Interview with a Game Designer: Mike Pondsmith

Mike Pondsmith is a cornerstone of gaming. He started off designing table-top RPG games right out of college, then moved on to video games, and is now teaching Game Design full time at DigiPen. He took some time out of his busy schedule to let us interview him about his history, how he got where is he today, and where he’s going tomorrow. Read on, won’t you?

Obsidian Portal: So what got you started as a game designer?

Mike: I have always designed games, even as a kid. Most of them where board games or chess like ideas. (Game Design) was always something in the back of my mind. At one point, a friend of mine came home from college. He had a copy of the original D&D.

Obsidian Portal: The white box?

Mike: Mhmm, the white box. He also had a copy of Chainmail. So we started playing Chainmail and then moved on to D&D. We had played Naval wargaming before so up until then I had been big on that, designing all these ships and things, but we started playing D&D and I said “There might be something we can do with that, but I’m not all that fascinated by this entire idea of doing a Fantasy world.” I’m much more Science Fiction based.

We played, had a good time, but it kind of fell along the wayside. We did a lot of other wargaming and we had fun doing that. But then I meet my wife. And she’s into D&D gaming. In order to… go after my wife, I have to get into her D&D game. With her GM trying to kill me the entire time. Why? Because he’s her ex-boyfriend.

So, basically, he’s trying to take me out, and I’m still in the game, but the whole time I was thinking “You know, I’m not into this whole fantasy thing.” So one day I walk into my local game store and I’m going to buy some new D&D dice and all that, and I see the holy black box of Traveler. And I go “Whoa… Beowulf under attack S.O.S. Alright! This is what I need.” Finally, they had written D&D for me. It’s got some Fantasy; I’m big into Science Fiction. I love the whole idea, this is perfect.

I get home, build some characters, and kill my first character off while generating it. Kill my second character off while generating it. So finally I get it right, and I get into a game, and I find that I can’t kill my character. I found out that, in order to kill my character I have to effectively knock down 3 stats to be able to off my character. I’m realizing… this is bogus. I can’t kill the guy except when I’m generating him. This sucks.

At the time, I was working as a Graphic Designer for a University, so I have access to a type setting machine. So I write this game called Imperial Star, which is essentially my version of Traveler. And I redesign the system. I changed it to be something a little more percentile based. And it works, and I play a character, and it’s streamlined, and we all liked playing. And it had me thinking “Wow, this is really good!”

There’s a running joke on that, where years later I met Mark Miller, the designer of Traveler and I said to him “You’re to blame for me becoming a game designer.” And he said “Why’s that?” And I said “Because I played the original Traveler, where you couldn’t-” And he finished my sentence “kill your character except in character generation, yeah I know.” Then he groaned and said “Here, I owe you this.” And he handed me a hardback copy of his revised version of Traveler, and I still have it to this day. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m down in Santa Cruz. I’ve become a fan of Anime. I’m in a bookstore one day, and I come across some copies of the Mobile Suit Gundam manga, all in Japanese. I’m looking at these giant robots and I’m thinking “This is great.” And then I think “Hey, this is Science Fiction. I have a Science Fiction system… I can adapt that, no problem!” The only problem is, I don’t read Japanese, so I have no bloody idea what is actually being said, what the plot line is, I have no idea what’s going on. So I have to make it up as I go along. So as I’m making it up, I add in some of my own ideas, and essentially this becomes Mekton. I’d like to say that Gundam influenced Mekton, but I didn’t know enough about what was going on to make Mekton into Gundam.

That’s it for the first part of this interview with Mike Pondsmith! Tune in tomorrow for Part two, where Mike tells us when he felt he “Really made it to the Big time.”

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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