Welcome back to breakfast with designer Tim Fowers. Tim is an absolute fount of the theory and practice behind games, both video and board, and is the designer behind games such as Paperback, Burgle Bros, and Now Boarding. I am absolutely wired on coffee derived caffeine, so words are spewing forth fast and furious, although they may not make much sense.
TF: Yeah, and what’s interesting is, I mean… Like with Burgle Bros it wasn’t intended to be a narrative based game, but it’s interesting that people, people project narrative onto it.
DTD: Oh, people are just in love with the story, and the characters and…
TF: Well, yeah, it’s like I kind of put these pieces in play, and then it’s just a system in which people can tell themselves a story. Or they will fill in the blanks. Like, by leaving the guard as this kind of blank slate, people will often when they’re outwitting the guard, they’ll kind of project onto the guard. Like, “Oh, what does the guard think of this hole in the wall?” Or like, “What does the guard think of this crow?” Because he’s the foil.
I am always fascinated with how invested people become in games. Even when elements are random or background, it is human nature to assign true character to the actors.
TF: But they start to imagine his reactions, and the system is just, it’s a rogue-like. It generates puzzles, but those end up, you know, people kind of connect the dots and map a narrative on top of it. So it’s emergent, but it’s not going to have, always have a perfect dramatic art, like a story would.
DTD: Of course, because it’s generated.
TF: Yeah yeah, but…
The bountiful breakfast bonanza of breads, benedicts and bacon is brought forth from our benevolent server.
DTD: Oh wow, that was fast.
Waiter: Yeah, they’re quick.
DTD: Thank you, thank you.
Waiter: The rest will be right out.
TF: All right, thanks.
DTD: Do you mind if I take pictures?
TF: Yeah, yeah. I’m not, I’m not good at the picture taking.
DTD: Fine, it’s all about casual and all this business. I’m not really after anything professional. If anything, the other way.
TF: But I mean… So, there’s a whole rabbit hole talking about like…
And more breakfast fare, some we did not even remember ordering, is delivered, filling our table and making me very happy.
TF: Oh, awesome, thank you.
Waiter: Was there anything else I can get for you guys?
DTD: Ah, this is beautiful. Thank you.
Waiter: Great. Enjoy.
TF: I mean, so there’s a whole rabbit hole of psychology. I love to dive into that stuff, but it’s like, it’s a whole conversation. So, depending on kind of where, what you’re wanting to cover… Because it’s like there’s Big 5 and Self-Determination Theory, and all the stuff I like to go on about, but it’s… You know, it’s own…
Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological study of why people do what they do, focusing on what behaviors are self motivated, as opposed to determined from external stimulus.
And spoiler… The 5 domains of play are Novelty, Challenge, Stimulation, Harmony and Threat.
DTD: I’ve been absolutely fascinated with it, and I grill my son all the time about “Alright, tell me more game theory” because my father does some game theory.
TF: Well, when you say Game Theory… Like there’s a field…
I love to read about theories and psychology involved in creating video and board games, but Tim is correct – it is not Game Theory. Game Theory as an academic subject tends to be more depressing, and has great use in controlling populations and advertising. I confuse the formal terms all the time.
DTD: There is a formalized…, yeah.
TF: There’s actual mathematical… Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I don’t know much about it. I mean I know a little bit of Graph Theory and whatnot, and I did physics as a degree.
DTD: Oh cool.
TF: And I don’t really use it. Well, I mean, I guess there’s some physics in video games. So like, tomorrow I’m gonna be releasing a demo for a video game, because it’s just one of those games that’s just too weird to… I don’t know if there’s an audience for it.
For reference, the video game is called Chiasm, and it is an absolute brain burner. I am both obsessed by it and terrible at it. Highly recommended.
DTD: [laughs] I love these ideas, though.
TF: All right, so I’ve got this game. You know what Sokoban is?
The original Sokoban was created in 1981 by Hiroyuki Imabayashi.
