Interview: Matt Forbeck
Matt Forbeck has been working full-time in the gaming industry for almost two decades. His CV reads like a hardcore gamer’s none-too-modest Christmas wish list. A freelancer for most of his career, he has worked, in some capacity or other, for everyone from Atari to Wizards of the Coast, from Games Workshop to White Wolf.
Forbeck has designed, as he says, “collectible card games, roleplaying games, miniatures games, and board games, and has directed voiceover work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, and computer game scripts and stories.”
Three threads run throughout all Forbeck’s work—humor, heart, and integrity. Put in print here, these traits may seem trite. But when Forbeck puts them in print, people have fun. Lots of fun.
“And fun,” said Forbeck, is at the heart of a good game. “There are a lot of ways to define fun, but I like games that require a lot of interactivity among the players and that always give everyone who plays them a reason to pay attention at all times. If I can walk away from the game for a half an hour and not miss anything, something’s wrong.”
In the last few years, Forbeck has taken on a broader range of projects without scaling back on the quantity or the quality.
And part of what makes him so good at what he does—that helps him keep getting better—is that he’s so nice.
“Without question,” says John Kovalic, the cartoonist responsible for the Dork Tower strips, “Matt’s the nicest guy in the gaming industry — by far. But beyond that, he also possesses a talent, intelligence, and drive that are both rare and remarkable. On top of it all, he’s got a sharp, keen sense of humor. There’s a reason he’s usually swarmed with friends pretty much anywhere he goes on a convention floor.
“But the thing that anybody who knows Matt can’t help be moved by is his love of and commitment to his family. There’s a basic decency and humanity in his spirit that’s all too rare in most people. More than anyone else, Matt’s the kind of person who makes me want to be a better person.”
Forbeck and I spoke recently about game design, world-building, and meeting deadlines.
Jones: It seems that in recent years you have tried your hand at just about every kind of writing. Where do you feel the most at home?
Forbeck: I love it all. Trying new forms of writing intrigues me, as I have to spend time figuring out the rules of that new game, so I’m always looking for things to write and new ways to write them.
That said, I’m most at home with games of any kind. The interaction between narrative and gameplay gives the player a more engaging entertainment experience that you can find anywhere else.
Also, I like the way games require me to use both sides of my brain. I can’t rely on just creativity or only logic. I have to blend them both. I also like the process of setting up a system and purposefully not know exactly how each game that uses it will end.
Jones: Do you ever feel too scattered to get anything done?
Forbeck: I always feel scattered, but that has more to do with helping my wife raise five wonderful kids than with the different types of projects I tackle. I think doing different things keeps me fresh. It’s too easy to get jaded about doing any one sort of thing, and hopping around to different disciplines helps me appreciate the finer aspects of any discipline.
Also, having lots of different experiences means I can tackle new projects from different angles than other writers might come up with. It puts more tools in my toolbox.
Jones: Where does building a world begin for you?
Forbeck: Often I start with an image or a character that I really like, and I try to figure out what kind of world fits it. In a way, it’s backfilling from that central bit until I find the world’s mission statement. Then I can start working forward again until I have a whole, living world that fits that central item like a spandex suit.
Jones: What role does collaboration play in world-building, and what position do you most often find yourself in within a collaboration?
Forbeck: Most of the time, I work alone. However, I’m often standing on the shoulders of others. With Eberron and Blood Bowl, for instance, someone else created the world in which I’m telling my stories.
When I work on computer games, though, it’s different. I always work with a team of other creators, including artists, game designers, programmers, level designers, producers, and more.
Computer games now require a staff similar to that of a film, but there’s no standard format for writing for them or creating them. We have some models, of course, but in many ways we make it all up, looking for the best ways as we go.
In that kind of collaboration, I often function as a story coordinator. The team may have a good idea of the kind of story they want to tell but isn’t sure just how to get there. I figure out what they want, what kind of resources they have, and how we can make the most of that to tell a great story and make a compelling and entertaining game.
Jones: What part of world-building is the most fun for you?
Forbeck: Figuring out how it all works together. There’s an underlying system under any world that tells you why things work the way they do. If you can come up with a solid base for your world—whether that’s a scientific principle, a philosophic metaphor, or something entirely different—everything else can build upon that. Once you get it down, everything else becomes so much easier.
It’s like writing a mission statement for the world. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is make sure everything follows it.
Jones: How has your understanding of world-building changed over the years?
Forbeck: When I was a kid, I started with a map and drew in the landscape and then filled it in with whatever my imagination came up with, usually drawing on whatever tropes I subconsciously tapped into at the moment. That works fine if you’re only coming up with a setting for yout D&D campaign, but if you want something better it takes a lot of work.
