After David Sirlin moved on from the video game world, he created his own board game company called Sirlin Games. He created Puzzle Strike and Yomi, both of which have been highly regarded. In part two, he answers questions about his company and what he is currently working on.
Why did you decide to form your own company, Sirlin Games?
So that I could work on whatever projects I wanted. I had been working on Yomi on the side, as a hobby, and I thought it was time to make a real business out of it and publish it myself. Too many times I had seen projects I was involved in get cancelled for reasons that were far removed from anything I did. Like some business guy in another country changed his mind on some licensing deal, or whatever. I wanted to be able to say that if I failed, it was because of my decisions, not things far beyond my control.
Why go into board games instead of making your own PC/console games?
I’ve been a consultant at many game companies, and I saw the same problem over and over. It’s burn rate. That’s the amount of money the company spends each month on salaries and office space and so on, regardless of what revenue they are earning. Burn rate crushes companies. It makes them release earlier than they should sometimes, making their product worse than it should have been. It also forces them into bad publishing deals. Imagine your company is about to finish its current project, and is figuring out what to do next. There are 3 possible deals on the table from other companies who want to pay you to make a game for them. One is clearly the worst fit and least profitable…but it’s available right when your current project ends. The others won’t be available for several months, and your burn rate will put you out of business in the meantime.
I wanted to start something so small that if I had to take an extra 6 months on game balance, or whatever, it would only be MY burn rate. Not a whole team’s. I already had been tinkering with the Yomi card game, so it seemed a natural way to start: a project small enough that I could do it with just art contractors and myself. Also, my entire career I’ve been plagued with never having anywhere near enough programming resources. So this was a way to avoid needing programming resources at all, I just needed game design and art.
What kinds of challenges have you encountered since going off on your own?
You get to pick the kind of problems you have. So even though I have problems running my own company, at the end of the day I’m very glad to have THOSE problems and not the ones I used to have. Right now, all my problems pretty much involve lack of resources. For example, I just released an iPad version of Yomi and it’s doing really great, it was featured by Apple, it’s been rated 5 out of 5 stars by several reviewers and so on. But…I’d also like to do an update and add several more features. I’d like to release an iPad version of Puzzle Strike too (currently playable on the web at www.fantasystrike.com). I’d like to make the production values of those games even better than they already are. I’d like to make digital versions of Pandante (kickstarter was here) and also my upcoming game Codex. I’ve been to board game trade shows around the country, and I’d like to have even more presence there with company booths, but those are very expensive. I’d like an organized play program for my games. And how about making a fighting game?
Well, I can’t do all those things. I can zero in on maybe one of those at a time and make that happen. With more success, I’ll be able to do more and more, but it takes time to grow.
What are your feelings on Kickstarter?
Kickstarter lowers the bar of game publishing, especially board game publishing, so it’s great that more people get to do it. It also gives me more competition though, and it’s very easy to be lost in the shuffle these days, so that’s frustrating. I first started developing Yomi in 2004, I released it at the start of 2011 with 10 characters, and now the iPad version has 20 characters. Even now though, in 2014, I haven’t quite got the kickstarter ready for the expansion set of 10 characters. My point is that polishing and testing these characters for years makes for a great product, but in a world of hundreds and hundreds of kickstarter games per year, does anyone even notice? There’s just such a flood right now.
I also find kickstarter really frustrating in that it puts tons of emphasis on extras, extraneous stuff, more for the sake of more, and “exclusives.” I’m not really into excluding people, but wow is that what everyone wants. So what it means for me is that instead of spending 100% of the development time on a game, maybe I have to spend 70% on the game itself and 30% on all that extra stuff. It actually lowers quality and lowers elegance in the end.
That said, for all those problems, kickstarter has done something very wonderful for me. The financial risk I took on Yomi was insane and unreasonable. Same for Puzzle Strike. Kickstarter allows me to reduce that risk considerably. It’s a way to make sure there is going to be at least some demand for a game before you go spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on bringing it to market. It also can cover part or even all of the manufacturing costs up front. Those things are so valuable and so great that for me, it outweighs any negatives. So I plan to use kickstarter again for Yomi’s expansion, and then quite a while after that for Codex.
Did you find it difficult to create a new set of characters with new abilities for your “Fantasy Strike” universe?
