Welcome back to my breakfast with Tim Fowers, video game designer, board game creator, and all around smart guy. Reviewing the breakfast chatter thus far, a couple things really jump out, most notably that Tim is much, much more mentally capable than I this morning. I am going to waffle and say he is better used to the foreign world of 8am. Or that I am significantly jet lagged from my trip from central California to Utah (675 miles and one whole time zone). But we all know the truth is that TIm is one smart cookie, perhaps an entire roll’s worth of Oreos.
TF: I don’t know if you know No Man’s Sky?
DTD: Oh, of course. Oh, I know that story well. It’s one of my comfort games, actually.
No Man’s Sky is an open world science fiction game, in which the player is free to explore a nearly limitless universe, from interstellar space to the surface of huge planets. It was quite buggy when released in 2016, and to date there have been more than 20 major updates. And over the years, reviews have swung from initially quite poor to overwhelmingly positive.
TF: When it came out it was not…
DTD: It was garbage.
TF: Yeah, and so, I’ve been talking to Jeff [Krause]…
DTD: It was like a two-man project when it came out, it was insane.
Perhaps more than two, but Hello Games was a very small team in 2016.
TF: But they but they stuck to it.
DTD: Still to this day, huge updates.
TF: And so, I just realized that like, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to keep adding value. So as much as there’s some little wrinkles, things that bug me about Burgle [Bros] 2, I’m going to keep adding stuff to it. And all the people that get the game from now on will also get this with it, right? It’s just going to be like… Basically it’d be like sending promos, kind of with it, right? So, I’m going to… I think I could do it economically, where I can send it out to like the 5000 people that have Burgle, you know via mail. And I’ll, you know, I’ll eat some of the costs. But the idea is I want it to be… Because it’s like, you don’t get to “patch” like a video game. You can try to errata and FAQ and whatnot, but I’m like “No, no, no. I’m gonna try to do it right.”
TF: So, we’ve got some… So, one thing people didn’t like about Burgle – some people didn’t like about Burgle was that Burgle has this certain level of randomness that you can get used to, but there’s now this other layer with the chips on top. And for some people, they feel like… It’s like they can’t really get their head around the heuristic. How to evaluate what to do. They feel like it’s another layer of randomness. And so, we actually, we’ve engineered a whole other way to play, where you do all those chips face up. And they function differently. So, we’re using the same chips, but now they have similar but different uses.
TF: And they’re persistent through the game. So now you can see where they are, what your goals are, what you want to avoid and everything. But they’re not going to go away.
DTD: You kind of give them a starting position, a starting goal to go for.
Translation: My simple lizard brain gets lost in larger games that give me free reign to do anything. I generally need coaching. Think “rabbit in headlights”.
TF: Yeah, it gives them a mid-term goal of like, “OK, let’s come in from this side, because we know where these things are.” But it’s working pretty well, but it raises the complexity. So that’s the tradeoff is it’s a little less accessible, in sense that you now have to kind of think about this thing from the beginning. Versus before, you could kind of like YOLO, and just run in. And it’s actually working pretty well, because Burgle is a system.
TF: And once I understood that maybe I’ve gone too far for some, for this particular audience, I’m like, “Well, I can accommodate that. That’s what variants are for.” I mean, I try to do a lot of kitchen sink design where it’s just like… Paperback [Adventures] has got like 5 expansions in it, because I’m just like letting people who want to be aggressive, can play their attacks. People who want to play co-op, there’s a co-op. And when you think systemically, you can accommodate that, and I don’t think it really, you know, hurts the game. In the sense that like…
DTD: I mean, I know that there’s a huge backlash with games when there are a ton of modular add-ons, and the game says, “Do what you like. Use or not use.”
TF: Yeah, and I think… Sure, it can backfire. And there’s certainly ones that work better and worse. But I mean, I think that so far with like Paperback and Burgle, it plays pretty well in both.
DTD: Oh, sure.
