“20 Questions” 2D6.org Interviews – David Sirlin From Sirlin Games!
Hello and welcome David Sirlin to 2D6.org’s “20 questions” and answers from the readers segment. David Sirlin is a game designer with a pedigree for designing asymmetrical games that are as balanced as possible, definitely not an easy task. While Sirlin Games was formed in 2005, David actually got his start in games through the Video Game Industry. Sirlin was an assistant game designer at 3D0 and he helped balance the popular video games Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. David was actually in contact at one point with Capcom, the Video Game Company responsible for the Street Fighter franchise, in an effort to license the character rights for what would eventually became the well received Yomi. Sirlin Games is responsible for creating Flash Duel, Puzzle Strike, Yomi, and the soon to be detailed Codex: Card-Time Strategy that David has been working on for years. David is a very passionate and opinionated game designer who isn’t afraid to express his feelings on various topics in the games industry!
2D6.org: David, could you please take a moment to introduce yourself, tell us how you became involved in the board game industry, and describe what first inspired you to start designing board games?
DS: I worked on video games for years, and on way more designs than people realize. I actually lead a pitch department at one company to come up with designs that client publishers wanted. Like how to adapt game X to Nintendo DS, or how to make a new type of game out of some existing IP, etc.
It was really frustrating to see so many good designs never get made for reasons totally unrelated to the design itself, it was always some business thing that would end up being a problem. So I thought about making some small game on my own where I could be guaranteed to reach completion. What if I could make whatever I want, and make it as good as I could, and didn’t care about schedule? Yomi was that project, so that’s what got me started. Eventually I would focus full time on it.
2D6.org: Being responsible for balance in a series of games as highly regarded as Street Fighter must have been very daunting and challenging. Do you think this is what drew you to design asymmetrical games or were you attracted to asymmetrical game play before Street Fighter?
DS: It definitely wasn’t being responsible for balance that drew me to asymmetric games, because that responsibility came after more than a decade of playing them. Street Fighter and other fighting games had long shown me as a player that there’s so much to explore in all the character matchups that make the game more interesting. Wherever I saw the idea of “more than one character” in a game, it almost always made it more interesting: Warcraft and Starcraft have different races and Magic: The Gathering has different decks. I’ve just always been into this sort of thing, so games without a bunch of different characters can feel flat by comparison.
2D6.org: Are you currently performing the roles of both Designer and Developer? How do these roles differ for you and which do you find more difficult? What percentage would you say each role plays in the whole of a game getting published?
DS: Those roles are very different, and different people who help me out are often better at one or the other. Design is about coming up with the idea, architecting the system, and trying to express a certain “flavor” such as a character who is aggressive, or a character who is tricky and fast, and so on. Developers tune that and polish it until it works well when played hard by experts. Which role I focus more on depends on the game.
For Puzzle Strike, it’s very extreme where I allow development to come from my group of playtesters, not from my own balance claims. I often challenge them and make them prove some balance claim if it doesn’t seem right to me, but I only really play referee there. I trust their expertise as expert players. The better I am as a player in a game, the more active role I play in development. Though I do lead the development either way, so I guess it’s just a matter of whether I’m a team member in addition to the leader, or just leader.
As for what percentage each role has, the answer is that both together add up to very little. Their importance is huge, because design and development define how good the gameplay is. But as a percentage of my effort to publish a game, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to production. Let’s go over some graphic design stats, for perspective.
Yomi has 11 boxes: one box for each of 10 characters, plus a large box to hold everything. There were 2 other boxes of different configurations I ended up not using. All of those boxes underwent many, many revisions. Puzzle Strike has 2 boxes now, though it’s had 6 boxes over the years. Flash Duel has had 4 different boxes.
The Puzzle Strike rulebook is very graphically intensive. Making that alone took weeks and weeks, and it’s had dozens of revisions. Flash Duel’s rulebook is also very graphically intensive and it took weeks. Yomi has had several rulebooks—the most recent public one is at www.sirlin.net/yomi/rules—but there’s a new one in the works that has many more graphics.
These 3 games have at least 3 logos, though really more because of past versions and expansions. There’s a logo for the Fantasy Strike universe, which took more than 50 revisions. I’ve done dozens of revisions of the Codex logo, too. And 56 different card frames for Codex, each of which has fairly elaborate graphic design.
