Interviews by an Optimist # 31 - Steve Jackson
Steve Jackson graduated from Rice University in Houston. While there,
he spent most of his time playing wargames and working on the student
paper, the Thresher (he spent two years as editor). He became a writer
and game publisher, proving that college can be very valuable if you
don't let classes get in your way.
He has survived involvements with the Republican Party (alternate
delegate to the 1972 convention, but he got better - he now considers
himself a Libertarian), the SCA (former landed baron and National
Chronicler) and law school (escaping before the bar exam; game design
was more fun).
Steve's first professional design work was for Metagaming, which
published his Ogre, G.E.V., Melee, Wizard, and several other games. In
1980, Steve bought The Space Gamer magazine from Metagaming and
started his own company. One of his first games, Raid on Iran, was a
critical and sales success. The next year, Steve Jackson Games
released its first big hit, Car Wars . . . followed shortly by
Illuminati, and later by GURPS, the "Generic Universal Roleplaying
In 1983, Steve was elected to the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame - the
youngest person ever so honored. He now spends far too much time
helping to manage Steve Jackson Games Incorporated, which at the
moment employs 15 people.
The company made national news in 1990 after the disastrous Secret
Service intrusion, which nearly forced the company out of business by
seizing hardware and data files. SJ Games filed suit against the
Secret Service and the US government, and won more than $50,000 in
damages. Steve remains occasionally active with the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, which works to prevent similar miscarriages of
law enforcement. The local group he helped to found, EFF-Austin, has
now been subsumed into Electronic Frontiers Texas.
He still writes, when he finds the time. In the 1980s, he tried his
hand at interactive books or "game novels" (his first, Scorpion Swamp,
was published by Penguin and spent six months on the British
children's bestseller list). In 1994, he reworked the old faithful
Illuminati to jump on the trading-card bandwagon. INWO (Illuminati:
New World Order) became the company's biggest hit yet, and its first
In addition to gaming, Steve is a dedicated SF reader and fan, and
enjoys attending both gaming and SF conventions. He writes folksongs
(adequately) and sings (very badly). He still claims to be working on
an interactive computer game about running the Worldcon; the beta-test
version has been due Real Soon Now for several years. He is a
confirmed computerphile and net addict. His other interests include
gardening (especially water gardening), beekeeping, dinosaurs and
tropical fish. In his copious free time, he reads, eats and sleeps.
Tom: Steve, has the focus of SJ games changed over the years? What
game would you consider the "flagship" game of your company currently?
Steve: We've been around for 20 years, and yes, the focus has changed
more than once. We started off doing minigames, for instance.
Right now I would say that GURPS and Munchkin share the flagship role.
Tom: Munchkin has a huge popularity rate amongst many people. Were
you surprised by its success?
Steve: Yes. Surprised and delighted!
Tom: It seems that many of your new games focus on humor rather than
game mechanics. How important do you think the theme is when
producing a game?
Steve: Very. There are different styles of design; many European games
focus on mechanics and theme is an afterthought. This sometimes
produces very fun games that are "about" something totally off the
wall. I always start with theme; I want to know what I'm designing the
game about, and come up with mechanics to support it.
Tom: Can humor (theme) take a low to mediocre game and make it an
Steve: What is a "low to mediocre game"?
Tom: I apologize, I should clarify. Sometimes, when playing a
humor-based card game, such as Battle of the Bands, I feel that while
the theme is very humorous, the mechanics are only "so-so". I wonder
if I might not play the game if the theme wasn't involved. What are
your thoughts on this?
Steve: OIC. Okay. No, I think that if a game is no fun, it's no fun. I
have seen card games in particular where reading through the cards
ONCE is a lot of fun, but the play of the game is deadly dull. Humor
can add to the fun, but it can't supply it where none exists.
Tom: You dabbled in the CCG market with INWO. Do you see something
like that in the future, or has the market died for that sort of game?
Steve: The CCG market has not died, but it's chancy and largely
dominated by unplayable concoctions based on big licenses. Not
something I want to get involved in right now.
Tom: Do you consider Munchkin and the like (Chez Geek, etc.) a sort
of collectible card games?
Steve: I assume you're asking that because there are supplements, but
no. I don't think they appeal to the same audience. There's no rarity,
there's no deck building, there's no collector mania and no Mister
Tom: What crowd do you think your games appeal most to? Do you have
crossovers from role players, etc.?
Steve: Since one of our big games IS a RPG, yes, we get a lot of
And Munchkin parodies a certain style of RPG, so it takes a
role-player to really get it.
Tom: Does SJ Games emphasize board/card games, or RPGs more? Is it
hard to keep a balance between the two?
Steve: We do them both and definitely don't have any intent to
emphasize one over the other. Over short periods of time one may get
more support (for instance, last year we released the Fourth Edition
of GURPS, and there was a lot of RPG hoopla). There's no particular
trouble in keeping a balance . . . we have more ideas in both genres
than we have time to pursue . . .
Tom: Some critics have accused SJ Games of producing games that
aren't worth their cost. How does SJ games compete in a board gaming
world where component-heavy games, such as Heroscape, Memoir '44, or
Doom: the Boardgame, dominate?
