It’s still hard to believe I managed to corral the eternally busy Eric Lang into a calm sit down meal at Oceano in the Peppermill Resort Hotel in Reno, Nevada. The conversation has been all over, ranginging through social philosophy, discrimination, and yes, even game design. But right at this moment, all sounds ceases for the delivery of the food.
Waiter: Here you are sir, the trout.
DTD: Well, thank you very much.
EML: I don’t have… My experience in… [food arrives] Thank you. Oh my god, that looks great. Thank you.
DTD: Thank you very much.
Oceano was better known to me as a sushi restaurant, but I was pleasantly surprised by the cooked seafood dishes. I had ordered trout, but mostly for the yam puree and mango salsa. Eric had sea bass with red quinoa, papaya, and a basil sauce. Both dishes were beautiful.
Waiter: You’re welcome. Let me get you some more water. Anything else?
DTD: I think that’s good.
EML: Good, thank you. I’m going to Instagram that.
True to the culture of the young, we spent many minutes taking pictures of our food. I never did find Eric’s pictures of my food on his Instagram.
DTD: I’m going to be mean, and I’m going to take pictures.
EML: Yeah, you are!
This is the best response I have ever gotten to my embarrased resignation to take pictures during an interview.
DTD: I always forget to take pictures, and this does end up online and all.
EML: Yeah, I’m gonna take pictures of yours, too.
DTD: Well, I’m going to take a picture of you taking a picture. So, this is meta, is what it is.
Waiter: Do you need some more soda?
The waiter, who had snuck up on goofily taking pictures of each other, at this point was pretty convinced we were a pair of complete bozos.
EML: Oh, I better not. I’m good, thank you.
DTD: And I mean it. I think I was raised almost the opposite. I was raised by hippies…
EML: You were raised by hippies right? So you were, you were “counterculture” all the way.
DTD: And it was, but it wasn’t enforced, no standards. Like, I was raised without any religion whatsoever, or any opinions or viewpoints. They tried to be so absolutely neutral about everything, that it was almost aggressively neutral about everything. So then, you know, when I grew up and moved out of that, you know, the world just came and slapped me in the face.
EML: Right, yeah. Especially after you leave your bubble, right?
DTD: Yeah! Yeah, I mean, everybody has that moment where you kind of realize that…
EML: The world’s not like this.
Epiphanies by Corey. You’re welcome.
DTD: OK, here’s my parents faults. Here’s the things that I was never taught, you know.
EML: That’s right.
DTD: And everything comes to reality.
EML: Right, well, yeah, yeah. I mean suburban Canada, circa the 80’s, is a bubble. It really is. Like all these, all the new, all the mentees that I have, and all the people I am working with, when they talk about their experiences, like I did not have that experience at all. So it occurs to me that I’m essentially a white guy in the industry that just happens to be dark skinned. Like culturally.
EML: And I’m really culturally white. I did not grow up with like rap or jazz or… Well, I grew up with jazz, but “white people” jazz, right? And I grew up on German food, and so I didn’t…
DTD: You were just sort of a mix of everything, it sounds like.
EML: And the… Like, I didn’t experience, I didn’t experience racism the way that people talk about racism until I became successful and I started climbing social strata into places where I was unwelcome.
I am awed with the way Eric can state things in a very upfront manner. I am not shocked to hear it, I am shocked with the ease of presentation. I have so much trouble talking about about any of these issues, and Eric makes it seem effortless. Which both impresses me and upsets me.
EML: So, like not until my late 30’s. I was like, I was startled to see like, “Oh s–t. Like there is an invisible caste system here. And I’ve hit the ceiling. Like I can, now I can see. Now I’m starting to see where people like me are unwelcome.” But that was not until late, late, late in life.
DTD: Well, I think that’s one of the things that… Like reading your stuff, one of the things that really opened me up is, I’m seeing so much more now that I didn’t see before. And I look back at a lot of my experiences growing up in the 80’s, and it’s like, “That was… A lot of that was pretty horrific.” And I didn’t see any of it [at the time].
EML: Yeah, once you pierce the veil, it’s hard to look back, right?
DTD: Yeah, [sarcastically] thank you. [laughs] It makes sense.
