Welcome back to lunch with designer Eric M. Lang. We are dining at Oceano in the Peppermill Resort during GAMA Expo 2022. The conversation has been pretty heavy lately, with discussions of racism, representation, and now to lighten things up, we are talking about violence in games. But don’t worry, we will dive into Eric’s entry into the world of board games.
EML: Right, but I mean if you look at it coldly and objectively… Take Blood Rage. Blood Rage is, everything about Blood Rage is manipulation. I’m designing an experience, where I want players to act a certain way. I want them to get… I want them to interact in a certain way. I want them to value, how much you need to have, come in with a certain set of values. And I want them to have a, and I want to incentivize “Make fun”, because I know how the dopamine cycle works. How like, every part of Blood Rage, the parts that are fun and the parts that are not as fun, are intentional. With a couple small misses. But I mean, if you look at it coldly, it’s manipulation. But I can sleep at night, because the point of that game – It’s still in the Magic Circle, the stakes are not real.
DTD: Yes, it’s still contained.
EML: The stakes are not real, and there is not… And I took out purposely, I removed the Pavlovian addictive design parts. Intentionally so. Like I do that with a lot of games. So, I will put in valves to make sure it’s less addictive than it needs to be, because I don’t… A) because I don’t want people like… I don’t want people playing a 2-hour game forever and ever. And B) I don’t want to exploit the…
Our waiter came by to check and make sure we were well. He could certainly bring us food, but the responsibility of eating it was entirely on us, and he had to make sure we were doing it correctly.
EML: I don’t want to exploit our broken neurology, right?
DTD: I totally get it. One of the things that I was thinking about is, Blood Rage can be seen as a hyper-aggressive battle skirmish game.
EML: It can be. Rightfully so.
DTD: And because of that, it can breed a certain kind of fan.
DTD: Who wants to just aggressively beat up everything. And you hope that’s contained within the magic circle, and that it’s, you know, the sense of fun, and all this. But, you know, deep down… And you’ve already answered it. I’m sitting here thinking, “Do you worry about that?”
EML: Oh, F— yes. All the time.
EML: All the time. So, I still… One of the few things I haven’t changed my mind on, or haven’t evolved my opinion on; I do believe in the catharsis of, the cathartic value of zero-state simulated violence.
DTD: Sure. Yeah, I mean I totally… All the video game arguments we lived through in the 80’s. You know they’re crap.
Movies, music, and video games have often been blamed for violence in society, although most evidence points to the contrary, with simulated violence being an escape valve of sorts.
EML: Right, right, but well, well right. But I don’t think they would… Yes, and they lost because the argument, because the prosecution was not well enough informed. I still don’t think that the defense case was sophisticated.
EML: I still don’t think it, because they didn’t understand. And cathartic simulated violence is still a pretty new idea. Like it’s… In psychiatry, right? It’s stuff we kind of… Well, people like me, I guess, always kind of knew. I mean, I’m also a heavy metal fan, right? So, I like violent s–t. But only, only, only on this side of the veil, right?
DTD: Yeah, of course.
EML: If it gets real, even a little bit, I’m out. I’m out completely. Like, I could never watch a documentary about war. I can’t even watch Animal Kingdom documentaries.
Eric previously stopped me from telling some of my more … interesting stories from veterinary medicine.
DTD: No, I have… I walked out of Platoon. I mean, good movie, well made. But I couldn’t handle the psychological impact of it.
EML: Right. You know what killed me about that one, was the glorification. I can’t watch American war movies. Because, any war movie that portrays, like portrays the Viet Cong or the… as zombies.
DTD: No, I can’t, I can’t.
The first step in normalizing the killing of a group is to dehumanize them. Make them non-thinking monsters. This is why robots or aliens so prominently feature in violent movies or video games – it’s easier to rationalize.
EML: Like, when we were the invading force?
EML: It doesn’t show that like… So, I was in Vietnam… Oh, sorry, this is a very, very short distraction, but…
DTD: My whole interview style is distraction.
Truth. Winnie the Pooh’s real name is Edward.
EML: I have a lot of friends that… So, I spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia.
DTD: Of course. You lived there for quite a while.
EML: Well, for three years, but I’ve been visiting all the time. And of course, because of gamers, because of this wonderful sub-community we have, I have friends everywhere. I can make instant friends, just because we are gamers.
EML: But I love, unsurprisingly, I love talking politics. But I love, I love talking politics with people who have real stakes in the matter, right? So, I don’t want to talk about, like I don’t want to talk about geopolitics with some college educated liberal, who’s never, ever experienced it personally in their life. I’m sure they’ve got it right on paper, but I want to talk about the Vietnam War with people who lived in Hanoi and De Nang.
