January 25, 2010

Interview with Obsidian Portal (Part 1)

I've recently been doing a fair amount of writing about the future of role playing games and the industry behind it. Last month, I kicked off this series off with an article [1] that covered some ground by looking at what other bloggers (and and a few industry pundits) had to say about the genre of "role playing games" and where it was headed. A few weeks later, the technology aspects of involved in the future of table top RPGs was explored more by both myself and MadBrewLabs [2, 3, 4, 5]. Altogether, you could say I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the future of RPGs and how technology will continue to influence the way we game.

Then it hit me: I needed to talk to someone who was actually DOING IT.

Which leads us here: an interview with Obsidian Portal (OP) founder Micah Wedemeyer and their Content Director Dan Albright.
Just to cover my bases: Obsidian Portal is an online RPG campaign management web portal. They aims to provide tools for organizing the myriad of information that gets created during a campaign. For more information, please visit the Obsidian Portal homesite. They also, by the way, have a new blog which is quite excellent.
In this multi-part interview, I talked with Wedemeyer and Albright about how Obsidian Portal got started, what major hurdles OP faced at its start, what obstacles it still faces now, and where OP is headed into the future.

TCM: First things first, how did Obsidian Portal get started?
ALBRIGHT: In the beginning there was light, and the light spread over the world. It was good, for a time. However, all good things must come to an end, and in some distant corner of space (no one living knows when the exact moment was) an event occurred that we refer to as the Cromlepsion. During the Cromlepsion, a war broke out in the heavens. With each blow the universe trembled. One of those terrible blows sent a strange device and two angels hurtling towards the earth. The angels, Micah and Ryan, set to work trying to repair their sky machine, but they lacked some of the necessary component, and human technology would not catch up for several millennia.
     As Micah and Ryan wait for humanity to catch up, they bide their time by playing games of fate and chance. Games that we humans clumsily categorize as ‘table-top RPGs’. Seeing that humanity was a brutish and warlike lot, these angels set about using their tremendous power and intellect to guide humanity toward a better path. They harvested a fraction of the tremendous power of their magic space box, they opened a black portal to the human ‘internet’ so that others may learn of these ‘table-top RPGs’ and play them among their own kind.
WEDEMEYER: To be brutally honest, I started OP in September 2006 in order to get rich. I thought I’d make the “MySpace of D&D” and I’d be rich in a heartbeat. Well, that didn’t really work out, but it turned into something that I really love, and while I’ll never get rich, I enjoy the work so much that it doesn’t matter.

TCM: OK... that sounds like a really cool campaign setting! But... what role do each of you currently play in keeping it an active and growing service?
ALBRIGHT: I started working for them around August of 2009 in a sort of gopher/mouth-of-god role.
WEDEMEYER: As for roles, Ryan and I are the developers. We keep the thing running. For 2 years, I was also the public face and marketer, charged with engaging the community and getting people to sign up. Luckily, we were recently able to recruit Dan for that task. But, he’s come on and done much more than that. He has become part of the core team, responsible for directing our progress just as much as Ryan and I [6].

TCM: Before the "Cromlepsion" and the founding of OP, did you work on any other projects in the table top gaming industry? What sort of background or experience did you bring to OP?
ALBRIGHT: Before working at OP, I was Technical Writer and a Software Engineer before that. My only prior experience in the game industry comes from a six month stint working for Sci-Fi City, a FLGS in Orlando FL. I’ve always been a people person, and complete strangers will walk up and talk to me for no reason what so ever. I’ve been able to hone this into a super power of sorts that lets me influence the actions of others through pheromone secretions.
TCM: Sounds disgusting. I'll make sure to wear plastic wrap the next time we see each other.
WEDEMEYER: OP was my first foray into both the tabletop industry as well as the website industry. I know it’s a cliche to say, “I just stumbled into it…” but in this case it’s true. I was a programmer for a couple years, and had a computer science MS, but OP was my first leap onto the web and anything even resembling a business.