The 80’s really were a strange time to be a kid. Movies from that time are cringingly difficult for me to watch now, yet I know we all just accepted them in the day.
EML: I’ve seen… I didn’t realize until… I didn’t realize how horrifying my experiences with police were in the US, until I started processing it post hoc. I was like, “Oh s–t, this is really bad.”
EML: And I understand… You know how I got to that point? Because I came at it when arguing with friends of mine from the other side, right? So I’m like, “You can’t say all cops are bad, don’t do that.” And it came from the moderate side. And then listening to their experiences, which were way worse than mine by the way. Like, way worse. I don’t know anybody of color, any of my friends that has not had horrifying experiences. I’m like, “Oh s–t!” They literally turned me around on those… I’m like, “You’re right there, it’s not our fault.” You’re totally right, it’s a systemic problem. I understand from your point of view why, right? Anyway, yeah, so… And Toronto is ostensibly… I’m sorry, is actually a very diverse city.
EML: It is ostensibly a very welcoming city. We’ve got our barriers. We have a lot of problems. We force a lot of… Like, by proximity… It’s very much like New York, right? Like everything is really tightly packed.
EML: So, we just exist together, right? And generally without issue. Though all the systemic issues still apply, but it’s really… Toronto is “bougie racist,” as they call it, right?
DTD: I get it.
I definitely do not want to take away from the import of Eric’s point, but I find the word “bougie” fascinating. First of all, in medical terms, a bougie is a rod used to dialate an opening, so ew. “Bougie” in this context is a shortening of bourgeois, being from the Bourgeoisie class, the upper class, the owners. So, snooty. In Marxist definitions, the Bourgeoisie is the opposing force to the Proletariat, the workers.
EML: We don’t say the N word in the street. But there’s like… It’s there, but it’s really polite about it. And it doesn’t affect your day to day, and you don’t notice it all the time. But we have also, I mean we have an incredibly thriving LGBTQ community, which… Like, I didn’t understand the perspective of the LGBTQ community until I start getting more and more and more friends, right?
DTD: Waiter: How are you doing gentlemen?
EML: Good, thank you.
DTD: Very good.
EML: Like, my best friend of 25 years is trans. She came out five years ago. Which is why, like…
DTD: My daughter is married to a trans, transitioning, person now. And they are very strong in the LGBT community.
All my love, kids. You’re awesome.
DTD: And I’ve had to do my education.
I still make many mistakes with terminology and habits that have been with me for 5 decades. But I am aware and trying to change.
EML: They have to be, because they have to be allowed to be heard, because we still don’t hear them yet. Anyway, that’s where a lot of that stuff comes from. Because people ask me, like… I get asked a lot, “What’s it like being black guy in the industry?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.”
DTD: I wouldn’t even imagine to ask that, because I wouldn’t know how to process either the question or the answer.
This question completely floored me. It’s hard to write up a long uncomfortable pause, but I felt it weighing on my mind.
EML: I know what it’s like more, now that I’ve been mentoring primarily black designers. And hearing their point of view, but a lot of what I’m channeling is their voices, not necessarily my own. I had a pretty… Yeah, a pretty sheltered life. Like, Canada is quite the bubble.
DTD: I feel like I had a very, very sheltered life, but… different.
EML: Yeah, I mean California is a bubble, too.
DTD: Well, I kept bouncing between New Jersey and California, and they were very different worlds. I still remember being essentially in a commune in Berkeley while my dad was teaching at the university, and then going to New Jersey and all of a sudden being in, like the neighborhood of New York street gangs. So, like bouncing really from one extreme to the other.
Growing up, it was discouraged to label people by appearance. No one was black or white or short or tall or skinny or fat. It was uncomfortable to put any label of pure appearance on people, and even today I have a lot of difficulty talking in that way, even just describing people.
EML: Well, that’s like, because New York was really bad in the 80’s.
DTD: It was much worse. And that’s where everybody wanted to go, was New York. And I didn’t care for it. It was over-stimulating, more than frightening.
New York City had a massive clean-up campaign in the 1980’s. It really was a nastier place when I was a kid than it is now.
EML: By the way, sorry, do you want some of this Sea Bass?
