Jordan Weisman, 53, founded FASA Corporation in 1980, he brought “Battletech” and “Shadowrun” into existence, developed “MechWarrior” and worked on the Xbox at Microsoft. His new game “Golem Arcana” will integrate tablets and smartphones to enhance classic tabletop gaming. I interviewed him at Spiel in Essen, a short version of this interview was published in German by Spiegel Online.
Konrad Lischka: You have created very successful games in many genres – from pen and paper role‑playing to tabletops, alternate reality games, PC and iPad titles, you oversaw the Xbox launch. So you are obviously very good in one thing, but what is it? What have these games in common?
Jordan Weisman: For me it’s always three things. My table is always built on three legs. One is game mechanics, one is story, and one is socialization. Because to me that’s the interesting part is how story, people and mechanics work together to create something very special. Every type of game I’ve done and every fictional world I’ve built, whether its BattleTech or Shadowrun, MechWarrior, Crimson Skies, whatever, they’re all about exploring that space between socialization, story and mechanics.
Konrad: Nearly every game for the new consoles will have some multiplayer mechanism in it. But when I think of social moments in games, the most intense ones were in pen and paper RPGs. No MMORPGs has come near that experience. Will this change?
Jordan: Yes, it is so much more intense in person. That’s why throughout my career I keep coming back to the table, most recently with Golem Arcana. Because there is nothing like being face to face. Why is that? Well we have a billion years of evolution that trained us to read each other on so many levels when we’re face to face.
We have less than two decades of experience of how to read each other through the computer. The computer is only transmitting such a small amount of the information that our brains actually connect with when we’re in person. That’s why it just is nowhere near the kind of level of intimacy, of intense connection, because so little of the information is getting through. Our voice, our picture, our texts, that’s a tiny amount compared to what happens when we’re face to face.
It’s impossible, I think, at least in current technology, or even the foreseeable future, for it to become as meaningful as it is when we’re at the same table together. Golem Arcana is my most to take the things that we’ve come to really value in computer games and augment that to the face to face experience.
Konrad: But despite this limits computer game are very popular, what do they excel in?
Jordan: You can start playing right away. In a pen and paper game, role‑playing game, it’s a very large barrier to entry to have to read and understand the rules. There’s no arguing about the rules. I don’t know how many game sessions have gotten, oh, that’s not how that rule’s supposed to be played, or you forgot to include line of sight, or two turns ago you didn’t include your modifier. You don’t have to worry about any of that with a computer game. You have the ability to save the game. You can stop playing at any time and pick it back up at any time. It is much more flexible that way. It’s not like, well, we have to play all 12 hours of this game in one sitting. No, we can play for an hour, or you can come back next week and play for another hour. One of the biggest things, this is something that’s not possible to replicate, is the fact that I can play whenever I want. I don’t have to wait until I can get my friends all together. For a real‑time RPG, like if you’re in Warcraft or something and you want to go on a raid together, well, that requires the same kind of coordination of getting together at a table. You have to make sure you’re all available at the same time. It’s only slightly easier because you don’t have to be in the same place.
One of the things we’re trying to do with Golem Arcana is to say, “OK, you can be in your kitchen and your friend can be in their kitchen. You can still play like playing chess by mail, only it happens in real time.” There’s a convenience factor to that anytime‑gaming which, just by the nature of having to get together in person, we can’t do. There are a couple other things that I think are important. The computer, obviously, has very rich graphics, but the tabletop has rich graphics as well. You have the tactile nature of elements on the table, which I think more than makes up for the graphics that are on the screen.
One of the things we don’t think about a lot is the importance of music and sound. There’s been study after study done that show how important a good sound experience and audio experience is to a game. Tabletop games don’t take advantage of that at all.
One of the things also we’re really excited about experimenting with Golem Arcana is that it will have an interactive musical score. When you play a video game, the music changes based upon what you’re doing in the game. We can do that now for a tabletop game. The music will enhance the experience as you’re playing, represent my faction and your faction with different themes and so on. Those are just some of the ideas.
