Last week, I spoke with game designer and blogger Vox Day, who has consistently been one of the biggest supporters of Reaxxion. While best known for his popular blogs Vox Popoli and Alpha Game, Vox is also a longtime veteran of the gaming industry whose work predates the original Dreamcast. He’s also the founder of the publishing company Castalia House, for whom this author has done some minor unpaid proofreading work.
After many years, he’s returning to game design with a new company, Alpenwolf. Their first project is First Sword, a combat management game where you control a stable of gladiators in the fantasy world of Selenoth. I talked to Vox about his new game, his new 3D tabletop engine, women in gaming, and why the industry has become so social justice warrior-friendly in the past fifteen years.
Sam Roberts: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. I’m sure many of our readers are familiar with you, but can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your past and current involvement in the game industry?
Vox Day: I started as a game reviewer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. My column was picked up and syndicated nationally by Chronicle Features and ran in 13 papers across the country, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Boston Globe, and something called the North Bay Nugget. I spent two years as a card-carrying Transdimensional Evangelist selling the PC board manufacturers on supporting 3D for games rather than the 2D MPEG decompression they favored, and then started my own game development house called Fenris Wolf. I also started a music company called Power of Seven with my Psykosonik bandmates that provided music for games by Raven and Bungie.
After GT Interactive and Sega of America collapsed and took Fenris with it, I took a few years off, then got involved again on the finance side. We mostly worked with mid-to-large game publishers who wanted to smooth out their accounting. It’s tough on the books when you have to sink up to $75 million into a project and you can’t book any revenue until three years later. I did the occasional contract design for companies like THQ, and in one unusual case, 3M, but I wasn’t tempted to get back into development full-time until I met the Nordeus guys. They were young, smart, and very successful, and I realized that they were onto something new and different with their sports management game, Top Eleven.
I also realized that what they were doing in sports was something that could be done on the wargame side as well, and without needing a massive team. So, I got a few guys together, Alpenwolf was founded, and I came up with the initial design for First Sword. We’re doing some entirely new things on the gameplay side, on the technology side, and even on the business side, so I think you’ll hear more about Alpenwolf in the future.
SR: You’re working on an upcoming gladiator management game called First Sword. A year ago, you wrote on your blog that the game would have no female characters because “[w]omen cannot credibly fight as gladiators.” But a few weeks ago you announced that you’d be making a female character the face of the game. Can you tell us about this character, and what prompted this change of heart?
VD: There were two factors at work here. We had the opportunity to bring in a new partner of unusual quality whose development experience goes back to the 2.5D shooter days, but we didn’t really need him to help on the gladiator management game. It would have been a waste of his time and talent. So, what we did was expand the concept of First Sword from a simple combat management game to an entire spectrum of games ranging from physical tabletop miniatures to a 3D tabletop engine, and hand it over to him as the technical lead of everything but the combat management game.
Female gladiators were, and are, incapable of fighting with male gladiators. So, for reasons of game balance, they didn’t work in the gladiator management game any more than giving Madden’s players the ability to start a cheerleader in the quarterback position would. But they were historically used as sort of a sadistic comic relief in between regular bouts; there is just such a scene featuring two female gladiators fighting a goblin in my novel A Throne of Bones. That meant it was perfectly reasonable to have female gladiators in the tabletop game, and to offer them as miniatures.
Since we’re planning a Kickstarter campaign for First Sword, we decided that we wanted our own Lara Croft to distinguish our tabletop game from everyone else’s. Hence the character named Morwyn Shadowsong, an elf who was captured, sold to a stable, and forced to fight for her life in the arenas of Amorr. We’ll be publishing a novella about her called The Gladiator’s Song, and she will be appearing in miniature, in 3D, on the box and in various photo-shoots as well.
SR: Can you tell us more about this 3D tabletop engine?
VD: I was acquainted with Rodney Kinney, the creator of Virtual Advanced Squad Leader, and I was one of the ASLers who encouraged him to turn it into VASSAL so it could be used to play other board-and-counter games on the computer. In fact, he even ended up going with the name that I suggested to him. About eight years ago, it occurred to me that there was no reason we couldn’t do the same thing for miniature gaming that VASSAL did for board-and-counter, but I couldn’t convince the publishers that anyone would be interested in playing miniature games on the computer. But thanks to Kickstarter, it’s no longer necessary to find a publisher in order to make something like that.
With sufficient support for the First Sword campaign, we will be bringing the gladiator game as well as other miniatures games like Kings of War, Deadzone, and Traveller: Striker to the 3D tabletop. We ultimately hope to provide the 3DV engine with the same sort of modding capabilities that VASSAL enjoys, so gamers will be able to create their own miniatures, paint them, and use them on the 3D tabletop just like they do in real life.
SR: Many commentators, at our site and elsewhere, have noticed the sudden outbreak of prudishness in the gaming industry. We saw this with PAX and its ban on booth babes, even to the point of specifying a minimum length for girl’s skirts. Even Mortal Kombat, the franchise that established itself in the 1990’s through its willingness to break all the rules, is moving to “more realistic” characters with smaller breasts and thicker waists. What do you think has changed in the gaming industry in the past 20 years that’s made it so much less able to resist moral scolds?
