In times when cultural or governmental authority loses meaning and respect, cultures often look to charismatic individuals for guidance and motivation. In literature you often see these individuals portrayed as larger than life figures who shape the course of history with their words and actions. Beowulf saves the day when King Hrothgar faces a supernatural threat. Achilles rallies the Greeks to fight power-mad King Agamemnon's battles for him. Arthur unites the disorganized tribes of Britain into a kingdom ruled by chivalrous, noble knights. These heroes symbolize humanity at its best, righting wrongs and leading the powerless to victory. Superheroes are a phenomenon of the 20th century, symbolizing our need for such leadership and protection against impossible, world-annihilating threats: nuclear war, meteors from outer space, earthquakes, tidal waves and other disasters recognized by the modern world to be increasingly possible and bigger than anyone can mentally handle.
Superheroes form such a vital part of popular culture one wonders why there aren't more games with a superhero theme. For some reason, we have many games featuring historical, space, fantasy, pirate and horror themes, but until this last year or so the hero niche has been somewhat empty. That seems to be changing, with games like the collectible miniatures game HeroClix, which rides on the coattails of MageKnight. Just recently, the Massively Multiplayer Online game City of Heroes joined the club and has met with rave reviews and little criticism which is unusual in the world of computer games. With the recent spate of comic-inspired movie blockbusters, it seems that a renaissance of hero-inspired entertainment has finally come.
Now, a new family strategy boardgame company has chosen the superhero theme for its debut product, Heroes, Incorporated. What's most interesting to me as a gamer with a wide variety of interests, including board and card games, computer and console games, and roleplaying games, is the background of the game's creator, Sam Clifford. He got his start in the entertainment industry producing television shows for Nickelodeon, then decided to move to California to get into the videogame industry. He worked for Electronic Arts producing such notable titles as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers console game as well as the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King console game. He saved his own money for years to provide the sole startup capital for Quest Machine. He has partnered with an outstanding graphic design firm, Creative Madhouse, to produce the finished boxed boardgame. He's also teamed up with noted Magic: The Gathering artist Carl Critchlow to develop twelve new superheroes with unique powers, which might find themselves at home with any Marvel or DC comic book characters. He's a man with a vision, who sees Quest Machine someday standing shoulder to shoulder with other solid game companies, producing quality games with European influences and strong themes. I met with Sam in Atlanta one sunny Saturday afternoon, where we sat at a shady table near an outdoor fountain, with a tape recorder and a shared love of gaming.
John Marc Green: Talk about your background with Electronic Arts and how that has influenced your new career in boardgame design.
Sam Clifford: It is very applicable, and my role at Electronic Arts was both as a producer and as a designer. A lot of the design work I did was working with systems, world systems, level design and level direction. Whenever you're working with any of those, you're working with a "state machine," and you're trying to make this state machine, this thing that people are interacting with, fun and also to make the user choices, the player choices, enjoyable. So a lot of those same mechanics go into a board game. My second role at Electronic Arts was as a producer. In videogame terms, that's working with teams of artists and programmers, producing the best quality assets efficiently and intelligently in the systems you use to develop them. That's applicable too, because production values are important in games, whether it be the bits or the graphic design or any of the visual components, down to the color selection and the iconography so the game is presentable and clear. That stuff is exactly like your interface in a videogame, so there's a lot of transferable knowledge.
What was it that led to your decision to move from producing videogames to designing boardgames?
Well, some of it has to do with personal desires and a lot of it also has to do with market trends. From a personal standpoint, in the videogame world, a lot of what we create, a lot of videogames PC games are very solitary. I have a kind of philosophical desire to design games and make games, produce games, that are more community in nature, that really don't disassociate people from others but games where others need to play together. Now of course in videogames there are a lot of good trends: Nintendo does a lot of good four-player games; massively multiplayer games are encouraging socialization, but in terms of a business enterprise, what I wanted to do was start making boardgames. That gets into the second piece: from a business perspective, obviously startup costs are more acceptable. Taking what I've learned and gathered both financially and through experience at Electronic Arts, and rolling that into a company. I also have friends who left and are kind of doing the same things in mobile gaming, in cell phone gaming and some handheld stuff. But if you think about "pure game," to get the most game produced, I had to do it in boardgames. I mean, with the same startup capital, I could have done a wireless game or a handheld game, but there's not much "game" in them, because you have to spend so much on technology and production values. So in boardgames I could just focus on the bits of the game and designing the best system, and kind of have the best "bang for your buck" in terms of "game," if I did it in the boardgame space.
What was your first, favorite boardgame when you were growing up?
