Interview with ‘Stan!’ Brown, Creative Director for Super Genius Games

Stan Brown began publishing fiction, cartoons, and games professionally in 1982, usually under the pen name “Stan!” He is the author of numerous short stories, novels, roleplaying products, comics and cartoons, and has served as a graphic designer and line editor for West End Games; an editor and game designer for TSR, Inc.; and an author, senior game designer, and creative director for Wizards of the Coast, Inc. He has also been the creative content manager at Upper Deck Entertainment.

He is currently the Creative Director for Super Genius Games (co-founder, with R. Hyrum Savage) and Creative Vice President for The Game Mechanics, Inc. (co-founder, with JD Wiker, Marc Schmalz, and Rich Redman).

Stan Brown sat down with Saxifrage co-editor Chris Mahon to talk about his extensive experiences in the gaming industry, as well as his new children’s book “The Littlest Shoggoth,” based off of the work of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

220px-Stan_brown

SAXIFRAGE: As an editor, what kinds of things were you asked to look for?

STAN: Well, there’s lots of different kinds of editors, and at TSR I was a game editor. They had two kinds of editors, fiction editors and game editors. Game editors were really developers as much as they were editors, so what I got was a turnover from a designer, the writer, which was the person who had the job that I wanted, who delivered a text to me, and then I had to make sure the rules were correct, which required an in-depth knowledge of the Dungeons and Dragons rules, plus knowledge of the campaign setting, so I had to know the world bible.

SAXIFRAGE: In another interview, you spoke about a particular job interview you had with TSR. You said that if you’d known the vocabulary of the job, you would have been able to get to where you wanted to go.

STAN: Going into the interview [with TSR], I’d been working as a graphic designer, and…that’s what got me the interview, even though writing, editing, and game design was where I wanted to be. What had happened was that I had finished second in a couple other interviews, so I took [a] job in graphic design until a [writing] position opened up.

In the meantime, I got an interview for an editing position at [TSR], and I went to talk to them…and in the middle of the interview, he says “Are you interested in game design?” And game design, in my head as a designer, meant starting with nothing and building a whole game. And, in my head, there was a whole other level which was some kind of writer […] which was what I really wanted to do […] So when he asked me if I wanted to be a designer, I quickly did that assessment of “What is he asking me?” and said “No”.

SAXIFRAGE: And game design meant writing stories.

STAN: So, lack of understanding the jargon kept me from saying the right thing that would have gotten me the job I really wanted.

SAXIFRAGE: Based on your knowledge as a game designer and a writer, what’s the fantasy/gaming industry looking like right now?

STAN: Well, the industry right now looks very….scattered. In some ways, it’s as open as it’s ever been, because there’s a ton of small companies, and the bar to entry for anyone wanting to start doing it, as a small company or even as an artist just putting material out there, is very low. But what that means is that the low levels are just flooded, and trying to get noticed at that level is tough.

If what you want to do is write, the answer has always been “The best thing you can do is write.” Do it. If no one’s going to pay you at first, do it for yourself. It used to be that that meant finding an amateur press association or someone that would publish you, but now, you can go straight to Amazon or whatever and you can self-publish. Amazon puts out short stories and novellas and novels […] but the biggest thing you want to do is get some buzz around [your work]. The market is really flooded right now.

When I first started, about 20 years ago […] the complaint was that what people were paying [writers] hadn’t gone up much since the 1940s….well, it’s gone down since then. So the prices, the amount that you can generally hope to get paid as someone new coming to a company [as a writer], is in the low, single-digit cents per word […]. So, back [in the 1940s], if you wrote full time, you could make enough to earn a living, but now…you can make enough to get some pizzas. The number of people who can produce good enough work fast enough, and have the connections to make a living out of it…is small. The thing that saves me is that I do all sorts of things. If I had to rely on just the stream of writing, on what I could get paid doing writing, I would have some day job, any day job to supplement me.

SAXIFRAGE: Is there some special advice for artists in this kind of flooded market?

