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Interview with M. Alexander Jurkat

The following is an interview with M. Alexander Jurkat, CEO/Editor in Chief of Eden Studios. Eden Studios publishes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and various other Unisystem & d20 products.

Marx Pyle: Please explain how you first became involved with role playing games, both as a player and as a game designer.

M. Alexander Jurkat: I started with roleplaying games as a senior in college, eighteen years ago. Some friends were playing a board game that was like D&D -- it was very cheesy and I can't remember the name of it. I started playing and one said, "Hey, there's an even cooler game called AD&D, want to play?" He showed me the Player's Handbook and I was enchanted. I had played war games (I was a SPI subscriber in the past) and board games but roleplaying was a real eye-opener. As usual when I get excited by something, I got full scale. I was running games within six months. I tried Rollmaster, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, Earthdawn, Rifts, Vampire, and even that old Avalon Hill travesty Lords of Creation. In the end, as many GMs do, I kitbashed a combo of system for him home system.

In the early 1990s, I meet a gent named Larry Sims at a local game con. He was hawking his game, Battlelords of the 23rd Century. He was solid game designer and a top-notch salesman and he hooked me. He also was in desperate need of an editor so I offered my services. I did a couple books for him while maintaining my day job as an attorney, but I always wished I could do more.

Meanwhile, I meet up with George Vasilakos and a few other folks at my local gaming store (George owned it). One of the crew said, "Let's design a CCG and make major bucks like Magic." More importantly, he actually convinced a bunch of folks (me included) to put in major capital for it. We did a couple different designs (submitting proposals for a Rifts and Star Wars game) and finally settled on a Battlelords CCG (mostly 'cause we could actually afford that license). We formed a company and released the Battlelords CCG in 1995. The game was critically praised (except for the tiny font of the rulebook) and we sold a good number of displays. Unfortunately, like the rest of the yahoos who wanted to cash in on the Magic craze, we spent far more than we earned and the whole thing went bust.

Marx Pyle: Why did you create your role playing game company? Also, why did you choose to name it Eden Studios?

M. Alexander Jurkat: A while after we released the Battlelords CCG, our former company published a roleplaying game called Conspiracy X. That actually make money but it was buried under the CCG debt. As part of the settlement of the old company, George took over the Conspiracy X IP. He and I (and a couple other investors) formed Eden Studios to republish and expand Conspiracy X. Ed Healy, one of Eden's original investors, suggested "Eden" because we were trying to build our paradise job. George wanted to take on Studios because we wanted to set ourselves up as a creator-owned publishing house.

Marx Pyle: When did your company come up with the idea of creating the Unisystem rule mechanics?

M. Alexander Jurkat: We didn't. Eden spent the first couple of years of its existence publishing Conspiracy X and its supplements. That did well enough to keep the company afloat but each supplement sold less and less and we realized we need to create more product lines. We all liked CJ Carella's Rifts and GURPS work, and followed his efforts when he tried to start his own company and publish WitchCraft and Armageddon. That didn't work out for him so we offered to take on his properties under an exclusive license. CJ liked the creation process but had very bad experiences on the business end. It took a bit of convincing (and we had to wait for all the crap to settle out from his prior company) but we signed a deal and things have worked pretty well for both parties.

As for the Unisystem, CJ's design philosophy is that a rules system should fade into the background after a couple of sessions. It provides a structure for the storytelling but doesn't make much noise doing so.

Marx Pyle: What do you believe are some of its strengths compared to other game systems like d20, GURPS, or the Action! System?

M. Alexander Jurkat: Development is more open-ended than d20 -- there are no class restrictions. It's simpler than GURPS. I can't make a comparison with the Action! System since I'm not overly familiar with that. Again, the objective of the Unisystem is to provide the tools to make the game sessions work but become invisible to the game play as soon as possible. The strongest draw for Unisystem is the vibrant settings that we have published. Buffy and Angel (and soon Army of Darkness) speak for themselves, but WitchCraft, Armageddon, AFMBE and Terra Primate all feature captivating hooks and storylines.

