Today, Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games is joins Tom. We learn about what DHMG has in the queue, Chris’ game developer job at Greater Than Games, and a little about Sleepy Hollow.
Hi Chris. It’s great to have you back as my guest on Go Forth And Game.
It’s been awhile, but thanks for having me!
What’s new with you? How was GenCon this year? (note: this interview was conducted prior to GenCon.)
Just gearing up for GenCon! There is so much to do before the big show, like creating an entire demo prototype of Legends of Sleepy Hollow from scratch. My fingers are already ruined! Other than that, I have to coordinate my schedule for meeting with designers, other publishers, and media events. Since I am game development director at Greater Than Games that means I am responsible for scouting out new talent and designs at conventions. It’s fun, but it also means that my GenCon schedule is packed and nonstop.
I’m excited about Sleepy Hollow. Let’s talk about it in a minute. Tell us about your games. You’re a designer as well as a publisher. How about list out your own designs then those you are publisher for.
Well, I’ve been designing and developing games for many years, all the way back to when I co-owned a multimedia production company in the late 90s. As for tabletop, my most recent design is Fate of the Elder Gods, co-designed with Richard Launius of Arkham Horror fame, and Darrell Louder, designer of Compounded and Bottom of the 9th. We just recently received copies of that and I’m excited for everyone to play! Other than that, I have a couple of designs I’ve been tinkering with for a few years like Take the Bait (a fishing game) and Double Impact (meeples provide actions, as well as action spaces, to create crazy combos). And as for the ones I’ve published, I’ve had a development hand in all of them, trying to facilitate testing, streamlining, and basically making each game the best it can be.
I want to play all of those. I’ve watched Take The Bait for many years and am glad to see you are working on it. And thanks for reminding me about Double Impact. That sounds cool. Which do you like to wear more- publisher hat or designer hat?
I enjoy both, really. They both require creativity and dedication. As a designer/developer you’re constantly trying to figure out what’s missing or what could be better. It’s a puzzle, and you ask yourself “how can this game be better? What could I remove and get people closer to its heart?” It’s very much the same as a publisher. You want to make a truly great game and a great product, but sometimes you have to get creative and solve the puzzle of costs versus possible rewards. We’ve been very lucky that we’ve been able to produce the games at the highest quality and with our dream components, so far. But it hasn’t always been an easy puzzle to solve.
You’re the Game Development guru at Greater Than Games. What exactly do you do?
As mentioned before, I scout for new talent and new game designs at conventions and online in forums and social media. But primarily my job is to help designers make the games we sign better, and get them ready for market. I work closely with designers to add suggestions for testing, for streamlining, and to create a more palatable product for gamers.
Dice Hate Me Games is considered one of the top small publishers. How did you do that?
Lots of luck! And, of course, good timing and hard work. I worked hard to establish the Dice Hate Me brand a long time before I ever considered publishing a game, and it made a huge difference. I also think that the fans of DHMG are a key reason why we’ve stuck around for as long as we have. The gamers know what to expect from a DHMG title, and they are incredibly loyal. I love the people who love our games!
We are loyal because the quality you talked about comes through. I’ve heard you mention that you have a certain type of game in mind or that you look for certain things in a game. What are those thing or types?
It all depends, really. For a DHMG title I mostly look for relatability. Can just about any gamer relate to this game on some level? A lot of that is dependent on the theme. We tend to publish a lot of games that are set in reality. Granted, it’s a stylized reality – my world of retro Americana – but everything is easy for people to grasp, like coffee, and beer, and trucking. Now that I have other fantastical worlds to play in for Greater Than Games titles, I am more open as to what I consider for publishing. But I always go into things with a certain wish list in mind.
I really like the retro-Americana idea. That’s right up my alley. I’m guessing that you are referring to the Fabled Nexus imprint. So, what type / kind of game are you looking for Fabled Nexus?
Anything that doesn’t fit the DHMG mold, really! It’s pretty wide open, but mostly I want something dripping with theme and probably has some Amerocentric sensibilities in the mechanics. Fate of the Elder Gods is a great example; I got to play around in the Lovecraftian realms and work with Richard Launius and Darrell Louder to craft something that has a lot of thematic, Amerocentric design sensibilities but is balanced by some definite Euro-style mechanics. Fabled Nexus games will probably be a bit more grandiose in production, as well – although Legends of Sleepy Hollow is going to be a DHMG game and it’s one of the most ambitious we’ve tried yet!
How do you find games with that kind of appeal?
Again, luck and timing! Also just keeping up with what people are working on. Unpub is a valuable resource for that, as is Twitter.
What is the hardest part of designing a game for you?
I think the hardest part for any designer is letting go. You have to be willing to kill your babies if you want to design effectively. That can mean putting a design on the shelf for a while – or for good – or just cutting a bit of the fat out of a design. You have to distance yourself from time to time, especially when you get feedback. You can’t take it wholly personal.
Letting go of a treasured mechanic IS really hard. But you are correct. It is often the best thing for the game.
When do you know a game is done?
When it goes to press! Seriously, though, a game is never really “done”. You could continue to tweak a game forever, and we do playtest titles right up until they are about to be produced. I think when you finally step back and see something special, that’s running smoothly and people are really digging, is when you can start to put on the brakes. And sometimes it’s just a matter of stopping. The more you design, develop, and publish, the more you can rely on your gut as well as empirical playtesting evidence to let you know when to stop.
Do you have a regular group that you playtest with?
It’s a mix of locals and people I get together with at cons. You know pretty much all of the locals – you sometimes test stuff with us! I also get a lot of playtesting in at conventions like Unpub, GrandCon, and Origins – not as much at GenCon because of the business. But conventions are a great place to get fresh eyes on a project. Of course, I can’t playtest everything all the time, so I do have a great group of people around the country (and world) who are willing to do print and play tests with games, and that is super helpful.
