Few people have been involved in both the birth and rebirth of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle as Steve Wieck. The game has thrived because of his constant advocacy for it – and, when you consider Wiecke’s track record, it’s no surprise that people listen when he champions a cause.
Steve, along with his brother Stewart, made his start in roleplaying games when he was still in high school: ‘The Secret in the Swamp’, a module for Villains and Vigilantes, was published all the way back in 1986. Soon after this the brothers started a fanzine that they named Arcanum. The ‘zine sold 30 copies – a success! – so they converted it to a monthly magazine and renamed it White Wolf Magazine. By 1991, the Wieck brothers merged their company with a fledgling roleplaying company named Lion Rampant, headed up by Mark Rein-Hagen. The company they created from their merger was called White Wolf Publishing and the rest, as they say, is history.
But, Steve’s story certainly doesn’t stop there. Steve acted as CEO from 1993 to 2002: a period of immense change for both White Wolf and the industry as a whole. It wasn’t always easy. After passing the mantle of CEO to Mike Tinney in the early 2000s, Steve went on to serve on CCP’s Board and then founded DriveThruRPG in 2004 (later, OneBookShelf.com). Over the next 15 years, OneBookShelf has become a critical part of the RPG industry: it’s the umbrella company responsible for, amongst other things, The DM’s Guild, Storyteller’s Vault for community-generated content, as well as print on demand books and content publication. Without Steve Wieck, the tabletop roleplaying industry would look very different indeed.
B: I understand that you made your start in roleplaying games during high school, both in terms of a published adventure and your own self-published fanzine. In terms of origin stories for starting off in the industry, it demonstrates an amazing sense of ambition and commitment early on in life, paired with a real DIY / punk ethos! Could your 17-year-old self imagine themselves as being a pillar of the industry in 2019, and do you think the industry is more or less ripe today for young trailblazers as it was then?
SW: Like most kids that age, I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. My brother Stewart may have had a grander plan in mind, but for my part, it was more about what would be cool to try next. It was more about what we might write next month or next issue, not about next year. While I’d say I’m more of a pedestal or small book stand than a pillar, I think I would have been happily surprised by any premonition that I was going to be able to make a career in the roleplaying and gaming hobby that I love(d).
By your early twenties you’d co-founded White Wolf Game Studio, launched Vampire: the Masquerade and set down the foundations of the World of Darkness to follow. A few years later, your company was juggling multiple titles, sales were soaring and your company was snapping at the heels of the largest publishers in the industry. What was it like to be at the helm of an organisation like White Wolf during such an era?
Credit where due, all those things were group efforts and obviously Mark Rein Hagen and others had more influential roles in launching Vampire.
Business at that time was booming though. Our sales kept doubling every year and with it our staff and facilities and inventory. We took no outside investment and the cash flow cycle of a book publishing business is wretchedly long, so even as sales were soaring we were constantly strapped for cash. Meanwhile we set insane deadlines for producing a new WOD game each year and supporting each game already released.
As anyone who’s been involved in a successful start-up company would likely say, it was one of the most intense chapters of my life.
From there to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, or Jyhad as it was originally known. Other interviewees have mentioned to me that there were a number of people at Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf who were close, and you had Lisa Stevens there who’d been instrumental in both Vampire and Magic: the Gathering. How important was it to have such connections, when entrusting your IP to a new company for the first time? And how did that design process proceed from your perspective?
Yes, quite a few extraordinary people came together to produce Jyhad.
Lisa Stevens has perhaps the most incredible track record in hobby gaming having been a force in the founding of Lion Rampant/White Wolf and helping launch Vampire, to then going on to work with Peter [Adkison] to found Wizards of the Coast and launch Magic, to then forming Paizo and launching Pathfinder.
Lisa and Peter met with me at an industry trade show and showed me this new card game called Magic they were getting ready to launch. They wanted to advertise it in White Wolf magazine but as a start-up had little cash so would we take a few shares in their new Wizards of the Coast company in exchange for running ads. Thankfully we said yes, though in one of the worst business decisions ever I did limit the volume of ads and shares we exchanged. I wish I had actually played Magic before making that decision!
Lisa though was the main bridge between White Wolf and Wizards. After the initial success of Magic, Wizards basically went around with the unstated, but relatively transparent strategy of signing licenses for most of the major tabletop gaming brands. It was something of a blocking move on Wizards’ part to mitigate the number of games those companies might launch as CCGs to compete with Magic. And thus Wizards licensed Cyberpunk from RTalsorian, Battletech from FASA, and Vampire from White Wolf and produced CCGs for each.
