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Interview: Jordan Weisman

Weisman's legendary resume spans FASA (Battletech), 42 Entertainment (I Love Bees) and now Smith & Tinker (game rights to Crimson Skies and Shadowrun) - Gamasutra presents a rare interview with him on design and inspiration.

Serial entrepreneur and veteran game designer Jordan Weisman has started a new company - Smith & Tinker - and he's not ready to tell us what it makes. But from his legendary resume, you can make some deductions.

Weisman - one of is the most influential creators on the bleeding edge of the game biz - originally founded pen and paper game designer FASA in 1980, going on to create legendary franchises such as BattleTech and Shadowrun.

In 1995, he founded FASA Interactive to enter the gaming space - it took over the hit Mechwarrior series and was bought by Microsoft in 1999 - Weisman went on to be creative director for Microsoft's entertainment division, helping oversee titles like Halo and Crimson Skies for Xbox. He also co-founded tabletop gaming company and HeroClix creators WizKids in 2000.

He's also spent years at ground zero of alternate reality gaming, as one of the co-creators of seminal AI movie-promoting ARG The Beast while at Microsoft, and subsequently founder at 42 Entertainment, which has made many of the most seminal ARG experiences to date - from I Love Bees (promoting Halo 2) through Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero ARG promotion. And to teenage audiences, Weisman is maybe better known as the co-author of the bestselling transmedia young adult novel Cathy's Book.

Smith & Tinker is a new venture, and none of their game ideas is public. But he tells us a few things in this recent interview: Smith & Tinker is not targeting the 18-35 male hardcore gamers -- though they have bought the electronic entertainment rights to FASA-birthed franchises like Shadowrun and Crimson Skies back from Microsoft.

He's working on multiplayer experiences, possibly including ARGs. He likes toys and tactile experiences. And no matter how many companies he's launched, he's glad to admit that at the end of the day, he's "just a twelve-year-old in a much bigger body."

Why the name Smith & Tinker?

I like obscure names, and Smith & Tinker is a reference to Wizard of Oz, which we thought was appropriate since we're based here in the Emerald City [Seattle]. And a lot of the products that we are conceiving of and working with are highly intelligent toys.

One of the first kind of highly intelligent toy or sentient robot to appear in Western literature was Tik-Tok, in the Wizard of Oz series. And the people who made Tik-Tok were Smith & Tinker. Smith was the artist, and Tinker was the inventor, and the two of them had a firm that invented marvelous things.

Your public website is still pretty small, but the first thing on your site is the statement, "There is nothing on the planet more entertaining than other people." For how long have you been thinking that way?

I don't know if I clearly communicated it or put it together in such a pithy phrase, but pretty much my whole career has been based on that premise.

I've always believed that games are ultimately purely about socialization. They provide a mechanism for creating an organized socialization, and a commonality of experience.

But ultimately they're cold, heartless things, when not populated by other people. So from the very beginning, role-playing games -- which was kind of how I started my career -- are entirely about socialization. It's a collaborative storytelling activity, and so are ARGs.

Are you focused on finding ways to bring people together online and electronically, or in person?

Both. I think that's one of the key things for us here at Smith & Tinker is to recognize that online socialization, as cool and fun as it is, only uses a small number of the senses we've developed over the years.

We're animals that are designed to be in person with each other. So I think it's important to have your activity support both online and offline play.

Are you interested in targeting more casual players, or the more absorbed, non-stop players?

JW: Hmm. [I guess] we'll have different audiences for different products. The majority of our product is not devoted to the 18-35 hardcore male audience. But we will cover a full spectrum.

Because obviously we control the rights to MechWarrior and Shadowrun, and those are traditional video game kinds of audiences. And we have great, great plans for those products. But a lot of the new stuff we're doing is in a different market segment.

A younger one, or an older one?

I don't really want to go further with that until later in the year.


Do you have any plans to work on ARGs?

ARGs are their own kind of life form. They're really not games. A true ARG is closer to a rock concert. It's a temporal event, a gathering of energies all in one place for a short period of time. And afterwards, it's a bit like hearing the album from the concert. It doesn't ever have the vitality and the life of one that unfolds in real time.

So it's a totally different animal. And as a result, not an easy animal to think about how to monetize. By nature it's organic and temporal. So what we've done in the past is do things like Cathy's Book, where we've taken some of the elements of an ARG -- basically, what I call the distributed narrative components -- and taken that into a single-player or single-reader experience.

And hopefully someone can pick up Cathy's Book and read it years after everyone else did, and the experience is as fresh and accessible. Yet there's a backdrop of community that is available mostly in what is left behind, to help those who need help, or want guidance.

