Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Interview - Joel Kinstle VP Pinnacle Entertainment

Anyone frequenting the Savage Worlds forums knows it as a place more akin to a friendly neighborhood game store than a troll-ridden haven for Internet flamers. The Pinnacle Entertainment Group staff are quick to respond, highly informative, and very friendly.

That said, some staffers stand out a bit for quickness of wit and response. Case in point is Joel Kinstle, Vice President of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Joel is a graphics designer by trade who cut his teeth at Pinnacle on Necessary Evil: Explorer’s Edition. While not in the pixel mines of PEG, he manages the talented cat herd known as the Pinnacle staff.

Joel took time away from worrying about deadlines to grant The Savage Troll an interview regarding RPGs, his winding career path, future PEG releases, and life as a somnambulistic chef.

Q: How were you introduced to Role Playing Games?

Basically, it was the neighbor kid's fault. He got a copy of the old red box edition of D&D for Christmas. Since he had the books, it was pretty much natural he ran the game. You'll noticed that I used a singular reference for "neighbor kid." That's pretty accurate. So I was the party. We didn't really quite get how many party members you needed to use, so my lone elf died. I finally quit making new names. I believe the last launch of that character was "the twenty-sixth," and I don't think any of them ever saw second level. One d4 hit points is a rough place to be when you actually roll for it.

Q: What did you play in the early days?

D&D at first, then, as we were able to involve more folks, AD&D. After a year or two, we found a friend who had — and I was stunned to know they existed — other RPGs! Our first real branching out was with James Bond, then Top Secret. For the first five or six years I played games, I only knew D&D and spies. It was fun, but it was limited.

Q: How have your gaming tastes changed through the years and what were your favorite games before you joined the gaming industry?

I branched out. Eventually, I realized I'm a little bit of a system wonk and liked trying out the different options from a nearly-academic perspective as much as a "gee, this ought to be fun" angle. I also noticed that I prefer generalized systems that can be applied to self-described settings, and my long-term favorite for that was the HERO system, though GURPS had its own spot, too.

Q: Has 'going pro' changed the RPGs you play?

Not really. We'd largely gone all Savage Worlds in my established group beforehand. If anything, going pro has gotten me back into the habit of being willing to try out new systems just so I know what everyone's talking about at the conventions.

Q: What are your favorite non-Pinnacle RPGs?

I'll probably always be a fan of HERO, the d6 System, and the older White Wolf materials (having not really had the chance to try the new stuff). We've just started a Dresden Files campaign, and I'm warming up to that pretty darned quickly, too.

Q: Tell us a bit about pig distracting and the qualifications needed for the job.

First, you have to not know that pigs are very smart. They seem to realize early on they aren't destined for a peaceful retirement and resent it. Second, you have to have uncles who are willing to watch a nephew get injured and think it's funny — it never quite happened, but they were ready. Third, you need be interested enough in the money offered to be willing to run around in pig muck.

As far as the details of the work, it's pretty straightforward. You're basically acting as a rodeo clown to keep the pigs off the guys who are trying to fix something in or on the pig pens. It's like playing tag. In the muck. With friends who will eat you. Who's "it" is a matter of some debate, when you look at it that way.

In their defense, the uncles in question could be amused by anyone coming to harm, especially if they'd gotten themselves into it. It wasn't just me.

Q: With a degree in political science and a job history in pig distracting, it appears the only logical career path would lead to a run for political office. You ran as an Independent in 2000 for the Tennessee United States Senate seat held by Bill Frist ($6 million war chest). Tell us about your bid to become a public servant.

It all started in college, which in no way went smoothly for me. I started in a quarters-based setting. I lasted well into a semesters-based setting. Toward the end, I realized I'd have 123.66666 credit hours of 124. They were unwilling to round. Utterly unwilling to round. So, I was looking for a one-credit hour independent study opportunity. I finally decided on trying for U.S. Senate. I figured if I somehow happened to win, it should be a job I'd like to have.

My campaign did have a point of distinction — I had the best cost-to-vote ratio of any campaign. But the whole thing was an interesting learning experience. I got all my signatures to make the ballot at a camping event with a lot of friends...in Alabama. Certain institutions really pay attention to minor candidates, and certain institutions only pretend to. There are outfits out there that offer volunteers for rent. Consider that concept. They really are volunteers to these different political participation promotion entities, who themselves are tax-free corporations. They don't pay for volunteers, don't have to file any real paperwork for the labor, and get the cash for them. I think that might be a better gig than public office, really.

