All in the Cards

Steve Jackson: The Escapist Interview


Even if you’ve never heard of Steve Jackson, you’ve probably felt his influence.

Steve Jackson started his career at Metagaming Concepts, where he developed Ogre and pioneered the “microgame,” creating wholly self-contained games often distributed in single plastic baggies. Jackson parted ways with Metagaming in 1980 to found his own company, appropriately named Steve Jackson Games, where he has since produced over 250 games, including Car Wars, Illuminati, Ninja Burger, GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System) and Munchkin, and is currently at work on his first MMOG, UltraCorps. But Steve Jackson’s reach extends beyond his own vast empire of card and tabletop games, influencing or directly mentoring many of today’s brightest developers, including Warren Spector, who started his career at SJG and went on to create some of the most intelligent and innovative videogames ever made.

As with most creative visionaries, one’s first impression of Steve Jackson is not necessarily that he’s a supergenius. Although he is a hyper-intelligent game designer, the first thing one notices about Steve Jackson is that he’s an enthusiastic gamer. As we spoke on the phone, his intelligence was apparent, but his passion for games (both his and other people’s) came through even more clearly. And after speaking with him in person at AGC, that impression was solidified.

The man also pronounces punctuation. Questions he’s asking are clearly interrogative, it’s deadly apparent when he’s finished speaking and when he’s making an emphatic point, there’s no mistaking the exclamation point. I’ve tried, where possible, to translate that into text using bold-faced type, but having a conversation with the legendary Steve Jackson is one of those things you just have to experience to believe.


The Escapist: You’ve been making games for quite a while, and all of your games seem to have that “Steve Jackson flair,” but that’s really hard to define. What is it about your games that make them “Steve Jackson” games.

Steve Jackson: I wish I knew; it’s just what I do. A lot of them have a humorous element, but not all of them do. Certainly Ogre didn’t. What can I say? I just do them.

TE: Do you see any future in tabletop gaming today?

SJ: As long as we’ve got tabletops there will be people who will want to sit down and have chips and soda and play with their friends. That’s not going to go away.

TE: Is there one that you’ve done that’s you’re favorite?

SJ: When people ask me that I like to ask them if they have children. You know? Which is your favorite?

TE: I don’t, and I can’t help myself. I just instinctively ask that question even though I know that’s going to be your answer, because you just have to. I think everyone has a favorite Steve Jackson game, and it may not necessarily be tied to the game per se. Maybe it’s tied to the company you kept or the table you were playing it on. And I think that ties back to what you were saying a minute ago. That’s what really keeps us playing isn’t it?

SJ: Yes. The enjoyment you get out of a game is largely about who you’re playing it with. Yes. That’s going to reflect on your memories. I have different favorites from month to month and sometimes they’re my own games and sometimes they’re not. Right now I’m playing a lot of Puzzle Pirates.

TE: What else are you playing?

SJ: I’m doing a lot of test playing in UltraCorps, which is the online game that we’re working on. Other than that it’s just a scattershot. … We’re evaluating a lot of games for 2007 release, right, so right now I’m playing a lot of different games.

TE: Anything you can talk about?

SJ: No! Can’t talk about it. I can admit that there’s more Munchkin coming, but that’s about it.

TE: UltraCorps is kind of an expansion of an earlier UltraCorps game, isn’t it?

SJ: UltraCorps was originally created by a studio called VR-1. And it was released on the Microsoft Gaming Zone and it had a little run there, but it was not successful. It was, in fact, so unsuccessful that there’s a short chapter in a book about online gaming that discusses all of the reasons it flopped. I found that very instructive.

The only [reason] I disagreed with was the idea that games like that aren’t fun and nobody’s going to play them, period. I think that there are a lot of people who like the idea of playing a multiplayer space conquest game that’s more “boardgamey” and less about running around with an animated character.

But there were a lot of problems with the way it was originally run for pay, and for me, none of those trumped the essential coolness of the game. It’s just that there were some little execution problems. Some of them are forgivable. For instance: The game did not have good refereeing on the Zone, according to the book (and I’ve had other people tell me this). It didn’t have good refereeing because the referees were all so into the game that they were playing it themselves. They were sometimes more interested in their own games than in their refereeing duties. It speaks well for the game that it could eat their minds that way; management shouldn’t have allowed that.

And we see that here in our play test. I really still love playing the game very much, even after two years of sometimes painful redevelopment. The coder loves playing the game. We’re just going to set it up so that game staff cannot join the massive for-points games. That’s easily done.