DTD: Someone who’s got skin in the game.
EML: That got wiped up, that knew people that got wiped out. Or who have survived a couple of generations. And I want to say, like, “What’s your opinion like? Have you forgotten? What’s your institutional memory like?” And most of them… I mean, obviously, so unsurprisingly, right? But it was a wake up call to me – None of them called it “The Vietnam War”. Of course not, right! They call it they call it “The Chinese War”. And so, from their perspective, obviously they’re not a monolith, and there’s a lot of different opinions. But the most trending opinion I got was that it was an invasion… The more liberally astute, sorry, liberally educated ones, will say it’s a proxy war, because that’s what they’re taught.
EML: But the ones that don’t, the ones that are just working it out in real time, they’re like, “No, it was a war between China and Vietnam, and the Americans came in as terrorists.” That’s how they remember it, right? From their point of view.
EML: And they basically… and their biggest thing is that the Americans are chastised on the global stage for what they did in Vietnam, but China is not. And they’re really bitter about that. They’re like, “Well, how does China get away with this?” So, the animosity in Vietnam, that was the thing that surprised me, was there was, generally speaking, among the more detached ones… There’s more animosity towards China than there was towards the US.
Waiter: How are you doing? Do you need some more water?
DTD: I’m good, thank you.
Waiter: Or soda, or are you OK?
EML: No, I’m good, thank you.
The waiter was very concerned over our hydration and well being. Plus we were kind of loud, and one of the only ones in the restaurant.
EML: It’s little things like that. Like you don’t get that, you can’t get that out of a textbook. And you can’t get it from a Rogue Scholar. You just get it from talking on the ground.
Eric uses this phrase quite a few times, and I am intrigued by it. He might have said “Rogue Scholar”, implying learning socially from unaccredited sources, which fits with his topics. Or he could have said “Rhodes Scholar”, which is a formalized academic award, drawing attention to the truly over-educated. Or “Road Scholar”, talking about knowledge from travel, from talking to locals. I don’t think I really want to know the answer.
EML: I talk politics with my Malaysian, Singaporean friends all the time, and again, why am I not liberal, right? Like, liberal stuff is ridiculous in my opinion. I always have to say that. But the ridiculous mythology of, like the problems of the West are unique to the West for whatever reason. Like, “[doofy voice] Oh, we are sooo racist.” And we are. “Oh, we are sooo imperialistic.” And we are. But like, Asia is f-ing racist, top to bottom. Like, Han supremacy is worse than white supremacy is here. Like, you gotta judge by context.
DTD: And been imperial like mad, for a very long time… So, board games.
EML: Games are fine. [laughs]
DTD: [laughs] No, no, I’m not complaining at all.
EML: I think it overlaps a lot, though. A lot of what we’re talking about overlaps with… By the way, I’m good for, like I’m good for another 40 minutes or so.
DTD: I’m on your timer. So, you say “I gotta go” – it’s done. It’s not a problem at all. I’ll be honest, even if I don’t publish any of this, I’m just having a really good time.
EML: Oh good, I’m glad. So, let me make a simple check to make sure, that maximizes our time. Tommy said we are meeting at 3:10. So I got 30 minutes.
Spoiler: It is currently 2:40pm on March 17, 2022. It’s a Thursday. Just adding to the reader’s investment.
DTD: Yeah, no worries. And I’ve had some dinners that have gone an hour, and I’ve had some that have gone for 6 1/2 hours.
EML: Well, I love talking. I love navigating the ADHD landscape of topics, so…
DTD: That’s how my brain works. So, how did you end up at FFG [Fantasy Flight Games]?
EML: Oh, that’s an easy one. Well, it’s semi-canon. So, I started off publishing my own game, Mystick.
Eric often pronounces the game My-Stick. As in “That is not your stick, that is my stick.” Then he cracks up.
EML: And my goal was… I thought my goal was to be a publisher.
DTD: Well, were you associated with the industry at all at that point, or was just a passion project to make a game?
EML: The framing of that question is really good. It’s making the answer hard.
EML: No, no, no, I love that because it’s making me think differently. I think the only way I can answer is “yes.” So, my goal was to be, I wanted to be one of “those guys”. It was a lifestyle goal as much as it was a professional goal. Like I wanted “game designer” to be my identity.
DTD: All right. Sure.
EML: So, I wanted to create good games, but I wanted to be that guy. Which means I wanted to be part of the industry, so I chased it really hard, right? I worked in retail for years, running Magic [the Gathering] tournaments, Pokémon tournaments. Which, by the way – foundationally educational. And informs so much of the way I think about games, way more than any formal education.