DTD: Oh no, I’m good, I’m good. Thank you though.
EML: Ah, it’s fantastic.
I should have had a bite. “I ate some of Eric Lang’s dinner.” Would go right on my business card.
DTD: Yeah, the trout is amazing. I’ve only had sushi here, and I didn’t realize how good the other stuff was.
EML: Funny, I’m not a big fan of sushi. I don’t dislike it, just not a big fan of it. It’s my wife’s favorite food, so we eat it a lot. I’m like, I never eat it when we go out.
DTD: [laughs] That’s OK, hopefully this is better than Biscotti’s.
EML: I love seafood. [scoffs] Better than Biscotti’s… It’s not even the same planet.
Biscotti’s is the default diner within the Peppermill, and during GAMA Expo, it is the most visited mealspace for business meetings, friendly reunions, and yes, casual interviews. The location is ideal. The food is … OK.
I personally have done 2 interviews there – John Coveyou and Curt Covert.
DTD: I know, I have done so many breakfasts and lunch interviews at Biscotti’s. I just don’t even think about it anymore. Well so, right now, do you think most of what you’re doing is the mentoring? Because it’s been kind of quiet for… Like, for an outsider, for like, “What is Eric Lang doing right now?” I know you’re associated with Exploding Kittens.
EML: Yeah, and so… Yeah, it’s true. So, it’s actually this show that reminded me like, “Oh yeah…” I don’t talk about work as much as I used to.
EML: Because I’m mostly in family and mass [market]. I’m doing as much as I used to, actually more. I’m going to work on that…
DTD: Oh, I have no doubt you’re busy.
The publisher Exploding Kittens started with their titual card game Exploding Kittens which blew up crowdfunding in 2015 for over $8M. Further titles from the company have targeted family audiences and mass market stores.
EML: But this stuff I’m working on, like the NDA’s are tighter.
DTD: Got it.
NDAs, or Non-Disclosure Agreements, are used within board games, but tend to be loose and sometimes by unspoken respect. Larger companies, such as Exploding Kittens, can use more formalized, aggressive NDAs.
EML: And I can’t… And unfortunately – Well, not unfortunately… I mean, I’ve been growing a social media following on purpose, because I got like… I have things I want to achieve.
DTD: You share a platform. I think you’ve got one of the biggest. In board gaming.
EML: It’s possible. It’s possible, which is funny because, to put it relatively, you’re right. However, I have fewer followers than Ricky Gervais’s cat. So just to put it in perspective.
I had to look this up, and for better or for worse, it’s true. Ricky Gervais’ cat “Pickle” has 67.5k followers on twitter. Eric has 31.2k.
I have 435. Thanks a lot, internet…
DTD: The humbling experience.
EML: It’s a nice. It’s a nice perspective, which I appreciate.
DTD: We’re still a very small pond.
EML: But because my online community got so big, I can’t really talk in code names anymore. Because they figure [it] out instantly. Right, so I’m like, I can’t be cryptic. And if I just tease it’s a little douchy.
DTD: I get it.
Eric used to regularly give those cryptic code names for projects he was working on, but this is always a dangerous proposition. The collective internet can be smart and tenacious. Similarly, Stonemaier Games uses code names for upcoming projects, which often get sussed out.
EML: So, I’m like, “Alright, I have to talk a little more broadly now. Or just not talk about it at all.” But yeah, I’m definitely working on a lot of stuff that, I guess it will surprise people who only know me from Blood Rage and Rising Sun, but I mean I’ve been working on family games my whole career.
EML: I just haven’t published a lot of them.
DTD: You’ve got a huge bibliography of games out there. It always surprises me. It’s so much more than the CMoN “big mini” things, but…
Eric has 548 credited games on BGG right now, including Dice Masters, Arcane Academy and the Muchkin Collectible Card Game – Pretty family friendly fare.
EML: Right, right, but I mean, it’s hard… It’s really hard to begrudge that, or be salty about it. Like, I do recognize that I’m sort of type cast as the “Blood Rage Guy.” Yes, I can do more, but I’m glad I hit a zeitgeist at the right time. And I headed a game that was so definitive for so many people. I mean, you can’t be anything but grateful for that.