Yomi has 10 different cardbacks, each a rotationally symmetric abstract design that has to convey the personality of a character. Just these cardbacks took a whole lot of revisions over the course of months. I’ve already created the next 10 cardbacks for the expansion. Flash Duel has 24 different cardbacks.
My point is that this is what takes up most of my time. This stuff is on the “critical path” as they say in project development, in that it’s what pushes the ship dates out as long as they are. I do all the graphic design myself, which I guess is pretty unusual. I don’t know even know if other board game designers are designing boxes, rulebook layouts, cardbacks and so on, maybe some are.
I do game design as my hobby, when I’m not “working.” Figuring out how a system should be, thinking of how to solve some problem we’re having, checking in with testers to referee their conflicting claims about balance. I do that all the time throughout the process, “when I’m not working.” But production is the limiting factor. That other stuff gets sorted out along the way, during the very long time it takes me to handle all that graphic design.
2D6.org: Sirlin Games has taken a unique direction in game design by offering a complete competitive community on the internet and a full fledged community driven tournament scene. What part do tournaments play in game production and consideration, how much do they help sales, and how quickly do tournaments show imbalances in a games design? When you start work on a new game design, do you start with tournament play already in mind?
DS: I think when making a game I ask, “Should this game ultimately make sense and hold together, or should it be a sloppy thing that ultimately does not?” You’re framing it as related to tournaments, which it is, but it’s more of a core issue than that. A game that is “made for tournaments” just means that it doesn’t degenerate into some boring or broken thing when played hard by experts. So that’s something I’d hope anyone would strive for. There is somewhat of a clash of cultures I think, in that it seems many board games don’t strive for this when more competitive video games do. If a game is solid enough to hold up to intense play, it can also be enjoyed on a casual and non-serious level, so if I’m going to go to all the trouble of making a game, I’d like it to work well for both audiences if at all possible.
As for actual tournaments, that’s almost beside the point. I very much want them to happen though. And in the testing process, I think tournaments are very valuable. There can be a lot of speculation and talk about some claimed balance problem…and then you have a tournament and some completely other thing turns up as a major problem. Maybe the original claimed problem was a non-issue. That’s the difference between talk and talk about theory and people actually trying their best to win in practice. It just really helps to know what the real issues are if you have more tournaments.
After release, preparing for and playing in tournaments can keep a game interesting for a long time. I played the same version of Street Fighter for over 10 years in tournaments, for example.
2D6.org: Do you have any plans for upcoming tournaments? Can you talk about any upcoming events on your site or any conventions where you’ll be running competitions for Yomi, Flash Duel or Puzzle Strike?
DS: We have online tournaments all the time at FantasyStrike.com, we generally announce them on the front page and in the forums. We’ve also had tournaments at PAX East and PAX Prime. I didn’t personally attend Origins or GenCon this year, but I believe Game Salute ran tournaments for my games at those events too.
The biggest thing in the works on this front is an annual event, possibly called Fantasy Strike Expo, that would take place in June in San Francisco. There would be tournaments for all my games (and for Street Fighter HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter HD Remix) as well as demos of some in-development stuff. This is a ton of work to setup, and I’m not 100% sure it will happen this year, but the probability is looking very high. Your readers could even help out a bit by telling us how many of them might be interested in attending such an event.
2D6.org: What have you learned about growing a tournament scene? How do you feel about the progression of the Yomi tournament scene so far, has it grown in the ways you have envisioned? Are you taking any steps to help it grow further?
DS: As I said earlier, one big step would be to have an official, annual tournament that is the most prestigious one of the year. Players get seeding in the bracket by doing well at other tournaments at conventions, or game stores, or wherever. We’ve already had some encouraging steps by tournaments being officially included at the last two PAX events, so that’s been great. I think the online tournaments at FantasyStrike.com are going to be more popular over time as well, especially considering we have some really great graphical and user interface changes in the works for the site, to make it an even better experience.
