The legendary cyberpunk Michael Pondsmith, commonly known as Mike Pondsmith or Maximum Mike, is best known for creating roleplaying games like Cyberpunk 2020. Pondsmith has also worked on a number of other cyberpunk titles including Bubblegum Crisis, Hardwired, and When Gravity Fails (all produced by R. Talsorian Games, Pondsmith’s company), as well as The Matrix Online. These games have significantly contributed to and influenced the cyberpunk genre. Currently, Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games are working in conjunction with CD Projekt Red to create the highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 video game. Michael Pondsmith has defined cyberpunk gaming as we know it today and I had the honor of interviewing him about the past, present, and future whilst trying to rein in my inner fanboy.
ND: Talsorian came out your of passion for mecha anime when you created Mekton, correct?
Pondsmith: Yeah basically, it came about when I was interested in anime in general but in mecha anime specifically. I wrote a game and discovered that people wanted to buy it. So I had to start a company to make it.
ND: Where did the name Talsorian come from?
Pondsmith: A long time ago, Warren Spector and I were sitting side by side at booths, him for Steve Jackson and me for an unnamed company. Warren gave me good advice, which was “Never name the game company after yourself.” Now at the time, I had been thinking about naming it Bonzo Fury Games but I got overruled by everybody. So basically, we chose to name it after the one person who would never show up at a convention ever, ever which was one of our investors. So, it’s named after a raisin farmer in Fresno.
Pondsmith: Yeah, actually I got both of my degrees in Davis. The first one was in psychology. The second one was in graphic design. Which as it turns out, was the perfect for training a game designer.
ND: And as I understand it, Talsorian was one of the first companies to use graphic design elements in the creation of their manuscripts.
Pondsmith: Yeah, I wouldn’t say we were the first to use design, but we were one of the first to use what was at that point called digital prepress or desktop publishing. That came about when I did my first project, Mekton. I ran a job shop for UC Santa Cruz, and we had this $45,000 compugraphic machine that produced type on rolls of film. We had to develop it, which in those days was pretty darn advanced. So, I did the first game on that because I had access to all those tools. We basically did publishing there and then within the year. My mother turned me onto desktop publishing because she had bought a Macintosh and I moved over to desktop publishing because it was faster and easier.
ND: Bringing us onto the subject of cyberpunk, it was 1987 and cyberpunk had been well established at this point, what inspired you to turn it into a roleplaying game?
Pondsmith: It wasn’t that established yet. It was still kind of in the beginning stages. The backstory is that my favorite story of all time is Blade Runner. When I got into Blade Runner originally, my girlfriend and I went to see it. At the time everybody went “Oh yeah, that’s kind of a not great movie” but I saw the potential and I said, “one of these days, I gotta do something along this line.” At the time there was pretty much only D&D though, so there wasn’t much to work with. As time went on and I developed more role playing games, I thought, I think I’ll do a Blade Runner like game. As it happens, the first cyberpunk book I read was Walter John Williams’ Hardwired. It was an interesting thing, and I decided to do cyberpunk and worked my way towards it. A mutual friend of Walter’s and mine was running a Mekton game, of all things. Walter was in the Mekton game.
ND: I was going to ask how you guys met.
Pondsmith: Yeah. He was in a Mekton game with my friend Rob Pruden, who works on Air Superiority. Rob said, “Well I got a bunch of guys in the area who are cyberpunk authors, so do you want to have them playtest the game you’re doing?” I love Walter’s stuff so I said sure, “I’d do that.” So, Walter John Williams and a bunch of cyberpunk authors at the time were all in the first playtest of what became Cyberpunk.
ND: So, what made you choose 2013 as the original setting?
Pondsmith: It seemed like it was far enough away, to be honest.
ND: Three years ago now.
Pondsmith: Yeah. There’s a running joke that I have the ability to forecast the future, but it’s always dark and grim. And in 2013, my son was supposed to be considering cutting off his arm and getting cyberware, so that turned out right. He hasn’t had a chance to get cyberware yet, although there are cyberware like possibilities out there that I would have never, ever expected when I wrote the 2013 stuff.
ND: So you already mentioned Blade Runner and Hardwired as influences. Are there other cyberpunk media that you’ve found particularly influential?
Pondsmith: After I wrote Cyberpunk, I had a chance to read Burning Chrome and that informed a little bit of what was happening in 2020. Oddly enough, I hadn’t read anything at that point other than the information that Walter had fed me, so I didn’t know about those particular works. I was working on Blade Runner, Walter’s stuff, and bits and pieces I’d heard.
