Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview Time: Mack Martin

The man himself.
Greetings, readers! I'm very pleased to present an interview with a good friend and colleague of mine, Mack Martin. I first met Mack when he spoke to me about working in the gaming industry and his podcast (which at the time was Dice Like Thunder) at a convention called Adepticon in Chicago, Illinois. When the time came that there was an opening in the RPG department at Fantasy Flight Games, I unhesitatingly recommended Mack for the job. Mack and I got to work together for a couple of years at FFG and it was excellent to collaborate with him, because he's very creative and he has a very agile mind when it comes to game design.
Mack is now the head RPG guru and miniature design czar at Wyrd Games, having developed some great games like Evil Baby Orphanage and, more recently, Malifaux 2.0. Mack joins us here on Rogue Warden to answer some of my questions about his experiences in the industry.

As always, my questions are in red text:

RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?

MM: Like many game designers I’ve been playing games for a very long time. I was raised (more or less) by my Grandmother, and she tried desperately to stop me from playing D&D and MTG when I was in high school. It didn’t work to well, and now she and I have a pretty good laugh about it.

My true loves are RPGs and Miniatures games. I like games where the two collide a lot. I think that’s pretty evident in my appreciation for both Pathfinder and D&D 4th. I’ve been playing miniatures games for years, and I’ve enjoyed the Warhammer 40k tournament scene a lot in the past. 

Unfortunately, I have bad luck playing in RPG’s.

I call it the 5 level curse. I only get to play about 5 levels worth of an RPG before something happens. Sometimes terrible things (shudder). I occasionally wonder if this has skewed my view of RPGs. If it has, I can only hope that it gives the RPG’s I design a unique feel and that it isn’t readily apparent in my design philosophy.

To date I’ve worked on the following properties: Warhammer 40k Roleplay, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Dust Warfare, Dust Tactics, Malifaux, Through the Breach, & Evil Baby Orphanage. I’ve also worked on a few projects that didn’t see market, and I’m currently working on a hard sci-fi miniatures wargame, but that’s still in early development.

RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?

MM: Ross actually gave me my start in the industry during his tenure as the lead RPG developer at FFG. I had been podcasting and making my own homebrew supplements for a while, and I had a degree in Game Design, but I was looking for work, and Ross and the gang at FFG chose me to come on board as a producer.
Mack designed this game within weeks of starting at Wyrd.

A lot of people ask me how to get into the industry, and the answer is simple. Just start doing it. I was putting free PDF’s up online, and it gave me a portfolio of tested material that I believe made it possible for me to get my foot in the door. I only knew Ross from the two interviews he’d done with my podcast, we weren’t friends at the time, I had to prove that I could wrangle testing and produce a decent final product. There are companies (like FFG) who are willing to give a new guy a shot, if he can show he is willing to learn the skill. Start writing and applying!

RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?

MM: I wake up every morning excited to go to work. Sick days are a real punishment to me. I often just end up working while lounging in bed. There is just nothing like the joy of seeing a product you made on the shelf at the local game store.

RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?

MM: For the most part the industry is great, and its fans are the best. I don’t say that to pander to the audience, but to counter balance this next point. Some people are cray-cray! I’ve had guys follow me into the bathroom, make up wild stories and accusations about me, and even try to bargain uh… services for information on future releases. It can get pretty insane.

RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?

MM: Honestly, it’s been pretty much what I expected. I used to think there was a lot more money that went into producing products. Before I started working in the industry I used to have much stronger opinions. Now I have a much broader view. I know that I’m not the only kind of gamer out there, and just because a game doesn’t appeal to me personally, that doesn’t make it a bad game. I would say I’m a lot mellower now, and I look back on what I used to think and it’s kind of embarrassing sometimes. I owe Jervis Johnson a serious apology!

RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?

MM: I’m a bit more “shoot from the hip” now. I used to work very hard to keep a tight schedule so that everything would fit into a standard eight hour day and get done. Now I just accept that sometimes I need to put in a twelve hour day, but sometimes I have a more relaxing schedule. I’ve become much more accepting of crunch time vs. creative time.

I also tend to target certain areas of a game much more aggressively and add extra effort to them. My current project, for instance, sees me giving some real in depth thought to Line of Sight systems, and I think I’ve finally found a way to make an abstract LoS system run smoothly without having pages of explanation.

RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?

MM: Staying calm and communicating. This is a tricky one, because a game company is habitually under staff. As long as both parties keep communicating, and have respect for each other, I think everything goes well. This is beyond the bare-minimums in my mind, like paying for work and getting work completed within quality standards and deadlines. I mean the day to day, the building of a game communication.

RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?

MM: This is going to get me in trouble… but the pricing system. Games right now aren’t profitable enough to really put a lot of budget behind a project. Luckily, Kickstarter is helping to alleviate that problem, and I’m hoping to see some insane innovations or even just some fresh minds coming to the table.

RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?

MM: Frequently, if I can. It keeps me wanting to produce games, and it keeps me on task to make them better and better. I’m a classical example of an extrovert, chatting about my job with people who are enthusiastic about it really gets me charged up.

When I can, I even like to disassociate my authorship a bit, and give the fans a turn to guide the boat, usually through big events. In my current project, I’m trying to build it with that design philosophy from the grounds up. I want fans to be able to look at major events in the universe and say “I was there when that event happened. I helped secure the western flank.”

RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?

MM: That’s a tough one to answer. I’m going to go with the way Through the Breach interacts with the Malifaux skirmish game. I’m really happy that the two can interact so well together. Although if you ask me again tomorrow (or in an hour) I might have another answer!

RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?

MM: I think the toughest thing I have had to do (and I don’t know if this counts) was handing over the reins of the Only War RPG so that I could helm Dust Warfare. It would have been much harder if I hadn’t been giving it to Andy Fischer, who is brilliant in his own right. I was very excited about the project, and it was a tough hand off for me.

Honestly it was probably tougher for Andy, since I had a lot of balls in the air at that point, and it caused him more frustration than it caused me, I’m sure!

RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?

MM: I just lean into it a bit. I try to prepare a toolbox of well-designed and clearly written rules. I accept that every table is different, and that every GM is unique. Hopefully I make my mechanics transparent enough that the GM can adjust on the fly to his own personal tastes, and that the system is elastic enough to take that pressure.

RW: If you were a space explorer, you’d be a…?

MM: I’d hope for Ethan Hawke. If you don’t get that joke look it up on IMDB! Honestly though, I’d be excited. Deep space imaging is starting to come back with some fascinating stuff and I just wish I could get out there and see it.

RW: What’s your favorite RPG (that you have not worked on)?

MM: I feel bad choosing a favorite. I’m going to go with Pathfinder right now, however. Why? Cus I finally hit level 6… so that means I might break the curse if we play one more session.
I’m going to cheat though and give two answers. My favorite to play is Pathfinder, but my favorite to GM is Shadowrun.

RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?

MM: Red flags are the usual stuff, like trying to rebuild something the writer doesn’t like in the world. Just a sense of “you need me to fix this.” What I really look for though, the thing I want to see, is a sense of the world. Being able to expand on a universe in an interesting way is tricky. I like to see people who have a different view on the world than I do.

A good example with Malifaux, for instance, is that I love the society. I like to consider what it would be like to live in in that world. I don’t, however, have a flare for the unique thought patters of the Neverborn and Gremlins. If we removed those two factions from Malifaux, the stories that I love the most would barely change. But, they are an awesome part of the world, and they deserve someone who really groks them. I can write fun stories about the two groups, but I feel I look for people who have a unique take on them, or people who just have a very obvious love.

RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?

MM: Pathfinder. I’m assuming I can’t name my own game… so Pathfinder.

RW: Tell us a bit about your experience in the miniature games industry!

MM: This one is a bit shorter, since I’ve only worked on two RPG’s that saw print. Dust Warfare was a huge learning experience. What I learned, however, was to trust myself. It’s hard to have the arrogance to stick to your guns sometimes. It turns out, however, that I actually understand the underlying math of a miniatures game very well, and that I can make that math into a fun game. I can focus on a competitively tuning a game, and that actually ends up with a better product for casual gaming as well.

M2E was an exercise in putting that knowledge to practice. I wasn’t alone on that project either, and it was just a lot of fun. I enjoyed it completely.

I also worked on a project (between those two) that never saw print. It was a pretty big deal, however, and I got to work pretty closely with Alessio Cavatore. He’s a fantastic guy and I wish I could game with him every week!

Now I’m working on my new miniatures game. I’m putting all these lessons to the test again. It’s still in very early development, but I get to design everything from the ground up, and more or less with a free hand to do so. If this doesn’t work, I’ve nobody to blame but myself… which is scary!
Mack checks out the design of Dust Warfare.

RW: What is special about your approach to miniature gaming?

MM: I think I take less as written in stone than others. I prefer less randomization, more player control of events, and more rigid timing structures.

For instance, in my current project, the game doesn’t end in a set number of turns. Instead the game ends at a certain score. This still leads to a game of about the same length, but it keeps the strategy more fluid. It isn’t about killing for a few turns then moving in for the objective.  You have to pace yourself differently.

RW: What is your process for working through a system design in an RPG or a miniature game?

MM: While the two are very different, the most important similarity in my approach is that I do it from a player experience view. I worry a lot about how players will interact with the game from start to finish. In an RPG this would be about giving players as many options for their character as possible. In a miniatures game, however, I want players to feel like every unit they choose has a purpose and is able to achieve that goal.

I want players to choose the toys they like and then learn how to use them correctly in interesting ways. The last thing I want is for a player to fall in love with a model or character class and then discover that it just can’t keep up.