The Guild Companion Interview
with John Seal
TGC: John, you appeared seemingly out of nowhere to buy up the assets of the old ICE, and have remained an enigmatic figure. Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been a Rolemaster fan?
I suppose I have wanted to stay in the background a little as I am more of a professional investor and game fan and much less a game industry professional, and so have wanted to keep out of the way of the game industry professionals at Mjolnir LLC who are actually running the "new" ICE on a day-to-day basis.
Rolemaster ... Well, I think it would be more accurate to say I am more of a MERP fan, having first bought the boxed set in the early 1980's after having played AD&D since 1979. We played MERP for a bit, then went back to AD&D where I incorporated a lot of the critical hits and some skill concepts into my house rules.
But I have been an avid follower of the industry and have always felt that RM was the best system out there given what the real hard-core RPG fans thought. The computer game designers are also almost, to 100%, RM players and not D&D players.
As for myself, well I'm in my mid-thirties and have worked in investment banking since I left college – but don't hold that against me! I have been playing RPGs since 6th grade, so I have been a gamer for much longer! Most of the jobs I have held on Wall Street have been of an entrepreneurial nature, so I think that gives me a sound basis for which to be involved in running a small company.
What else can I tell you...I live in the UK now and am a partner in an investment company in London, so I hope to be meeting some UK gamers soon. I don't have lots of time to play, but I do play online in a game my brother-in-law and most of my high school friends are in. I'm playing a half-orc barbarian there – YEAH – kill things! It's great....
TGC: Why did you buy a game company? How did it all happen?
Oh ... that's actually a tough question...Having an investment background, your first thought would be "You must be crazy, you WILL lose your money..." But I saw three important things that made buying ICE attractive: (1) ICE has arguably the most accurate and real-to-life game system ever produced, and this is the perfect system for electronic games as well; (2) they have a die-hard group of fans that, I know if we could support well, would repay us in kind; and (3) I could buy ICE for an attractive price – critical to making the investment work.
But that is only half the answer. The other half is that I had been analyzing the industry since the mid-1990's and actually worked with the former ICE management to get ICE back on track and to win a license to develop many game products in advance of the LoTR movies (which failed), so I was familiar with ICE's strengths and weaknesses. And, I believe the strengths, if managed properly, can outweigh and overcome the weaknesses.
We have brought professional management to ICE. We are working on two-year and four-year business plans. We also have a detailed financial model that will be a guide as to how we will grow the business, develop new settings for existing game systems and revive dormant systems. It has been my personal belief that the game industry is sorely lacking in professional management and that is one of the resources ICE will be able to draw upon to grow market share. We will also focus on developing products that will attract new players and former D&D players, so look for these products coming out over the next twelve to eighteen months.
TGC: So now you're in charge helping to provide professional management, ICE is back on its feet with a new staff and new products are hitting the stores. What do you see as ICE's most pressing goals in the short-term?
Oh - let me correct you a little on that - I am in charge with two partners, Bruce and Heike! I think we make a great team as I bring a level of strategic and financial thinking, Bruce has strong operational experience and Heike, and Bruce too, have great artistic ability, so we are very well rounded.
The most pressing need in the short term is to continue improving on the basics. Get out more products, improve the editorial/layout quality, and develop settings to support the products. We have come a long way on that and I think we need to nail that down so it becomes second nature. And I think this will attract former ICE fans back into the fold, growing fan numbers, which, obviously is good for ICE. It's even better for our existing fans as they can find more people to play with. When more people play our products, we have more money for R&D, so it's a virtuous spiral.
Once that is running smoothly, we absolutely need to develop a product or products, which will enable young people first getting into RPGs to find it easy to learn RM, and make it easy for disillusioned D&D players to join our ranks.
There is nothing more important than growing our fan base at this stage.
TGC: One of the strengths of Rolemaster and Spacemaster are their ability to allow GMs and players to create realistic and highly detailed characters. Arguably that detail is a bar to entry for new players, and could derail your plans to get more players into the ICE fold. What do you think should be done to break down that barrier?
Well, there have been a number of interesting threads in the ICE forums on this and I like what a lot of people are saying. We need to make it EASY for people to play the game – but I am not advocating dumbing down the system. No way! However there needs to be some core product that a new player can pick up, read in 1 to 2 hours, maybe spend half an hour on character generation and PLAY! Most importantly the product needs to teach people HOW to play.
Robin D. Laws, and I won't quote him exactly, basically said that the game rules only account for 30% of the playing experience. The most important element is how good the GM is. So any product we produce for newbies, or even for D&D players, needs to be full of suggestions and advice for primarily the GM, but also for the players as well on how the game is played – which I differentiate from how to play the game, or learning the rules.
