Greg Costikyan is one of the most famous American game designers of role-playing games. He is regarded as the main designer for Paranoia and Star Wars: Roleplaying Game in 80’s for West End Games. He worked in Simulations Publications (SPI) where he designed famous board and strategic games like Web & Starship, Barbarian Kings, DeathMaze, Vector 3, Swords & Sorcery or Supercharge and roleplaying games like Commando. He designed and wrote Toon, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, for Steve Jackson. When he worked in West End Games he designed famous roleplaying and strategic games like Star Wars, Paranoia, The price of Freedom, Your Own Private Idaho or Star Trek: The Adventure Game.
On the other hand he published wargames like Dark Emperor with Avalon Hill or Pax Britannica with Victory Games. He wrote Violence rpg, now free under a Creative Commons License, for Hogshead Publishing. He also wrote different famous novels, the first two, “One Quest, Hold the Dragons” and “Another day, Another Dungeon”, were parodies of genre fantasy, and “By the Sword” and “The First Contract”.
He won different awards like the Origins Award Winner for Best Role-playing Rules of 1987 with Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, the Charles S. Roberts Awards Winner for Best Pre-20th Century Game of 1985 with Pax Britannica, the Origins Award Winner for Best Roleplaying Rules of 1984 with Paranoia and Charles S. Roberts Award Winner for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Game of 1979 with The Creature That Ate Sheboygan. He won recently the Game Developers Choice Awards Maverick Award of 2007 for creating a channel for indie games.
Furthermore, he was co-founder of the short-lived Goldberg Associates and he found Manifesto Games, a company of indie computer games. Nowadays he is working in Boss Fight Entertainment as senior games designer later of working in different companies of computer games.
Greg is one of the biggest authors in roleplaying games.
Take risks. Don’t view roleplaying as an interaction with a rules set. Imagine yourself as your character. Improvise.
Born in: New York Hospital, New York County, New York City, New York State, USA
Date of birth: 1959
Favorite role-playing club: Princeton Strategic Games Society
Favorite book: Chicago Manual of Style
Favorite role-playing game: Vi åker jeep’s The Upgrade
Favorite boardgame: Small World
Favorite wargame: Diplomacy
Juegos y Dados – Welcome Greg, it is an enormous pleasure that you are here with us. Thank you so much for your collaboration. I must tell you that I am a fan of Star Wars and I love playing Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game.
Greg – At your service, Friend Computer.
Juegos y Dados – How did you begin in the world of role-playing games and what was the first roleplaying game that you played?
Greg – I was a board wargamer and postal Diplomacy player first. I bought a brown-box copy of Dungeons and Dragons in the year it came out, and played it assiduously for many years. My friends and I never cottoned to AD&D, however; the original rules were so badly written that we pretty much invented our own version of the game, and didn’t have much truck with the later TSR versions. For that matter, we prized the “anything goes, imagine your own adventures” ethos of the first edition, and did not particularly see the value in paying money for other peoples’ adventures. We quickly moved from wargame-y dungeon crawls to “improv with rules”, and never went back.
Juegos y Dados – What was the first roleplaying game that you created? I think that you designed Toon, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, for Steve Jackson.
Greg – Well the first commercially published RPG material I designed was an alien race for Universe, a science fiction RPG published by SPI (Simulations Publications) in 1981 or so. My first published original design was Paranoia (with Dan Gelber and Eric Goldberg), but I actually designed Toon first.
The genesis of Toon came from a conversation I had with Jeff Dee (Villains & Vigilantes and many other games) at a GenCon in the early 80s. He and I and Greg Stafford were talking about the state of the industry at the time, and Jeff said something along the lines of “the only genre that no one has done a game for is the Saturday morning cartoons, but of course you couldn’t really do that.” And we all laughed and agreed that you couldn’t really do that.
So after the conference I went back to my roach-infested hovel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I was spending most of my time coding in 6502 assembler, working on a later-cancelled space game for the Apple II, and thought: “Well, why can’t you do a cartoon roleplaying game?” So I wrote up a very short version of Toon, and sent it off to Steve Jackson’s magazine, The Space Gamer. They accepted it, but it then spent a year or more sitting in their files – even though short for a game, it was long for a magazine article and I imagine they were waiting until they had a lot of pages to fill.
In that period Steve Jackson Games hired Warren Spector, who had a degree in film studies and whose senior thesis had been on Warner Brothers cartoons. Warren found the article in their files, fell in love with it, and persuaded Steve that it should be expanded into a full-length game. Which they did, and Warren deserves at least as much credit for the game as I. (Warren later went on to a stellar career in computer games – System Shock, Deus X).
