Onyx Path Replaces Lead Designers On Exalted

As announced on Onyx Path’s regular Monday Meeting Notes, Onyx Path are making major changes to their product roadmap and ongoing approach to finishing off the Kickstarter for Exalted 3rd Edition. The core book is out, but there’s controversies swirling around it – it includes no Charm trees, for one thing, which makes the system vastly more complicated to use, and there’s apparently substantial issues with the manufacturing on the deluxe hard copies. Plus, of course, it has a swathe of stretch goals which need to come out, and the rest of the product line’s schedule has seemed rather bare.

So, the plan for forthcoming products has been changed, but what is perhaps more interesting is that previous lead developers John Morke and Holden Shearer are now no longer in charge of the line, with Eric Minton and Robert Vance stepping up to the plate to take control of the line.

This might just be the sort of personnel churn you would expect anywhere (though Morke and Shearer departing at exactly the same time seems to make that a bit less likely)… but on the other hand, it might be an even bigger deal than it looks like, with potential implications for other licensed products that Onyx Path release – remember, whilst Onyx Path own the Trinity universe game lines and their original games like Pugmire outright, they licence ExaltedWorld of Darkness, and Chronicles of Darkness from White Wolf.

Onyx Path trailblazer Rich Thomas has always been adamant about the outfit being a super creator-friendly company, and has previously come out hard against any suggestion of replacing the lead designers on projects, even when they run into issues – see, for instance, the big delays on the Wraith 20th Anniversary Kickstarter.

In the past, I’ve thought that Rich has actually taken this too far – keeping people on projects well after the point when they clearly need to step down but their own pride or whatever won’t let them do it but it’d clearly be harmful to them to keep them on it. The big example would be John Morke, who had these absolutely horrible health issues come up during the Exalted 3rd Edition design process and was making really startling-sounding updates about how he was determined to keep working on the game to the bitter end, and I have reservations about how Rich kept Morke on the project at a point when the guy was clearly in no state to work and desperately needed to have the space to get well without the stress of this task weighing down on him. Happily, he seems to have pulled through, but had the worst happened I suspect many Kickstarter backers wouldn’t have felt so comfortable about the game as a result. (“Did I just crowdfund a guy working himself to death?” would have been a question on my mind, were I a backer.)

But at the same time, I can totally see why Rich would take this approach, even when it results in massive delays and makes his company look extremely unprofessional. Onyx Path’s fortunes are built on its writers and designers’ work, and almost all of those people work for them on a freelancer basis, so it makes sense for Onyx Path to be a super-friendly place for freelancers to work because if it isn’t, they won’t work for it. (Especially if, as I suspect is the case, Onyx Path isn’t really big enough to pay top dollar for freelancer work and therefore has to rely on freelancer goodwill to stop people going “fuck it, I’ll go write for someone else”.)

I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen Onyx Path make a change of this magnitude to the management of a product line, and that’s kind of a big deal. The way I see it, there’s only a few scenarios that actually make sense by way of explaining it:

  • This happened at the instigation of John and Holden, who decided that the time had come to lay down their burden and move on to something else. Perfectly understandable, although the fact that this coincides with a massive shift in the strategy for the Kickstarter going forwards, both in terms of the product roadmap and the approach to communication is interesting. In particular, it raises the question of whether John and Holden actually support this new direction or not. If they do, why wouldn’t they have implemented this piecemeal approach under their watch? For that matter, if their departure was their own decision, wouldn’t it be par for the course for the announcement to include a little toot of the horn from them praising the new developers and thanking the fans? Note that in the Monday Evening Notes Rich specifically says he’s not going to discuss the circumstances that led to this, which is odd if this was a mutually amicable decision.
  • John and Holden are off the job as a result of decisions made internally at Onyx Path. Maybe Rich lost patience with this running PR problem that the Exalted 3 issues have been causing. Maybe other members of the team said “We’ve got this great idea for revising our plan for the game line but John and Holden won’t implement it; you’ve gotta do something.” Maybe it was decided (collectively or by Rich or whatever) that the new strategy was the right way to go and John and Holden were so turned off by it that they quit. All possibilities.
  • Now, here’s the real firecracker possibility: that John and Holden are gone not because of decisions by Onyx Path, but because of a decision made by the new White Wolf Publishing. Whilst World of Darkness has been their priority, they do still own Exalted and Onyx Path uses the licence at their pleasure, and they don’t seem completely disinterested in it. Supposing White Wolf said “Look, guys, John and Holden just aren’t working out, and this approach to the Exalted Kickstarter is just making us all look bad. We’d like a revised strategy for finishing off the job, and we want fresh blood in charge of it”. There really wouldn’t be much that Onyx Path could do about that save capitulate instantly.

We already know that the new Paradox-owned White Wolf are much more interventionist than CCP ever were when it comes to the approvals process for products – they made Onyx Path include a sidebar in Shattered Dreams, the Werewolf prehistory supplement, along the lines of “by the way, this entire book is non-canon”. It would be decidedly consistent with this new approach for White Wolf to step in and demand tweaks and changes to a game line’s overall strategy when it comes to their licensed properties, and whilst some fans may be upset by that, on the other hand it would at least mean they are showing an interest and intend to be active, engaged caretakers of the game line rather than the absentee landlords CCP sometimes seemed to be.

Anyway, interesting times.

EDIT TO ADD: Well, this is interesting. Holden was a fairly frequent poster on the RPG.net forums, but he seems to have dropped out of sight since mid-February, and his most recent post was expressing major disapproval of White Wolf hiring Zak Sabbath to write a Vampire: the Masquerade text-based game for them. Of course, that wasn’t Onyx Path’s decision, but given the bad blood that has gone down between Zak and some of the Onyx Path contributors, I can see how it could be a problem who may find the ongoing linkage to White Wolf to be distasteful.

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