place. Little did we know how much photographic evidence we’d soon have of the stand-off’s conclusion.

A few days past the siege’s seven-week mark, while out at an Indian buffet with Mentor, he pointed at a ceiling-mounted monitor and we stood and watched as the Branch Davidian compound burst into flames, 76 men, women, and children burning to death on live television.

“Never thought I’d congratulate the Secret Service on their restraint,” Mentor said.

There were much larger problems in the world than the troubles of our little game company, though the little problems would be the ones that laid us low.

I said before that the game company had never recovered from the Secret Service raid, four years earlier. Getting a big chunk of change out of them didn’t help, given that we pumped most of it into Illuminati Online, which then quickly turned into a separate company sharing our offices. In all the excitement, we forgot somehow that Steve Jackson Games was still in trouble. But this time, it was in trouble largely because of Steve himself — not simply because he’d ignored the gaming side of things in order to get the ISP up and running, though certainly that had happened, but because of one of the things that money cannot fix: writer’s block.

Steve had bet the game company’s near-term success on the release of a new game called Hot Lead. The magazine I’d started, Pyramid, had originally been imagined in part as a mouthpiece for this game and the many supplements and merchandise we’d planned to sell. As time rolled along, the unthinkable began to seem seriously possible. The game would not be delayed. It would never ship at all. It was marketed so thoroughly, though, and with such promise, that even after all this time people still ask what happened to it.

I don’t believe the story has ever been told, so here goes.

First, though, I’m going to explain what it was and why people wanted it so badly. I’ll be erring on the side of some serious oversimplification, but if anything in this next little chunk makes your eyes glaze over, skip ahead to the little break where I say, “Okay, then.”

I began writing this increasingly long story almost exactly twenty years after the release of Ogre Miniatures, one of several versions of the game. I produced the book, though I had nothing to do with the game itself — Ogre is and has always been Steve’s baby, his first published game design and, like I said before, an honest-to-God classic. Here’s why.

War games were the nerdy older cousin of the basic board game, less like things such as Monopoly or Risk and more like simulations, multi-player battles between opposing armies, set either in some famous fighting era — the age of Napoleon was very popular — or recreating some specific battle, from the Middle Ages to World War II. They usually had incredibly complicated rules, the battlefield layout could take up an entire room, and games could run for weeks or longer, while covering only hours or a few days of time in the world of the game.

Any game designer can cobble together something unnecessarily complicated. Creating something compelling takes real skill. One of the ways we can find games to be compelling is when we think they’re fair, and a sense of fairness is often arrived at through a well-measured balance across elements of a game. One of the ways in which complicated war games came off as being balanced was by assigning point values to different army units, letting each player build their own army from the points available. Imagine that a soldier with a rifle costs ten points while a soldier with a machine gun could cost sixty points, because six guys with rifles might each get off one shot all at once, taking a bit of time to reload, while the other guy could steadily keep firing while his enemies approached. If six rifle guys did about as much damage as one dude with a machine gun, and the six slow-firing units cost the same as one fast-firing unit, then you could call that decently balanced. Give each player the same number of points to spend on whatever army units they chose, and you’ve got a fair game. Maybe the specifics of the units you picked let you more easily use some strategy for playing the game that comes very easy to you, or maybe those units will be particularly effective against the units your competition has chosen.

The conversation about game balance through point costs had been rising for some time before the mid-/late-1970s, when a young man named Steve Jackson said, essentially, “Okay, if that’s true, then should it scale all the way up? As in, if we each get the same number of points, but you had a large army made up of a ton of tiny units while I put all my points into one gigantic, massive unit, would it still be fair?”

So Steve imagined the single large unit as a half-mile long cybernetic tank, rolling on massive, headquarters-crushing treads and bristling with tactical nuclear weapons, while the other player had mobile cannons and well-armored soldiers and light hovercraft. And what do you know, it was a solid game. Steve called the giant tanks Ogres, and this simple idea both won the point-balance argument and made him a great crap-load of money. It helped that the game could fold up small enough to fit into your pocket and the rules were simple enough that anyone could begin playing within minutes, and it took at most a few hours to play. And it only cost a couple of bucks. Yes, it was popular.