TF: There are definitely some that are like, “The two player is substandard”, or “The solo is substandard”, or whatever. So you can’t, every game can’t accommodate everyone. I understand that. But I do like to try to, you know, bring the player in.
DTD: I’ve always been fascinated with that comparison between video games and the board games, with patches and hotfixes, and things like this.
TF: Well, you know, the anxiety of a board game… Like, I talked to my video game friends, and they’re like “Oh, zero-day patch”, or whatever. I’m like, “You know, back in the day it was a gold master…” And there was no…
In video games, a zero-day patch is a downloadable fix that arrives on the release day of the game. This way, a game can be worked on and perfected right up to the last second. And, in practical use, beyond, as many games continue to have bugs well after release.
DTD: Yeah, and you couldn’t patch them. Yeah, that’s one of my evil pleasures, is going into YouTube and reading about some of the released games before the culture of patching, that were completely broken. My favorite story is when… So, Activision had bought the license to Tony Hawk. And it had a dated expiration. So then literally a week before their license expired, because they bought a 15-year license, thinking it would be popular forever. The week before the license expired, they released a new Tony Hawk game, but on the disc all it was, was the demo for the previous game. And it waited for a zero day patch, which was the entire new game.
TF: [laughs] All right! We’re going to do it live!
DTD: Because they had to get the physical copy out. But the stories like that just crack me up.
TF: Well so, yeah. But I mean, it’s hard to know. It’s like I can only do so much.
TF: It’s like, I can try to account for every possibility. But it’s just like I can’t…
DTD: Someone will play it in a way you never anticipate.
TF: Yeah, and if I feel like… And in this case, I’m like, “OK, that’s legitimate concern”, and so I use it as a constraint. I’m like “OK, can I design around that?” And we started to play with it, and this is working pretty good! So, let’s push it out a bit.
The rule change was posted online on December 28, 2020 and is set to be integrated into the second printing.
DTD: He put out, just let it be known that there was a rules change, and it’s going to be integrated into the next printing, but here’s a hot patch. You should play this way. And I just, immediately my brain went to “Oh, this is, this is a patched video game. This is awesome. This is just fascinating.”
TF: So, we’ll see. I don’t actually like expansions, because, well, expansions often are that. Where they’ll try to compensate for problems with the first game. But, I don’t know. I feel like right now, with the Kickstarter nature, or just kind of the nature of the market, there’s people that can hold back. Where they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to save this for the expansion.”
DTD: Well, it’s turning to a whole culture. That there’s an expectation of expansions. So now, the games are being released, but if you pay a little extra, you also get the expansion. And it’s all marketing and culture.
TF: Well, it’s all marketing. And what’s funny though, is people want to play the game, too. As much as it’s a little disingenuous. Like, I tried to do a campaign without stretch goals, and I’m like, “I’m going to make this game as good as I possibly can. I’m not going to play this circus show of stretch goals.” It’s like, if it’s good and legitimate, and I want, I’ll add it to the game. I won’t… I’ll eat the costs. I don’t care. But people want to play that game. So, with Burgle 2, I was back to stretch goals. Because it’s like, they want to feel like… I don’t know, maybe they helped it happen, or they have some influence, or the value is going up. But there’s a certain momentum behind stretch goals.
DTD: Yeah, it’s an expectation of the Kickstarter model.
TF: But then they started to get really nitpicky. Like, “Well, I didn’t know if this game is going to be great. If we don’t get these stretches…” I’m like, “Dude, I’m going to put them all in anyway….”
DTD: All the stretch goals are already in the plan.
Spoiler Alert: All stretch goals are already designed and planned. They’re going to go in the game.
TF: Just chill. Do what you need to do to keep… Because they get, “I don’t know if this game is going to be OK…”
DTD: Don’t look behind the curtain.
TF: So, but it was. It was delightful. I am really proud of Paperback Adventures. I mean, as much as I am in the middle of this crisis with Burgle, I’m really proud of Paperback Adventures, because I think we were able to take the Slay the Spire [style] gameplay, and make it, condense it into… The bookkeeping is much easier. Both in how the display system works, but also we have this generic “boons and hexes” system. I don’t know if you saw how this works?
