Some will come in their best Batman duds, some will be utterly incognito, but this weekend somewhere between 50 and 60,000 gamers and fans will hit Indy for Gen Con 2015. Last year, according to Gen Con's own stats, the convention generated a "weekend turnstile attendance of 184,699 and unique attendance of 56,614." The folks in the Princess Leia bikinis and the Ghostbusters fatigues will garner lots of attention, but most of the attendees are coming to game play and role play, not cosplay.
Gen Con (it's a riff on "Geneva Convention," since the gathering started in Geneva, Wisconsin) will be packed with gamers — and those gamers will want to purchase more games and meet the makers of those games. Many of those games, in ways large and small, are developed, built, scripted, designed and tested right here in Central Indiana.
Games can be played with small, painted statuettes (or "miniatures"), cards, dice, rule books, playing pieces or any combination thereof, but they've all got one thing in common: creative minds build them. Some games are built from worlds that already exist, like the ones occupied by Conan the Barbarian or the Men in Black; others are created specifically for the universes their characters inhabit.
In this week's cover story we'll profile four game developers in the arena of role-playing games or hobby games: one part-time freelancer, two full-time freelancers and a local company that's grown from its founders' basements to an office and warehouse in Noblesville. The individual developers we've featured have returned the favor — they've designed a slick little game JUST for NUVO readers which you can find on page 14 of the current issue on newsstands now.
BRYAN C.P. STEELE
Artist and writer Bryan C.P. Steele (the "C" is for Carl, his granddad; the "P" for a beloved uncle named Patrick) has three screens in his home office in Lafayette. One's dedicated to a constant cinematic stream: Steele needs a movie rolling in the background to work. It keeps him from getting bogged down in a single detail when he's designing a world or a character — the films remind him to maintain a narrative arc. The process has a drawback: "There's a fine line between homage and thievery — when I see the nugget of something I can use, I write it down in a notebook and stash it away so I use it as the starting point for something original later."
Steele's been a gamer since he was seven, and now freelance development for the gaming universe is his living. He'll be an "industry insider" at this year's Gen Con, a panelist and one of many experts on the floor. His career first started to really take off when the folks running a miniatures-hobbyist site called "CoolMiniOrNot.com" heard his voice on a podcast, and wanted him to do voice-over work for their site.
"Then they found out I wrote, too," Steele laughs.
Although she had a basic knowledge of role-playing games ("Thanks, Big Bang Theory!") Steele's significant other didn't understand his gig at first. "She ask me how my day was. I'd be frustrated: 'I just can't get the monsters right!' She'd look at me like 'What the hell are you talking about?'" Now, though, Bryan's S.O. has been taking a stab at designing some artwork for a project Steele's got in the works.
Like many of his colleagues, Steele's received an apology or two from his elders: "My mom told me she was sorry for what she'd said when I was a kid — she used to gripe that if I spent as much time on my homework as I did on Dungeons and Dragons, I'd actually have a future."
NOTABLE GAMES HE'S WORKED ON: Iron Kingdoms, Traveller, Shadowrun, RuneQuest
GAME IN DEVELOPMENT: Steele is busily working on a self-published title.
FAVORITE CREATION: "My son," he laughs. Also: "My first professional publication, Warmachine Prime. It was an upstart miniatures game, a little thing, and now it's spawned novels and everything. It's amazing that these characters I helped build live on beyond me. I would love for my kids to see something that I made 15 years from now. I'm really just a gamer who got lucky."
HIS MOST FRUSTRATING PROJECT: When he was working at Mongoose games, he was handed a game world "that had been around for many years," something called Glorantha. Steele admits that he only had a cursory knowledge of the world, and rushed the title. "I got it done, but it wasn't the quality I wanted." He also recalls being startled by a critic: After a panel discussion in which he discussed his work on a role-playing game set in the world of Conan the Barbarian, a fan calmly approached him, and after a few pleasantries, turned on Steele. "He asked me, 'HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO [ROBERT E.] HOWARD'S WORK?'"
ON THE FANS: Most of Bryan's interactions with fans are much more complimentary, and he loves the interaction. "Panels, podcasts, name it — I never met a microphone I didn't like." Once, though, he had a chance encounter with two gents who didn't realize who Steele was: "Back in '04, I was at a game store buying stuff, and I heard two people at a table arguing how to pronounce someone's name in a game I'd worked on. I walked over and whispered: 'It's pronounced KAY-dor.'" The two players regarded Steel with disdain until the owner of the store piped in with, "You should listen to this guy, he wrote the book."
ON TESTING: Steele thinks he's found the perfect five-person formula for perfecting a title: two playing for fun, two playing to win, and "one guy whose job is to make sure your game does or doesn't work. The notes you'll get back tell you everything you'll need to know." A poor testing group is one that just wants to please the game's creator: "The worst groups are yes men."
