Oculus Interview: Justin Achilli, Game Designer

Justin Achilli is an award-winning, veteran author and developer who has spent over two decades working professionally in the field of hobby gaming. After making a name for himself in the world of table-top RPGs, Achilli’s career expanded to card games, novels, and video games. He currently serves as Senior Game Designer at the video game development company Ubisoft Red Storm, creators of the Far Cry series and the Tom Clancy-licensed Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games. Despite this, Achilli never drifted far from his origins in pen-and-paper gaming. In 2009, his career came full circle as he helped to relaunch the franchise that first allowed him to make his mark: “Vampire: The Masquerade”, set in the critically-acclaimed ‘World of Darkness’.

The original ‘World of Darkness’ was an expansive 1990’s supernatural role-playing series that used in novels, video games, and pen-and-paper gaming. Second only to Dungeons and Dragons in terms of sales and influence, it shifted from the Tolkien-derived tradition of hack-and-slash adventuring to a dark, modern tone that favored intricate plots, extensive character development, incisive social commentary, and challenging literary themes. Achilli was a key writer and designer for the company, working on popular products like ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’, ‘Werewolf: The Apocalypse’, ‘Changeling: The Dreaming’, and many of the updated reboots of each title in the mid-00s.

In 2006, White Wolf merged with CCP Games (makers of ‘EVE Online’), and saw its creative output slow to a trickle before ceasing entirely. A rebirth came in 2011, when many key World of Darkness properties were acquired by former White Wolf writers under their new company, Black Onyx Path Publishing. Using Kickstarter to work with their old fan base, Onyx Path Publishing launched a 20th Anniversary corebook of Vampire: The Masquerade, with an eventual plan to develop new content for all of their old properties. One of their most recent and popular outings has been Children of the Revolution, a rogue’s gallery of richly detailed Vampire characters drawn from the series’ extensive mythology and from elements of real world histor.

Justin Achilli spoke with me in April of 2013.

 

You’ve had a long career in game design, working across numerous genres and multiple mediums. How did you get started in the field, and what about it initially appealed to you?

My break into gaming came at White Wolf, where I was hired on to handle player support for the (Werewolf) Rage (Corebook) that launched back in ’95. I was doing a bunch of odd jobs in Texas, but the White Wolf opportunity was something that I enjoyed in and of itself, so I took the chance to get paid for it. That was 18 years ago, holy smokes.

What led to the decision to revive the World of Darkness setting under Onyx Path Publishing, and why have you chosen to go the route of Kickstarter? Have you been satisfied with the product and sales thus far?

The first book we revisited actually was done as a CCP book, in-house. We were talking about what we wanted to do for the 20th anniversary of Vampire the Masquerade just after the first Grand Masquerade in New Orleans. A few ideas came up, from an art book to a special collectible. I volunteered to do a 20th anniversary edition of the game the players have always been faithful to, and we ran with it. It gained a lot of momentum internally. 

I left CCP that May to work on ‘Assassin’s Creed Revelations‘, and when I had finished my work there, Rich Thomas and Eddy Webb were talking about transmedia opportunities for the World of Darkness. The first ideas on their slate were to take game publishing into a nontraditional model, and Rich was a big proponent of the Open Development model I had put forth for V20, in which the players could see and comment on the drafts as we worked on them. This gave us direct feedback from the players who would be using the books, so I volunteered to lead the charge with Vampire’s revived titles.

I’m pretty happy with both the books themselves and the sales. It’s a strange step, going from the old three-tiered model of publisher-distributor-retailer to a direct relationship with the player, but it’s a great time to be doing it. Other Kickstarters have gone bigger than we have, but Onyx Path at this point has succeeded at every Kickstarter it’s run, which is a nice track record, and speaks well to how the players receive the idea.

White Wolf’s ‘World of Darkness’ franchise was very steeped in the conspiracy theory and End Times lore that was very pervasive in the pre-millennial 1990s. To what extent do you think that these themes are still relevant in the second decade of the 21st century? What did you want to update in terms of story and game mechanics?

I think the themes are still relevant, but we’ve changed the presentation a bit. If you look at some of the questions the original printings of Vampire asked, the World of Darkness it presented then was almost naive in what it posited as “our world, but darker.” The X-Files was also out at around that time, and they both definitely feel like products of the early 90’s. Now the world’s conspiracies are much more out in the open and they attack you if you call them out on their presence, and Vampire has inherited that world.

When it comes to systems and setting, it does well for us to have some stark extremes that serve as examples for highs and lows. Modern America exists at around Humanity 5, but I didn’t lower the default from 7 (ED: Vampire characters have a morality scale from one to ten; ten being saintly and one being monstrous), for example. You’ll see a lot more of the Kindred’s reaction to such things in the upcoming book Anarchs Unbound, for a start. This was a great title to show how the Kindred have adapted, as the Anarchs are the Kindred sect most in tune with how the mortal world works. They’ve matured from the rebellious teenagers of the Damned to a more direct and capable sect. This might well be the age of the Anarch ascendant.

Do you feel that there is much chance for growth in the future of table-top gaming- either in terms of role-playing games or board games? Or, will it remain a niche activity as electronic media continues to extend its dominance over all areas of global entertainment?

I think this is a golden age for tabletop gaming, actually, but I’ll expand the definition to include desktop gaming. For example, I now play more frequently via Internet hangouts than I do around the table. It’ll remain somewhat niche because, let’s face it, running a tabletop gaming and coordinating people’s schedules around it is a lot of goddamn work, but the fact that gamers can cast their nets wider for players is a huge boon to the hobby. For example, Mark Rein-Hagen, who came up with the original concept and design for Vampire, plays in a tabletop game Google+, and he’s in Georgia (near Russia, not above Florida). All it takes is the effort.

Can you talk a little bit about your responsibilities at Ubisoft Red Storm? Does your work as Senior Game Designer put you in charge of specific aspects of game creation, or are you more involved in overall project management?

I’ve been fortunate in that most of my work at Red Storm has been direct and hands-on, with me doing a lot of the design. Compare that to my work on Assassin’s Creed Revelations and the Facebook games I worked on, which involved much more project management. Frankly, I like doing design better. I’m well organized and timely and I like directing projects, but when it comes right down to it, I like building game systems and seeing how players use them. It’s what’s enabled me to freelance, as well — I design by day and I design other stuff in the evenings (so it’s a good thing I enjoy it).

Do you have any forthcoming projects that you’d care to mention, either at Red Storm Entertainment, Onyx Path, or anywhere else?

Red Storm is an Ubisoft studio, so I’ll mind my NDA and let their marketing arm decide how to handle those particular pieces of information. But Onyx Path has Hunters Hunted II coming out soon, which hit something crazy like nine stretch goals, so that book is being expanded in size and should be available soon. Toward summer, we’ll have ‘Anarchs Unbound’ Kickstarting, so that’s on the horizon, too. And of course, I’m working on my own project that takes advantage of some of the previous experience I had working on Ravenloft and Scarred Lands. I’ll likely announce that in summer, but you’ll need a standard set of polyhedral dice to play it, if you catch my drift.

 

The official website for The Onyx Path is is here. Children of the Revolution can be found for sale here.

Justin Achilli can be found on twitter at @jachilli, and on his official website.