|Jordan Weisman: Gamer's Luck, Business Savvy|
Forget the three old ladies spinning, measuring and cutting yarn. Fate must be a gamemaster with a particularly sardonic sense of humor. All too often when Fate rolls the dice to create your character, you find your greatest strengths tangled up in your biggest challenges. So it happened for Jordan Weisman, creator of top-selling role-playing and interactive games, co-founder and designer of 26 interactive entertainment facilities for Disney, current creative director for the entire Microsoft entertainment department and chief executive officer of WizKids Games.
Weisman transformed a dyslexic's necessity -- thinking outside the box -- into a consistently innovative and successful approach to the business of gaming. From Star Trek to BattleTech, from interactive cockpits to artificial intelligence Web mystery games to Xbox®, Weisman changed the way American plays. Crescent Blues caught up with Weisman at Dragoncon 2002 just prior to the launch of the newest component of the WizKids gaming system.
Crescent Blues: How did you go from game player to game designer?
Jordan Weisman: Gaming is actually a very important part of my life. I think the reason for that is that I was very severe dyslexic. I couldn't read, really. I was very lucky in that I had a very knowledgeable and observant teacher, because in my generation, most dyslexics were just written off as stupid. But she had been reading some of the more recent research and realized there was a chance I was not stupid, so she had me tested.
Another lucky part was that I was in Chicago. The University of Education in a suburb of Chicago was one of the two places in the country doing research on dyslexia. My teacher suggested that I go up there and be tested. The researchers at the university found that, yes, I seemed to have this.
I went through many years of tutoring and, thus, learned the skills to read, but it was very slow and painful. So like any kid, I avoided it, even though I had the skills. I was really apt at cheating, and I could cheat my way out of any class.
Then at summer camp (I was a junior counselor), one of the older counselors had Dungeons and Dragons ®. It had only come out about a year earlier. At the time, the only place to buy it was in Wisconsin from Gary (Gygax) and Dave (Arneson) themselves.
The counselor was a good gamemaster and a good storyteller. This fired my imagination like nothing I'd encountered before. The problem solving, the visualization, the socialization had been completely captured.
I was inspired about fantasy. I was inspired about gaming -- all these things I had no access to. The other thing is there is no way to cheat. If I wanted this, I had to read.
So I started reading [J.R.R.] Tolkien. I started reading the rule books. It was slow, and it was painful, but it was something I wanted enough that I would do it. It turned me around completely. It also inspired my imagination enormously.
At the camp, then at my school, I became the gamemaster and the storyteller, which were roles I really enjoyed. I formed game clubs in my high school and so on and so forth, and I started to follow that route. Gaming became the core of my social experience. It also inspired me to organize things. I started this game club that grew into 500 members back in Chicago.
Then there was college. College was not a very successful career for me, but gaming continued to be part of it. I started to publish some special designs and scenarios that I had done at home. They started to sell and became a good reason to drop out of school and pursue this success.
Crescent Blues: How did you sell them?
Jordan Weisman: I sold them to a local store in the Chicago area. Then I asked them where they bought their products. I traced the distribution chain upwards, then sent samples and price slips to all the distributors. I started selling merchandise to the distributors, who sold it to retailers all around the country.
Crescent Blues: Did you make the games as well as design them?
Jordan Weisman: These were all paper products at the time. [The process] used mechanical drawing skills that I'd learned in school. We drew starships, then we wrote adventures that people could take on the starships. We printed them at the local "Sir Speedy" little off-set press, printing a hundred copies, two hundred copies. That's how we started the company. I think our starting capital was $300. My partner became the guy who was at the table who raised his hand and said he had $150.
Crescent Blues: What was the inspiration that led to BattleTech ®?
Jordan Weisman: FASA [the Freedonia Aeronautics & Space Administration after Groucho Marx's mythical country in Duck Soup] started by doing supplements for Traveler ®. Traveler was a science fiction game by Games Designer Workshop (at that time). We started doing supplements for their games. Then we started doing our own games.
