The Return

We all know how this works, right? At Gencon Jordan Weisman, Randall Bills, Janna Silverstein and I held a seminar on the future of BattleTech. Someone who was there didn’t like something he heard, and told someone else about it, putting his own spin on it, forgetting some aspects, focusing on the things that angered him. And then the person who was told went and spun the story to someone else, and they spun it to someone else, who then put it on the net, and more folks read it and got hot under the collar.

And so it goes until I get an email letter like this: “You are stupid. You have totally screwed up BattleTech. I hate you. Die, die, DIE!!!!!!!!!!!”

Okay, the letter above is an abstraction. Most were longer, not spelled as well, but came to that point. Most also included “facts” gleaned from the seminar. I qualify facts because they’re all wrong and I ought to know, since I’m the one generating them. Anyway, these letters, and the various campaigns of hatred for what we’re doing need answering. This essay will attempt to deal with them.

At the start I’d like to apologize for being a bit blunt in what follows. I have the luxury of being blunt because I’m only a contractor for WizKids. I have no stake in the company. Their success with MageKnight, for example, makes me very happy because the owners and employees are friends, but I profit not from their success, save for what I get paid doing contract jobs for them. So, basically, I don’t have to cover my butt here, and can say some things that need being said.

First and foremost, let’s get down to bottom-line reality: FASA owns BattleTech and WizKids has picked it up from them. They own it. It is their property. It belongs to them, not you, not me. That is a fact I’ve lived with since 1987. Despite the incredible freedom I’ve had working in BattleTech, and the great latitude I’ve had in creating, I’ve always had to ask permission before I could warp things. I’ve been very lucky that my vision and that of FASA and Jordan have run in the same direction, but ultimately it is their decision to make as to where the universe goes.

The only choice you and I have in this matter is to participate with them or not. I’ve chosen to participate, for reasons that will become apparent below.

As you all know, from reading another essay on this page, I left BattleTech a year and a half ago because of a variety of creative differences with how the property is being handled, and because of money. Despite that, when Jordan called me and said, “Looks like I’ll be getting BattleTech back, do you want to play?” I immediately leaped at the chance. Not only was it an honor to be asked, but it always has been a privilege and joy to work with Jordan.

The second point that needs to be addressed here is a rather simple one, and one that all of you are aware of on one level or another: a creative property needs to expand or it will die. Now you can all say that you were doing your part, buying everything FASA put out, but we all know that wasn’t enough. If it were, would FASA have died? If it were enough, would ROC have been able to dictate the page size of books?

The simple fact of the matter is that BattleTech had reached a point of equilibrium. Those who were coming in matched those who were leaving. Sales were steady, but growth was stalling. ROC dictated book length because they wanted to limit pages to maximize profit in a stagnant market. Moreover, they could put wretched covers on the books because they knew they’d not sell to anyone but the faithful. They didn’t believe it could expand and grow, which annoyed the heck out of me, given that the sales of my Btech novels jumped significantly post Star Wars, showing we did have an avenue for finding new readers.

How do you expand a product? You have to provide new portals to entry. You have to give the uninitiated a way to get in with no penalty and yet, at the same time, you have to reward the faithfulness of those who have stuck with it through thick and thin. (More on this latter point later.) We have undertaken to provide this portal for new players, and this is the source of much of the controversy about the new BattleTech.

Some of you are saying that’s not necessary, but really it is. Think about it for a second: how many novels would you say are core texts and must-reads for folks just getting in? A dozen? Two dozen? Somewhere in the middle? Let’s assume it’s fifteen novels, just for the sake of argument. This means you’re telling someone they need to read $90 worth of novels, well over a million words, just to come up to speed with the fictional universe. Then there are all the tech manuals, the situation reports, the field reports, and then the games themselves.

Face it, guys, you can get into a religion that promises eternal salvation for less money and less reading, and get your soul saved in the process.

How do we create this portal? We provide a point in history were someone can come in, grasp what has been going on rather quickly, and get them caught up in the immediate story. We are not dismissing the previous history, not at all, but we want them to be able to slip in and get up to speed quickly, at which point they will learn of what has gone before, and will be able to invest themselves in it. I mean, heck, these books will still exist, will still be available for sale, and to generate royalties, so why would we want to cut the future off from our past? If we were as stupid as some folks assert, we would do that, but I’ve got over 1.2 million words in BattleTech fiction sitting out there presumably earning money for me. I’m not divorcing myself or the universe from that.

