There have been many games lately involving Dominion's deck drafting idea. In this slate of games, one really caught my attention--Puzzle Strike, from Sirlin Games. Using chips instead of cards, a more coherent theme, and having a much higher degree of interactivity, it's one that looks like it might stand out from the crowd.
I decided to catch up with David Sirlin to get more on his background, design philosophy, and the skinny about Puzzle Strike as well as other games he has in the pipeline. David has game design pedigree under his belt, having done design and development work in the videogame realm with Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix (XBLA/PSN), Super Puzzle Figher 2 Turbo HD Remix (XBLA/PSN), and three titles in the Capcom Classics Collection series (various platforms).
Sirlin Games is a small, "one-man show" publisher, so it was very interesting to hear more from that perspective.
Ken B.: David, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First up, as always, what can you tell us about your gaming background?
David Sirlin: I don't know where to begin with that. In my youth, I played every NES and SNES game I could, and that pretty much continued into the Dreamcast, GameCube, PlayStation era. Most notably, I've been a top competitor in Street Fighter for well over a decade, and I even represented the US at an international tournament in Japan.
Other games I've been very deep into at various points: Magic the Gathering, Puzzle Fighter, and Starcraft. I guess I should put World of Warcraft in there too. Even though I love things like Metroid Prime Pinball on the DS and pretty much every main Mario game, I am most known for playing competitive games. There's probably a lot of other games I'm forgetting to mention, as I've played a lot in my lifetime, though in the last few years, I've played much less and instead spent time designing games, and trying to build a business around that, which is very time consuming.
These days I prefer to just analyze a game system I come across because I can pretty quickly see what it's all about, even without playing it.
KB: All three of your games thus far pull from this IP you've created--essentially a fighting game
that doesn't exist.The illustrations are fantastic, credited to artist Long Vo who also worked with you on the Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix for Xbox Live Arcade. How much collaboration was involved between you and Long Vo in the creation of these characters? Did you design them with an eye on what their videogame analogues would be like to play?
DS: Yes, the games simulate a fighting game that doesn't exist, but I'm actually working on the fighting game, too. I have a grassroots team of volunteers, including artists, programmers, and musicians. So in a million years when that's done, check it out.
Several artists worked on the art. Concept Art House did the prototype images for all the characters, Udon Crew worked on it for a while, though in the end the bulk of the art was done by Long Vo and Genzoman. And yeah Udon did the art for Street Fighter HD Remix, or at least they did the keyframes while some cheaper labor did the rest. ;) Long was the lead on the keyframes, so it was awesome to get him to do the numbered cards in Yomi, which depict "sprites" from the game that doesn't exist.
As for where the characters came from, that was a pretty long process, literally years before any artists were involved. I can explain how I approached it. There are several sets of requirements for a cast of characters, especially a cast of fighting game characters.
Gameplay. We need a strong guy who wants to get close and throw. We need a fast person who rushes down and does lots of weak hits. We need some zoning characters who use projectiles to control space on the playfield. You get the idea, there are certain gameplay roles that we need for a fighting game.
Story. Fighting games are not primarily about story, but I think if you're going to spend this much time and money on an IP, it should have a story, too. Stories have their own list of requirements, and I used the Dramatica Storymind theory here. That theory says that the characters in a story represent different aspects of a human mind, and the story is analogous to a mind working through a problem. You have to have various qualities represented across the characters, like logic, emotion, being in-control, being uncontrolled, loyalty, doubt, and so on. All of this ensures that your characters have these qualities covered, but it doesn't supply an actual story. So coming up with that is yet another aspect.
More gampeplay. Designing an entire fighting game and cast of characters from nothing is pretty hard. I knew that I would not be able to fully imagine every detail before a single shred of anything existed. So I made sure to have various themes in the characters that I would be able to extend to more gameplay ideas if needed. Someone should use fire, someone should use water, someone can transform into a dragon, someone uses time, someone uses paint, someone is a gambler who likes randomness, and so on. If instead it was like "postal workers: the fighting game," then it could be hard to come up with moves that we need for certain gameplay problems. But if we have fire magic and dragons and magic paint and so on, we can come up with just about anything if we need to.
Oh and one more thing, there should be a mix of boy and girl characters. I wanted at least 3 girls, and I ended up with 3.
So you could say I used a "matching" process, like one from column A, one from Column B, and one from Column C. Those columns are gameplay roles, story roles, and gameplay themes (like fire). I came up with a coherent set of 10 characters that have everything covered. Well actually more than 10, but the rest would be an expansion if any of this takes off enough.
