Welcome to this, the final installment of my lunch with Emerson Matsuuchi. I cannot express how wonderful it was to meet and visit with Emerson; he is an absolutely fascinating, kind, delightful person. If it ever comes to a point where I revisit an interview, Emerson will be the first. And the second, and the third…
DTD: So, it seems like IP (intellectual property) games are a mixed blessing. You work a game off an IP and it can be really difficult to try to do justice to the IP, it can be really difficult, all of that.
EM: Yes, absolutely.
DTD: I think the best world would be if you had a game already and the IP just fit on it just perfect.
EM: I think for me, I had an idea for a cooperative stealth game, because at time there wasn’t such a thing as a cooperative stealth game. I always had these ideas; I never committed to paper until one day when someone from IDW, a good friend of mine Daryl Andrews, who’s the designer of Sagrada and other very popular games. He actually approached me and said, “Are you interested in working with an IP?” And I said, “Yeah, I would be interested in working with an IP” And he rattled off some, and when he got to Metal Gear Solid, I said, “Stop right there. I’m in.”
DTD: You have sold it. It’s a fantastic IP. And I have seen more and more IP games pop up. Historically, they have always had this little wariness around them. If you saw a game with an IP you were leery. But I think that’s really changing.
EM: I’m hoping so. Because I think IPs, we already have a vested interest in the story, the lore. We have fond memories, maybe it’s nostalgia. But I think that is already, you have a step above other games in terms of immersing the players, because players are already familiar with it, they already have invested interest in it.
DTD: They are already grabbed. You just need to not disappoint them. I guess that’s the difference: If you have an IP game, it’s no longer “I need to impress you with my game.”, it’s “I need to not disappoint you with my game.”
EM: Right, right. [chuckles]
DTD: Isn’t that a terrible way to put it?
EM: I know that sounds a little dower, but with the Metal Gear Solid game that I was working on, I really did come from the stance of a fan. What does a fan want to see? And I threw in so much.
DTD: More eye patches.
EM: More eye patches, yes. Although this is Metal Gear Solid one, so eye patches didn’t come in until the later ones.
Touche, Master Matsuuchi. I failed to properly guage either the sharpness of your wit or the depth of your knowledge.
DTD: See, you are out-nerding me here. With Metal Gear Solid, it was IP first, design second?
EM: Yes, for the most part.
DTD: I mean, I’m sure you always have some ideas in the back of your head. There’s little pieces and mechanisms and things.
EM: Yes, but it’s definitely IP first. The design came second, and it was one, where as soon as… Once I started to think about it, then the game almost designed itself. So, I had idea after idea after idea, and then pretty soon I had everything with the kitchen sink. And I do have to say, IDW has been incredibly gracious in allowing me to see, fulfill this vision. Because I was certain that they were going to say, “well this is going to be a $170 game [grumpy].” But they said, “Yeah, this will be a $170 game [excited].” Or $135 game, or something like that.
DTD: Well, we have a market for that now.
EM: Yeah, there’s a market for that.
DTD: If it’s a good game, we have consumers who will pay for a good game, which is fantastic.
EM: In a way, there’s a part of me that, like you said, I don’t want to disappoint the fans.
DTD: Well, you are a fan, also. You’re a video game guy, and Metal Gear Solid is just such a nice world to go into. It’s very, very cool. I haven’t gotten to play Metal Gear Solid.
EM: Well, you can play the board game, because one of the things that I am very proud of, is that we retell the story of Metal Gear Solid One.
DTD: I’ve been following the board game, and watching it, and seeing what’s been going on. One of the reasons, and this is going to sound really patronizing, but one of the reasons I didn’t jump on it and go right away was… IP. And then the reason I kept an eye on it, and really wanted to know how it’s doing and more about it, was your name was on it. You confused me.
EM: Well thank you. I really do hope that this is… I definitely put a lot of, I think this is the game I put the most development time into. There’s a tremendous amount of work, in that every boss battle was actually different. And because of that, it took so many testing cycles to try out all these different mechanics, because every boss is mechanically different. I tried to make this, the set of rules to play each boss simple, you just flip over the card in the deck. But what the card tells you to do is different for each boss. And I’m hoping that each one feels like the boss. In fact, after I got the contract, I bought a PlayStation Classic and played through Metal Gear again.
DTD: Research, man, research.
EM: I had to ask those questions, like “What happens when I kill all the guards in a zone? How long does it take until more guards do appear”, and things like that. So, I had to delve deep into the mechanics of the game, because there were things I remember from memory, but I don’t remember exactly how they work, so I had to play the game again.
DTD: That’s really cool. Just the idea of bringing all those little aspects into the game.
EM: I don’t know if some people might be disappointed that it’s not a Metal Gear skin on Specter Ops; the style of game play was hidden movement. I know some people might be expecting that.
DTD: That’s what I was going to say; I think people may have expected it, but not fondly expected it. I think people would have been disappointed if that’s all that it was. And nowadays, we are getting an explosion in IPs that are reskins, so it’s a little disappointing that there’s so much of that.
EM: Right. Sometimes if the mechanics just fit perfectly. But those are going to be the rare cases where the IP and the mechanics just fit perfectly. You want to get as much of the IP flavor into the design and the game, to where the design is informed by the IP. All the design decisions are going to be based on things that happen in the IP or are derived from it.
DTD: Well, you want the game to feel like what people are expecting. If you have just a slapped-on IP. And the standard is just Monopoly; I’m sure there’s a Metal Gear Monopoly. It’s not going to feel like Metal Gear. I’ve been watching it fondly, just waiting for my moment to swoop in. So, that’s one of the other things I’ve liked about your designs, is they have bounced back and forth between really nice simple games, and like, Specter Ops is not simple. That is a thinky, tense game. Your ability to bounce back and forth between those is just great.
I found a Metal Gear Risk, but not Metal Gear Monopoly.
EM: Thank you. Initially I thought of it as a weakness. Because I do bounce back and forth, I don’t have a particular genre I am very strong in. As opposed to Uwe Rosenberg; I like to use him as an example.
DTD: Well he’s got a very distinct…. Although he’s gone through different phases. He’s got his polyomino games, his early card games, but he is the feed your people, euro guy.
Uwe Rosenberg is certainly known for farming, feed your people games, such as Caverna, Agricola, Glass Road, Ora et Labora. However, he stearted with popular card games Bohnanza and Mama Mia. And recently his more popular games have been polyomino tile games like Cottage Garden, Patchwork and Nova Luna. Someone should ask him about that in an interview…
EM: He has a following, and they know what to expect from his games. And I think that’s a strong branding. Whereas, I think that I am all over the place, to where I don’t have quite that same level of branding, because I will have a hidden role game on this side, a party game on that side, euro game on this side, then a 4X civilization building game on this side.
DTD: But that’s fine, look at Friedemann Friese. He has hundreds of games, and there’s probably no three that are the same.
EM: That’s true that’s true. Although his branding I think is his green hair.
DTD: Green boxes, green hair.
EM: Green hair, green boxed, everything needs to start with the letter F.
Literally true. All of Friedemann’;s games start with the letter “F” (at least in German) and come in a green box. Plus his hair is green and he wears green clothes. Sounds like an interesting guy, someone should interview him…
DTD: See, you just need to pick a color. And all of your games start with E. So, what else is in the future for you?
EM: I do have one game that I’m working with Plan B on, but I’m not sure when it’s going to be released, or when it’s going to be announced. I guess I can share a little bit of a background on this; hopefully Plan B won’t hate me too much.
DTD: They’ll hate me, not you.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me…
EM: It is Century. internally we call the century games C1, C2, C3 for Century 1 [Century: Spice Road], Century 2 [Century: Eastern Wonders], Century 3 [Century: A New World]. So, this was actually an earlier version of C3 that was too complicated. When I had play tested it, it was a very compelling set of mechanics and it was really, really thinky. And I played it with people who are in love with Spice Road. They said they absolutely love Spice Road, they were really excited to play this, the prototype of this game. And when I played it, I thought their heads were going to explode. They looked like they were in pain, they were confused.
DTD: Well, original Spice Road is a pretty simple game, which is great. I think the complexity does go up with each one, but this was just one notch too far?
EM: Way too fast. Well, I think it was an order of magnitude. So, I said, “You know what, I can’t do this. We have to go back to the drawing board.” But I still kept it because it was a game that the gamers that liked; the more thinkier gamers really enjoyed it. So that’s why I’ve kept it.
DTD: That sounds really intriguing. So, push your cubes, soulless, but more.
One of the more harsh critics referred to Century as a “soulless, themeless cube pusher”.
EM: Yes, it is still soulless. It is more thinky. It is very AP prone.
AP = Analysis Paralysis. The condition where a player freezes up for a ong time in the face of too many options.
DTD: I really enjoy things like that, and I get this very love-hate relationship. I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance to play Dominations?
EM: Not yet; it’s on my list of things I have got to try out.
DTD: Oh, it is so thinky. And it would just drive AP people insane. There is so many moving pieces in there that all are interlinked together. But it is a crunchy euro, resource collection, spend them. Build your engine, really delightful. I was soundly trounced. I love games, but I tend to not be that good at them. I’ve always kind of felt that, and other people have said it, not just me, that when you play games, there’s essentially three kinds of people that play games. There’s people playing to win, and their single sole goal is to win the game. And they tend to be more AP, because they have more on the line. There’s people who play to explore, where “these mechanisms are cool”, and “what if I do this?”, and “that sounds neat”. And those are the people who tend to play the game and forget what the end conditions are. And just play around, then go, “Oh, somehow I have to get points now!” And there’s people who play to be social, where the game is less important than interacting with the people around them. And they will lose track, and “what color am I?”, and “what was that rule again?” Because the board game is not the important part.
EM: You almost nailed the three magic archetypes.
DTD: And someone else told me about that! I hadn’t heard about that, and I went back and read them after I heard about it. Spike, Timmy and Johnny. I love it.
The three archetypes were originally coined by Mark Rosewater in 2002. Spike tends to be very competitive, and plays to show how good they are. Johnny/Jenny explores the deck, and lives to create complex and creative decks with interesting combinations. Timmy/Tammy is very social, and wants to feel something playing big combos, regardless of whether they win or lose.
EM: Now most gamers, they are a combination of those three archetypes. I am Johnny. I am so squarely within the Johnny camp, because I love to just explore mechanics.
DTD: And that’s me. I, many games I have just sat there and played and played, and this is so fun and awesome. And then I look, and I have no points.
EM: Yes, I’ve got this awesome engine!
DTD: This engine is so fun, but at some point, I really need to win.
EM: Yes. Like in Dominion, I never get the point cards, because I’m having so much fun building my deck to be able to draw more and more cards.
DTD: Well, this makes this makes this makes this! Absolutely, I love those exploratory things.
EM: I was totally a Johnny when it comes to playing magic, because for me the goal wasn’t to win the game. For me, the goal was to impress my opponent with this crazy concocted combo that I made. And just to see…
DTD: I bet I can beat you with 400 copies of this one creature.
EM: My favorite ones were always the ones that allowed me to go through my entire deck. Reshuffle it, then go through it all over again.
DTD: And Coloma kind of added that as a mechanism.
DTD: There’s a lot of little strategies you can do if you play Coloma, and one of them is, it is a deck builder. Where you get your cards and you go through them. And you get points if you go through your whole deck and then you have to draw again. It actually benefits you and scores you points. So, you can strategize to make a massive overdraw deck. It was really neat, I got a kick out of that. I played Magic way back in the day, when it was pretty new, but I didn’t get competitive, and I wasn’t very good at it, and I fell off of Magic in one of the very early expansions, or sets. I think the newest set I had was Antiquity.
EM: Oh, that’s fairly old.
DTD: Oh yeah, that’s when I stopped. Maybe one after Antiquities. It was right around there.
I am really dating myself. Antiquities was the third set, 1994. I think I stopped playing around Ice Age, 1995.
