Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > Harold Johnson (Movie Tie-In Board Game Designer)

How did you end up being a Game Designer, Editor and Author?

Started to war game in 1969. Introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in summer of 1975 when I returned home for my brother's wedding. Got a gaming group together when I returned to Northwestern University and played for years. Summer of 1976 I attended my first Gen Con Game Fair (first one run by TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) and first AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) Open). Complained loudly how unfair and poorly designed tournament was and was recruited to create and run an adventure that show. Have been working with Gen Con as volunteer and staff and manager ever since. Graduated summer of 1977 with degree in biology and a minor in history (of ancient near eastern religions). Did not like my job opportunities. Summer of 1978 discovered TSR was looking to hire an editor and applied (actually just as an exercise for interviewing, intended to turn it down if the job was offered to me). Did not get offered the job. Fall of 1978 applied to be the lead designer for the D&D line and actually was offered the job. However, Gary (Gygax) (Co-Founder TSR) called and said they had lost an editor while they were working on the Dungeon Masters Guide and so he (and my gaming mates) convinced me to take the job of editor. David "Zeb" Cook was hired as designer.

In order to prove my design chops, I volunteered to write the AD&D Open on the side for Origins 79 which became C1:
The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Still an editor, I took to reinventing my job with each new assignment - I put a behind schedule product on hold to help our one man staff for Gen Con; I took 3 months to create three new Character Record Sheets and draft them myself; and I finished several very late projects. Instead of making me the designer I had been promised, I was drafted as the new Manager of Editing and in the summer of 1982, after some personnel changes, I was offered the position of Director of Production and Games (at that time called VP (Vice President) of Publishing). By the fall of that year, I had taken us from 2 years behind schedule to a year and a half ahead of schedule, and feared TSR might not keep us on since they did not need us anymore. Secretly directed my staff on several Blue Sky projects and eventually selected Tracy Hickman and co-created the Dragonlance Saga over a weekend. Then spent a year getting it in shape to sell TSR on the concept of the first cross-merchandised lines for hobby games.

I was never officially a game designer, but I did have my hands in every project for nearly a decade before I transferred to other duties. I often served as a rules developer, ghost writer and editor. I guess it was because I was a fledgling author from 4th grade on and even wrote and published amateur writer magazines and later, children's plays and read lots of comic books and other game products that helped me develop my skills as a story teller. As an editor, I parleyed my skills as a copywriter and copy editor, and just told everyone I was an editor, while I found and studied manuals on editing and writing. My writing as an author and designer were always done on the side in order to fill a gap in our schedule when I could not find anyone else to take on the task. So I guess, designer by accident and demand. I have only in this century got a chance to try my hand writing as a freelance author, but frankly am not really thrilled with the results, because I never get to devote sufficient time to the task.

How did you and TSR get the assignment to do an Escape From New York movie tie-in board game?

During my time as Director of Games, we were approached by a number of movie companies to license their movies for games, since Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Selchow Righter, Coleco, Ideal, Mattel, and Hasbro were not interested. Movie properties offered to us included: Blade Runner (I turned it down because it was a downer ending - must have had everyone tell them that because they altered the script and movie in the end), Dark Crystal (Jim Henson Productions, desperately wanted to do this one, but could not convince TSR management to take the leap. Darn!), Take This Job and Shove It (actually designed a game for this one), and many more. It must be understood that mass market games were expensive for hobby game companies to make and produce and demanded a very low suggested retail price, so it took creative design and a variety of short cuts to be able to make money on these games. A deck of cards cost over a dollar, so we had sheets of cards that players had to punch out to save cost. The hard game board cost over a dollar a piece. so we went with a half-sized board. And so on.

How did you, David Cook, Erol Otis (Illustrator), Bill Willingham (Illustrator) and TSR prepare for this project and how did you come up with the game play and design? Is it true that you only had the advance press kit as the only reference material for instance?