Konrad: How often will people actually look at the screen, and how often will they look at the table?
Jordan: You need to have a smartphone or a tablet at the table. You could play it without it, but then it’s going to turn into like any other tabletop game. You have to have studied the rules and argue about how they work. It’s designed to be played with one or more tablets, smartphones or any of the more recent touchscreen mobile devices. We’ve run about a thousand play tests at Gen Con and PAX Prime in the United State, as well as lots and lots around the Seattle area, to work on this. We are just at the beginning of development. This game won’t be out until next summer, so we have many more to go.
The key thing for us is to keep their eyes focused on the board and that their planning capability is from looking at the board, not looking at the screen. That’s why, for instance, even though on a digital game I could make the statistics of a figure change as often as I wanted, we learned we can’t. If this changes too much, now I can’t plan by looking at it. I have to look at my screen to figure out what can it do now.
I have to make sure that, on a turn by turn basis, I can modify it, but then it comes back to its base statistics so the other person can plan their turn. We could do all sorts of animation on the screen, like when the characters fight, but we decided no, that’s the wrong thing to do, because that would make me want to look there. We treat it more like the scoreboard at a football game. It’s going to show you only the statistics. The action is still on the board.
Konrad: Pen and paper roleplaying is very good in one more thing: freedom. When you have a good Dungeon Master, you can do anything. And though we have this very free‑form sandbox computer games like Skyrim it does not feel nearly that free. Why?
Jordan: It’s economics. To me, the most memorable game experiences I have in my life were either when I was the game master with my group or I was playing with a great, great game master, who could tell the story in such depth and react so wonderfully to what we wanted to do, to have that free‑form nature. But yet it still feels cohesive. It didn’t feel random or nonsensical.
That takes a really good brain. It’s the strongest, absolutely strongest part about role‑playing games, is that a great game master makes it a great game. The challenge is, it’s also the weakest part of a role‑playing game, because a bad game master makes it a very bad experience.
And like anything in life, and any kind of skill, there’s some people that are enormously talented, but the majority of people aren’t. And so your odds are that sometimes, you’re going to end up with game masters that have not made it a fun experience.
The computer, on the other hand, has a very consistent level of experience. It won’t get the highs, but it also won’t get the lows. The reason it can’t achieve the highs is because for it to be as flexible as your brilliant friend sitting across the table, the engineers and the artists would’ve needed to have made an enormous amount of content, of which you, the player, are going to see actually a very small percentage.
And as a player, you will judge the value of the game based only on the percentage you actually saw, versus all the percentage you didn’t. And so it’s just, it’s very tough. There are now franchises that have gotten so large that they can now spend, they approach it.
The one that’s probably the farthest is Grand Theft Auto. Every time they release that game, it’s a billion dollars. And instead of just pocketing all of that, they actually spend some of that on making their worlds just incredibly deep. It’s mind‑blowing.
Konrad: You can go diving, and you have stock markets.
Jordan: Yeah, it’s just system within system within system. It is just unconceivable. But it takes something on that order of magnitude to be able to just even approach what your friend can come up with at the table, as a good game master.
Konrad: One way to solve this is to give players the tools to expand a game like you did with Shadowrun Returns.
Jordan: It offers a different way for game masters to work because using our editor is about as hard as learning this game, the pen and paper game. That’s a higher barrier to entry to learn the editor. But when you learn the editor, then you can create stories as good as the one we made for your players, and those players could be worldwide.
That to me I think is very different than the face to face. By all means it doesn’t have that, all the benefits we talked about, but it at least has the immersion into a world that people are emotionally connected to. It has the ability to express creativity, both as a game master and as a player, which is part of what our hope is.
We want to now take the next step and start to move towards cooperative play, but we’re not talking about that yet, so I should probably be quiet. Forget I said that.
Konrad: Are simple, very basic rules a way to expand the audience of pen and paper RPGs?
Jordan: Yes. There are other role‑playing games that have much simpler rule sets, and they do introduce people into the hobby, and different role‑playing games that use card mechanics and use other types of mechanics that are easier to get into.