EM: I got in at the beginning. But because I wasn’t taught well, and I didn’t have friends who liked to play quite fair… because in a way it was a bit of the “pay to win” model. I never had a good experience early on. But I think it was around the 7th or 8th edition, this was quite a bit later, that’s when I got into it heavily. And playing it online a lot.
DTD: I remember it just showing up online, and I hadn’t played for a while, but it was hard to get back into it. I had fun with it, this was in the early explosion of CCGs when Magic was popular. And every other company said I’m going to jump on this bandwagon, too. So, we had every IP in a CCG. Star Wars, Star Trek, this one, that one. And I had them all, and I tried to play them all. And they were, I had a good time with it. I had beta cards and all that fun stuff. And I think I gave my entire magic collection to one of the kids in the neighborhood.
EM: That was awfully generous of you.
DTD: And just to torture myself, I kept my Excel spreadsheet that had my inventory of what all the cards were. I don’t look at that anymore.
EM: Yeah, that’s torture. Interesting thing, I’m in the reverse situation, where in my more I found this binder. I don’t think it’s mine, because I looked in it, I looked in this binder and there were all these dual lands, and very rare cards, expensive cards. I was looking through this, and this was not my collection. I know I would have, if I had these I would definitely know. And I was trying to look for a name inside of this binder, but this binder has been with me for quite a while now. I don’t know who owns this binder. But I’m not going to sell it, because I don’t think it’s mine. I was an avid collector, but I didn’t invest that heavily into those legacy cards. So now I have all these rare cards in this binder.
DTD: You’re just going to hang on to it.
EM: I don’t know what to do with this. I just don’t feel right selling this, but I don’t know who it belongs to. Or whether it was actually my collection or not. I’ve just been out of touch with the magic scene for so long. By the way, Jason [Levine] keeps calling me; I was wondering can we make this a two-part interview? And let’s say do a lunch or dinner tomorrow?
The short story is, we were originally going to have a 3 person lunch with Emerson, Jason, and myself at a fancy restaurant in Las Vegas, however Emerson did not feel up to it. This interview is the next day, and Jason had scheduling conflicts, but he really wanted to get together after this longer than anticipated lunch.
DTD: [laughs] I have no problem with that at all, he wants to be involved. He called me also.
EM: Oh, he did, OK.
DTD: No, it’s fine. We can do this whenever. It’s just fun going out and talking with you. This is all passion project, hobby stuff for me. So, there’s no rules. I’m not up against any deadlines, it’s all me. Am I in trouble for not answering Jason about something?
EM: No, he wants me to show them the prototypes. So, I told him I have these prototypes.
Emerson had been wowing the crowds with prototypes of his social deduction word game, and his liar’s dice worker placement game. Both mond blowing, both described earlier in this interview!
DTD: Oh, you have to go because Jason wants to see stuff!
EM: He wants to see stuff, but I didn’t give hi a hard time or anything like that. I’m going to show them the game that I had shown you as well. And I have my Liars Dice worker placement in my hotel room that I could bring down, and I’d love to get your feedback on that.
DTD: I’d love to see any and all of that. I have no real schedule or anything. Well, to be fair, I think Saturday morning I have a breakfast.
EM: I’m pretty schedule free, which is interesting. Usually at these conventions, if someone is paying to have me out, they will schedule me for panels and workshops and demos and things like that. But here, Timm [Metevier] just says, “Just do the designer panel and you’re done.”
Timm Metevier is a truly fascinating, terrific guy, and the main organizer of Dice Tower West.
DTD: Do whatever you want, man. I love it.
EM: It’s very stress free!
DTD: OK, I’m going to go ahead and kill it [the recorder].
And so ends another truly epic designer lunch. I cannot express how much fun it was to hang out with Emerson at Dice Tower West, talk about video games, computers, board game design, and just generally get to know a cherished new friend. Unfortunately, although we got together several times after this interview, we never did formally record the sequel. I will keep this rain check, and once this currently blurry world comes back into focus, I will make it a top priority to feed and question the great Emerson Matsuuchi more thouroughly.