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Steamforged Games’ Mat Hart and Sherwin Matthews discuss design, crowdfunding and the importance of not trying to please everyone.
Guys, it’s great to connect. Before we dive into Elden Ring: The Board Game, for anyone new to Steamforged Games, how would describe what the company focuses on?
Mat Hart, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Steamforged Games: I’ll give you the slightly trite but entirely truthful answer! When my business partner and I started the business, it came from a dissatisfaction with the games that were being put out at that time. Our hubris allowed us to believe we could do better and we decided to put our money where our mouth is… So Steamforged was built on a foundation of gamers making games that they themselves would like to play – and I don’t think that’s ever gone away.
I had five or six ideas for games I wanted to make and we picked the one that was lowest in scope, not in ambition. It was a small game called Guild Ball, we put it on Kickstarter and it exploded outwards from there.
Steamforged has launched several licensed games over the years, spanning brands like Resident Evil to Peaky Blinders. How did licensing enter the scene?
MH: Well I came from the video game industry, and soon after Guild Ball I bumped into an old friend and got talking about Dark Souls. We spoke about how that could transition nicely into the tabletop space and from there we realised we had two clear directions in-front of us: licensed IP and original IP.
On the licensed IP side, one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was to add value. When we work with our IP partners, we recognise that we’re a very small cog in a fairly large machine, but if we can become a force multiplier and give people a new way to engage with IP and express their affection for an IP, then we’ve done our job right. You can only really do that by getting under the skin of what makes an IP tick. What is it about an IP that creates an emotional response? How can we recreate that emotional response?
So your development process around each licensed game is quite different, depending on what emotional response you’re looking to evoke?
MH: Yes, we’ll never whitebox a game. We won’t take a standard game engine and slap a brand onto it. Couldn’t care less about that. We care about people feeling they’ve invested their time and money wisely. Everyone in the entertainment industry needs to be respectful of a consumer’s time. We need to make sure we keep up our end of the bargain. If you choose to spend time with our products, you should feel it was a meaningful use of your time.
You mentioned that the launch of the company came from your frustrations with the sorts of games that were being released. Was that a frustration with licensed games in particular?
MH: Truthfully, no – largely because at that point, we hadn’t even looked at licensed properties. Licensed games had tended to be more on the whitebox end of the scale, so as “real gamers” we hadn’t tended to look at that sector. That being said, we liked Halo and played the Halo board game… It was average, to be polite! Way back in the day there was a Warcraft game that was decent but hard to get hold of. There was a StarCraft game that was alright, but our frustration was with the miniatures/wargaming space.
Sherwin, let’s bring you in. You’re Lead Games Designer at Steamforged. How did you find yourself working in this space?
Sherwin Matthews, Lead Game Designer, Steamforged Games: I’ve always been a tabletop miniatures gamer and I was president of my local gaming club. One day, a guy comes in who’s just moved back into the area and he has a new game concept that he’s looking to bring to Kickstarter. He was a guy called Mat, who’s just been talking! We spoke about some of the ideas he had and at the time I was a writer, so I’ve always been interested in the lore around wargames. I told him I’d happily write something for his game and wrote a short piece in about a week. The very first thing he said when he looked at it was: “This is amazing. Write all of my stuff!” That say I became the Lead Writer at Steamforged.
Skip forward two or three years and Mat asked me to come away with him for a design week. It was interesting because normally only the design and development team take part in that. On the car journey up there, Mat said “We’re making this game, and I think I want you to design it with me”. I asked what the game was and he said: “A licensed adaptation of Resident Evil”. At this point, my mind exploded.
Ha! You were already a fan?
SM: Yes, I’d put far too many hours into Resident Evil at that point – probably more than the rest of the company put together. During the Kickstarter for the game I really geeked out and connected with the audience, diving into the lore and trivia of the game, until the early hours of the morning.
Amazing. Had you always wanted to design games?
