The head honchos at Dream Pod 9 talk up their top notch mecha wargame, Heavy Gear, discuss the anime origins of the giant battle robot genre, and reveal the company’s unexpected connection to the movie 300 in this amazing “virtual roundtable” interview. And this is only part 1.
Joining us for this interview, we have Dream Pod 9 President Robert Dubois, Line Developer Jason Dickerson, Marketing Director John Nguyen, and Art Director Greg Perkins.
Robot Viking: First, could you tell me a little bit about the history of Dream Pod 9 and the origins of Heavy Gear?
Robert Dubois: Dream Pod 9 finds its early roots in Ianus Publications founded in 1987 to publish the Protoculture Addicts Anime Magazine and which later also published Mecha Press magazine dedicated to Japanese SF animation, mecha, modeling and gaming. In 1992, Ianus struck a deal with R. Talsorian Games to publish an Alternate Reality Universe line of products based on RTG’s successful Cyberpunk 2020. The game design team at Ianus became known as Dream Pod 9 and went on to publish Jovian Chronicles for RTG’s Mekton II game system. Dream Pod 9 was then hired in 1993 by Palladium Books, publishers of the Robotech and Macross II roleplaying games, to produce three volumes of the Macross II Deck Plans books.
In 1994, Dream Pod 9 began developing its first home grown game called Heavy Gear Fighter, which was the Card Fighter game that introduced gamers to the world of Heavy Gear. We worked on other projects including the Project A-ko roleplaying game, all the while continuing to work on our own game system. Heavy Gear the Roleplaying and Tactical Game was released in the summer of 1995. It became a success with its anime inspired artwork and realistic warfare game mechanics. Due to phenomenal growth of the game in late 1995 we decided to split Ianus into two new companies, Protoculture, which would continue to publish Protoculture Addicts magazine and Dream Pod 9, which became a fully fledged company publishing gaming books and miniatures.
A year later, Dream Pod 9 entered in a partnership with computer game giant Activision to create computer games based on the Heavy Gear property. Both Heavy Gear: the New Breed, and its advanced sequel, Heavy Gear II: Black Talon, took the computer game world by storm! In late 1999, Dream Pod 9 licensed the worldwide television rights to its popular Heavy Gear game universe to Sony Pictures Family Entertainment. The 40-episode computer animated series debuted in syndication across the world in early 2001.
In 2003 the team behind Dream Pod 9 started a new project to work on action scenes for movies. Dream Pod Entertainment was created along with the Shadow Squad Stunt Team. Members of Shadow Squad have worked on numerous productions in Canada and internationally, one of the biggest being 300, which filmed here in Montreal.
In 2008 we released the latest edition of the game entitled Heavy Gear Blitz! Locked & Loaded for the tactical game with faster game play, new rulebooks and tons of newly sculpted miniatures for all the factions. Future plans include a duelling game entitled Heavy Gear Arena later in 2010 and a new edition of the Heavy Gear Roleplaying game in 2011. You can get the latest Dream Pod 9 news online at www.dp9.com and check out the new releases.
RV: Heavy Gear is obviously influenced by the Japanese mecha genre, but what other influences have affected the development of the game’s fictional world and visual design? What has influenced the design of the game’s rules?
Jason Dickerson: The latest shift in style for us happened when we signed on Mariko Shimamoto as one of our primary in-house artists. Her style really brings a more realistic look to Heavy Gear and she does a fantastic job of maintaining the spirit of the old material while giving us a more contemporary look. It’s sort of like a blend of the Osprey Military Books meeting the more modern Anime. Greg also brings in his strong technical design to the game with his background in Architecture. As far as fictional world design, I’m really fond of history and I’m always looking for unique angles from our past that I can base some of our sci-fi setting’s story. Human civilization seems to always fall into common ruts, and there’s almost a cyclical pattern to things in our past. It’s not hard to predict patterns of future behaviour by looking back in our past. I think the original writers were inspired by multiple sources, not the least of which was Ryōsuke Takahashi’s Armored Trooper VOTOMS, but I think you see other elements like Asimov’s Foundation series and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers influenced the original writers.