I’m honored to be local and get to playtest games with you. You’ve actually played one or two of mine at an Unpub Mini I think. What game is inside you trying to get out?
Several, actually! But the biggest one I’ve been working on for many, many years is a pulp/superhero game called Bulletproof. The design has evolved several times over the years, but the core semi-cooperative nature has always remained the same. Merging with Greater Than Games didn’t exactly make that goal much easier since I don’t want to compete with Sentinels of the Multiverse, but some day it might happen!
I so want to play this. I’ve heard you talk about Bulletproof for years. Is there a mechanic that you really want to use but just can’t get it to work?
The action resource balance in Double Impact has been one of my biggest issues over the past three years. The game works pretty well at this stage, but a certain meeple type is always the most dominant, and therefore the most valuable. Every time I tweak the meeple abilities, a new meeple type becomes dominant. One of these days I’m going to achieve that balance – or just limit the really, really good meeples and go with it!
It sounds really neat. You like the combo thing a lot it seems. How do you find the games you publish?
Various ways. I’ve been pretty lucky over the years in finding great games from awesome talent just by becoming friends with people. I met TC Petty III, designer of the Viva Java series, at Origins 2011 through John Moller, the founder of Unpub. I met Darrell Louder, the designer of Compounded and Bottom of the 9th, through TC. I’ve met tons of designers through the Unpub organization over the years, and we have a very vibrant group of designers here in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area that I’ve worked with on several projects. Also, covering the industry through our podcast and on my game evangelism blog has introduced me to so many wonderful people in the hobby, like Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, whom I have collaborated with, as well.
Other than Lanius, who would you love to design a game with?
Is there anyone left after Launius? That was my on my bucket list! Honestly, there are many great designers out there but I’ve been lucky to have worked with so many awesome ones already. I’m pretty content right now.
Any publishing nightmares?
Hah, yes, but I think it’s best not to pull back that particular green curtain! 😉
What’s the BEST publishing experience you’ve had?
I’d have to say designing, developing, and publishing Fate of the Elder Gods. I’m super proud of everything we’ve put out over the years, but the process of working with Darrell and Richard on this game has been nothing short of excellent. The whole process has just been plain fun, and that’s really what making games should be about. I hope that people love it and that it does well once it’s out, but no matter what I will look back on the experience as one of the best of my life.
There are SO many games out now. So many different mechanics, themes, etc. in your opinion, what does it take to make a game good?
Well, the problem the industry is having right now is that even if a game is good that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s going to sell well
Well, the problem the industry is having right now is that even if a game is good that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s going to sell well. Obviously, I want to make the best games we possibly can, but sometimes even our best games can get lost a bit in the wake of the biggest buzz builders. If we’re talking about what makes a game stand out, you have to keep pushing for something new – either a new mechanic, an exciting take on a familiar subject, or a new theme or story that hasn’t been done yet, or at least done well.
This is so true. Some really well done, fun games are just not making it to gamer’s hands because something else has the current hype. This is sad.
In your opinion what is the current state of the game industry? Do you think we are headed for a downturn or an upswing?
I think the industry is a bit divided right now. As far as visibility of board games is concerned we are definitely on an upswing. With the recent push from Target for more and more games for their stores, as well as many mainstream outlets and TV shows embracing board game culture, the hobby has never been bigger. Despite the numbers, however, there are just too many games out there for the market to support, at least in North America. So in the next couple of years I think we’re going to see a bit of a downturn, at least from the independent publisher side of things. Rolling giants like Asmodée and CMON are going to be just fine, either because of their reach or their rabid fan base, but a lot of smaller publishers are going to find it harder to gain ground in the long tail portion of the market.
Which of your games are you most proud of?
All of them! Seriously. That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! I’m proud of each of the games we’ve produced over the years, all for different reasons.
Maybe I should have asked which one do you like to play more than the others. What’s in the queue? Any chance of another Kirkman design?
There’s always a chance! I think after working on Fate of the Elder Gods I might try my hand at another collaboration. That was really fun. It might even be with Darrell and Richard! We’re going to talk more at GenCon, and maybe even have another game summit at Richard’s house this fall. Stay tuned.
I would welcome another collaboration from you three. Keep me informed. I know there is a certain fishing game of yours that has been seen swimming around the playtest arenas. More info please.
Ah, Take the Bait. That one’s been on the shelf for a long time, for sure! I recently got it back out and did some testing. I’m very happy with it, I just need to figure out if a) we have room for it in our production queue, and b) if it makes sense within the market. I think it could do well, especially since there’s a dearth of good fishing games out there. But it’s always a bit of a gamble. At any rate, for those out there not familiar with the game, you’re coaching a team of anglers in a fishing competition over three days. You can guide your team to buy fancy equipment to give them the edge, or just save up, buy the best bait, and hope you pull those monster fish from the lake! There’s quite a bit of randomness with three different parts of the lake to fish from and each part has you drawing fish randomly from a bag. But there’s also some luck mitigation and that truly satisfying feeling of just casting caution to the wind, drawing blindly, and reeling in that giant bass! I’ll be showing off Take the Bait more in the coming months – right now I just have to get through production on Legends of Sleepy Hollow!
What is something interesting about you that most of us would not know?
I feel like a lot of people already know this about me, but my default answer is always that I was an Olympic archer. I need to get back to the range soon – I’m so rusty!
Chris, thanks for hanging out with me. It was fun talking to you.
Readers, thank you for joining me again. If you have a comment please leave one below. You can contact Chris on Twitter – @dicehateme or at www.dicehateme.com. As always you can talk to me on Twitter – @tomgurg.