I think there is that opportunity, and the mechanics can be easier. The role of the game master is the part that it always comes down to. That person has to be a good storyteller and understand their role. One of the interesting things, and one of the reasons I think role‑playing games skew older, is because the role of the game master is kind of a selfless one.
You’re not trying to win the game. You’re not even technically playing the game. You are purely the facilitator. You are the window to the world for the players. For a younger kid, that’s a big conceptual change from the games they’re used to.
Konrad: How did you get into gaming?
Jordan: Well when I was very young I was introduced to the Avalon Hill strategy games, and I played those when I was a kid and enjoyed them very much. I grew up in Chicago. I would go to camp, summer camp, in Wisconsin, which is the next state over. I was working there. I finished going to camp. I was now working at the camp as a counselor. One of the other counselors brought this new game in that he had just bought called Dungeons & Dragons. This is was 1974.
Konrad: So it was very new.
Jordan: Brand new. It was still the white box, three books, and we played it that summer. It literally changed my whole life. Because it was social, it was problem solving, it was story, which are all the things that I love, and it integrated them in a way that I had not ever imagined.
It also made me read. I was a severe dyslexic. I was at this point 14 years old and I could barely read. I had been taught how to read but I avoided it because it was so slow. It was almost like it was physically painful. Like many dyslexics I was able to cheat my way through school, so I never needed to read for school. I could fake out the teachers and it was no problem.
But now all of a sudden because of Dungeons & Dragons, I wanted to read that. I wanted to read the books, and I didn’t know what were Trolls, and what were Orcs, and what were Elves. We didn’t have the Peter Jackson movies to educate me. I actually had to go read Tolkien. By the time you’re done reading Tolkien, you know how to read. [laughs] It’s a very long training book.
It played a very important part of my life. At that point I was pretty sure this is what I wanted to do for a living, was make these things.
Konrad: That’s very interesting because Gygax and Arneson started with war games too and built role‑playing on top of that. What do you think is the connection between war games, RPGs and computer games? Tactics? Resource management?
Jordan: Well I think there’s a very obvious connection as the paper game business developed in the ’70s and ’80s, and then into the ’90s, we were developing all sorts of ways to simulate different types of worlds and different types of interactions on the tabletop, through Dungeons & Dragons or even BattleTech, and other games.
Because BattleTech was an interesting one where it took the mechanics of a strategy game and the fictional intensity of a role‑playing game and merged those together, which became an interesting dynamic. Anyway, we were developing this.
Then as the PC started to develop in the ’90s, and the idea of PC games. Well all of those PC developers were tabletop gamers. They started to bring what they loved about tabletop games to their PC games. One became enormously heavy influence of tabletop on PC. Then PC obviously spawned into the consoles.
What’s interesting now though is the reverse is happening because all of the original developers, they all grew up on tabletop, and that influenced their PC games or their video games. But now all kids play video games long before they ever play tabletop games, because they play video games pretty much out of the womb. They’re handed a tablet as soon as they’re born and they know how to use it.
They start playing games very young now in computer games, and they don’t get to tabletop games until six, seven, nine, 10, somewhere in there. They’ve already been playing video games for two or three years. They bring with them the expectations of the video games to the board game.
In many ways the board games are not set up for that. Like, “Where’s the save game feature?” Like, “Why can’t I just stop playing and come back later?” All those little things. That’s part of what I’ve been thinking about is that if indeed we’re going to keep the tabletop growing, we have to start to meet the expectations of people who grew up on video games first rather than board games first. The guys who are some of the leads of the League of Legends team were in my office a couple of weeks ago. I sat them down. There were six of them. They all started playing different games of Golem Arcana. These are all people in their late 20s, mid to late 20s. They had never played a tabletop strategy game before.
But 20 minutes into it, they’re having a great time, they’re flying through it, and he turns to his friend, he goes, “This is like Final Fantasy tactics on a table.” He was so excited that somebody had taken Final Fantasy and put it on a table. Because he had no idea that it came from a table to become Final Fantasy tactics. Just again it’s that perspective shift that we’re starting to live through.