The other problem with the game, the big problem, was that it was hard to learn, and new players were at the bottom of the food chain – quite literally. The winning strategy for the game was to hope that you were set up next to a couple of newbies so that you could roll over them. And take their stuff! We have done a whole lot to make the game easier to learn. We’re building in some social things to encourage [veterans] to help newbies. Although, of course, there will still be reason to kill them or anybody else. And as soon as we have enough real games under our belt to make this possible, we will divide play up according to experience so that the real tigers will no longer be around in the games that the newbies enter.

TE: So it’s safe to say that you’re using the experience of the early game as sort of a handbook of “what not to do”?

SJ: There’s a lot of what not to do, but it’s a great game. The reason that I bought [it] was that I was in it as a player and I though it was just cool. It owned my mind for a few months some years ago, and I was very sorry when it went offline. And then, when I had the opportunity to buy it myself, it was like “yeah, duh.” I truly don’t know how it will do financially when it’s launched. We have a lot to learn. But one reason that I wanted to do it is for the experience.

TE: When are we going to get our hands on it?

SJ: You can play it now at It’s in a free test phase. Before we launch it, we will hit feature lock and we will run one final game as the beta game on the theory that “OK, everything is done and now we’re testing it all together.” And then we will say “OK, send me money?” And see what happens.

TE: Talking about buying UltraCorps raises an interesting question. At this point, your company is pretty well-established. Are you to the point now where you can take those risks and not have to worry so much about the commercialization, or are you still operating more or less as an “indie” developer, living hand-to-mouth?

SJ: It’s not totally hand-to-mouth, but we certainly can’t go around taking risks randomly. Part of the UltraCorps thing is it’s a controlled risk. We don’t know if we will make a bunch of money on it, but we’re pretty sure that we won’t lose a bunch of money on it. And we will learn a lot that will position us to do other things later, or make us a better partner for other online publishers who want to take a license.

We have so many properties out there that could be turned into computer games. If I were fully-funded now for everything I want to do, there wouldn’t be time to do them all for the next five to 10 years.

TE: Which of your games would you most like to see turned into a videogame?

SJ: If I could just wave my hand and make it happen now? Munchkin.

TE: Munchkin?

SJ: Yeah. With Car Wars in second place. And the only reason Car Wars is in second place is that Car Wars had its greatest popularity 10 years ago, and Munchkin‘s greatest popularity was last month and has been last month for more than a year. It just keeps going up! So Munchkin is the hot property right now. Car Wars would make a wonderful, wonderful game, and so would Munchkin, but they’d just be different games. And so would Illuminati and so would Ogre and so would yadda yadda yadda I can’t do them all at once.

TE: What would a Munchkin videogame look like?

SJ: It would look a lot like John Kovalic drew it. I would absolutely want to keep the Kovalic art style.

TE: You were at TIGC recently and you spoke about independent game development. Is there anybody out there that you think “gets” it?

SJ: Daniel James “gets” it. Daniel James gets it so much. He’s the creator of Puzzle Pirates. He’s proven that he gets it by doing something that’s both original and commercially successful. He runs, which is basically a public sandbox for people to use his tools and do game development. He speaks at conferences and is very forthcoming about what he’s doing. He even gives numbers. He’ll stand up and tell you how many subscribers he has, how much money he’s making and what models are working best. He not only gets it, but he’s willing to share, and I think that [being] willing to share is part of “getting it.” He does a blog called The Flogging Will Continue that’s very good reading.

TE: Do you think that ties in to the “hacker ethic”? Do you think that sharing of information is really key?

SJ: I would reject strongly the term “hacker ethic” because different hackers have different ethics. But yeah, sharing information, sharing ideas – brainstorming. And the internet lets you brainstorm with people that you have never met and will never meet. And he gets that, too.

TE: Let’s talk about design in terms of putting together a game. Which do you see as the more important aspect, the system of a game or the setting of a game?

SJ: Depends on the game. You have some brilliant work out there that’s almost all setting and you have things out there that are pure system. SPI’s Strategy 1 was nothing but system. There are some maps of territories that never happened and here are a whole lot of counters in God knows how many colors for generic military units. And there are some brief rules on how to use this to represent medieval and here some brief rules for Age of Steam and there are some more brief rules for WWII technology … and now run along and play! No setting at all.

My GURPS roleplaying game is all about system, and some people found that either daunting or boring, and they said “well, there should be some setting.” And the fourth edition does add some specific setting suggestions, although it’s a “multi-versal” setting. It still gives them a framework. Some people like framework. Some people prefer story framework to game rules. They say, “I can make up rules. Give me a story to work with.”

