Welcome back to dinner with Christian T. Petersen, founder of Fantasy Flight Games, designer of Twilight Imperium, and a pretty goofy dude. Dinner is winding down, the plates have been cleared, and negotiations over coffee are about to commence.
Waiter: Any desserts for you guys tonight?
CTP: I’m good. Thank you.
DTD: I’m open for some coffee.
Waiter: Is the coffee OK, because I think it’s still leftover from a few hours ago, alright? Do you want cream and sugar?
Once again, our waiter seemed to be a little too happy to be there, perchance via some chemical assistance. But very entertaining.
DTD: Actually do you have an espresso?
Waiter: We do not.
DTD: Oh, just a cup of coffee would be great.
Waiter: Cream and sugar?
DTD: That’d be wonderful.
CTP: What were we talking about?
DTD: We were talking about the publishing… the software company for publishing.
CTP: Yeah, so it’s called AWEbase, and the reason it is called AWEbase, is because it originally stood for Artists, Writers, and Editors. That was who it was intended to help companies deal with. But it’s since done a lot more than that, so we just shrunk it to AWEbase.
Christian had booths at GenCon for all of these companies. There was an AWEbase booth, a Gamezenter booth, and more…
DTD: OK. So then I’m really curious about the Gamezenter as well.
DTD: It struck me as just an interesting piece of news, when I saw a press release that Christian Petersen bought the Gamezenter. Was it a nostalgic thing, was it wanting to be back in a game store playing setting? Or was there more to it than that?
The Fantasy Flight Games Center opened in 2010, and was a center for playing games, but also a workshop for the company. Remember, Christian sold Fantasy Flight to Asmodee in 2014. Or more accurately, Asmodee and Fantasy Flight merged and Christian became CEO. Then he left Asmodee in 2018.
CTP: I think nostalgia is the wrong word for the… You know, I launched it originally. It was my idea. Originally got the idea from going to Nottingham, and visiting Games Workshop. And they have this amazing place called Bugman’s Bar.
DTD: I’ve heard all about it.
Bugman’s Bar is now located within Games Workshop‘s Warhammer World, and it is a spectacularly themed, Warhammer laden, miniatures wonderland.
CTP: It’s great. So, they happen to have a game store connected to that. And I’m like, “This is really great, because it’s calm. They could hang out, and the staff would go there.” And so it was really great. So, I wanted to create something, not like that, but something similar to that. Something that was more FFG’s [Fantasy Flight Games] style, not that kind of really baroque, medieval, like Bugman’s Bar.
DTD: So then is Gamezenter still a place for FFG to go and brainstorm, and work on stuff?
CTP: So yeah, they can. But they’re not around, because they’re all working from home. [laughs]
COVID humor dodge. Good one, Master Petersen.
DTD: Well, I’m just wondering about the detachment between you and FFG, with you having the Gamezenter.
CTP: Right. So, I bought… I mean, I couldn’t keep calling it “Fantasy Flight Game Center”, because that’s their brand, and so…
DTD: No no no.
CTP: After a period time, I had to create a new brand. And so yeah, so it’s… I love it. I love the place.
DTD: Is it meant to be like an incubator space for games?
CTP: Well, no, it’s just a celebration of gaming, I think.
DTD: Oh, OK.
CTP: You know, it’s a game store. We opened an online component to it. It has a restaurant in there. There’s a coffee shop in there. There’s an open gaming space, and we are just expanding a lot right now, to put in private gaming rooms. So, if you want to have your party in there. We’re expanding. We also have huge event rooms. We have one, like 5000 square foot event room. You can fit 250 players in, and an adjoining room that’s a little smaller.
CTP: So, it’s almost like an event-center-gaming celebration, and I love it. I think its always sort of meant to…
DTD: I would love to have one. [laughs]
Seriously. One of these days I may purchase my own gaming celebration. And I do believe Christian bought it just because he thought it was cool.
