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Interviews: Ask Steve Jackson About Designing Games 111

Since starting his own company in 1980, Steve Jackson, founder and editor-in-chief of Steve Jackson Games, has created a number of hits, starting with Car Wars . . . followed shortly by Illuminati, and later by GURPS, the "Generic Universal Roleplaying System." In 1983, he was elected to the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame - the youngest person ever so honored. He has personally won 11 Origins Awards. In the early 90's, Steve got international press due to the Secret Service's invasion of his office. The EFF helped make it possible for SJ Games to bring suit against the Secret Service and the U.S. government and win more than $50,000 in damages. His Ogre kickstarter a couple of years ago brought in close to a million dollars. His current hits are Munchkin, a very silly card game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, and Zombie Dice, in which you eat brains and try not to get shotgunned. His current projects include a variety of Munchkin follow-ups, and the continuing quest to get his games translated into digital form. Steve has agreed to put down the dice and answer any questions you may have. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one per post.
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Interviews: Ask Steve Jackson About Designing Games

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    And where did you find a willing programmer?

    • check out zillions of games.
                It looks like a specialized Lisp program for board games

      something like this would be be a start for Gurps.
                    a game creator language with graphic/sound fonts.


  • Not a question ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:05PM (#50013175) Homepage

    This isn't a question, but thanks for games like Chez Geek.

    Discovering games which were goofy, not "me against you", and often won by sheer dumb luck opened a whole new kind of gaming for me.

    The game mechanics of a bunch of people playing silly games for the purpose of hanging out and not having winners and losers was far more interesting, inclusive, and fun.

    Much more enjoyable as a group game than so many other games with terrible game mechanics.

    • I've never had the original game, but I acquired various expansion cards over the years. It was sort of a Magic the Gathering with cards written in the style of Robert Anton Wilson, the X Files, and random paranoid conspiracies. Don't let them immanentize the Eschaton!

  • The secret service raid always struck me as one the most ridiculous things I ever heard the government doing. It sounds like the kind of plan a conspiracy nut would propose. They raided you because a reporter who wrote about cybercrime also liked you. Do you have any idea what possessed them to do something that incredibly stupid?
    • Do you have any idea what possessed them to do something that incredibly stupid?

      Is there any doubt that someone led them on? And once they discovered the magnitude of their idiocy, they had no choice but to ride it out lest they reveal how easily led they are?

    • You can read about it in detail in Bruce Sterling's excellent The Hacker Crackdown []. The book is literary freeware, and does a great job explaining how the Steve Jackson Games raid happened and what the fallout of it was.

    • Slight correction: Steve Jackson Game's line editor was also talking to a number of known hackers. Still REALLY stupid, but a little less stupid than just talking to a reporter.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        Specifically material for GURPS Cyberpunk. [] In other words, a game about "hacking" as it appears in fiction was declared by some moron to be a "handbook for computer crime".
        • From "The Hacker Crackdown", Bruce Sterling, as linked above:

          The day after the raid, Steve Jackson visited the local Secret Service headquarters with a lawyer in tow. There he confronted Tim Foley (still in Austin at that time) and demanded his book back. But there was trouble. GURPS Cyberpunk, alleged a Secret Service agent to astonished businessman Steve Jackson, was "a manual for computer crime."
          "It's science fiction," Jackson said.
          "No, this is real." This statement was repeated several times, by sever

  • by Anonymous Coward

    My son has "like 3000" ideas for new munchkin cards. Any advice for a budding young game designer about getting started/self-publishing/submitting ideas to existing publishers like SJG?

  • Car Wars MMORPG? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:17PM (#50013263)

    Would you ever consider creating a truly unique car wars video game as a 3D, first person shooter, MMO, RPG?

    I've thinking something with the open world and economy of Eve, but with the same kind of game play as GTA5, in a persistant MMO world, but using cars and trucks, in a post-apocalyptic world, where the players can live out their Max Mad fantasies, but still have to deal with the complexities of designing and building their cars with the flexibility that that board game had.

