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Interview with M. Alexander Jurkat

Posted on January 19, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

I started gaming as part of my WWII fixation when I was in my early teens. I subscribed to SPI and got their monthly magazines complete with a war game in each. When I got to college we played a board game that was like D&D with chits and character advancement (can’t recall what it was called—I do remember that it was very cheesy). After I played a couple weeks of that silly game, they brought out the first edition AD&D handbook (with the statue on the cover) and I was completely hooked. I was a Senior and had a boat load of work to do (I took a semester off but still wanted to graduate with my class). Still, I spent nearly every waking free hour playing or running AD&D.

How do you find potential authors/artists for your products?

With respect to authors, I try to give the first choice of assignments to the best of our playtesters. We have a dedicated group of rabid playtesters who put in countless uncompensated hours. For anyone who does that enough and consistently shows quality work, I usually find a way to get them a paid assignment. Sometimes, we seek out an experienced industry professional whose work we like and ask them to do a book. Otherwise, we have built a stable of quality writers over the years we have been in business and we keep going back to them as long as they keep doing the job.

Having done both, how would you explain the difference between editing for a game and writing for a game. What do you look for as an editor vs what you expect to get back from an editor?

Writing is much harder in my view. The worst part of being a writer is the blank page. Once you have something down, no matter how crappy, it’s always easier to clean, reorganize, rework and polish. Putting something down that you know sucks is very difficult. As a writer, you want to feel that what you say is worth something.

As an editor you look for something that sparks an interest. Something new, different, interesting or fresh is what makes a product worthwhile. As a writer, you look for support and help. You want to know that the editor has spent serious time with your work and understands what you are tying to do (or if he doesn’t, he tells you what he thinks you’re trying to do and helps you get there).

What sets Eden Studios apart from other publishers?

Consistently above average graphics and cool game concepts. That combined with professional and solid game mechanics and writing, and you get the total package when you purchase our games. With our high production lines, Angel and Buffy, the look and feel are superlative.

What are the steps in licensing an existing property, like Buffy, as compared to creating your own setting?

The first step is identifying who owns the property and whether they are interested in licensing it out. For Buffy that was easy because Fox has an entire division devoted to licensing their properties. Then you have put together a proposal and get it in front of the decision makers. That’s a slew of work and could be a real crapshot. Many mass market business folks don’t know what RPGs are (though my understanding is that is changing). For Buffy, again we had a shortcut because Fox had already licensed the rights to the CCG and RPG to Score. We just needed to convince Score that we were the right folks for the job. Then you have to create a game that is evocative of the material.

None of these steps are applicable when you create your own setting. Of course, they are replaced by the need (though this is not always done) to create a market for your new creation. That’s very difficult and if not done means you are creating a setting basically for your own amusement. “If you make it, they will come” is a really, really bad idea as a marketing plan.

What challenges have you faced creating a RPG based on an established setting like the Buffy-verse?

Capturing the humor and horror of the setting. Joss Whedon and his Mutant Enemy team are professionals who have created a seminal mythos. Following along in that vein and adding something new and fresh (otherwise, we are just a guide book with game stats) is a daunting task. Fortunately, CJ is a great writer/designer and our playtesters have been wonderful. The final products, for both Buffy and Angel, really shine and I couldn’t be happier with them.

How have the fans of the TV shows responded to the Buffy and Angel RPGs?

The overwhelming reaction to our Buffy and Angel games has been very positive. Fans love the inside jokes and details. The TV show fans who were already into roleplaying have been very excited. Also, we seem to have attracted a number of lapsed or newbie roleplayers looking for something simple that captures the look and feel of the game.

What kind of response have you had from experienced gamers regarding offering signature characters from the show as playable characters? Do you feel you’ve brought people to roleplaying by offering the signature characters to play that wouldn’t have otherwise?

Gamers like to see their favorite characters all statted out and ready to play. I can remember as far back as when I first got into comics and folks would argue over who’s stronger—the Hulk or the Thing or Thor or Hercules (answer: Hulk). It’s nice to see how characters match up and gamers love to have specificity on abilities. Now, putting all this down in a book doesn’t make it “the truth.” Gamers are perfectly willing to take your judgment calls apart if they disagree. But again, that’s the fun of the hobby. We provide a benchmark for folks to begin their disagreements. 😉

We have heard anecdotes about RPG newbies who started playing because the Buffy RPG was available. Those are always very encouraging.

With the Buffy show having come to an end, what direction is the RPG going to take?

We are going to produce materials based on that last couple of seasons first off. We are also going to concentrate on Angel for a while as that show is producing new episodes (and going strong from the latest news we hear). After that, we have discussed several types of products, some branching off into whole new territories (such as Cleveland from the Bizarro Buffyverse from the Wish and Doppelgangland). We just renewed our license with Fox for two years so we have plenty more to come.

How much creative liberty do you have with the Buffyverse in the game?

Fox has been very supportive of our creative efforts. They only ask that we clearly label canon (material taken directly from the show) from non-canon (everything else). We would have done that anyway since we want our customers to know that information.

Has there been any response/involvement from the cast of either Buffy or Angel to the games?

We have had no official direct contact with the cast or the writers. We’ve met some of them at shows and those that know about the RPGs are very positive. James Marsters once told us that he thought the Buffy game was the best RPG out there. Now that’s an unbiased recommendation, right? 😉

Do you have a favorite RPG? What is it and why?

I’ve been playing, writing, designing and editing RPGs for so long, it’s hard for me to say one is my favorite. I’ve enjoyed AD&D, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, Jorune, Vampire, and all our Unisystem games. Lately, I’ve been involved in a rich and vastly entertaining 3e game. The key is the Game Master. With a good GM, the precise game you play doesn’t matter. With a bad GM, the best-designed game is useless.

How did the Unisystem evolve? What is on the horizon?

The Unisystem is CJ Carella’s baby. After he worked extensively in GURPS and the Palladium system, he decided to try his hand at design. The Unisystem is specifically designed to be non-flashy. Its job is to provide governing mechanics, not to be a game in itself. After a few sessions, the system should fade in to the background and the story should take precedence. The Buffy and Angel Unisystem is a streamlined version designed to emphasize that process. It’s easy to pick up and simplified so the story comes to the fore.

We have the Army of Darkness RPG coming out in 2004. It uses the same cinematic Unisystem featured in Buffy and Angel. Later, we have Beyond Human which is more of a generic powers book for the Unisystem. It does not have a specific setting but takes an approach like All Flesh Must Be Eaten (the zombie Unisystem game) so that folks can use the powers in whatever setting they desire. While superheroes can be played with Beyond Human, our goal is to support games like Buffy, Angel, Charmed, Aliens, and a slew of horror films and shows. These stories are told about folks who are “beyond human” but not hugely super-powered. We are aiming less at four-color and more at dark and dangerous.

What’s next for you?

I have recently finished the final edits and approvals of the Army of Darkness RPG. Shane Hensley did the writing and the game really rocks. There’s a slew of Angel and Buffy supplements on my plate. Other than that, I’ve got a couple of special projects in the near future that I’m pretty excited about. I can’t tell you about those yet though.

For more information on the Unisystem and other games, visit the Eden Studios website at www.edenstudios.net.

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