There’s no right answer, and there’s no reason to think that one approach should or will dominate, because people are different. They want different things.

TE: GURPS is obviously a brilliant system, and it’s held up pretty well. We’ve since seen another system come out: the d20 System. I want to know what you think about the d20 system and what you think about the proliferation of it.

SJ: It was an interesting marketing move, and it’s been a very enabling thing. d20 enabled indie game publishers like crazy. Between the enabling of a licensee to do imitation D&D and the enabling of “Woo we can publish free on the web and cheap with Pod,” we saw just a huge blossoming of indie game creators. Most of their work was simply abysmal, and that had some serious effects on the sales chain.

There was a big bulge of d20 stuff. For a while, you could sell anything with the d20 label on it and then when people figured out that the d20 label meant “lowest common denominator,” a lot of retailers and distributors were stuck with product. And that hurt them. So we see enabling is not always a good thing.

At the same time some really, really quality products – some really quality companies – have been created in response to d20 or flourished and sunk their roots deep doing quality d20 stuff. There’s nothing about the d20 system itself that says “this has to be lowest common denominator.” It’s just that out there in the “real world,” unless you see a logo on it that you know … when you see Green Ronin or Mongoose, you know you’re buying Green Ronin and Mongoose quality. But if you see a d20 sticker on it and you’ve never heard of it, then what you have to expect is that you’re getting imitation D&D by somebody that’s living out their fantasies being a game creator. Open the cover and look before you buy it.

TE: How do you think d20 plays? Have you played it much?

SJ: Not much. It plays like D&D. D&D was the first roleplaying game I played because when I started there weren’t any others. And I liked it! It was cool!

Some of my first design was in response to what I perceived as insufficiencies in the system, just like a hundred thousand other people who went out and wrote something because they saw insufficiencies in the system they were playing. Except I got mine published. Woohoo.

d20 is streamlined D&D. Duh. If somebody wants to play with classes and levels and they’re in a setting where D&D works (because it was optimized for sword and sorcery, it’s strongly optimized for that, and you get hilarious results when you try and bring the system into anything else), it’s pretty easy to find somebody that wants to play D&D. And if you wave a d20 book around, that’ll be recognized as D&D even though the trademarks are different.

TE: Looking at one of your newest games, Chez Guevara – and that’s obviously a take-off of Chez Geek – looking through your game catalog, one gets the impression that you’re kind of a revolutionary. Is that just a side effect of your sense of humor?

SJ: Chez Guevara is not a game about the romantic side of being a revolutionary. Chez Guevara is about being dirty and sweaty and stinky and out there in the jungle, and the officers are trying to get you, and your fellow troops don’t like you all that much, and you win the game by collecting enough “Slack” so that you can escape, go to the city and open up an internet café on the reward money from turning in the “Glorious Leader.”

TE: So it’s more about the Steve Jackson sense of humor?

SJ: The cliché that that game subverts is the cliché of “Glorious Revolution.” Everything is out there to be made fun of. Clichés are to be subverted.

TE: Is that sort of a running theme?

SJ: With some things. On the other hand, with Ogre it was “clichés are to be celebrated! Look at the huge tank!” Ogre is not ironic at all. I did that almost 30 years ago, but the message with Ogre is that tanks are cool. The bigger the tank, the better it is.

TE: So you guys are working on UltraCorps. Is Steve Jackson Games moving in that direction? Toward computer games?

SJ: I don’t want to move entirely in that direction. I want to move more in that direction because you can do such neat games on the computer. Over the years, as new styles of games have developed I’ve had a lot of fun with “hey, can I do that?” I’d like to do digital games. I don’t’ want to abandon what I’ve been doing for … a terrifying number of years, but I would like to have more options to play with.

TE: One of the criticisms we’ve seen of MMOG games or games that have attempted to capture the tabletop game feel in a computer setting is that the computer just doesn’t make a very good game master. What would you say to that?

SJ: I would say that’s true. Saying that the computer doesn’t make a good game master is neither a new comment nor an incisive one. Don’t let anybody sell that to you as an insight. The insights will come from the people who find a way to address that problem.

TE: Looking forward at other properties you may turn into a computer game, is that something you’re addressing?

SJ: Well. The short answer is “not with anything I can talk about.” And if I could talk about it, I would be waving my arms and explaining what I’m dreaming about rather than spitting out lines of code that solve the problem. Putting a real game master in a computer is possibly an issue of true artificial intelligence. And that’s a ways off.

TE: Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk with us.

SJ: I hope it was useful, and that you had a good time.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has been writing on the web since it was invented and has played every console ever made. He also makes a mean Texas chili.

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