TCM: There’s been a surge in recent years of DIY small press game companies. I myself am a casualty of that trend – so naturally, I’m curious what you do full time and how much time you spend working on OP each week. Can you comment on that?
ALBRIGHT: I spend too much time working on Obsidian Portal each week! Haha, I kid. I probably spend 10 to 20 hours a week reaching out to the community and making sure that Obsidian Portal is a part of their daily routine. The rest of the time I spend working at my day job, writing up fun and interesting things for our users, thinking up new ways to give away T-shirts and other swag, or meeting with Micah and Ryan about what to tackle next on our famous ‘to do’ list.
MICAH: I just recently quit my full-time job in order to focus more on OP and another side business I run. I also do part time consulting in order to pay the bills. Just so it’s clear, we’re not rich by any means. OP is growing, and one day may support us full-time, but we’re not buying our yachts just yet.

I gained a new sympathy for spammers, actually. It’s all a matter of perspective.
TCM: At its start, what was the biggest hurdle that OP faced and how did you overcome that challenge?
WEDEMEYER: The biggest challenge was, and still is, getting the word out. When I started, I had a “If you build it, they will come” mentality. Boy was that wrong. I would go to forums and post “Hey come see my new site!” only to get responses like, “Get out, spammer!” I gained a new sympathy for spammers, actually. It’s all a matter of perspective. I knew that OP was the solution to the problems of most GMs and I had to tell them about it. I’ll bet Cialis salesmen feel pretty much the same way.
     Anyways, once Dan came on board, this has become much easier, at least for me. I can concentrate on the programming, while Dan gets the word out. I’m sure he can tell you that it’s not an easy task. Community outreach is at least a full time job. It nearly overwhelmed me before Dan joined.

TCM: OP is basically an information technology company that is supporting a decidedly low-tech game. Can you comment on how your services have been received by the community?
WEDEMEYER: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. When I started, I built the tool that I wanted, and I took a guess that other GMs would see it the same way. Turns out that I was right.
     I’ll admit that the site isn’t perfectly laid out or easy to navigate. But, once someone figures it out a bit, there’s usually an “Aha!” moment where it all clicks. Then, they go nuts and start adding characters, wiki pages, and all kinds of stuff. We hear echoes from these people on their blogs and twitter feeds. Stuff like, “Hey, now I finally understand this Obsidian Portal thing! It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
ALBRIGHT: A lot of our users say things like ‘Wow, this makes it so much easier!’ or ‘hey thanks!’ followed by ‘by the way, can you add this, this, and this feature?’ People love the site and what we offer. They want to be part of a community of players and see what those players are up too. They want to tell the world their story, and they want to have a place for keeping their notes organized and online. I know that people love it, because they tell me they love it, and because people want to see it get better. They want to see progress and change and new features. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t tell us. But they do tell us, and they do care.

TCM: Given the enthusiasm for OP in the community, it suggests that there could kind of a halo effect. Gamers who use OP have an influence on gamers who don't. So, what impact do you think OP has had on how gamers in general think about running and managing the information in our games?
WEDEMEYER: My hope is that OP will fundamentally change how people organize their game content. We want to make the GM’s notebook essentially obsolete. A notebook is great for when you want to get a thought down, but it’s terrible for when you need to reference anything. We’ve all wasted valuable game time trying to look something up in our notebooks. This waste of time can totally sidetrack a game and kill any sense of excitement. I want OP to make it super easy to organize and find anything so you never have to make your players wait.
ALBRIGHT: I hope that Obsidian Portal makes people think about how they manage their campaigns. I want people to realize that they don’t need anything but their imaginations and people to bounce ideas off of to come up with some fantastic worlds, items, villains, heros, quests, and more. Table-top RPGs are all about sharing a story with friends and it’s a uniquely social event. One of my goals is for Obsidian Portal to take the ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ out of this event, and add more ‘yes, and then this happens!’ to it. We hope to do that through organization and open communication with the community.
WEDEMEYER: Now, I want to contrast that thought with my opinions on how OP has changed the playing of our games. I most definitely don’t want to fundamentally change how RPGs are played. I think the core concept of friends meeting around a table to tell a story is perfect. I just want to make it easier and offload some of the onerous bookkeeping, organization, and logistics.

TCM: Looking ahead, what new features is OP actively working on for release in the near future? My understanding is that you have an active feature request forum, so can you say anything about the next big feature for OP?
ALBRIGHT: We’re working on implementing a unique storefront that will let people buy gear, items, minis, and more related specifically to their campaign. No more generic stuff, no more minis that don’t look like your character, it’s all specifically for you, your world, and your campaign. No more DM screens that have information you never use and none of the stuff you need. It’s the feature I’m the most excited about.

