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Step into your average comic book
store, and you’ll find not only comics, but also gaming material of all sorts. Card-gaming, miniatures war-gaming, role-playing gaming — these hobbies appeal to comic book fans. And like comic book writers, authors of gaming material must have dedication and perseverance to make it. Just ask Jeff Barber. He founded Biohazard Games in 1994 because he had a great idea for a science-fiction role-playing game set on a water world. The result was Blue Planet, a critically acclaimed role-playing game nominated for Game of the Year at the 1997 Origins gaming convention. But success only comes from hard work, and as Barber tells Comic Foundry, it’s not all just a roll of the dice.
What inspired you to create the setting for Blue Planet?
I was one of the founding members of Pagan Publishing — a little publishing house that did a digest, campaign books and other pubs for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game from Chaosium. After parting ways with Pagan I wanted to stay involved in the gaming industry. Having already been part of starting a new gaming company, I figured starting another would be the easiest way to maintain that involvement.
Given my experience, available capital, and the market at the time — 1994 — basing the company on a new role-playing game line seemed the best bet. I had always been a sci-fi fan first, and at the time sci-fi was making a resurgence in gaming. The trend in gaming was from generic to more specific settings, and rather than add another title to the ubiquitous space opera or cyberpunk lines already out there, I opted to focus the setting on a single non-Earth planet.
At the time I was playing a lot of a PC game called Subwar 2050 by Microprose — a fighter sub simulator — and it had me thinking along underwater lines. I also understood it would be easier to write what I knew and, being a science teacher with a marine-biology background, the water world setting seemed a no-brainer.
From there I guess I took a sort of workmanlike approach to developing the setting. I just kept asking myself ‘What makes a fun role-playing game?’ Conflict, mystery, history, context, detail, cool technology, scary creatures — all things we tried to include. The frontier, man-against-nature and environmental themes basically came from my own personal likes and interests and through the logical development of the setting.
Describe how you and your friends came together to form Biohazard Games.
Biohazard’s formation was sort of random and its staff has always been rather fluid. Almost everyone I knew in my own gaming circles had something to do with the company at some point — play-testing, development, writing, Web design, etc. Those that really stayed motivated and produced tended to stay involved and became the core of the company. My partner, Greg Benage, actually discovered Biohazard through some Internet message boards and contacted me early on in the development of Blue Planet. His involvement was critical to our success and to be honest the game would likely never have seen publication if not for Greg coming on board. Jim Heivilin and Jason Werner were also core staffers, doing everything from development, play-testing and writing to webmastering.
How did you go about marketing Blue Planet? What worked out well? Anything self-publishers should avoid doing?
Marketing is expensive and our resources were always limited. We bought listings in Games Quarterly and attended the large national conventions and lots of smaller, local cons to push the line. We produced about 6,000 color posters with the main book cover art on the front and lots of info about the game on the back, and disseminated these through our distributors and at conventions. We also maintained an active Web site with lots of useful and growing content.
The posters were cool, but we really had no way to know if they made sales for us. They were also expensive. The cons were great as we usually made enough through direct sales to pay expenses and certainly spread the word about the game. The Web site was an inexpensive and effective promotional tool as well. We were also well served by reviews in various venues. The best marketing, of course, was word-of-mouth. When gamers like a product word gets around. Even though most gamers have never played Blue Planet, many have at least heard of it.
My advice to self-publishers it to avoid print ads and focus on the Web and the national conventions. The Web is the cheapest and most effective way to reach gamers these days — especially if you can effectively utilize various forums and game review sites. It is also important to develop good relationships with distributors and to maintain effective communication with them.
Talk a little bit about the success of Blue Planet and its transition to Fantasy Flight Games.
Blue Planet was surprisingly successful for us. Most decent role-playing games that come out of small publishing houses sell about a 1,000 copies of the core book through the life of the line. We were at about 2,700 sold when we put together the deal with Fantasy Flight Games.