At the same time, a new kind of game had come along, throwing point-costs right out the window and increasingly focusing instead on character and narrative. It was called Dungeons & Dragons, and while it was wildly popular it also had a dark secret: it was not a solid game, it was actually a kind of crappy game, in large part because any sense of fairness rested on the shoulders of the person who ran the game, the Dungeon Master, who controlled the dangers facing the players. Eighteen goblins coming at you? They fire their bows at you and, yeesh, sorry about that, you’re dead.

To classic board-game people, role-playing games often seemed to play out as capricious constructions. Steve, an inveterate improver of things flawed, saw an opportunity to do three things: apply a point-cost system to the construction of characters in role-playing games, such that two 100-point characters should be able to have a fair fight while a 250-point character was nearly guaranteed to crush a 50-point character; then to fill the point system with game elements from every imaginable era and genre, such that you could have a big caveman with a club and a feeble spaceman with a ray gun and if they cost the same in terms of points then at least to some degree you could call it a fair fight; and lastly then to create a more realistic combat system that would work across settings and tech levels. Steve called this game the Generic, Universal, Role-Playing System, or GURPS for short. While even in high school I found this to be a wince-inducing name, it was pretty popular, and still is today.

As the role-playing game industry flourished, old-school board games fell into decline. In part to appeal to the incoming role-players who were turned off by the aging war gamers who were happy spending weeks at a time pushing tiny French and English soldiers around a table, a different kind of hybrid hobby emerged, one which embraced the fantasy stylings of Dungeons & Dragons, with rules that were straightforward enough to be accessible to a wider audience and with miniatures that were more affordable than the average Napoleonics or World War II figures. They called it Warhammer, and it was immensely popular.

While the Warhammer rule books sold well — and novels, and later video games — the profits seemed to be in the miniatures. Every year, the company released new armies, with updated rules to support the increasingly wild miniatures: colossal cannons dragged around by orcs, elven cavalry, space-trooping dwarves from the far future of Warhammer 40K, and the like. However, year after year of new releases began to irritate some of the players who’d been in it longer, since in order to encourage the sales of new miniatures, some of them were very powerful or otherwise given serious advantages over older units. Some people thought this made the game more fun, though others thought this simply took away any sense of balance from the game, granting an edge to people who could afford to buy the newest figures. And since you could only play the game with the official miniatures, players were locked in.

Steve Jackson, whose eye for improving things had never been sharper, saw an opportunity to do to Warhammer what he had done for Dungeons & Dragons and to author a set of generic rules covering all kinds of fighters, from swords to cannons to lasers to wizards. It was called Hot Lead, though the game industry’s miniatures hadn’t been made from lead for many years. While it would be playable with any figures from anywhere, Steve and Mentor had several terrific game-worlds planned, for which terrific armies were being designed. One army were space knights (and in fact the entire line was called Space Knights), and their opposing army were undead, mostly fleshless cyborgs. We had a couple of large color posters printed up, at significant cost. The cover of Pyramid #1 showed a giant, skeletal cyber-dragon, ridden by laser-wielding skeletons, flying through space. It sounds absurd, though interestingly enough it hit all the right notes. The fans were salivating. The same sculptors who’d partnered with us on Ogre Miniatures had already created a line of Space Knights figures, and they were close to being released. We just had to deliver the game.

Okay, then.

By the time things had gotten that far, we had only one problem: the game. It wasn’t working, wasn’t anywhere near what it needed to be in order to deliver on its promise. What Steve had developed was a solid, genius-level set of skirmish rules for medieval troops, even if area effects — like explosions, or magic — were still in progress. The larger problem was how technology was not well balanced in terms of point costs. The promise of playing low-tech soldiers against equivalent points worth of high-tech soldiers was not coming together. The Warhammer people, it seemed, ended simply acknowledging this, and rather than pull back and try to preserve some game balance they embraced it, made it part of their business model. Or who knows, maybe they were pulling back. Maybe they were resisting the temptation to overtly cash in on their success, and what they’d shipped was as good as they could reasonably get.