STAN: Artists…artists get paid better. […] Anyone who’s got skills doing illustrations, whether it’s black and white or color illustrations or painting…getting small assignments pays much better, and you can, even now, cobble together a small, self-sustaining set of clients that you can make a bare-bones living from, almost off the bat if your stuff is good enough and you can make the right connections. […] Almost everyone I know who’s an art director is constantly going through Deviantart and finding people to contact.

Once again, you’ll get sold very low rates to begin with, but if you do the job and you get it done, you can very quickly jump up a level or two, where it’s not quite so meager.

SAXIFRAGE: Are there some employers you could recommend for artists trying to get their foot in the door?

STAN: You can look at Paizo.com, and OneBookShelf.com and anyone who’s selling PDFs…you can look around and find anyone who’s using art. Just send off a query letter, saying you’re an artist, you’re interested, and include a link to your Deviant page or your portfolio, or however you’ve got your stuff arranged…chances are, most of them are going to say either “Oh, we have everyone we need” or “Oh, we’ll put your name on file.” But the way it invariably works, is you do that for a while, and then one day you send it to the one person who needs something next week, and they say “Oh, my God, I love your stuff, can you do something for me by next Tuesday?” And if you do, then they will almost immediately have more work for you, and once your stuff appears on their products, which with the turnaround of the digital world is pretty quickly, you start promoting their work for them, they love that, so they’ll talk nice about you. And there will be people in the same position (and this happens to me all the time), who come up to me and say “I need someone to [work on this project], do you have any recommendations?” And they’ll share you with other people.

If you can deliver what you say, when you say, on short notice, your biggest problem is going to be convincing people that you don’t want to work on such short notice anymore. But once they’re working with you, they want to keep working with you.

SAXIFRAGE: Of the three books that you’ve published, which one would you like to hold up and say “this is the best”?

STAN: So…well, I’ve published two novels and about sixteen short stories and […].more game products than I can probably shake a stick at. Of the novels…both of them were work-for-hire for existing game settings. One of them was for a setting called “Legend of the Five Rings,” where I was doing a novelization of a story that had been told in the game and in some promotional short stories, and I had to collect all of that information and turn it into a novel.

The other one was […] for the Dragonlance setting, and they had a new line of young adult novels, and so I was asked to write a story in the series that took place between [the events of] two other novels, so it wasn’t just a “write whatever you want” sort of thing, it was a “come up with a story that fills the niche between these two stories and bridges the gap.”

“The Crab” was my first novel…there’s a lot of things about everyone’s first novel that they feel a little wonky about, but I…I had a very strong story [and] even the weakest points of it are not my fault […] the worst weakness were things that had to happen because that’s what [was required]. And so, I just did the best I could with it, and people, you know, criticize it, and I say “Absolutely, you’re right, I’ll try to do better next time,” but in my heart, I can say “I wouldn’t have done [those things] the first time around.”

The young adult one, I’m very proud of because it’s a tough…it’s a tough concept. What happens at the end of the previous books is that one of the main characters dies, the first time that one of the main characters has died…and the next book was them beginning their new quest, their new arc. So what I had was a book about kids dealing with death, you know, the reality…“this is not all fun and games, this is the real world, and this stuff happens.” So, I got to pick the two characters that I wanted to be the main focus, and again I had some parameters, you know, “this stuff has to end with this situation,” but anything in the middle, I got to do. I think…I think I wrote a good book about kids, you know, in their young teens dealing with the realities of life, and yet it’s also an adventure story, it’s kind of fun.

“The Crab” [my first book] is kind of…big. It’s very broad, very Shakespearean, very Macbeth-ian sort of theme, and that’s the sort of story I wrote. The other one was more…tied to real people, to real concerns, particularly for younger people. I think I wrote a book that speaks to anyone who’s starting a new phase in their life. So…if I had to choose, I’d pick that one. It’s called “Dragon Day.” It’s a hard question.

SAXIFRAGE: What books or art or media inspired you?

