Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Burning Empires: From Inception to Finished Product (Part V)

Continued from Part IV

The Weeks of Pain (May)
Finally, by May, we reached the phase of production that I call the Weeks of Pain, the last push before a project goes to the printer.

Playtesting had continued through this point. I had broken off and taken most of the core players (Drozdal, Mayuran, John, Alexander, myself and a new addition, Ryan) for Playtest Eleph. But Eleph soon fell apart, and I think that was because we were all exhausted. We were frustrated and arguing and not having much fun. Even so, some fruitful material came out of those abortive sessions, including the Vaylen Infestation rules, which give Vaylen characters an increasing level of access to Human-only traits, like Iron Trained, in each phase of the Infection (Infiltration, Usurpation and Invasion). We also added the Commander and Captain lifepaths for the Vaylen as a result of Eleph, allowing Vaylen characters to take Anvil Lords and Hammer Lords as hosts. It would have been horrible to miss that!

Luke had also put together a group, going back to his old Burning Wheel crew (Luke, Andy, Rich, Pete and Danny) for Playtest Otos Prime. That group was having a blast, but had to go on hiatus when the Weeks of Pain arrived.

Luke takes his layout seriously, and so do his roommates, but in their case it is involuntary.

"It should be noted for the record that I literally drove Shy and Rick out of the house while I was doing the layout. By about page 400, the layout became physical pain and mental anguish. I was sleeping four to five hours a night, and then spent the rest of the time howling and kicking my filing cabinets."

This part of the process began once the edits were largely complete. Luke started placing the color artwork, adding the curved edges and drop shadows to the images in InDesign. At this point, Luke also put together finished pages of the cover and a selection of interior pages to send to the printer for proofs. Unfortunately, getting the proofs back proved to be an exercise in patience, due to Chinese holidays.

Once the layout was finalized, we began the real trial: final reads. I took a few days off from work and reread and edited the entire text, with finished layout, one-and-a-half times in the space of about four days. The others weren't spared either. Drozdal, Mayuran, and Andrew all read various sections as well, and Luke and Alexander both did complete reads, keeping at it for nearly a week after I had to return to work.

On the first night of the final read, we started getting more playtest information from Mike, whose group had detested the game. The reports that we'd been getting from Mike had been very disappointing, and Luke, again, was almost ready to pull the plug on the entire game based on the results. Mike's group felt that the entire game was a railroad of epic proportions that kept players on an inescapable track. Luke and I were extremely puzzled and confused by their take, as it didn't match our experiences at all.

We were communicating with Mike over IM, and I started asking questions about Beliefs and Artha. As we asked more and more questions and the answers started flowing back, a very different picture started emerging for us. It wasn't that the game wasn't working, far from it. Instead, faced with the choice at the core of the game (as I described back in Part III under Playtest Agra)the choice between doing what is necessary and pursuing one’s personal goals and desiresthe players had ruthlessly made the choice to "do what was necessary" again and again. When certain players had sought to pursue their character's personal goals and desires, the other players had denied them access to Conflict Scenes.

In our playtests, our characters had been earning three or more points of Fate and multiple points of Persona each session. We had multiple players who resolved every Belief on their character sheet, rewrote each one, and resolved each of the new ones. All within six sessions of play. No one in Mike's group had gotten a point of Artha for playing into or against a Belief in multiple sessions of play.

It wasn't that Luke was railroading them from afar through his system, but rather that they were extremely focused on their goal.

Luke and I came away from that conversation with a real sense of success. It was ok that the group didn't like the choices they had made in play (or the game as a result of that). We don't expect everyone to like our games. But the text and procedures of play themselves had worked wonderfully.

Even better, it became clear that it was possible to be so ruthlessly focused on winning the game that you wind up denying yourself a very valuable resource to use toward winning! I know that's a little confusing so let me untangle it. Burning Empires is a competitive game. The Infection rules were designed so that the group would attempt to defeat the GM over the course of the campaign, and the GM would attempt to defeat the group. Each side would have to play within the rules and use the limited resources available to them to succeed. Artha is one of the most important of those resources. But in order to earn Artha, whether player or GM, you've got to focus play on your Beliefs, and that often means taking actions or risks that could benefit the enemy. If you play to win too hard, denying your character's human needs and desires, you will also deny yourself the Artha that can be used to win.

With a renewed sense of purpose, we dove back into the text. Chris had looked over the final draft and given us some more feedback and clarifications on the Iron Empires material. Based on that material, Luke hacked apart the Iron Empires chapter in the book and rewrote and reorganized it. Also, while the rest of us were reading, Luke cobbled together the Credits, Table of Contents, 'Ography and Glossary.

During this period, the fiction pieces from Sean and Rich also returned. Luke and I both edited them and called for revisions to a few of them in several places.

Finally, Luke processed all the final edits and built the index. As mentioned above, the proofs had taken quite a bit longer to get to us than we had scheduled for. Our deadline to get everything to the printer came and went, but the proofs still hadn't come, and we couldn't submit to the printer without going through the proofs. It was while waiting for the proofs that Luke and Alexander continued their reads after I returned to work. Finally, the printer got the proofs to us and Luke color corrected a few hundred pieces of artwork in just a few days. He then ripped the PDFs, burned them to CDs, and ran to the printer's office to deposit the materials and sign off on the contract. It appeared that the few days of delay hadn't hurt us. But just to be sure that we would have books for Gen Con, and realizing that shipping by sea from China might take longer than the month we were told to expect, Luke arranged for seven cases of books to be sent to us via air freight so that we would definitely have books for sale at Gen Con.