    I've been waiting my entire life since childhood to see a truly epic car wars game, and have been continuously disappointed. Only the original apple game inspired me, but with today's tech, I think it's now achievable.

    • I've been waiting my entire life since childhood to see a truly epic car wars game

      Make it an open world, with the cops chasing you and races and billboards to smash, and I'll give you all my money.

      Put in DJ Atomika, and I'll borrow money and give that to you, too.

  • External influences (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:21PM (#50013299) Homepage Journal

    When I was young, I played games from SJG, TSR, Palladium, R. Talsorian, ICE, FASA, and a bunch of one-off studios I can't remember now. Some of the systems worked really well, some required some tweaking, and others were essentially unplayable. But it was easy to see links between systems. Despite the occasional legal threats, there seemed to be a lot of borrowing each other's ideas. Palladium clearly was influenced by TSR (and I think they've admitted that the first version of their rules was essentially heavily modified D&D rules), and R. Talsorian's old D10/D6-based system seemed to have some influences from FASA.

    When you're designing a game, what external influences help shape the game? How far can you adopt someone else's ideas before you have to start worrying about lawyers getting involved, and has that changed as the pen & paper RPG has waned in popularity?

    • All the early games I played were very "crunchy"; D&D, AD&D, Palladium, Twilight 2000 and Traveler 2300. The inelegance of such systems really began to drive me nuts, and I ended up going with Fudge and its variants like Fate. I never really played Gurps very much, but as I recall it was the middle ground between the kind of ultra-loose systems like Fudge and the very complex systems like AD&D. Now, I run a couple of PBeMs; a Palladium Rifts one and a home-brew heavily narrative game in the Harn

  • by zoward ( 188110 ) <> on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:25PM (#50013331) Homepage

    While cleaning out my closet a few weeks ago, I came across a stack of Metagaming micro games. I played these with friends from high school over thirty years ago, and we really loved them (they actually got more playtime in our gaming group than some of the larger Avalon Hill titles of the time). While the well-known Ogre and GEV were in there, I still have some old lesser known titles like WarpWar, Invasion of the Air Eaters, Sticks and Stones, and Holy War.

    Have you considered re-releasing some of the better titles from the old Metagaming catalog?

  • If I have an old school RPG system that is a good system, and has several adventures, what is the best way to publish it? I play tested it through several years in highschool, and its a very fun system, but I have no idea how to publish an old school pencil and paper and make even a single literal dime.
  • Online Presence (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Catiline ( 186878 ) <> on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:25PM (#50013343) Homepage Journal
    As visible in your official company FAQ [], you had run a ISP as well as other online services (I seem to recall there having been some manner of MOO/MUSH service for running online games), well in advance of most other RPG publishers. Furthermore, you run your own digital store (e23) rather than using through the DriveThruStuff platform used by the rest of the tabletop industry, and made PDF copies of your books available for purchase before the other "major" industry players (Fantasy Flight, Pinnacle, WhiteWolf, and WotC).

    How much of this decision was strategic—based on a firm belief this was "The Way of the Future"—and how much was it exploratory / risk-taking? In hindsight, what decisions for your online presence would you have made differently?
  • Similar to the Car Wars question above, I've wondered if a multiplayer OGRE sim has ever been considered. First person combat where every gun is firing nukes... I mean, come on! Who wouldn't want that?

  • by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:31PM (#50013401) Homepage

    My boys and I love playing Munchkin. Recently, my oldest got Munchkin Adventure Time. Being big fans of both, we loved playing it. This led me to wonder: Assuming you could get licensing for any ONE franchise (e.g. Star Wars, BTTF, LOTR, Harry Potter, etc), which would you make into a Munchkin game?

    • I've played about 7 variants of Munchkin with my kids over the years and we agree that Adventure Time is one of the best, if not the best. It adds a lot of flavor to the game, and I'm not just talking about the artwork and flavor text from the show, but in that it adds some clever game mechanics with some of the cards that I haven't seen in other versions of Munchkin.