Moreover, I put a lot of brainsweat and hard work into those books and into that history. I have no desire nor intent to abandon it. You don’t work on a property like BattleTech, you don’t create characters like Kai or Victor or Phelan or Morgan Kell or Katrina/Katherine and Vlad without investing a good part of your soul in them. I couldn’t have done what I did without loving these characters, and having walked away from them once, there is no way I want to do that again.

I also know it is vital to reward you all for having stuck with us for so long. When you read the new material, I want you to hear echoes of the old. While all references to the past will be self-explanatory, you will know in more depth and detail the implications of what is written. You will know the hidden meanings. You will see layers and textures that the newcomers will not. They will see a world that has sprouted full-blown, but you will know where the seeds came from, how they were tended and cared for. Everything we do in this future is rooted so firmly in the past that you’ll all be nodding in concert, just watching the flow of the history.

Why are we taking such a far future jump? Some folks have suggested that five or ten years, fifteen, maybe twenty would have been enough to push things forward. After all, that was sufficient before, wasn’t it? The previous twenty year jump was sufficient because the main drive behind it was to allow us to bring in new game technology and push the game forward. That this move also pushed the universe forward and kicked the stories into high gear was something we never expected in the way it unfolded.

However, we learned well from that experience. Because we had not planned for how things would twist and move into the future, we had brought the Inner Sphere to a place where we were just going to be retreading old story lines. We were in a stagnant loop. The civil war. The Word of Blake revolt, which is really a civil war, when you think about it. Another Clan invasion after that, perhaps? Been done. An alien invasion? No, a thousand times, no.

We wanted to do something that had never been done before. We wanted a chance to explore some themes we’d not seen before. We wanted a chance to present you with old hatreds in a new era, new alliances, new enemies, new adventures and a chance to explore and discover how this universe had changed. This last point cannot be stressed enough because, since the advent of the Clans, we’d really not tickled the discovery-bug. Sure, we went out to explore the Clan homeworlds in detail, but we’d seen them as far back as Blood Legacy. And the return to the Inner Sphere exposed us to some change, but the exploration of it was brief and could be summed up as “Katrina playing tricks again.”

Why is this sense of discovery so important? Quite simply, in psychological terms, it make you learn, it makes you invest yourself in studying more closely what you’re reading. It draws you in more deeply and once you’ve been drawn in, you want to come back again and again. Those of you who are already into the universe know how well it works, and we need to pull new readers in so they will become as loyal as you are. It will be their enthusiasm and their support that will provide us the sufficient resources to be able to continue the franchise, and to address their needs, we’ve moved the universe out of a spiral of stagnation that would have swallowed it.

From a personal standpoint, I’m finding the criticism of what we’re doing with the future of BattleTech a bit disappointing. Jordan Weisman’s contribution to BattleTech cannot be overestimated, and has gone woefully underreported through the years. He created the universe and the game, setting up the situations I have so ruthlessly exploited and warped. Most of you don’t realize, however, that in all the meetings and summits concerning Btech, Jordan was there. He continued as an architect of the universe even after moving to FASA Interactive.

As for my contributions to the universe, well, if you didn’t like them or find them significant, you’d not be reading this page right now. Suffice it to say, since 1987 I have been a major influence in the universe, writing the arc of history, consulting with other authors, turning out pivotal novels. I dare say that on any list of the dozen most vital novels to read, I’d have half the list, if not more, and some lists would be 100% made up of my work. I have created some of the best loved, most hated and most enduring characters in the universe.

Now, some of you are likening our return to BattleTech as if we’re Napoleon returning from Elba. (We’re both taller and don’t wear hats sideways.) It’s really more like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux returning to hockey and playing on the same team. This isn’t at all to denigrate the work Randall Bills, Bryan Nystul and Loren Coleman have been doing at all–not only are they great and talented in their own rights, but they’ve contributed to the summits and other meetings, as well as have consulted and guided throughout their involvement with the property. Their continued participation in this whole process has been, is and will continue to be absolutely required.

The reason for Jordan’s return are obvious: he created BattleTech, he owns WizKids and invented the MageKnight system. It would be easier to keep snow off Everest than it would be to keep him out of BattleTech. And BattleTech is much better for his participation than any of you know.

Why did I return? Before I answer, let me note a few things. First, according to accounting handed to me at Gencon, and in spite of money paid to me in 2000-01, FASA still owes me in excess of $21,000.00. While WizKids is paying me very generously for the development work I’m doing for them, the time I’m spending doing that is pretty much costing me $30,000.00 (or, at least, deferring my collecting it into the future). And if I do the first new novel for them, even if they offer me the most generous contract their book deal will allow them to offer me, I’ll still surrender $20,000.00 in what I could be making in doing another fantasy novel. So, depending upon how you want to do the accounting, I’m investing $20,000 to $71,000 in the new BattleTech.