2D6.org: You have a reputation for being an extremely opinionated designer who isn’t afraid to voice and defend your beliefs when it comes to game design especially in regards to the Collectable Card Game market. Scuttlebutt in the industry is that your next game will indeed be a customizable card game. Can you tell us about the model you will be using for this customizable game? How do you plan to balance things between the “Preconstructed Deck” and the “Living Card Game” format?
DS: Instead of selling random packs with artificially rare cards, I’ll just…sell regular boxes with cards, you know. You mentioned the On Life Support Card Game format. That’s a format for card games that are inherently dead (they can’t really be played for years and remain interesting) without new cards being injected every month or so.
The main design challenge I’ve faced in my new game is how to make a game that can be interesting for years regardless of whether new cards are released or not. So it’s pretty different in that regard. Another related issue is that if you ask what is the best number of cards for a game, meaning the number that gives the game elegance and lots of variety with no chaff, I think you get a pretty different answer than if you ask what number of cards makes the most money. So that’s another reason my approach differs from the OLSCG model, I mainly care about making whatever is the best game.
As for balancing decks, the decks you’ll be able to buy will be as fair as we can make them against each other, and you can construct new decks by mixing and matching parts of those pre-constructed decks. We have quite an advantage in balancing a game that works like that.
A helpful analogy is the Marvel vs. Capcom style fighting games. In a game like that, you pick a team of fighters from a large pool of existing characters.If we make sure each individual character has the tools it needs and is relatively fair, then we can make sure that every possible team of 3 characters you could even dream of making is at least viable, and reasonably powerful.
Codex will function like that, allowing you to customize your deck by combining pre-selected sets of cards. As long as each set works on its own, every possible deck combination can be viable. Contras this with in a normal CCG where far less than 0.01% of possible decks are viable (or something like that).
2D6.org: Very few details about this new game are available beyond a possible name of Codex and that it is inspired by Real-Time Strategy video games such as StarCraft and Warcraft 3. Can you give us some new details about this project and elaborate on the game play? How are you bringing two formulas, which seem so different, together without sacrificing the strengths of either? Will it be 100% card based or a combination of cards, tokens, and a possible map or board? Do you have a genre picked yet or are you concentrating solely on balanced mechanics for now?
DS: This will probably surprise you, but the gameplay of Codex is basically done right now, for the entire game, including every card. It needs more testing for balance (probably a lot more). It’s at a stage where, right now, I am not really aware of balance problems but I know full well that this is just because I haven’t discovered them, not because there aren’t any. I’ve also already completed graphic design on the game’s 56 different card frames.
The thing is, in addition to balance testing (which takes kind of a long time), I need hundreds of pieces of art that will costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in total. Plus more boxes and rulebooks and playmats and whatever else the production phase requires. And it will take years to complete all of that and ship the game. Because the lead time is so long, I’m very hesitant to explain the workings of the game. If it were a more normal game like “just another CCG,” I’d be doing as much promotion as I could right now. But because it’s so unusual, there isn’t really anything that works like this… I really would rather not let other companies have years to use the main mechanics before I can even ship it.
I will say that it is a card game though, not a board game. It’s much easier to play with playmats, but that’s just to help you keep track of which cards are in which zones. It uses the concept of heroes in a very similar way to the video game Warcraft 3, and it also has the concept of a tech tree. The main feature of the game is capturing the concept from RTS games where you have access to several possible strategies during gameplay, and as you are committing to a certain plan, your opponent is also committing to his or her plan. There’s a kind of dance that can go on about which direction you’re each going, and built-in leeway to allow you each to change course.
That concept (the dance of which strategies you are each choosing) is core to RTS games, and I’m really happy that I’ve been able to capture that. It’s a case of trying to get at the essence of a game and capture that in a different medium, so it reminds me of my work to capture the essence of a fighting game with Yomi.
2D6.org: Are there any more games in the Fantasy Strike universe planned?
DS: After the expansion for Yomi, I’ll release Codex next—if I can figure out how to pay for all that art, that is. I don’t know anything for sure after that. I have messed around with several designs, and I’m not sure which are good enough to be taken to completion. A couple of them are pure cooperative games, to give you some idea of what I’m working on.
2D6.org: You are definitely a designer who has a finger on the pulse of the electronic generation. Can we look forward to iOS and Android versions of any of your games? I know you have partially answered this question previously in another forum but I am hoping for an update and wanted a thorough interview.