SM: I didn’t realise it at the time, but yes, ever since I was young. I designed a Labyrinth game in primary school but it was awful! I butchered a copy of Hero Quest to make a skirmish game out of it. I also made Warhammer versions of characters from my favourite books. It was always in there, I just didn’t connect the dots till I met Mat.
People don’t realise this, because designers like myself write most of our designer diaries, but Mat is an integral part of the design of all of our games, and a huge part of our creative vision. Since then, I’ve worked closely with Mat on designs for Resident Evil, Horizon, Dark Souls, more Resident Evil, Bardsung, Godtear… Most of our projects.
Great stuff. Let’s talk about Elden Ring: The Board Game. Lots of big video games come and go without getting a board game adaptation, so what appealed about bringing Elden Ring to the tabletop?
MH: It’s possibly easier to answer that in the negative space in that not every video game is suitable for a tabletop translation. While every video game could be made into a board game, just because you could doesn’t mean you should.
The best example I can give is that a few years back I was chatting to the guys about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Huge player base? Tick. Could we make a game? Absolutely – simulated warfare has been the foundation of our hobby since day one! Would the models look sweet? Absolutely. And then you start thinking about the end user and who would actually play it… What experience would they want out of a Call of Duty tabletop game? That’s when our Venn diagram started to split. We realised that the game we could make for Call of Duty and the game that Call of Duty fans would want to play didn’t occupy the same space. It was a painful but easy decision to say it’s not the game we want to make.
Let’s flip that on its head and look at Elden Ring. We didn’t know how big it would be, but we knew how excited Namco Bandai and FromSoftware were about it. We were excited because George R. R. Martin’s name is attached to it and Game of Thrones was at the height of its popularity at the time. We knew how popular Dark Souls was for us and how much of an overlap there was between Souls fans and Elden Ring fans. The Venn diagram here stared to coalesce and almost become a circle.
They’re the two extremes, but Elden Ring was absolutely a perfect match for translation into tabletop.
What else are important considerations when looking at a brand to work with?
MH: We look for level of engagement, not just size of audience. At the end of the day, if we Kickstart a product and it does 20,000 backers, that’s going to be a big Kickstarter. If we do 100,000 lifetime sales, that’s a significant product for us and where we would like to be. But that’s not a huge audience on a global scale, it’s a niche – but it’s a perfectly viable business model for companies like us. We want to target engaged fan communities.
Sherwin, let’s dive into the development of Elden Ring: The Board Game. How did you initially get to grips with the brand?
SM: I sat down and played the game, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else! I play with a single-minded focus on ‘What am I feeling?’ What do I feel about the gameplay? What do I feel about the score? What do I feel about the way the controls work? I write all this down in a notebook as I’m playing through the game.
We always try to capture the core DNA of the brands we work on. We had find out what makes Elden Ring Elden Ring. Is it the combat? Is it the exploration? Is it the story arc? Is the characters you meet? Is it all of the above? We want to understand what fans feel while playing the game. From there, it’s easier to transition to questions of ‘how can we recreate that feeling in a tabletop game?’
I’d imagine adapting a video game comes with different challenges to adapting a TV show or a movie.
SM: There’s lots of things we simply can’t do. A video game has a whole suite of discreet programmes under the hood that players don’t have to interact with. Anything we do involves player interaction, be it shuffling cards or moving a model, so the way we deliver information to players is very different. Regardless, what we always come back to is the feeling. We don’t want to just simulate aspects of the game; we want to evoke feelings you have when playing it.
One key element of the Elden Ring video game is exploration. That experience plays very differently in a video game to a board game, so how did you approach bringing that element to the tabletop?
SM: We thought about whether the map should replicate exactly what’s happening in the Elden Ring universe. That would reward players that have played Elden Ring a lot as they’ll know where to go to find different items and enemies. Then we thought back to when we first played Elden Ring, and we were confronted with this huge landscape… You want to go and explore it. That’s the feeling we wanted to replicate, that step into the unknown.
With that in mind, we opted to instead use a series of face-down tiles. It means when players draw those tiles, they won’t know what’s coming next. You build out the landscape as you play. It also gives us something different to the video game in that each time you play the board game, it feels like a fresh new experience.
A smart approach. It’s also worth mentioning that the Kickstarter campaign for Elden Ring: The Board Game raised $1m in less than two hours after launching. At the time of us chatting, it’s raised a remarkable £2.6m from a goal of £150,000. What is the key to successful crowdfunding?
MH: The thing to stress about Kickstarter is that it’s a fluid platform. Every Kickstarter is going to be different as the platform continues to evolve. Now, it’s almost a social hub. It’s exciting for people to be involved in the development of something. The key to success on Kickstarter is to constantly be looking at it, evaluating it and trying to predict the direction it’s going in.
That said, there are some basic non-negotiables for us. It’s a customer experience first and foremost – and we’re an entertainment company, so we should be entertaining. That covers our products but also extends to who we are and how we talk about things. We should share the development journey and be authentic in doing so. It’s a common theme that runs through all of Kickstarters.
And what does that look like in real terms during a campaign?
MH: We’re very active in the comments section and we have cool ways of letting the community know they can shape and guide the direction of the game. We never go to Kickstarter with a fully finished game because we want space for that community involvement. You’ve got 10,000 people coming up with ideas and there’s some really good ones in there that we’ve not thought of! You’d be crazy to ignore that.
It sounds like it’s as much about the crowd as it is about the funding…
MH: Funding is a funny one… For Elden Ring: The Board Game, our funding target was £150,000 and that’s a sensible number. You’ll see some Kickstarter campaigns out there with goals of £30,000 and there’s no way on God’s earth that you’ll be able to make that product for that amount of money. If you just scrape past, making £45,000 on a goal of £30,000, and your game has 30 models included… You’re on a hiding to nothing.
The real cost of making a game is different to the funding goal. The funding total is an amount that shows this is a viable product and worth us doing.
Do you think that working with a brand like Elden Ring makes the miniatures sector more accessible to players that might be new to this type of game? Does it help grow the hobby?
MH: There’s a weird dichotomy to the answer. I remember, my Mum would get incredibly stressed around this time of year, with the in-laws coming over and our family to cater to… She’d worry about pleasing everyone on the day and inevitably most people didn’t terribly enjoy it. That taught me a valuable lesson in that if you try and please everyone, you’ll please no-one. You’ve got to be brave and identify who you are going to please. Once you’ve landed there and you have your audience, that’s when you can look at how to expand that and make things more accessible.
Fundamentally, you don’t need to be a member of Mensa to play our games. They’re not complicated. There’s a lot of crunch and heft to them, but they’re not complicated, but there are ways to soften the edges. A good example is our Horizon Zero Dawn game. We created a semi-cooperative, semi-competitive system for that. We were fairly non-specific about how you should play it. If you don’t want to play in cut-throat, ultra-competitive way, you’ll play in a way that’s a little more cooperative and a little more narrative-driven. Building those sorts of opportunities into a game increases the potential audience for it, without us needing to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
SM: It’s always easy to add complexity into games and once it’s in there, it can be hard to take out. We always keep in mind that if you’re a video gamer, your board game touchpoint might only be Monopoly. Our job is to teach you the core mechanic of our game very quickly and have the rest of the rules feel intuitive.
Let’s take Elden Ring as an example. Exploration in the game is very simple. You get three actions. You can use those actions to either put down a tile, move to a tile or interact with something. It’s very straightforward.
We also tutorialise rulebooks. We’ll include things like a starter mission that introduces players to core elements of the game. The rulebook will actually say ‘Don’t read any further until you’ve played this section.’ We’ll then include another tutorial that introduces more of the rules. By the time you’ve read the rulebook, you’ll know how to play the game without having been overloaded with everything upfront. We prefer to teach players in bite-size chunks, much like how video games do. We like ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’. This approach helps bring new people into tabletop gaming.
Guys, a huge thanks for taking time out to chat. Congrats again on the success of the Kickstarter campaign for Elden Ring: The Board Game. Let’s be sure to tie-in again soon!
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