White Wolf and the World of Darkness revival: “Asking ‘when will you rage?’ has never been more relevant”

Last week, I sat down with Martin Ericsson, lead storyteller at White Wolf, publishers of the World of Darkness RPG systems and interwoven storylines. It’s a strange and exciting time for the company, who are about to step back into the spotlight after a decade-plus drought of digital games since 2004’s much-loved Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. For much of that time Ericsson and colleagues were locked into a licensing deal with CCP, working on the ill-fated and never released World of Darkness MMORPG, but now they’re ready to begin a new generation of stories.

We talked about the recently announced Werewolf: The Apocalypse game and how its werewolves act as nature’s remedy to mankind’s ills, as well as that MMO and the broader shape of White Wolf’s future. Along the way we discussed punching Nazis, why now is the perfect time to get angry, and how World of Darkness is about the here and now as much as its own mythology. This isn’t just one game, it’s the rebirth of a world.

(I’ve included links to the White Wolf wiki for terms you might not understand; if it’s in red, a click should help)

RPS: I spoke to you way back when Paradox bought White Wolf and now here we are at a Focus event.

Ericsson: This goes back to how we set up the deal. The Paradox group are financing us, it’s not Paradox who bought us, and we’re not an internal studio in any way. We’re the licensing company that develops a meta-plot, that ended with the Gehenna and Apocalypse books in 2004. We’re pulling back the timeline to slightly before the Gehenna books, and now we’re in the Age of the Apocalypse. It might be a hundred years before the world falls, but we’re solidly in it now. This is the age of the final battle.

RPS: Because it’s been so long since we’ve had a White Wolf game, could you talk about why it’s taken so long? And what does going back to digital games let you do, in a storytelling sense, that you can’t do on tabletop?

Ericsson: The first question is pretty easy. It’s because at CCP, I was one of the content designers on the MMO World of Darkness, and the strategy we took there was to put all our eggs in one basket. We wanted to make the most awesome, content-heavy MMO, and then content-heavy MMOs went BAM, into the sink. We saw Knights of the Old Republic fail and Warhammer Online crash.

We were in the middle of MMO death, so we tried to rescope, and we tried to do that by doing something in CCP’s style, which is emergent player-based stories. But we were a bit too late, and we maybe tried to bite off a bit more than we could chew.

During that time, all licensing deals were off. We kept Onyx Path because that was the old passionate writers, the people who really knew the lore, and who were working on 20th anniversary editions of the books – nostalgia editions for fans.

I was heartbroken when this happened. I had sold my apartment, my girlfriend had broken up with me. The whole thing crashed before my eyes and I thought “what the fuck am I going to do now?”

Fortunately, there was a connection between me and the Paradox group and we could make something happen. Now, a year later, there is a lot of stuff that we’ve done that we can’t talk about at all! But rest assured, the idea of having different products that feed into one another into one big brand, with a connecting meta-plot, that’s what I’m working with 60% of my time. We’re figuring out what has happened between 2002 and today, in the World of Darkness.

How have our supernatural nations and factions reacted to the situation in the Middle East, the war on terror…

RPS: I think one of the appeals of White Wolf is not just that you’re storytellers, who also enable other people to tell stories, but that those stories are parallel to the real world. The topical mythos.

Ericsson: (laughs) Absolutely.

RPS: But to go back to my second question, what do those stories gain from being told on a computer rather than in a social group? Bloodlines is still such a beloved RPG, but does that fit with the ideas you’re talking about now? Can we expect more of the same?

Ericsson: On the subject of Bloodlines, one of the first things that happened when the news hit was that Activision called us and said, “can you tell us why this game is selling so well on Steam still?” And we say because it’s awesome, and because you’re the only modern day, proper, adult, gritty vampire game. Go figure.

And of course we want to do more of that. But now, we’ve grown from our twenties to our forties, so we can tell more sophisticated stories now, and the computer games medium is in another place entirely. We feel more kinship to indie game developers who want to ask big questions. World of Darkness has always been punky and questioning authority, and that fits with the indie scene much more than it does with big studios.

World of Darkness has never been a safe place. It’s never been a fantasy place where you are protected from the harsh realities of life; it’s reality but worse, more terrifying.

RPS: That’s becoming harder and harder to achieve.

