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Seth Johnson was lead designer for many years on HeroClix, up until Topps disbanded Wizkids in 2008. This is part I of our three part interview with Seth.
The Le: So how's things?
Seth: Good, thanks.
The Le: Let's jump right in... how did you get into the games business, and specifically how did you get into the role as designer?
Seth: Even before I was in school, my mom was a teacher who would bring home simple educational games (think Candyland or Snakes & Ladders tweaked to teach you simple math) that I would play once and then start tweaking--usually through the addition of Luke Skywalker or Spider-Man.
Early in elementary school I started playing role-playing games, along with early computer games like Wizardry, the Bard's Tale, and Wasteland. That inspired my best friend and I to try designing some RPGs of our own, using EA's Adventure Game Construction Set and good old pen-and-paper. One of the best games I can remember was an awesome Masters of the Universe RPG we designed--but it may just be awesome in my memory because I can't find any of the notes for it anymore.
Moving into junior high and high school, we still played a ton of RPGs and computer games (I remember a long summer spent hot-seating Wasteland!) but we also played more board games, and started tinkering with more abstract games like a graph paper based game where one player was a super villain robbing banks and sneaking around using the sewer system, and the other player was a super hero who could duck into phone booths and get super powers. We also had an increasingly elaborate superhero RPG setting called Radiant City using the DC Heroes RPG that we ran for many years.
Meanwhile, I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and hooked up with a new gaming group that introduced me to a ton of new games. So I played games all night, and went to classes all day, studying math and physics. Late in my college career, I spent two years writing a weekly column for the student paper, took a lot of creative writing classes, and decided writing was what I was interested in as a career. I was also lucky enough to get an internship with an editor for Tor Books that turned into my first job after college, keeping the paperwork moving while I learned about publishing from the inside and got to see some of the best authors in the world at work.
I started to get a few writing jobs here and there, the kind that almost everyone gets when they're starting out. I wrote a lot of material for West End's Hercules & Xena RPG--just before they went out of business. I wrote some short pieces for InQuest--and received killfees when they killed the column.
I was still gaming, of course, with the same gaming group I'd met in college. One night a guy came by the room where we played (we still played at the student union) looking for a game. Talking with him, it turned out that he ran a game studio called Human Head Studios and was looking for someone to write the manual for a PC game they were working on called Rune.
I applied for and got the job writing the Rune manual. To help make it more interesting, I interspersed a story in with the more technical information. The designers of the game liked the story enough that they hired me to polish the game's dialogue. That meant playing the game, so after work in the evenings (I'd moved on to helping run an online political news startup by that point) I'd head out to Human Head and play the game. Their playtesting plan had half-fallen through, so I stepped into the gap and spent a LOT of time playing Rune, even after I finished the dialogue pass. For about four months, six or seven days a week, I would work at my day job all day, go play Rune for 8-9 hours, sleep for a few hours, and repeat. There was no pay involved, but again it was a great way to learn about a business from the inside.
As Rune went gold and Human Head prepared to work on the PS2 version and a PC multiplayer expansion, they hired me to come on board as an assistant designer. That's where I spent the next four years, working on various Rune expansions, an Xbox western called Dead Man's Hand, and the beginnings of a game that would go on to become the 360 game Prey.
Along the way I continued to write and design games on the side, one little job after another. Way back when I was a kid, my best friend and his brothers (again, fantastic artists all) once complained that there needed to be a game where you made your characters by drawing them. When my friend and I were on a road trip in college, I remembered that joke; as we drove along the highway, we created the first version of the game SKETCH! We playtested SKETCH a couple times in my home gaming group over the years, and then it went into a drawer. Jon Leitheusser, who had been part of that gaming group, remembered SKETCH when he started up his own game company and asked us to make it into a finished game. So we did, and it came out to a fair amount of critical acclaim.
The jobs slowly got bigger and more interesting. I helped design a level for Rune's multiplayer expansion, and a bunch of puzzles that would eventually end up in Prey. Matt Forbeck joined Human Head to launch the company's adventure gaming division, and I got to help write the Redhurst Academy of Magic, which went on to win an Origins Award that year. After doing a lot of fantasy game design and writing during the d20 boom, White Wolf brought me into a team designing an RPG based on Blizzard's Warcraft RTS games. Those Warcraft RPG books eventually served as some of the initial internal bibles used by Blizzard to develop the World of Warcraft. (After ten years and millions of development hours put in by Blizzard, only a little bit of our work is reflected in WoW these days, but if you ever stumble across the ruins of the Shady Rest Inn, take a drink and think of me.)
In 2004 Human Head compressed from two development teams into one, and as budgets contracted I ended up as one of the odd men out. I still went to the Human Head offices to hang out and play games...they just weren't paying me to be there any more. So it was time to find a new job. By this point my college gaming friend and one-time publisher Jon was working in the game design department at WizKids. He heard I was looking for a job, and told me that WizKids was looking for someone to come on board as a writer and game designer. I thought I was a perfect fit for the job, and luckily, after a series of design tests and interviews, WizKids agreed.
All of which is to say that for me, becoming a game designer was a slow and incremental process. Or you might say that I've been a game designer for a long, long time--it just took a while before I actually had it on a business card.
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