(Metagame Archive) Voices from the Field: The Other Design: X-Men, Part 1

By Ben Kalman

Now that you know the basics of how the research and art request/design process works for Vs. sets, it’s time to delve into some new details. In particular, let’s look at how it goes when you’re working for a different designer, and when you’re working on a set dealing with teams that already exist.

First off, when working on sequential sets, you rarely have a moment to breathe between them. I had started the Justice League of America art requests within a week of finishing the research work. Then, once the JLA art requests were finished, Mike Hummel contacted me within ten days to start on the newest set: the X-Men expansion. He gave me a list of reference items I needed to procure, all comic-related (X-Men issues and the various X-Men encyclopedias), and supplied me with the Avengers spoiler, and sent me off to work. (At that point, the Avengers set was not yet released, and I needed the spoiler to ensure that there wouldn’t be too much crossover between sets.) This was an exciting new challenge—to work on teams that already existed, and therefore help to expand and flesh out those teams.

When working with a different designer, you need a fair amount of flexibility and adaptability. Every lead designer has a different way of working, and needs different things from the researchers, so you have to meet a whole new set of demands that differ from previous tasks.

With the X-Men set, the teams were set out, but the rosters were incomplete. Mike provided me with the details of where he wanted to go with them, meaning the story arcs that he wanted to cover, and some info about which characters would be in current or upcoming X-Men story arcs, and therefore would need to appear in the set.

The first thing to do was compile a checklist of 25-plus characters per team. Several characters had to be there—including, at Mike’s insistence, a certain Morlock named Hump (I wonder why?)—but the majority of the rosters were still blank. Mike also wanted a set number of locations, plot twists, and equipment to be chosen and named, although many of those names would become placeholders and end up being modified or replaced outright.

The next step was to flesh out the outline of the rosters. Mike had his own roster ideas and would amalgamate what I sent him with his list of essentials, but first the researcher has to find out what the lead designer wants and then dig up all the necessary details. So my first major task was to take a half-hour and pick Mike’s brain with a handful of questions. I did some basic research, came up with preliminaries for the rosters, wrote out every question I could think of, and then jumped on MSN and talked to Mike. The Brotherhood was focused on the Acolytes at that point—did he want Freedom Force as well? Should Joseph be an Acolyte or X-Man? With Astonishing X-Men’s rising popularity, should their roster be included in the X-Men? How many generic characters (unaffiliated and so on) should we include? This is part of what I mentioned in the JLA articles—since the lead designer has specific ideas about the flavor and direction of the set, it is up to the researcher to discover that information so his research will head in the same direction. In addition, I made sure to go to Mike with a lot of ideas written down and a set list of questions.

Buried within Mike’s responses was some really good advice:

“Remember to have your PTs [plot twists] cover a range of time frames—some late ’70s stuff, a lot of ’80s stuff, early ’90s stuff, and the most recent stuff.”

This is important, and useful to keep in mind for character selections, as you have to make sure to include the fan favorites even as you aim to make the set as fresh and contemporary as possible. It also means expanding your research into territories that may not even make it into the set. Reference books really help with this—while the X-Men Encyclopedias are not comprehensive, they helped to fill out rosters and gave me a quick-find reservoir of information that saved me digging through a hundred issues until I found the correct one. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to at least skim through those issues at some point, but you don’t have to keep paging back through them and trying to remember which issue had the Image Inducer in it and in which issue it was that the Avalon Space Station fell to Earth.

Since the X-Men and Brotherhood teams already had full rosters from the Marvel Origins set, it meant delving deeply into the relevant story arcs in order to fill up their rosters with the least amount of crossover. Staple characters are always going to get new versions, which we need to make as fresh and exciting as possible. This means coming up with different versions of characters that already have three to five versions, and keeping those versions aligned with the flavor and story arcs encompassed in this new set, while keeping them distinct from their previous incarnations. This is not an easy task, as it means that you have to maintain a hundred-plus character cards, and then an additional hundred-plus non-character cards, in your head at all times. I imagine this will only get tougher as time goes by and these teams eventually get redone. At that point, we’ll have to come up with fresh rosters once again, but with twice as many ideas already used—or more!

