New York based game designers Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard fame) and Jared Sorensen (known for octaNe and the various games released through his Memento Mori imprint) are sometimes referred to as godfathers of the indie game scene. Tomorrow they’re releasing their new game FreeMarket at GenCon – you can find them at booth #1732. I talked to them a couple weeks ago about what FreeMarket’s all about.
Could you briefly go over what FreeMarket is and why it’s different from other role playing games?
Luke Crane: FreeMarket is a transhumanist RPG in which players take on the roles of telepathic, immortal infovores living on a space station orbiting Saturn.
Jared: That’s also what makes it different from other RPGs.
Luke : In order to get ahead on the station, players must make friends, cooperate and give gifts to one another. Doing so enhances a player’s reputation. Players can then spend this reputation to accomplish personal goals. It uses a unique card-based mechanic, comes in a box and is really pretty.
Left: Jared Right: Luke
It also sounds like it’s a more intellectual game than most – you’ve said you can, for instance, play the role of a philosopher and have that be meaningful within the game.
Luke: Yeah, but don’t think you can’t play Soulshitter Killfuck and have fun, too. But, unlike many other games that I’ve played, you can play an artist and have serious conflict about what you do. It’s impossible to just make a piece of art in this game and have it sit there, inert. Art is controversial.
Jared: And conflicts (especially philosophical, critical and artistic) are both internal and external and can have wide-reaching and unplanned repercussions.
Right. So you could do a more typical hack and slash scenario, or you could do something where you’re dealing with post-scarcity speculation. Or maybe both.
Luke: Yes. But the “typical” scenario is also turned on its ear.
Jared: Definitely. “Death artists” is a common FreeMarket trope we see in our games.
Luke: You can kill the living shit out of something in the game. In fact, when you get into a fight, someone is going to die, period. But that is very costly, so you better be ready to have another side to your character. You better be ready to cooperate and give gifts. Otherwise, you’re not going to survive.
Jared: Some of the nicest people on FreeMarket Station are killers… because they have to be nice in order to remain viable members of society.
So you can kill or be killed in the game?
Jared: Yes, but not permanently
What do you mean?
Luke: Yeah, the station just resuscitates you or reloads your back up into a new body if you’ve “perfect deathed.”
Jared: There are different levels of death… from induced death to brain death to total bodily destruction. If you just go around murdering people left and right, people are going to shun you and you’re going to burn your social capital to ashes.
Luke: Right, killing costs a lot of your reputation.
Jared: Especially if you’re killing people who are valuable members of the society. Assholes who kill each other off can get away with that for a while
Luke: *Laughs* True!
Jared: But kill a baker? Or a garbage man? You are FUCKED.
I haven’t role played in years, and it’s been even longer since I’ve been at all serious about playing. But Free Market sounds like something I’d like to play. Do you think this is the sort of game that people who have lost interest in role-playing or maybe never even role played before would get into?
Jared: We had a woman play — she was the CFO of a game company — who had never played an RPG before. She got it in five minutes. It was awesome.
Luke: It’s different. It’s not about roll-to-hit and not a number style play. People who are diehard RPG players have the most trouble with it, actually.
Was that your intention? To create a game for non-gamers?
Luke: No, we just wanted to create a game that we liked (and that Peter Adkison would like).
Jared: We wanted to create a game for people interested in science fiction.
Luke: That, too!
Jared: Not SF gaming, but actual SF.
Luke: Yeah, this isn’t space pirate romance.
Jared: No travel, no aliens. Which are two mainstays of the game genre.
You’ve said before this is the first actual science fiction game.
Jared: We say a lot of things.
Luke: *Laughs* True. Paranoia is the first science fiction roleplaying game. Our friend Joshua made a really neat science fiction game called Shock, but it’s not really an RPG.
What makes it a science fiction game and other sci-fi themed games NOT science fiction games?
Luke: They’re about fighting and romance. FreeMarket is about time, space and identity.
Luke: Not really!
Jared: D&D is as much about economics as FreeMarket. The title of the game is ironic commentary — the space station was renamed “FreeMarket Station” by its residents and it’s probably ironic commentary by us as well.
So it’s not Milton Friedman: The Game?
Jared: Hah, no.
Luke: Unfortunately, no. Milton Friedman would probably hate the economy in this game.