We approached FFG because we were looking for a partner with some fiscal resources and a stronger distribution system to help us keep the line going. Greg and I had been bearing the financial burden and the primary workload for three years at that point and were tired. We wanted the line to continue, however, and a partnership of some kind seemed a good way to do it.
We looked for a company that had some resources but no flagship role-playing game line and FFG fit the bill at the time. They had just had a big hit with their Diskwars game, and were looking to expand into role-playing. In the end they decided they could only handle the line if Greg or I came on board as their role-playing game guy. I didn’t want to do the game-design thing full time, and Greg was looking for a new gig. He moved to Minnesota and has done very well for FFG. He is responsible for the development of some of the coolest and most interesting role-playing game settings on the market today, including Dragonstar, Midnight, the Horizon d20 line and Fireborn.
Part of the deal with FFG was that we did something to the Blue Planet line to encourage interest and sales as they took over publication. Initially FFG wanted to advance the timeline. Much of the setting appeal for Blue Planet, however, comes from the fact that all the factions in the setting are poised at a time in the setting’s future history, a point where the human tension, potential and threats are all at their greatest. In the end we convinced FFG that a new mechanics system would better serve the game. The first-edition system was never very good as mechanics are not my strong suit. Greg created the Synergy system for version 2 and the game is much stronger for it.
FFG sold another 2,000 to 3,000 copies of the primary game and world books, and published five additional books focused on different aspects of the Blue Planet setting. I made primary contributions to Fluid Mechanics, Natural Selection and Ancient Echoes, while parts of these and all of the other books were written by Greg and various freelancers.
In the end, the deal with FFG had mixed results. The game got a great new system and they sold and published far more Blue Planet books than Biohazard would ever have had the time or finances to put out. However, most of those new books didn’t get the attention to craftsmanship I would have wished, and once the d20 craze hit, and FFG refocused the efforts of their role-playing game department, Blue Planet became a sort of afterthought in the market and at the company.
From a writer’s standpoint, what was the best part about having a major distributor such as FFG pick up the game? What was the worst part?
The best part was that all I needed to do was write. I got to quit worrying about money, freelancers, artists, layout, printers, warehousing, advertising, distribution shipping and taxes and simply create. And I could work on a project — or not — which meant there was a lot less stress and I could finally pursue parts of my life that running Biohazard had precluded — like actually gaming!
The worst part was the other side of the coin: I lost the complete creative control I had had over the line. I knew this would be the case, but it was still hard to swallow when it happened as Blue Planet had always been a labor of love for me.
The notoriety of publishing Blue Planet enabled you to score some other contract work from Fantasy Flight Games, including spine credit on a game setting called Midnight. How much freedom did you have on Midnight compared with Blue Planet?
I ended up with quite a lot of creative freedom actually, far more than I expected. Greg and Wil Upchurch had put together a four-page promotional flier for the game, and when I was offered the project, that brochure was the only material that existed. I took it and ran with it, Greg bought my take on the setting and FFG published it straight up. Sort of caught me off guard, actually.
I understand the intellectual property rights to Blue Planet have once again lapsed back to Biohazard Games. Anything on the horizon for you guys as a games company?
As I said before, Blue Planet has always been a labor of love and as such I do not want to see the line fade completely away. The current plan is to revamp our Web site this summer and make the entire line available there as PDFs. We will also resurrect the Undercurrents newsletter in a new format that can be added to by us and by players, creating a rolling venue for the development and publishing of the line and our metagame plots.
Writing game books is similar to writing comics in that they both pay terribly and they’re usually only enjoyed by a niche audience. What tips would you have to offer aspiring writers looking to self-publish their own stuff?
I would only have ever gotten into the business for the love of creating game material. That has to be the primary reason and sufficient reward in and of itself. Any other reasons, expectations or hopes should run a distant second. I would also advise folks that the money end is a real gamble, and as in gambling, I would never commit more resources than you can afford to lose. Paper publishing and distribution is always way more expensive than you ever expect and you need to be willing to accept the loss if the line does not support itself. If I were starting Biohazard Games today, I would Web-publish first, then consider paper books only if the line showed promise.
—Interview by Patrick Rollens