Today, we're featuring a Q&A from one of my favorite RPG publishers/authors. Clash Bowley is the man behind Flying Mice LLC, publishers of such awesome titles as In Her Majesty's Arcane Service, In Harm's Way, Cold Space, Blood Games, and the just-released In Harm's Way: StarCluster. Flying Mice is responsible for a truly large, wonderful, eclectic mix of games, and I'm thrilled Clash let me interview him. Now, onto the Q&A, where we talk publishing, sci-fi, and much more:
Your company is well-known for making sci-fi and historical RPGs. Could you make the products you make now if this were 1995 instead of 2010?
Probably not. There was no infrastructure or market for selling pdfs over the net, and no POD houses to print and distribute ofver the net. RPGNow was started in 2001, and I released StarCluster 1E early in 2002 - IIRC, the same week that Hard Nova was released, but certainly about the same time. Basically as soon as the infrastructure was there, I was working on it.
Let's talk about your newest projects: In Harm's Way: StarCluster, and StarCluster 3rd Edition. First, what's the pitch for In Harm's Way: StarCluster?
Pitch? I am teh suck at pitches. It's a Military SF toolbox, set in a Cluster of your own making. Everything's got dials and switches to customize it exactly the way you want. It's also inter-operable with StarCluster 2E. You can use the CharGen from SC2E for civilian stuff, or you can play in the SC2E Cluster, or you can use the Military chargen in IHW:SC to create characters for play in the Cluster after they leave the service, or any other combination you want. IHW:SC covers infantry, armored vehicles, aerospace vehicles, space-based vehicles, and special operations, so you know it' has to be totally unfocused. It has three different Task Resolution sub-systems to choose from, and two different space combat systems. It's all over the place. A mess. This will probably freak out advocates for tightly focused games... :D
With products like IHW: SC or StarCluster 3e, do you try for a certain "sweet spot" with your sci-fi? Do you think it appeals more to fans of genre of sci-fi than another?
The SF in StarCluster is classic SF - it comes from the literary SF of Cherryh, Niven, Pournelle, Brin, and Anderson, not movie or TV SF. It's firm SF, in that the science is important. and the technologies have evolved from specific scientific breakthroughs. It's not Hard SF - we decided that the laws of physics have evolved in the next thousand and a half years to encompass these breakthroughs. it's not soft SF - science is important and underlies everything. Given the breakthroughs we postulate, things could evolve in this direction. On the other hand, I do my best to take the science out of the GMs' and players' face. It's all built into the system, not hanging out there naked and flapping in the wind. You don't have to know any of this to take the game and run with it.
So, StarCluster is seeing a third edition. How long has this been in the works, and why the change?
Well, StarCluster has been showing its age. I've learned a *lot* about making systems in the last six years, and after making IHW:SC, I want to revisit the civilian side of the Cluster. I've known I was going to do a third edition for about a year and a half, but since it will be based on what I came up with for IHW:SC, that was the first priority. Then it's a matter of transferring the civilian chargen to the IHW:SC setup, then adding in the civilian equipment and technology, and finally filling in the cracks. When I released IHW:SC, I put StarCluster 2E out for free download. This will encourage me to get to work on 3E.
What will be the big differences between SC 2e and SC 3e?
The old Cluster setting is gone, along with the old aliens. It's being replaced by generators. You will be able to choose among several different task resolution systems instead of being stuck with percentile. I will probably have different Task Resolution options in 3E than in IHW:SC - maybe StarRisk, StarKarma, and StarStory. Don't quote me on that, though! I may totally change my mind by the time I release it. They all need more testing to iron out the wrinkles, and something else may leap to the forefront before I'm happy with these three. I will be writing 3E to complement IHW:SC, so expect seeing the civilian focus running throughout. I think the only thing they will have in common will be the Cluster and Alien generators, yet they will be transparently interoperable.
I know you may not feel comfortable with releasing sales figures, but what is your most popular game to date? What do you think the attraction to that game is?
