Thursday, December 13, 2012

Interview with Paco Garcia Jaen

Paco is the founder of G*M*S Magazine, a website dedicated to gaming news, reviews and articles. It is perhaps most well-known for its podcasts (hosted by Paco), which feature interviews with gaming industry leaders. He is also a professional graphic designer and photographer.

On himself and the industry
BD: For those who may not be familiar with it, can you describe what G*M*S Magazine is?
PJ: G*M*S Magazine is a website that aims to promote tabletop games in all its forms. It has an extremely talented group of contributors and in the last two years I started the podcast and unboxing videos to bring gaming industry leaders in many fields closer to the players. The unboxing videos aim to showcase the production value of games to help people in the decision-making process when considering a game.
BD: Why did you make the decision to start a gaming news website and podcast?
PJ: To be honest, because I wanted to get free games for reviews and get closer to the people who make them. Then it turned into something else, much more involved and much more important than I expected. Now getting free games is the least of my worries, in fact I buy most of the games I read and play, and I concentrate in promoting the games I love (and some I don’t) in a constructive way.
BD: The G*M*S Podcast is different. It feels more professional and more tightly produced than many of the other RPG podcasts we are accustomed to; why do you think that is? What do you do, either during the show or in production, that sets G*M*S apart?
PJ: Oh… thank you! That is very nice to hear! Probably is because I wanted to be different from the type of podcasts you describe. As much as I appreciate those podcasts and the effort it goes into them, I thought there was room for improvement. I thought I’d use the expertise I acquired when I worked at a local TV station as a news reader in my youth and produce a podcast with thorough interviews to give it a higher level of professionalism.
BD: How much preparation and effort goes into each episode?
PJ: A fair bit, though there is a much greater deal of work that has to be done afterwards. The pre-production stage is mostly deciding what to talk about, learn a bit about the subject, form opinions and about the interviewee so I can formulate questions. Arranging a slot with my co-hosts can be difficult. Since I have co-hosts in the USA, time difference can be tricky to coordinate a time that’s convenient for everyone.
Then comes the audio editing. I try to get rid of as many “ahms”, “uhmms” and other repetitive wording as I can. Then I have to put it all together, add the music, section inserts, etc. Then write the show notes and publish. On average, it takes four times the length of the episode in post-production work.
BD: Tell us a bit about your contributors. How do you recruit talented writers for the website? What type of personalities do you look for?
PJ: Knowledgeable, likeable, honest, thorough and professional, basically. I don’t do trolls, can’t stand them. I also don’t do destructive criticism. If you’re doing to say something negative about a game or product, then you have to be able to back it up with facts and knowledge.
Oh, and passionate. They have to be truly passionate about games and gaming. Passion and dedication often come hand in hand and I like to see both!
BD: Tell us a bit about yourself; how did you get into gaming?
PJ: The short answer is because I was looking for something to escape from a pretty horrific few years as a teenager. I stumbled upon the Dragonlance novels at a point when I was considering suicide and the joy of reading those books helped me a great deal. A couple of years later I dislocated a knee doing martial arts and had to spend a few weeks at home. One of my friends who knew about RPGs brought a LOTR red box game and AD&D books, and lo and behold, the Dragonlance box-set was there.
Needless to say, I was hooked. That was over 20 years ago and I haven’t looked back.
BD: What type of gamer are you?
PJ: Depends who you ask! My friends say I am annoying! Usually I try to explore weird and quirky characters, but never take it too seriously.
BD: What is your essay “The Barn” about?
PJ: That started as an assignment at the Creative Writing course I was taking. We were meant to write about a building from the point of view of a father who’s lost his son in a war. With me being gay and my love for fantasy, I thought it’d be a good time to draw from some personal experience to write the story, but not as anyone else expected!
