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“20 Questions” 2D6.org Interviews StoneBlade Entertainment (formerly Gary Games)!

8 March 2013 3 Comments

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Stone Blade Entertainment was founded in 2010 by by Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour champion Justin Gary originally under the name of Gary Games and their first release Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer hit stores in August of 2010. Ascension was designed as a fast paced deck building game created through the joint input of Justin Gary, Brian Kibler, John Fiorillo, Rob Dougherty, with artwork by Eric Sabee. Since its release Ascension has seen 3 stand alone expansions all designed to be part of a grand story arc.

Stone Blade Entertainment currently sells its award winning deck building game, Ascension as both a physical product and iOS app. In May of 2012, Ascension had over one million games played online and was number one on the iOS charts for paid apps!

Of course Ascension isn’t the only game coming from Stone Blade Entertainment, Solforge (a digital trading card game) is a collaborative effort between Stone Blade and industry veteran Richard Garfield best known for the venerable game Magic: The Gathering.

2D6.org: Justin please take a moment to introduce yourself and tell us how you became involved in the board game industry? What one game first got its hooks into you (and no fair claiming Magic: The Gathering unless it truly was your first game!)?

JG: No fair not letting me claim Magic: The Gathering!  It was obviously a huge influence on me, but from a young age I played all kinds of games.  Game night was a regular event with my family including things like Monopoly, Sorry, Uno, etc.  The first hobby board games to really hook me were Talisman and El Grande.

2D6.org: Some of you were professional Magic: The Gathering Pro tournament level players travelling all over the world competing in tournaments. Do any of you still actively compete or even want to compete at the tournament level any more?

Brian Kibler and Patrick Sullivan are still very active in the tournament scene.  Myself, John Fiorillo, and others all play periodically and have been thinking about getting back into the game more competitively (I am still hungry for a Hall of Fame induction), but it takes a lot of time to be good at Magic, and right now all of our attention is focussed on making games and growing Stone Blade Entertainment.
2D6.org: Magic: The Gathering is a venerable franchise that hit the market in 1993 making it officially 20 years old this year. What is your opinion on the evolution of Magic: The Gathering over the years? Do you think Wizards of the Coast has done a great job updating the game and keeping it fresh? If you could make one change to the game what would it be?
That is a lot of questions! I think Magic has done a great job evolving and growing over the years.  Wizards has made several really smart decisions like introducing planeswalkers into the game, and releasing Magic 2013 (etc.) to mobile so more people can play it.  Selfishly, I wish that WotC would let those on the Hall of Fame ballot get invitations to Pro Tours so I could come out and play again- I think it would be good press for them to bring back all us ProTourasouruses.
2D6.org: Over the years the Collectible Card Game market has diminished and slowly given rise to the set pack or “living card game” format. Do you feel this will become the dominant format for deck building style games in the future? Do you think the CCG model will eventually go away permanently? The CCG market isn’t diminishing, its just very hard for a new game to break into that market because audiences are much more savvy now.  We know playing a CCG costs a LOT of money, so we won’t usually play more than one.  Game companies that don’t have an established property have to find ways to make their games a good value for the customer.
Take a look at our games, for example.  Ascension is a fixed box game with expansions.  This is great for people because they don’t have to spend a lot of money to play and don’t feel like they have to chase after new cards to be competitive.  Solforge, is more of a traditional TCG model where you buy packs and build your own deck, but we are trying to revolutionize that model by making it free to play.  You can earn all the cards you need just by playing, so you don’t have to go broke trying to keep up with new content.  Some users will spend money to get things faster, others will play more to earn the content they want. Though all of the models you talked about will stay around, I really think the Solforge model is going to become more dominant in the years to come.
2D6.org: You knew this line of questioning was leading somewhere, Ascension as a series has used the “Living Card Game” (LCG for short) format for all of its releases, yet it looks like with Solforge, Stone Blade Entertainment will be using the collectable gaming format. Will Stone Blade start using the collectable game format for other games or is this a unique one off that best fits with the electronic medium Solforge is using?

See above.  To add to that discussion, I really think the game play dictates the business model.  Some games are better suited to a CCG style purchase pattern, some to LCG, some to traditional boardgame, some to fixed micropayments (e.g. League of Legends).  The key thing is to provide great value to your customer and give them lots of great gaming for their money. Everything else is secondary to that.

2D6.org: For those who may not know, what can you tell us about Solforge? What kind of game is it and is it electronic format only? What OS’s (operating systems) will it support and will it allow play across differing OS’s (can I play it on my Android Tablet versus an iOS user for example)?

