Monday, 15 February 2016

The Future of Jovian Chronicles - Interview with Robert Dubois of DP9

Monday, February 15, 2016

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Jovian Chronicles Fleet Scale EXO armors

Today I have a treat for you, dear cosmonuts! With new releases being announced for Jovian Chronicles/Lightning Strike I contacted Robert Dubois, the CEO of Dream Pod 9, to see what the future might hold for the game(s). It turns out that there are a number of exciting developments in store and I have started prepping my ship models for battle.

Before we move on I'll just mention that we are mostly refering to Jovian Chronicles in the interview which, if you want to get technical, is the rpg (which has tactical rules that use miniatures) while Lightning Strike is the dedicated miniatures game. However what we are really talking about is Lightning Strike or a future version of Lightning Strike, although it may end up with a different name.

Alright, so lets just get to it!

Fire Broadside: Hi Robert, I'm glad to have you hear to talk about what's going on with Jovian Chronicles and what the future might bring. But before we get into that could you just tell us briefly who you are and perhaps a quick recap of the Jovian Chronicles game?

The original Jovian Chronicles supplement for MektonRobert Dubois: Hi Martin. Well, I'm Robert Dubois, the president of Dream Pod 9. The company has been around since 1995 when we published our first Heavy Gear book, the roleplaying and tactical game. Since then the company went on to team up with Activision for a couple of computer games based on Heavy Gear and made a tv-series together with Sony.

When we go back even further into our history we were actually a company called IANUS Publications who published the Protoculture Addicts and Mecha Press magazines, that were all about anime and manga. We started working with R. Talsorian Games back in the early nineties to publish some Mekton books and that's how Jovian Chronicles came into being. We were doing some Cyberpunk stuff for them, and then we published Jovian Chronicles which was our tribute to Gundam, giant robots and all that stuff.

Later, after Heavy Gear was published, we decided to re-do it with our own system - the Silhouette core system. We came out with a bunch of books and miniatures for Jovian Chronicles and one thing that did very well for us was Lightning Strike, which was a tabletop miniatures game based on the Jovian Chronicles setting. You had fleets of ships and exo-armors fighting it out on the table and now we're actually working on an updated version of that that will allow you to field smaller scale, about 15mm tall, exo-armors instead of the old large scale ones.

FB: Yes, this announcement really put me over the moon! I remember coming across the first edition from DP9, back in 1997, and flicking through it realized I had to have it. While I hadn't really seen much Gundam at this time I was familiar with Macross and loved the mecha. However, what really amazed me was the solid hard scifi, adhering to proper physics (most of the time), and the both deep and broad background setting for the game!

RD: Yeah, our team from way back then, like Marc A. Vezina, all come from an engineering background. They really like to have the hard science, with the ships designed properly with gravity only coming from thrust or through centrifuges or actually spinning the ship. There is no gravity plating like you see in Star Trek.

FB: Exactly, there is no space magic. And I love that especially as it feels lite something that's fairly rare, not only in roleplaying games, but in movies, books and on tv as well. There's usually some handwaving going on to explain all the "unrealistic" things.

RD: That's the beauty of Star Trek - technobabble explains everything! Somebody sneezed and they go back in time; "Yeah, we'll just write something around that. Physics, no no, we don't need that.". But with Jovian Chronicles we tried to have the physics working, which is also true of course, for Heavy Gear. We wanted to have the hard science as that was the background of the guys in our company. We had just got out of college and we loved tabletop games so we decided to start our own company!

FB: And you're still here! So, focusing on the Jovian Chronicles and the miniatures for a bit, I got the impression that one reason for having the larger 30mm exo-armors in the beginning was connected to the tactical game in the rpg that was much more of a skirmish experience than Lightning Strike.

RD: Yes, the original tactical rules in the first edition of the rpg was written for maybe five exo-armors per side and it has the full 3D combat, it has vectored thrust and it has the X, Y and Z axis. So you had to either raise your miniature up into the air or use a lot of counters! Lightning Strike simplified this to a 2D plane and streamlined version of vectored thrust and in the future edition we would aim to streamline it further. In the old tactical rules you could run your exo of the table if you didn't apply counter-thrust properly!

FB: Hehe! That actually happened to me the other day as I was doing some solo tests of the tactical rules in preparation of running our rpg campaign - one of the exo-armors simply wooshed off the table as I realized I didn't have enough thrust to turn in time. Still, I think it brings a certain something to the game, even with the much simplified "vector tokens" that are used in Lightning Strike. Do you think we might see something like that in the updated rules?

RD: I think we’ll try and remove as many counters and tokens from the tabletop as possible in a new ruleset as they tend to slow down the game. So I don’t see full vectored thrust rules like in the rpg, as for keeping the thrust arrow from Lightning Strike, we’ll have to look at that. New rules will have to go through alpha and beta versions, where we get feedback from the players before they are locked down.