When the Escape From New York script was offered to us, the design department howled that the story was silly and preposterous and that there was no way we could design a game for it. I disagreed. I said we can always design a great game on any topic, the trick was could we design one on a topic that the public would want to buy? Zeb challenged me to tell him how we could design a game for Escape From New York. So after a brief thought, I told him how I would do it, based on some game mechanics we had already been play-testing. The next day, Zeb walked in and said "You were right, Harold. I designed that game last night based on your ideas." And so, because we then had a fun game already designed, I agreed we should take a chance with the license to use as an example of what we could do for other movies. Over the years that followed we developed games or adventures for a variety of films including 2001, 2010, Dynasty, All My Children, Indiana Jones, Conan, and Marvel Super Heroes.

As already answered, that game design occurred as the result of my describing the game mechanics I would use based on recent playtests and discussion of game mechanics we had already been toying with at the shop. After that, Zeb brainstormed and created the board and cards straight out of his head and brought it in for us to playtest and tweak as a result. Over the years, Zeb often surprised me with quick designs taking inspiration from a variety of places. As regards Erol and Bill's contributions, you would have to ask their recollections, I was more concerned with the components and pricing and printing once we had our final design. In addition, the release of a movie tie-in required a quick completion of the product (we normally took 2 years plus to create and market a game) and lots of lead time for advertising. That required a cover NOW! (we had never done this before) and so the only art available at that time (since the film was still in production) was the concept art in the press kit. Placement in vital catalogs such as Sears and JC Penneys required a lot of lead time and would make the difference between a successful mass market release and a failure. So there was no time to waste. In those decades, (who are we kidding, they still do it today) many film companies kept their productions secret so they could not be scooped (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Paramount, and Universal all required non-disclosure agreements). Therefore, it was more a matter of the deadlines for marketing that drove us to use pre-production art so we could get it out in time for a coordinated release of the film seven months later and once it was published in catalogs, we could not change it. We did have a first or second draft of the script as a reference, and barring them making major changes to the story, that proved good enough.

What kind of challenges did this project provide, how long did it take to finish the game, where was it made and how well did it sell?

Since I do not possess the company's actual sales records anymore (Wizards of the Coast has them) the best I can recall is based on dim memories from over 3 decades ago. As mentioned in a prior response, a lot of the issues centered around producing and marketing a mass market game for the first time. Under our pricing structure and overhead costs, we had to spend no more than 10% of the final desired price and we wanted to keep the suggested retail at $10-$15. A deck of cards would have cost $1, a double board $1, pawns and dice are pennies, but a traditional box with four color was another $1. So I had to be creative and develop cost savings to keep the product within the project cost of goods budget. Once play-testing was finished and the rules edited (about 3 weeks) it took all of 2 weeks to complete the typesetting and art and ready for paste up and the printers. As noted this was an incredibly short production time in comparison to other games we had published over the years. During this time I had to convince marketing and then the executives that this was a good thing to do as a dip our toe into the world of licensing other properties as well as selling mass market games and not just hobby market games. Because of catalog deadlines with Sears and Toys "R" Us, our biggest accounts, we had to make do with using conceptual art instead of final promotional art which had yet to be finished for the movie.

Where was it made? The game was written at 772 Main Street,
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on the third floor above Kilwin's Chocolate. TSR used to own that building and production offices were on the third floor. Printed? In those days our go-to printer was Patch Press who is located in South Beloit,
Illinois. Every time we wanted to do a product in a new format we had to work with them to determine what their limits were. They were the ones that helped us change over from label wrapped chipboard game boxes (also used for jigsaw puzzles) to setup boxes which were printed on thin poster board and die-cut and then folded into shape and did not require us to glue a label on chipboard and saved us a lot of money. Patch Press was an invaluable partner and taught me a lot about the printing industry.

How well did it sell? I no longer possess the sales records that I did from those early days. It was no Milton Bradley volume of one million copies, but we did print about 100,000 copies and place them in all our mass market outlets, including Sears. We did not do a second print run and let the license run its length and not renew it. I was surprised that the movie
Escape From New York gained a cult following, but the game never really did.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on this project? Is it true that the studio was pleased with the game and even invited you to a special screening in a private Milwaukee theater for instance? Also, did anyone besides the studio comment on the game? John Carpenter has mentioned in a Q&A that the game is pretty hard.

