Fantasy For Fun And Profit
From the Austin American Statesman, Monday, April 18, 1988 (front page of the Business section) - reprinted by permission. In business/Steve Jackson (imagine a picture of Steve, in his three-piece business suit with an Illuminati pin on his right lapel, sitting in front of a Star Traders board)
Games inventor strikes a chord
By Michael McCullar
Austin game designer Steve Jackson, the youngest person ever named to the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame, is best known for Car Wars, a table-top board game of combat on the freeways of the future. At its "Origins" convention in Baltimore in 1982, the Game Manufacturers Association named the vicarious adventure the Best Science Fiction Board Game of 1981. By the end of the year, Jackson said, he will have sold more than 225,000 copies worldwide.
"We're selling a very popular fantasy," Jackson said. "Have you ever been driving down the road and somebody cuts in front of you or otherwise infuriated you to the point where the thought flashed through your mind, 'Now if this horn button was a machine gun. . . .?'" Hostility behind the wheel is not an unfamiliar emotion to most motorists, it's safe to say.
"That's what that game is all about," Jackson said. "It's a science fiction future in which the cars are armed and armored. You've seen Road Warrior? Well, this game came first. It's the same idea, except in Road Warrior they drive around, and then they get out of the car, usually, and shoot at each other. And in this game you've got machine guns in the front and a flame thrower in back and smoke dischargers on the sides for when you're outnumbered. It's very silly, and it's a very big seller."
Jackson, 34, is the president of Steve Jackson Games Inc., an Austin company he founded in 1980. He has been serving popular fantasies since the beginning. One of his first games was Raid on Iran, based on the ill-fated hostage rescue attempt in April of that year and billed as "a simulation of what might have been."
Raid on Iran was introduced in the fall on 1980, consisting of little more than a glossy, four-color sheet of paper as a game board and a handful of cardboard playing pieces, all tucked into a zip-lock bag. It sold for $2.95. "We started off at the absolute lowest price point in the market," Jackson said. "Then we got a lot of mail saying, `Hey, these are wonderful games and we know why you're publishing them for $3, but we'd buy them even if they were $20 and we really wish the components were prettier.' "
The first step in the upgrading was to put the games in sturdy plastic boxes so they could be carried in a back pocket. That added $2 to the price, Jackson said, and sales went up. Today, some of Jackson's most popular games - Car Wars, Star Traders (with science fiction author Isaac Asimov's name on the cover), Illuminati (named Best Science Fiction Board Game of 1982) - come with mounted game boards in colorfully illustrated cardboard boxes. "The game looked more substantial, and more people took it seriously enough to buy it," Jackson said. "I learned something from this."
Jackson was born in Tulsa, Okla., the son of an Exxon accountant who moved the family to Houston in 1966. After graduating from high school there in 1970, Jackson went to Rice University, where he studied biology and political science.
"Yes, that's a strange combination, and I've made very little use of anything that I learned in my classes," Jackson said. "The important things that I did at Rice were to play a lot of adventure games and edit the school paper."
At the time, adventure games - as opposed to "family games," such as those made by Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers - were just starting to gain in popularity. Their early devotees tended to be bright kids in their teens and '20s who looked upon gaming as a serious hobby - a virtual blood sport - and hardly a casual form of recreation.
Rules are more complicated, the games take longer to play, and many of the war-game scenarios based on actual battles require a fairly in-depth knowledge of military history and strategy.
"They're not the kind of thing that you pick up and say, 'Well, we'll kill an evening,'" Jackson said. "You pick this kind of game up because you really like playing games."
After graduating from Rice with a bachelor's degree in 1974, Jackson went straight to law school at the University of Texas. Two years into it, his growing interest in adventure gaming led to his designing a game for Metagaming Concepts in Austin called Ogre, which was about futuristic tank warfare.
"Ogre was mostly designed in '76," Jackson said, "but I designed it while I was in law school - sometimes literally, sitting there listening to lectures and making notes that the professor wouldn't have liked at all if he could have seen them."
Although Jackson found the law fascinating, he didn't think he would enjoy being a lawyer, so he dropped out of law school in 1977, with one semester to go, and became a free-lance game designer under exclusive contract to Metagaming.
Eventually, Jackson and Metagaming's sole proprietor, Howard Thompson, "began to have differences of opinion," Jackson writes in a company history, and by the summer of 1980 Jackson had started his own game-publishing business.
Growth has been steady ever since, Jackson said. Sales the first year were less than $100,000; this year, he expects to break the $1 million mark. One reason for the company's success has been its international market, Jackson said. Ten percent of the company's sales not come from overseas, where Star Traders has been translated into German, Car Wars into Japanese. Steve Jackson Games operates out of two locations in Southeast Austin - a 20-person office on Metcalfe Road, where editorial and administrative operations are, and a seven-person assembly shop two miles away off Burleson Road. Games are shipped from the Burleson Road location to distributors, who sell to hobby shops.
The company has a lot of growth potential, Jackson said, but finding the right kind of people - good editors with managerial skills who also know adventure games - is not that easy.
A lot of the company's material comes from freelancers all over the country, and a few in England and Australia, Jackson said. Some of the best stuff comes from people who are brilliant on the conceptual level but don't know how to express themselves, which places a premium on in-house editing. "Ideas are a dime a dozen," Jackson said. "It's good execution that counts."
At a glance ------------------------------
Position: President, Steve Jackson Games Inc.
Education: Bachelor's degree in biology and political science, Rice University in Houston, 1974
On the business: "Some of the things I've learned by experience I've learned wrong, and I know it. That's one reason I really appreciate the staff I've got because they make up for some of my faults. I try very hard not to be the autocratic style of manager. It doesn't work unless you know everything, and who knows everything?"