That's an easy one: it was Cosmic Encounter. When I used to get off from school, I would always go to the bookstore. One day they had just released Dungeons and Dragons as the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. That was my first exposure to the idea that there are game systems that exist. It's something you just don't know when all you've ever seen are Chutes and Ladders or Monopoly, and that definitely opened up my eyes. But then I was part of a school program that allowed us to go to a Nature Conservancy and do a lot of out-of-curriculum artwork, learning about nature, and learning about games. In the box of games there, I found Cosmic Encounter. I couldn't believe it: again, the idea that there was this gaming system that is flexible, the core mechanics are very easy.
How have your early experiences with games influenced Heroes, Incorporated?
There are a lot of similarities to Cosmic Encounter in Heroes, Incorporated in that with some of the heroes, a lot of the rules are modified, with special cases that relate to the heroes, just like the races in Cosmic Encounter, so that was a major influence. Also, the old Steve Jackson games, from the Melee/Wizard/The Fantasy Trip sort of things to Ogre and Car Wars. TSR had a lot of little board games which I've since picked up on eBay such as Vampire and Revolt on Antares. Little minigames, microgames, there were just tons of these. Tom Wham, Tom Jolly, all of these guys got their start doing that sort of stuff. Richard Borg is another one who goes back that far, and these are some of the mentors. With everything happening technologically, I really got more into videogames and computer games and electronic gaming for my college years, until probably 1995 when I played Settlers of Catan. That's also when Avalon Hill started bringing some stuff over like Reiner Knizia's Titan: the Arena which is based on a horse racing game that he did in Europe. That was the first time I saw Reiner's name on a product. These European games really started coming over around 1995, and I really took notice, from a game design perspective and from a market perspective, that it was something really special.
For a first product, Heroes, Incorporated has an impressive production value. Was that a strategic move to grab market attention?
That's absolutely the case. The fact that there are so many people in the market with such fun games and good products means that you need to come out of the gate with something of quality. It was strategic in that in addition to being a designer, I'm also a producer; realizing that the most important thing is the core mechanics of the game, but the production values and the product quality is necessary too. That's something that Quest Machine is building the company around, so the first product of course was very important. The ethics of the company are these simple, family game mechanics, great production values, a story that is compelling and a fiction that is compelling and it was important that our first product embodied all those things.
Speaking of stories, we have these twelve characters in the game, and now we want to know more about them. Who is Scrap? Where did Huntarr come from? Will those stories appear on the website or in some other form in the future?
Everything, including the backstories, the character personae, the history of the universe is written; it's just a matter of publishing it. In comic book form, in web form, in stories, in potentially other games, all of these things are part of creating not only a game system that's fun, but creating a universe, a place for people to play in. That's been a prevailing trend in videogames too: instead of more linear, scripted experiences, you're trying to create worlds for people, and we're trying to do the same thing.
Isn't that one of the major trends in American boardgaming? Not just an isolated game experience, but an extended virtual world, a place to play?
Yes, there are a lot of similarities. There are also a lot of similarities between what happens in the Quake community. One of the big reasons that First Person Shooters have grown is not necessarily just that they're violent. It's because the community and "mod" developing is so important to the process, and in board gaming, you see that trend too. Whereas Hasbro released Monopoly, now they're releasing The Simpsons Monopoly, now they're gonna release The Rugrats Monopoly. Instead of pushing brands down people's throats, I think what people want more and more is a system that they can take part in, that they can grow and develop. So a world that feels real, that they can adventure in, that's important, but also a world that they can impact, so that the community can help grow it, through stories and scenarios published on the web and in the official FAQ, and also through contributions in future expansion packs.
What kinds of things can we expect to see in the future from Quest Machine?
Heroes, Incorporated is really a good example of a first product; we love the European games that are coming out now, the elegant mechanics. Games like Puerto Rico, Hansa, Finstere Flure, and even many games that haven't been directly imported yet from Germany. All of these games and game mechanics are absolutely brilliant. Finstere Flure is an interesting example, because not only do they have a really great game with really great bits, but Friedemann Friese who does their games has kind of caught onto this notion that we have, the idea of having a story in addition to compelling gameplay. All of his games just feel like they're happening in his little universe. He's awesome in terms of design, production, theme and story. These are the types of games we're trying to make. I think the American audience sometimes needs a great theme in addition to a great mechanic. The European audience has had these games in the marketplace much longer, so they will gravitate toward and love a game with good bits, if it's got a cool mechanic. In the U.S., I think there needs to be, in addition, a theme and a story that is equally compelling. What Quest Machine is trying to do is deliver the gameplay and the fiction where the game takes place in a way that's very appealing to both American and European markets, but particularly knowing that American audiences are very demanding. You see this a lot with roleplaying games, miniature games and collectible card games. The younger games have cartoons attached to them. The more mature games have huge roleplaying supplements that people may not even play, but just collect and read as part of the game fiction, which is very important to the American audience. That's what we're trying to capture and deliver: the story and the mechanic together.
Thanks to Sam Clifford for taking the time to talk at length about his background, game and company.
- John Marc Green