CTP: Like at games, I just… Most of my games are because I really wanted to play them. This is like, this place I really want to exist.
DTD: Of course. So, are you back in game design? I guess that’s the elephant in the room.
CTP: Here and there. Oh, here and there. I would say, not really. I mean, I dabble in stuff, but I think… No, not yet. Let me put it that way. I think I have some designs in mind, that are percolating. But they haven’t hit the… When I design games, what I do is I work a lot in a notebook. A lot in a notebook. I do a lot, a lot, of notes and thoughts in writing, before I make a game. And of course you can make it… Half the time, it doesn’t work at all.
Legally, the answer is “no.”
CTP: It’s just, “This is terrible.” But of a lot of things that I’ve learned over the years, one of the controversial things, is that some of the young designers that come in say, “I have this game!” I say, “OK. Have you written the rule book yet?” And they go, “No.” – “Well then, go do that!”
DTD: And that’ll help you figure out how it actually works.
CTP: Because if you can’t write the rulebook, how do you propose that somebody else is going to write it, or somebody else is going to be able to read it. And it also allows you to… A rule booklet is unforgiving, there’s no “Eh, it kind of works like that”. There are no soft edges to it.
Our much too amused waiter delivered the questionable coffee, and made a few jokes regarding its quality and parentage.
DTD: [to waiter] Thank you, thank you.
CTP: And it’s one of the most difficult things to do.
DTD: Oh, agreed.
CTP: I’ve written a lot of rule booklets, and I will state to this day, I don’t think there is a perfect rule booklet. Because, just like there’s no such thing as a, you know, a similar person to another person. And everybody learns differently and wants different ways to engage.
DTD: Well, the other side of it too – there’s a whole industry is starting to build up around writing rulebooks for people. There are people who are very, very good at it.
Kudos to those who make a living helping me learn to play with my toys.
DTD: But I was always told, and I believe it a lot: If you have a great idea, a game, a concept, you really need to be able to communicate it to someone else. And that’ll solidify it in your mind. And that’s the essence of making a rule book.
CTP: And more importantly, communicate it to yourself. Because most good ideas…
DTD: You really know it if you can easily tell it to someone else.
CTP: Right, because everybody is a hero of their own story, right? Then everybody thinks, “Oh I have this great thing, and it’s in my head.” But it’s really typically not as fully fleshed out, in real life, as it is in your head.
DTD: Oh yeah.
CTP: And there’s a lot of connections that are not made, even though it feels great, and the internal image is amazing.
DTD: That’s the biggest thing I see with young designers, is they have a game they have never playtested with anyone else, except themselves and close personal family. Who won’t ever tell them anything is wrong.
CTP: Yeah, but at least it got out on paper. You know, that means that they took that big step.
DTD: Oh yeah.
Much more than your humble narrator has accomplished, that’s for sure.
CTP: But they should write the rule booklet. Yeah, that would be my next step, is “Did you write the rules?” I try sometimes to write rules for game systems that I have in mind, before I even create a single prototype.
DTD: Wow. OK.
CTP: I find a lot of honesty in that, and I sort of realize, “Well, wait a minute. Do I really want to do it that way…? We’ve gone down that route 100 times and always failed.” And that’s one thing I know that was very frustrating to a lot of young, new generation game designers. Or developers, even, in our company, who would come from more gentle environments and schools and stuff. Where you have a game designer excited about… I would say, “Yeah. No, no, no, no. That’s not going to work.” And I know it’s not going to work, because we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve bludgeoned our nose against it 1000 times, and it’s not really novel, and so it’s not going to work.
Tough love. But no one would argue Christian Petersen has an understanding of the games industry.
CTP: But there’s a… How to say that, is maybe different now? Maybe you have to say it much, much, much slower and and let it go down. Let that be a form of a training exercise. But coming from a place where we have had ten years hard experience as a company, I had a guy go up to us and say, “Well. Why didn’t you do more training and coaching and stuff like that?” And it’s just like, I said, “Yeah, there’s something to that.” But I always believed that we were in the NFL [National Football League]. We were not in high school football.