TGC: Yes, a good GM can make a good set of rules or setting into a great game. A bad GM can ruin even the best system and setting, and put people off it for life. And of course, finding anyone to play Rolemaster or Spacemaster in the first place can be extremely hard, whereas it is almost trivial to find D&D gamers.
Yeah, and I think the difficulty is that ICE has lost some of its fans during the bankruptcy years AND does not yet have the products to attract newbies to its game. In fact, to get new players, we currently need to rely on hard-core fans teaching new players and bringing them into the game. But its not fair to rely solely on these evangelists to support ICE – we need to do our part too, so that's why we will be creating the aforementioned products, showing up more at conventions, etc.
TGC:From comments in the discussion boards, it sounds like you have other schemes in the planning stages to build a strong ICE gamer network, both worldwide and locally (in the United Kingdom)?
Yes. Now, since I'm in the UK, I am busy assembling a database (which in fact a fan wanted to do but I suggested I should take over) of UK ICE game players, RPG retail shops and other groups (such as LARP groups) where we might find some players. I want to build a database people can tap into and eventually, maybe, start hosting some tables at conventions or even have a dedicated ICE convention. Of course, this is all in the formative stage AND in my spare time...so don't put me on the spot too much!
Will ICE be supporting the fans in any other ways?
We have a great website, and we will continue to improve that. We are currently designing a section for first-time ICE players to the site, that tells the history of ICE (good and bad) and provides resources and purchase packages for newbies looking to start a game.
I am hoping that in the near future, we can be a little more proactive with regards to conventions. We are attending them, but we need to have some games GMed there as well.
We are also trying to figure out ways to boost sales through partnership with our most supportive fans. For a hypothetical example, we might introduce some sort of optional membership which may have a small monthly pay component, for which members get free downloads, articles, adventures, etc. Sort of like an online magazine in a way, but more. For example, it could include a frequent buyer program as well (if we can make the economics work). We thought there may be interest in this given the threads in the forums related to magazines. I think your thoughts were correct that TGC is better independent and non-pay, and ICE might be able to support some sort of pay-membership base, either as some variation on a webzine or as a kind of on-line ICE club.
Will you be attending any conventions yourself to meet the fans?
I absolutely have to go to GenCon next year. I was supposed to go in the summer of 2000, but I had last minute business that conflicted with me going and I sort of left my brother-in-law high and dry - but he has to forgive me.
I will be going to Dragonmeet (www.dragonmeet.com) at Kensington Town Hall in London on November 30, but I don't know if ICE will have an official capacity there. I AM looking for a GM or two to run an event. I've never played ROTG so I will join your game that day – ARGGHH! [best pirate snarl]
TGC: I am looking forward to introducing you and others to the joys of swashbuckling piracy in the Caribbean. I can promise buried treasure, dastardly foes, and much mayhem.
What do you see as the future for Rolemaster, Spacemaster and so forth? Are there plans for official software aids, computer games, or even multi-player online RPGs using ICE's rules and worlds?
There are lots of character generation aids already on the website available for free. I would like to see a powerful GM utility tool developed, and eventually, maybe a 3D graphics program that GM's can use to show rooms to players.
As I mentioned, the RM rules are perfect for translation into code and to become the engine that drives computer games. We have been contacted by a number of designers/developers and are talking to a couple right now. We need to step up our efforts here, because partnering with some of these companies can bring in cash to our business which will allow us to increase R&D for our paper products.
I see online being big, but not for a couple of years. We need to be part of the development process and maybe get some of our worlds developed as online games, but this will be more in a licensing role given the cost of development and risk associated with such products.
I hope that in two years, if we perform on the business plan, that we can raise more funding, expand the management team and staff, and develop more games. We certainly will be looking to increase our ownership of IP and I believe that the book trade is where we will find it, though much we will develop in-house. ICE will not be a royalty-payer. We will own all of our IP and as much of the entertainment rights as we can. We believe that ultimately, ICE will be the premier owner of fantasy and science fiction IP which can be exploited using our RM and SM gaming systems for delivery into multiple entertainment mediums, which includes, besides traditional paper RPGs, electronic games, TV, film and books.
So don't be surprised if one day there is a Privateers series on the Science Fiction channel.
One last thing, I want to say "THANKS!" to all those fans that have stuck by Rolemaster, Spacemaster and even Silent Death when things were looking bleak, but more so even now as we embark on the "Second Age" of ICE. Your input on the forums is critical and you can help even more by spreading the word by training newbies and showing those sadly trapped D&D players what they are missing. Again – Thanks.
TGC: It's been a pleasure interviewing you, John, and I look forward to meeting you in person at Dragonmeet. I, and other long-term ICE fans, sincerely believe that the "new ICE" is now in good hands and has a bright future ahead of it.