You got to be careful with the hard science, going to the extreme. In fact, back when Wunji Lau, who wrote the Europa Incident (among other stuff), started working on Lightning Strike we decided to make it more for selling miniatures than for selling an rpg. There are two different dynamics between the two types. In an rpg you want a lot of background and fluff that people can really get engrossed in - technical flaws like, the players find out that there's something wrong with a particular model; if you push it too hard it might explode or something like that!

But in a miniatures game people just want to know, "ok the miniatures look cool, there are cool rules that allow you to fight against one another in a balanced battle", so there has to be a point system for how to build your fleets and all that. Sometimes you can't take what's in the fluff of the rpg and translate it since a player might go "well, why would I ever buy this miniature if it has this major defect?!".

FB: Making a balanced miniatures game is certainly a very different experience from an rpg. Will the new version basically be a smaller update to the current Lightning Strike rules, mainly taking into account the switch of one exo per stand to three, or will it be a major overhaul, like what you have done with Heavy Gear?

RD: It's going to be a little bit different. What Wunji and I are talking about right now is how to update it and bring it to the level people expect of a miniatures game these days. Like I said, less counters to keep track of stuff and so on. One thing we realized is the way we wrote Lightning Strike and the way we abstracted things back then is not ideal in todays gaming climate. We had the exo-armors as these 35mm tall miniatures and the ships being maybe 60mm long so it was not exactly to scale. 1/500 scale for the exos and fighters and 1/5000 for the ships.

We explained that in Lightning Strike by saying that you are actually the admiral on the bridge looking at this projection of the battle, and of course the projection is not going to show a pinprick of light that was your exo-armor but a blown up image to make it easy to grasp. What we're saying now is that instead of just one exo-armor what we have is an entire squad of exo-armors. We'll go and redo the rules and get feedback from the players to streamline it down. You'll have squads of exos and you'll have ace exo flights, and when we come about doing the Dragonstriker or the Stormrider we'll have just one big model representing it.

Pathfinder EXO armour in fleet scale for Jovian Chronicles
We can't really have them to exact scale as even with 15mm exos the ships would become very big and too expensive for the regular player. Having players shill out $50 for one ship just to have it in scale isn't worth it, sometimes you have to abstract it.

Anyway, we did some massive changes to Heavy Gear with the latest rules (downloadable for free here), and we will probably do something similar to this with Lightning Strike. We want to get it to the point where it's easier to built your fleets and have faster dice rolling mechanics so we can speed up the gameplay just like we did with Heavy Gear. That's not to say that it will be exactly like those rules, we'll likely throw in some different stuff to try out and get peoples feedback on. We want to make sure that every weapon upgrade or every pack of exos are viable in the game - "what does this pack bring that the other doesn't?".

FB: So probably some major changes incoming. Will the process be similar to how you are handling the latest iteration of Heavy Gear, with beta testing etc?

RD: We'll be sure to do alpha tests and beta tests to get some good feedback. As game designers you can have this idea in your head and you think it'll work perfectly and then someone out there goes and says "but what if you do this?" and you realize it completely breaks the game.

Mechanics are far from nailed down but we're probably going to have a dice pool similar to Heavy Gear where you add or subtract the number of dice in the pool rather than applying modifiers to the actual roll. Basically we want to keep the positives and get rid of any negatives and defects. For example if you have a ship in the old rules which doesn't have the range to hit the enemy ships at the other side of the table, it's going to get somthing that can do that. Since battles are usually between ships firing at each other and some exos trying outmaneuver and outgun each other to get to the enemy ships.

FB: Well, having units that can actually do stuff is usually more fun. And as far as the scale goes, I think having exos and fighters at 15mm and ships staying at the scale they are now will be just fine. Yes, it's still out of scale but it's close enough that our brain can have you look past it and it feels like it makes sense on the tabletop.

Hector EXO armour in fleet scale for Jovian Chronicles
RD: Exactly. Right now we're trying it out, first releasing the Jovian and CEGA fighters and we just released images of the new exo-armors, the Pathfinder and Hector for the Jovians and the Wyvern and Syreen for CEGA. Our sculptor, Tony Baltera, is working on some other things in the background now so we're getting some more Jovian and CEGA exos and eventually he's even going to work on some of the Venus stuff like the Ryu and the Brunhilde fighter. We basically want to get what we had in the old 1/500 scale, all the fighters and exos, into the new fleetscale. Then after that we're going to look into how we can actually pay for maybe doing new ship designs and all that. We've talked about the possibility of doing it as a kickstarter, you never know. There are a lot of ship designs out there that we never sculpted.