DS: I have tried for years to make iOS versions of my games happen. A lot of independent groups have started but then ended up doing nothing. A major developer was going to do it, then mysteriously backed out just because the web versions we have exist at all. Actually, doing a cross-platform thing with the web version and iOS is going to be amazing for players once that finally happens some day. I still am pushing for this, and there is maybe a deal on the horizon for it, but no work has yet started. I have a feeling it’s going to be a while still, but that we’ll get there.
2D6.org: Puzzle Strike just finished a very successful Kickstarter.com campaign which saw the release of the 3rd edition of the game and the standalone expansion Puzzle Strike: Shadows which should be hitting full retail channels at the end of October. What changes have occurred between the 2nd and 3rd edition and for someone who has never played Puzzle Strike do you think Shadows is a good jumping off point or should players start with 3rd Edition?
DS: There are several different kinds of differences. I think there is a lot of confusion that the 3rd Edition has better balanced characters than the 2nd Edition’s upgrade pack. That’s actually not the point of 3rd Edition at all. Here are the kind of things that are different:
1) The combine chip was changed to cost $1 each time you play it. I think this helps strategy because “rushing down” (doing lots of combines and crashes early to try to win qucikly) hurts your economy. That’s an interesting trade off, and it happens to match how RTS games like Starcraft work. Rushing early has some sort of risk/reward to it. It also really opened up the design space for expansion chips and allowed them to be more elegant than they otherwise would be, without the need to add clauses to keep combines in check. Several character chips were changed to be more “tournament compatible” with that new -$1 combine feature.
2) The free-for-all mode is completely different. It no longer has player elimination, and anyone can crash to anyone or attack anyone. Usually this is terrible in FFA games because it means you just gang up on someone (using your pre-arranged alliance before the game even started), but the unusual workings of this mode solve that. This FFA mode is possibly the best feature of all in the 3rd Edition and we’ve gotten really, really positive feedback on it. Many chips are reworded to support the concept of attacking/crashing to anyone.
3) More powerful puzzle chips. If we were going to have a new edition anyway, I figured we might as well use all the feedback we had from months of tournaments to know which puzzle chips were not used very much. Some of the weaker puzzle chips were powered up, and this is a case where they also just became more fun! Training Day, for example lets you put the new chip you get in your hand for use right away, rather than in your discard pile. Knockdown went from a boring effect to a really strong rushdown-enabling chip.
4) A new Panic Time mode that pushes the game toward conclusion if it goes too long.
5) New components. Due to players liking the extra components in the Upgrade Pack for 2nd Edition so much, now you get game boards and screens to hide your chips in the box in 3rd Edition.
Note that you can take advantage of most of that with a 2nd edition set. Just treat your combines as having -$1, use the panic time rule, use the new free-for-all rules (freely available at www.sirlin.net/ps/rules). Treat any chip saying “next opponent” as letting you choose which opponent. It’s up to you if you feel like using any errata about anything beyond that.
2D6.org: Can you give some insight into the development process that went into creating Puzzle Strike? Were you trying to evolve the mechanics of Dominion much in the same was as Thunderstone did or were you already working on converting the game play of Puzzle Fighter into a board game? Where did the unique idea to use chips in place of cards come from? Will we ever see a card version of Puzzle Strike?
DS: Puzzle Fighter’s gameplay has been on my mind for over a decade. The specific way it handles the comeback mechanic is really interesting and subtly different than how most games do it. So for a long time I’ve looked for ways to put that into other games.
As far as Dominion, I guess I had a different reaction to it than most people. I found the lack of interaction to be pretty problematic, and the lame-duck feature to be a problem as well. Meaning it’s possible to be so far behind in VP that you can’t win, yet you’re still in the game (to cause havoc, to kingmake, etc). Starting with some basically blank cards in your deck makes for a slower start. Lack of characters / asymmetry is in general a problem to me, but here it’s even more of a problem than usual. It means that usually if a strategy is good for you, it’s good for everyone else too. I just didn’t find it a deep enough experience.