ND: Well, that’s amazing because a lot of people assume it’s inspired by Neuromancer because it’s so similar.
Pondsmith: I hadn’t read Neuromancer yet. I read Neuromancer when I was going through the second round of the manuscript. I remember finally reading it and going, A: Wow, this guy has been in my head, and B: This guy is so good, as I said to my wife, this guy is so good he makes my teeth hurt. I looked at his stuff and said, “Man, this is amazing.”
ND: So in a broader sense, I think that the Cyberpunk RPG itself has contributed two major things that I can identify to the genre. The first was the idea of style over substance and attitude is everything. Those things get quoted everywhere. What does that mean to you exactly?
Pondsmith: Style over substance. Well, actually I was just talking to my son about that. He is also a game designer. I think that a game or anything entertaining is about delivering an entertainment experience. The rules are about the way in which you deliver that entertainment experience. So, you have to have it feel right, it has to look right, it has to taste right, so to speak, which is the style. The substance is the rootstock that makes it into a game, or novel, or whatever, the writing of it. You have to make sure that that serves the style, which is why it’s, “Style over substance.”
ND: Right, so the rules never overcome the story that’s trying to be told.
Pondsmith: The rules should implement and help you build the story so that it feels maximally like a story. I think that’s one reason we’ve been successful with Cyberpunk.
ND: I think that’s one of the biggest problems with a lot of modern games, like the newest version of Dungeons and Dragons, is that it’s more concerned with the rules and the combat than it is with trying to tell a good story. The second major thing that I identified that Cyberpunk has contributed is the cyberpunk archetypes. We talk about Solos, or Street Samurai in Shadowrun, but really Shadowrun took their archetypes from Cyberpunk.
Pondsmith: Yeah, we get to get three big things for design claimants. First one is Lifepath, which has some recognitions back to the original Traveler idea of careers. He built the first system that allowed you to build a background for your character. It’s mostly derived from the idea of movie plots. The second piece was archetypes. White Wolf did them quite successfully a bit later on. Our idea of how you did an archetype and how it was structured came from a combination of both anime and the problem that at the time, nobody knew how to play a cyberpunk character, because it was such a new idea. So, we had to give them a guidebook for what a particular type of character was. The archetypes were ways of identifying particular styles and careers of characters who would be showing up in a cyberpunk universe.
ND: I was going to bring up Lifepath too because I think that Lifepath is by far my favorite mechanic from any of your work and I’m glad it shows up so frequently. Every game where I have used Lifepath, which is almost all of them since I started playing, you can build much more interesting characters than when you just base a character off of statistics.
Pondsmith: Lifepath was designed to get people off the ground with all of tropes and bits about their character. And indeed in Mekton Zero, which is the one that’s coming out this fall, we strengthen that even further. Lifepath is probably our biggest contribution to gaming design and development. It’s used all the time. My son looks up all the time now and there’s Lifepath in Pathfinder, there’s Lifepath in D&D 5, there’s Lifepath in practically everything. But at the time that we did it, it was a fairly strange and new concept.
ND: Frankly, I think you guys have done a better job.
Pondsmith: Well we started it, so we kind of got the jump on everybody.
ND: I’ve played Pathfinder, and I’ve used their background system, and it isn’t as story driven.
Pondsmith: No, that’s because the whole point of Lifepath is to create a character story. Most people end up creating a character and they don’t have the writing capabilities. They’re not writers. They’re people who game. So, my job is essentially to make it easier for them to build a background. To do that I have to look at the various pieces that shape a character’s life, their style, and their outcome. That’s not something that comes naturally to most people. Which is why so often when people do build their character systems, they’re building a version of an existing type of character they’ve seen in a movie or a book that’s better. I’m going to build Harry Potter, but I’m going to give him big guns.
ND: So, Walter John Williams was one of the original playtesters for Cyberpunk, and you co-wrote the Hardwired setting with him, you mentioned that earlier. What was that experience like, working with the author on his own material?
Pondsmith: It was really fun. Walter is actually a game designer. He’s credited with designing, oddly enough, a historical Navy game called Privateers and Gentlemen. He designed a game which was about building 16th and 17th Century sailing ships and fighting and that whole thing. Very, very contrary to the whole cyberpunk genre. Writing the stuff was fairly easy because, to some extent, all I did was guide bits of what Walter was already going to do because he knew how to be a game designer. He was already good at it.
ND: So, going back to the cyberpunk style idea. Cyberpunk fashion in the past few years has become a huge thing. What would you consider your cyberpunk uniform?