FAVORITE GAME HE DIDN'T DESIGN: WarHammer 40,000 — "I've been playing that for almost 20 years."
FAVORITE MOVIE: The Empire Strikes Back
FAVORITE COMIC TITLE: "Currently, Aquaman." But it should be noted that Bryan has a quote from Superman — in Kryptonian script — tattooed on his forearm: "ALWAYS BELIEVE."
John Kennedy (yep, his dad was a fan of the late President — he's even got a sister named Caroline) is a line developer/fiction writer for Third Eye Games and his own line, Smug Pug Games. Kennedy was educated at Purdue after transferring from Marian: "I tried engineering. I wasn't any good at engineering. I tried psych. I wasn't any good at psych. So I majored in English and history." A self-described "lonely kid," Kennedy stumbled across a battered copy of The Dungeon Master's Guide, the Dungeons and Dragons rule book, at his local library. Enthralled by the world he found therein, Kennedy kept checking the book out for two months, and before long, he was blowing all his lunch money on everything he could find regarding fantasy role-play.
John cooks up ideas during downtime: when he's waiting in line at a store or mowing the yard. "I'll come up with some monster and think, 'Man, it would be cool if this character was in that game' and by the time I'm done whatever, I'll have the thing fleshed out." Kennedy's got a hell of a memory when it comes to the worlds he creates. "I was comforting a friend who thought the game she was working on was horrible. I told her about this terrible thing I'd come up with as a kid called the 'Weredragon' — what kid wouldn't want to be a weredragon? — and I could remember every scary detail about where they lived, what they ate, you name it."
NOTABLE GAMES HE'S WORKED ON: Apocalypse Prevention Inc., Part Time Gods, Mermaid Adventure, Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade
GAME IN DEVELOPMENT: Pulsars — "They protect the galaxy. Players get a suit that enchances your powers. If you can take on ten men, the suit allows you to take on 1,000."
FAVORITE CREATION: Elvis the Loch from Apocalypse Prevention Inc. "API features a group of people who have to prevent the end of the world. Elvis the Loch is a fish-like being who's obsessed with Elvis — he curls the fin on his head into a pompadour."
HIS MOST FRUSTRATING PROJECT: "Ninja Werewolves. When I was a kid, I couldn't figure out why adults hated this idea. Now that I'm an adult, I get it. I also had a hand in a book called Shadownations. We (Kennedy and his co-author) loved it. Amazon, not so much."
ON THE FANS: "There were a bunch of guys who played the same characters in Wu Xing through all of last year's Gen Con. They had a blast. We also had a nine-year-old girl who loved Mermaid Adventure so much she created mermaid dolls for all the game creators."
ON TESTING: "People think you write down a character and some rules and, boom! There's a game. But you've got to play it — you'll stumble across things that will break the game. For example, we were playing one game and got held up on whether a player could perform multiple actions in a single turn. We had to go back in and adjust the rules to make the thing playable."
FAVORITE GAME HE DIDN'T DESIGN: Werewolf: the Apocalypse
FAVORITE MOVIE: The Blues Brothers
FAVORITE COMIC TITLE: Green Lantern
When Ryan Schoon was a kid, he stumbled across a library book that featured a version of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," a short story that featured a creature that was part man, part octopus, part dragon — and all nightmare. Schoon's mom quickly snatched the book from Ryan's young hands, realizing that Lovecraft wasn't quite age-appropriate for the boy — but the fantasy bug had bitten Schoon already. Schoon soon dug into The Hobbit and Star Wars and Men in Black role play games, but as he aged he became a big fan of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
Although he's got a day job in the ag universe, Schoon discovered a use for the creative writing degree he picked up at Ball State. While networking with other gamers at Gen Con one year, his friends encouraged him to take a stab at game development. Soon he found himself working on Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. — the same game another Indiana resident was working on. "I had no idea John Kennedy was working on API, too — and that the guy lived 15 minutes away from me."
Schoon — whose first work was, coincidentally, a Lovecraft RPG spoof called Call of Catthulhu — is a fan of world-building. "Some people are into constructing the mechanics of a world. But I always start with the question, 'What's it like to live in that world?'" It's a question that the Hebron, Indiana native has been pondering since he first started imagining other cultures and creatures as a small child. The kid who designed role-playing games for his friends in elementary school is ready to drum up support for his most recent work at Gen Con 2015.
NOTABLE GAMES HE'S WORKED ON: API, Dragon Age, Fragged Empire
GAMES IN DEVELOPMENT: A new Dragon Age book Faces of Thedas — plus, Schoon and Kennedy are both working on Pulsars: "It's going to be a HUGE book, everything we've loved about sci-fi is going to be in that one book."
FAVORITE CREATION: Edara, a steampunk-themed creation he self-published and built from the ground up.