Steve: If you look at a game as a toy purchase, yep, Doom's the way to
go ... Lots of toys there. It will be interesting to see if it's still
on shelves in a year, and again in two years.
If the question is "How many hours of play do I get out of the
components?" then some of these component-heavy games aren't much of a
deal. Here I point to the ultimate light-component, heavy-play-value
publisher, Cheapass. In the end, if a game isn't worth the cost,
people won't keep buying it, year after year.
Tom: I understand the light-component value of games by companies
such as Cheapass. But those games are also dirt-cheap. Why are the
prices for SJ games so high, without the component quality of other
Steve: Since you press the question, I can try to give you an answer
you like better. But that's not a criticism that I see in my own mail,
and the retailers certainly aren't telling us we're overpriced . . .
and they weren't shy at all, a couple of years ago, when we released
X-BUGS, and they thought it cost too much. (We were paying a license
fee on that one, unfortunately.) We've now got games running from
$9.95 (Spooks - a deck of cards) to $59.95 (Deluxe GEV, two big color
maps, rules, three plastic boxes, and a whole bunch of metal minis).
So I guess I'd have to know exactly which games "a lot of people on
the Internet" are complaining about and what they're comparing to. I
do go into stores
and see boxes of plastic toys selling for $25 or $30, but I don't even
think we're in the same marketplace . . . the people who are impressed
by "component value" over "play value" will *never* be my customers.
That said, I'm working on a couple of projects with more elaborate
components, but they will NOT be cheap. Most of our press runs are in
the 5,000 to 10,000 area, and we price everything we do to get a
reasonable markup and stay in business . . .
Tom: These projects with "elaborate components" sound interesting.
Can you give us any more info on them?
Steve: No. :)
Tom: Oh well. Are there any new games coming that you can tell us about?
Steve: I won't say that I have NEVER announced a new release in an
interview before the regular site posting, but I sure can't remember
the last time. Is there anything in
that you'd like to know more
Tom: No, nothing in particular. Let's talk about you, as a gamer.
What are some of your favorite games?
Steve: Of my own: Munchkin for a quick card game, or Illuminati for a
longer one. Ogre for a boardgame. And I really liked X-Bugs but the
market didn't "get it." Tribes for a roleplaying game, even though
really it's not, because really you DO roleplay if you're doing it
I didn't create UltraCorps, but SJ Games owns it now because I really
liked it - enough to pay to rescue it from oblivion. Coming soon to a
web browser near you . . . ! I'm having too much fun with the
Other games: Risk. Axis & Allies. I've really enjoyed several games of
Puerto Rico recently. Parts Unknown. Starcraft. Haven't played
Diplomacy for years, but someday...
Tom: What group do you cater your games towards? I'm assuming it's
not the "Euro" games crowd.
Steve: Different groups for different types of games. Munchkin and
most of our other card games are aimed at people who want fast social
play and like to laugh. GURPS is aimed at roleplayers who actually
like roleplaying, as opposed to, say, munchkining :-)
Tom: As a publisher, which conventions do you find are the best for
publicizing your games?
Steve: Small and medium-sized ones, always. I get the chance to
interact with everyone who wants to meet me. Large ones are only a
good use of time if I'm a GoH and they get their scheduling right. I'm
remembering the recent Origins where I was a GoH and the con (a)
designated my main talk as 'ticket required', and (b) somehow managed
to list the event as sold out while distributing no actual tickets.
The only attendees in that biiiiiiig room were the people who decided
to take a chance on finding an open seat. They succeeded.
Tom: How does internet buzz and reviews of your games affect sales?
Steve: I can't quantify it, but certainly it's good to have people
saying they like the games!
Tom: What have you found to be the best way to spread word about your games?
Steve: Not depending on any one way is the best way! We spend a lot of
time on our website, but we also work hard to get information to
distributors and through them to retailers. We publish a regular color
catalog, and our Men In Black volunteer program reaches lots of stores
and conventions with demonstrations.
Tom: Have you ever tried to get your games into a mass-market medium,
such as Toys 'R Us, or WalMart?
Steve: What, Barnes & Noble doesn't count?
We've looked into the two you mention. TRU, aside from apparently
being dead at the moment, is not attractive to us, nor we to them,
because their buyers are not impressed by products that are not
supported by mass-media campaigns. WalMart actually carries our line
in its online section, but they buy from one of our distributors, not
direct from us,
and we're not in their stores.
Tom: How are games designed at SJ games? Do designers singly work on
a game, or do you have a team of people develop each game?
Steve: Typically, one person does the initial design, and one or more
people then get involved as "developers" to polish it.
Tom: Do you accept game submissions, or do you have an "in-house"
group of designers?
Steve: We do accept submissions - see
- but most of our GAME
design is done in-house. By contrast, most of the RPG books we publish
are written out of house.
Tom: What advice would you have for budding game designers?
Steve: "Don't quit your day job."
Tom: Steve, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Do you
have any final words for our readers?
Steve: Okay. If you've got a good local gaming store, SUPPORT them. If
your local gaming store isn't good, ask yourself if some friendly
feedback would help MAKE them good . . .
And if you know somebody who ought to be a gamer but isn't . .
. or who used to be, and doesn't think he has the time any more . . .
invite him to a game. Spread the hobby!
"Real men play board games."