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Interview with Jeff Barber
by James Maliszewski

There can be no doubt that Blue Planet is one of the more original science fiction RPGs to come out of the industry in quite a long time. For that reason, I took great interest in the opportunity to ask a few questions of Jeff Barber, the man behind the game that has placed Biohazard Games at the forefront of what could well be a resurgence of the SF genre.

 

What was the process that began the creation of Blue Planet and when did you begin doing so?
Well, the whole story is a long one. Suffice it to say that I got started in the industry in 1990 as one of the founding members of Pagan Publishing, doing work for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. In the spring of '93, I parted ways with Pagan. I really loved the work however, and wanted to remain involved in the industry. I considered a few options, but eventually came to the conclusion that the best way to do get to work on the kinds of projects I enjoyed was to start my own company. I had already been part of the process with Pagan so it made sense to try it on my own.

I knew that in general, a startup company had to begin with a flagship game, so I started thinking about what I thought made a good RPG. Science fiction had always been my first love, and so I knew that whatever setting we did, it would be sci-fi. I looked carefully at trends in the industry too, trying to decide where RPGs were headed. Well, predicting this industry is so much voodoo, but one thing I did see was that game settings were becoming specific and unique. The earliest games, Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller for example, were rather generic in their settings. Newer games, like Vampire had narrower, but far richer premises. In fact, it was Sky Realms of Jorune that showed me how well developed and unique an RPG premise could be. Keeping this in mind, I decided that we would set the game, whatever it turned out to be, on only a few, or maybe just one planet, but make it a uniquely rich, fully developed place. Future versions of Earth had been done however, time and again, and so I wanted to set it somewhere else.

I then considered the sorts of settings I was interested in and that I knew something about. I remembered the catch phrase from English class "write what you know," and took it to heart. I am actually not much of an author. I mean, I can put coherent ideas on paper, but writing is hard work and I have no particular talent for it. As a result, I knew I had to work on something that I knew well, and could get excited about. Well, I have degrees in wildlife and marine ecology, and in my day job I'm a science teacher. Since my favorite course to teach is oceanography, it only seemed natural then that the game should be set on a waterworld. With that decision made the title Blue Planet was inevitable.

The last step in developing the initial premise was actually pretty simple. In my opinion, a good RPG background contains certain key elements; adventure, conflict, mystery, character diversity, motivation, and some X factor, like magic or high tech gizmos. I simply took the waterworld idea and started filling in the backstory, keeping these elements in mind.

The need for adventure was filled by the challenge of life on a virtually lawless frontier colony world. The conflict was created by pitting the natives, the GEO and the Incorporate against the planet and each other. The mysterious elements were provided by the Aborigines and their enigmatic intent. The character diversity and motivation was assured by providing numerous factions, each with their own vested interests in the colony world's future. The X factor is the extreme genetic engineering allowed by the discovery of Long John.

Don't misunderstand. Creating BP took four years of blood sweat and tears, but developing the premise was really rather a simple, if somewhat deliberate process. There were a few moments of true inspiration, but mostly the game developed in response to simple decisions about what made an fun, compelling and playable RPG.  
As a new company, was it difficult getting started? Did you receive any advice or assistance from anyone already in the industry?
Well, for most companies, the hardest part about getting started is capital. Luckily we managed to come up with enough to keep us out of out of debt. In my opinion one of the biggest problems small companies run into is fiscally over-extending themselves.

In my time at Pagan I had learned the basics about starting a game company and how the gaming industry works. To be honest, the industry is so small, and the markets so well defined, that starting a game company must be far simpler than starting almost any other sort of business.

I did get some good advice from a few people I knew from the industry. Jonathan Tweet of Wizards of the Coast and John Nephew of Atlas Games both had encouraging and useful things to say. In general, the gaming industry is a fairly interconnected community and there is a constant exchange of information and advice. We still often ask for advice from those that have been around a while, and in turn we are starting to be asked some of the same questions we ourselves were asking a few years ago.
What are the strongest literary and cinematic influences on Blue Planet?
I have been asked this question a lot, and the list is pretty long. There are however a few works that were particularly influential.

The most significant literary influences include Reef Song by Carol Severance, The Leeshore, by an author who's name always escapes me [Robert Reed ––JM}, and a short story by Walter Jon Williams called "Surfacing". These are each treatments of waterworld settings that I think are either unique or exceptionally well done. Other important books were Santiago by Mike Resnick and The Legacy of Hereot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes. These two books were not waterworld stories, but they both contributed significantly to my take on life on a science fiction frontier.