STAN: I don’t know if you know the writer and illustrator Edward Gorey. He did a series of things which generally get shelved either in humor or children’s books. It’s very dark…his most famous thing is called “Gashlycrum Tinies,” which is an ABC sort of rhyming book, and each letter is a child’s name and how they die terribly. It’s kind of like Addams family meets Dr. Seuss. It’s just brilliant, brilliant stuff. And Dr. Seuss!

It’s amazing, when it strikes you, how much freedom there is in just being able to make up your own words. Whatever he needed…he created ideas and concepts and things and creatures…because the words worked well. And then he was able to create a visual to go along with it. I go back and look at his stuff, and I’m constantly amazed at straightforward and beautifully simple his creations are. The book that I did most recently [The Littlest Shoggoth], actually, the dedication was to Gorey and Seuss.

[Talking about the writing process and revising work]

As a writer, particularly in a world where you can be your own publisher, where you can push everything out yourself, you need to stick to it, finish it, get something done, get it out, and live with the fact that it’s not as good as it can be. You’re going to find out two weeks later that it can be better. Don’t go and re-change it. Do it better next time. Because if you do it the other way, you’ll end up with the one thing that you’ve been working on for five years, and is never done to your satisfaction, and that’s all you have to show. If you do it [this way], you have multiple things that create a body of work, where you will have learned a lot of things.

[Points to The Littlest Shoggoth]

If I kept perfecting this, I may get it right, and I’ll learn the things to make this book better, but I’ll never learn the new things that I’ll have to learn if I did a different book. I’ll only improve on the skills and mechanical and thematic bits that [apply to this]. I won’t learn anything new. So the best thing to do is go out and do another one, take what I’ve learned and apply it, and bring in news things and try new things.

And most people, if you ask them what they think about their early work, they go “Ohh [grumbling]…” because they know they’ve learned so much. But they have this body of work, [and] they can say “Oh, I’ve done this and I’ve done this.” If you spend too much time perfecting one thing, all you have is this one mostly good thing.

SAXIFRAGE: Can you give me an idea of the overall attitude of the gaming industry toward art and fiction?

STAN: Well, it’s not a homogenous thing anymore…[MMOs, handheld gaming companies, tabletop RPGS] all have different attitudes. I think the problem from a writer’s perspective is that almost none of them place story out front. But the really sad thing, is that in any of them, if  you look at the things that [succeed], story is actually at the center. It’s the rare company that has either lucked into it, or happened to understand, or just…the stars aligned correctly, and the story was there.

There are a lot of people who can make mechanics […] that work and are fun [...] but what you wind up with is companies that think that is what’s going to sell their game. But in fact, what people […] talk about is not the mechanics. When you ask them what happened in the game, what they love about the game, they talk about the story. When they talk about the ones that are the greatest games ever, they talk about the story, they don’t talk about the mechanics, the user interface. And I think not enough, in fact, almost no companies actually put story that high [on their list]…No one, as a general rule, respects that craft as much as they should.Companies don’t. If there’s somewhere to cut corners, they cut corners in the writers, either in time or in bodies …it’s sort of like “just do it, just make it happen…” They don’t understand that to get here [raises hand] you have to build here [brings hand down low].

[about opportunities]

The biggest challenge, and the biggest opportunity is that there’s a never-ending call for more entertainment […]Every new medium that comes along needs a writer. And if it’s going to succeed it needs many writers. [There are opportunities in] web series, or animation for the web, or webcomics, or fiction through Amazon, or recording yourself for an audio blog, or local theater, or finding someone who’s in school who’s learning engineering but who might be interested in app design…wherever you go, they all need writers.

If you’d like to follow Stan Brown, you can find information on his website | http://www.stannex.com
And if you’re looking for more information about the fantasy, sci-fi, and gaming field, look into these blogs:

John Scalzi | http://whatever.scalzi.com
Matt Forbeck | http://www.forbeck.com/blog

Comments

  1. Excellent post. I’m experiencing a few of these issues as well..

  2. This design is steller! You definitely know how to keep a reader entertained.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job.
    I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!

  3. great interview, thanks for sharing the story!

  4. Good blog you have got here.. It’s hard to find high-quality
    writing like yours nowadays. I truly appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

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