Mentor had been running computer simulations, leaving tens of thousands of battle playing out overnight, and the news sounded grim. Looking at the numbers, the game didn’t work. I don’t remember Steve agreeing, though he kept working on it. Mentor began to crap on the game more seriously, insisting that something be done. They’d begun missing deadlines at that point. Space Knight figures were showing up in stores with no game to support them. Our partner was growing unhappy. Mentor had several ideas for wrestling the game around to end up with something workable, but it was far from clean or perfect. Steve wanted clean and perfect, at least at the start. After one senior-staff meeting, Mentor stomped out ahead of everyone else and punched the side of a massive metal filing cabinet. His hand hurt for several days, but that fist-shaped dent stayed for years.

“It would be good enough,” he told Andy, Jeff, and me as we stood outside the editorial door, underneath the upstairs balcony. It was late autumn, and the Texas air was finally cooling. Even worse, Steve and Mentor had come to disagree on the future of Illuminati Online, as well, but I’ll come back to that next time.

The place is called Steve Jackson Games for a reason. If it were called “Apex Games” or “Terrific Entertainment, Inc.”, then it’d be easier to make a case that other people should get a say in the company’s direction and what the brand should stand for. When the company is named for a single person, then that person’s brand is inextricably linked to the brand of the company. Only a few people had ever shared top-billing with Steve on a game, or been allowed to appear as a game’s sole author — industry luminaries, usually; Warren Specter, who went on to produce the award-winning Deus Ex video games, was one, and Allen Varney was another — though all of them had left the company after not too long for the relative freedom of nearly anywhere else.

So when Steve decided he didn’t want to compromise and release what he saw as a flawed game design, that was how things were going to go. It didn’t matter how much money had been sunk into marketing, and it didn’t matter that a partner of ours had been making and trying to sell the game’s licensed miniatures for many months by that point — it was tremendously unfortunate, no one was discompassionate — and it didn’t matter that Mentor thought the game could still be better than the competition, who made many millions of dollars every year. In England, where they were based, they’d even opened their own stores to sell their crazy miniatures. But Steve’s game wasn’t demonstrably, argument-winningly great, so he shelved it. Maybe it was the right decision. It wasn’t mine to make, so I tried not to have an opinion.

Ultimately, the shelving of Steve’s baby happened quietly, by inattention. There was never any one day I recall where it was said, “Okay, no more Hot Lead.” Or at least, by the time Steve said it, each of us had already wrestled with and arrived by ourselves at the conclusion that it was never going to happen, so any announcement made little impact on us. I can’t imagine that our miniatures partners were particularly impressed.

There was at least one less-quiet aspect of the passing of Hot Lead. It meant that we wouldn’t have the big financial boost that a set of “miniature rules done right” would have brought. We had to do some more belt-tightening. And just before Christmas, Steve fired Mentor — because he was expensive, sure, but more I think to deflate the office tension. No one was happy about it, as a rather wild understatement, though that didn’t make it any better.

The office was gloomy for months. I was gutted, and angry, and worried, even though everything went really well — really great, actually — for me, personally, better than things ever had gone before. Since I couldn’t put my finger on my fears, I ignored them. By the time that summer rolled around, though, I failed to find comfort in the truth that I’d been right to be afraid.

We left the posters up around the office for years, of course, because giant robot bone-dragons in space look cool, even if we’d given up on that particular dream. Myself, I managed to soldier through because Mentor, before leaving, had given me a different dream: a game of my own to produce in-house, an opportunity that, like I said, nearly never came around at Steve Jackson Games. As a young man who’d spent his teenage years in the grip of fantasy escapism, it was a bright dream, and it filled my waking hours with hope for my future.

Then a whole lot of things happened quickly, pretty much all at the same time.

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