I can say without reservation this is one of the most interesting interviews we've ever had here at RPG Blog 2. It's a bid of a read, but I think you'll agree it's completely worth it. Without further ado, here it is:
An Interview with Kevin Siembieda – July, 2009
Interview by Zachary Houghton
© Copyright 2009, Palladium Books Inc. Used with permission.
1) Rifts® really defines the "kitchen sink" genre for a lot of people. How did the original idea for Rifts® come about?
Kevin Siembieda: I wanted to create the ultimate gaming environment and a very specific, fun world. I wanted Rifts® to be my Star Wars®. A truly unique and original world setting that would wow the readers and take gamers places they had never imagined before. A setting that combined key aspects and elements of every genre possible.
Most people in the “business” those days said it could not be done. I’m highly competitive, so I was inspired by that challenge as well. Ultimately, it was something that had been percolating in the back of my head for years. I worked on the concepts behind Rifts® for three and a half years, and spent almost an entire year – 8 months – working on it non-stop. Once it all came together in my mind I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do from cover to cover. Then it was just a matter of doing it right.
Years later, Thomas Bartold, friend, investor and player in my original Palladium of Desires game, pointed out that all the elements in Rifts® were aspects of my Palladium Fantasy campaign – a vampire kingdom, the blending of magic and technology (Techno-Wizardry), characters of every genre, dimensional travel, a dragon and demon as player characters, etc. As strange as it may sound, I didn’t consciously realize that at the time, but maybe subconsciously I stole the best elements of my Palladium of Desires campaign and repackaged it as Rifts® in a more wild setting. I honestly don’t know.
It’s also possible there was something in the air – or the culture, or I don’t know what – because all of a sudden three major companies (and a couple of small ones if I recall correctly), suddenly had the idea to do a similar type of multi-genre game setting. Talk about parallel development. I was disheartened at first when I heard about them because I had been working on Rifts® as my secret epic game for several years. The next thing I know, FASA releases Shadowrun and West End Games comes out with TORG. Both were similar ideas, though I was relieved to see they were both quite different than what I had in mind.
Even though I was confident Rifts® would be a success, I questioned myself and worried. We pressed 10,000 copies and I told the Palladium team that if we sold out in three months, Rifts would be a bona fide hit. We sold out in three weeks! Sold 45,000 copies in the first 12 months. As big as the Ninja Turtles® and Robotech® role-playing games had been for Palladium, Rifts® was our first mega-hit. We were dancing in the streets. By the way, the only person who was absolutely convinced Rifts® would be an instant smash hit was Kevin Long.
2) Earlier this year, Palladium began to release a number of titles in pdf/electronic format through DriveThruRPG. What's the reaction been like from retailers and fans?
Kevin: Most fans seem happy to see them available. There was a bit of concern by retailers and distributors at first, but since we’re selling mostly out of print and older titles, there’s been no hard feelings that I’m aware of. I’m happy to make the out of print books available to folks who want them.
3) 2006 saw Palladium go through a pretty large crisis due to massive employee theft and deceit, one where it wasn't certain Palladium could weather. It's 2009, and you're still here. Are there still any aftershocks from that incident?
Kevin: Yes, of course. The damage was grievous. We barely survived. We would not have survived if not for the phenomenal fan support, and I mean it. But yeah, Palladium is still paying on several hundred thousand dollars in loans, we still don’t have the operating money we’d like to have to advertise properly, and every setback is a potential slide back into the abyss. The long work hours is another lasting aftershock. I mean, I truly love what I do, but nobody wants to work 12-18 hour days, 6-7 days a week for 4-5 years straight. It takes its toll. Gosh, I would love nothing more than to be able to take 2-3 weeks off and do nothing except sleep, read comic books, go to the movies, get together with friends and goof around. I am soooo tired of worrying about bills and cash flow. I dream of the day when that’s not an issue again, but in the meantime, you do what you have to do. There are a lot of people who count on Palladium Books, and I don’t want to let anybody down.
4) Whether you wanted to or not, you've become a sometimes polarizing figure online, and for every fan there seems to be someone in certain circles of the internet who really wants to unload on you. Is that something you can usually just shake off, or does it bother you?
Kevin: Mostly I just shake it off. Sometimes it’s hilarious. I will never forget the post that said I was worse than Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden. And why? Because I published an RPG book this guy didn’t like, or because he chose to believe something I probably never actually said or did. Wow. Talk about over the top. It was so over the top it made me laugh. You have to laugh stuff like that off. Otherwise, you just deal with it as best you can. It’s the price of celebrity.
