A View from Atlas Park: Interview with Rick Dakan, Part 1

RICK DAKAN: THE MAN

CoH Warcry: What five key words would you use to describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

Rick Dakan: Creative, Big, Intelligent, Outspoken, Opinionated.

CoHW: Are you a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person?

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Rick: I’m a glass half full kind of guy – but I’m always looking for leaks in the
glass. I tend to look on the bright side but somewhere in the back of my head I’m always a little worried that something will still go wrong.

CoHW: I’ve read that you spent your college years writing RPG materials – you have quite an impressive resume of books that you have been involved with writing in some way. How did you get into writing, especially of RPG materials?

Rick: I started writing for RPG’s while I was in Grad School at Ohio State. I had
played RPG’s since third grade and had wanted to break into the biz for several years. My friend Mark Friedman and I were driving to Gen Con and he mentioned that he happened to know the woman who was in charge of White Wolf’s new game, Wraith. We decided to pitch her an idea for a book, which eventually became Dark Kingdom of Jade, which was, I think, the first Asian setting for any White Wolf project.

Things just pretty much took off from there. I did some work for Mutant Chronicles and Kult and then ran into Jack Emmert at the next Gen Con. We’d had a class together at Ohio State. I was already doing some work on Conspiracy X for Eden Studios and so Jack and I pitched them Cryptozoology, which was our first project together.

CoHW: What work of yours are you most proud of (or the least dissatisfied with, depending on your work ethic)?

Rick: Well, honestly, City of Heroes, even though I haven’t had much of an integral role in the last couple years. It’s certainly the most successful idea I’ve ever had and I’m really pleased with how the comic book is coming along. We really hit our stride with issue 5 and starting with our big five-issue arc that begins with issue 8, I think it’s really fun, good stuff.

Of my older, RPG work, I think the stuff I did for All Flesh Must Be Eaten is really very solid and fun.

CoHW: If someone was to come to you for advice about being a writer, what would you tell them?

Rick: Everyone says it because it’s true: Write Every Day. Writing is a muscle and the more you do it, the better you get (and the easier it gets). Set yourself a deadline/number of words per day and hold yourself to it.

CoHW: How do you spend your average day?

Rick: I wake up and start writing first thing. I try to write between 2,000 and
3,000 words per day and I get my best work done first thing before I get too much else going on in my head. Then I usually spend some time stuffing envelopes and sending out comic books to people who order online from Blue King Studios. Afternoons I usually have a martial arts class and/or run errands.

CoHW: Pictures of you already show that you are a big guy, and the fact you do martial arts makes sure I keep this interview as friendly as possible. For all the martial arts nuts out there, what style do you do? How long have you been at it? What grade (as much as that matters) are you?

Rick: For the past eight years or so I’ve been studying a form of gung fu with a
teacher here in Sarasota (so there was kind of a break for the three years I was in California at Cryptic, but I practiced on my own and came back to train every year. It’s relatively obscure, but it shares a lot with Wing Chun. Long ago I earned a black belt in another school of kung fu, but my current teacher doesn’t do the belt thing.

CoHW: What is your favourite book(s)? Favourite comic(s) (series or graphic novel)?

Rick: My favorite book of all time is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. It’s
a gargantuan work of genius and I highly recommend it to anyone. Right now I’m finishing up Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which has been wonderful as well. I also love anything Chine Mieville writes.

Comics wise, my favorites are From Hell, The Invisibles, and V for Vendetta.

CoHW: Do you find much time to play CoH? If so, what is your preferred character origin / archetype?

Rick: I don’t have much time to play COH these days – I had to restrict myself as
I’m working on a novel and can’t really afford the distraction. But when I do play I like controllers – particularly those with mental powers.

CITY OF HEROES: THE BEGINNING IS THE END IS THE BEGINNING

CoHW: I’d like to go back to the moment that CoH came into existence as an idea. How did it happen? What was the core idea that stuck with you?

Rick: I remember it well. My childhood friend Michael Lewis (current CEO of Cryptic) was in the process of selling his first company to Broadcom. He and I had talked about starting a video game company together in sort of very general terms. I was working on writing RPG stuff at the time (The Ventrue Clanbook for Vampire at that particular moment) and also had a job writing for a dot com start up.

I had played a little Everquest and while I didn’t get into it I saw the potential of the MMORPG. It also appealed to my pen and paper RPG background. I’d written dozens of sourcebooks that created a setting for the players to run around in as they saw fit, and the online game was about as close to that as computer games came.

So, to actually answer your question, I literally just sat down one day and tried my damnedest to think of a good idea for an MMORPG. City of Heroes was almost the first idea I came up with… which leads into your next question.

CoHW: According to the recent Forbes article, you pitched the idea to Michael Lewis. How did you convince someone that a superhero-themed mmog was the way to go, given that the mmog genre is dominated by fantasy games and rapidly increasing in competition?

Rick: I knew right off the bat that doing another fantasy game would be silly – Ultima, EQ and Asheron’s Call already had that covered. I also knew from my own writing jobs that RPG’s in general covered a whole lot of other genres besides fantasy. I figured there was no reason you couldn’t do the same with online gaming.

Convincing people that CoH was a good idea has never been a problem. 90% of the time, as soon as I told someone the idea, they got it right away. Lots of people on first hearing it said, “Oh of course, that’s a great idea! Why hasn’t someone done that already?”

CoHW: The majority of your experience is as a writer, so how did you find being the lead designer on a multi-million dollar computer game? What did you have to adapt quickly to? What did you learn from it?

Rick: Well, it turned out I had a lot to learn, some of which I didn’t really learn until it was too late. The first big adaptation was learning to work with limits set by technology and the resources at hand. I had a wish list a mile long coming into the development, much of which (rightly) ended up on the cutting room floor.