And so Puzzle Strike addresses each of the things I mentioned above. Asymmetry, more interaction, a faster start (character chips are in your starting deck), and the win condition completely changed to a thing that is interactive and tends to give close matches, with comeback potential. And by the way, chips in a bag instead of cards in a deck for easier shuffling.
2D6.org: There has been some backlash by a minority in the community about the multiple editions of Puzzle Strike in a short time span (although my understanding is that 1st to 2nd edition was barely more than cosmetic changes?) what would you say to the critics who complain this was an unfair business practice?
DS: The 2nd Edition was just a move to large scale manufacturing instead of having every single set made by hand. It also marked a real improvement in manufacturing quality (I didn’t realize there were going to be problems with the first edition manufacturing) and it allowed the wholesale price to be low enough that stores could even carry it at all. There were only some minor gameplay changes, basically stuff tournaments had told us at that point. The impetus behind that edition wasn’t gameplay, but it seemed better to implement those few changes rather than intentionally omit known ways to improve the game.
As for 3rd Edition, I listed all the types of changes above, at length. Would you say it’s a better game? If not, then we’d all agree there is no reason to make a new edition. I happen to think it’s dramatically better. A lot of things came together at once to make that even possible, from the Kickstarter success allowing a large enough run to add components people wanted, to the strategic improvements on the combine change, to new FFA mode that’s been a big hit. We also had run out of supply and needed another print run. I just can’t imagine holding that back.
Another way to think about it is to think about some far future date. You can use 10 years if you want, or 100 years. How are we going to have the best game by then? By making a commitment to not learn from feedback? That’s not going to do it. The best way is to make the best game you can at each point in time, and allow that improvement process over time to happen.
I think some people think that “more playtesting” is some kind of substitute answer. It’s not. Playtesting is vitally important, but games deep enough to be played thousands of times, you’d expect to learn something, rather than nothing, from how players interact with it after release. Starcraft, for example, had something like 11 or 12 updates over 10 years. It’s not that Blizzard should have playtested the game 10 more years before releasing it. It’s more that they released an incredibly good game, and managed to improve it several times, pushing their quality far past that of any competitor in that genre.
2D6.org: Multiple editions shows that the game is successful and selling out in the retail marketplace, are you finding the sales improving with each new and improved edition of the game?
DS: I don’t even know the answer to this for Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition, because it’s not quite even fully released. Though it’s absolutely true that the 2nd Edition brought the game to a much wider market than the first, because of the scale I was able to manufacture it on and the price I was able to get it down to. Likewise, Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition should be even more accessible, because it’s $49 now instead of $59, with more components, and an even better 3-player and 4-player mode. So I’d expect it to be able to reach even more people, but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually the case. I certainly do think that potential new players are in a better situation now though, because if they hear the game is good, they can buy a fantastic $49 base game, compared to the old situation of a $59 base game with everyone saying, “and you’ll really want to components in the $25 upgrade pack too.”
2D6.org: What are your favorite chips in each of the Puzzle Strike sets? Which ones ended up with the exact right blend of cost, effectiveness, balance and fun that you are the most proud of?
DS: This sounds like an easy question, but it’s actually really hard because of my memory of the design process. There are some chips that stand out in my memory like 10 or 100 times more than others, but that’s because they were very controversial or hard to balance, or enabled all sorts of possible strategies that we had to check were actually fair. So that’s all I can think of right now, ha.
Wartime Tactics (a character chip in Shadows) is one in that last category, you can do tons with it. Very powerful, but powerful in an interesting way, so really good for the game. The puzzle chip Hundred-Fist Frenzy (also in Shadows) was one that was really hard to balance. It was claimed brokenly strong and then proved to be so in beta tournaments, then we finally figured out a discard clause for it that made it actually fair.
In the base set, a bit more time has passed so maybe I can more easily answer the actual question. I like Gem Essence, because it has a good mix of simplicity and versatility. And I like Lum’s Living on the Edge chip because of how much it tempts you to be greedy. Though now that I think harder about development, I remember how hard Troublesome Rhetoric was to figure out. Giving your opponent a “troublesome choice” that isn’t totally obvious every time was very difficult (took weeks and dozens of suggestions that didn’t end up working out), so I’m pretty happy we finally figured out how to do it.