The three most significant film influences were the The Abyss, for obvious reasons, Aliens for the dark look, and Outland for company towns and marshals. In terms of tone and approach, the TV series Earth 2 was also an important model. Waterworld and SeaQuest may seem like obvious influences, and a lot of people who have not read Blue Planet often make that assumption. The truth is, except maybe for Costner's catamaran, nothing from these dubious works found its way into Blue Planet. In fact, production on Blue Planet was underway well before Waterworld was even released.

There are two other influences worth mentioning. As I implied before I have always felt that Sky Realms of Jorune is an exceptional example of an original, well developed and carefully developed RPG, and I wanted Blue Planet to model it's inherent quality. Also, there is a computer game by MicroProse called Subwar 2050. I have to admit, I was playing an awful lot of Subwar as I developed the basic premise for Blue Planet.
I've heard Blue Planet described as "eco-punk" sci-fi. Do you think that's a fair description of the setting? Is it a reworking of the cyberpunk genre for the new millennium?
I am not sure if that is a fair description or not. There are some common cyberpunk trappings - heavily modified bodies, dominating commercial powers - but I think that these have been more a part of the various cyberpunk games than of most cyberpunk literature. We actually address question idea in Blue Planet, at the beginning of the technology chapter (Ch. 5) and we make a couple of relevant observations there. 

Cyberpunk traditionally focuses on settings where there is little hope beyond individual survival. The faceless "powers that be" control the world and individuals seldom have the ability to challenge the system. This is not true in Blue Planet. In fact it is just the opposite. Poseidon represents hope and freedom and there is a distinct lack of control by the powers that be. Individuals can make a difference and fighting to change the system is one of the major themes in the Blue Planet backstory.

As far as the "ecological" part of your question, well, yes that is a big part of the game. We intentionally made ecology - its intricacies, destruction and protection - a key theme in Blue Planet for several reasons. It is an excellent motivator as many players have strong opinions about environmental issues. It is also an uncommon theme in RPGs and so it adds unique flavor to the setting. The environmental aspects of the premise also provide a realistic source of conflict for the game's characters and background. 
The critical reaction to the game has been positive for the most part. Why do you suppose that is? What themes of Blue Planet do you think most appeal to people?
To be honest we have been blown away by the response Blue Planet has gotten from critics and players alike. The capper was our Origins nomination for best roleplaying game of '97. The two things folks say they like best about the game are its hard edged science and the richness of the background.

We wanted to fill what we felt was an empty niche in the sci-fi game market by creating a scientifically rigorous setting that was still a world of high adventure. We did our best to make plausible extrapolations of current technologies and scientific theories, and we included lots of real world ecology, geology, biology and even astrophysics. Players have responded well to our efforts, seeming to find them refreshing.

We also worked very hard to make the Blue Planet premise itself unique and realistic. We wanted the sociopolitical backstory, the economics, the social conflicts and even the aborigines' secret agenda to ring true, following the same plausible extrapolation as the science. Players have been appreciative of this as well.

Several themes seem to have grabbed the interest of Blue Planet players. The most popular are the struggle of Poseidon's native colonists against the various Earth based interests, and the mystery surrounding the activities of the aborigines. Both provide almost endless adventure ideas and lots of ready made motivation. Another popular theme is the continuous political and industrial espionage between the Incorporate nations the Incorporate and the GEO.  
Like a lot of SF these days, Blue Planet seems to have a story arc in place. We saw bits of it in the basic book and some of it has continued in the recently-released Archipelago. Is this something that you'll be continuing with? Is there an end to the arc, or are you just enjoying the ride?
Blue Planet was intentionally designed with an integrated story arc, and this story is serving as the frame along which the game line is developing. There are two basic developmental phases in Blue Planet, which we refer to in-house as Phase I and Phase II - creative huh? The first will end with the publication of the book Wormhole, described in the release schedule below. The conclusion of the first phase is actually the genesis of the second phase which, simply put, takes the Blue Planet universe to a whole new level. If the line is still viable at that point, Blue Planet players will have a whole new set of mysteries to unravel. 
So what's next for Blue Planet? I know that Wetware is scheduled for the Fall, but beyond that?
Well, Blue Planet players have made themselves heard and we will soon be releasing Access Denied, the BP game moderators screen. Wetware was the working title for our tech book, which has since been renamed Fluid Mechanics. I have included some descriptions of the major products in the Phase I development of Blue Planet below. These should give you a good idea about what's on Poseidon's horizon...