So, why am I coming back?

First and foremost, I love the universe and working in it. I love the cultures, the history, the characters, the conflicts and the incredible potential this new situations provides for new tales of heroism, strategy, treachery and evil. This is a universe where the stories are going to be killer, the chances to entertain are going to be superior, and the dynamic energy is just going to be off the charts.

Second, I very much love working with the folks at WizKids. Jordan and I have been good friends for a decade and a half, and have collaborated successfully on a variety of projects. Loren Coleman and Randall Bills are also great to work with, combining enthusiasm and a knowledge of the universe to challenge me to work harder and make things grind together in a way that strikes sparks and surprises the readers. Janna Silverstein was my first editor at Bantam. She is responsible for my fantasy career as well as my having written in Star Wars. She is, without a doubt, one of the best editors it has been my honor to work with. Her addition to the team means both an influx of new and good writers, as well as the rest of us being made to toe a line that will guarantee a level of quality to the books you’ve not seen before.

Third, I really like entertaining all of you. Look, it’s been blatantly obvious to me, as I look at book sales and talk to folks at conventions, that you have supported me as I moved from BattleTech into fantasy and Star Wars. I recall, when it was first announced that I was doing Star Wars novels, that a bunch of SW fans posted on a news group messages to the effect of, “Who is this Stackpole guy and why should we care?” The message that came back from a BattleTech fan was simple, “You’re lucky you’re getting him. Our loss is your gain.”

So, being as how I’m not a stupid guy, and one who acknowledges his debts, I am crafting a world, a universe, a future that is full of opportunities to tell the stories you all have told me you want. I am asking you to take it on faith when I tell you that our story universe was going to stagnate. I know I was feeling cramped and constrained, and this new era is presenting broad vistas again. Believe me, this is all to the good. And, in addition to providing a portal for new readers, it makes it easier for new writers to come in and explore, telling cool stories and exciting tales.

Given the nature of the letters I’ve seen, and the suggestions of venom dripping from websites I don’t want to visit, many another writer would toss his hands up and walk away. I would, too, but years of “The future of BattleTech” talks as Gencon has gotten me used to hearing someone say, “Well, I’ve liked everything you’ve done so far, but I’m afraid you’re going to screw it up now.” Such a lack of faith in our creative abilities and sensibilities would be disturbing except that it’s natural for fans to fear change, so we understand this trepidation, as annoying as it can be.

The first piece of fiction written in this new era can be accessed here. It’s a short piece, roughly a chapter in length, that lays out some of what has gone on in the past. It’s not the first chapter of a novel per se–at least, it’s not the first chapter of the novel I want to write, but I think it is a great first chapter for this new venture we’re off exploring.

To those who want to act like Chicken Little and get all Katrina about the changes we’re making, let me offer a few bits of advice:

1) Don’t believe the rumors or tales about what someone might have heard or not heard at a convention, or in a chat or something like that. Don’t react to reactions. Find the source material, then check it against the official material.

2) Please don’t write me and ask me to tell you inside information to quell your fears. Since you’re not paying me to generate this material, you’ve got no right to it, and I’ve got no right to share it with you. What I can share, as I have above, is my sense of complete confidence in what we are doing here. You’ll just have to take it on trust that we’re not stupid, and that we’ve not gone crazy. (Okay, maybe Jordan and I are crazy. Like foxes.)

3) Patience will go a long way right now. Think about it: my having to write this essay has eaten up half a day that I could have spent getting more work done on BattleTech.

4) Don’t write me telling me your ideas of how the universe could be done better. First off, if you approach things logically and build on what’s been laid out in the novels, your ideas for what should happen in the future are likely my ideas, since I’m the one who has been layering in the foreshadowing and hints upon which you’ll build your future. Second, I do this for a living. If everyone could do what I do, I’d be selling bacon-cheeseburger heart attacks at some fast food joint. It’s not that your ideas won’t be good, its that they won’t be good enough to make the universe sing and scream. Third, and very important, you don’t know enough of the other things going on to be able to provide suggestions that will work to shape the universe into what we need it to be. Lastly, you’re not paying me, so I can’t listen to your input anyway.

Here’s the long and short of it: Jordan is back. I’m back. The rest of the creative team is back. Once we have you back, everything will be in place to make BattleTech better than ever before, and take it places we could only dream about. We’re going there, and I hope you’ll all come along for the ride.

(*New* the follow-up essay written in response to feedback concerning this one. Just click here.)

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