Q&A: Frogdice's Michael Hartman talks Stash: No Loot Left Behind
Frogdice CEO Michael Hartman had a lot to say about his newest project Stash: No Loot Left Behind, which has 22 days left on Kickstarter. The veteran game developer of over 20 years was passionate about the gameplay of the new project and swiftly described common discrepancies and faults in mainstream MMORPGs, such as "quest grinding", how anti-social the gameplay features are, and "Bind on Pickup". Catch the exclusive interview below and see what Hartman had to say about Stash and other Frogdice games like ReignMaker and Dungeon of Elements and his advice for aspiring, independent game developers.
GameSkinny: Who named the company Frogdice? What's the meaning behind it?
Hartman: My wife and I came up with the name together. We had a more unwieldy name originally, and decided to change it somewhere in the '90s. We wanted a name that implied something cute and whimsical, since our games appeal to and are popular with women. My wife loves frogs, so there was that part. But we also wanted it to clearly be about games, hence the dice. We also wanted a name you could easily spell, and had an available domain name! Frogs are also cool because they are a great environmental indicator. If the frogs disappear, things are bad. If there are frogs around, you know your environment is at least doing ok.
GameSkinny: So the widget I'm looking at says your Kickstarter is 57% funded at the moment. If it isn't completely funded by the deadline (hypothetically), what would be your next course of action?
Hartman: We would keep working on Stash, since the vast majority of its budget is self-funded. We might have to delay it some to launch some of our existing games on other platforms, to be able to stay financially healthy and making payroll. We're putting Dungeon of Elements and ReignMaker on some consoles and other platforms. It would definitely be a huge bummer, because it would be harder to develop Stash with the same level of confidence. A successful Kickstarter not only brings funding, but also brings a nice core group of users. Those users are a wonderful source of feedback and input. Plus, we really are a very community-based studio. We like having our community along for the ride. Personally, I obsess over our backer total more than our funding total.
GameSkinny: You mentioned in the launch video on your Kickstarter page for Stash that it has worked well for past games you've made. On the very bottom of the Kickstarter page under the 'Risks and Challenges' section, it states that this is your third campaign. What do you feel it is about Kickstarter that contributed to the success of your previous games and the potential success of Stash? Do you think social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have helped with your campaigns?
Hartman: Kickstarter has helped in two big ways. 1) The funding, of course, has helped. We have always directly put that into software licenses and salaries to make sure the game is top-notch. 2) The community. Having those people involved during development, beta testing, etc, has been enormously helpful. We can only test on so many machines and with our small number of opinions and experiences. More people playing really helps tune difficulty, find issues with gameplay, etc.
GameSkinny: Many times during my research I've seen "Not your typical MMO. We're re-imagining the genre." How so? What is it exactly that sets Stash apart from other MMORPGs? Why will it have turn-based combat? Why will there not be a level cap?
Hartman: Here's the LONG version. And I'll also give you a short version. Turn based combat - that's a big one. We find it adds more strategy to the game and also makes it more accessible to more people. There are technological advantages also. Things like lag, which plague multiplayer online games, are far less of a problem for us, which is a huge bonus. We are dumping a lot of the "sacred cows" of modern MMOs that we feel have outlived their usefulness - like quest grinding. Think about how watered down the word "quest" is now. That word used to be EPIC. Quests are amazing when you care about the story and the outcome and your choices. But when it is literally your 576th quest, and it is little more than gathering boar livers in a different zone...why? I mean, why have the hassle?
What also kills me is how anti-social they are. You meet someone. You want to play together, but you can't. "Do you have QUEST X?"
"No, I already did that...How about QUEST Y?"
"Nah, I don't have the pre-reqs."
That's like the total opposite of what MMOs should be like. I think developers something have a little bit of hubris; they think ALL FUN FLOWS THROUGH US. That's not entirely true. The most meaningful goals and memories people have from games are the random things they created on their own or with friends. As developers, we are at our best when we give people tools to have fun on their own or with friends. When we try to dictate the minutiae of your gameplay experience, things fall apart.