Now I start with the function, not the form. I figure out what I intend to use the world for, and I build it to fit. If it’s for a tabletop roleplaying game, for instance, it needs a lot more structure, as other people will spend a lot more time in it than I will. If it’s for a novel or a story, though, I only have to build it to the edges and let people imagine what else might be out there.
I’ve also learned that it’s okay to scrap things and start over. However, it’s even better if you can take what you have and come up with a clever way to make it fit your new needs. Layering details adds more life to a world after all.
I always have to keep in mind, though, that the story isn’t about the world (in most cases). The world is the setting, and it gives the story a vibrant, fitting place to happen, but the characters and the plot are what keep people engaged.
Jones: Can you outline for me your involvement in the Harvey Birdman game?
Forbeck: The fine people at High Voltage called me down to their offices and asked me if I’d be interested in helping them write the game. They told me the mechanics were fully based on the Ace Attorney (a.k.a. Phoenix Wright) series of games for the DS, but the stories came from the “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” show from the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network.
I ran out and bought a DS and the first two Ace Attorney games, and I picked up the first two DVD sets of the show. Later, they sent me DVDs of the third season, which hadn’t been released yet.
I immersed myself in both the game and the show for a week or so, then went back down to the studio for a writer’s jam session with producer Kevin Sheller and my co-writer Micah Skaritka. We worked out the characters and the plots for the five different stories in the game over the course of a long day. Then we went our different ways to write.
The unique challenge was coming up with a game that was both fun to play and funny. There aren’t that many of them out there to use as a model. High Voltage had created the latest in the Leisure Suit Larry games, so they had some experience with this, but Harvey Birdman is a whole different brand of humor. It was a real challenge, but I think we pulled it off.
Jones: What do you have coming out next?
Forbeck: I’ve written a five-issue comic-book miniseries called “Blood Bowl: Killer Contract.” Issue #2 just came out, and the rest should follow every month, with a trade paperback collection due out this fall. It continues the story from my Blood Bowl novels, and it’s been fun getting back to that world and those characters. Plus, Boom Studios (the publisher), Ian Brill (the editor), and Lads Helloven (the artist) have been fantastic to work with.
My novelization of the “Mutant Chronicles” film is also due out soon. This is a bit of the future and the past for me, as the film is based on a tabletop RPG I used to write and edit about 15 years ago.
Plus, I have a couple nonfiction books coming out this summer and fall: Orcs and Lost Worlds: Egyptians. Both of these are beautifully illustrated coffee-table books, and I’m looking forward to seeing those in print.
And there’s lots more I can’t talk about at the moment, in the worlds of computer games, tabletop games, and electronic toys. Just stop by www.forbeck.com for regular updates.
Jones: In my mind’s eye I see you more as a justicar from Eberron than a Bad Bay Hacker. How much of Matt Forbeck shows up in the Blood Bowl books?
Forbeck: Far more than I would care to admit. I have an extremely twisted sense of humor, and most of the time I have to keep that well in check. When I’m writing Blood Bowl stories (either the novels from the Black Library or the new comics from Boom Studios), I can let it all hang out. It’s too much fun.
That said, I identify strongly with Kandler, the justicar from the Eberron books, too. He plays it off, but he always wants to do the right thing. Also, he would do anything to protect his daughter, and I feel the same way about my kids. At the end of that series, Kandler has to learn to let go. My kids aren’t quite old enough for that yet, though, so that’s a lesson I still have in my future.
Jones: Is it true that the only deadline you’ve ever missed was due to the birth of the quadruplets?
Forbeck: No! Up until my wife became pregnant with quadruplets, I’d never missed a deadline in well over a decade of writing. Since then, I’ve missed a few—for all the kinds of reasons you can probably imagine. My family is always my first priority.
However, if I’m running late, I always contact my editor well in advance and request an extension. I also work as an editor myself, so I know how frustrating it can be when freelancers start trying to dodge you. I never do that.
Jones: Lastly, are you really the nicest guy in gaming?
Forbeck: So I hear, although John Kovalic and Japji Khalsa are usually my first choices. (Ken Hite avers that John is actually the Most Humble Guy in Gaming, leaving space for me as the Nicest Guy in Gaming.)
Knowing how well I can drop the hammer on people when I need to, though, if I’m the nicest guy in gaming, we’re all in trouble. More seriously, the gaming industry is filled with nice, wonderful people. It’s one of the reasons I never want to leave it.