Konrad: Mechanics like experience points, leveling and so on in nearly every computer game come straight from pen&paper RPGs.
Jordan: Exactly. That persistence is so important. Also impact on the world and story. To me this is the most exciting things about Golem Arcana. In reality my secret agenda here is to build the first massively multiplayer tabletop game. Because when you play a fantasy game online, your actions not only enhance your character and your experience level and all that kind of stuff, but they can have impact on the overall world.
Well we started that in the ’80s with BattleTech, but it was so slow. People would play a tournament at Gen‑Con, and that tournament would be reflected in a novel that came out a year and a half later. Back then people had more patience. But now we could do that in a real time sense just like it is on a computer game because you can download a new scenario. New scenarios are published all the time. You download them.
You play them with your friends, and the results, and even what you do during the scenario, the objectives, the units you use, the Golem knights you chose, the gods you chose, all of that data moves up into our servers, and is aggregated with other players’ data to determine the outcome of that story scenario, and where the story goes next, and what scenario gets created, and downloaded to your machine for next week’s play.
It really can connect every table in the world to the story that is ongoing and evolving based on the player’s actions.
Konrad: Did you meet Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson?
Jordan: I was lucky enough to work with both of them a great deal. Dave Arneson became a very close friend. I worked with Gary on two games. I worked with Dave on multiple games as well. But my very first time I met Dave. I went home after playing that summer, and I told my friends all about it at high school. We then got back in the car and drove back to Wisconsin to go buy it, because there was no store that carried it.
The only place you could buy it was from the store that was on the ground floor of Gary’s house, that was it, the store that carried it in 1974. We all drove up there to Lake Geneva. Dave was manning the shop, because it was either Dave or Gary. There was only two people that worked there.
It was Dave who was manning the shop. We all bought our copies, which was a big sale because it was like six of us all at one time. And Dave said, “Would you like me to run you through an adventure?” So we all said, “Yes, that would be great!”
So, the store was kind of in the living room area of the house, they had converted the living room to a store. And then we went into the kitchen. And what they’d done in the kitchen is they put up…In the United States, in small houses, you’d have like a kitchen and what we would call the breakfast area, sort of a small area to eat.
And he had set up a table that went between these spaces that divided the room, usually, and put like a bank teller window. So it was just little holes, like you could hear him, but you couldn’t see him.
And so Dave sat in the kitchen and we sat around the table out here in the breakfast area, and Dave took us on an adventure in his dungeon. And he had a great, deep voice. And it was a very theatrical voice. And the fact that you couldn’t see him made it all the more magical, because it really encouraged your imagination, because it was this voice out of nowhere. And then every once in a while, a hand would reach through the little opening and it would say, “Roll these,” and the hand would come back.
And it was a fantastic. He killed us all with rats, not big ones, little ones. But we had a great time.
And then we went back, and then in Chicago, I built a club called the Dragonseekers. And we started getting people and recruiting people. We built it into a pretty big club. While we were in high school, it was 300 people. Not just from our high school, our high school was only like 10 people, but from all the area around town, we started to build this big club.
And the guys at TSR, at this point there was like five guys there, they were very supportive, because we were nearby and had a big club. So yeah, but then I got to work with both of them. They were both good, good guys. I guess Dave and I became very close friends. Gary and I, I think we worked together; we were never really close friends, though.
Konrad: And were these two good at the same things, or what was the difference between their focus, what they were good at?
Jordan: They’re really very different, both in personality and in skill‑set. Dave is very much a mechanics guy. And Gary was more of the story guy.
Konrad: I remember his lists with what you have to read, Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and so that was Gary’s list.
Jordan: Yes. Yeah, he was very much story based, and Dave was more mechanics based. And they went through all their personal relationship and the corporate relationship, went through the kind of story you see in Hollywood all the time, which is unfortunate. But luckily they reconciled before they both passed away.
Konrad: If you look at how pen and paper developed in the ’70s and the ’80s, how would you divide certain episodes of the business, the boom, how do you see it, looking back on the history? How would you tell it?