2D6.org: What would you say to the detractors making a fuss over Shadows being a standalone expansion versus an expansion only box? I personally think offering new customers more options makes great business sense but apparently not all agree. Can you give us any hints about the next Puzzle Strike expansion?
DS: I’ll point out that Dominion and Dominion Intrugue are the same way. Anyway, the thing is that the goal was to reduce the cost of the base set down to $49, and effectively doubling the print run size by making sure the expansion had exactly the same physical specs was a way to do that. There are really good economies of scale, and that’s a big reason for it. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, taking some gems out of Shadows would increase the cost of the base set and would not decrease the cost of Shadows by very much.
Also, it’s just less risky as a publisher to be able to sell either of two things to anyone, in any game store. Yet another issue is that some people have the 2nd Edition and would want to buy Shadows but not buy 3rd Edition. Those people would have the new combine chips, so that’s a bit of a plus.
As for further expansions, well, I’d like to first point out that there is a lot of replayability already. 20 characters is 210 2-player matchups. And the number of total effects in two sets of Puzzle Strike is like 4 sets of Dominion. I think you could play thousands of times without exhausting what’s there. If the game sells well and people want more though, then my plan would be to do one or two 15-puzzle-chip mini-expansions. These wouldn’t be standalone, so it would just be the minimum components needed. The best way to make those happen, if you’re interested, is to tell some friends to buy Puzzle Strike 3rd Editon or Shadows. My attention is on Yomi and Codex right now, but I would do those puzzle-chip expansions if there really is demand.
2D6.org: The second edition of Flash Duel was released in 2011 with some great upgrades, are you planning to revisit this game any time soon or is Puzzle Strike and Yomi your current focus?
DS: I’m actually really happy with Flash Duel 2nd Edition exactly as it is. I have no plans for it right now, and I just hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It was kind of my experiment to see if putting two expansions plus base set all in the same box for the same price as the previous edition was enough to really wow people. The normal approach would have been to split that up into 3 separate products so that together it would have cost more. Tell me it worked by buying it, ha.
I should also say that we are almost ready to launch the online version of Flash Duel at fantasystrike.com. It actually has 8-bit animations for every move from every character, so that’s pretty awesome. I don’t know the release date yet, but we are very far along with the functionality. Almost every game mode is currently working in beta form.
2D6.org: Speaking of Yomi, can you give us any hints about the Yomi expansion you are working on? Will we see new characters, abilities, or game play mechanics unique to the game? Are you set on releasing all future Sirlin Games through Kickstarter.com or was Puzzle Strike a unique situation?
DS: Yes, I’m working a whole lot on Yomi right now. Especially the boxes and graphic design stuff, which as you heard earlier is my main job. There are 10 new characters, the same ones you’ve seen in Flash Duel and Puzzle Strike Shadows. There are several new mechanics, too. Quince uses illusions to sometimes play two combat cards at once, while Bal-Bas-Beta can keep his enemies at long range, making it difficult for them to even hit him. Gloria can heal herself several times during a fight (and we’re very on the ball here about not letting that work in a way that stalls games too much) while her sister Gwen is the opposite: she starts out *dying* and desperately tries to rush down before her hourglass runs out, so to speak. All this stuff is compatible with the base characters though, so there is nothing so new that it becomes a different game, or anything like that.
Also I’ll reveal the thing I’m actually most excited about: I will have a 2v2 mode. It will also have a 2v1 mode and a single-player mode, by the way. The 2v2 mode is just great fun though, I mean seriously great. And it also works with the base characters.
I think a Kickstarter release will be a good idea when the time comes. It worked well for Puzzle Strike.
2D6.org: Yomi has a lot of fantastic artwork, how much does that magnitude of artwork add to the cost of manufacturing a game? It seems to me that creating a game with a wide variety of great artwork while keeping costs down is a challenging balancing act what percentage of costs goes towards artwork in a game like this?
DS: It’s very expensive and very time consuming to get all that artwork. Even describing to artists what it all should be takes a while! And then there’s art direction, all the time taken by artists to draw, and then the thing that’s been the biggest time sink of all: waiting around for artists to even start drawing. I have no secret here, in fact I’m looking for someone else’s secrets or something. Expensive and time-consuming art is the biggest hurdle to releasing any of my games. You asked for a percentage, and I don’t really know, but let’s just say “most of it” goes to character art on Yomi. Though manufacturing could be as much or more if the run is big enough.