I worked with Concept Art House by supplying them with random images from the web that I thought captured each character, along with descriptions of each. They did many sketches and takes and we kind of developed the characters together. I was very, very active in that process, heavily modifying their art myself in photoshop to say "more like this!" Later, Udon, Long and Genzo all did the production work on filling in all the rest of the character art, once the visual design was established. I gave instructions of what I wanted for most of the moves, so they usually had something to work off of, but each artist added a lot of their own ideas. Grave using only open palm attacks was an idea from Long, for example. Really, every piece of art involved that artist contributing a lot because my couple sentences of description can never capture even a fraction of the details of what the move will look like.
Often I felt like I was supplying them just a spark and they had to figure out how to make that come to life and look good.
KB: You've blogged a lot about the difficulties of a small publisher such as yourself getting costs down and delivering an affordable product. Were there advantages to being a one-man show--namely in the ease of calling the shots on so much of that collaboration? Was it easier to maintain your vision?
DS: The advantages are that I 100% own what I create, and can decide its fate. Asymmetric games need careful monitoring throughout development to make sure they are balanced, and if I'm in charge, I know that it's my call. On Puzzle Strike, at the very last possible moment, I had to make an emergency decision to make a change. This cost me money and was not easy, but I think it was important that I did it. That's an example where I don't know what would have happened with some big corporation at the helm.
It's also important that I own the IP completely so that I can use it in a fighting game someday, or other card or board games. I can decide whether to release expansions or not, and when.
I think another factor here is it just never occurred to me to get someone else's permission or approval on what I'm doing. I'm not really into cold calling publishers or begging them for deals, but I am into developing games, so I just did it.
The obvious downsides are that I had to do un unreasonable amount of work. In addition to designing the games, I also balanced them, handled almost all graphic design, logo design, rulesheet layout, package design, art direction over the character artists. I had to develop an online store myself, coordinate manufacturing, distribution, and marketing myself. I've so far done a terrible job of marketing (from having to do 10 other jobs), and while I'm on the way to having manufacturing run smoothly, it's not smooth yet. As you know, I'm working on getting prices down and quantity up, at great personal risk and expense. You'll see the results of that investment in November if all goes well.
The jury is still out on whether all this time and money has resulted in products that people like enough for me to make more of them. I'll hope for the best.
KB: What was the most shocking thing to you, cost-wise, in getting your games like Puzzle Strike developed and manufactured?
DS: Probably the most shocking thing had to do with time rather than cost. Getting all the art for Yomi took like over 2 years. Maybe 3? It was a long string of me offering to pay (quite a lot!) for character art, and having various artists not deliver, or delivering months and months late. I finally found people who got the job done and kicked ass at it, but it sure took a long time.
I think just about anyone who runs a business will tell you that you get charged left and right for everything you can imagine. So maybe the shock is not so much a particular thing, but just the sheer number of things. Beyond actually developing the games, there's a HUGE cost for manufacturing, and for shipping, and for customs/VAT/duty for countries outside the US. I had to pay quite a lot to develop the website www.sirlingames.com, and the backend has a monthly fee + % of sales. Credit card companies and paypal want their cut as do warehouses that fulfill orders. If you sell on Amazon, they take 15% of your your revenue right off the bat, in addition to making you pay some shipping costs. Let's not forget accountants and lawyers are in the mix, and the annual franchise tax fee the government charges on corporations. It's just endless.
If I had to pick one cost thing as surprising, maybe it's the discount that distributors need to buy a product. The cut they take is so huge that you have to be able to manufacture very, very efficiently to even make a deal with them at all. There's also the part where a distributor has to be interested in your games to even consider buying them, but I'm just talking about the cost structure I have to have to make the deal feasible. It surprised me just how efficient my manufacturing has to be to even participate with distributors. I'm on the road to that being feasible with Yomi and a future, second printing of Puzzle Strike, but not the current printing. That wood stuff costs a fortune to make.
KB: Getting into design philosophy a little bit...one thing I noticed is that in Puzzle Strike, "free" actions are harder to come by--either more expensive, or more specialized due to the colored arrows. Was this something that happened during playtesting/balancing, or did you deliberately set out to stop those "action chains to nowhere" that Dominion is sometimes known for? Perhaps a way to curb downtime between players?
DS: It's not exactly that I deliberately tried to stop it. Doing combos is fine and part of the point. Because you start with actions that you want to play (your character chips), chips that give you more actions are just really powerful. I had to keep making them more and more expensive. The main chips that give more actions ended up having to cost 5 or 6 just to keep the game from going into a crazy spiral of endless combos.
So the deliberate part was actually the other way. Even though the buy cost of actions kept going up, I really wanted something to exist at the 3 cost level that would enable combos, too, as long as they didn't get out of hand. The chip called Recklessness lets you do that with a drawback, and the chip Gem Essence lets you do it if you also had a fair amount of planning and setup.
Maybe the answer to your question is that it was more of an unconscious thing. By caring about there being player interaction, I guess we drifted toward slightly less/smaller combos than Dominion, but there's still a lot of opportunity to do combos. There's also more of a strategic choice on if you even want to go for an "engine" deck as opposed to sticking with a more straightforward purple strategy, or a high-money strategy, etc.