FB: Yes, the ships in the Fleet books are among some of the best hard scifi designs I've come across in any medium. Not only that, but they also look very sleek and cool so that people who might not be all that interested in the physics can appreciate them for their looks alone. I think they're beautifull and I'm sure they would sell like hotcakes!

RD: Right now it's all about making sure there's a market for it and building up a new fan base, as we haven't had anything new come out for the game for a while. Our main focus has been Heavy Gear as that is our main product line. There's a new computer game in the works for Heavy Gear as well...

FB: And a new rpg!

RD: Yepp, and a new rpg. There is some other stuff in the background we can't mention yet. A lot of people have been asking us "are you ever going to do anything more for Jovian Chronicles? What happened to the fleetscale fighters you showed us back in 2006?" and at one point we actually looked for them and finally dug them us as they were in a box, buried in another box in storage. So we thought "ok, let's put it out there before Christmas and see if people are interested" and we got a lot of positive responses!

Alexander class destroyer for Jovian Chronicles
Alexander class Destroyer from Fleet Book 1. Beautiful stuff!

FB: That doesn't surprise me. I have read a lot of positive reactions and comments to the new fleetscale stuff. People seem really excited for it and not only old JC fans, but also people who become interested mostly because of the Gundam connection or because of the simple fact that there are almost no fleet scale mecha fighter miniatures out there.

RD: Tony has been learning over the last year how to actually do 3D models that will cast well.
Syreen EXO armour in fleet scale for Jovian Chronicles
You'll notice, when you zoom in on the pictures of the new exos, that we've actually pushed the arms into the body. Because when you cast these as one piece miniatures you can't have undercuts, so it's learning how big you can make the detail to make it show up nicely. Since doing a 3D model and having one that can be rapid prototyped and look good as an actual miniature are two different things. You can put the most insane amount of detail on a 3D model, and many kickstarters do this, but it just makes me think "you can't do that. It won't show up on the model".

We're going to see how far we can push the limit with Jovian Chronicles. Some guns might give us trouble depending on how they are pointed and in that case we might have to do some exos as two piece miniatures. We use Maya to create the actual 3D model which can be exported as an object file that can then be sent to a company like Shapeways for rapid prototyping. But it's actually when you get the model back that the real skillfull jobb actually happens as you have to take that and turn it into a miniature. You can't simply cast the prototype but you have to first seal it, as it's porous, and often you need to sand it to get rid of print lines. We then do silicon moulds, running a specialized resin that can survive the vulcanization process, and we take those parts that are then cleaned up again and we make a vulcanized rubber moulds to run pewter. It's not as expensive as doing plastic but it still costs a bit to do each one. You got to pay for the mould being cut and test runs, but you still get away with $400 or $500 in cost to get stuff into production. Compared to the moulds for the plastic models in the Heavy Gear kickstarter where each one is about $15,000!

FB: That is quite big chunk of change indeed! But apart from the plastics you will be doing for Heavy Gear, the pewter and resin casting is all done in-house, right?

RD: Yeah, we do everything in-house. We're working with Fusion Models who actually handles the making of the silicon moulds and Alain Gadbois, who runs that company, was actually our original sculptor back when we started the company. Fusion Models do our large scale Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles kits, but Alain is a WW2 buff and does mostly historical stuff, although there are some sci-fi stuff there as well - he's a geek like the rest of us. He's also very experienced with this, not only doing models but everything from race car steering wheels to hearing-aids to parts for military aircraft. Still, we have both resin casting and pewter spin casting set up in the office so it can be done by us with full control. With the plastics we're having a company just north of Indianapolis who are going to run the plastics for us. That way we can control the chain of command much better.

FB: Seems like a good idea considering how often companies have trouble when doing the casting in China.

RD: Yes, just being able to call up and ask them to print 500 more of something and then having it shipped by UPS a week later is a big difference compared to the slow boat from China.

FB: Alright, getting back to Jovian Chronicles for a bit and the new exo-armors. How did the idea of having stands of three exos come about?

RD: We liked the idea of having three to a stand and one of them being the leader or ace and being marked in a cool way, like with the plasma lance or the axe.

Wyvern EXO armour in fleet scale for Jovian ChroniclesFB: Love the axe! Very Zaku!

RD: Yeah, that's the idea. The guns change as well for the leaders with the Pathfinder getting a larger one while the Wyvern gets a smaller mass-driver. The Syreen was more difficult as there's no differences in how it is equipped. So we tried sweeping the wings back and giving it a kind of forward motion which I think works.

The stands are actually moulded from piano wire which gives them this ribbing that allows them to flex without breaking easily. There is also a ball joint at each end that match up with the ball sockets at the back of the exos. So you have a lot of freedom in how you pose them. We did have to remove the Hector's fourth thruster leg to make room for the ball socket, otherwise it would have been impossible to get out of the mould.