Marx Pyle: Has it been hard for Unisystem products to compete in this d20/OGL dominated marketplace?

M. Alexander Jurkat: We saw little impact on the Unisystem from d20. In fact, our sales have only increased. No doubt that's in part because we released the Buffy RPG during d20's heyday and that's been our most popular product to date. Now that the d20 market has become saturated, Unisystem is still going strong, perhaps as part of a back-lash against d20. We had a tough decision regarding d20 vs. Unisystem when we were designing the Buffy RPG. In an effort to build our own company (not piggy-back on WotC) and because CJ was writing Buffy and knew Unisystem far better than d20 (we had some significant time constraints on the Buffy production process), we went Unisystem. So far, that's turned out to be a good decision.

Marx Pyle: What do you think of d20 and the OGL? Do you think it has been a good thing for role playing games?

M. Alexander Jurkat: I think 3e has been a very good thing for roleplaying games. D&D was my first roleplaying love and 3e is so well designed that I have gotten back into D&D roleplaying. With the backing of WotC, it's rejuvenated the industry. The d20 movement is a great idea and hopefully in time will produce better rules. The problem has been the volume. That's strained distributor, retailer and customer budgets, brought a bunch of crap to published form, and sounded the death knell of back orders (why reorder a d20 book when 15 new ones are coming out next month). We treat our d20 line, Eden Odyssey, mostly as fire-and-forget products. We publish them, hope to sell out (usually not) and don't think about reprinting. Book of War has been a happy exception but it's the only one for us. That's a very different approach than our other books.

Marx Pyle: Was it a tough decision to start making d20 products?

M. Alexander Jurkat: We were resistant at first. But the sales were so overwhelming that it was impossible to ignore. The problem was gearing up for such production and finding projects that could set us apart. We didn't want to just pump out product and get a reputation for low quality.

Marx Pyle: Would Eden ever release the Unisystem under the OGL or does Eden have a license program similar to “Powered by GURPS”?

M. Alexander Jurkat: We haven't had enough call for an OGL Unisystem to go through the time and effort of forming such a community. We are more than happy to license the Unisystem and have had a number of discussions with folks about doing so. There's no formal program for securing a license. Just send us a proposal and we'll review it.

Marx Pyle: Recently the WB announced that the fifth season of Angel will be its last. Does this affect your Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel product line?

M. Alexander Jurkat: Not in the least. We designed the Buffy and Angel books specifically to expand the storylines and possibilities of those two shows. You can replay existing Angel and Buffy stories using our books, but the focus should be on new stories. That focus remains even after the show are limited to syndication. In fact, we have a marketing approach that touts the books as more useful now that the series are over. You have the power to keep the stories, characters and entire Whedonverse alive through the RPG. ;)

Marx Pyle: What are some of your strongest products currently, and what does Eden have planned for the future?

M. Alexander Jurkat: Angel is the the strongest seller currently. Buffy overall has been the best for Eden. It's actually turned us into a real company. We have offices, a retail store, and actual salaries now. After Buffy/Angel, our perennial seller is All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The HACK and Abduction card games are steady sellers as well. Our d20 offerings, WitchCraft, Armageddon, and Terra Primate round out our product lines. We also see steady sales of a computerized version of Mayfair's Iron Dragon game.

In the future, we have a number of exiting projects. We will release a Buffy/Angel compatible game for Army of Darkness. We are also working on a superhuman-based game called Beyond Human that will be patterned after the smorgasbord style of AFMBE. That should be the closest thing we will come to a core cinematic Unisystem title. We have a slew of new Buffy, Angel, and AFMBE supplement in the works. We also have some outside studio productions, Odyssey Prime (d20, Bizarro Games) and the Archipelagos series (d20, Oriflam), on tap. We are launching a new supplement series covering all our Unisystem games called Eden Studios Presents. And there's always new stuff in the works. We have two exciting new product announcements coming in the near future.

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