Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview: Justin De Witt of Fireside Games

While at Gen Con I had the joy of playing Dead Panic and speaking with the creator of the game and owner of Fireside Games, Justin De Witt. Justin, despite being on a cross country tour, he was kind enough to "sit down" and answer some questions for us.

Thanks for taking time to “speak” with us today. As I had mentioned prior to this Dead Panic was one of my highlights from Gen Con so thanks for bringing copies to Indianapolis. I can’t wait to get my hands on it again.

You’re welcome! We were excited to finally be able to show off Dead Panic at Gen Con and the response was crazy good.

Did you every think that you would spend your career heading a board game company and designing games? How did you get into this field?

A few years out of college I knew I was going to start my own business, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. I was tired of working for other people and seeing them make business decisions that I didn’t agree with but had no control over. Anne-Marie, my wife and co-owner of Fireside Games, and I had discussed a lot of options, and when I got back into game design we realized this was the project that we wanted to build our business on.

As for game design, that’s something I’ve done since I was a kid. I was constantly making my own games based on whatever I was interested in at the time. That eventually led to me into various RPGs and Battletech, but then I got distracted by video games, as did the rest of the world. I went to college for Graphic Design and Illustration and ended up working in the multimedia and video game world for about a decade. Around 2000 I was introduced to Settlers of Catan and a few card games that were instrumental in reigniting my love of board games. It was so refreshing to go back to the physicality of games that my brain just took off with it. After that I was designing games again and thinking about them non-stop. After a few years of this, we had a prototype for Castle Panic that was working really well and friends would ask me to bring it whenever we got together.

Anne-Marie and I started talking about how we should move forward with the game, and it was about that time that I got a job as a Production Artist at Steve Jackson Games. It was a great gig and I learned a ton about the industry, but it was pretty apparent that Castle Panic didn’t really fit their brand and rather than sell the game, I started looking into starting a publishing company myself. I ended up working at one last e-learning company and saving as much of my salary as I could and then, when that company went out of business, we decided to start Fireside Games. Everyone told me I was crazy, but thanks to everything I had learned over the years and a lot of really good help from a lot of really good people, we got Castle Panic published and into distribution in 2009. Our first print run sold out in 10 weeks and we were off and running.

What games did you play as a child that had an impact on you and have inspired elements in your games? What are some of those elements?

I played all the classics like Monopoly, Scrabble, Parcheesi, but the ones that stuck with me were things like Stratego with those awesome pieces and the whole “hidden information” element. I was always drawn to the games that had unusual pieces or components. I loved the pop-o-matic bubble in Trouble and the sliding windows in Family Feud. I also played a lot of card games with my parents and I think that was where I fell in love with the social nature of gaming.

Do you have a current favorite game that you are currently playing? What is it and why?

Well, right now, we’re on a huge promotional tour, so I haven’t had a chance to play anything but our games! When I do get down time, though, I try to keep up with new releases and stay current. As for a favorite, I’d have to say I always go back to Tsuro because it’s beautiful, and it’s so easy to teach to new people. Plus it plays so fast you know you can get a couple of games in back-to-back.

If you were stranded on a dessert island with your family and only had one game with you, what would you want that game to be?

Not Pente, that’s for sure! That’s the game that Anne-Marie constantly beats me at. ;) Probably something cooperative like Pandemic. There’s no need to have fights when you’re stuck on an island.

If you were stranded on a dessert island alone and only had one game with you, what would you want that game to be?

Maybe Arkham Horror. It’s still a challenge to play alone. Plus it’s got enough components that if things got desperate, I could use it to build a really good signal fire.

I appreciate that you speak about the importance of play on your website, it is a topic I have researched in my field of sport management and often feel that it is overlooked. Why do you feel that play is so important to us and how does Fireside Games contribute to that?

I feel that “play” has gotten a bad reputation over the years. Especially in our society, down-time is often viewed as wasted time and that’s unfortunate. We are creatures based on the idea of playing. Whether it’s simply spending time with our friends or participating in an organized activity, it’s how we bond, grow, and relax. Good play has an almost medical effect that can reduce stress and sooth our nerves. It can build new friendships or solidify existing ones. We’re big fans of play, and we chose to focus on games to best deliver that to everyone. Games are highly social, portable, and don’t require a lot of time to get a lot of enjoyment.

I read that you have designed games with your wife. What is the process like designing with her and how does it differ from designing on your own?

