Although indie games are all the rage these days, the scene has been around for years, even decades. While not every studio endures, a few do including Frogdice. In this interview we talk with Frogdice producer Michael Hartman who shares his thoughts on his own games, the problems with Facebook, and the rabid fanbases that can emerge from a quality title.
Hello Michael and thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Before we talk about your latest project can you tell our readers a bit about your studio Frogdice and your day-to-day role?
Frogdice is an indie game development studio that I founded in 1996 while I was in law school. We started off in text based RPGs (MUDs) and have since added a variety of other games to our library. Our favorite genre though is still the RPG. We currently have a small full time staff, a few part time staff members, and a large team of interns we call the Pollywogs. We are located in Lexington, KY which has a lot more going on as far as tech and gaming than most people realize.
I am the President & CEO and my primary role is to run the business of the company while serving as executive producer for all of our games. I still love game design and occasionally miss programming, so I’ll jump in there occasionally as well. For Threshold, I did all the design, programming, and writing originally. Things have changed quite a bit since then as we have grown.
You had told me previously that both you and your wife gave up potential law careers in order to focus on Frogdice. What prompted you both to make that choice, and do you ever regret it?
We actually met while we were both at different law schools and she was a player on Frogdice’s first game, Threshold RPG. Our mutual frustration with law school and shared love for RPGs is what brought us together. I worked as a lawyer very briefly but hated it. My wife saw what I experienced and knew right away she didn’t want to practice law. As the company grew I saw an opportunity to go for it and I did. It was very scary at first as I felt like I was giving up a sure thing profession for something very risky. In the mid 90s internet and online gaming companies were brand new.
We have definitely never regretted the decision. We love games and we love making games. We get to bring joy and happiness to thousands of people on a daily basis. That is an amazing feeling. We also have a lot more control over our day to day lives which makes it easier to spend a lot of time with our children while still working very hard on our games and our company.
Let’s talk a bit about your first game Threshold RPG and the legacy associated with it. Can you give our readers an overview of the game? And can you talk about some of the unique elements associated with it, particularly the fact it had/has a free-to-play business model?
Threshold RPG is the longest running, role play required commercial game on the internet. Development began in 1993 and it opened “officially” in 1996. Over the years, close to 500,000 people have played Threshold at some time. We currently have about 2,500 active players. It is a high fantasy game with tons of awesome gameplay features continually developed over the last 16 years. Every game system is designed to be very deep and immersive. This includes guilds, clans, religions, businesses, government, and more. Our feature set absolutely destroys any MMO on the market.
Threshold is also mobile phone friendly as well as being playable using a mud client or right in your browser (http://play.thresholdrpg.com).
The religion system has a pantheon of deities that each represent concepts like War, Truth, Nature, Good, Evil, and the like. I firmly believe our religion system is second to none. Players care deeply about the fate of their church and roleplay intensely to build up the strength of their religion. The conflicts that emerge from this system are the stuff of legend. People tell stories about their religion RP 10+ years later. It is that epic.
The community that has grown around Threshold is absolutely amazing. We host an annual convention for our players every year that is wild, crazy, and ridiculously fun. This year will be our 13th. Threshold players (Threshers) hold their own satellite conventions all over the world as well.
The internet was very new in the mid 90s and back then the idea of charging money for anything was blasphemy. We had to get creative with our business model to avoid making people angry. That is why we pioneered the free to play business model. To my knowledge we are one of the first, if not *THE* first, commercial game developers to use that business model.
Well let’s talk about your latest project Coin ‘n Carry which appears to be a much different game than Threshold RPG. Can you tell us a little about this new title and where the idea for the project came from?
Coin ‘n Carry is a collection of fun, engaging mini-games unified by a framework of running a medieval shop, upgrading and decorating it, collecting pets, and more. You can help your friends, compete against them on leaderboards, and tons more. We are constantly adding more mini-games and features as well.
Gamers who enjoy sim type games, mini games, Pogo, Bejeweled, or social Facebook games would almost certainly love this game. The fact that it is off Facebook allows for deeper gameplay and more privacy for its players. It is casual friendly but deep enough to keep serious gamers engaged as well.
The game was born out of a desire to have a game in our library that was very different from our RPGs. We wanted something people could play in spare moments at work, school, or while playing other games. We also wanted to make something light and whimsical that people of any age, skill level, or gaming experience could enjoy. We have already seen gamers use Coin ‘n Carry as a way to get kids, spouses, or non-gamer friends into gaming for the first time.
What’s the community like for the game? I know that there are leaderboards, but what other interaction or collaboration is offered either within the game or outside?
Aside from competing on leaderboards, the two biggest social aspects of the game are gifting and visiting your friends’ shops. The cool thing about gifting in Coin ‘n Carry is that it benefits the gift giver as well. If you give a longsword to a friend and he sells it in his shop, you get some bonus money and reputation (without any being deducted from your friend). Also, unlike many Facebook games, you don’t need gifts just to do basic tasks or to advance in the game. Gifts are a totally optional and helpful thing, not a requirement.
In addition to these in game social aspects, we have an active forum and contests to encourage creativity. Last month we had a Pokka story contest where people took a screenshot of their favorite Pokka collectible, made any changes to the picture they wanted, and then wrote a brief story about their Pokka. The main prize was an ultra rare pokka pet. The top 5 entries were posted on our Facebook page for people to vote on.
One of the aspects of the game that you’ve been touting that sounded really pleasing to me was the fact you’re promising no grinding. Even though I’ve enjoyed games like Pocket Planes that have you building something up, the grind eventually wears out the fun. How have you managed to avoid this, and was this a focal point when designing the game?
We have a philosophy that every phase of the game should be fun on its own merits. Crafting items is a mini game. Selling items is a mini game. Gathering resources is done by playing mini games. Every phase of the game is designed to be a fun little game in and of itself, rather than a painful part you endure just to get back to the “fun.”
While there are many layers to the gameplay of Coin ‘n Carry, we let you discover them at your own pace and interest. We don’t artificially withhold fun parts of the game until you reach a certain level. There are tons of things you can earn and work towards, but we don’t create arbitrary, super grindy barriers to reach those things.
Making the game not feel grindy was a HUGE focal point of the design. We wanted this game to be fun even if you only played it for 15 minutes a day.
Do you have any future projects lined up that you’d be willing to reveal?
We have a match-3/RPG/tower defense game that just hit alpha and we hope to have finished by September 1, 2012. After that, we have a number of games in various stages of design but the pace at which we can produce them depends largely on the sales and growth of our existing games. We have some people working part time or on a volunteer basis that we really want to hire full time as soon as we can afford to do so.
We have some really amazing, interesting, and unique games that we are dying to get made. We just need to get the word out about our existing games and hopefully attract more players to them. That will allow us to keep growing and keep making fun games for everyone.
More than once now you’ve mentioned issues with Facebook games. Is it Facebook itself you have issues/concerns with, or the types of games that are present on there?
A little of both. I think it is dangerous for game developers to become dependent on a platform that is not truly designed for games and that very well may not have the best interest of games at heart. Also, I think it is a big negative that the user is not the customer of Facebook, they are the product. The customers of Facebook are their advertisers. In my experience, a platform whose profit decisions are based on advertising tend to not be in the best interests of the users. Look at TV and the fact that popular shows get canceled when the proper demographic doesn’t watch a show. They do that because of the advertisers.
The games that exist on Facebook are also an issue. You sacrifice an enormous amount of screen real estate to the Facebook UI, and the limitations of the platform from a code quality perspective limit the quality and depth of the games.
In general, I am not a big fan of Facebook as a gaming platform from both the gamer and the developer perspectives. With that said, I am glad Facebook’s gaming platform happened because it helped make gaming very main stream.
Could you ever see a scenario where you’d be willing to create a Facebook game?
I find that very unlikely. Some things that would have to change, for starters:
1) Facebook’s respect for privacy would have to increase significantly. We respect our customer’s privacy and do everything to protect it. We would find it hard to develop games for a platform that was weak in this area.
2) Facebook would have to lower their cut dramatically – to 10% or less.
3) Facebook would need to let games use more of the screen real estate even without going full screen.
4) Facebook would need to commit to not uploading platform/API changes without significant advance notice.
5) Facebook would need to take an active role in banning games and companies who engage in outright copying/stealing/cloning of other games on the platform.
Are there any other platforms you’d like to someday develop for such as home consoles or tablets, or do you think Frogdice will stick to its roots with the PC?
We are working on a game right now that we intend to port to iOS, Android, and the Windows Surface tablet. We love the tablet as a gaming platform but I am not a huge fan of the phone for games. There are some fun games on the phone, but the screen is so small and the hardware specs are so weak that I would find it hard to get excited to make a game for that platform.
Threshold RPG can already be played on every mobile device – phones and tablets. So to some degree we are already on those platforms.
We also have a game in early planning stages that we plan to have on the PC/Mac, all tablets, and possibly XBOX.
PC/Mac is our favorite platform, but there are cool things happening on tablets that we really like as well.
How do you feel about today’s indie/small team development scene? Do you feel, like many, that it’s on the rise?
The indie scene is massively on the rise. The business model right now for the industry is the large companies have pretty much stopped taking gambles on new IPs or new game concepts. They want for an indie company to do something cool, buy them out, and then let them keep working their magic. So far that model is working really well so I see it not only continuing but accelerating.
The only thing holding it back really is the fact that gaming media is WAY behind, by comparison, the movie and tv industry. Indie movies or small tv shows can still get a lot of publicity from their media. But the gaming media is completely enamored with sequels and Call of Modern Battle Duty Ops 19. They complain about it, but it is a self fulfilling prophecy when they put 90% of their coverage towards the same genres, IPS, and sequels with only a rare, occasional bone thrown to the indies.
Any last food for thought for gamers out there who might be interested in trying out Coin ‘n Carry?
Mainly I would like to say PLEASE TRY OUR GAME! :). The hardest thing for indies is to get people to put aside an hour to at least give your game a shot. When people plunk down $60 for a game they are more patient with it because they want to make sure they didn’t waste their money. For a free to play game people are often quick to punch out. But they really shouldn’t do that because they are missing out on a lot of unique fun. Just because a game is awesome enough to let you play for free doesn’t mean you should be quick to ignore it!
Coin ‘n Carry is perfect for so many different situations. You can play for extended periods of time if you want something that is relaxing and pure fun. You can play it to kill a few minutes while at work or school or while on a phone call. You can play it while waiting for friends to show up for a raid or to login for some other game you are playing. There are so many different ways to enjoy it that you really owe it to yourself to play it and see how much fun it is.
If they find anything about the game confusing, they can check out videos on the game’s web site (http://coinncarry.frogdice.com), the wiki (http://wiki.coinncarry.com), send me a tweet (@frogdiceinc), or post on our forums (http://forums.frogdice.com). We have an amazing community and will do everything we can to help people understand and enjoy our games.
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