Pondsmith: Well, I usually wear it. It’s usually a black leather jacket, mirrorshades, and some kind of backpack with tons of various hardware for my computers and phones and things like that. Black jeans and usually motorcycle boots. I usually carry a nine-inch knife, pretty much. They don’t let me carry guns. I’d have to get a concealed carry permit, and they don’t like you to carry automatic weapons. When my family gets together to go out, we all have a tendency to wear black leather jackets and black clothes. We’re very cyberpunk and very Goth and monochromatic. My son’s fiancé, however, is very fond of sunshine yellow, so we look like a group of crows with a lost duckling in the middle.
ND: Later in 1992, you had the opportunity to work on When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger. What was it like to work with Effinger on his work?
Pondsmith: George is a lot of fun. The best part was when we went down to the yearly game manufacturers’ convention, GAMA in New Orleans where George lived. And I don’t know how many people know this, but the entire Budayeen is constructed based out of the French Quarter of New Orleans. He was fun to work with. We stayed in touch long after Gravity ended, all the way up till he passed on. In fact, he also wrote part of a Castle Falkenstein novel. He wasn’t able to finish it because, at that point, he’d gotten pretty sick. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to publish it but we might one day.
ND: So both Hardwired and When Gravity Fails were part of a Cyberpunk Masters Series. Did you have any plans for more of those or did you ever produce one that I’m not familiar with?
Pondsmith: We were planning a couple of others but unfortunately about that time the crash came on the paper side, due to the 10 billion card games that came out that year. So, we weren’t able to finish it. We had already talked to John Shirley about doing his Eclipse series, and it was probably going to be the next. We never really got things pulled together to do actual Neuromancer one. Part of that was due to that the whole Neuromancer thing was tied up with Bruce Sterling, who signed up with Steve Jackson. So, it meant that Steve had rights progenitor before we would.
ND: A little back history on my personal fandom. My first anime was Bubblegum Crisis. My first roleplaying game was the Bubblegum Crisis Roleplaying Game. I watched the anime so that I could play that game. It was also my first experience with cyberpunk back in high-school. So it’s kind of close to my heart and that’s how I discovered Talsorian games. It also seems like it is a meshing between your love of anime, mecha, and the cyberpunk genre. So was that a particularly fun project for you to work on?
Pondsmith: Yeah, actually while I worked a bit on it, that was primarily Benjamin Wright’s baby. He was a huge, huge fan of Bubblegum Crisis. A little side story, when you do a license like that there is background that isn’t filled in that you have to guess at. You know, as somebody says, you never know where the bathrooms are in Star Wars until you have to roleplay someone hiding in a bathroom. Benjamin and crew came up with a lot of background materials and structured the BGC world. We later sent it back and Artmic said, “Wow this is really great so were going to use it in our new Bubblegum Crisis stuff.” So, we have the honor of having helped build the background that became canon for a lot of BGC.
ND: I assume you’re familiar with the anime?
Pondsmith: Yeah, I have a copy about 25 feet way from me.
ND: So in your opinion, was Sylia a boomer?
Pondsmith: That went around a lot. I am of the mind that she wasn’t. For a lot of reasons, that would probably take half of your time, but I never believed she was a boomer.
ND: That’s just a fun question. It’s one of the few unanswered questions that’s really interesting.
Pondsmith: Particularly towards the tail end. But the thing of it is, the boomers in large part don’t have many of the shadings of personality. I think that’s one of the things that make them, much like replicants, stand out in the world and Sylia had a lot of shadings. There was a lot of stuff going on with her.
ND: After Cyberpunk 2020, Talsorian released Cyberpunk v3.0, and it doesn’t seem like it was as well received.
Pondsmith: Well, that is one of those where you have to learn to listen to yourself and not necessarily listen to external forces. There was a really big push, after we did 2020 and new types of cyberpunk came along, that we should do a version that was a lot more transhuman. 2030X was an attempt to get more transhuman styles and I also wanted to look at how cyberculture and online culture changed the nature of cyberpunk. So all of that was set out to do a transhumanist cyberpunk. What we discovered was that people don’t want a transhuman cyberpunk. They want cyberpunk. Part of it is that transhumanism, structurally, is counter to cyberpunk in that it essentially postulates a positive world view that things are moving towards, as opposed to things having totally gone to hell in a hand basket and probably won’t get better.
ND: Right, it’s like technology will save us rather than technology is just another part of us.
Pondsmith: Right, exactly. Nailed it in one. In fact, I think I’ll keep that quote. Thank you.
ND: So in 1998, according to Talsorian’s Wikipedia page, there was some kind of conflict at Gencon over “floor space and dealer space” and then you guys went on a hiatus.