TCM: Custom DM screens and other products sounds really cool and useful. When can the OP user community expect to see such items made available?\
ALBRIGHT: When will they be available? Hopefully sooner than later. I’m hoping by the end of the year that will become a reality, but there are a lot of external factors involved that I just don’t have any control over.
WEDEMEYER: We’ve got a lot of features right now, but many of them are very basic and we want to change that. So, instead of introducing big new flashy features, we’re currently focusing on making the ones we have much better. Most importantly, we’re focusing on the experience for a brand new user. Right now it’s pretty confusing for someone who just signed up. I imagine a lot of people quit very quickly because they can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do. So, we’re trying to make the learning curve a little less brutal.

How can we make our players care as much about the game as we do?
TCM: Honestly, I was one of those customers who signed up and dropped out because I couldn’t figure out what to do or how to get the rest of my group to stick with using OP. People can become very set in their ways. Will there be any specific changes you are making to the interface of OP to make the experience better?
WEDEMEYER: The new features we’re working will be familiar to many people from other sites. For example, instead of being dropped in without a lifeline, we’d like to add tutorial videos and text to each section that appear when you first log in. Once you’re happy with things, you click a box to remove the video and it goes away. That kind of thing. Nothing real complicated, since complication is part of the problem.
     As for increasing engagement across the entire group, we’re at a loss there. It’s a big problem and we really don’t know what to do about it. We’d love to hear ideas from the community. How can we make our players care as much about the game as we (the GMs) do?

TCM: What about campaign maps: event markers, place name markers, etc using the Google map API are definitely possible. Are their any plans to introduce an interface to make individual campaign maps more interactive?
WEDEMEYER: We’d love to do it, and it’s been kicking around the back of my head for a while. But it’s another feature on a seemingly endless list. Our main enemy is time, not lack of ideas. Even if I worked 24/7 on OP, I think the list of TODOs would still grow faster than we could manage. It’s actually a very depressing part of the development process, knowing that we’re never done. With all the feature requests we receive, we constantly have the impression that people are unhappy with the site. I have to remind myself that it’s a matter of perception. It’s not that people are unhappy, more that they’re very happy and just want more of a good thing.


[1] "The Future of RPG Industry" from The Core Mechanic
[2] "Role Playing Games, Social Media Games, and the Shared Fence" from The Core Mechanic
[3] "Social Media RPG Platform" from MadBrewLabs
[4] "Bridging the Gap: RPGs and Social Media" from MadBrewLabs
[5] "Social Media Role Playing Minigames" from The Core Mechanic, which was also in part inspired by a previous comment on minigames in general in "Mini-Games in RPGs".
[6] Ryan Felton, who was not part of this interview, co-founded OP with Wedemeyer in 2006.


  1. I like the interview, it's so personal, and I've never seen these guys interviewed before. Good idea!

  2. Thanks for interviewing us! If anyone has any questions for us, find us on Twitter or Facebook and ask there. I'll go ahead and volunteer Dan to answer any inquiries ;)

  3. Awesome interview!

    I totally understand the depressing part of development, which makes it even more incredible that you keep sticking it out.

    As far as getting players interested, it is all a matter of incentive. WHAT do they get for getting involved in the Wiki? It's probably more of a GM issue than infrastructure issue.

    Perhaps the ability to define parts of the world, extra action points (bennies, healing surges, force points, etc.), or [as a last resort] experience? Basically, their participating on the wiki needs to matter at the table.

  4. As a player whose DM uses OP, part of our group's engagement with the site is the adventure log. Especially since our DM includes bits out of the chat we engage in during play (we use a virtual table top called Fantasy Grounds II, wonderful tool btw). We can look back and laugh, or groan, or any other reactions you can think of really, to what our characters have done/are doing. I really enjoy the site. Plus, our DM gives us 'control' over our characters on OP so we can fill in things like their appearance, quirks, alignment, etc. All in all, I really like the site! :)

  5. Thanks Mad Brew & ScarlettLin,

    I think we'll need to revisit player incentive and see if we can model something that will get them interested. Maybe achievements, maybe Obsidian Portal Points that they can collect towards physical swag (like pepsi points!)


  6. @Dan: Achievements sounds interesting. The trophy system from PS3 (and other consoles) comes to mind.


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