Well, my favorite memory of this game was conceptualizing the game in minutes and then Zeb Cook designing it in an evening and telling me I was right. I don't get a lot of "attaboys", mostly it is a constant struggle of conceptualization, engineering and pricing, salesmanship and constant negotiation and renegotiations to keep a game on track and on the schedule. It is kind of like movies, you have to be championing your creations all the time or someone new comes in and says, "I didn't have anything to do with that product. Cancel it!"

Yes, there was a special screening of the
Escape From New York movie for our company. I believe that was the brainchild of our marketing guru - Gordon Giles (but I may be misremembering that). I never heard that John Carpenter thought the game was hard, but I will admit that it followed the formula set by games like Source of the Nile and Knights of Camelot, which has since been adopted by many Zombie games, that the chance for survival is low without a good amount of luck and some back stabbing treachery to help you survive just a little longer than your opponents. Though we got the components and pricing to work for the mass market, we had yet to be schooled by Mike Gray of Milton Bradley and for a time TSR, Inc. in the proper method of designing a family friendly board game with better odds. For that matter, if we had been Milton Bradley we would never have had as quick a turn-around because we would have engaged in several months of focus group testing and then redesign and retesting.

What do you think of the game and movie personally? Also, is there anything you would've done differently in retrospect and are you surprised that you got to make a board game of this rather dark film?

The game was a war game with grim consequences dictated by the story, however I love the count down game mechanic with its unexpected arrival and would definitely keep it. Today, knowing better how to make a mass market game I would re-analyze the odds and try to make them a better match for family satisfaction. When we wrote Knights of Camelot, the original odds of elimination was 1 in 6 with each die roll and there might be several rolls in one turn. I changed it to 1 in 36 using 2 dice to make elimination less frequent. Perhaps even put in some catch up/short cut features (but probably not - I like the dire nature of the game). If I was doing this game today, I would include a real deck of 4-color cards and a bigger map of Manhattan with perhaps a subway/sewers or roof top route to escape, since producing board games is more economical today. But generally, I would put my focus in the printed rules and maybe even include illustrated character profiles and maybe some fiction to set the tone of the world for players and the rules would also be in 4-color. I was not surprised that we got to make a game on a dark film - all the properties we were offered, except for Take This Job and Shove It were dark adventures, and isn't that what TSR is all about?

The movie is a hoot, goofy, melodramatic, overly allegorical (though not as much as L.A.) I prefer
Big Trouble in Little China for the obvious humor and wise-cracking, but that's just me. I like super hero stories (that's why I brought Marvel Super Heroes to TSR), but more the Marvel story style than the DC style. I guess it's the existence of pathos and drama mixed with humor and flippancy that I like.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Spare time? What's that? Let's see: I work for UPS (United Parcel Service) as a Preload Supervisor and deal with the chaos of getting trucks loaded every weekday from 2-10am. I own a bookstore (Breadloaf Bookstore) that is open every day from noon till 5pm-ish (sometimes 6 or 7) and am 50% of the staffing, and help manage the mall property as time permits. I work conventions and do events and help with some of the management duties. I am a grandfather of 3 little girls, whom I never see, but think about all the time, and father to 3 great kids who are all grown, but still value a relationship with me, and a mother who is in her 90's and very with it and whom I want to spend as much time enjoying her company while she is still here. I am an elder in my church (Dutch Reform which is sort of Dutch Presbyterian, which is sort of what I was raised in.) I do theater every month and charitable events to benefit community charities and host a book festival, public speaking & radio. I read a lot and watch movie, television shows, and theater as I can. I game whenever I can squeeze it in and do models for miniature games to run events at all the game conventions. And I write and write - stories, articles, plays (two so far this year), speeches, and gaming adventures morning, noon and night. And every so often, say 3 or 4 times a year, I design game rules for whatever inspires me - a Dark Sun chariot race/gladiatorial game, MegaBlox Dragons, interesting abstract games inspired by certain floor tiles, plastic Easter Eggs with dinosaur heads on them, etc. Oh yes, and I give interviews on blogs, radio and answer questions like yours as I can.

Thank you for your time, Harold.