Access Denied
You asked for it, and now you're gonna to get it! Access Denied is the Blue Planet Game Moderator's Screen, and it contains all the ...ah ...well ...er ...access denied stuff that a GM needs to keep the action hot and ... ah...wet. In addition, the screen will contain a 32 page booklet filled to the gills with Access Denied plot developments and adventure ideas created by you, the BP player. So, put on your water-wings Newcomer, its time to go for a swim...

Fluid Mechanics
Fluid Mechanics is the technical manual for the world of Blue Planet. More than just a guide to gear, Fluid Mechanics contains detailed information on the design, capabilities and in-game use of computers, cybernetics, genetic modifications, vehicles, personal electronics, weapons and life-support hardware. This supplement features descriptions of specific models for individual classes of equipment, interspersed with overviews of the state-of-the-art for each technology.

Colony
This book is a guide to the bright plazas, commercial districts and back streets of Haven, Poseidon's oldest settlement. Haven is a true urban center and Colony provides maps and descriptions of its various districts, and even offers floor plans for significant buildings and landmarks. Major groups, institutions and denizens are profiled in rich detail and with plenty of Access Denieds. The Haven Institute of Science and Technology, GEO Government Center, the Coliseum and the Gorchoff Family, are all included, just to name a few. Additionally, the book adds even greater depth to Haven with a series of three scenarios set within this complex and unique frontier city.

Survey
Lions and tigers and bears oh... whoops, wrong planet. Anyway, the intent is the same. Survey covers the whole spectrum of ecological discoveries made on Poseidon - animal, vegetable, mineral and ah...other. There is a section devoted to the ongoing GEO survey of hazardous and resource species, as well as a section on new habitats unique to the planet. There is also gamer-friendly information on ecology, geology, meteorology and oceanography as pertain to the waterworld. So, if you slept thought most of your colonial orientation program, we highly suggest you pick up this supplement. It may be the difference between you finding lunch, and being lunch.

Posse
The law has come to Poseidon and Marshal Church is pissed. This supplement is a guide to life on both sides of the frontier badge, describing crimes and their punishments, new professions and skills, and technical wizardry for both the good guys and the bad. This supplement also features a five part campaign of criminal cat-and-mouse, ranging across the wet frontier. The structure of this most dangerous game is unique, allowing the players to choose on which side of the law they play...

Airlock
So you got a hot date and he/she/it is meeting you in Prosperity Station's Worldscape Arcade, and you don't know how to get there. Worse yet, the flooding alarm is sounding through the corridors of Rock Bottom and you don't know where the evac-pods are. Well... its too bad you didn't pack a copy of Airlock along with your underwear and Dramamine™, cause if you had, there'd be no problem finding your way. Airlock details the function of, and offers complete deck plans for, Prosperity Station, Undersea Habitat 2, Dundalk's Long Run series interstellar transport, LavOrg's Deep End oceanic research facility as well as a number of lesser vessels and installations designed for Blue Planet's more extreme environments.

World of Hurt
World of Hurt offers Blue Planet players everything they need to take their BP adventures home - to Earth. This sourcebook describes the dark Earth of 2199, detailing her twisted sociopolitical landscape, her shattered ecology, her bleak past and her uncertain future. The book also describes the Solar System - Earth orbit, Luna, Mars and the Belt - bringing them into bright focus and offering endless adventure opportunities that, though a bit dryer, are no less dangerous.

Hmmm...
Telling you too much about the following three books would be akin to opening the outer lock before getting the inner door all the way closed. So, the titles, and a hint or two, will have to tide you over in the meantime : ).

Storm Surge
Poseidon is a big place, but the natives, the GEO, and the aborigines will not allow it to become another shattered Earth. They are in for the fight of their lives...

Aborigine
So, what exactly did the Creators leave behind anyway?

Wormhole
Ah...'nuff said.
How do you enjoy being a professional game designer? Is it a pleasurable occupation?
I love working on Blue Planet. The gaming industry is a close-knit community with lots of very cool and creative people. Like most companies in the industry however, Biohazard Games is a part time concern. Everyone on the staff - all four of us  - and the various freelancers we use, all have day jobs in the "real world." I am actually a science teacher at a small private school - a military school at that! Can you believe it? Anyway, working on Blue Planet is all the more fun because we do not depend on the company for our livelihoods which eliminates much of the real stress of running a business.

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