BD: Has your work in photography and graphic design shape your website and your views about the industry?
PJ: Totally! Anyone who’s worked as a graphic designer has to learn about attention to detail and how to be professional if one wants to survive. It has also taught me that, nowadays, there is absolutely no excuse for sloppy design. With a little bit of effort and looking around in the Internet, anyone can get some ideas and expertise to produce decent material. Even Word, if you know how to use it, can turn a boring document into something nice to look at. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t produce anything to win a prize, but it will produce something worth looking at.
For me a product that has no well thought out design fails as a product. Badly.
Firstly because it means the author didn’t care enough about the product or the reader to make an effort. Secondly because, with so many products out there, a book or game truly has to stand out if it is to survive in the long run.
BD: What kind of graphic design and layout do you look for in an RPG?
PJ: First of all it has to be accessible and easy on the eye, but it also has to fit with the theme of the game. Good art direction is very important to me.
I have a bit of dyslexia and a lot of dyscalculia, so for me typography is a very key issue. A font that can’t be read easily means I have to read the same thing several times before I get the meaning fully. Novelty fonts are something I frown upon quite badly.
I also look for attention to detail. For example if there are sub-section headers at the bottom of a page, the margins have been properly applied, if footnotes break the reading flow, etc.
BD: What trends in RPGs have you observed since starting the podcast?
PJ: Quite a few things are changing, methinks. For starters there have been a good number of new licenses which, to be honest, surprised me. The Dragon Age box-set was one of these. Supernatural, Primeval, The One Ring are some that spring to mind. Secondly the box seems to be making a return. Warhammer Fantasy RPG, again Dragon Age, D&D…
But I think the biggest trend is Kickstarter. Crowdfunding has given a shot in the arm to an industry that’s going through some very, very tough times!
BD: How has the internet altered our relationship with gaming?
PJ: I think the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is in how easy it’s made it for gamers to find each other and communicate. Online communities can be truly remarkable and I really can’t imagine what would happen if they went away.
However it’s also been a curse because it’s made it so easy for people to bring out their own products and inundate the market to the point of over-saturation. If product numbers keep increasing at a much higher rate than new players arriving to the hobby, a lot of companies will be in very serious trouble very soon.
BD: Where is gaming today?
PJ: Gaming itself is at the brink of main-stream notoriety. I think board games will be the “next thing” within 5 years and numbers of players, or at least games sold, will increase dramatically.
RPGs today are in a very, very bad way. A combination of lack of press, lack of business acumen by many companies (though there are some extremely business savvy out there), lack of marketing and a lack of effort and enthusiasm from the community to promote gaming (effort and enthusiasm that was there 20 years ago, by the way), paired with a number of products and games that’s not sustainable, means the industry is in serious danger, even if the choice is better than ever.
BD: Do you think there is anything the RPG Industry can do to improve the situation?
PJ: Yes, but not sure what, to be honest.
Although I feel the community needs to step up somewhat and do its bit to promote the hobby, ultimately it’s the publishers’ responsibility to create the right marketing for their games. The difficulty is finding a formula that will work, and I doubt there is one formula that will fit every single game.
The problem is that finding that formula requires two things: taking risks and spending some money. Companies can be very risk adverse for fear of failure (and hence losing money) and it’s difficult to spend money where there is little.
Thinking out of the box and doing things differently (for example attending a Sci-Fi convention with a Sci-Fi game) would help a great deal!
 