Ericsson: Precisely! And that’s why we’re facing it head-on. We are the ones who aren’t afraid of asking these questions. Of course, our werewolves are nature’s vengeance. They are the immune system of the planet and the plot point we’re at with them is that they’re thinking of restarting the Impergium. That is where we are. They spared us thousands of years ago, to ensure we only stayed in family groups and that we are nomadic, but they spared us because they are half human and half wolves.

RPS: But now they’re sick of our shit?

Ericsson: Yeah! The humans have had their time. Did they do well? No. Did they fuck it up? Yes, pretty much as badly as they could have fucked it up!

So now there is this very tense situation within the Garou nation, where the Glass Walkers say humans still have a shot and that they can use technology to get out of the situation. “Look at Elon Musk,” they’d say, though maybe he is a Glass Walker. On the other hand are the Red Talons who say, “look at the rate of species extinction; listen to all the dead spirits of extinct species we’re talking to, screaming for vengeance. Let’s go kill them.”

And in between all of that you have all of the other tribes who have their own ideas about how to deal with humanity and what we’ve done wrong. The Black Furies are a matriarchal clan who don’t want to help the humans until they sort out their gender rights, The Get of Fenris who just laugh at all of those social aims and say it’s about survival of the fittest, and they should go into all-out war to see if humans can survive.

So it’s not Captain Planet. It’s nature red in tooth and claw.

RPS: And how does this work in a computer game?

Ericsson: You will play the werewolf. You will play the monster. We’re in pre-pre-pre-production so I can’t talk about details, but the basic questions are: “When will you rage? When will you use violence? When will you have had enough?” But there’s an important follow-up, which is, “what is the price of changing the world through violence?” Those two questions go hand in hand.

Part of the IP is for the werewolves themselves to question whether it’s at least partly their fault that the world is as it is, because they’ve used violence to solve problems in the past. That is on their shoulders. The balance between gnosis and rage is a super-interesting thing to play with. These things have mechanical effects; it’s not just light side and dark side. It affects how long they can maintain their forms, or how they can work with spirits.

There will be scenarios like, you meet a bunch of loggers: do you rip their heads off or do you actually listen to them and realise that they have no choice, that their families will starve, that they are unwitting cogs in a machine.

The pack is central too, so some kind of pack mechanic will be involved in this. Whether you’ll be the pack alpha or if you will rotate between characters, we don’t know yet. But we need a pack. We probably need a multi-tribe pack to represent the traditions of the Garou nation. In this world, we can play with the tropes that are the tribes, going against expectations and making sure we don’t end up with the standard RPG party.

RPS: So the Werewolf game will be an RPG. But are you considering other genres for other parts of World of Darkness. I have the dream of the Crusader Kings II Vampire grand strategy game. I’m not asking you to confirm or deny that such a thing might exist right now, but are you interested in exploring the world in that way, as well as through more traditional roleplaying?

Ericsson: Oh yes. Absolutely. But with Werewolf, we asked ourselves, what genres make sense. A brawler maybe? I can see that in the right format, there’s lots of strong character designs and powers. But an isometric RPG would make lots of sense too, like a Baldur’s Gate style. Shape-changing comes with some influence on perspective; first-person is a pretty cheap way to do shape-changing (laughs). But not very exciting. We feel we need to pull back the camera for transformations, at the very least.

So to go back to the original questions: what can we do with these worlds when we go digital rather than tabletop and why now? Well, for ‘why now?’, I’d say this: have you ever been in a time when the question “when will you rage?” feels more relevant? That’s why we wanted to announce now. This is the time to get pissed! But also to think about the consequences of getting pissed.

RPS: I see conversations on Twitter almost every day right now about whether it’s ok to punch a Nazi.

Ericsson: Exactly! This is a game that wants you to consider that question and to take it further. Is it ok to kill to save an ecosystem? We don’t want to provide ready-made answers – the Garou have their own answers, of course, and so do their enemies and the mortals in between. But we’re considering branching narratives and so on, because we want people to play with these questions and maybe learn something. Think about whether to fucking act right now or to find compromise.

RPS: There’s a lot of history and a lot of lore, but this will be the first White Wolf story for a lot of people. How do you make it work for newcomers, and is Vampire still the most well-known property?

Ericsson: Yes. Partly thanks to Bloodlines.

RPS: I’m an old man who has been a PC gamer for a long time; is Bloodlines still finding a new audience, or is it mostly people like me?

