Catching Up With Jason Rohrer
Diamond Trust of London is the latest twist by Jason Rohrer, the celebrated game designer who modeled his career after sound advice for escaping a maze: keep turning left. Diamond Trust was conceived as a strategy game about cheating spouses, but when the publisher said no, Rohrer reworked the idea, deciding the mechanic lent itself to corporate agents trading blood diamonds in Angola. Then, the game was dropped, picked up, and dropped again. Finally, it’s here. We talked with Rohrer about Nintendo’s aversion to putting his name on the box, the Thoreauvian myth that he only eats what he grows, and the real possibility for Passage 2.
Paste: Diamond Trust of London finally came out. What took so long?
Jason Rohrer: It started out three years ago. At the time, I was really struggling to bring in income. It was a commercial endeavor: get a game into GameStop. Then, I got into a disagreement with the publisher. They started pulling back. It became a quest to get the damn thing out. And to get it out the way I initially envisioned it—as this commercial, boxed product.
Paste: What’s up with the cover art?
Rohrer: It was really about—when you look at the front and back—a statement about cover art. [Laughs] I was trying to make cover art that looked like nothing that had ever been on the cover of a game. You know, it looks very much like something you’d see on the cover of an album. It has our photos on the back. Why do game covers look so different from album covers? Why don’t we ever have pictures of the people who made them? Why don’t we have their names on the box?
Paste: Is that why the complete name is Jason Rohrer with music by Tom Bailey, Diamond Trust of London?
Rohrer: That was part of the seven month long negotiations, fight and stalemate with Nintendo. They were going to let me put my name on there, but not my musician’s name. (He’s my very close friend. The game was really both of ours.) When we squeezed it into the title, they said absolutely nothing about it. I felt like both of us should get credit. Right on the cover. It’s not that big of a deal. Duh! But that’s not the way they do things. All the stuff gets cleared by Japan. Japan is set in their ways. There’s tradition! There has only been like four people in the games industry in the past fifteen years who have had their names on the box. Will Wright doesn’t get his name on the box anymore. His signature used to be on the box of Sim City. Now he’s the creator of the Sims. Hideo Kajima does. But why American McGee? I dunno. He had an interesting name! Tim Schafer: why him? Sid Meier. Okay. You know, he didn’t actually work on some of those Civilization games.
Paste: Did Nintendo have a problem with you using Kickstarter to crowd fund the game?
Rohrer: I never heard anything about it from Nintendo. I’m not even sure they are aware of it. Nintendo doesn’t actually pay attention to what is going on in the gaming press. When I came along, I don’t think they knew who I was. It seems most game designers know who I am, I guess?
Paste: It’s been documented that you live on very little money. How are things financially?
Rohrer: My family is very careful about money. We spend very little. For a while, we were living off savings. I hadn’t figured out how to make money at all. I was putting out free games. I mean, who’s gonna pay for a five minute long game? We were living off fourteen thousand a year, but weren’t even bringing in fourteen. Maybe we were bringing in eight, nine thousand. As our income slowly grew, and I got a patron, we got to the point where we were bringing in slightly more. It’s not like, “Oh, dude, you know, I brought in fifty thousand dollars from Steam.” We are still (ha) buying our clothes at the thrift store.
Paste: You strike me as the David Thoreau type.
Rohrer: I’ve never read Thoreau. And I haven’t gone off into the wilderness just contemplating for a year or two. I have never gotten to the point where I’m growing all my own food. There’s this legend out there that I do. I never said that. I’m not hunting deer in the woods and drinking their blood. Some people think I live in a cabin. But I guess I’m doing more of these things than your average American? Our garden is actually very small.
Paste: What are you growing?
Rohrer: Right now we have stuff left over from the summer. Some cherry tomatoes are still out there. Two hot pepper plants. My older kid is trying to do a genetics experiment. So we have, uh, patty pan squashes and zucchinis that we are going to crossbreed to make some kind of hybrid. We have herbs: oregano, spearmint. We just put in thyme, lavender, lemongrass, and, yesterday, my kid and I planted mustard greens and arugula. Some peas are soaking today. Gardening is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s a nice feeling though. You walk out in the morning. Sun rays hit your face. We’re in the valley here, where there is, you know, millennia of deposits from rivers that flowed through here. It’s very fertile soil.
Paste: You are in California now?
Rohrer: We’re currently renting. We’re saving up to buy a house without a mortgage. That is the way we do things. Kind of backwards. Right now I’m driven by money. I’ve got to keep making more awesome games. It’s very utilitarian though. I don’t want to live in a gigantic house. It’s funny to me that people in Hollywood, the socially vocal people, like Michael Moore (who is always going out against the rich white guy) and Sean Penn, are joining Occupy Wall Street and whatever. All these people live in mansions. Warren Buffet, the richest man in America, still lives in the same house he has lived in for twenty-five years.
Paste: Maybe you should do Passage 2.
Rohrer: Passage 2 would make a lot of money. That’s been a cynical back-burner joke of an idea of mine. It would be a valid artistic statement because it would be making fun of sequelitus in the games industry. Right? So, Passage 2 [Laughs a little to long.] It would be forty dollars. It would be fifty dollars! And it would be forty hours long. But it would just be forty hours of Passage. It would make money. But it would be a cynical move.
Paste: Would you ever consider doing something similar to Passage again?
Rohrer: I’m not really interested in making more games like that. Passage was about: Can we figure this out? Is it possible? Can the mechanics express emotionally subtle things? I think it’s clear they can. I don’t want to keep exploring the same branch. I’m really interested in board games right now. But board games are expensive to make. If I spent two years making one, I’d only bring in at most thirty thousand dollars.