EML: But I knew I wanted to… When I said “I want to be a publisher”, I did my research. I went, I did, I checked all the forms. I knew who all the companies were. We went to GAMA in suit and ties, with a booth. We were like, “We are going to out-professional everybody”, right?
DTD: The “professional” GAMA. [laughs]
GAMA is an industry-only trade show, where publishers meet with designers, store owners make deals with distributors, and designers show off their new titles. And the GAMA expos I have been to have never, ever, seemed traditionally professional. Very few ties. Maybe it was different in 1997.
EML: Well, we didn’t know, right?
DTD: I know.
EML: I was like, I dressed for the job I wanted, right?
DTD: Of course.
EML: And we did. So, GAMA was actually our first show. GAMA 1996, I believe. 1997. Was our first show. We came, big expensive backdrop. Four of my friends in suits with our big-ass thing. I wanted people to go, “Where the hell did these guys come from?” And what we were selling at the time, Mystick is basically, it’s an LCG before I knew anything. Before we had the vocabulary for it.
A LCG, or Living Card Game, is a formalized card game with regular expansions. Rather than having random card in booster packs, as in a tradional CCG (Collectible Card Game), in an LCG the booster packs always contain the same cards. “Living Card Game” is a trademark of Fantasy FLight Games.
EML: And I had some pretentious stupid name for it. I don’t remember what it was. Oh, “premium card game”. Whatever the f— that means.
DTD: Well, I remember Magic kind of opened up this whole trading card genre.
DTD: And so many branches came off of that.
After the popularity of Magic the Gathering in 1994, lots of other companies tried their hand (pardon the pun) at collectible card games. There was a boom.
EML: Right. Exactly right. So in the year that was following, I thought I wanted to be a publisher.
EML: I wanted all the control. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be in the industry. I wanted to network, I wanted to hang out with like…
DTD: Emerson [Matsuuchi] tells that same story.
EML: Right? I wanted the meetings. I very, very, very quickly realized that… I think I still kind of want it, but I don’t have the temperament for it.
EML: I don’t have the temperament to maintain the discipline that was required to do sales, and like… discipline and focus. And, at the end of the day, I shouldn’t run a game company, because I would make bad business decisions. Intentionally make bad business decisions, which I did; Killed the company. After sales slowed down for our game, it was like, “Alright, stop it. Move on to something else.” And I was like, “Yeah, but we have this expansion. It’s really cool. It makes the game better. They’ll see, they’ll see, they’ll see.” We had no business case for it. It was obvious it was not going to do anything. We saw the sales plummet.
EML: I was like, “I don’t care. We are doing this, this is what the market needs. I know better.” Of course, it tanked us. Killed us. So, I’m like, “That’s a decision that a designer would make. I should not be trusted with that decision, so I should not be running a game company.”
DTD: It’s that argument that creatives tend to be bad at business, which… I’ve seen all sides of it.
EML: So, I think they understand business. I actually think creators are really good at business. I think it’s motivational incentives. It’s not like creatives are like, “[doofy voice] Oh, I don’t know why this failed.” The really good ones, that have the self-awareness, they know what the correct choice is, they just don’t make it. I think.
I know that feeling. I usually know the correct decision. I just don’t make it.
EML: I think. I think, right? And I’m probably being really, really optimistic, and I’m probably giving a lot of credit. Because that’s how I think, right?
EML: Anyway, so at the time AEG [Alderac Entertainment Group] and FFG [Fantasy Flight Games] were… AEG was just, was in the apex of the L5R [Legend of the 5 Rings] story line. I hated the game, but I love the meta-game. I’ve never seen anything like it. And FFG was doing DiskWars at the time.
AEG and FFG were probably the top two publishers around 1997. L5R was one of the first popular non-Magic card games. And DiskWars was basically a miniatures skirmish game played with disks.
EML: Which blew my mind. I was like, “Oh my God, I love these.” So I was like, “Those two companies are actually what I want to be when I grow up.” So of course I went in and forged a relationship with FFG, and I got, I became tight with Chris [Petersen]. Like, he became sort of a father figure to me. I was always showing him my new s—t, and I always wanted his approval. And, John Zinser, the same thing. And whenever they were like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s the approbation I was wanting.”
Christian T Petersen was the founder and head of Fantasy Flight Games. John Zinser still is the head of AEG.
EML: And so one year, like two or three years into our… At Essen, when I realized we were going to wind down our thing, I had my standard lunch with Chris at Essen. And I just mentioned to him, like “I think I’m done. This is probably my last Essen. I don’t want to do this anymore.” So he was like, “Well, what do you want to do?” I’m like, “I just want to design games. I want to design cool-ass games.”
Essen Spiel is the largest convention in the board gaming world. Technically called Internationale Spieltag (International Play Days), everyone simply calls the convention after the city it is held in – Essen, Germany.
