Welcome back to dinner with designers, featuring the original renaissance man, Ryan Laukat. Entrees have been eaten, the appetizers assimilated, and dessert is about to be devoured. In this segment, we talk about publishing with big box stores, repurposing board game mechanisms, and some early changes made to the epic Sleeping Gods. Plus, coffee.
RL: I mean, I feel super lucky to be able to publish a game without Kickstarter. I mean, it’s just, it’s great.
DTD: So, after seeing how Now or Never did on the pre-order system, is this going to be the way that your games come out? Or was this too much of a blow, and maybe Kickstarter next time?
RL: It’s hard to say.
DTD: I’ll put you on the spot with that one.
RL: I’ll be honest, I’m on the fence. So, we’ll see. Things are really chaotic right now, besides, you know. I’m actually more worried about just getting our games from the factory now.
DTD: There’s been a couple people… There’s actually been a few people asking for more shipping money on designs, because their estimate of what shipping costs would be, was off by a factor of 10.
RL: Oh yeah, Oh my Gosh, that’s so sad, honestly.
DTD: It’s insane out there. And big companies are running into problems.
RL: I mean, we’ve spent the last… I haven’t designed anything for months, because I’ve been trying to figure out that, and pre-orders and all this stuff. And now shipping too, like container shipping. So, it’s like the worst.
RL: I’ve turned into like the logistics manager. I’m not even like a game designer right now.
DTD: Oh, you’re an administrator. CFO and logistics for Red Raven Games.
RL: Oh man! I mean things will change, but…
DTD: This too shall pass. It’s gotta settle out at some point. I gotta tell you just the pre-order for Now or Never looked top professional. The web page worked. Everything looked great. It looked beautiful on the pre-order site.
RL: Oh thanks.
If I did not already love our waiter Clayton, this beautiful person has now delivered the god’s own sugar and cream to our table. I ordered a chocolate chip bread pudding, and Ryan had a banana souffle. I’m pretty sure all of my conversation will now quickly degrade into gibberish.
Waiter: Here’s a souffle and a bread pudding. I’ll grab you some more water.
DTD: Oooh, thank you.
RL: Oh, thank you. It looks good, thanks.
Waiter: Is there anything else I can grab you at this moment?
DTD: Maybe a coffee.
Waiter: Would you like regular or decaf?
DTD: Do you have espresso?
Waiter: We do. We can do decaf espresso, too, even.
DTD: Decaf espresso sounds delightful. Would go great with this. Thank you.
Clayton is certainly getting a Christmas card this year. And a fruit basket.
RL: Well, that’s good to hear. Thank you.
DTD: Oh yeah! I mean I’ve seen a couple things pop up, first time doing preorders, where there was glitchy and you kind of expect that.
RL: Oh yeah. I was expecting that too!
DTD: It looked great. It was easy. Everything worked. And I was there, kind of on minute one. So, It worked fine.
RL: Oh nice, thank you. Awesome.
DTD: Well, the whole trilogy, the Arzium trilogy, I think has enough popularity now. You know, gamers know about it. Gamers are excited about it. It seems at this point Now or Never… Yes, the pre-orders will sell, and might be less. But, the game probably has legs. The game will probably keep selling, just because of the popularity of the series.
RL: Oh yeah, that’s kind of… That was one reason we decided to start the pre-order with this one.
DTD: I figured I wasn’t telling you anything new.
RL: Well, I mean. You know, we’re not always thinking of that stuff. Sometimes we’re just like flying by the seat of our pants.
DTD: No, you can’t tell me these things. Your stuff is perfectly planned out, up to the brilliant soundtrack.
RL: [laughs] Yeah, so yeah, I think so. I mean we’re on our fifth print run of Near and Far.
RL: So, I think this should do something similar, I think.
DTD: Is Near or Far… Does that sell better than Above and Below at this point?
RL: No. Above and Below has absolutely outsold everything we have ever made.
DTD: Really? Can you say a number of how many copies are out there? I know that 1) you might not want to and 2) you might not know.
RL: So, I don’t know exactly. But I do know it’s more than 50K copies.
DTD: That’s awesome.
RL: It’s good. It’s not what other big hits are getting, but…
DTD: Yeah, but that’s huge. That’s for an independent publisher. And I think you can still be called that.
RL: Oh yeah, yeah.
DTD: It’s probably on your business card.
RL: It is. I tattooed it on my arm actually.
DTD: Did you?
DTD: Good. I don’t speak to people with tattoos. I’m always curious about the actual numbers, because there’s not many companies out there who disclose.
Definitely do not read long written pieces by people with tattoos. They cannot be trusted.