Juegos y Dados – How did you start to work in Simulations Publications (SPI)?
Greg – When I was a teenager, SPI had open playtests every Friday at their offices. That is, they invited fans of their games to come in and test games under development – which was great for them, because they got free testers, and great for fans of their games, like me, because we felt like we helped participate in the development of the games.
I hung out there a lot, and in 1973 or 74, when I was 14, the workers in their warehouse tried to unionize. Jim Dunnigan, the company’s president, fired them all, and hired a bunch of teens, like me (with a leavening of more experienced warehouse workers) to assemble and ship their games. In other words, I got my start as a scab. Very illegally, he did not pay us in actual money, but instead in company scrip, which we could exchange at the front desk for copies of SPI games. After a while, I owned every single game they published, and started to sell my scrip to other playtesters for 60 cents on the dollar; at this point, Jim decided okay, it makes more sense to pay these guys minimum wage.
When I was 16, SPI put me on the game design staff – initially, as a gofer, doing things like making copies of playtest maps using art markers and a light table. But while I was still 16, SPI published my first design – a boardgame based on the battle of Alamein, called Supercharge. It’s a very bad game, and thankfully long out of print and likely to remain that way.
Juegos y Dados – How did you start to work in West End Games?
Greg – After graduating from college in 1982, I spent two years living in the aforementioned roach-infested hovel trying to survive as a freelance game designer. During the period, I designed games for Avalon Hill, Victory Games, Steve Jackson Games, and West End Games. My first year, I earned $6000; my second $10,000. While the trajectory was in the right direction, I decided that poverty sucked, and maybe I should get a job.
West End Games was a weird company. It was founded by Daniel Scott Palter, who at the time ran Bucci Imports, then the exclusive US importer of the Bruno Magli line of Italian women’s shoes, belts, and handbags. He made a fortune doing this, but his hobby was wargaming; so he set up West End as a sideline. As I put it at the time, “some people spend $100 a year on their hobby; some spend a million.”
Palter had kept West End around for several years, publishing the occasional game from the likes of Al Nofi (Imperium Romanum and for many years the editor of Strategy and Tactics) and John Prados (Third Reich), but in 1983 or thereabouts, he decided to try to turn it into more of a real company. He entrusted his then-girlfriend, Holly Rubinstein, with the presidency, and they started hiring other people. So they started hiring at about the same time I started looking for a job.
Initially, my title was just “game designer,” but when I saw how poorly managed their development efforts were, I gravitated into managing the process. This being the early era of computing, that didn’t mean Microsoft Project or the JIRA suite, but Gantt charts drawn on taped-together pieces of green financial paper, thumb tacked to the wall. I wound up running the design, art, and editorial departments, sometimes doubling as sales and promotion manager.
Juegos y Dados – How did you get involved in the Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game?
Greg – At the time, the third Star Wars movie had been out for a couple of years, and Lucasfilm Licensing was looking for ways to keep the franchise in peoples’ minds in the absence of new movies coming out any time soon. They – intelligently, I think – decided that an RPG would help keep the IP alive in the minds of geeks, and even though the amount of money Lucasfilm could possibly make from the hobby games market was a tiny fraction of the amount they made from, say, action figures, they thought it was a good promotional strategy for their brand. So they started contact RPG publishers about licensing.
Palter had money to spare from his shoe business, and was a fan; so of course we were interested. Eric Goldberg and I flew to California. Non-driving New Yorkers that we were, we took a limousine from San Francisco to Lucas Ranch in Marin county to meet with the Lucas licensing people. (Eric is an eminent game designer in his own right, although has not designed much in recent years; Tales of the Arabian Nights.)
In the course of the trip, we also met with two people from Lucasfilm Games (not yet rebranded as LucasArts). One was Chip Morningstar, who later developed (with Randall Farmer) Habitat, the first graphical virtual world; Chip went to university with a mutual friend, and had camped out in my apartment in NY on a visit. The other was Noah Falstein (Sinistar et alia), who I was meeting for the first time but has since become a friend. I suspect that the licensing folks were using them as a filter to try to figure out which people in tabletop were likely to produce a good product, and the fact that I knew Chip may have been helpful.
In the event, we apparently outbid TSR for the license; TSR later paid more than they had bid for Star Wars for the Buck Rogers license, a fact that surely had nothing to do with the fact that their then-CEO, Lorraine Williams, owned the Buck Rogers rights.
