Where some companies’ About Us page contains a mealy-mouthed forward-looking vision statement about moving forward new paradigms, independent developer Running With Scissors‘ About Us page straightforwardly proclaims they are the “notorious video game developers despised by Senator Lieberman, the United States Post Office, and the Australian legislature (to name but three), for daring to produce the tasteless and insensitive videogames Postal and Postal 2.”
In the Postal games, it’s possible to do more than merely shoot your enemy. In Postal 2, it’s possible to beat them senseless, set them on fire, pee it out, hit them with a shovel, pee on them again, then watch them scream for mercy when you get tired of it and light them on fire again to end it all. That’s before you get creative and use a cat-silenced shotgun to spook an elephant, which sends it charging headlong through a marching band full of people, all of whom are running and screaming and on fire, because you thoughtfully tossed a Molotov cocktail on them before taking a potshot at Dumbo.
While Postal and its sequel are awesome and terrible things when the chaos gets out of hand, the secret of the series is that it’s entirely possible to not do those things, as well. Postal 2 may let you drive your flaming enemies before you with your penis hanging out, but it also lets you wait patiently in line like everyone else, walk the streets and wander aimlessly around town, and complete missions without firing a shot. You can certainly go in guns blazing and achieve your goals, or you can sneak around the back way and avoid the fight entirely. Even though it’s not mentioned among the Holy Grail Sandboxes like Oblivion, Postal 2 is an enjoyable experience in doing your own thing. So what does it say about us that given a free-roaming environment, the first thing we do is start shooting things, setting them on fire and peeing on them? Still, while much ink and airtime has been spent denouncing Running With Scissors, they’ve seldom had their say. I spoke with Vince Desi, RWS’ CEO, about his company and how they see themselves and their games.
His job title may be CEO, but he says their small size means he’s involved in many different things. “My main priorities are design and marketing, he says. “[RWS] is really a very different kind of company. We’re a lot more like a club than a business entity.” They started a decade ago, he says, “because we were bored making educational games. The size of the company has changed from project to project. We were less than 10 when we made the original Postal. Now, including everyone, we have over 20 folks contributing to Postal III,” and many on the team are former players who were prominent in the community for their mod-making or other skills. “As a ‘club,’ we have some members who are current, some inactive, and some volunteer. Like I said, we’re very different from your typical videogame company. As for culture, the age range of our team is pretty wide, so we have a good cross-culture, but the one consistent theme is fun. We like to have fun and we make fun of everyone and anything in our games, including ourselves.” He says the work environment in the company is very friendly, more so than it would be in a big company, and describes the group as, “very independent, and at the same time, we all work well together. It’s something that has to be when you’re a small, self-funded group.”
“Like the team, the Postal series is also a true anomaly,” he says, when asked about their flagship franchise. “Historically, we’ve done very well, with over 1 million units sold worldwide, with most sales coming from the international market.” The remarkable part, he says, is most of the work has been done in-house. “We have basically co-published the series ourselves, had zero budget for marketing, and never really been on the retail shelves in North America. That’s pretty amazing.” The upcoming Postal III will make the company and series’ debut on consoles, he says, and they’re all very excited about it. “Nothing is better than getting emails from anxious fans awaiting Postal to be on 360.”
He describes Postal fans as older, saying, “Originally, we thought our audience would be the hardcore gamer. After all, the first Postal was an arcade-style game. As it turned out, mainly because of the humor, satire and overall political correctness or incorrectness of the game, our audience is much older.” Postal fans tend to be “30-plus in age, highly educated and socially and morally libertarian,” he says, “[but] we never really set out designing with a core audience in mind. Actually, we design based on what we like, and we figure if we like it a lot, then there will be others who feel the same way, and I think that’s proven to be true. Let’s face it, in the game, we target everyone.” Indeed they do. One of the series’ strengths is no group goes un-skewered, even Running With Scissors themselves. “I really think that’s why it does so well, why it hits home, if you know what I mean.”
A lot of what the company does seems designed to antagonize, from the names of their products (the Postal Fudge Pack, for example), to the games themselves, to hiring Uwe Boll to direct the Postal movie, but at the same time, pulp can have power, too. Sometimes, being provocative can say more than all the nice words in the world. I asked if they were trying to make a statement in the artistic sense, or if they were just trying to make fun games. “I do believe that videogames have risen to an art form level,” Desi said, “but, personally, I still think [that] first and foremost, they are games, a form of entertainment.” He says he’s been making games for over 20 years, “and for me, a videogame is still a game, not a movie, not a novel. It’s something you play and should have fun [playing].” At the company level, he says, “I think RWS has a very pure and objective view of things, and that’s reflected in our games. The fact is, we include everyone, gender, religion, race, size and attitude. The main problem has been [that] we were labeled and positioned as the scapegoats of the industry from the very beginning. I don’t think for a second it’s based on content. It’s much more to do with the politics of retail and distribution. That’s why I love digital distribution.”
Once they’ve gotten their reaction, RWS seems to enjoy themselves tremendously. Calling down the sound and fury of a senator would send most companies scuttling for a rock to hide under. Running With Scissors brags about it on their website. I asked if it was as simple as any publicity being good publicity, or if they were trying to make a point. “Publicity is only good when you have a positive spin,” he answered. “Personally, we love satire. We’re big fans of South Park, The Simpsons and classic pop culture. For us, videogames [are] a form of artistic expression, not only visually, but as creators, writers and designers. How else can you react to the stupidity of politicians and other pseudo-celebrities or superstars, but to make fun of them?”
Desi suggests anyone seeking insight into the world of Postal should play the game, “[and] play with an open mind and see how strong the AI is in our games, watch how characters react in our game to different situations. It’s a lot more fun than trying to predict how or which group will be offended by a certain feature.”
A question about their partnership with Uwe Boll – “I would never partner with anyone if I didn’t support them, just like I don’t go to dinner with people I don’t like” – highlights his respect for people who march to the beat of a different drum. “He’s independent and does what he wants. He’s a lot like us. If we were in this for the money, then we would have made Doom 48, Unreal 57, Halo 99. You get the picture. We don’t make games for the mainstream, yet they really are very mainstream, if you ever truly play them. I’m proud to be different. There’s a reason why so many people, after they actually play Postal, tell me it’s one of their all-time favorite games.”
While a lot of developers crave artistic or mainstream respectability, Desi says he’s happy where he’s at. “Life is not fair. Not everyone can be a Trump or a Paris, nor should they be. I’m very happy, personally, with who I am and who RWS is. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. For me, being honest is the most important thing in the world. It really is the ultimate freedom. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit what politicians or other hypocrites think, that’s their problem.”
Shannon Drake is a former Contributing Editor to The Escapist. He now rides a polar bear to work.