Solforge is a digital trading card game designed by the team at Stone Blade (myself, John Fiorillo, Brian Kibler, etc.) and Richard Garfield (the creator of Magic).  It will be available on iphone, ipad, Windows PC, and android devices.  You can play across platforms and your collection will sync between them (e.g. if I buy something on my ipad I will also have it on my PC).  The game is totally free to play and you can earn cards just by playing.  We really worked hard to make the game easy to learn but with a lot of depth that really makes it a great game to play for 5 minutes or for hours at a time.

2D6.org: Speaking about iOS, how is the iOS expansion of immortal heroes coming along and when can we anticipate a preview showing up? Will the free-to-play Ascension app replace the current one made by Playdek and/or will the online server for it be shut down? Finally are you planning on releasing more promo packs for purchase as well?

According to our discussions with Playdek, Immortal Heroes should be ready by the end of June this year.  There will also be some more promo packs to purchase on the current app.  Once Ascension Online ports over to iOS (estimated in July 2014) then it will replace the Playdek app (though the Playdek servers will stay up to support current users at least until the end of 2014).  We are working with Playdek to make sure the transition of players is as smooth as possible and we won’t start a transition until we have a 10/10 product ready to launch on iOS.

2D6.org: Solforge uses the free-to-play or “Freemium” format. For some people the “Freemium” format has a stigma of “Nickel and Diming” customers to death. Will there be a “Pay once and forget it” payment option for those who want to avoid “freemium” games?

This is not your typical freemium game.  You can buy cards directly either in randomized packs or non-randomized options.  There will always be new content, so I don’t know that you can “Pay once and forget it” but we won’t stop you from being able to play with cards you own and challenge people to games, etc.  So its not like you won’t be able to play unless you keep paying.

2D6.orgWill the Alloyin have a Shaper, and if so is it ready to be spoiled, or is the Shaper concept not a good fit since one of their themes is leveling cards faster?

There is an Alloyin Shaper in the faction starter decks we are releasing this month!  In fact, it also features the art from one of our kickstarter backers!  We spoiled the effect on our Ascension Online celebration stream, so I’ll tell you that it grants armor to creatures when you play level 1 cards.  The specific stats and numbers I’ll save for the release. :)

2D6.org: The artwork for Solforge looks fantastic, are you using the same artist who did the artwork from Ascension (Eric Sabee)? So far the artwork I have seen strikes me as a new artist, if you did change artists will Eric continue to do the artwork for Ascension?

We are using different artists for Solforge.  Eric has his work cut out for him keeeping up with the demand for new Ascension art!  He is cranking away on Set 6 right now!

2D6.org: Speaking of Ascension, where did the original idea for the game stem from? Was it an attempt to create a better Deck Building game or an evolution of the deck building genre itself? What influence do you think your years of playing Magic: The Gathering (if any) had on your original design?

Certainly Magic was a huge influence on the creation of Ascension.  As soon as I first played Dominion (the first deckbuilding game) I knew that there was something special there.  The idea of condensing the deckbuilding experience inside of a boxed game was very inspired.  After many many plays of Dominion, however, I got bored- once I knew what the available cards were, I basically decided on s a strategy and just had to wait to see how things played out- there was very little excitement and variation from game to game.   Ascension was inspired by the idea of combining the flow of a Magic draft into a boxed deckbuilding game.  Because new cards are revealed all the time, the game changes and no two games are the same.  That plus removing things like action limits, a dozen different piles of cards to setup, and complicated reaction cards, made Ascension very streamlined and fast- and perfect for a quick tabletop game (in less time than it takes to set up a game like Dominion) or a lightning fast game on a mobile device or tablet.

2D6.org: Ascension is unique in that it has an overall arching story line tying the original release and all the expansions together. Was this part of the original design or added in as afterthought and who came up with the idea of the story line?

I came up with a bunch of the original story ideas when I was first designing Ascension.  I love creating fantasy worlds (ever since my days playing D&D) and the Ascension story arch was a really fun one to flesh out.  I owe a lot to team members like Geordie Tait who wrote a bunch of the story and flavor text, and also to Eric Sabee’s art which inspired the “feel” of each of the factions in Ascension.

2D6.org: Ascension originally released in 2010 and since then has seen 3 expansions following a small, large, small, expansion format. Are there any more expansions planned for Ascension, will the next expansion be a “large” expansion, and will it start a new story arc? Will this new expansion offer any new game mechanics or just build on what has come before? Do you see the current block format for Ascension staying the same, or are there other types of releases planned for the future?