As I mentioned earlier we're hoping to convert most of the fighters and exos to fleet scale during the course of this year and then see if there's enough demand for more spaceships and updated rules. Possibly there would be a kickstarter or doing our own crowd funding just using the website and make sure we get a certain number of pre-orders to pay for all the models, the rapid prototyping, making the moulds and so on. We get enough orders and it happens.

FB: I know it's way too early to talk timeframes here, but I expect any kind of crowd funding would happen next year?

RD: Yes, it wouldn't be this year. Now we're focused on fulfilling our kickstarter for Heavy Gear. We're getting the moulds back from China some time in April and they'll get run late April or early May and when we get all the plastics we'll be packing up orders for the next month and a half. We want to have all the stuff out for backers by the end of June and then we'll have one month to prepare all the stuff we want to take to Gencon. The plan is to have the retail version of Heavy Gear ready until then.

FB: I think a lot  of backers will be interested to hear this, of which I am one of course. Nice to hear the retail box will be at Gencon - plastics should certainly open up for a larger audience. But... getting back into space again! While they are quite small at 15mm have you considered doing some kind of equipment or conversion pack for the exos, similar to the Weapons and Drones pack that is available in the old scale?

RD: It's possible, but we don't want to get too specifik on things. If we go and say that you have to represent your miniature 100% WYSIWYG like we do with Heavy Gear we limit ourselves, because we force people to buy an insane amount of different models. We want to do something more similar to, for example, Star Wars: X-Wing where you have one X-Wing model but then you equip it with different cards and upgrades. So something similar to this, perhaps having some kind of datacard, so that you get more use out of each model. We might do some of the variants if they're different enough and depending on how they need to be cast.

We basically want to look at the parts that we have and see if we can allow people to swap or upgrade things. If we did some variants like, for example, the Wyvern Marine or Bomber that might be just a single exo-armor that you put in place of the leader to show that this squad is a squad of Marines etc.

FB: Right. So instead of a pack of conversion pieces there might be a pack of specialists or something?

RD: Yeah, probably something similar to what we did with the Heavy Gear infantry where you have basic infantrymen and one specialist in the middle of the base to show its type. That way people don't have to shell out a lof of extra money for a number of completely different squads and if you're creative you could probably magnetize the specialists so they can be swapped out as needed.

FB: I'm one of those magnet aficionados. With the new exo-armors I want to be able to use them one and one for the tactical game in the rpg as well so I'll see if I can't magnetize each mech so I can swap them around.

As we're starting to wind down, I've just got to ask about the name. We have mostly been talking about Jovian Chronicles, although the current miniature game in that setting is called Lightning Strike. Will the new/updated game be called Jovian Chronicles rather than Lightning Strike, considering it is perhaps more widely known?

RD: The final name for a new edition has not been decided yet. We’ll have to brainstorm that once work gets started on a new rule set using the new small Fleet Scale exo-armors and fighters along with the existing Jovian Chronicles spaceship miniatures. For now players will continue using the Lightning Strike rules with the small Fleet Scale exo and fighter squads representing the older individual exos and fighters. The future game may end up being call Lightning Strike 3rd Edition, Jovian Chronicles Fleet Scale, or something else entirely that we dream up.

FB: Ok. I think we've covered the new releases and the future of Jovian Chronicles pretty well by now. As a parting gift, can you tell us what is on the horizon? The Retaliator perhaps?

RD: The Retaliator and all of the other exos are queued up for Tony to work on. We do have the Fury and the Cerberus pretty much done so those might be next. And I can show you a screen capture of the Fury Fleet Scale exo armor for the CEGA faction that our 3d modeller, Tony Baltera, has been working on for a future Fleet Scale miniature release. Of course, the actual model will be tiny at 15mm so keep that in mind with regards to details.

Fury EXO armour in fleet scale for Jovian Chronicles

FB: Cool, I have always liked the look of the Fury and the Syreen! Well, it has been lots of fun talking to you Robert. I hope we can do it again when we get the new rules or if there's a kickstarter in the future.

RD: Sounds like a plan. Pleasure talking to you, Martin.

And there you have it, dear readers! The lastest info on everything Jovian Chronicles/Lightning Strike. We have six new packs up for order or pre-order right now and more will be added to this line-up during the year. Rules later on and maybe a kickstarter next year. Exciting stuff indeed! Right now I'm just looking forward to using the new exos with the current Lightning Strike rules as I think they're brilliant in many ways. It will be interesting to see what the future holds in regard to the rules.

The models will also find use in the rpg campaign as I think we'll try to incorporate the tactical rules at certain times at least. Here's what I'm looking at right now, standing in front of the monitor. You might notice there are some exo-armors missing. Well... not for long now...

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