I know one thing that has always set Heavy Gear apart from from other sci-fi games is that the world was designed around the projected technology that the original writers were seeing in the 90’s. Of course I don’t think they really expected to see such a quick progression in technology in the decade and a half since Heavy Gear was published. We’re already seeing power assisted frames for soldiers in the field. Looking at the other DARPA projects, it’s not too far fetched to see something like Heavy Gears out in a few decades.
Greg Perkins: I think Heavy Gear’s fictional storyline also takes some inspiration from Frank Herbert’s Dune in terms of some of the ongoing mysteries of the universe like the Koreshi (sandriders who are rumoured to be descended from the legendary Prime Knight soldiers of Earth and live in the harshest desert of the Terra Novan equatorial badlands).
The Western Frontier Protectorate, one of many Terra Novan states, is also partly influenced by Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, as is most military science fiction. It is a bit of a cross between a Western, a feudal House ruling class, and Heinlein’s military utopia where citizenship is granted through military service to the state.
As for what influences the rules, I’d have to say contemporary modern warfare. One particular mechanic I admire about Heavy Gear Blitz! is how fire support teams work. There’s no squad cohesion limits, so you can send a scout class Heavy Gear like a Cheetah off to paint targets and relay the co-ordinates back to the support weapons teams that can be equipped with indirect-fire weapons such as mortars, guided anti-tank missiles, or salvos of rockets to saturate the area of the target from behind cover on the other side of the battlefield.
Visually, the source material from the original Dream Pod 9 team is very important to me, there is still a very present dynamism to Ghislain Barbe’s drawings in particular that impressed upon me that Heavy Gears are more than walking tanks; they are fast, aggressive, and agile in a way that many other Mecha designs aren’t or can’t be due to their sheer size. I’ve studied many of Ryōsuke Takahashi’s series from Armored Trooper VOTOMS, to Area 88, to Gasaraki, to F.L.A.G. in order to get a better appreciation for the more realistically sized military mecha series and gritty anime theatres of war.
John Nguyen: Warfare in Heavy Gear has always been portrayed as realistically as possible (as far as giant robots are involved). We have always endeavoured to keep the gritty true to life feel of the game with real life military tactics and logic in mind. With this in mind we made Gears fit into a niche element that we felt would suit nimble walking machine best.
Gears are not the end-all weapon platforms of other universes such as Battletech or the Gundam series, but are lightly armed and armored, being the most flexible and adaptable machines available to Terra Novan militaries. Their loadouts are easily changed due to their humanoid form and allow them to fill most battlefield roles satisfactorily and exceedingly well in built up theatres such as urban settings.
We imagined that this flexibility would fit the gap between modern infantry and armor, lending support to both elements beautifully. On the one hand, Infantry can benefit from heavier weapons that can follow them into cities and ruins, on the other hand, armored formation’s traditionally vulnerable flanks are guarded by nimble but deadly skirmishers who are fast enough to follow them on spearheads manoeuvres.
This desire to keep with logical and plausible tactics has always been one of the hallmarks of our design process. With this in mind, we endeavoured to have the rules reflect this. To be successful, a Heavy Gear army’s different elements must work together, playing on their strength and weaknesses.
RV: I have to admit I find the current status of the Heavy Gear RPG a bit confusing. Which edition is currently officially supported, and how does it fit with Blitz!? What is the status of SilCORE and the Steve Jackson Games version of the RPG?
Robert Dubois: The second edition of the Heavy Gear Roleplaying Game is the best version of the RPG and has the most support in material. In the early 2000’s with the release of WIzards of the Coast’s Open Gaming License, the market became very much D20 oriented. Third edition was conceived during this time. We went with the Open Gaming License (OGL) since it was all the rage and we thought we also had to give OGL support. We decided to try and adapt Heavy Gear and our other lines to accommodate the demand. Silcore unfortunately was not well received by the fans. Marc Vezina, line editor and creative force behind much of the second edition material, left the company shortly after the release of the books. A few years later, we decided to concentrate on the wargaming aspects of Heavy Gear rather than the RPG elements. The massive library of material that was already out for the setting seemed to fill out the RPG fans’ demands and the returns on the Silcore material didn’t really justify the continuation of more RPG material during the OGL era. In 2008, Steve Jackson games licensed Dream Pod 9 to produce the fourth edition of Heavy Gear; however, due to a changing market Steve Jackson Games decided they will not be doing the fourth edition of the Heavy Gear RPG. Instead Dream Pod 9 has reacquired the rights and have decided to publish a new edition.