Ericsson: Oh yes. I meet people all the time, all age groups including younger kids, who love Bloodines. It’s a game that takes the maturity level of the player seriously and it’s still different from many other games. For us it was very clear that there is still an audience looking for that.

We’re doing other projects too though. Two mobile games called Preludes, which take people from mortal to vampire, or from sleeper to awakened. The first is a Vampire game, which has two freshly made vampires in LA chatting over a messenger app, trying to work out what’s going on. It’s very contemporary and it’s about class in the US. The other is a Mage: The Ascension game set during the War for Reality, at the backdrop of the refugee crisis of 2015, looking into perceptions of people. Are they a threat or are they neighbours we don’t know yet?

White Wolf has always worked partly as a metaphor for current events and this is a good time to be back because we have loads to talk about.

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34 Comments

  1. mouton says:

    Radical werewolf feminists! This will be fun!

    • LexW1 says:

      Many of the werewolf clans basically embodied a whole lot of fringe-of-society positions in 1992, and I doubt they’ll have changed much.

      The summaries of them here in this old io9 article aren’t too bad:

      link to io9.gizmodo.com

    • theliel says:

      I so look forward to Black Furies going back to straw man men hating feminist terfs, let me tell you.

      Everytime Martin talks I just get this creepy ‘edgey game designer’ vibe.

      • April March says:

        This is the first I’ve heard of him, but I get what you mean. He knows what he should be talking about, but I get the feeling that he doesn’t know about what he should be talking about, right? I’d like to see a game deal with the themes he mentions, but I’ve been burned by ignorant oversimplifications more concerned about seeming edgy than about being interesting, and I don’t see enough on this interview at least to suggest he knows any better.

        • Fnord73 says:

          You should check out his work in the LARP scene these last 15? 20? years. The grimdark rendition of Hamlet set in a fictional 1930s is a classic.

        • Mayobe says:

          Old WoD _IS_ that game. It was a tabletop game, but WW was all about the players driving the story. They created a system and a described a world. The rest was up to you.

          Old WoD was excellent because it didn’t take sides in anything. Even the central conflicts were only definite in the eyes of the characters in the story. The werewolves were fighting against the wyrm and had all kinds of arguments about whether to fight the weaver. Their worldview was unquestionably correct: they could encounter and physically interact with the spirits and forces that they were talking about. But then the awakened mages had a completely different lore, which was also unquestionably correct for the same reasons. Actually, each tradition of mages had a completely different take on how reality worked and what the important battle was. They all conflicted impossibly, and all of them correct. Correct enough that the mage could use their interpretation of reality to perform magic that altered reality in useful ways.

          The end effect of this was that it became a matter of survival to understand the other person’s point of view. A faerie who carries out magic using ancient contracts with the forces that formed the universe out of chaos may laugh at the silly human playing with his computer until that computer hacks into the reality matrix of the faerie and permanently turns its legs into weasels.

          You had to face other points of view to play old WoD. You had to get comfortable dealing with various ideas. You had to be able to understand – and often empathize with – a thing without necessarily agreeing with it.

          Those are skills that we could really use more of today.

      • Deviija says:

        Oh lord, that’s exactly popped into my mind when I was reading that part coupled with the whole love for “adult, grimdark, gritty” buzzword themes. One dimensional man-hating TERF matriarchy werewolves, one dimensional extremist environmental terrorist nature hippy werewolves, gah. Basic ‘creepy edgy game designer’ bits you and April outline, I can see it. It’s about the depth and nuance, not the archetype surface for the rad-cools.

        There’s a lot to love Bloodlines for what it was, in the time it was made, but it’s very much a product of the time and immature and unsophisticated (re simplified) in as many ways as it was good (again, for the time). So while I’m happy to see WoD games trying to be made — especially as they were a big enjoyable part of my gaming life in the 90s to early 00s — I just hope they actually update things with much more substance than surface.

        • theliel says:

          April & Deviija
          All of the Tribes have been updated to not be quite so “90’s white dudes w/out Wiki creating stereotype based monsters” with revised and the *20 lines particularly removing the fetishism of native cultures, at least in Werewolf.

          It’s good to know that I’m still in the running for my bet of ‘what would NuWhite Wolf Do’ being “regress back to the Edgelord McEdgyness that brought us Gypsies”

          Preamble Ascension awakening in 2015 Syrian Refugee camp my ass.

