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Jobs For The Boys:
Talking Roleplaying and Computing Careers with Erick Wujcik

By Steve Darlington


Recently, Marc Vezina, long time designer, developer and big cheese at Dream Pod Nine (Heavy Gear, Tribe 8) announced that he was leaving the roleplaying profession for more profitable work next door, in the computer games industry. Such a career progression is hardly new to the industry; Greg Costikyan discusses his move in the eighties on his website, and more recently big names such as John Tynes and Dennis Detwiller have followed the same path. Indeed, this has happened with such a startling frequency of late that some have wondered if the trend represents a dangerous "brain-drain" of our great designer talent, wooed to an industry that pays them rates that roleplaying could never dream of providing.

Another game designer who is also pursuing work in other fields is Erick Wujcik. Erick's RPG works include such notaries as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ninjas and Superspies for Palladium Games. He also established his own company, Phage Press, to publish his game Amber Diceless Roleplaying, a work which was revolutionary in both game mechanics and conception. Although still involved in the tabletop gaming industry, Erick has gone on to new challenges in the computing industry, among others. After finishing a stint of lecturing on game design, he is currently heading back to America and back into the job market. On the way, he passed through Australia, and I caught up with him to ask him some questions about the life and prospects of an ex-game designer.

Erick, thanks for your time.

No problem Steve! I love Places to Go, People to Be!

It is, of course, far from correct to imply you have left the game industry: not only do you continue to run Phage Press and publish Amberzine, you also continue to do freelance work, having just written Wolfen Empire (the latest supplement for Palladium Fantasy) and updated the TMNT&oS RPG into the After the Bomb RPG. Yet you also seem to have a "day job". So would you describe yourself as a freelancer, or a professional? Is there in fact a meaningful distinction between the two?

I'd be in the game industry, even if I were manufacturing dice, sweeping up in a game shop or, as I've been doing most recently, teaching classes in game design. While there's a difference between writing role-playing game books, and writing design documents for electronic games, they're both part of the same game industry; both involve creating mind fodder for the kind of people who enjoy imaginary, virtual, interactive entertainment.

In my case, writing role-playing stuff has always been a freelance gig. I was a freelancer from the first little tidbits I wrote for Palladium's first RPG, The Mechanoid Invasion, back in 1982, all the way through working on various Palladium stuff, the Paranoia pieces I did for West End Games, and even for the work I did with my own company, Phage Press. Fact is, I've never drawn a paycheck for any of the work I've done in role-playing.

While the royalties from my role-playing writing have, from time to time, allowed me a lot of freedom, I've also been steadily working at "day jobs" from the very beginning, when I was the midnight computer operator at a newspaper. The difference, since late 1997, is that I had day jobs, starting with Sierra Studios, where I also got to design games for a living.

I started as a freelancer, and I'm still a freelancer. Somewhere along the way, long before I landed my job with Sierra, I was labeled a 'professional' (but I have no idea when or how that happened — maybe it was when conventions started bringing me in a guest?).

As you mentioned, you've recently had the role of Assistant Professor of Game Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Many would be surprised such a topic is even taught at university, let alone that one can be a professor in it. What is the nature of this course, and what exactly do you teach your students? Is there in fact a diploma of Game Design that can be granted?

As it happens, I was involved in 'academic' gaming long before the existence of commercial role-playing games, way back in 1970 (years before TSR's D&D).

Dr. Andrews, My teacher for 'World Politics,' was one of the political science academics, starting back in the early 1960s, interested in gaming and simulation as research and teaching tools. As a feature of my class, each student had to take part in a semester-long board game of Diplomacy. It was a little different than the usual parlour version of the game, in that each student/player joined political groups representative of the WWI era governments, so France had a 14-member Parliament that voted on the movement of each army, while Germany consisted of just a Kaiser, two Generals and an Admiral.

Since those days I've kept up with what's been happening with the game scene in universities, and even taught some classes in gaming at University of Michigan (which offered a Master's Certificate in Gaming up until the retirement of Professor Richard Duke). Taking up a full-time gig as a teacher of game design wasn't that much of a stretch.

Nowadays most academic 'game' programs revolve around the growing computer game market. Take a look at education section of gamasutra and you'll find, as of today, two hundred and seven different institutions worldwide that feature game programs of one kind or another. Aside from the 'specialty' schools, such as Full Sail (Florida) and DigiPen (Redmond, Washington), a huge range of universities, technical schools and art colleges are offering programs for those interested in games. Most game-related degrees include the word 'multimedia,' but we're likely to see more and more emphasis on game design and, eventually, even on role-playing.

It's also interesting to note that games are having an influence in many areas. When I was in Sydney there was a major conference on gaming and the arts, and this past August the 1st Symphonic Game Music Concert in Europe was held in Leipzig, Germany.

I understand you also did some guest lecturing while in Australia. What was that like? Is this jet-setting, "celebrity" lifestyle typical for you, or for the ex-RPG designer in general?

