5 Questions with… Fred Hicks

This interview was written by Andrew Smith and originally appeared at TheStockade.net on May 8th, 2011. The Stockade was a website dedicated to encouraging Australian game designers to get up and create their games, much like NaGa DeMon! The Stockade has been “finished” for a very long time now, and its web hosting expires very soon, so I thought I would share some of the still-relevent articles here.

Forgive me if I have a little fanboy moment here. This FQW is with Fred Hicks, designer of one of my favourite games, Don’t Rest Your Head. But that was from many years ago, and today he’s the Co-President of Evil Hat Productions and the Art Director for Hero Games. On with the interview.

The Evil Hat approach to customer interaction is notable for being transparent. While you’re developing games, even just the ideas for games, how do you decide what to publicise and what to keep close?

There are things which aren’t ready for people to run with out-of-context. That’s the key thing to remember with transparency. When you put a fact out there, it’s able to and even likely to take on a life of its own, independent from the context in which you present it. So I try to ask myself, “Will this fact intrinsically shed a positive, constructive light on the project?” Sharing the stuff that excites you and is likely to excite others is a good way to go, here.

That’s not to say we can’t admit to our failures. I think that’s important too, when you’re adopting a posture of transparency. Admitting to your failures gets people in your corner; it humanizes you, and creates an opportunity where your fans can help you out. But that takes careful consideration, too; sharing a failure has to be done in a way that recognizes those opportunities and acts on them. You can’t say, “We’re pushing this back by six months. The writing isn’t ready,” and just leave that hanging there. You’ve got to go further. Talk about what sucked and why you’re torpedoing it (the fans will hear, “We’re being saved from crap. These guys are committed to putting out something of quality.”), and talk about how the decision connects to your overall vision for the product (“We’re failing short-term, but here’s how that rocks long-term”). Whenever possible, give the fans a way to help you get back on your feet, too. Helping creates a sense of investment, of stake. Plus, it’s help!

You can’t go this alone. You’ve gotta connect to your customers, to form a relationship, and to make that relationship strong, constructive, and positive. Transparency is a means to that end.

(Also I can’t help myself. I’m predisposed to evangelism, to bringing folks into the tent and making them a part of the show. It’s fun!)

As a designer, which games impress you, and why?

I gave myself a few days to think about this one. I’ve realized, for one, that roleplaying games rarely impress me. Part of that is — funnily enough — I’m crap at reading, at least when it comes to RPG texts. I can be impressed by a clever rule or a smart strategy for getting people excited about the game, but I still feel that RPGs have a big leg up over other games in that their experience lives so much outside of their rules. (There, I’m impressed by players and GMs more than anything.)

Certainly, some RPGs are more rules-dominated than others (and the extent to which they’re perceived as rules-dominated is different for each and every player there is), but the fact remains there’s plenty of space for someone to play around in that isn’t bounded by that stuff. How many times have you heard (as one example), “We had an incredible session last night. We never rolled the dice!”? That’s what I’m talking about. With an RPG, the rules get us started, but it’s the interaction that carries us along and brings us home. RPG rules can ride shotgun to the rest of that stuff, can enhance or impede that experience, but they’re one of those hobbies where the great stories usually come from coloring outside of the lines rather than in them.

That’s not to say something like Fiasco or Dungeons & Dragons 4th Ed can’t knock my socks off. These games and others have excited me, and it’s centered around some aspect of the rules. I’m a gearhead, in that regard. I like looking under the hood and checking out the engine. Whenever possible, I strip it for parts.

Which is what brings me to the stuff that really impresses me, more regularly: board games. Board games don’t give you as much room for coloring outside the lines, so those lines have to do their job particularly well. Good board and card games — Shadows Over Camelot, Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Dominion, and others — have to come out the gate really well-tuned for performance. As a designer I recognize the balancing act that goes into creating something like that, so when I experience the game I’m also vicariously experiencing the process of designing it, just a little. It’s like a person well-versed in CGI being impressed by the work done on a Pixar film.