TF: It is a box pushing puzzle. I made a sokoban game, where it’s a grid, and in half of the grid, time is moving backwards. A la Tenet, or whatever.
DTD: Or Braid.
Braid is a platformer video game designed by Jonathan Blow, where the movement of time depends on if the player is traveling left or right.
TF: Or Primer.
DTD: Primer! Oh my God, best thing ever.
Primer is perhaps the best time travel movie ever made. Well, let me clarify. If a group of scientists decide to make an accurate time travel movie, and did not worry about a lack of acting ability, you would get Primer.
TF: So like, the idea… So, you know I had this idea a long time ago, but Tenet kind of pushed me over. I’m like, “OK, I think I could gamify this”. So, I made a puzzle game around it. But it like… It really bakes your noodle.
DTD: It sounds awesome.
TF: So, I’m just gonna release it, and if enough people like it then I could build it into a full game, but I’m just… I just gotta… I entered it in the IGF, Independent Game Festival. It didn’t, you know, didn’t get anybody’s attention, so. You go up there and see if it resonates. So I had to do, that’s like my experimental film, you know?
DTD: And it’s great to keep doing things like that. A lot of times if you find a niche, it kind of destroys all the other side projects.
TF: Yeah, and I mean the whole reason I’ve kind of built a “lifestyle company” is so that I can have the bandwidth to do…
DTD: Whatever you like.
DTD: So, you’ve told me that you went to school for physics. You’ve done video games and you fell into board games. How did that happen? I mean, did you… It sounds like you did the video game thing first, or at least did the programming thing.
TF: Yeah, I didn’t. Well, I fell in love with both at the same time. I mean, I had liked video games, but around 2005, I found Settlers [of Catan]. No, actually it was Puerto Rico. Because I knew Twilight Imperium, and the Twilight Imperium 3rd edition used the role selection from Puerto Rico. And I’m like, “What’s this Puerto Rico?” And then, I kind of fell into it. But then I think it was, it was really Power Grid that… Because I was into, you know…
DTD: So math-y and just algorithms.
TF: Well, and it was also just very… It was also just very laissez-faire. It was like, “Here’s the market prices”. And the way that you uncover the cubes and it would raise the price and everything. It was just so elegant.
DTD: Oh, it’s a beautiful economic sim.
TF: I was just amazed at how emergent everything was. Because, here’s… I mean the difference between a video game and a board game, is a video game is a black box. There’s an algorithm going on underneath, and you’re giving inputs and getting feedback, and trying to figure out a heuristic of what’s happening under the hood.
TF: Like Cell Biology.
DTD: [laughs] Alright…
I happen to have an advanced degree in Cell Biology. Im pretty sure Tim knows that.
TF: Whereas with board games, there’s a certain transparency. Where it’s like, “Here are all the rules”, right? You know all the rules. You know all the Magic [the Gathering] cards, right? But then somebody puts together 2 Magic cards that you didn’t think about before, and you’re like, “Oh! You can do that.”
DTD: Those work so well.
Our waiter checked up on us, making sure we had all the breakfast we could break our fast with. Plus, more coffee.
DTD: Fantastic, thank you.
Waiter: I’m just wrapping this up. Take your time.
DTD: Thank you so much.
TF: And so, the surprise is in the emergence. That, like, seeing it emerge in a way that you didn’t [anticipate]. Connecting the dots in a new way is delightful. So both of them will surprise you. It’s a very different type of surprise.
DTD: Yeah, because there’s emergence within the video games as well, but you don’t see the pieces coming together.
TF: Yeah, you can’t see them as far away. In board games they are hiding in plain sight.
DTD: And then I’ve always felt the real magic in board games is when you get a rule set or a component set that is ridiculously simple. And it surprises you how many ways you can put it together, and by the end it is such a complicated system.
TF: The ways to play it.
DTD: The Le Havre effect.