Then we licensed Star Trek®, which was the first time a big property license had been brought into the adventure gaming world. That was our first really big success, reaching out to new players and everything.
I started to realize that, in essence, we were creating a lot of material which we didn't own, because anything that we created, Paramount owned. It was kind of fun to see our material -- the material we created -- show up in Star Trek: The Next Generation and things like that. The whole mythos of the Klingons and the various clans of the Klingons and all that kind of stuff was originally in our product. But I also realized that I was giving away intellectual property to others. So we decided that what we wanted to do was create our own original game lines. BattleTech was the first of those original games, and it was an immediate success, which was quite flattering.
Crescent Blues: How did BattleTech differ from the other products that were on the market at that time?Jordan Weisman: At the time, the king of the heap was role-playing games. BattleTech tried to answer one of the issues that I've always had with role-playing games, which is a good role-playing game is completely dependent upon a quality gamemaster. And a gamemaster is a really hard thing to be. There are very few good gamemasters in the world, which means that very few good games are being played compared to the overall population.
The goal of BattleTech was to try to design a hybrid that would have the fictional association and intensity of a role-playing game, but the mechanics of a board game, so that it didn't require a gamemaster. It was an interesting kind of twist on that, and people responded very strongly.
Crescent Blues: But the storytelling component remained very strong -- at least there seem to be quite a few BattleTech novels out there.
Jordan Weisman: Oh yeah. They're on novel 58 or 59.
Crescent Blues: Did you plan that tie-in when you created the game?
Jordan Weisman: Yes. We always believed in and were one of the innovators in game-related fiction. I always believed in depth of story, depth of universe. One of the things that BattleTech did first -- and probably still does the best -- is make sure that all the different media components of the BattleTech universe are part of a larger uber-story.
We plot out the fiction for BattleTech three years in advance on the "uber-side." Then the novels, the games, the computer games, the comic books (when we were doing comic books) and so all are all in the same fictional point at the same fictional time -- the same real time. So everybody knows where the story is going to be for whatever comes out for Christmas this year, and they're telling stories within that larger story.
That kept our continuity together over what is now twenty years. It's a big, sprawling space opera over that period of time. Storytelling was always a critically important component of each of the fictional universes we've done.
Crescent Blues: How does that relate to what you're doing now with WizKids®?
Jordan Weisman: Interesting question, because in some respects, when I started WizKids, it was almost the anti-print-based company. Our goal was to make everything tactile, to make everything immediate, to have fast play and not require the investment of reading big rule books, of reading big fiction and so on.
I was really hard-core about it, because it was such a break from the tradition of the industry and from that tradition which I, myself, helped to build. Now I was saying we have to break from it; we have to go 180 degrees.
I think I was so strong on the subject, because I didn't think I would admit there was a middle ground. I needed designers and all the members of the team to make this big shift. It was really hard. Very few designers were willing to change that radically.
Now we're a couple of years into it, and I'm softening. We're doing the fiction to support these lines, especially the lines like BattleTech and the new line of MechWarrior novels. We are even supporting comic books and novels for Mage Knight and Heroclix.
Crescent Blues: Is Heroclix the Marvel universe game?
Jordan Weisman: Heroclix is an interesting situation. Heroclix is WizKids' brand for its superhero gaming system. We have now brought in the entire Marvel comic universe and the entire DC comics universe into the system. DC came out in September. It is the first time ever that both of those big fictionalized universes have a common system underneath them.
We also worked out relationships with Crossgen, Top Cow, Dark Horse and many other individual comics creators to bring all their characters into this common game system. It's kind of like the entire comics world on one platform, and that's one of the reasons I think people are so excited about Heroclix. But it's not our world to tell stories in, because none of those characters are ours.
Crescent Blues: Could you describe the WizKids platform and why you chose to go with this system?