Debates and Hot Button Issues in Gaming
BD: You are quite comfortable expressing your views about RPGs and the RPG industry. Does this ever affect your ability to attract readers/listeners or guests to the show? Do you think it is important for contributors to the gaming community (podcasters like yourself for example) to be honest about their feelings on these issues?
PJ: It certainly affects the number of listeners and readers. One of the things I promised myself I’d NEVER do is to be dishonest about my views and I am very uncompromising. As much as I am respectful with my opinions, if I can see, or think I can see, a better way of doing things, or a way things are done in the wrong way for me, I will say it.
I am rather vehement, though, and I understand that puts some people off. As much as it’s not my intention to put anyone off, I feel honesty and passion are very much a part of me and people can always rely on hearing the truth from me. It might not matter to some people, but it matters a lot to me to be sure what I hear is totally honest.
BD: You wrote an article called “Homosexuality in Gaming” which dealt with issues ranging from sexual orientation to gender and sexism in RPGs; what made you decide to write about this topic?
PJ: The fact that few people have done it and it’s a very dear subject to me.
I am a gay man and, although the gaming community is very accepting, I also felt there are a lot of people who, simply, won’t look into it for whatever reason. I also felt some people simply don’t dare tackle the subject because they are concerned or scared they’ll lose readers or, in the case of professionals, customers.
I don’t have that problem. If people feel uncomfortable talking about homosexuality, having homosexual characters or players at their table and they want to go and listen to another podcast or read another website, so be it.
However, if with publishing a controversial article I’ve made some people think and reconsider, and that means someone out there will feel more aware about gay people in gaming, I consider my job done!
BD: You raised a number of points about homosexuality in RPGs. For publishers there is the question of including homosexual characters in settings, for players there is the issue of being willing to play gay characters and to go beyond simplistic stereotypes, you even talk about some of the problems that emerged for you in a campaign playing a gay Elf Cleric; there is a lot here, but what do you think publishers and players (and gamemasters) could do to address some of your concerns?
PJ: I tell you what they shouldn’t do: make an issue out of it.
Publishers could do with including gay NPCs without making a fuss about it. Gay people are out there and 90% of the population around them is none the wiser. No reason why it shouldn’t be the same in an RPG.
For players I’d simply say try it! Take it a bit seriously and play a character who is gay. See what happens! It’s not going to make you gay as if by magic… it will simply give you a perspective you never considered before. And it might surprise you!
BD: My impression of the article is you are asking for gay characters to basically be treated like any other. For publishers I think this is an important point and raises a key question: how do you address the issue without being exploitative and without pandering?
PJ: I think one of the key issues is to leave the graphical aspect of gay relationships out of the question. One of the issues most people had with the notion of gay characters in their games was the concept of gay sex. People assumed that one is gay because you have sex with members of the same sex. However there is a great deal more to the gay identity than sex. By showcasing those aspects without becoming sordid, one can easily bring homosexuality into gaming without starting unwanted controversy.
Of course understanding gay identity is a complex issue, and if a writer is not experienced in the subject, it can be both difficult to do well, and easy to stereotype. Talking to gay people about it, asking opinions and taking their advice can go a long way to avoid all those pitfalls.
BD: What about historical RPG settings; in your opinion is there a better or worse way to address issues of sexual orientation, racism and sexism in games set in times with very different attitudes than our own?
PJ: In historical settings is probably easier because the author can be backed by the fact that things were like this. In that case I would probably spend some time telling the reader how to handle the issue around the table.
To give you an example, a few months ago I ran a Trail of Cthulhu adventure in which a group of investigators had to travel to Mexico to stop the uprising of a rather unpleasant creature. The person who hired the investigators was a former army general. One of the investigators was a woman with very feminist ideals. She is also like that in real life. To start with I played the character of the general as I felt he’d be in the 1920s; sexist, over protective of women, cynical about a woman’s ability to perform in the field. My friend did feel a bit uncomfortable at times about this, so we discussed it. She understood what I was trying to do and I adapted the character’s perception of women so he wouldn’t be so obnoxious.
Later, when we arrived in Mexico, she had the chance to empower some women who were being mistreated, or simply disempowered by the Mexican society of the time. That allowed her character to develop and my friend to have a good time.
I think sometimes it  is just a matter of discussing things and being sensitive about the people you have around the table.
BD: In your article “Is it WOTC’s Responsibility to Bring People to the Hobby?” you challenge a lot of assumptions about the industry, criticize WOTC and other industry leaders, but also take gamers to task. What problem were you trying to address and what was the reaction to this piece?
PJ: The problem I was trying to address is the lack of promotion that RPGs are suffering, and the apathy of the community. The core problem I was trying to address is the terrible state the industry is in at the moment.
The reaction was very mixed, but also highly disappointing. Answers along the lines of “I don’t care what happens to the industry. I have enough games to last me the rest of my life”, “I can’t dedicate time to this because I can’t dedicate time to all my hobbies” or “why should I?” were many, and pretty much all of them translated into “I just can’t be bothered”.
It would seem that people have become extremely comfortable in their small circles and, since obtaining information is so easy these days, networking is no longer a necessity to learn about new games or products. Thus the apathy has settled in and people stop caring because they don’t perceive the demise of RPG companies, or even the industry, as something that would affect them.
BD: I suppose this gets at one of the core concerns for people who play table top RPGs: the player pool. Do you think it is getting harder to find people to play with today?
PJ: It is where I live, though I think this deserves some specifics.
I don’t think it’s difficult to find players from a pool of people who already play. I think it’s very difficult to find new players to who’ve never played before.
For some reason the stigma of being societal outcasts still lingers on and people look at us askance when we mention our hobby. I’m afraid only we, as players, can change that.
BD: I noticed you post some of your articles in RPG forums, and you don’t shy away from participating in the discussions they generate. In your opinion, how important are these forums and do publishers need to become more involved in them?