Le Havre by Uwe Rosenberg is a worker placement game, but you only have one worker. In fact, you only have two choices on your turn – collect resources from the dock or move your worker. Yet the game achieves monumental complexity as the play goes on.
Someone should interview that guy…
TF: And that’s, you know, that’s just the system design. It’s always been really interesting to me, where… So I fell in love with it, but I didn’t really think was doable. But I did start making video games with a friend of mine. And, you know, we one of the first attempts we did was trying to build a Tabletopia-type platform. Where people can… Almost more of a whiteboard.
TF: Or Tabletop Simulator. Where people could just, you know, play games with kind of built-in voice and whatnot. And it didn’t really… The tech we built it on kind of fell apart. We got it working, but you know… And I think it really took the pandemic to get online tabletop to really work. I think it took a necessity.
DTD: Oh, I agree.
The online gaming platforms Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia, and Board Game Arena really did blossom during the pandemic.
TF: Because before that it was kind of like, it was nice. There was a lot of attempts at it. But like nobody… It didn’t really take off.
DTD: Yeah. You need that huge user base, complaining.
TF: So, my friend is a programmer. And I was like UI/UX kind of stuff. The minor stuff. But, you know, eventually there was just kind of like… I ran out of stuff to do. And so it’s like, “Well, I got extra cycles. I’m going to work on a board game.” And so, we did this… We started with this game that was going around, like Left 4 Dead. It was a zombie co-op. And then at some point we pivoted into Wok Star.
DTD: That’s an odd transition.
TF: Well, yeah, customers and zombies, you know they’re not that different.
DTD: They’re almost the same [laughs].
Both hungry. Both persistantly unstoppable. Both groan a lot.
DTD: Oh yeah! Of course. I guess I didn’t make the connection that you had also done the video game Now Boarding.
TF: You played the video game [laughs]?
DTD: You have no idea how deep the rabbit hole of my nerdity goes.
TF: Wow, that’s a… Not many people know that one. We’re working on an update. An updated, or another interpretation of that concept right now. So, I mean we had some mild success with that, but after a while, you know the indie, being an indie video game developer didn’t pan out, and so I ended up going into the industry, the video game industry. So, I worked for, here in Utah I worked for React for a little bit, and then I ended up at Amazon Game Studios in Orange County.
DTD: Oh, how cool.
TF: And while I was there, Wok Star made it out of publisher hell, and then I went right back into publisher hell with Game Salute. And it was a train wreck. But alongside it, I launched Paperback, which is actually based on one of my video games called Clockwords.
DTD: OK. Now when you did Paperback, was that just an independent, self-published title?
TF: Yeah. And what was interesting is, I had lunch with a local guy, who actually was… He had made a party game. And it really helped me figure out, because I had… I knew about publishing. I knew about distribution. I kind of knew how the numbers worked. And what really solidified it for me, was I had lunch with him, and he was selling 50,000 units a year. And I’m like, “Well, cool! That’s great.” But he wasn’t really full time yet. But he’s like, Well, he says he’s just working towards an exit. He’s just like, “Once I get to 100,000 units, I’ll sell it to Mattel or Hasbro, and then I’ll be done.” And I’m like, “Why would you do that?” It helped me realize that I want a lifestyle business. And so that made me take certain risks with Paperback, where it’s like, “OK, I’m going to grow slow. I’m going to go direct sales. I’m going to kind of do the Cards Against Humanity model, and just direct sales. And do it over a long time. Because I watched Wok Star, under its own power, grow. Like, there is this viral nature within board games, but it’s on a longer time scale. And people usually aren’t patient enough to see it. Especially distributors. Because they want a success within… I mean, they say now, you know you’ve got two weeks on the shelf to be a success in distribution.
Cards Against Humainty was famous for selling directly to consumers, and did very well.
DTD: Yeah, the easy view of the game industry is that it’s ridiculously fast. Like you said, in two weeks people are excited about the new hotness, and then a couple of them get that “evergreen” status and just linger.
TF: Yeah, but for me it’s like, my games usually pick up for three years.