KB: Let's talk about Flash Duel, which is based on Reiner Knizia's En Garde. I'd never considered it before, but the back and forth maneuvering on a 2D plane is a perfect translation of a fighting video game. What was the genesis of the idea to develop this?
DS: I considered including some sort of distance mechanic in Yomi because distancing and spacing is a big part of fighting games. I could never really figure out a way to include that without the game suffering for it with too much complexity / too little elegance.
En Garde uses a spacing mechanic, but it's a lot simpler of a game. I thought the core idea was good, but it's kind of rough around the edges. Too many rounds per match, board is needlessly big, hidden discard pile tests memorization instead of something interesting, I don't like the rules for reaching the edge of the board or moving past players, and of course the lack of asymmetric characters makes it kind of fall flat for me...but still I saw the potential. I thought it would be interesting to really bring a lot to that core idea by building the game around 10 characters, each with 3 abilities, so that the total number of abilities is actually larger than the number in a Dominion set! My 10 characters mean there's 55 matchups, so there's a lot more going on to explore than in En Garde. Some early tests showed it was more interesting than you'd think, given that the simple rules fit on just one page.
I personally prefer games that are a bit "heavier," but I thought Flash Duel was a good idea to make specifically because it's so light. It's kind of a gateway game in that it's easy to teach just about anyone, so you can get even non-gamers to try it. If that introduces them to the Fantasy Strike characters, or even to gaming at all, that's great.
The other reason I wanted to do a light game was so that I could finish it while working on Yomi. Yomi took years and years, but a smaller game with lower complexity would allow me to release something first and get the hang of manufacturing, distribution, online sales, and so forth. It turned out that was exactly right, and I learned a lot about how to be a publisher (yes, a very small one) that I'm glad happened before Puzzle Strike and Yomi. That said, I didn't quite learn enough because I can't even manufacture Puzzle Strike fast enough to keep up with orders right now. I have more experience now, and when Yomi comes out in November, I'll make sure to have enough for everyone.
KB: It appears that Yomi is the most complex representation of the Fantasy Strike universe. What can you tell me about the development of that? It appears to be a sort of LCG model of game--CCG style play with a fixed or limited distribution of cards.
DS: I could tell you too much about the development of Yomi, seeing as it took 6 years. Years to get the gameplay system down, years of balance through dozens of tournaments, and years of art production.
Yomi is a fixed-deck game, not a customizable or collectable game. There's nothing wrong with customizable games (I really like them), but I wanted Yomi to be easier to get into than games like that. Your deck represents your character, and you can also use it as a deck of standard playing cards. You start will a full-strength deck immediately. No need to figure out which cards to put in there without embarrassing yourself. Kind of like in Street Fighter where you pick Blanka and start playing him immediately, the same Blanka that the best players in the world are playing as. The skill is in actually playing as that character, as opposed to how to build him. Also like a fighting game character, your deck has built-in strengths as well as built-in weaknesses, so I can do things in a fixed deck format that wouldn't work with a customizable game.
There is something wrong with "collectable" games though. Collectability is just a code-word for ripping you off. It's a barrier between you and the gameplay. I want you to play the real game and I don't want to create an artificial scarcity model that forces you spend $100 bucks to get some character's super card or something. A tournament-strength deck in Magic: the Gathering costs $300 or more on average, and that's just ridiculous. You can get the entire game of Yomi, all the decks, on higher quality cardstock, with a fancy box and rulebook and two huge, beautiful playmats for a third of that.
Living Card Games are just a way of ripping you off less than full CCGs. How about this, I don't rip you off at all? I'm selling complete games that stand on their own with no rares and no random packs of cards. Honestly, you should buy my games for that reason alone--to support my rejection of the rip-off business model that other companies are getting away with. Your dollar is your vote. And if that's not enough, they are pretty fun games, too!
KB: Shameless plug time: what can we expect from Sirlin games going forward?
DS: You can expect Yomi to come out in November, along with a slightly cheaper version of Puzzle Strike that will solve my current inventory shortages. Also in the works are online versions of my games, which you can check out a www.fantasystrike.com/dev if you promise to keep in mind that it's still early and unpolished. (Best to find opponents or ask for help in www.sirlin.net/chat).
Beyond that, I have another set of 10 characters in mind for Fantasy Strike, which means expansions for all these games, but honestly only if I sell enough of Puzzle Strike, Flash Duel, and Yomi. It's been an enormous investment to get this far, and I just hope I get enough support to go further. I also have several other card and board games on the drawing board, but I haven't decided which to take to a finishes state next, but we'll see!
KB: David, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Wish you the best of luck and success with Sirlin Games.
DS: Thanks for having me!
More information about Sirlin Games can be found on the web at http://www.sirlingames.com/.
Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff.