FrogDice Interview: Kickstarter Campaign Dungeon of Elements
I had the privilege of having some questions answered by our friends Michael and Pang from FrogDice. They have been making games for nearly twenty years now and have a very loyal fan base from their first hit, Threshold. Now their newest game Dungeon of Elements is up on Kickstarter and is set to release August of this year.
Roth: Tell us about FrogDice; how did you get started, and how have you have been so successful for almost 20 years while staying exclusively in the Indie market?
"It's Michael's story to tell on how the company came to be. I joined the company first by being a player while I was in law school. Michael and I communicated a lot about law school and how much we both hated it. Mutual love of gaming, mutual hate of law school, and the mutual fascination with video games in particular is how we got together to turn a hobby into a business.
Honestly, both of us were very comfortable with the amount of money we were making and keeping our company small and focused on quality and customer care. We didn't even think of expanding when we first had our kids because what job allows both parents to stay at home and be there for their young kids? Both of our kids finally entered school two years ago, and we began poking our heads out and looking around. By that time, we'd amassed quite a big of knowledge about online games, online communities, gaming trends, and tech businesses. Our company had made it through 2 internet busts and countless gaming busts. We survived World of Warcraft and countless other online RPGs."
"I started the company while I was in law school because I wanted to make better online RPGs than the ones I was playing. Most MUDs were created by programmers who looked at a game from the code side first. I wanted to make a game from the design/writing side first. I taught myself how to program and was off and running with Threshold RPG! Fortunately, there were people out there who also wanted an RPG that was more about story, interaction, roleplay, and top notch writing. Those people embraced Threshold and the game remains possible to this day, almost 20 years later.
I believe our sustained success is a result of being obsessed with providing a unique, high quality experience for our players. That sounds obvious, but it really isn't. We agonize over our game designs and are extremely thoughtful about every system or piece of content that goes into our games. Pang and I discuss things while going for walks, while driving on trips, or even while just grocery shopping. This is a very unique benefit we have as a husband and wife design team. Fortunately we are able to tolerate each other despite spending so much time together.
We also try very hard to make sure our games are different than everything else you see out there. When you play a Frogdice game, you are going to get a very unique and very FUN experience that you can't find anywhere else in the gaming industry."
Roth: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working so closely with your significant other?
Pang and Michael:
The advantages are many:
- I'm never not interested in what he has to say about work.
- We're a team inside the home and outside of it.
- We are very up-to-date about each others' lives, so we rarely feel like we've grown apart.
- Major business accomplishments are shared by both of us and multiplied.
- We bring very different viewpoints but the same level of passion to the business.
The disadvantages are few but pretty significant:
- Sometimes, we just can't seem to get away from work. This is especially bad during stress times like crunch time or Kickstarter time.
- Sometimes an event comes up where we both need to attend. Then we have to have grandparents watch the kids, or one of us has to miss the event.
- Every now and then, we'll have a massive disagreement about design or where our business needs to go next. We've solved this issue by splitting up our duties to the business pretty significantly.
Roth: What is your favorite part of game development?
"For me, the design phase is obviously my favorite part of development. Everything seems so new and shiny and the sky is the limit."
"Showing the game off to players. I think deep down the reason I love making games, and the reason I quit being a lawyer to do it, is I love making people happy. When I see or hear from someone who played one of my games and just loved it, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Knowing that I am spreading joy and happiness in the world makes me feel like I am doing something wonderful and positive with my life.
Perhaps that sounds a little emo, but that's really the core of it. I love to entertain, amuse, and enlighten people. Games give me an excellent means to do that."
Roth: What strikes me is how you've taken puzzle games like Dr. Mario and Tetris and come up with an RPG. How did you conceive this original idea?
"I'm an RPG fanatic. I think of everything in an RPG sense: child rearing, cooking, gymnastics, game development, business, etc. I'm constantly thinking of the multiple ways I'm earning "XP" while I'm doing various things in my life, and I amuse myself in thinking about how I'm "grinding" up my kids' levels by exposing them to different parts of life. Every book I read to them is some nebulous amount of XP, and I'm leveling up my little minions. (Hehe.) Anyway, it comes very naturally to think about all of my favorite game mechanics and tie them to an RPG.
I also think of the many, many casual gamers who would absolutely enjoy the story and character evolution of an RPG but who are too uncomfortable or intimidated to learn to play RPGs in the traditional setting. I love the idea of exposing them to these core mechanics without the stress of core gameplay."
Roth: And it isn't just DoE that has this insane combination of gameplay elements; for Tower of Elements you liked to call it Bejeweled plus Plants vs. Zombies, I never imagined those being combined. Where do you come up with this stuff?
"I come up with these ideas by playing a LOT of different games and, honestly, refusing to be pigeonholed into being any one type of gamer. My two favorite games currently are League of Legends and Plants vs. Zombies. I just got done watching the Season 3 All-Star Tournament for LoL, and I've been delving into PvZ Adventures on Facebook since they released. I love city building games, hardcore RPGs, MMOs, MOBAs, match 3, puzzlers, casual RPGs, etc. The only thing I'd say that I really don't enjoy are bubble popper games, but I'll still use that mechanic if I have to do so.