Jared: More Malcom Gladwell.
Luke: There’s no money. No market.
Jared: That’s the joke. The market is one of ideas.
More “free” than “market.”
Jared: And it’s a truly free society. For the first time ever, people have real freedom. And it’s terrifying.
And you’re going to be giving the game, sans artwork, away for free online at some point, correct?
Luke: We already did that.
Jared: With artwork even.
Luke: We gave away a PDF from November to April. We took it offline while we launch.
Jared: It was limited to 1,000 people. And we used that for our “colony program.”
Luke: I’m sure it’s out on torrent sites.
Jared: It totally is.
Luke: We’re discussing the future fate of the electronic life of FreeMarket. We need to see how well the printed version does. You can definitely get a sense of the game from the PDF. But to play it, it’s best to have the materials—the cards and chips.
How did you get interested in transhumanism and why did you decide to write a game based around it?
Luke: I’ve been a fan of cyberpunk since I had a brain…since about 1991. Transhumanism seems like the next natural step. It’s like cyberpunk, but without the 1980s and with some more thoughtful science fiction.
Jared: The game has gone through a lot of development and research but even from the first step we knew “transhuman science fiction” was going to be its thrust. And it was kinda unexplored as a game subject at the time (2007).
Luke: Yeah, somebody said to us, “What would you do with X” and we both said, “Transhumanist SF RPG. Space stations and weird technology.” I think I was reading Bruce Sterling at the time.
I suppose it would be hard to create a normal hack and slash transhumanist game. Unless you count Rifts or something.
Jared: You can play out brutal combat sequences in FreeMarket and it’s very satisfying. It’s just the consequences are all backward and upside down.
Luke: Rifts is totally transhumanist. But Eclipse Phase, our cousin, is a TH game about fighting. Did I just say that out loud?
Jared: *Laughs* Except that DEE-BEES are not human (so really, it’s transdimensional).
Jared: Rifts also has space whales I think.
Were virtual worlds like MOOs and MUSHes and newer things like Second Life an influence?
Luke: Absolutely. Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter too.
Jared: Everything from MUDs and Second Life to Facebook, dating sites and Slashdot.
Luke: Good science fiction expresses the present through the fiction of the technology. We wanted FM to feel like an outgrowth of today.
How were social networking sites an influence?
Luke: Well, in the game, you friend each other. Friending each other increases your overall reputation and provides “social insurance.” The more friends you have, the harder it is for you to be kicked out of the community. So the influence is rather naked. It was more “What if that shit was about people and real life rather than your profile?”
Why wouldn’t everyone just friend everyone then?
Luke: Hah, well, do you go around friending everyone on Facebook? Do you love the people who do nothing but friend you?
No, but it doesn’t really keep me from getting kicked off my space station.
Jared: There are game equivalents of “like” and “mod down” buttons, social groups and trolling. There are people on the station who try and friend everyone. But friending carries serious social implications. Friending is like allowing someone access to your Google Calendar. And Ebay account. And email. Etc.
So there’s a real trust relationship there.
Luke: And if you’re worried about getting kicked off, then I don’t know if we should be friends. because you’re obviously up to something that’s going to get me in trouble. When your reputation tanks, your friends all take a hit, too.
Jared: Klint’s friends are all switchers, breakers and wetworkers! Don’t friend him!
What advice would you give people who want to be game designers?
Jared: continue to want to be that.
Luke: *Laughs* Play lots of games. Start breaking games. And then play your games. And break them. Also, recruit tolerant friends.
Jared: And stay the hell off of game forums.
Luke: That, too.
Are there any books on game design you’d recommend?
Luke: I like Rules of Play by Salen and Zimmerman. But Jared and I are both self-taught.
Jared: Also Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.
Luke: Oh, yes!
Why Understanding Comics?
Luke: Because it’s the single best deconstruction of a medium around there. It teaches you how to think structurally and critically. It shows you how to clearly break down complicated stuff.
Jared: And if you get a chance to come to a convention seminar by Luke and me, I seriously recommend it.
Anything else you’d like to say to readers?
Jared: Replace your body as soon as possible! But don’t throw out the original packaging just in case.
Luke: Always back up your memories. Unless you need to forget.
Special thanks to Jesse for suggesting this interview!