When I turned in my paperwork, the local elections office was flummoxed. Everyone else always turns in their paperwork on the steps of the Capitol in Nashville for a big photo opportunity. The local office wasn't even sure they were allowed to accept my papers.

In the end, it was a very interesting learning experience and I had good relationships with all of the other candidates. Well, except Bill Frist. I felt he proved to be something of a goober.

Q: Were there any RPG planks in your platform?

Not really. For the most part, that would be like running on a particular variety of string theory. Most of your voters will have no idea what you're talking about, except for the ones who decide it's inherently evil. I would've been tickled to try to lower the media mail rate, though, and not just to make RPG shipping cheaper. I think we've lost a lot of ground in the general literacy level of the country as well as a certain common basis. And I don't mean people can't read as well, rather that they don't read as much. I also think that the "niche-ification" of media and culture is naturally fracturing us as a society. Nearly everyone of speaking age at the time could tell you what happened on the last MASH episode. In my lifetime, everyone knew exactly what was in the most recent State of the Union Address. Everyone knew what was in nearly every children's book. Classics were common. Those are the sorts of things that help provide a basis for common interaction throughout a society so large that it would be easy to not have to know anything except what your friends think is popular, which I believe is ultimately very socially destructive.

I'm afraid I have to point out that I'm prone to the off-topic rant. All expressed opinions are mine alone and in no way should reflect on any of my current or prior employers. Or the neighbor kid. Or my uncles.

Q: How would Washington have changed had an RPGer actually achieved one of the highest elected offices in the land?

As much as I'd like to think I could've had a real impact, the truth is that my goal was to make it through a single term in the Senate without being sent home or impeached. An isolated troublemaker won't change Washington. Now, if I had a wide following of RPG folks showing up on the Washington Mall for me on a routine basis, that would be very different.

Q: Any similarities between pigs distracting, a run for office, and the RPG industry?

They're actually all surprisingly fun. Oh, and they each require specific footwear.

Q: You began working for Studio 2 and Pinnacle around the same time. Are the two companies intertwined or did you just get two acceptance letters and are too nice a guy to turn either one down?

Studio 2 Publishing handles most of our heavy business lifting, really. Shipping, fulfillment, warehousing, distribution, Amazon orders, and a lot more. Pinnacle itself is a very small company with no physical offices. Without a trustworthy partner to handle those sorts of things, it would be very hard to continue operations.

Initially, I started working for Studio 2. I helped out with all the clients and had other broad responsibilities for them. About a year into working strictly for Studio 2, I came to be handling almost strictly Pinnacle materials, and they needed someone to handle some more. It was a fairly natural transition from working for Studio 2 for Pinnacle's needs to working for Pinnacle with Studio 2 Publishing.

Q: What was your role at Studio 2 and what were your biggest challenges?

I mostly helped with graphics in all forms — design, layout, development, web work, print production, color conversion, and so on. The biggest challenge in a general graphics role, likely for anyone, is dealing with the thundering herds of people who don't get your field. No, you can't use a web image freely. No, you can't use a little web icon as a book cover. No, you can't just shrink one size book into another most times. Yes, I have to know what size the spine will really, really be before we can finish the cover. No, I don't want your text edits when we're reviewing the print proof. Yes, whatever it is you want really is a huge pain in the tuckus.

Then again, I suspect that's one of the biggest challenges people have in most jobs. I have no doubt at all. To anyone I've done that to, let me apologize right now, even if I can't possibly promise not to do it again.

Q: What was your favorite project at Studio 2?

Probably Necessary Evil: Explorer's Edition. There's something about the 6.5" x 9" book that's just fun to work with, and we really didn't run into many problems with it. It was sort of new and exciting, too, with the smallest "review committee" I'd ever personally dealt with. And when it was so well-received, well, that was just gratifying.

Q: You've been full time at Pinnacle for the last year. How has your role changed since the beginning days with PEG? What are you biggest challenges at PEG?

The big changes have been audience and amount. As a dude working for some guys who are related to the company, which is what I effectively was, you don't have to really deal with the final customers. You don't have to deal with the licensees. Someone else is usually ordering the art then giving it to you. You're not trying to make the writers or artists produce on time. These are all folks I pretty much never talked to. Talking to them and responding to questions is a large part of what I do now. And I'm also in some way involved with nearly every project that goes through the pipes, not just the ones that were piped my way.

