Interview - Drew Bittner
We are extremely excited to share our interview with Drew Bittner. Drew co-created the WildStorms CCG with Jim Lee and co-designed it with Matt Forbeck. He has a unique perspective on the game and it was a delight to pick his brain about the creation and history of the game!
By World Of WildStorm Staff
What types of things were you working on before WildStorms CCG?
I was hired to be an assistant editor at WildStorm in 1994 by Bill Kaplan, who was editor-in-chief then. We'd had one interview, I hadn't heard back, then Bill found me (I'd moved) and asked if I was interested so... heck yeah! I'd had some game design experience, having done a little work for TSR, so that possibility was already on the table.
I moved from New Jersey to La Jolla, CA, and was assigned BACKLASH and WETWORKS as my two books to edit. I worked on both those titles, and most of the line's letter columns, while working on the card game starting in...it was probably late 1994.
You're credited as co-creator and co-designer of the WSCCG. Can you talk a bit about that very first discussion about the game?
Jim Lee called me up around 11:30 one night and asked if I'd come to the office to discuss doing a game. We shot the breeze about card games and the possibility of doing a hybrid card game/RPG; it was a really interesting possibility--and I think we could knock the heck out of it now--but then I thought we should do a straightforward CCG. It was a booming market and we thought we had a good shot. We looked at the opportunity to do a RPG but that didn't come together, unfortunately. I kept the folder with the original design notes. Jim sketched a Grifter profile on one page, so I can claim to have one (tiny) piece of original Jim Lee art.
Drew Bittner in 2009.
How far into the process was the game design before Matt Forbeck was brought into the fold?
We had a rudimentary version of the game. John Nee, the company president, thought we needed a shot in the arm from an experienced game designer and reached out to Matt, which was exactly the right call to make. Matt was a pleasure to work with--he's a total pro, affable, extremely smart, and an amazing sounding board for ideas, no matter how off the wall they might be. His contributions took the game beyond the next level and made it groundbreaking. Plus he was a demon on Marvel vs. Capcom. He's gone on to great success as a novelist and I'm proud to call him a good friend. We made a good team.
Play testing seemed to play a huge part of refining the game. What things did the play testers highlight? Was there anything in the initial set that was drastically changed after testing?
Hm. Playtesting always shows you where the game doesn't work Balancing skills, making sure nobody's combat or ranged value is too high, kicking up or down the D value... it's a million little adjustments more than one big "Eureka!" moment. There were cards that had some unintended consequences and got rewritten, as I recall, but I can't come up with specific instances. Probably things that boosted team combat values like Teamwork.
There's one error that made it into release, also. In the GEN13 comics, Rainmaker can't fly. In our game, she does. Ah well.
From inception to release, about how long did it take to produce the very first set?
Less than a year. We were doing design work, Jim and me, early in '94, then that moved to Matt and me, then we playtested through summer 1995 (including at three cons in four weeks--GenCon as a pro is definitely more fun!), then the game came out in the fall. We should note that the game wouldn't have happened if Ted Adams and Kris Oprisko (founders of IDW, btw) hadn't built a top-notch card subsidiary at WildStorm. I'd written a lot of cards for the SPAWN, WETWORKS, and many other sets from 1994 into 1996. Moving into gaming was a leap of faith in all of us, but so much of the heavy lifting was done by Ted and Kris, we absolutely need to salute them. Design, production, trafficking the artwork needed... that was all them. They were just brilliant.
Also, WSCCG represents some of the early work by a whole bunch of new artists who came to WildStorm that summer. Guys like Pete Woods and J.J. Kirby and Pop Mhan all contributed artwork to the game, and did brilliant stuff. The images they produced are priceless. A few things were clipped from the books, but a surprising amount of the art was original--and Jim contributed some pieces too, which was living the dream. Dang, I wish I had some of that artwork now.
It seems like there's some lag time between when sets were scheduled to release in print magazines versus actual street date releases? Were there unforeseen circumstances that delayed releases?
Things slip all the time. This was the first time we'd done anything like this, and it's possible there were things that came up that we needed to address. The game was locked when we went to press; there weren't any last minute critical changes that I remember we needed to make that stopped the presses.
We did the Players Guide practically overnight. We used my playing notes as the basis for the text, with some elaboration here and there, and lots of full-size art from the cards (gives you a good chance to see how beautiful that artwork is). And the laminated game mat was fun.
With each set, the power of the cards seems to escalate. Was that an intentional process or just a side effect of building sets from the comics?
A little of both. Some of the books had serious power escalation, and the game needed to reflect that. Plus, we started doing sets that incorporated characters from other companies, so that added to the complexity and power level of the game overall. Beyond that, we wanted to make sure that there were bigger, badder challenges for the players going forward.
Not including the Legends Solitaire and Best Of sets, the final set produced was Image Universe. Was this the intended stopping point for the game? Were there enough ideas for the game to continue moving forward had sales been stronger?
I wasn't really working on the game after the first expansion, so that's something Matt would speak to with greater knowledge. I believe sales were quite good on the game. As for ideas, I had plenty of thoughts for how to expand gameplay, such as linking something like a "boost" card to certain characters to upgrade their powers by paying a purchase cost. Like adding more R to Spartan's energy blast or Grifter's pistols, giving Backlash an extra whip attack, things like that.
Do you have a favorite card?
Not one specific card, but it's funny: Matt and I got a heads-up on HEROES REBORN (when Jim and Rob Liefeld took over some major Marvel characters) without really knowing it. Jim asked me to design some Marvel characters in the WSCCG format, but didn't say which ones. Some of course were never used or released; I did cards for Spider-Man and Cyclops, I think, and they weren't part of HR.
Is there a specific game mechanic you developed that you are particularly proud of?
I came up with Plot Twists, I remember that. We needed a way to turn things around in a game and that was such a comic book way to define it, it just clicked. I'm weirdly proud that Marvel stole that name and idea for a card game they did later. Having a staging area was an early development in the game that we carried over into the final version; I thought it offered some cool possibilities to build up an army "off to the side" that you can later unleash all at once. It makes an IO team viable, among other things.
Buying one character at a time is an invitation to getting slaughtered.
Of all the people involved in breathing life into this game (that also played), who was the hardest to beat?
Matt and I both got pretty good, but John Tighe (an inker working out of the La Jolla office) was a tough player. Pop Mhan got some game too. Most of the people in the studio got jazzed by the design more than anything else. I think a few got complete sets; we had a bunch of cards floating around.
Twenty years later, there is still a community of collectors, players, and custom card designers keeping the dream alive. Any words to the WSCCG community?
If you'd told me that there would be a fan community for WSCCG about 23 years after we started this thing, I'm not sure I'd have believed it. I'm really happy to hear that you're all out there, hopefully still playing the game, enjoying it, finding new tactics that we never imagined and conquering your battlesites one after another. At the risk of speaking for Jim and Matt, we're delighted that you like it so much and thank you all.
Thank you, Drew, for providing such an amazing insight into the WSCCG!