DTD: Oh sure.
EML: I’m burned out on “big box” stuff for now. Still very proud of what I did. I just don’t have another big box game in me for a little while.
DTD: It’s gotta be… Well, I actually don’t know. I’m guessing that those are a lot harder to develop, and figure out, and get it fixed. And then the lighter ones are probably a lot harder to playtest, and get perfect, and get elegant, and get going. But I might be totally off.
EML: It’s almost exactly the opposite, believe it or not.
I’m usually able to accurately target “the exact opposite.” It’s a skill
EML: For me. I wouldn’t say it objectively. I’ve been developing big box games my whole life, right? And I’ve always been playing lifestyle games. I mean, I’ve been playing Magic [the Gathering] since ’93, right?
EML: Which is… I still stand by it, it’s the most complicated game in the world.
DTD: Oh yeah.
Ever changing rules. Constant addition and removal of edge cases. You need official referees to keep up with it.
EML: And I internalize the whole damn thing. Like, I have a very high tolerance for that type of type of complexity, and I have a very… My instinct for interlocking systems is very, very honed. So it doesn’t look so… It’s not that hard for me to… I can usually design like 90% of a big box game, if I’m inspired… If I’m really inspired, and I’m in love with it, it usually comes together in a couple of days. The remaining year of development is the remaining 10%.
EML: And still doing due diligence, even if it all comes together at once, I still have to go out and do the work and try all these other things, to… Because if anybody comes, if I’m ever asked, “Did you consider X?” My answer has to be, “Yes, I did.”
DTD: “Because I considered everything.”
EML: I considered at least as close to… Yeah I consider everything “reasonable.” I’ve amended that since. [laughs]
EML: “Did you try making… [Anything that a monster does],” “Did you try considering making this a completely different game?” – “No.” But everything within reason, definitely tried it.
I always felt Blood Rage needed more lasers.
EML: And there’s a fine line you have to cross… Sorry, there’s a tightrope you have to cross there, too. Because you also don’t want to fall into the infinite sea of the abstract… Of post-modernism, right? Where we’re like, “OK as I can view this from every possible angle, but now it’s so abstract, I don’t even know how to navigate the decision-space anymore.”
DTD: I’m creating an art piece rather than a game, isn’t it?
EML: Oh no, sorry – the opposite, the opposite. So that’s the data driven s—t, right?
EML: Where I want to analyze this game from every possible thing, and just try turning every knob and see what happens, or the scientific method style. I can’t do that. Like to me, games are vision driven. And if… Like, of course you can change the vision, all that stuff. Absolutely. But as the vision keeper, if you’re not in the driver seat, your car’s all over the place.
EML: And then you’re just… Success or failure is completely by accident, right? At least at this point, I know I made a game. When we roll the die, it’s… I’m good. Once I roll the die, and then the market decides. And decides what it decides. But I’m not going to say, like… If I made a failure, I’ve got games that are quote UN-quote “failures”, like The Others. Or like The Godfather, that I am intensely proud of. That didn’t strike lightning.
DTD: I didn’t get that impression off those. I have a lot, I guess I have a lot of friends who really like both of those.
The Others, particularly was fascinating to me, and I have enjoyed several plays of it. The Others curently ranks #836 on BGG. The Godfather ranks #363.
EML: Well, I think they’re great games, but they didn’t sell. Like Blood Rage sells hundreds of thousands of copies, right?
DTD: Well, you can’t compare them. Blood Rage is your top, I’m assuming.
EML: No, not even close.
DTD: Probably in numbers sold.
EML: Not even close.
DTD: No? Are you going back to like Dice Masters, or…
EML: Well… And I also worked in video games for a while too, right?
DTD: Oh, I didn’t know that.
EML: Yeah, I worked on Duelyst, trading card game for Counterplay Games a few years ago.
Deulyst was a digital collectible card game that ran from 2016 through 2020.
EML: I worked on Facebook games for like 6 years.
DTD: That’s rough.
EML: That’s a dark period. Here’s the thing… I’ll put a pin in that. If you want to talk about it, I’m happy to, but that’ll take a whole thing.
DTD: Not a worry.