RL: Yeah, that one’s been, I mean that that game sort of kept the lights on.
DTD: That’s awesome.
RL: Yeah, that’s our evergreen, basically. And Near and Far, it sells consistently every year, too. But it hasn’t quite reached Above and Below.
DTD: I just see tremendous popularity for Near and Far. I thought that it had reached the same level.
RL: Yeah, it’s not… Honestly, it’s not that far behind. But no, it has not reached that level. I think gamers like Near and Far better, like people on BoardGameGeek.
DTD: So, I’m probably biased.
RL: A good indicator is actually just Amazon. So go to Amazon, and just see how many ratings a title has, and that gives you a really good indication of how popular it is. Like, just in general.
Near and Far has 291 ratings, 4.7 out of 5 stars. Above and below has 474 ratings, 4.8 stars.
DTD: So, how was it working with a “big box store”? Was that a horror? Was it no big deal?
Waiter: Desserts tasting good?
DTD: Oh, It’s amazing. I couldn’t wait for the coffee.
I had intended to wait to eat my bread pudding until the espresso arrived, to play sweet off of bitter back and forth. But that plan was foiled by someone putting bread pudding in front of me.
RL: That was cool. But it definitely stretched us.
DTD: It was difficult?
RL: It was difficult in ways we didn’t expect. But it was really exciting too. Now I could tell my friends or family, like “Hey, we’re at Target.” [laughs]
DTD: “Go to Target, man!” [laughs]
RL: Maybe that was the whole… One of the biggest motivations. Because like when I tell people what I do for a living, they’re like “What? Really? Do you live in your parents basement still?” You know, that sort of thing.
DTD: Oh, yeah.
RL: The answer was “yes” five years ago, I mean… No, we only lived there for like a few months, but, yes. But once I could say like, “Oh yeah, we have a game and it’s at Target”, it’s like, “Oh! OK.”
DTD: Would you do it again?
RL: I would. But I would do it with a different type of product.
RL: Well, that’s a good question. I think what I would do is something… So, I think there are two issues with Megaland. I think it’s too complex, actually. It has too many rules for its audience. And it was too expensive to produce. So I would do a smaller product that was easier to play. And it might even be a game for like adults, like Sleeping Gods. I mean Sleeping Gods isn’t for adults. But adults are the ones buying that game.
DTD: We like to consider ourselves adults on occasion.
RL: [laughs] I mean, people play it with their family, but…
DTD: Yeah, I get it. I remember one of the GAMAs, one of the first GAMAs I went to, the big hubbub going around, was that there were representatives there from Barnes and Noble, Target. They had decided, you know, they were they were going to get in on this strange, “new gamer market” that was popping up.
RL: Oh wow. Crazy.
DTD: And I spoke to several of the representatives from these big companies. And they were completely unprepared. They had no idea this even existed.
RL: It was like a strange world!
DTD: They were excited, but it was a strange world. They had that look the first time you go to a, you know, a whistling convention or a Trekkie convention.
RL: “What is this?”
DTD: Yeah, I was going to say a Flat Earth Convention, but that’s a totally different look you get.
I highly recommend going to a Flat Earth convention.
RL: Yeah, it was great, and we’ve had games at Barnes and Noble too. That’s been really cool.
DTD: They were more open about it.
RL: We’ve had a few. We’ve had quite a few games at Barnes and Noble, actually.
DTD: I think they were, they were cherry picking from the already existing hobby board games. Whereas Target was kind of trying to make their own audience.
RL: They wanted new.
DTD: Yeah, you know better than I. They wanted their own title, that they could, you know, make 100,000 of right off the bat. So, did they approach you, or…
RL: Yeah, I mean, they have industry… What’s the word?
DTD: Like a scout?
RL: Yeah. It was like, we were one of the people that was introduced to them. And it was kind of like, “Hey. Your games are cool. If you if you come up with one, pitch it to us.”
DTD: “Let us know.”
RL: You know, “Pitch it to us and maybe we’ll take it.”
DTD: That’s very cool.
RL: And they were upfront with like, you know, it would have to be exclusive, that kind of thing. So, I designed the game with that in mind. And we flew to Chicago and pitched it, and they liked it. So, we even played, we played it with them.
DTD: That’s so cool! That must have been a tremendous ego boost.
RL: It was, yeah it was really exciting. It was super exciting.
DTD: So, can you say what’s on deck now? What’s being worked on?
Waiter: You two still doing OK?
RL: Uh, yeah, I’m done.
Waiter: I’ll take that from you. Anything else just let me know. Feel free to keep hanging out though.
RL: Thank you.