HIS MOST FRUSTRATING PROJECT: This was tough to answer for Ryan: "I'm VERY selective on what I work on since [as a freelancer with a day job] I'm short on time – I guess my biggest nightmare was API. I bit off way more than I could chew. It took twice as long as I'd thought but it was fun."
ON THE FANS: "Fan response has been fantastic. I have 200 backers on Kickstarter; I had people asking for autographs at last year's Gen Con ... seeing your work alongside all these other famous books is great."
ON TESTING: "I haven't had to run a lot, luckily!" Schoon did have to test Edara, but he had help: a friend in Bloomington and the game's co-author, who lives in Maryland. "It's NEVER fun to hear what people don't like — negative feedback is always a little closer to home."
FAVORITE GAME HE DIDN'T DESIGN: The old West End Games' Star Wars RPG
FAVORITE MOVIE: Princess Bride
FAVORITE COMIC TITLE: Y: The Last Man
In a small industrial park in Noblesville, you can find a group of guys sitting around a set of flat wooden tables, designing what may well be the Next Big Hit at Gen Con and beyond. A little over half a decade ago, this group — Keith Lowe, Brian Shotton, Kenny Sims and Tom Mason — had no idea they'd be riding the wave of hobby games' popularity with their line of miniatures, most notable of which is a game called Mercs.
Megacon's origin story is serendipitous: Keith ran into Tom at Indiana Wesleyan, and then Brian and Kenny met Keith when they were all working in some capacity at a firm called Brady Games. "We all brought our own talents to the table," says Brian, the group's "game mechanic." The guys started peddling Mercs by playing a demo game at Gen Con — guerilla style, in the common game area.
Now they're shipping boxes upon boxes of product from their warehouse — and they're worried that they'll soon run out of space.
The company that started as a labor of love in Shotton's basement soon began developing a second game called Myth, a Kickstarter project that generated — wait for it — $926,00.
Kenny's grandparents have told him, "We're so glad you didn't listen when we told you to stop playing video games!" Although Kenny's relatives might be confused as to exactly what kind of game development brings in his paychecks, they know that Kenny's making a fine living. Same with Brian: "My folks couldn't tell you what I do, but they're pretty impressed when they see the numbers."
Keith's wife knows exactly what he does: "She always telling me, 'I can't believe you get paid to sit around all day and draw people with guns!'"
NOTABLE GAMES THEY'VE WORKED ON: Mercs, Myth
GAME IN DEVELOPMENT: There's a cork board in the Megacon office where titles are organized into categories: ALPHA, BETA, PRODUCTION, SHIPPING. Some of the ALPHA and BETA titles are new iterations of Mercs and Myth.
FAVORITE CREATION: The gift that keeps on giving: Mercs. "It's this never-dying thing," says Brian with a bit of wonder. The gents have even been presented with a flag flown over Afghanistan as a token of gratitude from U.S. troops who used their game to pass the time and keep their minds off the war.
THEIR MOST FRUSTRATING PROJECT: A dice-game version of Mercs. "I don't think we understood the audience," says Kenny. "It wasn't a game where the dice decided your move, and that's what dice players are into." (In a word: luck.)
ON THE FANS: Keith: "There are two priests from Kansas who played in our first tournament. They dress as vampire hunters. People come up to them and say, 'Cool costume! You're Catholic priest vampire hunters!' and they'll say 'The vampire hunter is the only part that's a costume.'"
ON TESTING: All of their testing is done in-house: Greg, an employee who handles logistics and shipping, assembles teams (that have included John Kennedy, see p. 11) that play the games in addition to the testing undertaken by the core group. The first round of game testing is usually done on a plain black-and-white game surface with minimal design; the boards, miniatures and other pieces are refined as the game's developed.
FAVORITE GAME THEY DIDN'T DESIGN:
Brian: Twilight Struggle — "It's a Cold - War game that's just brilliant."
Kenny (picking a video game in tribute to grandma and grandpa): Sid Meier's CIVILIZATION V
Keith (picking up Kenny's theme): Halo
Keith: The Fifth Element
Kenny: "Let's go with the entire Resident Evil franchise."
Brian: Jaws — "Far and away."
FAVORITE COMIC TITLE:
Kenny: (Smiles, points to Superman T-shirt he's wearing.)
KNOW YOUR TERMS:
Dressing up like a character; not necessarily playing a game in costume
Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most famous and widely played role-playing games.
Simple games such as Dominion that often lead to more complex role-playing or world-building games.
Usually table-top games that may or may not involve role-playing.
Live-action role playing, playing a game in costume and mimicking the actions one's character would undertake.
Small statuettes often used in fantasy or tabletop war games, sometimes hand-painted by hobbyists and players.
Role-playing games, a game in which players assume the role of a character.
Playing a game while it's being developed to make sure the rules work.