Facebook Games, and mobile games in general, tend to imply some more dubious game practices. Companies heavily pushing micro-transactions to huge numbers of subscriber-players, bordering on gambling. Or social structures collecting data for sale to marketing.
EML: I love talking about it, but it’s a big chunk.
DTD: I know that world too well.
EML: I do, too. So, I worked on Facebook games, when they were new. So, I went in with the naivete of, “Oh my God, here’s a new platform. Oh my God, we can accomplish so much with this.”
DTD: Looking for the original “cozy games” kind of thing.
EML: And then, right, well cozy games with no onboard encryption, unlimited player count. And at the time, like tabletop games that you play with anybody on your social graph.
EML: Like, I pitched, “I’m going to pitch Carcassonne for a hundred players. What would that look like?”
EML: I still reel at it, but nobody wanted that. They said they wanted it, they sucked me in with that. Like, “Yeah! Come innovate, innovate, innovate!” But without exception, to every one of them, innovation means, “Well you mean FarmVille with turnips instead of onions, right?”
DTD: Yeah. My co-host on my podcast, and one of my best friends, worked for Kabam, and was very deeply into the freemium markets. And I’ve just, I’ve heard too much.
EML: Monetization designers, they’re part of the ecosystem, in the way that Ebola is. [laughs]
DTD: There’s a new quote for you.
Not many Ebola quotes out there.
EML: My feelings about monetization designers are pretty public, but like…
DTD: No, I got it.
EML: I would be, I think the industry would be much happier…
DTD: I’m not arguing with you.
Freemium business models, and monetization designers, offer free games with strong motivation to pay for small additions. The game play brings an addictive quality, and the purchases, while not strictly necessary, are needed to complete the addiction cycle for the player. And those tiny purchases make companies so much more money than selling complete, self-contained games.
EML: God, I wouldn’t say this in public, but like Nazis, any individual monetization designer… I’m sure they’re very nice people, I’m sure they love their pets and their kids, and all that stuff. But doing what they do…
DTD: Oh, it’s evil. It is just plain pure evil.
Stated a bit strongly there, cowboy. But the morality of the business model is certainly debatable.
EML: Well, doing what they do. They are part of a machine that is using our powers for harm. And there’s no way around it. There’s NO way around it.
DTD: It’s crazy.
EML: The only thing more evil than monetization for design is Q-Anon.
There are many things I generally don’t expect to discuss in a casual dinner interview. I feel less awkward about my gut reaction to freemium models.
EML: And QAnon comes from ARG game design. 100%.
DTD: Yep. It’s achievement level, and…
EML: It’s expert level ARG design [Alternate Reality Gaming]. And it’s one of the things that keeps me in check, and keeps me frosty about how I use my platform, and how I design games. Like, when people say, “You’re so political online, why don’t you design political games?” I’m like, “F—k no!” I don’t know what I’m doing, and…
ARG design is a way to incorporate real world items and events into a fictional game. When you play a game, then dive down a rabbit hole and find pieces of it in the real world… Yeah, that’s probably on purpose.
DTD: But you respect the medium, you want to do it right.
EML: I guarantee you the people who designed QAnon were not trying to… Well, maybe they were. But were probably just trying to create a fun experience.
DTD: Wow. And see, I see it as malicious from the get go. Manipulative and malicious, feeding on the conspiracy theories.
EML: So, I read a lot about it. Of course, I did. I did. So, I read a ton about QAnon. And they’re not alone. It’s just the one that struck lightning. The pipeline, the way that the pipeline screens to QAnon, has been around for… Jesus God, since post-war.
EML: But a lot of circumstances combined blah, blah, blah. But the point is, the point is, game design is behavioral manipulation. It is imperative… I’m sorry, it is behavioral manipulation through incentives.
DTD: Yeah, it’s derivatives on slot machine theory.
It has been known for a while that if you are rewarded for a particular behavior, you tend to do it more often. But if you are rewarded only every 3rd or 4th time for that same behavior, you will do it much more strongly, and much more often. Like a slot machine.
EML: Right. Well, see, that’s the evil part.
DTD: Yeah, I was just focusing on the evil.
Come back next time for some discussion of gaming history – the early days of Fantasy Flight, Eric’s first designs, and more politics.