DTD: I got that.
Like a ninja I nabbed the check. A financially savvy ninja with good credit.
RL: Oh, thank you.
DTD: Well sure. This is my pet project and I’ve really lucked out in life. I can kind of do whatever I like to do.
RL: Oh nice. Oh! Hang on a sec.
At this point, Ryan pulled something out of my hair.
DTD: A bug?
RL: A beetle.
DTD: That’s a cool one! That’s a longhorn. I was an entomology guy. Wish I had a container… Longhorned beetle, very cool. They’re awesome. So, forgot where I was going with that.
This longhorned beetle is most likely Monochamus scutellatus, the white spotted sawyer beetle.
RL: Oh, you were saying, like you can kind of do whatever.
DTD: I can do… Yeah, I can do what I like. I said that my father worked in the industry?
RL: Like, he invented them? Really. So, I’m talking to like a famous person.
DTD: No, you’re talking to a famous person’s kid who is spoiled rotten. And, you know, can tell you stories. Yeah, I’m a retired veterinarian so… But everything just kind of lined up, and now I’ve just decided, you know I can do what I like. Yeah which is fun.
1) Very limited definitions of famous. 2) Spoiled. Rotten.
RL: That’s amazing.
DTD: I did find out that the first female video game designer was in my dad’s computer science class. It was the woman who did River Raid for Activision.
River Raid was an influential top scrolling shooter for the Atari 2600 released in 1982. The game was designed by Carol Shaw, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1977.
RL: Oh wow.
DTD: That was more impressive to me than anything else he did.
RL: That was the thing. So, what’s your… Who’s your dad?
DTD: Ken Thompson, yeah.
RL: And he invented UNIX?
DTD: Yes, and C. Those were the big ones.
RL: Oh my gosh.
RL: Oh my gosh.
DTD: So, like friends of the family are probably all the famous chess people that you may or may not know. I hate chess.
RL: That’s mind blowing, yeah.
DTD: It’s not my game.
RL: It’s a game I don’t play very often, but I like playing it with my kids. But, as a competitive game against somebody with like, you know, some skill.
DTD: And that’s all I got. Nobody ever pulled punches when I was a kid. So, like these people would come over the house and they would just obliterate me. So. like I played against [Garry] Kasparov and [Mikhail] Botvinnik, before he passed. All these people.
RL: [laughs] That’s amazing.
DTD: I was no good at all. [laughs] So, do you have new exciting things on deck that you can talk about? No pressure, you’re allowed to not talk about them. I’ll weep a little bit, but…
RL: Well, OK, I will say… I’m working on a… I’ve been working on rough ideas for a Sleeping Gods follow up. And I can’t really say much about it, except that it will be smaller.
Difficult to go bigger… Not impossible. Just difficult.
RL: So, I know most people are like “Erg, it’s gotta be, it’s gotta be huge, right? It’s gotta be big.” But, I feel like, it’s not going to be like a lot smaller, but my goal this time is to make it like a little more of an impulse buy, if that makes sense. Like, a little more affordable.
DTD: Oh sure.
RL: But still have that vast open world feel, with a really cohesive story.
DTD: That’s awesome. That’s very cool.
RL: And I’ve had… Man, I’ve had so many story ideas, but I’ve kind of narrowed down on one that I really like. It’s taken months, and like the thing that really sticks, you know, the stuff that keeps coming back. That’s like the one I should work on.
DTD: So, were you thinking about it being in the same universe?
I had one final electrically charged moment with our waiter Clayton. The check was returned. There was one final check if we needed anything else. But I saw that look in Clayton’s eyes. Feed me forever, waiter man.
RL: I have, but this one will not be. It will be a different universe. I’ll probably… I’ll go back to that universe, the wandering sea.
DTD: OK. I didn’t know if it had an official name.
RL: Oh, he came back!
My friend Monochamus scutellatus, the white spotted sawyer beetle, came and landed on my shirt again. I let him sit in the chair next to me.
DTD: Oh, he’s my friend. They’re really just so bizarre looking. I need a picture. I’m acting just like my kids.
RL: It feels like Sleeping Gods is kind of like an epic trilogy. If I could say it, as a story. Like an epic fantasy trilogy. But this time I want to make a standalone movie, kind of a thing. You know what I’m saying. Anyway, that could totally change. I could completely throw it in the garbage. I probably will.
DTD: Well, of course.
RL: One thing that I do a lot, is throw away ideas, and like change ideas throughout the process. It’s very fluid.
DTD: Someone told me at some point that beginning designers will add more and more and more to their design, and later designers will cut more and more out of it. And the real skill is being able to throw it away, being able to get rid of… Whatever it is… It’s burning your children.