Anyway, so DoE's idea originally came out in Coin 'n Carry. CnC's game design was a great challenge because it consists of a ton of mini-games. I was always having to think of new mechanics. In Threshold RPG (our 17 year old text-based multiplayer RPG), we've always had exploding capsules created by alchemists to blow up bad guys (or your group mates). I decided that I wanted to make a game out of those capsules, and since I'm a match 3 freak, I wanted to use that type of mechanics. I didn't realize how inspired I was by Dr. Mario and Tetris until our artist said, "Wow. This is like Dr. Mario only better!" He and his wife played the snot out of Exploding Capsules to the point where I promised him I would make it a stand-alone game at some point. After we finished Tower of Elements, our artist wanted to make character models so badly, and we had already started planning a web-based multiplayer RPG. I took all those elements into consideration and created Dungeon of Elements."
Roth: In an interview with JustPressStart, Michael mentioned that your player base was around 75% women--which of your games were you referring to, and what do you think caused that outcome?
"Threshold RPG is a text-based multiplayer online RPG. We have approximately 46% women on that game, and it's a pretty hardcore game. You lose entire levels when you die, and it has all your traditional RPG elements. You level up, you gain spells, you fight monsters, you die and cry over it. Coin 'n Carry is over 75% female in its playerbase. It's a very, very casual game, but we still have our story laced throughout every single part of it.
With Threshold, I think that the community and world-building elements of the game made it very intriguing for women. They had a huge impact on the game without having to do combat, but they could go into combat if they enjoyed that aspect of the game. With all of our games after that one, I believe that having a woman lead designer for the games plays a huge impact on our woman heavy population. It's not so much that I design FOR women as I design what I like to play, and I'm not that different from other women when it comes to gaming.
We like to keep our multiplayer RPG population around 50/50 men to women simply because that reflects the real world. You have a much more stable gaming population if you can keep the ratio around that number."
"As Pang mentioned in her answer, I think our focus on strong, positive, healthy communities is one of the biggest reasons women love our games. We simply do not tolerate the misanthropy that pollutes so many game communities. We stamp it out, and aren't afraid to lose a few players in the process.
I believe this is the same reason we have such enormous retention for our players. A great community is even more rare and valuable than a great game. We give people both."
Roth: More towards your current Kickstarter Campaign Dungeon of Elements, what complications are you, as a team, running into or is everything going smoothly (release on schedule and such)?
"The Kickstarter has gone much better than I expected. I think the thing that we're running into most as an issue is simply "How do we get the word out?" We've got an extremely loyal fanbase, and they made this Kickstarter AMAZING. We just need to reach more people.
I have no fears of releasing on schedule. We're in the polish phase for DoE, and it will definitely be released around one month after we finish our Kickstarter. We just need sound and polish at this point. We will also have plenty of time for stretch goals if we get to that point in our Kickstarter."
"The Kickstarter has exceeded my expectations so far which is a wonderful position to be in. The only challenge we are having is getting the word out farther and wider. We have a very high % of people who click on our Kickstarter link that actually back the project. So clearly it is resonating well with people and they like it. We just need to make more people aware of it.
Releasing the game on time will not be a challenge for us. One of our strengths at Frogdice is we have pretty solid project management and are good at hitting our deadlines. Dungeon of Elements will be on the hard drives of our backers in July and they'll be having a blast with it!"
Roth: What about DoE lead you to the decision of hiring on more staff?
"DoE is one step closer to our big RPG that should be released in early 2015 or possibly late 2014. It's been more well-received than any of us expected. We're very careful about who we hire and when simply because we want to make sure that we have enough work for everyone in the studio. We like to guarantee that when someone comes on board, we won't be letting them go simply because there's nothing for them to do."
"Hiring more staff is just a part of the overall business plan for Frogdice. So far we have been able to grow by 1 or 2 more staff members with each game we release. We hope to continue that until we hit about 10 people and then try to hold there for a bit. We don't want to get too big and lose the close team bond that we have.
One of our next games is a pretty significant web RPG that will require a few more team members. We hope to have that game out in 2014, or 2015 at the latest."
Roth: From my understanding, your main goal for DoE is to create a casual game that will be a gateway for casual players into the RPG genre. How are you keeping balance with character creation and other RPG elements while staying in a casual genre for new comers? How is this affecting your ability to put emphasis on the story of your world and lore?
"We kept things relatively simple for this game when it comes to RPG elements. There's absolutely no twitch mechanics which allows players to explore weapon and armor upgrades at a more casual pace. The weapon and armor stats are simplified and clarified so that players can make choices without having to weigh the differences between 3 or 4 stats like they often have to in a core game. You get the fun of getting (or making) new gear without the headache of figuring out if strength is better than str/con or intelligence being better than luck/dex for your character.
I can't tell the huge stories that exist in our world lore in this type of game, but I CAN tell an important and fun part of the story. All the little parts of every story are fun to explore along-side the main story. We know how much players love to dig into every little aspect of lore, so I think it's fine to give them more and more for every casual game we make. They'll be ready when we make our more complicated games. For players who love RP-enforced or RP-encouraged games, they know that knowledge is king. The more lore you know, the more power you have in the world if you're into roleplaying."
FrogDice is working quickly towards their Kickstarter goal set to end June 19th, but still needs support! Be sure to check Dungeon of Elements out and help Michael and Pang grind out some more XP for their little minions.