DTD: There were auditions and there were cuts.
CTP: And there was a pretty substantial difference between the two. And I still believe to this day, because you have to, there’s a very thin line between failure and success. I mean, it’s very difficult to run companies, because you have to do so much just to be able to pay payroll. And that was always my most firm commitment in life. Even before any game design or anything – make payroll. That’s the number one thing.
DTD: Oh yeah. I know there’s a lot of companies that’ll, you know, promise pay after. Once it’s successful. Or people will donate their time and services to the dedication to make this a reality. And then the dream is around the corner once it sells.
CTP: I mean, that that can work. But it’s a road paved with miscommunications and missed expectations and acrimony and lawsuits, and all this kind of stuff.
DTD: Oh absolutely.
“Acrimony.” Another wonderful word I am so glad was just naturally crafted into the conversation. Also “bludgeoned.” It’s 8 paragraphs up.
CTP: It can work. I mean, certainly in the beginning for us, we had volunteers that helped, and so on. It can work. But you have to be pretty disciplined about… A lot of times when you talk to someone over a beer, “You’ll do this and you’ll do that!” You walk away with a completely different kind of sense of entitlement, ownership than…
DTD: Certainly, a different idea than the other person did.
CTP: Yeah, and then when it’s successful, that’s… When it fails, I mean, not that big of a deal. I mean, everybody’s bummed. If it’s successful, that’s when you need, you know, discipline the most. Not when you fail. And that’s what we’ve always been very big on. I probably was more or less the “company lawyer”.
I have never been told that success was the hard part, not failure. But it makes sense. No more choices if it fails.
CTP: I’ve written and done so many contracts, and so many deals, and so many licenses, and so much…
DTD: Well, certainly you probably know more about the business of board games than almost anybody, having been, you know, at the biggest and at the start, and everywhere in between.
CTP: I have a… You know it’s always evolving, so I can’t say, “This is very different from what it was back in 2000… When I was assembling stuff in the garage,” right? Or in the warehouse. It’s just, it’s just a bigger, much bigger business now. Just a lot more gamers, which is good. There’s other pressures – we have to ask ourselves, “What is the game industry now?” And “Does it want to be everything to everybody?” And if it does want to be everything to everybody, well what calms it then?
DTD: It is in this really weird place, where there’s big, big companies trying to force out creativity, and there’s still people in garages making the games of their dreams.
CTP: I don’t think big companies ever wanted to force out creativity. I don’t think that’s true.
DTD: You don’t think so?
CTP: No, I don’t think so. I think it happens by the nature of the atmosphere. I don’t think it happens because it wants to do that.
CTP: I really do not. I definitely don’t think Asmodee wants to force out creativity. No, I don’t think it does.
DTD: I wasn’t thinking of Asmodee. I was thinking of, you know, and I may redact… But I’m thinking about, like, Bicycle putting out the games that they’re putting out. TheOP putting out multiple copies of IP labeled games. Or the game quality is maybe not the highest. I’m thinking about games, as much more of a business, than as a creative work of passion.
I should have redacted. Oops.
CTP: Then I think, yeah, that’s how we end up with a lot of junk in our oceans, right? I mean, when you’re… I call it “reactive publishing,” when you’re trying to publish to an audience, rather than publish to a mission. Where I think there’s a demand, you know. I think there’s a need. You know, you have a buyer saying, “Everybody really loves yo-yos right now. We should make a game about yo-yos.” That kind of thing.
I love yo-yos. If you have never watched the Duncan yo-yo championships on YouTube, you should. Right now.
CTP: That does create a lot of gunk. And there’s certainly, the US publishing industry has been… people that were much more coming from the toy industry. Which I call the kind of the “top to bottom” approach. Because what differentiates gaming from the toy industry?