EML: With really close relationships with a publisher, so I can have opinions, but not always final thought. And he just said, “You want a job?” …. “Yeah.” And that’s how it started.
DTD: That’s awesome. I love… And the thing is, I shouldn’t be surprised anymore. There’s so many of the stories that go that way. Where, you know, there’s a love and a passion, and then you get to know the people involved. And someone just goes, “Hey, come on over.”
EML: Now, this one is a little different from a lot of the classics. We had developed a relationship over like 3 years of cons, right?
EML: So, it wasn’t like, “Hey, I think you’re smart.” We had been pre-interviewing without my knowledge, right?
DTD: For a long time.
EML: And I’m sure [John] Zinser would have probably said the same thing if I had him before Chris [Petersen]. I think about that every once in a while. What would have happened if I went deep with AEG instead of FFG? Honestly, I wouldn’t have the career I have today. I think FFG set me up for success better than any other…
DTD: I heard a lot of stories that… That house, that environment, was a sink or swim. It was a very aggressive, you know, learn this business well.
Christian Petersen talked about this when we had dinner. According to him, FFG was like the NFL. They strove to hire the best, expected performance, and were not afraid to trade or cut people.
EML: Yeah, well, so I joined up with FFG. I was employee #9. I never… I was never an employee, by the way, ever.
EML: They tried to get going, I think. They hired me. And I was trying to get in, but I was unable to get a visa.
DTD: [laughs] OK.
EML: A work visa, because I didn’t have formal education. There was no formal education at the time that applied. So they were like… And I packed up my life and said I’ll move down. Didn’t do the research. Like a few days before I went there, I was like, “Oh f—. I need a visa to live here? Uhhhh…. WTF?” So, I changed my status. I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to come here for vacation for six months…”
Remember, Eric is a Canadian citizen. From Mississauga.
EML: And we were going to figure it out once I got there. And after six months, the only path was, “Well, you can go to University here, be a student.” I wanted to go in for graphic design, but of course the way US universities work, it’s like four times the cost if you’re a foreigner. I couldn’t afford it – go back. But I had gotten in so deep with them, they’re like, “Well, let’s figure it out.” So basically I became “FFG Canada”. I had a little… Nobody knew about. But I was just, I was just a contract worker.
DTD: It’s Eric, over there [pointing]. He’s like…
EML: Right. I was just a contractor that acted like an employee.
DTD: That’s pretty cool, though.
EML: For several years. Now, that environment, the FFG back then of course was very different from what it is right now. It was a little bit sink or swim, but a little bit. But I would say every… Honestly I think every publisher is that way.
EML: The thing about FFG, like there was a camaraderie at that time. Like a wartime camaraderie, that I’d never experienced since. Right, like the group, there was nine of us. Nine of us with the, with unbelievable hubris. That just thought, “We’re going to conquer…” Like, the mission statement was – We’re going to conquer every category.
EML: We’re just going to win every category. So, like we’re going to do trading card game? F— yes, we are.
Just a reminder. Eric never says “hyphen”.
DTD: “We’re doing the best one.”
EML: Well, I was the only person at FFG that actually had any trading card game experience at all. So, I end up running the whole damned department. So, I end up being the designer, developer, producer, art director, production manager, web content developer. And one half of the organized play design team. The other one was Brian Wood, who was my best friend at the time. We basically built that together, and then he ended up leading it. But our department was three people.
EML: And we did a CCG. I started the design in January. We went, and we had our first… We had the opening set at GenCon.
GenCon is traditionally in August. So 7 months.
EML: It was… Would I ever do that again? F- no! But you need that hubris.
DTD: Yeah. You’re young, you’re excited. You can do anything. And you’ll stay up all day and night.
EML: And you’re at the top of Dunning-Kruger hill, right? [laughs] I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And that’s OK. Sometimes you need that.
DTD: Yeah, “I did not have enough knowledge to realize I was completely incapable of doing this.” Right, yeah, absolutely. I like to think I live most of my life like that. [laughs]
David Dunning and Justin Kruger hypothesized that a person cannot judge their own skill at something without already possesing that skill. The corollary is that nearly everyone will overstate their own ability at a task, simply because they are not knowledgable enough about the task.
EML: I mean… Spoiler alert, we all do.
DTD: I know, I know.
EML: Especially the successful ones.
DTD: I am lucky and over-educated, so I fall into a different category.
EML: But yeah, I mean, I also consider myself over-educated, just not formally. I just read all the time. I study everything.
DTD: Oh sure.
Come back next time for more food, more games, and more discussion. Plus, Eric talks about his early days in FFG, the transition to CoolMini, and Blood Rage!