The biggest challenge is trying to keep up and keep it organized. Multitasking is one thing, but when you can't see the fire for all the irons, it gets very hard to do. I'm very thankful for the folks who help with that, especially the Brand Managers. They've had to hear "now remind me" and "do you have that file handy" out of me a lot, and they do a good job of acting like they don't mind. Lord love 'em. I also have to appreciate the patience some of the licensees have had with me as I've settled into the job and the schedule. They're a good bunch, too.

Q: What's your favorite project at PEG and why?

Huh. That's actually sort of tough. I've never really thought about it, and it's hard for me to recall off the of my head where the line needs to be drawn between the Studio 2 work and the Pinnacle work during the original changeover. I'd probably go with South o' the Border, the first Deadlands Trail Guide. Maybe I'm just a complete sucker for 6.5" x 9" books, or maybe it's the plans we've got for the Trail Guides. Since I can't recall right now [See what I mean?] if those have been made public or not, they'll stay hushed for now.

Q: What's coming soon from PEG and what are some of the projects in the idea hopper?

There's a reason we usually don't address dates directly. It's like throwing a car battery into a small fish pond — it just gets everyone riled up but doesn't really get anything accomplished. I will give you some insight into the general queue, though. The work on Explorer's reprints continues, with 50 Fathoms and Rippers being the two most likely to crop up next. The work on the Companions series continues, with Horror Companion being next in that line. There's a slim chance that the printed version of the Action and Adventure Decks has been sent to the printers, but remember I'm still claiming that's hypothetical and it'd be at least four months before they likely made it back to the warehouse. The Path of Kane and Last Sons are bumping up against the layout stage. There's more adventure PDFs in the works. Hell on Earth is still clawing its way through production, and I have to admit that those delays have solely been my settling into the new position. There's at least one entirely new setting being worked on whose timing is totally unknown at this point. There are a few surprise pieces coming for Deadlands, and they appear to be nearly sprinting through development. [I'll leave the big announcement and explanation of the surprise to Matt Cutter, the Deadlands Brand Manager and most frequent victim of "do you have that file" questions.]

That's not everything, but I hope it's enough for you for now. See what I meant earlier about volume, though?

Q: What was the most difficult pig you ever distracted on the farm, in politics, or the RPG industry?

One of my old bosses at a prior job. He was utterly unpredictable. In the end, he turned mean. He definitely got his bite out of me. The sad part is I don't think he realized he was doing so. Today's lesson, boys and girls, is to be sure to interview your potential employers as much as they're interviewing you.

Q: Has anyone else noticed that you are the quickest PEG Forum answerer in existence?

One or two folks I've responded to have made that sort of remark. I think I might tend to be near the PC a little more than the other staffers, but that's speculation. Then again, if anyone else spots something they think needs an immediate answer, they're nice enough to e-mail me directly so I don't have to stumble on it myself.

Q: Name one Joel Kinstle factoid our readers may not know.

Both the best batch of cupcakes I've ever made and my worst attempt at mowing the lawn occurred while I was asleep.

Other Joel Resources

The tapioca interview
About Pinnacle


  1. I just had to share an anecdote about Joel's responsiveness. I was one of those Space 1889 fanatics that was checking every day for when it would release. I found the link in the store for it hours before it actually connected to anything. So, the very hour I bought it and had my local office supply print and bind it. The dark background was difficult to read so I went on the forum and asked if there was a way to print without the background. Within MINUTES, Joel had responded "You are scaring me!! We put an icon in the upper left of the front cover to select layers so you can deselect the background!" I had, in my eagerness, overlooked the cover and said I didn't see it. I discovered I had missed the little icon. I apologised for causing any trauma. When I went back to the forum, I realized it was Joel that had responded. Wow! To have an officer of the company respond was amazing. Thanks!

  2. It's because I care. And I'm everywhere. Like Santa Claus and fleas.

  3. Santa Claus has fleas? He needs to stop hanging out with those deer.

  4. Speaking of Santas with fleas, I developed this were-Santa for a Risus game that never materialized.


  5. Now I'm envisioning an alternate reality in which Bill Frist never existed, but the Fantasy Companion had a terrible design and layout...