I try to take it all in stride. It’s human nature. Heck, not only that, it’s physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” You see it all the time, people who decide that they hate a particular actor, musician, writer, artist, etc., often, it seems, just because so many other people seem to like him.
I always felt the people who really knew me, knew the truth and wouldn’t believe the lies, rumors, and negative or crazy, untrue stuff said about me at times, and the rest didn’t really matter. Erick Wujcik and Mike Stackpole made me realize my ‘it ain’t true, so who cares’ attitude was a bit too cavalier and that if I didn’t stand up for myself and clear the air, the rumors and lies would become perceived as truth. It was good advice. As a result, I’ve become more public and outspoken, I do my Murmurs from the Megaverse, podcasts, interviews like this one, and convention appearances where I hope people get to see the “real me.”
5) Where do you see middle and larger-sized RPG companies being in 10 years? What do gaming companies need to do to survive in the time of economic recession and encroaching technology?
Kevin: The principles of Charles Darwin apply: adapt or face extinction. A lot of people misquote Darwin, the classic being ‘only the strongest or smartest survive.’ But that’s not what Darwin wrote at all. He said:
- “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”
You need to be flexible, adaptive to your environment and open to change. That means you need to change the way you do business and even think. Doing things differently, exploring new technologies and new mediums, utilizing the Internet, thinking outside the box and exploring new avenues of not only production and manufacturing, but marketing, advertising, sales and distribution are all important if you are to survive and prosper. You also need to keep your head in tough times and not to respond in desperation or panic, but with innovation, creativity and careful thought.
Where will many of these folks be in 10 years? That depends on what new changes occur in that time period and where each individual owner of the company wants to take it.
At the moment, a lot of company leaders are reacting to the changing landscape with fear. As a result, you see a large number of people running away from role-playing games. That’s not necessarily a bad decision. It’s a tough market. Some folks may be much better off doing other types of games, or going small, or leaving the industry to do videogames or any number of other choices. It really depends on the person and the company. Ultimately, everyone must do what they think is best for them and their people. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but if that trend continues, you will only see 2-3 large RPG companies left in 10 years, maybe not even that.
I think Palladium Books is currently the only mid- or largish sized company that is surviving predominantly on the sale of role-playing games. It’s our niche, we love it, and we’re good at it, so that’s what we are focused on.
However, you’ll see the trend to distance oneself from role-playing games reverse the second there is a ‘new smash hit’ game or resurgence of an old one that recaptures people’s imaginations and spending money. Of course, we’re hoping Palladium will be the company to do that. I’d love nothing more to reinvigorate role-playing games at some point in the next 2-5 years, but I’ll be just as happy if it’s somebody else. It will happen. We’ve seen it in comic books, film, and television, as well as other mediums. The resurgence probably won’t be as big as the initial explosion and it is likely to include other mediums, but a resurgence is likely.
Another trend that is already obvious is the move into digital and electronic mediums. I think you’ll see more and more online and videogames incorporating more and more role-playing story elements, adaptations into the electronic medium and crossover products.
6) If there's one other game out there you'd like to have designed or to be able to take credit for, or that you really admire, which one would it be?
Kevin: Hmm, I think I might claim the 5th on this question, because if I pick someone’s game I’m going to insult 50 others. If I can pick any game, past or present, I think I’d have to go with the Risk board game. It is comparatively simple, fun, and pure genius.
7) For RPG systems, there's an argument of innate attempted system balance vs. G.M. system balance. I would cite 4e as an attempt to provide the former, and Rifts® as a game that requires the latter. When you're designing a new rule or option for the Megaversal system, how much do you take the need for a strong (and fair) G.M. into consideration?
Kevin: Game balance is ALWAYS a concern and a key aspect of every rule, power, weapon and character. It has to be.
You are right, personally, I do not like the 4e approach. I do not think it is the way to go – at least for me. Everyone is NOT created equal. These attempts at ‘game balance’ with characters that are all pretty equal may sound correct, but all they do is create an illusion of balance and fairness that ultimately creates (in my opinion) dull, boring, “cookie cutter” characters that lack personality and excitement, especially in a “storytelling game.” And role-playing games are all about storytelling and characters. Character who must think and be clever, cunning, make bold and daring moves, take chances, face impossible odds sometimes, and pray for a touch of luck via the roll of the dice. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but making all character fundamentally equal is not game balance. Being able to play a huge, diverse range of characters, in a huge, diverse world (or Megaverse®) is game balance. Having rules that are invisible is game balance. And I’m not just talking about Palladium’s RPGs.
Think about it. If we all played Superman, but with a different name, things would get pretty boring and similar after a couple dozen games. Where’s the challenge, the weaknesses, your chance to shine when brawn and raw power are not the answer, that clever idea that saved the day, that moment of desperateness as you face a foe who can chew you up and spit you out, and the challenge to defeat him one way or the other?
As for the Game Master. Storytelling games like RPG are reliant on the G.M. A great G.M. can make any scenario, setting and adventure, wonderful. A bad G.M. will make the best canned adventure or setting or characters one of the most awful experiences on Earth. It’s the nature of the beast. However, I have NEVER written a game book assuming the G.M. is fantastic. On the contrary, you have to assume the G.M. is fair to good and make sure your game is still playable and fun even if the G.M. is not the best. Of course, the G.M. (and players) gets better the more he or she plays, and as his/her confidence grows. Consequently, when I design a game or sourcebook or adventure, I try to consider how the worst G.M. could wreck it or abuse it. I then try to avoid those pitfalls, provide a complete description and enough meat and ideas so that ANY G.M. with good intentions can run a good, competent and fun game. It’s tricky at times.
What irritates me is that some people don’t seem to realize is that just because you, personally, prefer a particular game system or approach, it does not mean it is the only or best one. The beauty of role-playing games is that it is personal. If it works and you like it, you are good to go. That means there are people who like the 4e approach, or Palladium approach, or Role-Master, or GURPS, or Hero Games, and on and on. And ALL of them are valid, playable, fun game systems. One is not inherently better than another, they are just different, and you may – personally – prefer one over another, but that does NOT mean all the rest are bad, no good, junk, antiquated or anything else, they are just different. That’s one of the things I love about role-playing, it is personal. There are many rules variations. In fact, many gamers have variant house rules in addition to their favorite rules. That also means if there is a rule you don’t like, you can change it. Modify it to your own, personal style of play. Awesome.
8) Last year, we lost one of the best RPG designers and writers in history, Erick Wujcik (whose credits included Amber, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and some tremendous contributions to Palladium Fantasy, among a much longer list of others). As his best friend, can you try to put into words what made him such a brilliant designer?
Kevin: Erick always thought big. He never accepted that something was impossible even if everyone around him said otherwise. Erick didn’t think outside the box, he lived outside the box. He was always looking at the infinite possibilities. He and I always took the approach of “that’s cool, but what if . . .”
The “what if” was always how can you make your idea/work different, surprising, new, unconventional, or take it in a new direction. What if you combined X with something nobody every thought of before, or tried a new or different approach or application, or what if you tossed it out completely and tried . . . whatever. He always challenged himself and was never afraid to consider new ideas. And he drew upon ideas from EVERYWHERE, never just role-playing, never the ordinary. We both shared that philosophy which is why we always worked so well together. Our goal was to always find something exciting and challenging about what we were working on. And part of that was to find something that we knew would thrill and challenge the reader.
9) How is the RPG scene different for a RPG publisher trying to establish a foothold different now versus when you were starting out?
Kevin: Geez, nothing is the same. It’s all totally different. In some ways, with print on demand (POD) it’s easier. In other ways, it is much harder.
The hobby is in a slump, there are fewer distributors and retailers, and many are hesitant or are afraid to take a chance on a new company or title. Heck, we even see low initial sales for some of our newer or daring products, such as Dead Reign. Thankfully, our distributors will usually reorder quickly when they see that “unknown” product is selling well. However, the new guy is going to have trouble getting through the door let alone getting the distributor or retailer to carry his new, unknown, unproven product. It better be slick, well packaged, and at a reasonable price point too, or forget about it. It was tough breaking in back in the day, but now, it’s murder.
Likewise, retailers are hesitant. Shelf space is money, so to tie it up on an unknown quantity is a scary proposition, especially in these tough times. Furthermore, some ‘areas’ just don’t have a gaming crowd, so getting your game in a store that doesn’t sell other RPGs or other games, is likely to be a dead-end with few to zero sales. Sadly, the hobby stores dedicated to role-playing games are also a rarity. You’re lucky to have a quality game store with a decent RPG section. The great games stores are true treasures.