          • elmerg says:

            Yeah, the assumption that anything from the *20 lines or even BNS’s updates will be a default assumption in the games is sadly going the other direction.

      • plugav says:

        I have to admit, I get that “creepy, edgy” vibe, too. He is, after all, a middle-aged white dude talking about putting more politics into an IP with a history of… problematic content, to say the least. But, damn, there’s potential in that punkish urban horror stuff. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for something at least interesting to take form.

        • Darth Gangrel says:

          People are free to vent their impressions, but to me this just sounds like overanalyzing stuff that might not have any bearing on the final game. We just knew this game existed, let’s wait with the judgments a little while.

  2. kud13 says:

    “Why is this game still selling so well on Steam?”

    -Because it’s a “shooter-RPG with powers” (the more commercial name for the immersive sim) that fills the urban fantasy niche. The fact that it’s regarded as a cult classic helps.

    But I’d argue at this point it has more staying power than the original Deus Ex. Purely because there’ve been other “cyberpunk” games, but no-one tried tackling an urban fantasy RPG seriously.

    • LexW1 says:

      It is pretty curious that no-one really has. They’ve done urban-fantasy shooters (including The Darkness 1/2), but never really an urban CRPG, and it seems like it would be pretty easy/natural to do such a thing. Vampyr is on the way of course but I get the feeling it’s more of an action game with a strong story, like Dishonored.

      • April March says:

        Urban fantasy and steampunk are two genres that are surprisingly scarce in videogames, aren’t they? I mean, it’s not even that there aren’t good games – there aren’t even many lame attempts to pander to their fans. (There was Damnation for steampunk, but that was one game.)

  3. RavenGlenn says:

    It’s really sad to me that World of Darkness got canned because they viewed SWTOR and Warhammer Online as failing due to being content-heavy.

    If anything, both of those games were incredibly shallow. Warhammer Online failed to live up to any of their self-built hype and promises. The tier 1 areas were at least decent to play, but I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the game as a whole.

    SWTOR has a lot of dialogue, story, etc. But most of it isn’t very compelling and the rest of the game was HEAVILY hindered by MMO-grind. Even now when I can pay a monthly fee and play the stories without the in-between grinding….I still don’t really care enough for the stories to do so.

    • LexW1 says:

      The point is, though, they were well-made games and extremely content-heavy. Neither of them was actually “incredibly shallow”, either, unless all MMORPGs are (which is a fair claim – but you must include all of them, or certainly all the big boys.)

      WAR failed because it was so content-heavy that on release they still hadn’t really finished the T3-4 areas or endgame material and balance, so when people rushed to max level, they got bored and frustrated pretty quickly. The actual PvP at lower levels was superb, both in the BGs and in the RvR areas, it’s just that it completely fell apart at the end, and by the time they got it back together (and it had a good launch, sales-wise, made it’s development costs back for sure – but marketing? Harder to say), the population had dwindled quite a bit. It was also less fun in PvE than WoW (better made in a lot of ways, just less actual fun, because it was designed around PvP), and a lot of people weren’t really there for the PvP, so got bored by that too.

      It never actually failed or ran out of money or the like – it was killed by GW directly. They had a five-year license, and GW pulled the license because they wanted to be able to make another Warhammer MMO, which never actually happened. GW had actually done this before – there was another Warhammer MMO before WAR, well into development when GW just pulled the license.

      SWTOR was not a terribly different story. It was extremely content heavy (much moreso than, say, WoW at release or even post-TBC, arguably even post-WotLK), and pretty well-designed. I’d argue that it was in many ways better designed than the WoW it was copying. Unfortunately, WoW had iterated not long before SWTOR released, and had considerably improved its gameplay, and SWTOR’s gameplay was basically “Like TBC-era WoW but better” when WoW was in WotLK-era gameplay.

      SWTOR has actually made huge money over the years, note – in terms of it’s take, even as free-to-play it’s much more successful than stuff like Guild Wars 2.

      TLDR: Neither was shallow, both were content heavy – but that meant huge dev costs and time, and both copied WoW’s design too much to properly differentiate themselves.

