X-COM Designer Eric Lang “Magic: The Gathering Made Me A Game Designer”

With over 17 years in the game design field, Eric M. Lang has worked on The Lord of the Rings – Dice Building Game and Star Wars – The Card Game in addition to games of his own design.

Hailing from Toronto, Canada, he’s currently on—what could be dubbed—his annual visit to Singapore. Having first visited Singapore in 2009 while attending the second Spore Con, he now travels here frequently for a slice of our local geek culture.

Hosted by Games @ PI, Eric arrives hot on the trail of the release of his latest game: X-COM, based on the 2012 remake of the 1994 video game, X-COM: UFO Defense. And to top off the rapid sales of his game, Eric joined fans and new players alike for a couple of games shortly after his interview with us.

What are some of the games that got you designing games yourself?

I’ve been gaming since I was a little kid. My family’s all German and I’d play games with my grandma in Germany when I was eight years old and I’ve been playing since then. And I think Stratego, probably, was the game—when I discovered that game I was like “Wow, strategy game!” But I was eight so I didn’t know the term ‘strategy’ so I was like “Wow, games with choices!” And that kinda did it for me.

Then I got into D&D later in ’96 and that changed my whole world view.  Then Magic: The Gathering came out and I said “I’m doing this professionally.”

That was the game that made me a game designer.

How about the games that you’re currently playing?

Right now, Hearthstone is actually the game I’m playing most. I play tons of board games and I’m a little bit obsessed with Machi Koro right now, which is a little cross between Settlers and Dominion, it’s a lotta fun.

I try to play new games as much as possible. If I go to a board game night, I try at least one game I’ve not tried before, ’cause I enjoy the learning process the most. So lately I’ve played One Night Ultimate Werewolf, it was a lot of fun.

And of course I have to play test a lot, too. So I spend ninety percent of my time play-testing prototypes and ten percent playing these other games.

What is the first game you worked on?

The first game I worked on was a Final Fantasy card game… but it never got published. I worked on it because it was my darling license of that time and I started a company to try and get the license from Bandai and we got very close. Just that money stood in the way; they wanted a million dollar advance and we didn’t have a million dollars.

As for the first game that got published, it was a game called Mystic, a standalone card game that I designed. We did that ’cause we had the resources and it was our own idea.

Enlighten us a little—how does the typical day for a game designer go?

E-mails, Skype, arguments, and a little bit of design… on the side.

I work very closely with all the publishers that I design games for, so after my games’ are handed in, there is a lot of development work still going on, so I stay in close contact with them and the producers as well, so we argue a lot about the fine details.

But that’s necessary friction. Everybody’s passionate about the game, they all have their ideas about what are the best steps moving forward. Everybody just wants the best for the game in the most part, there’s not really a lot of grandstanding… and everybody thinks they’re the smartest guy in the room because we’re all geeks.

You’ve worked on both licensed content and original games—would you say that you prefer working on established franchises, or original material?

Y’know, whichever one I’m working on at that time, I’ll tell you that’s what I prefer. I love board games so much, because each has it’s own allure. And the licences I’ve worked on are all things that I’ve been passionate about so being able to express them in a new medium is huge and has its own challenges, which I really like.

Working on my own stuff,—developing on my own IP—for obvious reasons, is really cool, too. But it’s stressful. There is no wellspring of backstory to draw on so you have to invent everything. And when you do an IP for game design, it’s not exactly like story-telling, it’s not as pure in art form like graphic novels or books. You don’t get to serve only the story, you have to serve the game, which means you have to compromise the story to make sure that it’s understandable in the game context.

In story-telling the element of surprise is a much bigger deal, in the backstory of a game surprise is not that big a deal at all.

In the past 17 years, how would you say the industry has changed?

It has matured big time. I would say now, the average enfranchised game player probably understands more about game design than professional game designers did even ten years ago. The body of knowledge has increased so much because of the internet and the general interest in game design.

Board games access a creative part of players that almost no other medium can. So everybody has the seeds of a designer in them. The audience is way more savvy than they used to be—the minimum bar of quality is so much higher. In the ’70s and ’80s so many games that didn’t even work got published because they were just cool ideas. Now, the minimum base is not only does it work perfectly but is also sparely exceptional in its class… that’s the minimum bar!

So it’s a cool challenge. It’s intimidating, but it’s a cool challenge.

Of all the games you’ve worked on, which would be your favourite?

Well, I’ll have to default to my sort-of cop out answer: my favourite is always the game I’m working on at the time because that’s the one I’m obsessed with.

But the one I play the most is probably the card game called Warhammer: Invasion from 2008, just ’cause it’s exactly my speed. But that might have been taken over by Marvel Dicemasters because that game is so quick.

I love quick games—quick and dirty games with lots of conflict, lots of player interaction, and lots of combos.