Anne-Marie and I have actually worked together on all our games to some degree. I tend to come up with a concept for a game and will work on that by myself until I’ve got the mechanics and basic rules figured out before I show it to her. I might even have a rough but playable version and somewhere around here is where Anne-Marie comes in as the first step in the screening process. She has several superpowers, one of which is to make sure our games stay streamlined and not overly complex. When it came to her game Bears! she had the entire concept and rules worked out before she showed that one to me. I contributed a few ideas, some of which were worth keeping, and she finalized the game after a few playtests. We always bounce design ideas off of each other and are constantly thinking about everything from how a certain component should be created to the advertising and marketing of a game. It’s a very collaborative partnership.

What was the first game you ever designed and what would you change now given your experience in this field? Was it ever published?

The first game I ever designed was probably the Star Trek space combat game that I came up with as a kid. I won’t go into that, but the first game I created after my return to design was a card game built around the idea of giant-robot combat. It had a very strong anime feel, and it’s never been published. Looking back at it, it’s actually not all that bad, but like all early designs it’s a bit unfocused and has some cards that are overpowered. I’d like to go back and clean up a few elements and really nail down the balance. I think there’s a great game hiding in there, and at some point it might even become a Fireside release. You never know.

I would like to shift the focus over to Dead Panic if you don’t mind. I was concerned that Dead Panic was going to simply be Castle Panic with a new coat of paint. I am happy to report that it is a vastly different game. How did the idea of Dead Panic come about and how long was the development process?

Yes, that’s probably going to be the biggest PR fight we’re going to have with Dead Panic! When Castle Panic first came out, one of the most common requests we got was “make one with zombies!” and I flat out said “No.” I wasn’t interested in repainting the game for several reasons. First off, that wasn’t going to do anything but water down the property. As a brand new company and an unknown designer, the last thing we needed was to be seen as a one-trick pony. Second, it wasn’t interesting to me as a gamer, and that’s my golden yardstick. If I don’t want to play it, why would anyone else? The irony is that one of the first concepts I came up with when working on the game that would become Castle Panic was a zombie version, and that had always been in the back of my mind as something to work on. Over time I had developed notes and ideas for a zombie version I would be happy with and that came into play in early 2012.

In late 2011, we had just about finished development on a new game when we received word that another, larger publisher was about to release a very similarly themed game. We debated on whether to try and fight for space in the crowded game market and decided to move forward on Dead Panic instead. The reason we went forward with a zombie-themed game when there are already quite a few, was because we knew there was nothing quite like ours out there. There were many key things that needed to change to make the game play the way we wanted. I really wanted the game to have a cinematic feel, and I wanted to base the game on the idea of defending a cabin as an homage to all the great horror movies that I grew up with. I also wanted our zombies to have some different abilities as well as our characters to each be unique. The other big thing I wanted to include was the idea that you could turn into a zombie and switch sides to play as one of the undead. I started serious work on the game in February, going over old notes and updating details that would make the game different enough that both new players and existing fans would enjoy it. Things came to a sudden halt in late March when Anne-Marie was hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer. It was a surprising and shocking diagnosis, and we immediately switched our priorities to getting her healthy again. She had excellent treatment and within a few months her tumor was gone. She’s always been a heck of a fighter, and her prognosis is very good. She is feeling great and her checkups have all been perfect. Once we settled into the new normal, we got back into game design and making up for lost time. We created many versions and playtested dozens of variations before nailing down all the elements we wanted. I contacted Victor Corbella in late 2012 and was able to recruit him to our side to create the fantastic kind of artwork we were looking for. In December, Anne-Marie became a full-time employee of Fireside Games and as we made the switch to being completely self-employed, we also began planning for our West by Southwest promotional tour. We hit the road in February of 2013, and I finalized the graphic design of the game while we were on our tour. The game went to the printer in June and the response has been pretty amazing.

What were some of the issues that had to be fixed during play testing?