I don't want to dive into what kind of product or what kind of audience we're going to be going for, because it is probably going to catch a lot of people by surprise.

Could you say if you're more interested at this in point in real-time experiences, or standalone experiences like Cathy's Book or the upcoming Cathy's Key?

Well, we have a number of things going on in the publishing arena which we are very excited about, as we play with different types of storytelling, as we did with Cathy's Book and Cathy's Key. We've got a number of those kinds of activities underway. And I think those are very fun.

But the main thrust is creating toys and games and experiences which are dynamic, and multiplayer by nature, obviously -- "Nothing is more entertaining than other people." That is certainly a banner for making sure that the main thrust of what we're doing is multiplayer experiences.

I wanted to talk to you about your approach to transmedia storytelling. You've talked in the past about the fictions you've created over the years like BattleTech, and the way you tried to keep the story threads moving in parallel so they would stay in sync and hit the same milestones.

Absolutely. I've always believed that a fundamental property of good property development is the idea that you are telling your story across a wide spectrum of media, and that you're weaving those media together in a cohesive fashion. And indeed we did that with BattleTech for 20+ years. And we will endeavor to do that in some capacity with what we're creating here at Smith & Tinker.

I did a talk on this at DICE a couple years ago. Most people don't practice what I call "planned parenthood." They don't adequately prepare for the baby they're about to give birth to. So they make a single thing. They make a movie, they make a game, and they don't know any more about their world and what's in that world than what's in the game.

Then in the happy circumstance the game becomes enormously popular, all of a sudden they're going to be making a lot more. And they're caught behind the eight ball, frantically trying to write into a background of what's already there. And you get a lot of uncomfortable fits.

And often, they make another movie, as opposed to stepping back and realizing, "Okay, what we need to do is actually figure out what the hell we've created here. What is this universe? How does it work? What makes it tick? What are the primary sociological and economic and political engines that are moving behind the scenes, that make this a compelling story environment?

And if we figure all that out, then we have the ability to create new episodes within that universe, for many years, that are all in a cohesive, well-integrated format."

And unfortunately, a lot of people just don't do it. It's a small, additional investment up front, but in comparison to the cost of creating a movie or a game, it's very small. So, to me, it's an important component.

But it's amazing how many really smart, creative people don't put that extra thought into it, and then get caught up in their own environment. I think one could argue that Tomb Raider was subject to that in the early days. They had this brilliant first game, and a fantastically fun character.

But they didn't know really anything about her, or what her world was about, or what her motivations were. And they had to for many years write all that back into her, for it to actually create a motivation for why she's doing what she does. You end up with stuff that gets pretty derivative, if you're not careful.


What do you lose by not controlling it that way, by not thinking it through?

Why is it worth the effort? So that you get more consistent, cohesive [stories]. The ability to weave them across multiple different types of media simultaneously and yet still have a cohesive, coherent and hopefully engaging intellectual property.

And one of the key things to do that is, change as little as you possibly can. You change exactly what you need to change, and only what you need to change, to get the ramifications you're looking for in the universe.

I think it's [also] a respect for the audience. Your audience is individually very smart, but as a collaborative, basically they're God on earth. They are the smartest thing on the planet as a collaborative.

So you really have to respect them. You're not going to pull the wool over their eyes. And they -- I think justifiably so -- want you to establish a set of rules for the universe, and then live within it. It's just a matter of respect for the audience, being able to do that.

The kind of person who keeps track of that, who makes sure you have that continuity and management -- what's the job title for that?

I think at each of the companies I've had in the past, we've had officially the role of continuity manager, whose job is to watch out for that universe and make sure that everything is cohesive.

Now, where that falls apart is when you go off and sell the company, right? Because then at that point, once I don't own it, it's harder for me to control it. So I certainly had things done with my properties that, you know, I would not have done. But unfortunately, that's part of the reality of the world.

But yeah, I think it's either part of the producing role, or the designing role. But it's always been clearly communicated who has that continuity responsibility.

What's the skill set for that person?

Well, it's someone with a fine eye for detail, an editorial sense, an enormous immersion into the universe. They're a writer/editor in that they're able to invest more into that universe.

[For example], there are sometimes novels by scores of different authors, and for the editorial piece, each of the authors is not as well versed in the universe as our continuity editors are. So the continuity editor's job is to work with the authors... and make sure they don't break rules, and put the right people on stage so that it works together.

When I was at Microsoft, I set up the franchise development group to shepherd these things through and to create an overall cohesive enterprise for what we're doing. And part of what my team did was to, whether we were looking at Halo, or working on Crimson Skies or whatever other game, our team would go in, work with them, develop the backgrounds, help write the bibles, create a cohesive environment.

And that would extend into the publishing deals for Halo that we did, and then we would help find the right novelists and work with them inside the bible to create the story -- with the Bungie team, of course.

But typically, the guys who were creating the games don't have the time, energy, or in some cases, the skill sets to build universes. They created this shiny point of light, of one experience, but like many filmmakers, haven't really thought about what surrounds that, [or] what's the world that would've created it.

You come up with a protagonist, but you also have to understand why that protagonist exists. Protagonists and antagonists are the creation of the environments in which they find themselves.

And so you have to create an environment that creates your protagonist and your antagonist, right? You can't take Conan and drop him down in the middle of Manhattan. You have to create a situation that would have created a Conan.


The next bulletpoint on your site reads, "There is noone on the planet more creative than the audience." In terms of the audience's creativity, are you thinking you'll encourage user-generated content? Or were you thinking more in terms of making a toy that unleashes the player's creativity?

Well, without getting into too many specifics, it's kind of an extension of the next level of [saying] that people are the most engaging thing on earth. If you look at anything from role-playing games to ARGs, to multiplayer Halo or whatever, what the audience manages to create with the tools you've given them far surpasses anything that a smaller design team can do. It's just the reality of the world that a large number of minds working together are going to be better at it than a small number.

Our job is to create an environment that inspires them and a toolset that enables them. And in reality the majority of the entertainment is being created by the audience, for the audience. Whether that's new strategies in a game, whether it's actual new assets, or stories or whatever, it's going to be different types of creative content based on the property itself.

But I think the ability for the audience to create that is key. Because you know, any time I'm at a convention, people are going to come up and tell me their story -- the story of their games. And it's one of the most exciting things to hear, because these people created by their actions and interactions with each other, their own fiction.

Even ARGs have their puppetmasters -- so there's always someone in charge. Their plans can get thwarted in interesting ways, but you still have that hierarchy. Do you think you'll maintain that, where you've got people moderating these worlds and these franchises, and players are definitely just the players? Or are there ways to blur that line?

I think there are definitely ways to blur the line. I think some of the products that we're conceiving of go along that line. We're empowering the audience to generate more content and creativity for each other. But ultimately, players don't want chaos. They want some structure to the activity, and they want some structure to the rules of engagement with each other.

I think if you look at something like Second Life, within that chaos, they go in and carve out their own continuity. Because we all seek continuity, we all seek some kind of environment where we can be successful, and we need that kind of structure to allow us to be successful.

In the past you've said that as we get older, our imagination-muscles get weak. How do games affect that?

As much as I've enjoyed being in the industry and creating audio-visual stimulus, that takes less work from us than a book. If you love a book, the movie is nothing but a disappointment, right?

Because it was so much more vibrant and so much more personal in the way you envisioned it. And sometimes we can be coaxed into a situation where we've lost some of those muscles.

And I also think another aspect that's very disturbing to me, as an unintended outcome of the popularity of computer games and video games, is that we have dramatically reduced the number of years that kids engage in pure imagination-based play. It used to be, when I was a kid, it would be normal to be engaged in imagination-based play at least up 'til ten years old.

Make-believe is what you were playing with your friends, because you had a very unstructured play environment, [and] you had inanimate objects which you were animating to play with. The whole concept of an "action figure" -- well what was that about? That was, I'm going to play Medal of Honor with my G. I. Joes. And you would do that when you were a kid.

But nowadays, imagination-based play stops at... nine years old? Eight or nine? Because I think there's been this perception because of more structured gaming activities, that if you're not playing with rules, you're a baby.

And the last thing a kid wants to be is a baby. Because only babies play baby play, which is, that whole free-form imagination-based stuff. Big boys and girls play with rules, right? They play card games, they play board games, they play computer games. They play things that structure that environment.

We've also seen the ramifications in sports, too. When I was growing up, if you were playing sports, odds are you were playing just on the street with a bunch of friends. And it was just streetball. It was very loose and informal. And now, kids are involved in leagues and tournaments, and much more structured sports play.

And so I think that that's another force that has crunched down and reduced this pure imagination-based play. And I find that kind of sad.


So how do you, as a game designer, counteract that?

I don't know if I can. Because in essence, just the fact that I'm designing a game is feeding [the problem] in some respects. Again, I'm creating a structure that most people can create for each other, but it is a structure. And some of what we've lost is that ability to play with no structure. It's almost something that has to come from home, when you say, "Hey, let's put all that down and make something up."

Now, [with] a lot of the games we do try to touch on that by having a lot more creative input. But it takes place within a structure. If it's creative input with no structure, then by definition you don't need us. They can do it by themselves. (Laughs)

When you say that imagination-based play stops with eight-year-olds, are you reading studies on this?

In the toy industry, you pretty much can't pay anybody above a six year old to go down the toy aisle. They are only... they're going to go to the electronics aisle. In the toy industry only a handful of years ago, the sweet spot was seven and eight year olds. Now the sweet spot is in five and six year olds.

But on the other end of the scale, games can get adults to start thinking imaginatively again. I recently got a set of Star Wars PocketModel cards, and I was amazed how much I let myself "play" when I started putting the spaceships together.

That to me is the goal. The PocketModel to me was -- everything I do comes from the fact that I'm actually just a twelve-year-old in a much bigger body. And being able to take the kind of fun of taking the little pieces and getting to move them around the table... there is a tactile sense which our computers don't give us, and it's an important component.

But it is about that inner childhood. And even if we're stuck doing it within a structure, at least that structure can get us back in touch with that inner child sense of fun.

Along the line of ARGs, [Smith & Tinker employee] Jessica Price once explained to me that ARGs give you many ways to immerse yourself in a fiction that seems real -- but it's always clear to the player what they're participating in. Otherwise, it becomes a hoax, or a trick. But are there ways to blur that line?

I think we're very conscious of never trying to perpetrate hoaxes. For two reasons: one, if you really understand the hive mind, you know it's impossible to perpetrate a hoax. The hive mind by definition being infinitely smarter than you is going to be able to debunk you at any point, and relatively instantly.

And, once you try to convince somebody something is real, by human nature, our immediate response is, "No it's not." And so you immediately set the audience in opposition to yourself. You've given them the task of debunking you, as opposed to -- by inviting them in to play with you, you've created a collaborative situation with the audience, where they're not trying to defeat you but indeed work with you for a common experience. And so you really can't win in doing a hoax.

Now, having said that, one of my core concepts in creating the ARGs was that there's only one platform, and it's the planet. And everyone on the planet can be used as part of a storytelling mechanism, as part of an immersive experience. And once you do suspend your disbelief, [it] can provide a pretty amazing, amusing, confusing, grey zone of what is real and what is not. But this is helped by the fact that I voluntarily stepped into this experience.

We certainly looked at things like MMOs. An MMO is an artificial world, right? So if the world is artificial, then why can't we use an MMO to do an ARG? And MMOs are in some respect an oxymoron. They are not really massively multiplayer. There may be millions of people in the environment, but you don't work with millions of people. You're only interacting with small groups of people.

So in reality, the only truly massively multiplayer games have actually been ARGs, where you're actually collaborating with a million-plus people. But, if you were to run an ARG inside of an MMO, then you actually could have the whole audience collaborating on one aspect of the MMO. Which would be a fascinating thing to do, and hopefully we will in the future.


Much of the early appeal of ARGs lay in the surprise and the confusion -- part of the legend of The Beast was that even if you knew it was fictional, you didn't know where it was going, and that made the suspension of disbelief easier.

And now, we're starting to see some ARG genre conventions. "Oh, I just got another e-mail that someone's been kidnapped and we all have to help them." Is it a challenge to keep the player surprised enough that they forget that it's not real?

It can be a fine balance. And it is interesting to me, in the early part of a gaming genre, people look at it like you said, "Oh, they're doing that again." Well, if you did that with books or movies, it would pretty much be every fifth book or movie. "Oh, they're doing that again."

And I think it's just because it's so new that people expect a much higher level of novelty out of it. And at some point, it has to survive past novelty, and actually figure out how to survive as a storytelling format, minus the novelty. And I think it's still in that transition.

So you think that would be a way for it to grow up -- that people would accept, "Okay, I know this formula or template, and I'm enjoying it, and even enjoying it for its sake."

Yeah. In that speech I did on world generation, one of the slogans I had on there was, "Establish the familiar so people can appreciate the exotic." And if you don't do that, if you try to do something that's too exotic, it doesn't give them anything to hold onto. They don't have a handle. They don't know what they're supposed to pay attention to.

So in many cases, the part that's familiar is the plot line. If I can grab onto that plot line, then I can appreciate the exotic of the fact that this plotline is happening in outer space or underwater -- as opposed to, if I have a totally exotic environment and a totally exotic plotline and totally exotic characters, I get lost.

Other times, you give them a very familiar setting, so the setting is something they're very comfortable in and they can immediately absorb, and then you can throw them a plotline which is totally whacko. They're able to appreciate the fact that the part that's exotic is the plot.

For the final question -- is it safe to say that a majority of the products you're working on will have a storytelling component?

Well, I'm a story guy. So even in -- I'm always looking for a universe that I find compelling, to try to populate with characters that will engage people. So yeah, it's safe to say that everything we do will try to do that.

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