Jordan: I think it went in several phases. Obviously, Dungeons & Dragons was the primary innovation, the idea of combining miniatures‑like mechanics with the concept of role‑playing, which up till that time had only come from therapy. And I think that was one of Gary’s innovations, was to bring that, something he had encountered in therapy, to the hobby. And I didn’t know who to attribute the idea of the roles for the individual players, but I think that’s Wesley. So that I think was the first one, but those initial games that came out after D&D were very mechanics oriented.
So I think that kind of was the ’70s and the early ’80s, were mechanics. And then I think mid ’80s, it started to switch from mechanics to setting, where the settings became more important than the mechanics themselves.
Shadowrun is a great example. I always said Shadowrun was a game people played in spite of the mechanics, because they were not good mechanics. When I first put that game out, the mechanics did not hold up that well. But the setting was what really got people excited, the types of characters, the universe, the way that the characters interacted, the diversity of the things you could do.
And I think that that’s what the middle ’80s and late ’80s and early ’90s became about. The mechanics’ job at that point was…I always used to say, the greatest mechanic is the one you forget about. It should just get out of the way.
Because at the end of the day, it should be about the story and the socialization, and the mechanics are there just to provide a groundwork, a framework. You shouldn’t be trying to focus on the mechanic for a role‑playing game. So I think that was a big shift.
And then obviously, I think as you got into the mid ’90s, as you go to computers, the mechanics got pushed even one step down further. Because now you didn’t have to deal with them as much, you really were focusing on the results of the mechanics and the world.
Konrad: You said that you read Tolkien after you encountered Dungeons & Dragons. I think it was the other way around with many players.
Konrad: And how do you think would you describe the role of fantasy literature, of course Tolkien, but Fritz Leiber and Howard, before something like this happened, the idea of virtual worlds and you go travel into this world, was literature important for that?
Jordan: Oh, absolutely. No, I think fantasy and science fiction literature is the kind of underpinnings on which all of the role‑playing games are built. That immersion into the world, the richness of those worlds, that’s what inspires you to want to go live there. And that’s why a great book, or a great series of books, the saddest thing is the last page. Because it’s like you don’t want to leave that world. You don’t want to stop visiting those characters.
And I think one of the promises of role‑playing games was now you don’t have to, right, that you could continue to make more adventures and they continue to go on forever, as much as you and your friends want to keep going into those worlds.
So yeah, I think enormous impact. I see that more recently with “Game of Thrones”. The books and the TV show exposed a lot of people to fantasy that weren’t previously fantasy readers and then became fantasy players.
Konrad: I’m not that knowledgeable in games as you are, perhaps you have an idea about it. If there was this idea of virtual worlds where you play in, where you have certain roles and it’s a different reality, and you encounter it interactively, if it was before the ’60s, before since like the Society of Creative Arms or something like that, the SCA, you have the…
Jordan: Oh, yeah, the Society for Creative Anachronism?
Konrad: Anachronism, yeah. You had some early LARP games, but I think the first games that really had this idea of virtual reality were role‑playing games, or am I wrong? Do I miss something?
Jordan: Certainly that’s not true in literature, because literature has been taking us to fantastic worlds almost since the beginning.
Konrad: But it’s not interactive, it’s a story.
Jordan: Yes and no. It is a story, but not always a story that is straight linear. So for instance, you could argue the fantasy worlds that Shakespeare created, right, with “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or things like that, they were theatrical plays, so the audience has some level of interactivity with the players, with the actors. Or if you go to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote “Sherlock Holmes”.
But if you look at his “Lost World” book, where he had the idea was explorers went off and found a part in South America where dinosaurs still existed. When he published that book, he created what we would now call an alternate reality game. He and his friends dressed up in costumes of the explorers. They took photographs. They wrote articles as if they had been on these adventures. And so he planted the seeds of his story in lots of different places to help build credibility for it. And that’s where one of the places I took some of the ideas for when I did the first ARG in 2000. Some of these ideas have been around for a long time. In terms of a game that transports you to another world, I don’t know. It’s abstract, right, but could you argue chess puts you into the realm of the general.