Pondsmith: TL;DR: Basically, the upshot is that it was so long ago. My son was just born that year and he’s now an adult. There was a restructuring of floor space, such that smaller companies and new companies were not going to be able to get prime real estate. Where we felt it should be a first come, first serve thing with certain people having dominant positions. It became, “If we think you’re a big enough company and important enough then we will give you access to space.” We, oddly enough, didn’t have much of a problem. We were going to get our spaces, but there was the principle of smaller companies, which we had been, weren’t going to have a shot and were going to be relegated to a separate hall. As I recall, basically it was, “We only want to have the big guys here, and the rest of you can go sit in another hall.” The same kind of thing just happened at E3 but that’s more because they charge more for those spaces as opposed to just blocking people out. We thought that was massively unfair, so we sat Gencon out that year.
ND: So, it was a protest?
Pondsmith: Yeah, it was a protest. There were a lot of people that protested as well. I believe Steve Jackson sat that one out. There were a number of people who basically said, this isn’t fair, we’re not going to go to Gencon.
ND: So during your hiatus, what were you doing?
Pondsmith: I was being a responsible father and making money in the digital realm. I got approached in 2000 by Microsoft to work on Xbox games, and I said, “But guys, I already have a company.” They said, “That’s fine we’ll just write papers, you can keep doing your company.” Which was incredibly pleasant and generous. They just let me go ahead and do Talsorian. But I had wanted to get back into video games which I had started in years earlier. At that point, I had a growing kid and the business was good, but I got to admit it, you don’t make the same money as a Microsoft exec. So, I spent 5 or 6 years at Microsoft and then went over to a couple of other companies as well. I learned an immense amount which then informed my design stuff, and I was able to put together a much better living for my family. It also gave the industry a chance to recover after it took a collapsed because of the card market.
ND: That makes sense. Since we’re talking about the card market, is that when the old Netrunner game fell through? Because that was based on Cyberpunk 2020 right?
Pondsmith: Yeah, it seemed to have done fairly well. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) took a bunch of hits that most people seem to forget about. As a result, they were really feeling the pain. Netrunner was amusing because it was the one that, oddly enough, Richard designed before he designed Magic. He told me years ago, that he had wanted to do that first. Although, I’m not sure it was necessarily about cyberpunk, but it was the same basic idea and mechanics. At a certain point, we had the option of maybe buying it from WOTC. But they had been acquired by Hasbro, and it was a big confusing mess. I was also at that point very, very busy working on digital projects as well. We had been taking this hiatus, we let it roll. Several years later, Fantasy Flight Games came back and said, “We want to do Netrunner. We want to use the mechanics, we want to do some other stuff, we want to do our own background.” It ended up with Richard and I sitting at one of our favorite Indian restaurants in Redmond, kicking it around, and we decided, “Yeah, we’ll let them do it.”
ND: To go back to the video game conversation, I understand that you worked on The Matrix Online and that you even did the voice of Morpheus?
Pondsmith: Yeah, I left Microsoft to work on The Matrix Online. I was working on Flight Simulator, and a friend of mine came in and recruited me. I said, “Oh? Ah? The Matrix, yeah I’m there.” So I got hired as Live Lead, but we went through a lot of changes there. We changed producers/companies like once, twice, maybe three times. It got fairly chaotic and I ended up doing mostly mission design stuff. Eventually I moved out of that but for a while, I was the scratch voice of Morpheus. To my pride, the Wachowski’s said, “Yeah, it would be great if you did the voice of Morpheus. Unfortunately, contractually, we have to use the actor instead. So I did not get to, “offer people the red pill or the blue pill.” (Great Impression of Morpheus)
ND: On your new website you mention another four year hiatus. Is that the same one?
Pondsmith: It’s the same one. Basically from 2000 onwards, Talsorian has been on hiatus and partially because the industry crashed. I mean, I watched friends and companies crash and burn and be out on the street. We weren’t able to keep our stuff going, and a lot of that was because we chose to pay out a lot of our guys and help them get established in other jobs rather than just saying, “Sorry you’re out on the street.” So, we were always able to make the payroll which was nice. But we weren’t even sure the industry was going to exist in another couple years because of the hit. We lost over a third of the game stores in the United States during that crash. It was bad. It was ugly. I was GAMA President during that, and it was like looking at a death march.
ND: I remember the game store in my hometown closing.
Pondsmith: We lost a lot of stores and a lot of people. It all worked out that I wanted to go back to digital for a while anyway. On top of it, I made more money, which meant that I could afford to do things like buy a house, pay for kid stuff, send him to school, and do some of the stuff we needed to do on a bigger family level. We started coming back about three years ago solely because my son graduated and decided that what he really wanted to do was become a game designer. He is now doing the game design stuff. He is currently writing the Witcher Tabletop RPG for CD Projekt Red. So we’re doing Witcher, and they’re doing Cyberpunk. Which we find pretty funny.
ND: On your site, you mention that you are now “specializing in unique creative visions in novels, films, video games, and other media formats.”
Pondsmith: You really can’t produce a product that doesn’t touch on all aspects. One of the things we’re doing is that we’ve added a bunch of people, and one of them is my partner in crime, as I call him, Aron Tarbuck. He used to be over at WOTC managing brands. Aron and I both share the idea that you don’t just do a game, you do all of the stuff around the game. To that end, we’ve expanded Talsorian to cover other things. To be honest, I’m not going to give you anything more than that because then we’d be giving you the two years business plan and you’d be bored to tears
ND: Talsorian is working with CD Projekt Red on the new Cyberpunk 2077 game, and you’re working on their Witcher RPG?
Pondsmith: Well I advise Cody, but he’s writing it. I don’t do fantasy all that often, and he wanted to do this and pitched it to them. They liked his pitch so much they said, “Yeah, okay, go do this thing.” So this is his baby, and he seems to be doing a damn good job of it from what I am seeing.
ND: What is it like working with CD Projekt Red?
Pondsmith: They’re a fun bunch of guys. They’re incredibly friendly; they’re very straightforward. Our official corporate cultures are very similar in that we think about the fans; we care about the people who buy our products. We care a great deal about them. And that overall is one of the big things that sold them to us. And they’re very, very good at what they do. As I said, I first went over and was talking to Michal Novakowski, who was their manager at that point for the business. And I said, “Hell, I’d just quit and join you guys.”
ND: So with 2077 on the horizon, are you guys going to be producing a Cyberpunk 2077 Roleplaying game?
Pondsmith: Ahhh, if I told you that, I’d have to kill you.
ND: Haha, that’s fair. Recently, you Kickstarted Mekton Zero. Tell me about that?
Pondsmith: Kickstarter was one of those things where Lisa wanted to try it, my wife and my business manager, wanted to try it. Cody was up for it, and I was kind of dubious. It’s been a bit problematic because usually we just go off and do these things and then bring them to market. We’ve had to learn how to deal with a lot of other people getting involved in it. As far as scope and scale go, what we realized after we got done looking at all these problems in Kickstarter, we’d done the equivalent of two year’s worth of work planned. If I looked at the amount of work were doing, it’s about where it should be, weirdly enough. There was just a lot of stuff that was added. Like, “Oh yeah, we’ll do figures. We’ve never done figures, oh yeah. Well, let’s keep adding figures.”
As a project, it is really near and dear to my heart because it’s doing a couple of things I’ve wanted to do for years. Most RPGs are way too complex and hard to get into, and one of the things that I wanted to do was build an RPG that would be dirt easy to understand but could be complex enough in that understanding. Sort of like chess is easy to learn but then has many, many variations and tricks that make it the complex game that it is. We did a lot of experimental stuff that I would say was on the level of the Falkenstein card mechanic or Cyberpunk‘s skill mechanic or even the Lifepath stuff. We’re doing a lot of cool, new stuff with that. The other thing we’re doing, and I’m not going to get that much into detail because you’ll be able to see this in about a month when this puppy gets to the stands as it were. We also looked at the idea of mecha being used in a world in a different way than the typical, “I have a giant robot; you have a giant robot; let’s you and me fight.” My wife is partially to blame for that. She said, “You have an entire world out there, and you’re really not using it. What if you had like Godzilla in the world” and I said, “Oh, okay I can do that.”
ND: So back to cyberpunk, there is this very common assertion that we are living in the cyberpunk now, as people say. How do you feel about that?
Pondsmith: Like I wish I’d been wrong. My son always says, “Dad, think happy thoughts.” We are living in a very cyberpunk position. And part of it is that we don’t know how to utilize the technology we have, and the street does find its uses for things. Sometimes, they’re not very good uses. Never has corporate power been as extended and universal as it is now. I remember I was looking at an article a couple of days ago on how much information Facebook is able to gather or extrapolate about you from your Facebook page. It was two pages worth in small type. It’s terrifying how much they know about you. We have a lot of renegade government stuff, we have a lot of renegade corporate stuff, we have a plethora of violent capabilities, and we have a lot of technology that can go either way. We have a lot of people wearing black leather and mirrorshades, so we’re getting there.
You can follow Michael Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games on their official blog.