PJ: Forums are extremely important from many points of view. In my case I participate sometimes to gauge what people like and what sort of attitude the community has. Basically, if I receive congruent and respectful responses in a forum, but the opposite in another, I will take feedback and criticism differently and will make an effort to improve my website and podcast for those who gave me useful feedback.
A publisher who doesn’t pay attention to reviews and forums is a fool. I don’t think publishers should live by forum people’s opinions, but they should keep a very close eye and understand their audience.
BD: Are we as publishers missing the boat when it comes to social media?
PJ: That is a very difficult question for me to answer. I think mostly yes, but I also think that keeping up with social media when one has two jobs (the one you do to bring food to your table and then the publishing job) is extremely difficult.
Social media is very, very time consuming. Tweeting takes a lot of time if you want to do it properly. Keeping your network of followers, Tweeter or otherwise, fed with news and items of interesting material only adds up to the workload.
So, whereas I think social media is one of the best ways to reach a dedicated number of people who are genuinely interested in your product, I also understand it might not be the easiest to keep up with.
BD: How reflective are these forums of the wider gaming community?
PJ: I think it depends on how often you’re out there interacting.
People will always have a level of cynicism. If you’re a publisher and are in forums all the time, some people will think you’re just after the free advertising. If you are not often enough in the forums, people will forget about you.
I think, though, if people in forums get to like you, the publisher yourself, not just your products,  and you’re there often enough, it can have a very positive impact.
BD: What is your take on the various debates raging over playstyle, editions, etc? Have we grown more tribal?
PJ: Those sort of conversations bore me to death, to be honest. Anyone who engages in playstyle or edition wars hasn’t grown more tribal, he/she’s grown stupid. I understand RPGs do raise some passions and they matter a lot to a lot of people, but to let a set of rules turn you into a rules or edition fascist is just stupid.
I remember a few years ago, before the new edition of Dark Sun for 4E came out, there was a heated discussion (surprise!) in Athas.org. One particular individual whose name I can’t (or want to) remember went into a horrid rampage of insults and aggressive posts towards anyone who suggested that we should wait and see what the final product was like. Those sort of attitudes on different issues still happens and, unsurprisingly, they don’t do the hobby any favours…or to the community as a whole.
I’m not sure we’re more tribal. I think we’ve become more cliquey. Twenty years ago groups used to seek each other. At least we did in Spain. It was great to meet other groups of gamers and we didn’t have the Internet to the same extent we have today. Yet, when we meet at conventions, it is usually a fantastic experience, so we’re still a very warm and welcoming crowd.
Yet, when we “communicate” in forums, manners degrade very quickly, and is very common that conversations eventually turn sour.
BD: Do you think this is just a byproduct of the internet and the anonymity it affords, or is it indicative of bigger issues in the gaming community?
PJ: Probably a bit of both. Distance and anonymity do play a factor because our immediate surroundings won’t be affected. As soon as we turn away from the computer we detach ourselves from the problem and forget there is a person on the other side.
However there is also an element of communication difficulty on forums. And I say that from the point of view of someone who tends to come across as aggressive when I am just being passionate. Reading something we don’t like to read means we give our own slant in our heads, so what in a real-life situation would sound perfectly normal, when read sounds bad.
Partly not knowing how to edit our own text to make sure it comes across as we intend, and partly that we forget too often that the other person is probably not attacking our views, are factors that contribute greatly to the downfall of forum threads.
BD: How important are companies like WOTC and PAIZO today?
PJ: WOTC is fairly important because they run the flagship of D&D. I believe that is diminishing every single month, though, and it is very noticeable outside the USA. The success or failure of 5th Edition (or however they decide to call it) will determine how important they remain in the future, if at all.
PAIZO though, is extremely important. Although I’m not sure the Pathfinder core book is the right format for the future, they seem to be making one right decision after the other. Their products are as professional as they can be, and their books are a benchmark that pretty much every other publisher out there should strive to match.
Their race for the MMO market will also play well to their printing products. Releasing the MMO will be the easiest way to raise awareness of the game to an extent that would be difficult to match any other way with the same money. Assuming producing the video game doesn’t strain the company finances to the point of bringing it down, and if they leave the production of tabletop RPG coming even if the video game fails (and I hope it won’t fail), PAIZO could be the company to create enough stir to bring RPGs to an approximation of the mainstream status they used to have.
BD: Is it WOTC that is diminishing outside the USA or is it the D&D brand itself? Do you think there is a difference between the RPG community in the USA and in places like Europe?
I’m not sure if WOTC is diminishing outside the USA. We must remember that Magic: The Gathering and their other CCGs do very well indeed and they are the main earner for the company. The D&D side of WOTC is certainly diminishing outside the USA, and the D&D brand is shrinking so fast it will feel retro in no time.
There is a massive difference between the gaming community in the USA and anywhere else in the world, I think. When I lived in Chicago, it took me but three days and five emails to find a group of people to play with. I was welcome without hesitation and I played until the week I left. Generally speaking, Americans are very sociable and welcoming, whereas other parts of the world takes a bit more to break in and be accepted.
Comparing it with Europe, though, would be a mistake. If anything, because Europe is made of a lot of countries, each one has its idiosyncrasies. I can talk of the two countries I know, Spain and the UK. The differences between the USA and Spain in terms of gaming community are much narrower than between the USA and the UK.
The UK can be pretty weird and cynical. Players here are very friendly and, if you meet them at conventions, you can be totally sure you’ll have a great time. However those who don’t attend conventions tend to be very reclusive. Yet, there are a lot of small conventions going on all the time and they tend to be *really* good fun.
In Spain, befriending players is a matter of minutes, but conventions are few and far between, also helped by the fact that it is a bigger country than the UK and cities are far from each other. Maybe that is what makes people be friendlier, the fact that you have to get to know what you have near you or you get to know nothing at all!

 

 

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