Konrad: Yes, it does, but it’s more about the mechanics, because you are not the general.
Jordan: True. But obviously chess was one of the first things that had the rating and rankings and the levels and the grand masters, and so it had that structure of leveling up.
Konrad: But you did not play in-character.
Jordan: It’s not a persona. But one of the interesting stories about the early days of chess is the bishop. The bishop was not originally the bishop, it was the ship. And if you think about how it moves, the bishops, they tack, just like a ship does.
But the Church thought that the game was so important in society that it was influencing how people thought about the power structure of the world. And so they changed the name from ship to bishop so that you would never forget that the Church is a fundamental player in the political and battles of the world.
So clearly, they thought people were transporting themselves into a world, into a simulation of their own world, that it was important enough that they include the Church in it. But I don’t know. I think in terms of a formal kind of immersion, you’re probably correct.
Konrad: When you just talked about leveling up and chess, I was thinking about services like Foursquare and other type of gamification by very basic point mechanics. After all these years of talking about gamification the mechanics are not very much fun, are they?
Jordan: Yeah. This is my problem with gamification in the general sense. I always use the example of kindergarten. So when you’re very little, you go to kindergarten, and there’ll be a poster on the wall with your name, and if you do something good, you get a gold star next to your name. That’s gamification. And the system works when you’re very young, but then you get a little older, and you realize that you had to clean up all the erasers to get a gold star, and Sally just had to stop crying. And all of a sudden, you go, “Wait a minute! That’s not an equal amount of labor! I had to work hard, and she just had to stop crying.” A gold star now does not mean very much to me, because you’ve just undermined its value. It’s no longer a consistent and meaningful measure of accomplishment. This is the trouble with gamification, because the reason a level in a video game means something, or an accomplishment or an achievement in a video game means something and we care about it, is because we know what it represented to get it, and it’s consistent, and it’s adjudicated fairly. And when you try to apply that to things that just cannot be adjudicated fairly, they lose any inherent value. It’s like any other currency. The currency has value because we believe it has value. And I think the problem when you try to take gamification into too broad of a subject area, it loses that commonly held perception of value, and then it just feels stupid.
Konrad: So you would say gamification works when you have a place of its own for the game?
Jordan: I think you can add game mechanics to things in real life. And they can help you encourage and better behaviors in real life. So I’m not saying you can’t ever apply it, I’m just saying it has to be a closed enough system that you can really make sure that your rewards and your stuff is adjudicated fairly, consistently, and has a rock‑solid, commonly held belief of its value. And then you’ll work hard for it if it’s a community you care about.
Konrad: Is it important to know the people you play with before to give real meaning to social interaction?
Jordan: It does, and I think there’s real benefit to a group of people who get together on a regular basis, because you build those relationships. But if the players are the right type of players, then introducing new people is no problem. And actually, can be quite exciting, because like any social group, it introduces some new dynamics.
Konrad: Playing against or with human opponents in computer games is not necessarily social, is it?
Jordan: If opponents have no context then really they’re just really good AI. If I start to learn who they are and I follow them and I’m like, “Wow…” Now over time they become a person. If there’s no associated with who that is as an individual, and you’re building no continuity of experience with that person, it’s the equivalent of playing an AI, just a good one. We realized this back when we were doing the BattleTech center, which we opened in ’89. It was the first network games people could ever play. In ’92 we introduced what we called long haul networking, where we could take the center in Chicago to play against the center in San Diego. Right away, as soon as we did it, we realized, oh shit, the people in San Diego, they’re, you have no connecting to them. Without that connection, you lose that social impact. You lose the fact that they’re humans. They could just become AI. We saw that right away, that it wasn’t as much as fun as playing the guys in the same center. So we tried to augment that by then, in the center the way it worked is you had your team of four and another team of four and you would meet each other beforehand and then you would play the game and then you would come together afterwards to review what happened. Well we then tried to simulate that with video chat, and of course it’s not as good.
Unless you have context, unless you have a way to make that person a human, they’re just really good AI.