Back in New York, we started work on Star Wars. I knew that we had the potential to reach beyond D&D players with the license, and so we needed a game that would be immediately accessible to fans of the movies, but also something that experienced roleplayers would enjoy. Accessibility was the reason for the system of “character templates” – customizable, but something you could just pick up and play, more flexible than D&D’s character classes, but not wholly dissimilar. I was also a fan of Runequest and the fact that it allowed you to progress in different skills, not tied to lock-step advancement as with D&D classes; but I disliked the fact that it was a D100 -based system, meaning that after a certain point you had maxed out in a skill. I wanted something that permitted potentially infinite advancement, as D&D’s level system does; so came up with the idea of adding points then dice to a skill as you advance. West End later rebranded this as “the D6 system” – but curiously, I was totally uninterested in creating a “generic” system. Generic systems lead to generic games. I wanted a system that reflected the pulpy, anything can go, chaotic action of the movies.
Juegos y Dados – The stories produced for the roleplaying game were the beginning of what is now the Expanded Universe in anyway. What do you think about?
Greg – Yep! Very weird. But I deny any responsibility. The Expanded Universe exists because Timothy Zahn, looking for more source material beyond the movies themselves when writing novels set in the Star Wars universe, latched onto the Star Wars Sourcebook, published at the same time as the RPG, to provide additional context. And it blew up from there. I had very little to do with the Sourcebook, though; Bill Slavicsek wrote the bulk of it. So you should ask him about that.
Juegos y Dados – You have the first big role-playing games of Star Wars. I do the same question that I asked Coleman Charlton with MERP and Sandy Petersen with Call of Cthulhu. What do you think about so people with a copy of Star Wars or Paranoia in their homes?
Greg – I think they clearly have excellent taste in games, and I thank them for contributing to the royalty checks I have cashed.
Juegos y Dados –A famous spanish youtube’s channel of games made recently an inquiry about the five best roleplaying games in the history. Would you like know that the 3th one was Star Wars?
Greg – Well, that’s flattering. According to RPG Geek, it’s the 53rd most highly rated RPG, which I still think is pretty good.
Juegos y Dados – I suppose that you met some of famous designers of that age. Could you explain any funny story?
Greg – Well… just some thumbnails:
Sid Sackson, designer of Acquire, a game nominated for the very first Spiel des Jahres award, used to eat crumb cakes, using chopsticks, with hot pepper flakes sprinkled on top.
I once smoked dope with Greg Stafford, founder of Chaosium, in his house in Berkeley, as he explained why he had a goat staked out front on the lawn. (Ecologically sensitive lawn mowing, plus the poo fertilizes the lawn.)
Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (and screwed out of his share by TSR) telling me that as part of his settlement with them, he retained all rights to D&D beyond the orbit of the moon. I suppose his heirs may have something of value, once we settle the rest of the solar system.
Juegos y Dados – Have you ever been Star Wars o Paranoia Master? I would like knowing funny moments in the role-playing stories.
Greg – Well I ran it a lot while testing but only infrequently since, I’m afraid.
Juegos y Dados – Why did found Goldberg Associates?
Greg – Will this may be an American thing, but it’s very common when setting up as freelancer to incorporate as “My Name Associates,” with the idea that if you do well, you hire more people, and to give the impression that the company is more than just you. Sometimes this works out, e.g., one of the big interactive advertising firms in New York is R/GA, which was originally “Robert Greenberg Associates.” When Eric Goldberg left West End, he established “Eric Goldberg Associates,” and because of our pre-existing relationship with Lucasfilm, was able to negotiate the game rights to Willow, Lucas’s forthcoming fantasy movie. He brought me in to design a boardgame based on Willow. Our thought was “with Willow, Lucas is going to do for fantasy what he did for science fiction with Star Wars! We’re going to be rich! Rich, I tell you!”
That worked out well.
Juegos y Dados – Nowadays, I see some copies of “Violence” in shops yet. Why do you design the role-playing game Violence under the pseudonym “Designer X”?
Greg – Well, Violence was published by James Wallis, the designer of Baron Munchausen and a slew of other games, and a smart guy, in the late 90s. At the time, I was working as a PC/web game designer for Crossover Technologies, and James (who lives in London) came to NY, and we had lunch. He told me he was publishing a new line of creative, short RPGs, and asked if I was interested in doing one. I told him that yes, I had this idea for a hideously violent roleplaying game that was actually a satirical attack on the prevalence of violence in gaming, and gave him a short pitch. He said he’d publish it.
So I went back and wrote it. I had fun. Incidentally, no reason to buy it in a shop, unless you want to have a physical copy as a souvenir; I released it under a Creative Commons license some years ago as a free download.
Producing it under the nom de plume “Designer X” was a joke; part of the idea behind the game is that the designer is desperately disenchanted from the industry, creating it from entirely cynical motives and eager to hide himself from identifying with it. I pitched James on the idea of doing this straight, showing up at GenCon with a paper bag over my head to talk about the game, and so on; but we came up with the compromise of my name hidden by a see-through “label.” I’ve also used “Designer X” as a not-very-hidden name in the Scratchware Manifesto.