DTD: Wow, that’s awesome.
TF: So, it’s just a longer tail. And I mean there’s been a lot of pressure to speed things up. You know, I was with Amazon a little bit, and whatnot. But generally it’s just like, just grow slow. Right now, I wanna do like a game a year.
Waitress: Water, coffee?
DTD: A little coffee would be great.
TF: And then just build it out. And let it let it kind of grow. I mean, I haven’t really advertised. You know, I want to be the “word of mouth” game.
DTD: And it makes perfect sense now that you’re saying it, looking at your back catalogue of games, and how they’ve been going.
TF: So yeah, I mean for me it’s mostly just, as a lifestyle business, that I kind of just keep making games. Because I can’t not make games. Not really an option, I’m driven.
DTD: [laughs] I think that was one of the things I heard a lot when I was in Graduate School, and in academia was, “This is a job for people who can’t not do it.”
Go Handsome Dan.
TF: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, it’s… I had a lot of fun. And I went somewhat full-time five years ago. I left Amazon. They really wanted like a Halo-type game.
DTD: And they were pushing their new open platform gaming system pretty hard – Lumberyard?
TF: Which is just the CryEngine. They bought it and repurposed it. The reason… There’s a lot of drama.
DTD: I’ve heard some of the drama.
TF: It’s just video game studio drama.
DTD: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of that around.
TF: I think that they really would have had a shot, if they would have treated it a little bit more like they treated their TV shows. Was when they first got into television, they’re like, “Here’s six pilots. Vote on them.” And give the directors some creative license. But, you know, Mike Frazzini and some of the people in charge. They just, they thought to gain legitimacy, they needed to have the cool shooter game. They had to get the core gamer. They had to win that fight, and they have all the money in the world to try to fight it. But you don’t let… The problem is you need to have the auteur. You need to have the… You need to have a director, or somebody who has a vision, that you can see it all the way through, instead of “designed by committee” stuff, which just fizzles.
DTD: Yeah, what’s the saying? “No one of us is as dumb as all of us.”
I love meetings.
TF: [laughs] So, I mean they could have. It’s just, they decided to treat video games differently than they did television and movies.
DTD: Yeah, and I saw a similar thing going on with Google, that they started this whole Google Play division, trying to get into video games, and never really made the push. They just said we’re here, use us if you want, and nobody did.
TF: Yeah, I mean Niantik was the only one that kind of made success with Pokémon Go. That was a partnership with Google. As far as I understand it. So, the rest has been making games, and then on the side… So as a designer, I’m usually partnering with someone. I’m usually co-designing with somebody. And because when I first got into… Oh, this is my friend Tom Mason. He was a programmer. And so, I’ve designed my designer brain around someone who is very analytical.
TF: That can help me, because it’s like I’m kind of like, flighty. And I’m thinking laterally. And I’m trying all these different things. And then I need somebody that can help me think deeply, like “OK, here’s the consequences of the thing that you’re thinking about”. I’m like, “Oh, OK.”
DTD: Yeah, “Here’s the edge case. Here’s how it’ll run better, more efficiently.”
TF: Yeah, yeah, so I’ve been doing that with different people, so I did it with different team-ups, with Jeff Beck from Jeff Krause and Skye Larson. You know, it’s like I usually have somebody that I need to bounce stuff off of, and usually it’s a complimentary style like that.
DTD: That’s awesome. And you’re talking specifically about the board games, or are you doing this with…
TF: In, like, 2 months he did Hardback.
DTD: Wow. I mean, that’s a great app.
TF: Yeah. So, we’re constantly kind of on both. Usually between me and him, we have maybe four projects that we are futzing around with. But I like to spin lots of plates. I like to have a lot of, you know…
DTD: That’s awesome.
Come back next time for more food, more fun, and more Fowers. We discuss balancing multiple projects, playing for fun, and mentorship programs, something close to Tim’s heart. Plus, Bagpipes and Kentucky!