RL: Oh yeah, I’m definitely a throw away designer. Like I try a thing, we try it for a month. No, not working? Throw it away completely and take one thing from it, and use that to build a new version. And then work on it.
I am pretty sure Ryan is a designer who throws away many works in progress. Not a disposable designer.
DTD: So, the ideas come back into other games? They’re fluid ideas, that bits and pieces will move across games?
RL: Oh sure. Like I mean, Roam came from Sleeping Gods.
DTD: Really? I had no idea.
RL: Yeah. So halfway through development, we came up with the grid battle system thing. You know you’re covering spaces with the little damage tokens. And I thought, “You know this would be great as like its own little game game.”
DTD: Just the fight system?
RL: Yeah, and it’s different, but the whole “covering up squares” thing – I thought, “OK, what if I made that an area control game?”
DTD: Wow. I haven’t played Roam yet. I know of it, and it’s on my list.
RL: And then we published Roam, and then went back to Sleeping Gods, kept working on it.
DTD: That’s awesome.
RL: Yeah, and that’s happened a few times. But usually what happens is I’m working on a really big game, and one of the mechanisms that I come up with during that, I take that and make a little game out of it. [laughs]
DTD: Wow. Can you think of another example from one of your games, or are they just all mushed together into one idea now?
RL: Let’s see. Roam is like the most obvious one, but… Oh, Let’s see… I’m having a hard time thinking of another one. It does happen though.
DTD: That’s OK. Do you remember a part of one of your games that’s now done and done… Do you remember a part of one of those, that was a big one, that got chucked away?
DTD: Well, you said you are a throwaway-er. You get rid of chunks a lot. And I was wondering if you remember, like Islebound or in Now or Never, or in Above and Below, if there was one big chunk in there that you get rid of?
RL: Well, in Sleeping Gods, in the first year of development, there was a giant ship port. It was like, it was big. And in every room. So, in every room on the ship, like every crew member had a standee. And you put them in the different rooms.
DTD: Oh, so you have every crew member wandering the ship.
RL: Yup, wandering the ship, and there were like 12 crew members, or 14. There were 14, actually.
DTD: This sounds… Because I watched you playtest Sleeping Gods in at least two conventions.
RL: Oh really? OK. So you probably saw this.
DTD: This sounds kind of familiar. I think you were playtesting with Suzanne [Sheldon].
RL: Oh yeah, I did play it. Yeah, yeah.
DTD: And I was hovering behind.
RL: OK. Yeah, I remember that. Yeah, at Dice Tower West.
DTD: I think so, yeah. It was at West.
Dice Tower West, March 8, 2019. Before the dark times.
RL: So, I had this. And like when you had a battle, like when things attacked the ship, you put the monsters like in the ship, in the room. It was like a tactical battle game. And they would move from the different rooms. You had to move the characters to the different rooms, and attack the monsters, attack the enemies. It was so fiddly, That’s why I dumped it. It sounds really cool. It sounds super cool but it was so, so fiddly.
DTD: Too many moving pieces.
RL: And then, every time you wanted to go exploring, you had to pick the people that were going to go, and put them on a boat. And then, when you were done, you had to put them all back. It got really tiring.
DTD: Wow. I remember standees.
RL: Every monster had a standee. Yeah, it was crazy.
DTD: More and more, like Gloomhaven.
RL: Yeah, yeah.
DTD: So, no Dice Game version, Roll and Write version?
RL: Roll and Write? Sleeping Gods, Roll and write?
There was true shock and horror in Ryan’s voice.
DTD: That’s what you need next – the sleeping gods Roll and Write.
RL: I know, that sounds fun.
DTD: With dry erase cards.
RL: Yeah. You know, one of my favorite games is Race for the Galaxy. And I always want to design games like that. In fact, they had tons of prototypes that are like that, like card games where you are building an engine. But I end up not publishing them, because I feel like my market doesn’t want it. Like my audience doesn’t want that stuff. They want the storybook games.
DTD: I don’t know. Well, now. But remember you only really started doing the storybook games not that long ago.
Above and Below came out in 2015. Ryan had several popular titles before that.
DTD: I mean there were many more games you had going that were popular and were, made Red Raven a name before Above and Below.
RL: Yeah, that’s true. It just feels like even, as time goes on, like that type of game is just like slipping further away. It’s like I can’t get away…
DTD: Gotta reinvent.
Come on back next time for the final installment of my dinner with Ryan, when we talk about recently played games, Utah Canyons, and conventions. Plus the need for a little chaos in board games.