Juegos y Dados – You found Manifesto Games later, about indie computer games. A big change. Why did start it up?
Greg – Not so big. In the late 90s/early 2000s the digital game industry was creatively dying of arteriosclerosis and stagnation. Budgets kept on increasing, team sizes kept on increasing, genres that once had been financially successful fell by the wayside not because fans had gone away, but because financial pressures meant you could no longer succeed on 100,000 unit sales and needed 1,000,000. Graphic adventures went away. 4X went away. RTS went away. I hated what the videogame industry was becoming.
In 2004, I gave a rant on this subject at the Game Developer’s Conference that produced a standing ovation and later wrote an article for The Escapist entitled “Death to the Games Industry: Long Live Games”.
At the time, I was working for Nokia, in a lucrative but unsatisfying job, and in a fit of enthusiasm, decided I could make more of a difference by founding a company to create a viable channel to market for indie games. So I founded Manifesto.
Four years later, having spent most of my savings, and getting nowhere, I somewhat glumly decided that, well, Steam has created a viable channel to market for indie games, and what the hell do I think I’m doing?
So I went looking for a job. Which I found, working for Disney’s Playdom division, which has since been shut down; but I’ve been doing free-to-play games since then.
Juegos y Dados – I read that you joined Boss Fight Entertainment as senior games designer later of working in different companies of computer games. How is your new job?
Greg – Do keep in mind that I’ve been working in digital games since 1989, when MadMaze, the first game to attract more than 2 million players online launched (Eric Goldberg and I designed it). Boss Fight is my current employer; it is a free-to-play mobile game developer based in the Dallas, TX area. Its first launched title is Dungeon Boss, a free download on the iOS and Android app stores; I am currently design lead on “game 2,” which I can’t discuss, as it is not yet announced.
Juegos y Dados – How often do you play games? Which ones?
Greg – Well I checked in on Clash Royale and Walking Dead: Road to Survival today… and want to spend some time with Stellaris this weekend… But I suspect you’re taking about non-digital games.
Yesterday, I played Dominion and Splendor. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a regular boardgame group, but play less here in Texas (I’ve been a car-free bicycle commuter for 20 years, and Texas is not set up to make things easy for me). I play Ticket to Ride a fair bit online (although my son, Eddy, has kind of hijacked my account – he’s a better player than I, so at least this benefits my leaderboard rank).
I don’t roleplay a great deal; I enjoy it when I do (I was at the North Texas RPG Convention a couple of weeks ago), but an on-going campaign involves a time commitment that’s hard for employed people with lives. Tabletop boardgames work better for me. I imagine that the next time I’ll spend a lot of time roleplaying is when I’m in an old-age home; I’ll have time to spare, for the first time since I was a teen, and would certainly have more fun playing RPGs than watching TV and waiting for my next pill.
Juegos y Dados – Do you think writing any new role-playing game in the future? Could give us any details?
Greg – Stewart Wieck from Nocturnal Media recently ran a Kickstarter for a new edition of my boardgame Web & Starship, so that’s likely to be my next (non-digital) game. I’ve been working on a second edition of Pax Britannica for a couple of years, and am pretty happy with where its gone, so that will likely follow.
I do have an idea for an RPG I’ve been kicking around. My working title is American Revolution 2.0. It’s kind of the flip side of my game The Price of Freedom, which was a right-wing nightmare fantasy about resistance to a Soviet occupation of the United States. The idea behindRevolution 2.0 is that America elects a fascist president—hard to imagine, I know, what with recent events. Nixon’s “enemies list” is real in the new regime, dissidents are being taken to concentration camps in Guantanamo and Freedom, KY, the war with China is going badly… and the PCs, from diverse political traditions (wikisyndicalists, Marxists, libertarians, black nationalists) must somehow bury their differences in order to overthrow the fascist regime and restore American freedom.
No promises, though.
Juegos y Dados – Is there anything else you would like to tell fans?
Greg – Yes. Take risks. Don’t view roleplaying as an interaction with a rules set. Imagine yourself as your character. Improvise. Do what your character would do, not what min-max analysis of the situation tells you makes sense. RPGs can be incredibly emotionally impactful, and can in fact make you a better person; playing RPGs, I believe, turned me from a painfully shy teen into a functional human being. Roleplay, don’t min-max.
Juegos y Dados – Thank you so much for your time. We are very happy for your collaboration in this interview with Juegos y Dados.
Greg – My pleasure.