So...Bind on Pickup (BoP). Worst game idea ever. WORST. Bind on Pickup is another anti-social concept. Giving people items is the RPG equivalent of people in real life breaking bread and sharing a meal together. It's kind of sacred. It forges relationships. When you take that away, you strangle relationships. The "gain" of BoP is making people earn everything they have 100% directly, which is fine in theory, maybe. But in practice, it's terrible and horrible and not worth the cost. I can tell you that I remember, vividly, the times some awesome person gave me something cool. But the times I got some drop from some epic boss? Totally forgotten. That boss gives his loot to EVERYONE. He's indiscriminate. The code tells him to give that item. He didn't choose me. But a real player who gives me something? He CHOSE to give it to me. Something about our relationship made that person willing to give me that epic sword. It's MEANINGFUL.
GameSkinny: Your fan base is very good considering the re-launch and your backers "backing you" as they should when an incredible opportunity comes up. How did the opportunity to expand with OUYA (for 5 months), Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One come about?
Hartman: Some reps from a couple different console companies reached out to us and said they were interested in our game being on their platform. So we explored that a bit and started talking with them. One of those was OUYA and that's how we found out their Free the Games fund was still going. The console interest was awesome and Unity3d makes developing for all these platforms relatively easy. The tough thing was to really include them - and in particular to be eligible for OUYA's matching - we would have to re-launch the campaign. We were doing pretty well at the time so I was nervous about that. So we did a backer only update and discussed it with our backers. there was no other way to do it. Kind of a weakness in the Kickstarter platform. Our backers had 100% agreement that we should re-launch. I was blown away. Gamers usually don't agree like that...on anything, but it was 100% unanimous. Not a single person was against it. So we scheduled it, launched it, and last time I checked we were only missing like 20 or 30 people from the original. Hopefully those people just haven't realized it yet.
GameSkinny: It can be assumed that someone on your development team has grown weary of being just a few gems or coins short of the limit in certain games (I know I have). With that said, what ultimately inspired Stash: No Loot Left Behind?
Hartman: I think the over-arching inspiration is decades of playing RPGs and reaching a point where we feel like something is missing. Now, especially in MMORPGs, things have kind of gotten stale for the most part. Someone needs to come in and shake it up and come at it with some really new ideas, so from that is where the ideas for Stash evolved. A lifetime of playing RPGs with so many cool elements, a lifetime of ideas for things we felt would be cool in an online RPG, and the timing of the MMORPG genre being kind of in a rut.
GameSkinny: Will the gameplay of Stash differ across the different platforms?
Hartman: The gameplay for Stash should be identical on all platforms. It is our hope and plan that they will also share the same servers. So PC players together with console players - that's the goal. We have never done a console game, so this is a bit of a learning curve here. Our ultimate goal would be that you could pick up ANY device - PC, console, tablet, phone, calculator, smart toaster - and play Stash, at least in some way.
GameSkinny: What do you hope gamers will take away from this game? In what ways do you feel that this game will serve as a positive influence for kids?
Hartman: I have two daughters, 12 and 8, so this is a big one for me. We don't make "kid games", but we do keep kids in mind since they end up playing almost everything out there. For kids in particular: problem solving, pattern recognition, strategic thinking, social skills, typing, reading, leadership, creativity, planning, organization, setting and attaining long term goals. We don't have blood and gore.
GameSkinny: What other projects do you have going on at the moment?
Hartman: We are maintaining ReignMaker and Dungeon of Elements, planning and working towards releasing on other platforms, and then Threshold is constantly being added to. We have one programmer whose sole job is just Threshold development, which is a lot on a small team.
GameSkinny: What advice do you have for all the aspiring independent game developers out there?
Hartman: Make a game. Finish it. Launch it on whatever store you can and learn from that entire experience. Then make your next game. Don't stop 90%. Don't only do game jams. Don't only release things on your web page for free. Get the full experience. See what changes when you charge people $1 or $5 for your game. See how their reactions and expectations change.
If you would like to learn more about Frogdice, visit their official website or catch them on Facebook and Twitter. If you would like to contribute to the Kickstarter, pledge to make a donation today.