Yes!  Rise of Vigil is hitting stores in early April (or you can get it from us early on ascensiongame.com or at our booth at PAXEast) and it is a big set with brand new mechanics.  It will be followed by a small set due out this summer.  This is a really fun block that changes a lot about the way you evaluate cards.  A new card type, treasure, can make it correct to buy “weaker” cards because there are treasure cards that come with them.  In addition, the new game resource, energy, can turn bland cards into powerhouses and because energy isn’t spent like Runes and Power, it can lead to some pretty amazing turns when you turn on all of your energize powers.

2D6.orgWith Ascension growing not only in popularity but in depth with each passing expansion, will Stone Blade ever consider allowing fans to submit ideas for the game?

Absolutely!  We like seeing fan ideas for cards on our forums on ascensiongame.com and we love to hear from you on our facebook page or at conventions with new ideas.  Ascension is going to be around for years to come, and we love to have fans be involved in making it better each year.

2D6.orgThe Company originally started off as “Gary Games” what prompted the name change and are there any other types of games we can expect from this new company or will Soul Forge and Ascensions remain your only IP’s for the foreseeable future?

We changed the name for a few reasons.  First, we think the name Stone Blade is pretty sweet  (check out urban dictionary to see the gamer slang meaning of the term).  Second, Gary Games put a little too much emphasis on me.  Though I started this company, it is successful because of all the awesome people on the team and I want the company name to reflect that.  Finally, we are growing from being a company that just produces hobby board games, to a digital game company with multiple IPs that we hope to grow over the years.  The “Entertainment” title reflects that.

2D6.orgAscension and SolForge both have quick to learn rules and fast card based game play. Is this something you strive for in the games you make, or is it just how these two projects worked out?

This is a key part of my design aesthetic.  Though I have been known to play long complicated games, I generally strive to make games that are accessible and easy for people to get into.  I think the hobby gaming world has a lot to offer, but most people can’t access it because the games are intimidating, complicated, or require too much commitment to play.  I strive to make games that will expand our industry by being easy to learn and quick to play, but that still hold on to the depth that hooked all of us into hobby gaming in the first place.

2D6.orgKickstarter.com love it or hate it is becoming a strong force in the board game market. As a designer and publisher what is your take on Kickstarter.com and its effect on the hobby?

Kickstarter is a fantastic resource for fledgling game companies.  It is  a great way to reach out directly to your fans to make projects better than they could ever be.  Rather than selling out to investors who will force compromises on your games (or worse yet, never being able to make games at all) now creators can ask the fans what they want, and be beholden only to them.

2D6.orgSolforge actually used Kickstarter.com for funding; do you foresee using Kickstarter.com for future projects? Do you think Kickstarter.com alienates part of your customer base and if yes, do you think the rewards out weigh the risks of using Kickstarter.com?

I’m guessing our ascension online kickstarter answers this question.

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 playtesting 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?

This may come as a shock to you, but plenty of games lack playtesting and polish, whether they are kickstarted or not.  At the end of the day, it is up to the consumer to decide if they think a publisher/designer is credible and will make a good product.  Whether you make that decision on a kickstarter page or at your FLGS, you still have to make that call.  I think kickstarter lets fans interact directly with creators and influence the final product in a way that is certainly net positive for everyone.

2D6.org: Finally, do you think we will ever see other projects in the Ascension universe, perhaps books or even an RPG?

I sure hope so!  We had a comic book as one of our stretch goals in the Ascension Online kickstarter.  We didn’t make it yet, but people can still contribute on our paypal page here: http://www.ascensiongame.com/paypal Paypal donations still count towards our stretch goals- so you can help make an Ascension comic book a reality!  Either way I hope to create comics, books, and RPGs in the Ascension Universe someday soon.
We at 2D6.org would like to thank StoneBlade Entertainment for taking time out of their busy schedule for this interview! We look forward to what the future will bring some this very talented crew!
Thanks for reading 2d6.org. If you would like to see more of these interviews, please leave a comment below!
Michael V K
View all posts by Michael V K
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3 Comments »

  • Matt Riddle said:

    not a big fan of ascension, but nice article. interesting stuff.

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  • brittany hpton said:

    Im doing a research paper over ascension and was wondering who there person doing the interview of justin gary was so i could site my source properly ibreally enjoyed reading this article and am a huge fan of justin and eric sabee and love ascension.

    Thank you

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  • Michael V K (author) said:

    I am the interviewer and Justin Gary was the interviewee. I am glad you enjoyed the read and if the demand is there I will start doing more interviews again.

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