Monday, January 29, 2007

10 Questions Mike Mearls

Mike Mearls has pretty much embodied the dream of the open gaming movement. In less than 10 years he's gone from answering open calls, to freelancer, to working on the staff of Monte Cook's Malhavoc Press, to designing for Wizards of the Coast. As someone who's seen the gaming environment from so many levels, I was thrilled to get Mike to answer my 10 questions. We've shuffled the questions somewhat because Mike's more in the print side these days, and since he's Mike, he gets a bonus question.


Thanks again for taking the time Mike, because of your unique position in the industry, I altered the questions somewhat.

1. What do you see as the next big thing in gaming?

I think the Nintendo Wii is going to kick off a whole mess of gimmicky games and game systems. The Wii looks revolutionary, and it is, but it's also the logical outgrowth of games like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and the various and sundry karaoke/American Idol games. These games have a key, shared trait: interaction on an intuitive, immediate, and visceral level. If you move your feet, DDR is dead simple to learn. All these games are more immersive and viscerally exciting than games played via keyboard or game pad. It's one thing to hit the X button at the right time to do something cool. It's another to thrash through Iron Man on Guitar Hero. In a game like Doom, you're always removed from the action. There's an element of immersion, but even at it's best it's no more immersive than a movie. In contrast, when you play Guitar Hero you really feel like you're playing a guitar.

2. Where do you see the PDF market in 5 years? Do you think PDFs will grow to a substantial percentage of total RPG sales?

Unless the RPG market as a whole dries up, I see PDFs only becoming more important. PDFs are one of those technologies in gaming that has a lot of space to grow. Personally, I prefer to buy adventures in PDF over print. It's so much easier printing out maps, making notes on a printed copy, and so on. I still dutifully collect Dungeon Crawl Classics in print, but adventures are just easier in electronic format.

I think PDFs will slowly replace the lower tiers of print publishing and encroach upward depending on how well companies other than WotC work their way into game stores. To really grow, the market needs a resource to sort out and rate all the releases. It's hard to keep track of everything. The interesting thing is how tightly d20 and the PDF markets are connected. It's hard to launch a whole new game in PDF. A core rulebook in PDF is a little harder to work with, but supplements and micro-books are fantastic. A single, shared system really facilitates that.

More and more, when I got into game stores, especially new ones, the RPG section is a rack of D&D books, maybe a smattering of d20 stuff, and perhaps White Wolf stuff. If that continues, I think PDFs can only continue to take advantage of that situation.

3. A lot of people seem to think computer/console RPGs and MMOs are going to do to tabletop RPGs what RPGs did to wargames. Are we seeing the end of an era?

I think it's subtler than that. I don't think RPGs killed wargames; wargames killed wargames. Simply put, historical gaming isn't that big anymore unless you're talking a console first person shooter. By the same token, WW II movies, cowboy flicks, and so on aren't as big. Today's blockbusters are SF and fantasy. Wargames never caught that market. They were too focused on simulation. Today, though, we have thriving boardgame market with plenty of fantasy and SF themed games. Wargames shrank, but Eurogames eventually took their place.

If RPGs die, I think it will be because they fail to remain relevant to Western culture. In other words, if RPGs are old and stodgy, the kids won't play them.

4. How did you get into the RPG business? What was your first job in the industry?

I got my start by simply asking for work. I was on the mailing list for the Unknown Armies RPG back in 1999. Greg Stolze and John Tynes, the games' authors, were working on a big UA supplement that needed lots of writers. I made a pitch and got my first job. From there, I kept pestering people to let me work on games. I think I mailed Stolze about once a week or so for work on the Feng Shui RPG until he finally relented.

5. If you were starting out today and decided to break into RPGs, what would be your first step?

PDFs are the place to be. They're a good way to make a name for yourself. Since everyone is looking for a way to stand out from the pack, making a name is a good way to do that. I'd think of something that I really wanted for my weekly D&D game, make it, see if I actually use and enjoy it, and then ask around to see if a publisher wanted to take it on. I'd then learn as much about PDF publishing as possible, then start my own imprint.

6. What was the first RPG you ever played?

The J. Eric Holmes edition of basic D&D, way back in 1981. I was always the DM.

7. What are you playing right now?

I'm involved in three games. I run a lunchtime 3e conversion of Against the Giants at work on Tuesdays. I just started a new campaign based on Shattered Gates of Slaughterguarde that runs on Monday nights. I play in Jason Bulmahn's Wednesday night Eberron game.

I wish I had time to run or play Shadowrun and Hollow Earth Expedition.

8. If you could snag any licensed property for an RPG, what would it be?

I've never been a fan of licensed RPGs. To twist the question, I'd love to work on a miniatures game based on Gears of War. I love that game, and I think the basic play mode would translate very well to a unique miniatures games.

9. Your career has seen you go from freelancer, to working side by side with Monte Cook, to working at Wizards of the Coast. Did you plan this? In other words, was working at Wizards always a career goal, or did that come organically as your career progressed.

The goal was always to work on D&D. It was the first RPG I played, and the one I've had the most fun with. When 3e came out, I pretty much lost my desire to invent a new RPG. I basically get to do my hobby for a living. I have no right to complain about anything ever.

There are things I'd like to do, especially with miniatures games and maybe with digital games. I'd also love to design games for younger kids, stuff in the vein of Heroscape. In my heart, I still love GI Joe action figures. That pretty much explains my miniatures workspace and my endless obsession with little army men and other toys.

10. Give me a juicy 4e rumor that I can whore out on the web as coming from a “highly placed Wizards staffer speaking on condition of anonymity” that will start flame wars like a match to kindling. Go on, you know you wanna.

Two words: collectible underpants.

Bonus Question! You’ve been on both sides of the OGL. What has it done for the hobby? Give me a positive and a negative.

I think the OGL helped ignite the PDF industry. You have an entire mass of people who all use the same rule set, giving tons of these small companies a market to go after. Without the OGL, the gaming market splinters into dozens of tiny, isolated factions. The OGL brings the majority of gamers together under the same roof, and that lets PDF publishers make 8 - 64 page books that have a viable market out there.

On the bad side, we've pretty much seen the death of the mid-tier RPG publisher. I don't think we'll ever see another time like the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we had TORG, Shadowrun, Feng Shui, Vampire, and tons of other games come out.

Thanks again Mike! Stay tuned for the next installment of 10 Questions when we interview Preston DuBose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really think Mr. Mearls is off the mark on the whole "collectible underpants" thing. A little birdie told me a while back that WotC's next big thing was a hybrid-genre RPG... two words without giving too much away: "Robot Zombies."

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