Thinking about the interaction of board game elements makes me smarter as a designer for RPGs, too, I think. For example, Shadows Over Camelot was weighing in my mind heavily when I took to refining the design of Don’t Rest Your Head. Rob Donoghue had said to me, “Take away all the story stuff here, and show me an interesting dice game, then bring the story back in,” and that’s what got me over the hump to create the dice mechanics seen in that game.

Anyway, I’d like to see more RPGs designed with the lessons of board games in mind. Looks like you uncorked a bit of a rant there. :)

The Dresden Files RPG went through significant play testing. How did you structure that phase? Would you do it that way again?

A: Well, there were the years of writing and internal play testing, some of which involved jettisoning the whole revised Fate chassis and starting over. That story’s found on the dresdenfilesrpg.com website, so I won’t dig into it here.

We grabbed several largish groupings of game groups (a dozenish groups in each, I think) and split them out into two or three stages, getting access to the rules as we iteratively factored playtest feedback into the design.

To me this just seems like the standard way to do these things. Is it remarkable? You tell me. I think it’s what you should do, though likely not on that scale (we were able to use dozens of groups; you don’t truly need more than a handful, and shouldn’t break your back trying to find ‘em).

What was unusual, I think, was that we were deliberately anti-non-disclosure with our play test groups. We actively encouraged them to blog or forum-post or podcast or what-have-you about their play test experience. This was a risky thing — it meant a lot of info could get out there, not all of it positive, and we wouldn’t be in direct control of how that message traveled. We did our best to frame our pro-disclosure agreement with our play testers in a way that would get them to provide context with their posts: this is an unfinished thing, not necessarily indicative of the final product, etc, and also to make sure to focus on constructive and positive stuff when sharing — which may sound familiar to folks who’ve read the answer to the first question above. It was a risk worth taking, though, especially given how long the development process had run. We needed to get some good signal out there on the interwaves, and that needed to come from folks who weren’t us; while we had plenty of folks who were willing to trust us, we also had plenty who were skeptical due to the time we’d taken. Letting the playtesters talk about the product, to confirm that it was as far along and as fun as it was, meant there was third party confirmation of anything we were saying about it. That, was gold.

Would I recommend a pro-disclosure orientation with your play testing? Of course. Why suppress enthusiasm from your alpha fans? Why minimize awareness of your game?

If you could work with anyone else on a game, who would it be?

That list is way too long. I’ve already started in on it, post-Dresden (and a little during, since we got some Ken Hite going on there) — that’s why we’re working with Jeff Tidball on Zeppelin Armada (our first card game), and will be working soon with Cam Banks and Jeremy Kellar, among others, on another project. Ever since Don’t Lose Your Mind, I’ve wanted to work with Benjamin Baugh again, and that’s in the works right now too. We’re getting to bring Jess Hartley in on a Dresden supplement we’re working on; I’ve wanted to collaborate with her for a while too.

Rather than get into the entirety of the list of folks I haven’t worked with yet, I’ll mention a few names — folks I’d like to do Something with, whatever that is, in no particular order: Will Hindmarch. Chuck Wendig. Jason Morningstar & Steve Segedy from Bully Pulpit. Kevin Allen Jr. Hal Mangold. Steve Kenson. Robin Laws.

And if we succeed at growing Evil Hat into something bigger over the next few years — that’s our goal, now — maybe we will.

Lastly, will we ever see a published version of Escape or Die, or did it meet its doom under an avalanche of other projects?

It’s been on the back burner for a while now. I’ve hit upon something I want to add to the rules, to provide a little more regulatory framework on getting people to narrate more than too little, but less than too much, but I think if I can do that and — importantly — find the time to write it up, I may turn it into a little $2 or $5 PDF product.

But it’s Evil Hat, so of course I’m not going to put a date on that. :)

Thanks to Fred for fitting this into his hectic schedule. Don’t forget to check out Fred’s blog and also the ever-growing game catalogue of Evil Hat.

Leave a Reply