I also had a lot to learn about working with a team of people, which was something I hadn’t done a lot of. I’m used to just being alone, in front of my computer and doing my work. Being the Lead Designer required a lot of explaining things to other people and of course a lot of meetings, some of which I really enjoyed, some of which I didn’t.

I think the biggest mistake I made – and it’s a big one – is that I didn’t spend enough time engaging with my co-workers and really communicating with them. I needed to listen to everyone more than I did.

Actually, I listened a fair amount, but I don’t thing people believed that I was listening because then I’d go off to my office and work on whatever and incorporate any good ideas I heard and throw out the ones I didn’t like, all without explaining to people why I was doing what I was doing. I came into the company with the assumption that each of us would have a set of tasks and each of us would go off and do those tasks and then it would all fit together in the end. I now realize that there needed to be a lot more communication, particularly about my design decisions and why I was making them.

CoHW: You wrote a lot of backstory and character information for Paragon City and the world it inhabits. What part of this content for CoH are you the most proud of?

Rick: I really like all of the city history stuff a lot. That was fun to do, since
I made it up to sort of mirror how things were happening in the world of comics at each stage. But of course it’s the villain groups that really shine for me, and they’re where I’ve had the most impact on the game as it is today.

CoHW: What villain group that you helped design (or designed yourself) is your favourite and why?

Rick: I’ve always liked the 5th Column, they’re one of the coolest early ones I
did. But I think I like the Rikti/Lost the most of the original set, mostly because there’s so much hidden back story stuff going on with them that the players will only find out later as everything develops. In my opinion, the Rikti aren’t even really bad guys at all, believe it or not.

Of the stuff I’ve done since I left Cryptic, I think my two favs are the Malta Group (which is highlighted in the current story arc of the comic book) and Rularuu and the Shadow Shard, which I had a ton of fun writing.

CoHW: You wrote the promotional comic for CoH that was printed by Dark Horse. How did this come about? Was this the first comic you’d written?

Rick: That was my first comic. Yes indeed. We basically had them printed up as a promotional thing for E3 I believe. We just paid Dark Horse to handle the art and production and all that. We printed like 20k of them I think, just as a little give away thing since we weren’t gonna have a finished game anytime soon.

CoHW: You’ve indicated that a Forbes fact checker told you that the take away words used to describe you at the end of your time at Cryptic were “disarray” and “demoralised”. Is this a fair assessment?

Rick: Yeah, that’s pretty fair, although it’s probably more complicated than that.

There had been some organizational shake-ups about a month earlier and Jack and I switched roles, along with some other changes for other personnel. I totally agreed with this at the time by the way – I’m not complaining about it. But I was a little grumpy there for a while. Actually I think I was coming out of it when I was asked to leave, but by then it was too late. Whatever damage that had been done had been done.

It’s tough when your friends with your business partners because you still talk to them as friends and they end up knowing a lot more about your emotional state than you would usually share with a co-worker.

CoHW: Do you think that the Forbes piece correctly states what happened, at least during your time as lead designer?

Rick: I do, although as a friend of mine pointed out, the way it reads, it sounds
like Mike fired me and then everything got better all of a sudden. Actually, they’d had it that I resigned, but I told them to print the cold hard truth.

My leaving was only one of many, many changes that happened right around then. There were big changes in the programming department and in the managerial set-up at the same time. They hired a slew of new people soon after I left (including my roommate at the time, which was vaguely awkward, but great for him and the company as he’s a brilliant guy). The Forbes piece doesn’t really emphasize those changes Mike made, which I think were probably more important in turning Cryptic around.

CoHW: Briefly, what happened in the build up to you leaving the position of lead designer of CoH? What was this like for you?

Rick: Well, like I said earlier, Jack and I had switched roles and I’d become kind of grumpy I guess. To be honest, I can’t actually tell you what the precipitating event was that led to me being asked to leave. I know I pissed some people off, probably by being a jerk or not working late enough. I thought I was getting a lot better actually in the week leading up to my firing.

When I came in Monday morning and then Mike told me that he wanted to switch my role from game design to just writing and backstory stuff, I was pretty shocked. Then the rest of the founders had a meeting and I was told I was fired but that they wanted me to keep working as a contractor. So they still valued my input and creativity, just not enough for me to continue vesting stock or drawing a salary and health insurance. It was pretty grim, and of course very awkward – I was renting a house from Mike at the time, but I pretty much immediately decided I was moving back to Florida.

Leaving was hard, and it’s been an up and down ride since then, although everything’s worked out for the best by this point. But still, I was pretty pissed when the game came out and I was credited only in the “special thanks” section. I would have liked even just a design credit, which I think I deserved for the massive amount of work I did as a contractor in 2003 alone, much less for my original work conceiving of the game and working on it for 2.5 years before I left.

CoHW: Having just left CoH – something that you had a lot invested in and helped create – you moved on to found an independent comics studio who’s primary release was a CoH comic! How long had a regular CoH comic been planned for? And did it feel a bit, well, weird to take this step?

[p]Rick: Well, the comic hadn’t been planned at all. Actually I pitched them on the idea and they bought it. Mike was a big help in convincing them – them being NCSoft, since they foot the bill for it. It was a little weird, but you have to remember, that first year after I left I was still working really hard on the game. I wrote something like 400,000 words of background material and NPC dialogue in 2003 – all after I was fired. So by the time we worked out the comic book deal, I was pretty used to how weird the situation was.


[p]I asked Rick about how his friendship with Michael Lewis and Jack Emmert is – he’s still on friendly terms with both of them, recently spending a weekend with Michael playing games and hanging out. Both of them read the Forbes piece on CoH for the first time during that weekend.

[p]Interview continued in Part 2 next week!

[p] – UnSub [email protected] November 3 2004

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