Holistic Design is mainly known as the publisher of the evocative science fiction game Fading Suns, but they also published quite a few other products over a 10+ year lifetime.
Computer Beginnings: 1992-1996
Though some companies are founded to publish RPGs, in many cases, an existing publisher in a nearby field instead decides to expand into roleplaying. Thus over the years we’ve seen printers, wargame publishers, board game publishers, and even PBM publishers get into roleplaying. Holistic Design was a far more unusual situation where a computer game company decided to publish RPGs as well.
Holistic Design got its start as “Several Dudes Holistic Gaming”, a computer game development company founded in 1992 in Atlanta, Georgia. Over the next few years they published several computer games. These included: Battles of Destiny (1992), a Risk-like wargame; Merchant Prince (1993), a Renaissance simulation of trade and exploration; Hammer of the Gods (1994), a strategic wargame which may have been an influence on the bestselling Heroes of Might & Magic; and Machievelli the Prince (1995), a remake of their 1993 trade simulator.
Then Holistic decided to do something new. For their new space strategy game, which would eventually become Emperor of the Fading Suns (1996), Holistic brought on two experienced world designers, Andrew Greenberg, the former line editor of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, and Bill Bridges, the former line editor of White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse. These two created a cohesive and interesting universe for the new computer game, and then convinced Holistic to develop the background into a tabletop RPG as well.
The tabletop RPG, Fading Suns (1996), would be released simultaneously with the computer game.
Enter Fading Suns: 1996-1999
Fading Suns was released in 1996 and it quickly caught peoples’ attention because it had “the White Wolf style”. The artwork, the game’s organization, and the gothic space setting all reminded people of White Wolf’s publications. This wasn’t because Bridges and Greenberg were trying to be derivative. Instead it was a result of the fact that they’d helped to define that style in their early work at White Wolf.
Ironically Holistic barely avoided being faced with a competitive science-fiction game produced by White Wolf itself. Simultaneous with Fading Sun’s release at Gen Con 1996 White Wolf was premiering a very early draft of Mark Rein*Hagen’s next RPG, the science-fiction game Exile. Shadis Magazine #29 (1996) reported that “more than one person was heard speculating that White Wolf rushed out the Exile preview rules in order to show something against Fading Suns, which is currently its most obvious competition.” Fortunately for Holistic, Exile never came to be, due to Mark Rein*Hagen leaving White Wolf in late 1996. As a result White Wolf didn’t get a science-fiction game out until they published Trinity (1997) over a year later--and that gave Fading Suns plenty of time to gain traction.
Fading Suns is unique mainly for its distinctive setting. It’s a hard science game, but much of the universe has fallen back to Medieval technology. Noble houses, guilds, and a monolithic church control most of the power in the universe. Many people compare the universe to that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, though Bridges points to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and others as his inspiration.
Whatever the inspiration, this vision of a gothic future offered a very different type of space adventure for the RPG industry, which had previously seen the space opera stylings of Traveller (1977) and the high adventure of Star Wars (1987). Fading Suns was also the first major SF release to return RPGs to space, after a heavy emphasis on Cyberpunk beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Fading Suns was further notable for its emphasis on people. Greenberg said that the game “would show humans at their most and least noble”, while both designers called it a “passion play”, wherein heroes would show their nobility through suffering. Some people thus call Fading Suns the Pendragon of space. Its themes are some of the same as those seen at White Wolf, but with a human face.
Over the next few years Fading Suns was supported extensively with many supplements. At the start the line did well. The background was broad and appealing; the computer game was attracting new people into the hobby; and support was as regular as clockwork--a sometimes undervalued element in the success of a line.
It was all a recipe for success, at least for gaming in the 1990s.
Other Projects: 1997-1999
It’s somewhat easy to look back at Holistic as solely the publishers of Fading Suns, but they were doing other projects from the moment that their RPG released. For one, they kept producing computer games. Their next project was Final Liberation: Warhammer Epic 40,000, the first computer game for Games Workshop’s popular Warhammer 40k line. It looked like a great new direction for Holistic, combining their knowledge of the RPG and computer industries, but it would unfortunately be their last such crossover title.
The next year brought about a slew of miniatures game releases. The first, Noble Armada (1998) was a spaceship combat game compatible with Fading Suns. It was the latest in a long line of spaceship combat games supporting RPGs, ground that had previously been tread by both Traveller, Star Trek, and SpaceMaster--but the difference was that Holistic really pushed their combat game as a miniatures game with a fully supported miniatures line (whereas most previous RPG games of this sort had been standalones and thus unable to take advantage of the lucrative miniature market).
Noble Armada also had one other unique element: it combined spaceship combat with boarding actions, where soldiers fought through the interior of an enemy ship once they’d brought it down.