Hard for me to say what's 'typical.' My first week in Sydney started with a guest appearance at Necronomicon (awesome convention, by the way!), where I shared a room with three other role-players in the home of the one of the con organizers, either Game Mastered or role-played from early morning until late at night and ended with giving a very opinionated talk about how Australian role-players should create their own industry. The next day I was put up at a nice little hotel by the School of Information Technologies at the University of Sydney, for whom I gave a multi-media presentation on "Creating Games & Games of Creation: Creativity, Innovation & Techniques of Collaboration in Multimedia Technology & Design."

Personally, I love role-playing, and gaming, and people generally enjoy my talks, so that was pretty typical for me. On the other hand, Australia was only the second place I've ever visited where I also addressed various government officials who wanted to hear what I had to say about the growth of the games industry.

So do you think courses on gaming will be even more prominent in the future, driven by ever increasing job possibilities for game designers? Is this the next big growth field for the new millennium? Should budding young designers - of RPGs or computer games - be thinking about signing up for such things? Or indeed, should they be seeking employment in teaching them?

Considering that the electronic games industry, according to most experts, is now larger than the film industry, I'd certainly label it as a 'big growth field.' In fact, I've seen figures that estimate that up to US$77 billion will be the worldwide annual take for gaming within ten years.

On the other hand, whether the game field is huge, or tiny, my advice to young people is always the same, do what you love. It's been a long, long time since blacksmiths (farriers) were considered a 'cutting edge' profession, but I read recently that there are more horses in the U.S. now than there were before the introduction of the automobile, and it's still not a bad career for someone who loves horses.

The same goes for gaming. And for teaching.

In my case I just happen to be someone who greatly enjoys gaming and teaching, and it's a joy to be able to teach people about the subject I love.

The course you were teaching focused mainly on computer gaming?

Actually, I didn't focus on computer gaming in my course. Instead I tried to teach the basics of game design, from game theory onwards, so that my students would understand the fundamentals. In my opinion, a good game designer should be familiar with a wide range of games, so creativity isn't limited to just a refinement of last year's best-seller.

But computer gaming is the mainstay of leisure gaming, and as you said, is growing bigger all the time. Will we see a future where virtual reality gaming dominates human culture? And how will (or should) table-top roleplaying react to this future?

Yes, I believe we will see a future where gaming dominates human culture. It's pretty clear that interactivity is a fundamental characteristic of human beings, and of all human cultures. We're all gamers, to one degree or another. And it's only a matter of time before the technology of interactivity catches all of us up on a techno-tsunami.

However, I also think that contemporary face-to-face role-playing is still far superior to anything that we'll see on a computer platform in the foreseeable future. Those that learn conventional role-playing, and conventional Game Mastery, and conventional role-playing game design, will eventually become those who shape the emerging interactive future (in fact, I run a role-playing event on exactly this theme, called, appropriately enough, 'Game Master Egomaniacal').

You've done a lot of work in the computer industry - on Sierra Studios' CRPG Return to Krondor, and Outrage Entertainment's Alter Echo. Just how complimentary are the two industries, in terms of both theory and practise of game design? In which arenas did your experience in roleplaying serve you well, and what new skills did you need to acquire?

It's interesting that role-playing and computer games are exactly the opposite in terms of group dynamics. With role-playing an individual designer/writer creates the games, which are then consumed by groups. In electronic games a group, consisting of programmers, artists and designers must come together to create games that are then, usually, consumed by individuals.

So it turns out that being a role-player and/or a Game Master, actually provides some great experience, because it teaches you how to get along in a tight-knit group of people (who, by the way, are usually exactly the same range of geeks and near-geeks, with all the attendant personality quirks).

As I mentioned in the introduction, it seems that quite a lot of game designers go on to work in the computer industry. Why do you think this is such a natural career path? Will it continue? Should it continue?

One huge advantage of role-playing is the speed with which one can proceed from design, to prototype, to play-test. You, Steve, can come up with a cool new idea for a game, jot down a few notes, write up some characters, call your gaming buddies, and by Sunday night you'll know its potential or just how badly it sucks.

The problem in the electronic game industry is that it often takes six months, or nine months, or eighteen months, before you can figure out whether or not a game is fun. And that's months and months of high overhead and a very expensive payroll.

More and more people are figuring out that the smart thing to do is to prototype on paper first. Obviously, people who role-play, and Game Master, and design role-playing scenarios, are naturals when it comes to fast prototyping. So, to me anyway, it seems like that natural career path is going to continue for quite a while.

Would you recommend pursuing such a career path to other game designers? And if so, what advice would you give them in this pursuit?

Sure, why not?

As for advice, I'll say what I've always said. If you want to be a game designer, you need to design games. Not just for publication, fame and/or glory, but just for the pleasure of it. Design games for your buddies, for your local convention, and just for the heck of it. The more you write, the more you design, the more you experiment, the more skilled you'll become.

If you want to become an electronic game designer, you should do the same. And then some. Start fiddling around with creating interactive fictions (I'd recommend Adrift for beginners). Make up some levels using the editors that come with your favorite games (a lot of first-person shooters have do-it-yourself editors, and so do some of the best real-time strategy games). If you're super ambitious, track down some of the many software game engines that are available on-line and start making your own games.