2D6.org: Kickstarter.com love it or hate it is becoming a strong force in the board game market. As a designer and publisher who has used retail channels and Kickstarter.com successfully, can you tell us the advantages and disadvantages of using each outlet?
DS: For some, the advantage of Kickstarter is they can do a project at all, rather than not do it. A subtle difference is that for others, they could do it either way but Kickstarter means the downside risk of throwing $100,000 or more at some project and losing all of it is kept in check. So this means something that is “too risky” to make becomes possible.
There are some downsides to Kickstarter, though in the end, probably they are not as important as the upside. One downside is losing some percentage of revenue to various fees. For example, I think I had to pay something like 18% or 20% to Kickstarter, Amazon Payments, and extra fulfillment fees for the hassle of dealing with Kickstarter. So if that exact same number of people had simply pre-ordered, it would be 20% more revenue. The other “disadvantage” is that Kickstarter really pushes developers to develop as much “extra stuff” as possible, because that’s how to be successful there. I sort of wish that somehow it pushed developers to develop as little extra stuff as possible instead, so that all that time could be spent on the core thing, but oh well. Finally, another drawback is that it really takes a ton of time to run a Kickstarter campaign.
Like I said though, I think the overall advantages outweigh that. Judging by the trends I see in board games, it seems that many other developers also think Kickstarter is overall a positive experience, too.
2D6.org: Kickstarter is a great opportunity for game designers new and old to get projects up and running. From a customers perspective there is concern about a distinct lack of play testing and polish, do you feel this is a valid concern? I realize publishers can create lackluster games but there is a perception that publishers have a vested financial incentive to see a games success and are less likely to release a sub par property. Do you think Kickstarter.com for lack of better wording has shifted the risk onto the consumer?
DS: I think this is a good concern, and I share it, but I don’t have any real insightful answer. Kickstarter definitely is enabling more bad quality games to be made. But it’s also enabling more great games to be made that probably wouldn’t otherwise be made. So yeah I think the burden is on the consumer to try to sort out one from the other. That’s really hard to do though, because you kind of have to play a game to know if it’s good, and you often can’t do that with Kickstarter projects.
Now, that wasn’t a worry for Puzzle Strike because it was an already known game, and the 3rd Edition was even fully playable online when the Kickstarter was up. The same will be true of Yomi next year or whenever that is on Kickstarter. If you only have the reputation of the developer to make your buying decision, that’s tough because it’s entirely possible you’ll end up wrong in your guess on the game’s quality, in either direction.
2D6.org: What can you tell us about the business and financial side of self-publishing games? How much easier did the successful Kickstarter campaign make it for you to get Puzzle Strike 3rd edition and the Shadows Expansion published than the earlier editions?
DS: While I personally think making a great game better is a no-brainer, I am also aware that the realities of marketplace are quite different. It’s much safer financially to release more expansion of a great game, than to make it better. So it was very unclear to me how many people would be interested in the new Puzzle Strike. It’s especially hard when a few people complain a lot, because you can’t tell if that’s everyone’s opinion, or if tons of people are not represented by that opinion and that actually a lot of people really want it. So I felt it was very risky to release it without Kickstarter. And had I decided to take that risk, there is no way in the world that I would have done a print run large enough to reduce the price and include more components.
So bottom line: yes, Kickstarter made it a lot easier to publish Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition than the previous editions. Though I should say that in another sense it was harder, because there’s a huge time commitment involved with Kickstarter. So it was “more work” but that work made it “not financially crazy.”
2D6.org: Finally, why did you leave Alexander Alekhine out of “Playing to win”? Do you think Alexander Alekhine falls into one of your already described tournament archetypes or is he a different archetype?
DS: I had certain player archetypes in mind ahead of time, and I filled them in with whoever I thought fit. There is no particular reason Alekhine wasn’t included, and it’s no slight on him as a player in any way.
We at 2D6.org would like to thank David for taking the time out of his very busy schedule for this interview. We look forward to the retail success of Puzzle Strike and his new project CODEX!
Michael V K
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