Unfortunately the first edition of the rule was marred by a high $55 price point and somewhat muddy rules. Both of these elements would be resolved in a second edition (2002), which both cleaned up the rules and split the rulebook and the Ships of the Line miniatures apart. Because of the success of the Noble Armada game, work also began on a computer adaptation, which would have been the second Fading Suns computer game.
The other miniature games that year were: Carnage (1998), a fantasy miniature game that was too silly for many players; and Combat Section (1998), a near-future SF combat game.
Passion Play (1999) formed a third Fading Suns related line. It was a LARP for Fading Suns, released no doubt because of the success that Bridges and Greenberg had seen with similar products at White Wolf.
With an RPG, a LARP, several computer games, and three miniatures games all in their portfolio, Holistic Design ended 1999 looking like a well-balanced publisher ... but even that wouldn’t be enough to keep the company afloat amidst the rapid boom and bust of d20.
Changing Times: 2000-2003
In 2000 Bill Bridges was still line editing Fading Suns. 1999 had been a great year for the game, with the release of the second edition of the game and several supplements; the RPG line would continue forward in 2000 as would the Noble Armada strategy game.
Meanwhile Andrew Greenberg was directing video game development, while Holistic founder Ken Lightner was head of programming. They would publish two computer games in the next years, Merchant Prince II (2001) and Mall Tycoon (2002).
However, the times were changing thanks to Wizards of the Coast, who in 2000 released their d20 game system for general use. Holistic Design didn’t hop on board immediately, but by 2001 they were deeply immersed in the newest gaming trend, probably to their ultimate detriment.
The company’s first exploration of d20 was their Fantasy Encounters (2001) sets, which featured prepainted miniatures--drawing on that expertise--along with d20 stat cards.
Much more notable, however, was Holistic’s decision to print a d20 version of their Fading Suns rules (2001), then dual-stat their later Fading Suns supplements for both d20 and their own “Victory Point System”. Although the decision clearly gave Fading Suns a surge of popularity over the 2001-2002 period, it likely started dragging the game down afterward--because by 2003, amidst the d20 bust, the d20 symbol started to be a detriment to retailers’ ordering. At the same time that Bridges was bringing d20 to Fading Suns, Greenberg and Lightner each began developing brand-new d20 lines.
Greenberg produced a new d20 edition of an old roleplaying game called Rapture: The Second Coming (2002). It was a religious post-apocalyptic game written by William Spencer-Hale--another White Wolf alumnus--and previously printed by Quintessential Mercy Studio in 1995.
Lightner produced a brand new set of military adventure set in the modern world, again using d20. The first was called Afghanistan (2002).
By 2003 the face of Holistic Design was entirely changed. They now had three d20 lines, Rapture, Real-Life Roleplaying, and the dual-statted Fading Suns. Only Noble Armada was still receiving support in its original form. Mall Tycoon had been (and would be) Holistic’s last computer game.
Wizard’s mere release of the d20 license might have been enough to effectively shut down Holistic. It’s had a stifling effect on much of the industry as the boom and bust first forced out smaller publishers then dramatically changed retailer and distributor practices for the worst. Holistic’s strong push into d20 certainly made things worse for them in the 2003 crash.
However another factor led to their downfall: on February 12, 2002 Bill Bridges returned full-time to White Wolf to act as line editor for Mage: The Ascension. He has since been instrumental in the birth of the new World of Darkness and developed both the new Mage: The Awakening (2005) and the well-lauded Promethean: The Created (2006).
In 2003, when d20 crashed, all of Holistic’s RPG lines shut down new production. Lightner and Greenberg both moved on as well. Lightner has since co-founded a new computer game company, Blue Heat Games, while Greenberg now spends his time running conferences.
Promises of Fading Suns continued over the next few years, but with no follow through. During this period Holistic announced a third edition of Fading Suns as well as new games called variously Diaspora, Dystopia, Inc, and Sathranet, but they were never published. Each of these new games would have looked into a different period in the Fading Suns history, and each would have been designed using d20 Modern, not Fading Suns’ Victory Point System. However, due either to the general state of the industry or to Bridges’ commitments at White Wolf (or more likely both), none of these products saw the light of day under Holistic.
Overall only two products have seen print at Holistic in the last two years: one set of deckplans for Noble Armada in each of 2005 and 2006. The Holistic Design site remains live, and many of their old products remain for sale, but that is all. Unless there is a dramatic change in the fortunes of Holistic, its principals, or the industry, Holistic Design is, for all purposes, dead.
However in 2007 Fading Suns itself got a new lease on life. That year Holistic arranged a license with RedBrick Limited, also one of the licensees for FASA’s Earthdawn game. RedBrick has promised new supplements using the original Victory Point System, plus the eventual release of the third edition of the game.
With Fading Suns now licensed to RedBrick, we can chalk Holistic Design up as another fatality of the d20 boom and bust.
Thanks to Ken Cliffe for looking this piece over. It’s generally based on press releases and a few interviews on the Internet. The RPGnet Gaming Index includes an extensive listing of Holistic Design games.