Designer Diary #6: Building and Maintaining a Vast Universe

Designer-DiaryAs promised, I took a break from writing the blog, in part due to working 70 hours a week, but also in part because I went out of the country for half a month and was without internet for most of that time, having gone deep into the jungles of the Philippines (maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime—it wasn’t a leisure trip or a vacation, but it was rather exciting!)

Well, I’m still working long hours, but I expect it to slow down soon so I can get rollin’ in a bigger way on the Cosmoverse and other goodies. ‘Nuff said. I assume you’re here for bigger things—like universe-sized things.

When Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, they purchased a crazy-big universe and set about trying to trim it down into a more manageable size. I understand better than many why they felt the need to do that and how big the task would be. My own Cosmoverse, while not quite as old as the Star Wars Universe (they got me beat by a couple years or so), is quite vast and is supported by hundreds of stories, including some novel drafts, Arcane Synthesis—of course, and hundreds of RPG adventures, as well as box loads of notes and maps. To George Lucus’ credit, having a huge budget compared to my paltry one, he was able to not just get to market, but being good stuff, making money and in the public’s eyes, resulted in many authors writing for it, while only a few have written about the Cosmoverse other than me. My comparison is simply to give a frame of reference. I know about building and maintaining a big universe as I’ve been doing it for well over three decades. It’s hard to manage something that big.

I felt Disney’s pain of having to tackle something so big and also having to remove parts that people like (and worrying about the repercussions—I didn’t have as many, but I did have long-time friends and family that heard the stories and went off on adventures, and liked the existing histories). Just as it was necessary to prune the Star Wars Universe, it became necessary to prune the Cosmoverse to keep it healthy and future products doable. It was for that same reason that about two years ago I began revising Cosmothean history—very slowly and carefully—deciding painfully what to keep and polish, and what to relegate to mere myth, or toss. It was a little liberating, but it wasn’t really fun, because I like the universe I’ve built. I like it a lot! Still, I saw the need to polish some things and simplify, but didn’t enjoy pruning. I’m still pruning and polishing and likely will for some time to come, as I want it to be approachable and a great product, of course.

When I hired six authors to write stories about the Cosmoverse for Arcane Synthesis back in late 2013 I realized just how challenging it would be to provide them with what they needed to tell accurate tales within such a big universe. I had hired game designers a few years before and taught them what they needed to know to accurately design things for the Cosmoverse, but it wasn’t easy. And this time around, publication was just around the corner and so it got a little scary. Everything had to be accurate.

There’s no changing anything after my products are on the market. Rather, Disney backpedaled on the Star Wars Universe when they bought it, but I didn’t want to have to do that. I wanted only canon material hitting the shelves, and that meant treading carefully. Looking at our first offering—Arcane Synthesis: A Blended-Genre Anthology, I think everything worked out well. But that’s just one product. I still need to finish the huge timeline and maintain it, as more and more worlds, cultures, technology and creatures are revealed. I have a pile of books planned and in the works, and so an accurate, accessible timeline is crucial. Actually, there will be multiple timelines, as before, but they must be accessible.

If you haven’t begun to make a timeline yet for your book or game setting universe, I advise treading very carefully, making a sweeping overview timeline to make sure you have all your dates and events right – something you can look at quickly and take in without breaking a sweat. You can then have one or more, hopefully fairly simple timelines that cover your bases.

If you expect someone to read it all, you can’t just go on forever. You need to be very organized, and keep the entries brief. You can always refer in the timeline to a supplementary document that goes into more detail on a particular person, place or event.

Unlike with the Star Wars Universe, which didn’t even have a defined canon until about 1994, In the very beginning I intentionally laid out a history from the beginning of time to far, far in the future, well beyond where most of the stories I or the other authors have written, take place. I set up a huge framework and knew where it was headed. Of course it was easier for me in the old days as I was working alone and the universe was less detailed. And I’m not bragging. Star Wars is insanely popular and I haven’t even gotten my first book out yet after all these decades (though I’m only weeks away from publishing my first and have others in the works, so there’s hope for me yet!)

Each time I wrote a story, ran an adventure in the RPG or created something else for the campaign setting (a new race, culture, magic item, etc.), I made sure it fit in with what had gone before. My problem was finding a good way to organize so much information. I had this absurdly long timeline and kept rewriting it and making sub sections. It was too long to read and reference and just kept getting bigger as the years rolled by. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you are going to design any big project, you need to be uber organized!

Several years ago, I began hiring a team of game designers and writers to assist me in finishing Cosmothea 4.0 (my pen and paper rpg) and had them write a bit about the Cosmoverse as well, under my close supervision. I had a large team and it wasn’t easy monitoring and assisting them all, but it was working, until the American economy collapsed and took my budget with it. It was during that era that I began to experience a bit of what had been happening with the Star Wars Universe.

All said I’m glad I opened the doors wider for others to lend their creativity and help flesh out areas I didn’t have time to finish. Bringing others on board was inevitable, as I’ll never have time to tell but a tiny fraction of all the tales there are to tell during my lifetime about it.

With Cosmothea 5.0, I’m back to managing the Cosmoverse entirely by myself and am glad I decided to revisit the mammoth timelines (yes, there was more than one – several in fact —timelines are helpful to track the lives of the gods, developing technology on not one world, but hundreds—galactic empires, as well as for tracking the history of individual galactic empires and even racial histories and the development of magic). So many timelines was daunting, but it helped fix the problem with having one ginormous timeline and was easier to reference. Even so, they were still very time consuming to make and read. My universe was quickly growing so big that I have never managed to successfully finish all the timelines. Yes, the Cosmoverse really is vast. Not generic, but yes, vast.

Even so, I continue to make progress on my new canon timelines. I’m in no rush to add new things to them, as I want to make sure the puzzle pieces fit well are properly organized and brief. That way I can at least say that everything in my current timelines is accurate. There is some urgency to work on them, however, as I have more books to release and so I continue to move forward, trimming, organizing and polishing. So far, so good!

I had so much more time to work on the Cosmoverse when I was laid off, but that didn’t put food on my table and I have a job now and for a little while longer will be working long hours. It has been slowing down book and game production and pushing back my next Kickstarter for The Living Train, but it’s paying the bills and I work with a great bunch of guys, and that’s a good thing. 🙂

As for Arcane Synthesis, I should have the latest proof finished and hopefully be able to order books within the next two weeks! The book rocks and I can’t wait to get it into your hands. If you love blended-genre (multi-genre – if you prefer) then chances are you’d get a real kick out of Arcane Synthesis! I’ll let you know when it hits the shelves. Well, that’s all for this week. My next blog post will be way shorter—I promise! I’ll snag some small corner of the Cosmoverse and show you a peek and talk about why it is the way it is. Cheers!

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About Bob Whitely/QT Games

Welcome to QT Games! Mission Never publish junk or waste people's time. Publish only high-quality fiction and games. 'Nuff said. Company Overview QT Games LLC was created to publish blended-genre (fantasy blended with sci-fi, etc.) fiction, board, card and roleplaying games for a discerning gaming community. Unlike most small press, we have very strict standards: Only pro writing, pro editing and pro art. That means that if we can't get it right, we find someone who can. We pay well for what we don't do in-house. We don't cut corners on quality. This means we stand to make less money than other small publishers, but that's okay with us. We value your time and money, so we're willing to take the bullet. We've designed a large number of games and written a pile of stories. Now we're polishing some of them and getting them out the door. 'Bout time, we know. Good stuff ahead!
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