Last week the D6 Generation podcast had a very interesting interview with Rick Priestley. They had a problem with their soundboard just before the show so the audio quality is not perfect, but it’s still easily listenable. They must have been gutted for that to happen when they were talking to the grandfather of fantasy wargaming; their show is normally very professional sounding!
Anyway, I’ve never met Rick or heard him interviewed before, and I really enjoyed it. He talked quite a bit about how he came to write Warhammer and WH40k, and he had a few slightly and sadly critical remarks about how Games Workshop had managed his creation, both background-wise and in terms of rules.
I’m bringing this up because it relates to my previous post Could There Ever be Another 40k?, which sparked one of my favourite discussions on this blog so far. It was pretty clear within about fifteen minutes of the interview that Rick Priestley, while he presents himself with typical English understatement, was born to design games and has most of a working lifetime of experience doing so. In other words, he’s a natural talent who also really knows what he’s doing.
So what, in Rick’s mind, did he actually do that made Warhammer 40,00 so successful? Two things: firstly, he deliberately tried to make a universe with infinite potential, and secondly, he married occult elements to science fiction. Now the second one is I think relative to time and place. If you were going to make a game now that really blew people’s minds, you would do something else like, say . . . well, if I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here like a sucker writing this blog. I’d be designing the next 40k.
But the first one is important. In the interview Rick mentions that he was disappointed by the way the 40k universe was perpetuated. Unlike a lot of people on the internet, he wasn’t talking about it never moving forward in narrative. Personally I think that’s totally unimportant, and in fact I think the background for a successful game needs to move slowly, if at all. What you need is breadth, not motion. No, he was sad that they had shrunk it. The universe he designed was intended to be large enough to let players do whatever the hell they wanted. Over time though, it has become restricted to the one galaxy, and the one (oh sorry, two) eras, and the factions available in the books are all that there are. Maybe not theoretically, but practically. The way Rick intended it the Orks, the Eldar, and all the rest were just some species among many possible ones, there to sort of kick-start the universe.
But what happened was that the GW higher-ups interwove the background too much between the existing factions for change to really be possible, and closed off the wilder elements that wouldn’t fit comfortably. So now, as Rick put it, there is no sense of time and space in the 40k universe. Every faction is everywhere at once, fighting each other, and it doesn’t really seem as though anyone else is around. It might as well be the Warhammer Old World, with the Orks, Necrons, Imperium and the rest as races on the one planet, unable to leave.
The focus has contracted, so instead of a universe that can grow, it only gets smaller with each new book. We start to get endless sub-divisions of the existing factions, and re-iterations and fleshings-out of minor factions mentioned in past books. There is a strict historical timeline to be adhered to that is reproduced in nearly every codex. Everything must be canonical.
This is how 40k is now. But this is not what made it dynamic and attractive in the beginning. It has ossified. And the thing is, very few other games (OK, none) have even been attempted with the openness and scope of the original 40k background. Every single sci-fi wargame I know of follows the tried and tested formula of several more or less imaginatively sketched factions locked in a violent stalemate, and leave it at that. The reason I suggested that Infinity was different in my previous post is because it is all about beginnings. Nothing has really happened yet, and if they’re smart, nothing really will but it will always feel like it could.
Now this open-ness that marked the original 40k is something I personally like, and it’s a hallmark of Rick’s design. I’ve been thinking of picking up Fanticide for example because it will allow me to buy a bunch of samurai models and maybe throw in some samurai rabbits and invent my own working, legal faction. Because you can do that with Fanticide.
What all of this is leading to is that Rick is working on another game, and it’s one that he has put a great deal of thought into in terms of background and modernized game play. It’s called Beyond the Gates of Antares. I won’t tell you any more as the D6G team manage to get a detailed run-down from Rick in the interview. So check it out. It was on Kickstarter but was cancelled a few days ago, the team stating that they were going to produce it via other means.
Incidentally, Rick had a few interesting things to say about companies on Kickstarter. Beyond the Gates of Antares was aiming for £300,00 which seems like a lot, but they were trying to use Kickstarter to fund the game from scratch and start a company as well. Apparently each green of a miniature from a sculptor or piece of concept art takes months and costs around a thousand bucks, so when these companies like Fantasy Flight or CMON jump on Kickstarter and reveal greens and art week by week as people pledge, it’s because they already have all that stuff ready. They are not really using the Kickstarter to fund the game, they are using the Kickstarter to pre-sell a bunch of copies of the game. Which is not entirely in the spirit of the thing I think. For a good read on this issue from a blogger who predicted that Gates of Antares would fail and why, read this.
Anyway, I am very curious as to how this will turn out. Rick Priestley is a bit of a hero of mine, as I’m sure he is for many of us, and I wonder if his crazy no-holds-barred visionary design style could ever be the source of another industry behemoth. If there ever could be another 40k, maybe he’s the man to do it. Certainly he has the boldness and the experience, and he’s done it before, right?
We’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of this I suppose. Do you think Rick could do it again, or do you think it was mostly luck and good management that made 40k what it is? Or something else?