Jason Dickerson: Our RPG support in Gear UP is specifically targeting our most popular incarnation, which was our second edition rule set. We decided to support that line over Silcore for two reasons, the primary being its popularity, and the other reason is that our current wargame Heavy Gear Blitz! is largely a streamlined version of the second edition. Operation: Drop Bears Dive did have support for both Silcore and second edition, but all future books will only have second edition support. At least until we see the fourth edition.
RV: You’ve mentioned that Dream Pod 9 is planning a new edition of the RPG. How far along is that project? How will the new edition differ from earlier versions?
Robert Dubois: Work has started on the new Heavy Gear RPG edition and it should be released in late 2011. The ruleset will have the second edition rules as the starting point and will be compatible with Heavy Gear Blitz when it’s released.
Jason Dickerson: We’re still in pre-development phase with fourth edition, but I know we’re looking at having miniature support. I am looking at ways to make a robust character creation system that lets players buy skill and talent packages. Our upcoming game, Heavy Gear Arena is going to be a little bit of RPG meeting a fast paced tactical game, and some of the growth capabilities of the pilots kind of give you an idea of what sort of things to expect from fourth edition. This is particularly true with the talents available to the pilot classes.
RV: When you set out to create the Blitz! rules, what was the overall design philosophy? Were there elements from previous editions you were trying to avoid or fix?
Robert Dubois: We wanted to speed up the game, to allow for bigger armies to be played during the same game play time. Back when Heavy Gear was first released in 1995 battles were typically 5 gears vs 5 gears and the game would take 2.5 hours, and each vehicle took an entire page for its game statistics. Now with Heavy Gear Blitz you can have battles of 15 gears vs 15 gears in under 2 hours and the vehicle statistics fit on a small datacard. Game speed was increased by removing a lot of the record keeping for ammo and damage and using Blitz counter dice to keep track of movement. Heavy Gear Blitz is a game of military tactics, if you run out into the center of the battlefield without any cover your units will be destroyed.
Jason Dickerson: I was involved in the playtesting of some of the material for the original edition of Blitz!, but the real push for the streamlining of the system came from Phil LeClerc and John Buckmaster. They wanted to really focus the game on wargaming instead of RPG material. Part of the streamline process was to discard tedious book keeping on things like ammunition and the need to reference charts for movement band modifiers, damage, and other details. In all honesty, the transition the first time around was a mix of successes and some glaring flaws that were discovered as people played the game. John rectified most of the problems that crept out of active play during the 1st edition of Blitz! in Locked & Loaded, but we still saw hard connections to the RPG material that continued to cause problems.
One of the first things, I wanted to do when I took over from John Buckmaster, after he left the company to finish his graduate degree, was to address some of these known issues, but do it in a way that wouldn’t alienate our fanbase. The last thing we needed to produce was another version of our game in such a short period of time. Gear UP came around after discussions with the team. With our wargame getting further and further away from our RPG roots, we also didn’t want to ignore our fantastic setting and the RPG community. Gear UP gives us the freedom to add RPG material which lets us cater to our full audience.
My current push in the wargame is to streamline and speed the game up without sacrificing the tactical aspects of the game. I’m also looking at moving past the established RPG material and developing new units, characters, and most importantly moving the storyline forward. Operation: Drop Bears Dive introduced two new units, the Koala and Dingo, which were never part of the original line. Perfect Storm: A New Coalition explores a relatively untouched area of Terra Nova that is going to introduce a new army with a pretty hefty chunk of new units and take the meta-plot of the storyline to a turning point.
Check back on Friday for part 2.