  • Autoduel on the Apple IIe was my gateway in to a lifetime of joyous experiences involving a number of geeky board games and models. First was Car Wars, followed by Battletech, Warhammer 40K, and so on. I've always loved Car Wars, but it really feels like the complex physics and movement mechanics in the game can best be simulated via the computer. Have you had any success getting modern video game companies interested in doing a new version? PS. Had the honor of meeting you at a convention about 10 years
  • by reemul ( 1554 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:39PM (#50013463)

    Wow, out of sheer mad coincidence I happened to be chatting with Steve in the old Metaverse MOO when the check was delivered. (Don't in any way recall why, he wouldn't know me from Adam despite having a friend in common.) Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

    My only question is why there has never been a good computer version of Car Wars.

  • by CrashNBrn ( 1143981 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:41PM (#50013481)
    Have you ever considered officially rebalancing|changing the GURPs mechanics that rely on 3d6 rolls? It has been my experience over the years, when trying to use the GURPs ruleset directly (with no house-rules) that the way the skills/stats interact - at least as far as nearly automatic success is concerned... is quite broken (easily) for non-super players with attributes 14-15+. Compare to say, HERO, which doesn't have an automatic-success problem so much as an overly obtuse|complex modifier issue.
  • And not just story time? When I used to gm I always had a hard time incorporation actual play mechanics into my sessions and caught myself just telling a story...
  • What elements do computer game design and tabletop design have in common?

  • I've enjoyed Steve Jackson Games for years. I have Zombie Dice, Illuminati and Munchkin and have enjoyed Ogre and Car Wars in table top and computer form. I've played GURPS as well. That is a diverse bunch of games from one company.

    What is your game design process like?

  • Steve, thanks for many enjoyable hours spent gaming and reading your company's books about gaming. I wish I could ask you how to make more hours so that I could still play today!

    I have read that at one time you had cryonics arrangements with Alcor Life Extension foundation. Is that still true today? Are you optimistic about your chances? Do you recommend other people follow suit?

  • Met Steve in person, of course. Nice guy, but quiet. And his brother Ken Jackson was the owner/boss/ mgt. of note.

    IO had less than 5,000 customers, less than 20 staff, and brought in about a million in revenues per year. Here's a snapshot of the ISP's web v1.0 era website: []

    Anyone wanna slashdot me? Would be an honor! LOL
  • by Gnaythan1 ( 214245 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:57PM (#50013613)

    I'm a 50 year old old school gamer.

    I've met you several times over the years, but you almost certainly don't remember me, including playing xbugs with you at a small game convention in Bellevue. and years ago in Austin. Long time GURPS fan, long time games fan.

    You have a game called "Awful green things from outer space" that I loved as a teen. I've been thinking about it off and on for years, and figured out how to upgrade it into a slightly different game while using the same basic look and feel and mostly similar game mechanics..

    How does one go about doing that? Do I just ask permission? Pay a licensing fee? or just make the game so different it doesn't resemble the original at all (which is least preferred) I'd rather just make a prototype,, give it to you and _maybe_ make a little money off it. To tell the truth, I'm not particularly greedy, and I could whip out the rules and basics over the weekend, The hard part is what YOU do... making all the bits, marketing, packaging, and distributing. All I'd contribute is the upgrade idea.

    You probably get people all the time with stars in their eyes not understanding the business side of things.who get weird and upset and think the idea is the only work that goes into all this. Me, I just want to give you the idea and see it on a shelf at some point.(I wouldn't turn money down, mind you, it's just not my focus)

    • All I'd contribute is the upgrade idea.

      And the playtesting, right?

    • by zoward ( 188110 )

      I remember Awful Green Things From Outer Space fondly. If I remember correctly, it originally appeared in an early edition of Dragon magazine and later as a TSR boxed set (which I bought). We found the awful green things almost always won unless the crew player found a great weapon (e.g., ray gun) early on in the game.

  • Copyright (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @02:59PM (#50013625) Homepage Journal

    Steve, I read that you consider yourself a "small-l libertarian." These days a lot of libertarians have come to oppose copyright law, or else favor severe reforms for it. As a publisher, game designer, and libertarian, how do you feel about the subject, and do you feel that these various roles are in tension with each other?