The biggest issue in a cooperative game is always working out the balance. Balancing out the characters meant experimenting with lots of different abilities, actions, starting weapons, etc. We tweaked the zombies a lot to get them to feel the way they do. Hands down the hardest thing to fix though was zombie movement. I knew we needed our zombies in Dead Panic to be smarter than our monsters in Castle Panic. This meant they would need to actively hunt down the players, but that came with a cascade effect of complexity in managing the game, one of my pet peeves. We tried pre-programmed movement, dice generated movement, path following, and other ideas to get the zombie A.I. to work right. We finally created a clean “if-then” type of logic based on what a zombie can see that determines where they move to that works really well. It’s one of those mechanics that seems more complex than it is, but once you’re playing, it makes perfect sense and flows really nicely. Another challenge was getting the idea of the Monster Effects into this game. In Castle Panic you draw tokens that can be monsters or effects, and the effects are really the engine that moves the bad guys and upsets plans. We found that wasn’t working as well in this game, so we experimented with several different ways to provide a greater variety of effects. I wanted to hit the players with a deck of event cards that would give a huge amount of variety and replay, but triggering the draw of those cards through zombie tokens was problematic. Eventually I decided to flip the problem on its head and have the players always draw an event card and let the card determine the amount of zombies drawn. That was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the game. We also found that in order to speed up the game, we had to completely change the order of play. In this game the zombies only act after all the players have taken their actions, rather than after each separate player. We also went around and around with the endgame. I wanted the zombies to be never-ending, which meant we needed a new way to end the game. I loved the idea of the players getting rescued. Having the win condition be partly out of their control was really cinematic and added to the sense of the players really just holding out for as long as they could. We had to try a lot of different solutions with the rescuers as well. At one point they were the Army and came in with guns blazing, taking out zombies and helping the players survive. That was too powerful, so they became a group of hunters with a few guns that did what they could, but that didn’t work either. For a while the van was just a “zombie-magnet” that drew zombies towards it. Eventually, we settled into the idea of the van just showing up and the players having to reach it to really interact with it.

What was your motivation to go away from the truly cooperative gameplay of Castle Panic and allow individuals to put themselves ahead of the group if they choose?

I knew we needed to make the game personal. You had to feel like you were in jeopardy and not just in a distant, abstracted way. If the game simply felt like losing another tower, it would never be scary. Once we brought the players into the game, it not only changed the way you fight zombies, but how you save yourself in the end. I knew that was going to lead to some interesting gameplay and while we could have left the victory condition based on all players having to survive, that’s just not how a good zombie movie plays out. The best part about this is that it means the game is as cooperative as the players want it to be. They can work together as a group all the way until they reach the van, but they don’t have too. I think this game makes a good screening process for your friends. It’s like a litmus test to determine if you want them as part of your zombie apocalypse survival plan or not!

Since I only got to play the game once I didn’t get a chance to see a human get turned into a zombie. How does gameplay change for an individual who is turned? Do you have any stories from play testing that speak to the joys of being a zombie?

Once you die, you flip over your character board and choose 2 of the abilities printed there. This means every zombie character can be customized and play slightly differently. When your character reanimates, they get their own triangle zombie token version of themselves to move around. On the Move Zombies phase you can move your token up to 2 spaces and when you fight a human player, you roll both dice just like they do with the highest result winning. Zombies might get a bonus to their rolls, or a reroll, or even the ability to direct the movement of another zombie, depending on what abilities they chose. Being a zombie is an absolute hoot. People really love switching sides and chasing down their tasty friends. It takes some “brains” to play as a good zombie too. (Sorry.) I’ve seen a fresh zombie character rush into combat with a huge grin on their face only to get cut down because they forgot that their buddy still had the chainsaw. I’ve also seen sneaky zombies run away from the group to guard the last radio piece, ensuring the humans have a tough fight on their hands.

Can you speak of specific moments from Gen Con that surprised you or made you particularly happy as you saw people playing your games?

Some of my favorite moments would happen when I would be running a demo of one game and a tremendous shout would come from the other table as a group of players got their last player in the game. I also loved it when a 3-player game came down to one player reaching the van leaving two disappointed zombies just outside the doors. Probably the best moment though was when a group of players got up from a demo laughing and shouting about how much fun the game was and one said “I like this way better than Castle Panic!” He then turned to me with a horrified look on his face and started to apologize, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. Trust me, your love for the game doesn’t hurt my feelings at all!

How was the creation process different in the making of Dead Panic than previous games?

This was the first time we had reworked an existing game rather than create a new one from scratch. This meant that while we had a frame to build on, it was actually more challenging to make sure that we had a new and unique enough game to validate its own place in a gamer’s collection, while not alienating our core fanbase. It was definitely a unique experience.

Looking ahead. Do you have any ideas for future expansions of Dead Panic? Where do you think the game could go in the future?

Definitely. If we get the response we’re expecting, it will probably one of my very next design tasks. I’ve got quite a few ideas I’d like to try out that I think are cool, but I’m hoping to get some input from our fans as to what they want to see added to the game.

Any hints on the next big game from Fireside Games?

We’re always working on new games, but we’ve got an announcement coming up for a future release that’s going to blow some people’s minds. My lips are sealed for now!

Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you would like to add?

We wanted to thank all of our fans for their support as we continue on this crazy adventure. You’re the reason we get to do the greatest job in the world, and we love you for it!