DTD: That’s the Hasbro thing.
CTP: Well, but what, even more than that, what really does differentiate it? What’s… Is a board game not a toy? What’s the difference? And I don’t have the answer, I just think that it blurs. And it especially blurs… And what was it, some senator said, you know, I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.
In a famous case regarding obscenity and pornography, Jacobellis v. Ohio , United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
DTD: I was just thinking about that. It’s Meeks I think.
Nope. No idea where I got Meeks. Synaptic misfire.
CTP: You have these companies that come from the hobby up, then you have these companies that come from the toy down. And certainly, by no means this is the universal truth, but usually you see the people coming from the toy industry down, produce more of the… More what feels like opportunistic, or crossbred, things that feel more like a product than an experience in a game. But, I don’t think that the people who made really great things, have been really successful in the world, in either toys or games or anything really, are necessarily coming from a non-creative place. Where Apple is today is one thing, but it comes from a lot of passion and creativity, and vision, and that drove the company. The company didn’t drive… I guess Steve Jobs was at the opposite, and was in the path. And you were just trying to be another PC, and you were doing all these things now.
DTD: Oh yeah.
CTP: Not for the sense of the product, but to chase a certain customer. I think the best products are made because they do it for the sense of the product. And if they’re lucky, customers come, because customers…
CTP: Before you forge new ground, and I believe that… With Henry Ford, I forget, there was a quote. They said, “Why did you know that… did you ask customers whether they wanted a car?” He said, “Why would I do that? If I asked them, all they would have wanted was a better buggy whip.” They just couldn’t comprehend what could be nicer.
Henry Ford is attributed as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But it is unlikely he ever really said this. The buggy whip quote probably came from author Gary Keller and his book The ONE Thing.
DTD: Right, you have to create something that they realize they can’t live without.
CTP: And that’s where the great products come in, and the interesting products come in, and that’s the kind of territory I love to explore, whether I can do something there, or not. Most people saw…
DTD: Well, it seems like you’ve got your hands in so many different things right now.
CTP: There’s a quote I have in one of my businesses from… Who is it…? Well, the quote is, “Oh Icarus, of the fearless flight, never regret thy fall. For the greatest tragedy of all is not to see the burning light.”
Oh, I know! Oscar Wilde! Oscar Wilde!
DTD: Better to have loved and lost, basically.
CTP: Yeah, more or less. And I really sort of, I feel drawn to that. Because you have to fly towards the sun, right? But you get burned sometimes.
According to Greek myth, Icarus and his father Daedalus created wings made of wax and feathers to escape from Crete. But Icarus flew too close to the sun, and the wax melted. So poor Icarus fell to his demise.
DTD: Yeah, yeah.
CTP: Who was it that said it…? And I didn’t quote it exactly correct, but you can probably look it up.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde!
DTD: Yeah. Oh, I will.
CTP: Never regret thy fall, oh Icarus of the fearless flight… The greatest tragedy of all, was never to have felt the burning light.
DTD: Sounds like Wordsworth or Longfellow or one of those.
No, Corey, you’re wrong! Oscar Wilde!
Waiter: Would you like some more coffee, sir?
DTD: I’m very good, thank you.
The coffee was… not wonderful.
CTP: I’m going to look it up.
Waiter: Are we doing separate checks or one check tonight?
DTD: It’ll be one. I’ll take it.
CTP: Thank you.
DTD: Oh, not a worry. It’s part of the deal, I insist.
The least I can do for designers kind enough to tolerate me for an entire meal is to cover the bill.
CTP: Well, OK!
DTD: [laughs] I’ve realized long that a lot of the game designers will happily interview with me if I pick up the check. Will work for food.
CTP: Ah, OK. Oscar Wilde!
Told ya. I mean, I definitely didn’t read ahead. Or look it up. The quote is:
“Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, Is never to feel the burning light.”
DTD: Oscar Wilde! Oh, I should have known. It had that perfect little rhyme in there.