Great advertising venues are also gone and there is ever increasing competition from online and videogames, not to mention a zillion other mediums and forms of communication and entertainment. It’s a very tough market and my heart goes out to those brave souls trying to break into it. Don’t give up, be smart, hit at least one big gaming convention like Gen Con, maybe a couple of smaller regional conventions, keep sending the dozen main distributors samples of every new game you release, along with your wholesale rates, offer your product online, be professional, keep at it, cross your fingers, and good luck.
10) I've got to ask this one for my fellow Palladium Fantasy fans: Mysteries of Magic™ is on its way – what can we expect in regards to delayed projects such as the Old Kingdom books and Land of the Damned?
Kevin: I’d like to seem them all done, but it is a matter of time. As anyone who follows my Murmurs from the Megaverse knows, we are working hideous, long hours as it is, 6 and 7 days a week. Regrettably, writing is a slow, complex process (to do it right), and on top of that, for me at least, I’m also handling the art direction, talent coordination, contracts, bills, advertising/promotion, many aspects of the business, and running the whole kit and caboodle. I laugh when someone says “you need to hire more people.” No kidding, but we don’t have the resources to do that right now, and it’s tough finding the people who have the experience, are willing to learn and don’t freak out when reality hits them. I felt bad for Jason Marker, Palladium’s staff writer, because the learning curve was much steeper than he expected (it always is), and there were times where he looked like he was about to break. However, Jason has stuck it out and is getting into the groove. Now he grumbles about many of the same young writer mistakes that he used to make.
I love Palladium Fantasy. It’s my personal favorite Palladium setting. It’s my goal to support the Fantasy line and all our game lines, but I’m afraid we are only human and can only do so much. I’d love to see the Old Kingdom books and Land of the Damned 3 see print. It won’t be this year, but who knows what 2010 might have to offer.
11) Do you see the world of Palladium Fantasy as primarily an optimistic or pessimistic setting, and why.
Kevin: I see it as optimistic. It is going through a tumultuous period of change. The old races have peaked, warred and are on a downward spiral. It’s the time of Man – humans are the new dominant civilization, but it’s awesome because we still have remnants of the elder races and their cultures. It’s a rich environment.
12) For me, the writing in Palladium's books always seemed to capture a certain enthusiasm about the subject matter at hand. Is that something you consciously look for when you're editing a writer's work?
Kevin: Absolutely. It is totally deliberate and intentional. In fact, it’s one of the hardest aspects for many new writers to capture. But it’s that sense of enthusiasm, energy and wonder that set our books apart. Makes them more exciting and fun. I tell my guys and gals that it is the writer’s ‘job’ to take the ordinary, commonplace and mundane, and breathe new life into it. To make it seem new or at least special, different and exciting. Wow and surprise the reader, keep him guessing, and you have a winning book.
13) Rifts, TMNT, and Palladium Fantasy were the games that a good number of gamers grew up on. For fans who may have gone by the wayside, have been away from gaming, or have been playing other RPGs, do you have any sort of message?
Kevin: Generally speaking, keep an open mind. If you haven’t role-played in a while, you might want to give it a try. It’s funny, but somehow we forget just how much fun role-playing can be. I know a number of gamers who played with me at a convention because I was a guest, or came to the Palladium Open House, and who later reported how they forgot how much fun role-playing was. Or how much fun a particular setting, Heroes Unlimited, Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, etc. were.
Yeah, dust off your old copy of Palladium RPG “X” – give it a once over and maybe run a game. You’ll find that old magic is still there. Or try Dead Reign or Robotech, two game settings that are simpler than some, easy to play and fun, fun, fun.
I know role-playing is more demanding than card games, or board games, and don’t have the splash of videogames, but there is NOTHING like them. Don’t take my word for it. Give it a try and you’ll see.
14) OK, enough with the serious questions: if you had to go with a single character class in Rifts® that kicks the most ass, which one would it be? We're talking pure personal preference for the aforementioned ass-kicking here . . . :)
Kevin: That’s a little easier question than, “Which is your favorite character?” That’s nearly impossible to answer because they are ALL my children, and it’s like asking a parent, ‘Which is your favorite child?”
Hmmm, most kick ass or bad ass Rifts® character, huh? I’ve done some serious damage with Tattooed Men, Juicers, Cyber-Knights, Ley Line Walkers, SAMAS Pilots, Dragon Hatchlings, and even Faeries (if you play ‘em right), but I think I would have to go with the Mind Melter. I love those guys. As a player, I tend to gravitate toward Mind Melters/Mind Mages, practitioners of magic, thieves and assassins.
Thanks again, Kev. Take care – Zack