The design of Jyhad was done by Richard Garfield, of course. Andrew Greenberg led the White Wolf review, playtest and suggestions on the initial design. White Wolf Art Director Richard Thomas (who was already an artist for Magic cards) consulted on the art direction and visual design of the game.
Were there particular aspects of Vampire: the Masquerade and the World of Darkness that you and the White Wolf team saw as crucial or non-negotiable inclusions? Similarly, were there certain aspects of the RPG that you recognised would not translate well into the CCG format?
Especially given the tight schedule he had for designing Jyhad, Richard Garfield did an excellent job capturing the essence of Vampire: the Masquerade as it ought to be in a CCG format. You have to play table politics to win consistently at V:TES, and while brutal combats and shadowy sabotage are parts of the game, they are often more important insofar as they provide leverage for the table politics.
Looking back at it, it’s impressive that Richard managed to achieve so much in such a short space of time. It must have been commercially tempting to lift Magic’s format, but instead he (along with Wizards and White Wolf) created an incredibly distinct and thematically coherent design. Jyhad/V:TES was, of course, one of the victims of the shrinking CCG market in late 1996, along with a number of other titles (including White Wolf’s own card line). And yet the community appeared to carry on undaunted by the cancellation! Were you conscious of the strong fanbase of the game?
Matthew Burke and the whole Wizards team did a great job with V:TES, but as you say, the marketplace for CCGs at that time was beyond challenging. If Jyhad’s tight timetable for design and release had any by-product it may have been that the rules as originally presented in the rulebook were difficult to absorb. You could talk to many gaming groups playing V:TES and there was a lot of variability in their interpretation of the rules.
It was also a longer-playing, multi-player game which makes the game unique among CCGs but also at the time made it a square peg to fit in the round hole of how organized play and tournament events were normally conducted.
Fortunately, where Wizards curtailed their official support of the game, fans of the game took over. Though I remained unaware of the extent of it until later, all through the late 1990’s, fans self-organized, codified the rules and conducted their own organized play, primarily through the Vampire Elder Kindred Network (VEKN) but other organizations as well.
Extending from that previous question, I would love to know more about the decision to bring V:TES back into print. V:TES was undoubtedly a bit of a mess when it came to rights – what with Wizards owning the mechanics and White Wolf the IP. Were Wizards surprised when you came knocking to flip the licence? Was it something you’d been thinking of for some time, and was there anything specific that set your mind to resurrecting the game?
I was still CEO at the time we decided to flip the license with Wizards and restart production of V:TES. We had a very experienced crew at White Wolf by then, and we seldom made big decisions without contentious debate of alternatives ending with some group buy-in to the decision. I had to champion the return of the game pretty hard internally and even then the decision was a bit more of a “ok, Steve go ahead if you want it that badly” kind of decision. Thankfully everything would turn out well.
There were several things which combined to make me certain the game should get another start. The primary catalyst though was Gilles Garnier, someone French gamers may know as a founder of French game distribution and publishing businesses like Edge Entertainment (now Asmodee). Gilles gave me the wake-up call that V:TES was flourishing in the hands of the fans and deserved White Wolf taking a look at publishing it.
What followed were conversations with folks prominent in the V:TES scene like L. Scott Johnson and others who helped me get a better grasp of what fans were doing. And of course, we knew that V:TES had sold huge numbers and the brand was broadly known among gamers and game retailers.
Also many factors had changed in the CCG market since 1996. The market was not as glutted, there was more printer capacity, production workflows of producing CCGs had become more streamlined. These things made it possible to consider publishing V:TES and have it be financially viable at production run sizes smaller than before.
Once we asked Wizards about reversing the license it was relatively easy. We had many professional friends and contacts there, including Brian Lewis in Wizards legal who had worked with us on the original license. Wizards certainly was happy to see the game supported with new expansions again. The licensing did take a little time though as Wizards had just released some other card game called Pokemon at the time which was keeping them pretty busy over there.
White Wolf hadn’t run its own card game division for some years, and V:TES was a rather peculiar and niche game to begin with. Did the game behave as you anticipated, and were you happy with the team’s ability to bring the World of Darkness to life once more?
I assumed our best option to re-release the game would be to start with a new core set based on the iconic Camarilla clans like Ventrue, Malkavian and Toreador. L. Scott Johnson (LSJ) who had agreed to be the lead designer, believed it was better to start with a core set based on Sabbat. I found out that debating LSJ is a lot like playing chess against AlphaZero, and it was decided to do Sabbat War as the initial release.