VD: The most important change is that game development no longer belongs to the mavericks. When we started Fenris Wolf in 1993, literally everyone thought we were crazy. We were throwing away good jobs and wasting our educations to do what people considered to be the equivalent of playing with digital Lincoln Logs. Now that games are widely understood to be big business, many of the jobs pay decent salaries, and you can get degrees in “game development” and “game design,” you have considerably more risk-intolerant, conflict-avoidant people entering the industry.
Twenty years ago, the average developer would have laughed his ass off at the idea that he should design or develop anything other than whatever the hell he wanted to do. These days, there are a fair number of bed-wetters in game development who are terrified at the idea that someone, somewhere, might take offense at something in one of their games. And then, of course, you’ve also got SJWs trying to stick their noses into the industry in order to change it, just as they did in comics and science fiction & fantasy fiction.
SR: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the “role of women in gaming.” What do you feel the role of women in gaming is? How do you feel about female players playing your games?
VD: The role of women in gaming is primarily as consumers. Contrary to the ignorant media’s take on the issue, women have been involved in every aspect of gaming from the very beginning. Scorpia was the best adventure and RPG reviewer in the industry; she and Charlotte Panther were both at CGW. Roberta Williams was a game development pioneer; my own mentor worked for her. I spent some time hanging out with Brenda Laurel at CGDC; she was doing the “games for girls” thing at Purple Moon nearly 20 years ago.
As a general rule, women prefer different games than men, just as they prefer different magazines, different movies, and different television shows. I’ve designed games intended for a female audience and I’ve designed games for male audiences. The most popular games will appeal to both sexes; the breakdown of Mario Kart for the Nintendo Wii is apparently almost right down the middle. But most women won’t play hard core wargames or twitch shooters, just as most men won’t play shopping games or fashion games. If a woman wants to play one of my games, that’s certainly fine with me. Hundreds of thousands already have. Hot Dish, from THQ, was quite popular with female players on a number of casual game sites.
SR: GamerGate has been a massive consumer revolt and it’s still going strong after 6 months. But you’re one of very few game designers to speak out in favor of it. Why do you think this is?
VD: Game developers, especially the experienced ones, pay considerably less attention to game journalists than gamers do. Most of the designers I’ve spoken to about it consider it to be just another media tempest in a teapot and ignore it. Thanks to my blog and syndicated columns, I’m a minor public figure and a controversial one at that, so it costs me nothing to speak out on the subject. Having been publicly hated by the SJWs for over a decade gives me carte blanche.
But most developers aren’t bloggers or media figures, they aren’t interested in taking flak for simply doing their jobs, and they certainly have no interest in talking to a media that would rather discuss the cup size of a female character than any of the game mechanics or other aspects of development on which they spend all their time. Most developers are quietly in favor of GamerGate. Even the artists, who tend to lean politically left, chafe at the idea of being told what they can and cannot draw.
SR: As a game developer, what are your thoughts on people like Anita Sarkeesian, with her “Tropes vs. Women” videos that purport to show that the gaming industry is biased against women, and in many cases outright hates them? Has this been your experience in the industry?
VD: Anita Sarkeesian is a fame-whore and con artist. She’s not a gamer, she doesn’t know a damn thing about the game industry, she lies shamelessly about it, and anyone who supports her is, at best, uninformed. The gaming industry is not biased against women, it is merely one of the few industries that doesn’t reflexively bow before feminist activism. If there is any bias in the industry now, it is a bias against men, given that some of the larger companies have openly embraced sexual discrimination through the “women in technology” initiatives.
SR: Lastly, looking into the future, where do you see the games industry going in five years? We’ve already seen people like Bonnie Ross trying to make major franchises like Halo more feminist-friendly. Are the Sarkeesians and their ilk going to keep making inroads towards changing the industry? If we wanted to stop this, what do you think would be the best way to do it?
VD: I see the industry continuing to fragment and the importance of large publishers receding. I expect EA to collapse within the next ten years; the recent shut-down of Maxis is the latest in a long and sordid story of the large publishers throwing away development talent and intellectual property for nothing. What’s happening at Microsoft only represents a new form of destruction-by-suit; at this point it is safe to assume the Halo franchise will eventually go the way of the Ultima, Wing Commander and SimCity franchises. It’s like a TV show: once the substitute writers replace the original team that made it successful, it’s only a matter of time before the quality goes downhill, it becomes a parody of itself, and people lose interest. As for the Sarkeesians and the other parasites, they will never stop trying to suck at the money trough. It’s what they do, it’s all they can do.
The best way to stop this is to withdraw your financial support from organizations that have decided to support the parasites and place ideology ahead of gameplay. Don’t pay them to preach to you. The best way to render their efforts irrelevant is to support the smaller studios who are focused on gameplay and pushing the design envelope, support the media sites that focus on covering the actual games, and support new development efforts like the First Sword Kickstarter we’ll be launching in May. Every time you fire up a game, you’re voting with your time and money, and every gamer counts.