Does that mean we should view RPGs as a sensible career stepping stone, or - even stronger - as an incubator of talent, moulding the great (and successful) computer game designers of the future?

Steve, I couldn't agree more.

If it is an incubator, are the big computer game companies becoming aware of this? Does "wrote RPG books for Palladium Games (or SJG, or Eden)" really look good on a resume? Do the staff of Electronic Arts go headhunting at GenCon?

Well, it doesn't hurt. Not because the headhunters (who you will, sadly, never see at GenCon) are looking for RPG credits, but because the real hiring decisions are generally made by insiders' who are usually game designers with a lot of RPG experience.

So, does this then make work in the RPG industry suddenly a lot more attractive? Enough to alter - if only slightly - the stereotypical perception of the industry among gamers, to something which can be more than just a labour of love which leads mostly to empty pockets and high blood pressure?

Coincidentally, I was talking to Kevin Siembieda about exactly this subject at lunch today.

Namely, what's wrong with working at a labour of love? What's wrong with doing something that you enjoy, just to have fun, just to amuse yourself and your buddies? Why does it have to be anything more than that? Why should it be anything more than that?

But if it is a labour of love, then why not do the labour of love in the industry which pays far better? Not that it is impossible to do both, of course, but when creative appeal is equal, what can stop designers relegating roleplaying to a hobby, rather than a full-time career? Wouldn't such a state eventually reduce the number and indeed, quality of games on the market?

No, I don't think so.

After all, by this logic, the number and quality of novelists must be drastically lower, since producing film scripts clearly is more lucrative.

Some would disagree with you there, taking a much dimmer view of this career progression, fearing a "brain drain" of our best and brightest. In response, they say there is a need for more incentives to stay in roleplaying - an idea which seems impossible given the tiny products of even the largest RPG companies, compared to the of the corporate juggernauts of computer gaming. Can anything be said for being a RPG designer, besides its potential as an "incubator"?

There already is the greatest possible incentive to stay in role-playing.

Namely, it's the most fun thing you can do. Period. There is simply nothing finer, nothing better, and nothing even remotely more intriguing for someone who genuinely needs to stretch their imagination. That's all the 'incentive' we need. The very best and brightest will always be obsessed with making the very coolest role-playing stuff. They're not going anywhere.

As for those who don't like it? For those who feel it ain't rich enough? All I can say is, bye, bye!

On the question of incentives, why did you, personally, seek work in the computer gaming industry? And has it been, overall, a worthwhile move? Was it a dream come true, complete with pots of gold and company cars at the end of the rainbow?

I went into the computer/electronic games industry with the same goals I had in the role-playing industry. I like creating games that will be fun for me, and my buddies. I already knew I could make nifty board games, and cool paper role-playing games.

The end of the rainbow is still off in the future. So far I've done a good job of finishing games that other people have started, but I've yet to be able to bring one of my own little brainstorms to market. Still, the paychecks have been very nice, I've had a great time working with some terrific people, and I've even been able to spend a year in my personal dreamland, Hong Kong. Up, it's been very worthwhile, but I'm nowhere near the end of the ride.

You are now, I understand, seeking employment once again. What opportunities do you see out there for you? Have your options changed in the last five years, and does that say anything about either the roleplaying or computer gaming industry?

You know the old saw, 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.'

On the one hand the technology is vastly better, the teams larger, and the game objectives much more complex and difficult. Yet I'm still looking for exactly the some job; the Lead Designer position where I can create a wholly new game, something that will have millions of people itching to play.

Thinking expansively, both about the present and the near future, what other industries and roles might a game designer be well suited, and would be likely to be chosen over other applicants? What are some of the new and exciting places gaming could take someone these days?

Steve, I think there will be other industries, and other roles, for which we role-players will be ideally suited. My crystal ball is a little fuzzy on the details, and I keep getting the ten of swords when I lay out the Tarot, but I'm pretty sure those jobs are coming.

For now, I'd recommend that people just keep pushing the boundaries of role-playing. Experiment. Play around. Do something strange. Do something different. Throw away your dice, or swim in a bucket of 'em. Have fun. Role-play a god. Or the god of dogs. Or a mollusk. In the immortal words of Bruce Sterling:

"Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom. Embrace your nerditude! You may be a geek, you may have geek written all over you; you should aim to be one geek they'll never forget. Don't aim to be civilized. Don't hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don't do it halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. Have the artistic *courage* to recognize your own significance in culture!"

A wonderful message. Erick, thanks again.

Anytime, Steve, anytime!

On-Line References

Simulation & Gaming:
An Interdisciplinary Journal of Theory, Practice and Research

International Simulation and Gaming Association (ISAGA):

North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA):

Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Multimedia Innovation Centre (MIC):


First Symphonic Game Music Concert In Europe:

Adrift Runner Interactive Fiction Editor:

Bruce Sterling Speech:

Steve Darlington is the founding editor of PTGPTB.

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