It was a lot of work, that’s for sure. When I made Yomi, I was making not only a game, but also a cast of characters and a world that I knew I’d use in other games. So there was a huge amount of pressure to get it right. I wanted it to be a fantasy / martial arts setting, and I wanted to be at a very specific point on the spectrum of “too generic to too weird.” I think it’s actually important to somewhat embrace tropes and things people are familiar with so they can know what a character is about quickly. It’s important to keep it simple so that you can have ICONIC characters. If they are overly elaborate in their costumes and looks, they might be beautiful but there’s really something to be said for iconic. That said, you also have to throw a lot of curve balls and do some strange things that are interesting.
In designing the cast, the specific things I had in mind were: a) their gameplay styles must cover all the mechanics I’d want in a fighting game, b) their personalities must cover all the major personality types (Fantasy Strike is actually designed according to the Dramatica Story Quad system of characters), c) they must all be visually distinct, meaning different silhouettes and different points on the color spectrum. I really did put a lot of effort into all that. There were many iterations of concept art to get to current Fantasy Strike characters. It was very expensive actually, but it’s a necessary part of my games.
Where did you get the idea of creating moves for each character based on the standard 52-card deck (with jokers) for Yomi?
In order to make the game interesting, I knew there needed to be several different moves per character, each with different stats. The easier it is to download all those stats into your brain, the better the game feels. If it’s hard to really grasp which moves you have, it all feels like a muddled mess. But if it can “click” for you very quickly, it feels good. So I think of the technique of using playing card notation as a “carrier wave” in physics. My signal (all the design data of the game) is piggybacking on top of another signal you already know (playing cards).
In Yomi, numbered cards are normal moves, face card are special moves, and Aces are super moves. When you find out that your Queen is a dragon punch move, you immediately know how many you have: 4 of them because there’s 4 Queens in a deck. You also have some intuitive idea of how easy or hard it is to draw a Queen because most people have at least some familiarity with a deck of playing cards.
Furthermore, your 2 attack does 2 damage. Your 3 attack does 3 damage, etc. Your 2 attack is also speed 2.x, where x is a fixed value for your character. For example, the character Grave has a 2 attack of 2.6 speed. His 3 attack (which does 3 damage) is 3.6 speed. His 4 attack is 4.6 speed. Once you start to learn these patterns, most of which you can see instantly, you realize that you have most of the design data in your head automatically, without any effort.
Now that Yomi has been released for the iPad, do you feel that you have come full circle?
I already sort of felt that with the web version of Yomi at fantasystrike.com. The iPad version is more of a relief, than a full circle. I have wanted it for a very long time, as in years and years. There kept being business problems with the various companies that were going to work on the iPad version. I don’t know why it was so damn hard, you’d think making an iPad version of an existing card game wouldn’t such a huge challenge, but it really took a long time and cost quite a bit. So I’m just so happy that it’s out there now.
It also has cross-platform play with the web version, so it’s increased our player base a lot. I’m really looking forward improving it even more, and also reaching even more platforms, still with cross-platform play.
Actually, after I wrote all that, I realized how full circle it really is. Because just two paragraphs I complained about having problems with not having enough programming resources and troubles with business deals, which is exactly the world of video games I was in before, lol. Ok you got me, it really is full circle.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
So Yomi for iPad is out right now. I do hope to add an iPhone version as well.
In late May, I hope to ship Pandante to kickstarter backers, and then it will be generally available after that. Pandante is a panda-themed gambling game with a heavy emphasis on lying. It’s kind of like poker, but much more lighthearted and joyful, something you can play with your family. It’s also a hardcore gambling game solid enough to play for real money. It might be quite a thing, as several professional poker players have told me they wish they could switch to Pandante full time!
In June, I’m holding the 2nd annual Fantasy Strike Expo in San Francisco. You can play all my games in casual play there, as well as in tournaments. Sign up and please come!
Finally, and biggest of all, is Codex. That’s my 10 year project at this point, and it’s my answer to Magic: the Gathering. It’s non-collectable, and it’s kind of like a CCG designed with backwards assumptions on everything, a really different take on the genre. It’s intended to be interesting for years and years rather than *needing* endless new sets to be interesting. It’s intended to have hundreds of possible decks that are all fair against each other, which is basically impossible in the normal CCG system (so I had to really come at it from a different angle!). It’s actually RTS-themed, and it might remind you of Warcraft 3 a bit. I’m really excited about this, probably the most of any of my games. I’ve kept it pretty secret for a really long time, but after Fantasy Strike Expo I’m planning to make a beta version of it available in print-and-play form, as well as print-on-demand form for testing.
That’s all for now, and thanks for having me on your site!