In addition, you can’t become attached to your ideas. For one, your favorite characters can get shafted, no matter how much you plead and beg. One of first things Toby Wachter told me when he took over Metagame.com was that you often need to ignore your inner fanboy in order to be an effective employee. He is absolutely correct in this sentiment. You can still be a fan, but only on your own time. When you’re on the company’s dime, even as a freelancer or contractor, it isn’t about you. It’s the old adage about mixing business and pleasure: you have to learn to separate them. So when I go to a Sneak Preview, I can be a fanboy with the rest of them. I can maintain my collection when I’m not working. But when it comes to my work, I have to be as impartial as possible. So while I can try to push my ideas, I have to prepare myself for the “No” that might—and often does—come.

It’s likely that many of my colleagues think of me as a pain as it is due to my inherent fanboy nature at times (just ask Mike about my whining about the Marauders). But it’s very important to realize that your specific interpretation of the comic book universe is not the only one. It’s impossible to please everyone. The same goes for art requests—maybe the cards don’t hit the flavor exactly as you think they should in your opinion as the World’s Most Massively Huge Morlock Fan, but, to be honest, this game hits the flavor of the comics and the characters like nothing I’ve ever seen. We all have our own interpretations that we hold each card up to, and some of us have very high expectations, but that doesn’t mean our interpretations are right, or that there is no room to move within those interpretations.

The X-Men set was an interesting one to research, as the continuity was all X-Men, and therefore almost completely confined to X-Men comics. Encyclopedias aside, my research materials were almost exclusively Uncanny X-Men issues, save for a handful of New Mutants issues and the Firestar miniseries for the Hellions, X-Factor issues that tied into the Mutant Massacre (along with a few other single issues from Power Pack, Thor, and so forth), (New) X-Men issues that featured the Acolytes and Hellfire Club, and the new Astonishing X-Men series. Compared to the vast variety of comics I usually have to read to work on a set, this was much more focused.

However, there were a few things that made it a little harder—primarily, the introduction of traits. This meant specifically categorizing characters into one of three traits (Energy, Mental, and Physical), assessing which trait a character should be if they could fall under multiple ones (this choice was made for the specific version of the character), and making sure that the roster of each team was as balanced among the three as possible.

The whole process took about two weeks, from the moment I was assigned the research to the moment I sent Mike my final list of cards—just under 300 card names in total, including all of the blue, green, and gray. The deadlines are always tight—especially with lead designers who like to work top-down so that they can get the design work rolling as quickly as possible with the basic cards already set out in front of them. Many ideas got shifted, like Image Inducer becoming a generic equipment instead of an X-Men one; some of the focus on certain areas was diminished (we got the Astonishing lineup but lost cards like Ord and Benetech Laboratories); some of my favorite card names were kept (Boot to the Head and Join the Club!) and some weren’t (Blast ’Em from the Sky, Hellfire and Brimstone, and, my personal favorite, OW!OW!OW!OW!OW!OW!, the dialogue from the time Blob got sent flying by Juggernaut in Uncanny X-Men #218). The last one was a . . . erm . . . long shot, indeed, though it reminds me of my all-time favorite placeholder name for a Vs. card: Danny Mandel’s Marvel Knights plot twist, Sai of Relief.

NEXT WEEK: X-Men art requests—a new process. And what is that “flavor text,” anyhow? Where does it come from?

Questions? Queries? Comments? Send ’em along and I’ll try to get them answered in the column! Email me at Kergillian (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Also known by his screen name Kergillian, Ben Kalman has been involved in the Vs. community since Day One. He started the first major online community, the Vs. Listserv, through Yahoo! Groups, and it now boasts well over 1,900 members. For more on the Yahoo! group, go to http://web.archive.org/web/20070609092853/http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Marvel_DC_TCG

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