It's a tie between StarCluster and Cold Space as far as core games go, but the StarCluster line is a bigger revenue producer than the Cold Space line - the In Harm's Way line is very close to passing Cold Space. Commonwealth Space just died out there after so much work. I'm very happy with it otherwise - it's actually my favorite in the Cold Space line - but the market didn't take to it. As for why StarCluster sold so well, I don't know. I really write for myself, not for the market - as evidenced by Commonwealth Space and Book of Jalan, I guess!
Let's talk about negative reviews for a minute. How hard is it to shake them off?
Negative reviews don't bother me at all. If they are well written, they can really help me. When I released StarCluster 1E, it got utterly, completely trashed in a review, I think it got a 1 out of 10, but I learned a heck of a lot from that review, and began improving the game immediately. Other negative reviews helped me saleswise because the reviewer had a non-traditional perspective, and poked at the trad aspects of the game. Sales went up. If the review is badly written, it's no more than some clown saying "This game sucks!" on the internet. Water off a duck's back.
What's your view of the traditional 3-tier model for publishers?
Up from underneath. :D
Gamers are sooo conservative! they know what they like and like what they know. The traditional way gamers fins games is by going to the FLGS and finding something new, and that's the way it's done, Bunkie! I know - I'm a gamer myself. I was always an early adopter of technology, online before there was an internet, back in BBS days. I had a Trash-80 with 4k of ram and two single sided, single density floppies, and a 100 BPS acoustic coupler modem that was the envy of everyone I knew, then got a C-64 before I went into the Amiga world for many years. At one time I had 5 Amigas, all accelerated, with a NeXT pizza box and a Digital Alpha in my house. Yet I never once looked online for gaming stuff until 2001. It never even occurred to me. Now everything I do is only available online or through a few direct sale stores. You can do OK with this. I've been doing fine for quite a while, and no one knows about Flying Mice outside a few folks on the RPG Site and people who read your blog. I keep getting emails and PMs from folks who say "Why have I never heard of your games before?" in spite of being all over the web since the turn of the century.
Online before, we've discussed the difference between Story and Play. I thought you've done a good job of explaining this. For our readers, would you care to rehash this once more?
For the life of me, I can't remember what I said, Zachary, so I'll bore in at it from what may be a totally different direction. Story is a word which carries a lot of baggage. It has an established meaning, which is a narrative of something that happened, either fictional or non-fictional. It is a stringing together of events through related people, places, or things. In the context of RPGs, story happens naturally. It's a recounting of what happened after the fact. Traditional gaming can produce awesome stories, so long as there is mutual trust between the GM and the players. I don't personally play for story at all, though the story that is produced can be beautiful and even elegant. It jsut doesn't matter to me whether when we look back on a campaign or a session we see narrative gold or pure dross. I care about the joy of play.
Play is *very* different fron story, It is immediate - happening now. There are multiple viewpoints, and multiple protagonists. There are social interactions, rules questions, dice rattling, chances taken, gambits succeeding and failing. it's really not much like a story at all. Games which purport to modify the story or narrative better are actually doing something else entirely. If you look at the actual play stories from trad and "Narrative" play, there really is no difference in the quality of the stories produced. They're mostly about sharing the authority for what happens in various ways, and the value of these games - and there is value in these games - does not lie in producing a better story, but in increasing player ownership of what is happening during play. The value of these games is in producing a different play experience, a kind some people really like, not a better story.
Which publisher out there right now do you think are doing interesting work in gaming?
VSCA, the guys who wrote Diaspora. It's an awesome game, and very interesting in its approach. Hinterwelt, Bill Corrie and company. They are working a totally new vein with the Squirrel Attack series, Precis Intermedia's games just go from strength to strength. Cubilcle 7 are doing awesome things - Qin and StarBlazer Adventures were very cool. Levi Kornelsen with Amagi Games is doing excellent work - very different in both execution and in what exactly it is he is trying to accomplish. Tim Kirk of Silverlion is very creative while staying tradiitional at the same time. I just wish he'd write faster! Rich Parkinson of Timeless Games has quietly been making excellent games for a long time, with no attention. And Marco Chacon of JAGS is just flat out brilliant--and all his games are totally free to DL. There are more, but that will serve for now!