    On a related note, in junior high school I bought GURPS Cyberpunk from a friend, only to later find out that that friend had shoplifted it from a bookstore. I've always regretted that. Do I owe you guys some money?

    • by jdavidb ( 449077 )
      If somebody would mod up my cryonics question I'd be grateful. Mr. Jackson could use more questions. :)
      • Alas, you never have mod points when you need them.

        I think I was the one who turned Steve on cryonics. Alcor was raided a few years before SJG and we sued the county under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act over email in the computers they took. Didn't go to a trial because Riverside county knew they would lose and just paid up. When Steve was raided I sent him the legal research and legal papers we had from that case. His lawyers used it, and Steve wanted to know what Alcor did.

        My that was a lon

        • by jdavidb ( 449077 )
          Thank you so much for that interesting piece of information! It's a shame that question doesn't seem to have gotten rated highly enough for Steve to see it, but I'm fascinated by what you've shared and seeing that there's a connection between the raids on Alcor and SJGames and thus, ultimately, the EFF.
  • Do you think that if having one icon partially obscuring text is good then three is better?

    (if you are the person who designed this site, just read the title. It'll probably take you all day anyway)

  • Firstly I'd like to thank you for the Illuminati game, which has shaped my view of the world. Also, thank you for publishing your edition of the Principia Discordia.

    In your foreword to the Principia, you quote the passage that spoke to you, about Creativity holding in it a component of Chaos as well as one of Order; or, as I see it, in AD&D terms, Chaotic as well as Lawful Good; or, of Mutation as well as Selection as the pillars of Evolution. These kinds of dialectical dimensions can be readily seen to

  • Game design tools? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by war4peace ( 1628283 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @03:26PM (#50013803)

    I am a game designer myself (sounds corny but hey, I design my own game so I must be a game designer, right? right?), I found that there's a certain limitation for game design tools. I am not talking about game engines here, nor art creation software, which the world has seen plenty, but dedicated software which help you transform your ideas into structured documentation.
    I'm currently using FreeMind to describe and detail all aspects of my game, and work directly with a MySQL database to lay out (architect) data holding and manipulation parts (tables, scripts, etc). But FreeMind starts showing its limits (very difficult to build a skill forest in it) and MySQL, albeit capable, lacks certain features (e.g. versioning tree).

    My question is: which software tools would you recommend for laying out the foundation of the game, from the main idea to game mechanics, formulas, skill trees, level advancement, etc., including but not limited to presentations and BRDs, in case I decide to sell my design to a company which has the resources to produce the game itself?

    • by JoeWalsh ( 32530 )

      Are you aware that Steve Jackson designs tabletop games, not computer games?

      • What he's talking about is tabletop gaming design. He just uses FreeMind and MySQL to track what he's doing with it. It's no different than building out skill sets in a spreadsheet and writing up the actual books in a word processor.

        • by JoeWalsh ( 32530 )

          Ah, I see. I couldn't quite tell based on what he'd written. Thanks for the clarification!

      • It does not matter much.
        I am talking about a phase which applies to most types of design, be it for a tabletop game, a computer game or a sports game.
        You have to think about various rules, how they affect each other, how they all come together, you need to be able to visualize them and remember them somehow.
        My game could be played as a tabletop as well, it's a space based strategy multiplayer game which is indeed aimed for digital consumption but as I was saying before, the design process is similar. I'm ju

  • Bruce Sterling's the Hacker Crackdown seems to indicate or imply that the reason for the Secret Service's raid on your business was that a hacker under investigation was also a fan of your cyberpunk role playing game. The agents involved didn't have a clear understanding of the line between his notes on actual computer hacking and his notes involving the role playing game. You must have been confused when Federal agents knocked on your door and confiscated the computers from your business. How long did it t
  • When I eat with friends on the weekend, I'll order an omelette with an extra egg, extra veggies, and some nuts to add protein and keep me going through the day. It's almost the size of the entire plate. Since I order it frequently, I decided a while back to give it a name. It comes with basil pesto and looks green, and the name I gave it could be mistaken to refer to a large green character that has risen to animated movie fame recently. Thanks to you, Mr. Jackson, however, I chose the name from an enti