Post Production (May)

We received the final proofs 10 days later. And with them came another unwelcome surprise. In addition to the random assortment of pages we had requested for color correction purposes, we also received a full color proof of the entire texta proof we had specifically requested the printer not send usand were billed $2,000 for it. We could only register a complaint about it, and have yet to resolve that situation fully. Regardless, Luke proceeded to make minor corrections to the proofs, mostly postscript errors on the printer's end. He then returned the proofs to the printer and all those corrections were proofed via PDFs from the printer's prepro department.

Three weeks later, we received six gorgeous approval copies. In the meantime, Luke had put together the preorder materials (a T-shirt design, buttons, and an agreement with Dark Horse to allow Luke to resell the graphic novels), and got Chris to agree to individually illustrate 40 preordered books. He also leaked the first real mention of Burning Empires to the Web by replacing the normal front page of the Burning Wheel Web site with the full cover (front and back) painting for Burning Empires. After a day, he took the painting down and put up a preview page with a cropped version of the cover and a download to whet the appetites of fans. He would add more downloads over the coming weeks.

And that, more or less, brings us up to the present.



eruditus said...

WOW Thor! Amazing recollection of that process. That was a great read and very informative. Thanks for going through the process to share. no doubt it was cathartic :) best wishes on it's success in the 11th hour. I have very high expectations for BE's future. All Hail the Wheel! -Don

Lisa Padol said...

Wow. I'm glad the NYC Strategist is going to carry this, as I can't get to GenCon this year.

(Digression: The guy I talked to at the Strat says to let other folks know that he would love to carry other indie games as well. He said that he wants to do his part for the small gaming companies, and that every large company used to be a small one.)

The Psychologist stuff sounds interesting, a distant cousin, via parallel evolution, of some of the Courtier stuff from the Weapons of the Gods rpg.

-Lisa Padol

Linnaeus said...

This series has been a fascinating read, Thor. Thanks so much for writing it up.

Jared A. Sorensen said...

Thor, you should turn this into a PDF or booklet and distribute it online or at GenCon -- it's pretty amazing stuff.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks guys!

Jared, I think online is the way to go. It actually comes out to 20 pages! :0

Chris said...

As an insider/outsider, your post gave me the welcome ability to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall at design central. From my subterranean point of view (my studio's in my basement), the project consisted of a number of widely-spaced phone conversations with Luke, punctuated at the end with a flurry of scanning and tech drawings. Particularly interesting to me was the gnashing of teeth at your end over the decision to do a licensed project. To me, who has participated in a few of these negotiations over the years, working up contracts with Luke felt very friendly, almost casual, like a pair of neighbors shaking hands over the backyard fence. Once I saw the BW books, and ingested what I could of their contents, I was sold. As you noted early in your excellent re-cap, I wanted to put the Iron Empires into the hands of someone who felt passionate about it, almost regardless of every other consideration. Luke's graphic design sense convinced me that the book would look good, no matter what his production budget. The web-support given to Burning Wheel convinced me that Burning Empires would remain a living entity after it's release. And the design of Burning Wheel, which I never fully understood, convinced me that Luke would be willing to take chances, bend rules, and make the thing he wanted to make (not be ruled by lowest-common-denominator marketing considerations). Thor's re-creation of the process is just one more reason I feel so lucky to have hooked up with Luke's circus.

-Chris Moeller

mayuran said...


this story is awesome and thanks for recapping without covering over the rough patches.

let it be known that the "weeks of pain" also made the game better.

everything that went wrong at the table was an indicator of changes that could be made to keep the game play focused.

i think we are also better friends as a result (it was like a tour of duty in game design).

i hope everyone enjoys Burning Empires.

Brian said...

As a member of Mike's playtest group it's interesting to see how our reactions were received. The real problem was neither with the game nor with our play style per se. The trouble was that the game as presented was largely incompatable with our group's roleplaying style. We did in fact play our goals and beliefs to the hilt while at the same time keeping our eyes on the prize.

What we didn't like was the way the game dictated how we did that. It was the basic structure of the limited number/type of scenes, the constraints of being given a huge Space Opera setting with only a single conflict to play out, and the way the systems seemed to intrude on our roleplaying that irked us.

We could see why things were constructed they way they were, we could see how to play the game the way it was meant to be played. We just didn't like it.

It largely came down to a matter of preference. I decided that BE was a tightly designed game, that did what it did extremely well. I could see alot of groups having a blast with it; we just weren't one of them. It happens.

Sorry for any distress we caused.


Jake Richmond said...

That was really fantastic. I still don't have a copy of the book, but I spent a good chunk of Friday at Gencon looking it over and it really is beautiful. You guys did an amazing job, and its been very interesting and informative to hear what went into it. Thanks.


Janning said...

Great read. Thank you very much for that.

I wanted to be part of it and i was impressed by the amount of heartblood imbued in every single page of that book.

And i'm wondering: what is your day job?

I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive in my dealer's shop in Germany, but now i know that it has to cover quite some distance, as it comes from China.

I really, really want to have it, give you my money and have both of us happy in the process.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hi Janning,

Your book has already made a trip from China to the US. Now it just has to travel from Ohio, where we have our fulfillment house, to you in Germany. We've had pretty good luck so far, so you'll probably have your book in about a week and a half to two weeks.

As for my day job, I edit for a living. I was a newspaper reporter and then editor for about 8 years. These days I edit strategic analysis of various technology sectors for a research firm.


Janning said...

Thanks for the quick response.

I really hope that there will be no accidents that'll delay "my" book. Just couldn't stop to imagine a fire in the cargo hold. The ship isn't named "Empires", i hope. :)

Only 10-14 Days to sit and wait...

Hope you will make enough money with this game, you really seem to deserve it.


Anonymous said...

I just read this. Thanks for taking the time to write up the process. It shows a level of care not usually seen.