We set a relatively conservative print run size, not knowing how large the V:TES market would be. Sabbat War then promptly sold out upon release. It was a happy surprise that paved the way for a decade of support of the game.
Ha! I interviewed LSJ earlier this year and he mentioned how humbling it was to be given quite a free reign over the design process. Did you have a particular vision for where the game should go and what it should explore, or were you happy to have it tick along in its own corner of the World of Darkness? Were there any aspects of Vampire that you were really keen to have included into the game?
At times we wanted V:TES to join the roleplaying game and fiction lines with certain thematic or story events, notably the Gehenna releases, but primarily the broad themes and concepts for the White Wolf V:TES expansions were determined by what V:TES needed the most. This was especially true early-on when certain clans just needed more cards to be competitively playable.
In terms of V:TES’ commercial performance, I understand that whilst it was successful it did remain relatively niche in its own way. Had you ever considered the game as being the vanguard for a new line of card games from White Wolf, or had the hard lessons from the mid-1990s bubble been enough to steer you away from delving too deep into that market?
One of the hardest things to do at a game company, especially a successful one, is to stay focused. There’s a lot of creativity in the house and a desire to do new games. Commercially though you’re usually better to remain focused on fewer games that are doing well. While V:TES never expanded to a massively larger market, it did sell well, and we tried to keep our focus on supporting it with expansions and organized play.
I should mention that some people I’ve spoken to remember you picking up a few games of V:TES around the time that White Wolf re-acquired the licence, and of course you were one of the first playtesters for Jyhad. Have you had much of a chance to play it over the years?
Ha, yeah I loved having opportunities to play the game and would often enter tournaments even if that wasn’t really the professionally proper thing to do. Of course when I was playing tournaments against people like Ben Peal, I never had to face the awkward situation of actually winning any tournaments nominally hosted by my own company. My favorite deck to play, though not the strongest deck I played, was probably the Daughters of Cacophony deck with Concert Tour led bloat.
Your work at One Bookshelf has led to tremendous innovation in the industry, transforming how people consume and access roleplaying games and other content. It’s clear that you have an eye for the future. Do you have any reflections on how the market has changed over the last decade, and whether cult-favourite / niche games like V:TES can get the airtime to both survive and thrive into the future?
There’s been a combination of things which have lowered the “entry barrier” to publishing roleplaying games or card games. In the 1990’s, you basically needed to have the cash to fund the writing, art, print run and marketing of an RPG and then you hoped it sold and 30-90 days later distributors would pay you. Print runs weren’t really economical below 2,000 or 3,000 units so you had to sell quite a few copies of anything you made.
Today we have a combination of things like DriveThruRPG, Print-On-Demand, KickStarter, Open Game Licenses and Community Content Programs (like DMsGuild.com) which have all lowered that entry barrier so that now anyone can afford to write and publish their own roleplaying game. It’s a golden era for roleplaying. I love the art form, so to the extent we were one of the facilitators of that, I’m delighted.
One of the reasons we added Print-On-Demand for books into our DriveThruRPG platform was because I felt that POD printing had hit a turning point where the quality was finally getting on par with traditional lithographic printing. The quality was there.
Around 2012, we noticed the same thing had become true for playing cards; the quality was there. Based upon that, we launched our DriveThruCards marketplace in hopes that high-quality, on-demand card printing would empower two things. First, it could lower the entry barrier for people to produce their own card game, the same as we’d seen in roleplaying game books. Second, the power to print cards and have every card be unique holds tremendous potential for how card games can be designed and expanded. Fantasy Flight Games was also an early adopter of POD for cards, and we’ve seen the success of their game Keyforge which relies on this to make every deck unique (a game designed by who else? Richard Garfield). This kind of platform helps games like V:TES by making it easy to offer again any past cards complete with any errata.
And then it also allows us to do fancier things like the V:TES card creator wherein you can design your own V:TES cards and have them printed and shipped to your door for a nominal charge. Any V:TES fan can create their own Crypt card right now, and we’re currently working on adding Library cards to the card creator.
There’s no longer any reason for a game like V:TES to ever be out of print, and fans have more power than ever to create their own new cards to extend the game unofficially. Games will always be stronger with an active publisher though, and I’m thrilled V:TES has Black Chantry producing well-designed, playtested sets and helping organized play. It’s been a pleasure to work with Hugh, Ben, Gines and everyone there again and put the things we have at DriveThruCards at their disposal.