CTP: So yeah, Oscar Wilde. I really, I love that. In fact, I have another company called DreamTrace.
CTP: It is a VR company.
DTD: Oh nice. VR entertainment or VR technological innovation?
CTP: Yeah, this is probably well beyond… I’ll show you.
DTD: I have no scope to my interviews. I have talked about every subject on Earth.
Check out Gil Hova and I discussing early electronic musical instruments that may or may not have made people go mad.
CTP: [showing me] That’s the logo.
CTP: Burning feather. Or it could be a stylus on fire with ideas. DreamTrace is the name of the company.
DTD: That’s awesome. So, is it an entertainment company or is it a technological innovation?
CTP: Well, it started off that way. And it may still go that way. But we, I was really fascinated by VR, and the kind of immersion you can get with that. Particularly when you are on a big stage. So, we have, what it is, we have these two giant stages, bigger than this room. And all the tracking you need, to track you. So, when you’re in VR, we actually have cameras that can see your hands…
CTP: And you can walk around and really feel immersed in it. You’re just simply walking around. Feels like you’re there.
DTD: That’s awesome.
CTP: There so we wanted to do an entertainment for that, that’s where I come from. We make cool… I want to be James Cameron of the internet…
DTD: Sounds cool!
CTP: But what we found out was, well, there’s some business considerations to that. I’m saying we have all this expensive technology, we spent two years developing the software for it. It’s all build up from scratch, from us. The problem is it’s very expensive, and people don’t want entertainment during the day. You know, they’re not gonna go play games during the day, on Monday morning. So, we have all this expensive equipment, all this stuff just lying around. So, the idea then, is to simply have two… We really have two products.
DTD: What to do with it during business hours, and what to do with it during leisure time?
DreamTrace Arena is a full gaming stage, complete with haptic vest and wireless VR headset. The VR game is called “Into the Far”, and has 2-6 players on a derelict ship in the far reaches of space.
CTP: That’s right, so we have the one we call VRV, which is Virtual Reality Visualization. Which we sell to architects and businesses. And we have a big retailer that’s using it to do planograms of their store. Now they want to lay out their store. They bring their teams in, and they walk around.
DTD: So, you can walk around in a ginormous 3D model.
CTP: In VR. Yeah, you can take photos in VR. You can hold it to your hand, you get a menu. You can click the menu, and you can…
DTD: Oh, that’s amazing.
CTP: So, you can take photos, you can take audio notes, you can draw. You can have a laser pointer to point around, if you want to show people stuff. So, and then of course there’s the VR-X, was is called VR Experiences. And that’s games and fun. And so that hasn’t launched yet. But we have launched the VRV.
DTD: Oh, I love it.
CTP: And that’s doing well. And then the next step would be this really cool, innovative stuff in the VRX.
DTD: Well, as a consumer I’ve been playing with VR like crazy, and have had just tremendous fun with it. I grew up with… I probably grew up about one generation higher in the technology than most people around me. Did I tell you my, my…
CTP: Your Dad was a computer scientist.
DTD: Yeah. He created Unix in ‘69 and C in ’72, and one of the foundational people in Pixar was right in that group. Tom Duff, who created Renderman.
CTP: I see.
DTD: And so, he was part of the family. Well, friend of the family. And so, I was constantly playing with these visualization things with SGI engines, and computer 3D modeling. And I just, I’ve always had this… I just love it, as a consumer. So, when VR hit, you know, I was trying out and well, buying impulsively almost every VR system that was out there.
CTP: It’s fun, it’s really, it really is a whole weird new thing that I also feel is kind of out there. We actually had to develop our own… I want to call it a gun, but it is not a gun. But our own device that would act like a gun in the environment, from scratch. I’ve never done electronics before. But we had developed an entire commercial… Electronics with the Wi-Fi controller, and tracking.
The TracerVR rifle is a proprietary controller for DreamTrace’s Arena.
DTD: Yeah, because you not only want positioning, but you really… It’s important to have orientation on it.
CTP: Yeah, so you need… And it has to have haptic feedback, and you want it to have a logic, so that when you hit certain buttons on it, then it would have different…
DTD: So, what do you think about the idea that a lot of people have, that VR has kind of done this novelty peak, and now it’s still looking for it’s application? Kind of like 3D did.
CTP: Here in the movie theaters?
DTD: In movie theaters, television, and all this. 3D was in everything. And it turns out people didn’t want 3D for everything.
CTP: Could be.
DTD: Because VR is straining. You get tired. It’s taxing.
CTP: So, let’s see. I mean, I think there’s two answers. One is the VRV, the virtual reality visualization. If you’re building a $3 million home, which you may or may not want to do, if you can afford it.
DTD: Do you want to walk through it?
CTP: If you can actually walk through it, and see the sightlines. And understand if you want to make a change, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to make a change when it’s still in a drawing, then if you want to move a door when it’s under construction. And I mean, by a whole factor.
Plans and blueprints only communicate so much.
DTD: Oh, that’s true. And you can even bring in the eventual end consumer into that, and say, “This is what you’re purchasing.”
CTP: Well, that’s right. And that’s… Some of the architects we are working with, they do the drawing, and bring their customer in. And some of them just do a “white model”, saying “These are the size of the rooms. This is the view. These are the things.” Then they iterate on it. And they make something…
DTD: That’s fascinating.
CTP: Not only could you catch mistakes that you think you should change. We can also actually get better ideas. You can say, “Well now I see it, what if we do something else?”
DTD: Now I want this here.
CTP: Well, the hope is Indianapolis… or in Santa Rosa? Where is here? [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] Here is Santa Rosa.
CTP: OK yeah, exactly. [laughs]
You heard it here first. DreamTrace VR coming to Santa Rosa. Christian promised.
DTD: Or anywhere in northern California. I’ve got a bunch of places that I bounce around, so…
CTP: Well, that’s our hope, is to of course expand that. But like I said, I have fingers in a lot of pies. And when you said, “Do I design games?”, and I go “Oooooohhhh…” [tormented wail]
I feel that if you make pies, the worst thing to do is put your fingers in all of them.
CTP: Whatever time is left. I have family, too, that I need to be with and I want to be with. So, so there’s lots of… But I love all this stuff. I love what I’m doing. I love being with a… To have the resources and the time to dedicate, and so, living on the edge of many of these cases.
DTD: That’s amazing.
CTP: And the Gamezenter is the one, that has the least of that. The Gamezenter is really, if anything is my hobby.
DTD: That’s really what I was wondering. I was wondering if it was kind of an incubator, home base, for design, to try to build the games. Or if it was a really nice game store. Like a cool game store.
CTP: It’s a really cool, nice game store. But to me, I find a lot of inspiration in seeing gamers, seeing what they all like, seeing what excites them.
CTP: That’s why I love standing on the floor here, you know. I actually like it, being somewhat masked, you know? Kind of an anonymous game seller there.
I knew it – Christian was playing Prince and the Pauper, working anonymously on the floor of GenCon 2021.
DTD: [laughs] Anonymous, except for the publishers who walk by.
CTP: So, I’m surprised. I’m totally surprised how many people recognize you by your eyeballs. They’re like, “It’s you!” I’m like, “How the hell did you know?!?” Man, my face is covered, mostly.
DTD: I, yeah, I have issues a lot of times. I will not recognize people quite often.
CTP: I’m not as good at it as some people apparently are.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
CTP: But sometimes they see my badge. Most of the time I keep it flipped around, because I’m really more interested in…
DTD: In seeing what’s going on?
CTP: Just being a friendly games seller.
Next time, sadly, will be the conclusion, the end of my dinner with Christian Petersen. Come back for talk about complexity, television, Lawrence of Arabia, and of course, economics. Everyone loves economics.