      • Someoldguy says:

        I think it depends what you are weighing when you measure weight. SWTOR had bucket loads of content but I was bored of it within weeks because it all felt too samey. The solo story cutscenes were definitely nice when the NPCs didn’t look made of plastic, but all the encounters felt like the same colourful but predictable MMO grind with oh so familiar roles we’d already been playing for 7 years (or longer if you throw pre-WoW MMOs in the mix.) Plus their choice of 8(?) starting races had an identical humanoid body with a superficial tweak or two and different skin paintjob. No tall, short, multilimbed, alien faced or insectoid races need apply! That’s what felt utterly shallow to me.

        WAR had similar issues. The zones were slickly crafted but again it just felt like WoW reskinned and as such it didn’t take long for boredom to set in because it was all too familiar. I had been rooting for the previous Warhammer that had been based more on the PnP RPG than the tabletop battle system. What arrived just didn’t live up to my hopes for the IP. In neither case was it the content weight that counted for or against it but their failure to decisively separate from WoW gameplay and offer a real alternative. SWToR still did okay because of the sheer strength of its IP.

    • SaintAn says:

      He didn’t say they died because of they were content heavy, he said during the death of content heavy MMO’s. MMO’s took a while to die because of the WoW tumor. Big games couldn’t compete with WoW because WoW’s target audience was non-gamers(as you can see with their old ad campaigns) and casual gamers. So after the slow struggle for survival games started going “f2p” and “b2p” focusing on scamming children and the lowest common denominator with microtransactions instead of making content rich game worlds, which was the death of the genre.

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    Captain Narol says:

    That sounds wonderful but still very foggy…

    CCP f*cked up big with World of Darkness, let’s hope Focus will be abble to do better with Werewolf and stay…focused !

    The relative success of The Secret World shows there is room for some MMOs more focused on storytelling than grinding, and the World of Darkness would indeed have been a perfect basis for one.

  5. Someoldguy says:

    Quoting from his interview here link to vg247.com

    “It’s primarily an action RPG,” reveals Ericsson. “This is the most action heavy of all the World of Darkness games. It makes sense that it’s a visceral, brutal, close-combat-centric game.

    Well, that’s my money staying in my pocket, then. The absolutely worst part of Bloodlines, bar none, was the combat. If this is going to be an aRPG that does overgrown dog melee as its driving schtick, I want none of it. The Werewolves should be invested in maintaining the Veil just as much as the Vampires ever were. You can’t win a war when you’re outnumbered millions to one and sparking one off is only likely to bring about the Apocalypse you’re supposed to be struggling to avoid.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      I really liked the combat in Bloodlines, especially after installing the Armory mod, giving you lots of new weapons.

      The melee was quite simply, but very fun, really liked smashing people across the room. The ranged weapons required 1-2 points above their “required skill level” values to work optimally, but worked really good once there. I mostly played gun using characters.

      While I would like a new Bloodlines most of all, being able to wreck stuff as a werewolf also sounds fun.

    • damoqles says:

      Where do you get the idea that this game’s combat system will have anything at all in common with Bloodlines’ (which was ridiculously bad, I agree)?

      • ElementalAlchemist says:

        I think the point is that Bloodlines is a great game in spite of its terrible combat, and that future WOD cRPGs should be focusing on those non-combat elements, not just making another generic action game.

  6. ChatterLumps says:

    Here’s hoping we get some sort of Mummy: The Curse game one of these days.

    • damoqles says:

      I want a third Torment game based on Promethean: The Created.

      • Yglorba says:

        I want a Mage game by the Academagia devs. Unfortunately when they kickstarted an Ars Magicka game, it failed…

        • Mayobe says:

          I want a WoD storytelling tool so we can play the tabletop games without using up a bunch of paper and pencils. It could be a free “game” that lets you buy sourcebooks as DLC and then use the systems and character sheets that the books you own describe, yeah?

  7. whoisnot says:

    I wonder whether any of the old devs/writers of the classic (’90s era) p&p WoD games are still with White Wolf, or if it’s totally new people using the old brand to sell their “fan fiction”. (Not as if new people couldn’t do good stuff, and not as if such “fan fiction” couldn’t prove as good as or possibly even better than the original. Am just curious.)

    • elmerg says:

      Most people who used to write for WW are either freelancers or, in a couple of places, full-timers for Onyx Path Products and By Night Studios. All White Wolf is is the IP owner and licensers, though they plan on doing 5th editions of at least Vampire, Werewolf and Mage in-house.

  8. FroshKiller says:

    Asking “when will you rage?” has never been more relevant

  9. welverin says:

    If they’re going to make a brawler it should be based on Exalted.

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