  • by edremy ( 36408 ) on Monday June 29, 2015 @03:58PM (#50014025) Journal
    In Car Wars it was impossible to kill yourself with a .45 magnum pistol. (People had 3 HP, 1 damage injured, 2 made the character unconscious. A heavy pistol did 2 damage so shooting yourself with it made you unconscious) Unforeseen bizarre results often appear in game play- what was your favorite?
  • Between your game ideas, implementation, and playtesting, what have you discovered about planning, targeting, or adapting games to various durations (e.g., an hour or shorter to the better part of a day) and between dedicated gatherings with friends to something you could maybe play with someone you randomly meet in a coffeehouse for a while? This is more of an open-ended question; I'd just like to hear about your experience in considering and working through these issues.

    I personally was too young to appr

  • I'm a big fan of board and card games, and will spend four days this week playing all day with friends. But we're unusual. The real money is in video games. Are you transitioning to electronic games, and if so, what have been the stumbling blocks, or what have been the ideas you've taken from board games with you?
  • I loved playing Car Wars as a kid. I would enjoy a computer version of the game, where the computer would keep track of all the hits and calculations and rules and so on. Turn-based would be fine with me. Perhaps even a campaign. Is there anything in development or already out to bring the glory that is Car Wars to a video game?
  • I just wanted to say "thanks" for many, many hours playing your games. Well done, sir!

  • Hey Steve, Steve here. We met at LibertyCon last weekend (I was killed by pterodactyls). Thanks for being so gracious with your time as I "fangirled" all over the place (as my daughter later put it). Lots of questions, but I'll save most of them for next year's con, and just ask this: I've read lots of your "Designer's Notes" for your games over the years (I can actually SEE my complete run of "The Space Gamer" from here), and I was wondering, what part of your design process has changed the most over the
  • Do you plan to expand the franchise on any of your productions by adapting them for phones?

  • With all the new weird news being outed as actually proven to be true.

    Is it time for update packages for all you classic conspiracy games ?

    Or has it become truely too weird for an update and need a new game?

    Zombies vs Vampires ?

    One of my friends has a Super Bowl party that plays Nuclear War after the game every year.
    25+ years this year, And the new people to the group allmost always enjoy the game, and look forward to it next year.
    I know I did.
    Keep up the good work, you are an inspiration to all game creato

  • What about relaxing a bit the license for GURPS products? I don't know, but from my experience is the better to have the best share of a farm than be the only owner of a single (dead) cow. Imagine you creating a place for people putting their endless GURPS material in your GURPS Portal and doing it all digital so cost are minimal? Everybody would win. Thanks for your system. Tech Tenente from Brazil
  • Of GURPS Cyberpunk or an updated version?

    2nd question:

    What is Lloyd B. up to ?

    PS: If you're not sure about the financing of such a project, use crowfunding, i'd be in for sure.

  • Do you have any plans to do anything with your Metaverse trademark []?

    Are you looking to sell it off, or to bless a public implementation of the Metaverse with the official title?

  • Do you ever get sick of being asked about when the next book's coming out?

    (even though you had nearly nothing to do with FF, that was the other Steve Jackson - side question, how did you find that experience, of writing on someone else's game engine? I'd've been a bit weirded out if I was writing for someone with the same name as me...)

  • Which was your favourite Fighting Fantasy book?

  • I have a hard time seeing why games like Car Wars and some of your other games should have any difficulty going digital. In fact I am wishing for a Car Wars game to play. Not real time action/arcade, but the turn based one where you can use strategy and car build matters. Why haven't you created something like this yet? I guess I figured you were either already working on it, or you had your reasons not to do it.

    P.S. I have plans for a turn based car battle game for Android and would love to partner up. If

Mediocrity finds safety in standardization. -- Frederick Crane