DTD: Oh, I backed it.
TF: What it does, is it makes it entirely relative to who you’re fighting.
TF: If I have a hex on me, well it depends on what my enemy does with hexes. Or if I’m putting a hex on my enemy, you know. So, you and the enemy give them to each other, or you buff yourself up. And what that means can change, because we realized with a lot of this, like Slay the Spire… It’s like “Here’s all these de-buffs and buffs”, and whatnot. And then there’s a lot of math behind those, and we’re just like, “You can’t…” So, I’m really curious how they pull off the Kickstarter for the announced Slay the Spire board game.
DTD: I was going to bring that up, because it’s a company I don’t know. But it’s got full endorsement from the video game group.
TF: And the fact they didn’t make it solo. They’re like, “It’s gonna be a four player co-op, but it’s gonna do…
DTD: It’s a card game, isn’t it?
TF: I don’t know. Well, I mean it’s deck builders. I’m sure it uses cards.
The new Slay the Spire board game is described on BGG as “a cooperative deckbuilding adventure”.
DTD: Yeah, well, I think it’s purely… I don’t know, it’s been a little while, but I only remember these vague announcements, that they’ve got it, they’re doing it. No details.
TF: And then, and like, how are they going to upgrade cards? Well, we just do the sleeve thing. Or all the cards have a back.
TF: Yeah, yeah. So well, I’m just really curious. But it was also a driver for us. It’s like, “Well, let’s get on the market”. Because the game was working, and it was a drive. Like, “Well, they’re coming out. So, we better get out there.”
DTD: But don’t, don’t you find it just the most surreal thing in the world, that you’ve got a video game based on a board game that gets a board game and then it gets a video game version and then a board game version of that.
Truly an Inception of a board game. Dreams within drams within dreams.
TF: But that’s my world! I mean, that’s how for me, it’s always… I mean, it’s almost a thought exercise – It’s like, “OK if this is a video game, what would it do?” And then, “OK, let’s flip it back.”
DTD: Sure, what would be different?
TF: And for me, it’s just like, I’m always back and forth. Like we were just brainstorming this weekend some new game ideas, and we weren’t even sure which was which. “Was this a video game? Well, it might do this better if it’s…” Like in Burgle Bros., I was going to have the guard controlled by an app. Until I figured out the waypoint system. Like, “Oh, this actually does it pretty well.”
TF: So, sometimes I’ll be hybrid until the last minute, and then I’ll figure out how to throw away the computer.
DTD: And it seems like we’re kind of over that knee jerk reaction. For a long time people were so antagonistic about hybrid games, about games controlled by a computer program, or doing the bookkeeping.
TF: I still haven’t really… I mean in Sabotage we have an app that lets you play against it. But I haven’t actually pulled it. I mean, I’ll often go down that route on either split, and I guess I’ll pitch, I’ll chicken out at the last minute and go full video game or full board game.
TF: But yeah, I think that there’s less friction against that, but you have to, it has to pull its weight. If you’re going to do that, it has to be doing something novel with it.
DTD: Well, there’s so many board games that really are a video game. You know, you’re playing the video game on the app, and you might have a piece you’re moving around, because it told you to. But there’s something magic about the physicality, being able to pick up chunks and move them around, and flip cards.
I am a firm believer in the tactile nature of board games. I do not think games like Azul would be nearly as popular if not for those chunky, bakelite-like plastic tiles.
TF: Well, and again the transparency. Like, you can see all the things. When there’s an app, there’s still some mystery there, and I don’t know… They’re both good. Like I don’t have a favorite, it’s just what’s the best for what you are trying to do?
DTD: Oh, absolutely. Reminds me of the days playing role playing games where you’d program something to do your bookkeeping for you.
TF: Well, that’s the thing about programming. Once you learn how to program, you’re like “I can make tools for my brain. It can just do things for me.”
DTD: Oh yeah.
TF: I mean, I TA’d a class in college. The intern program. And watching people like, like getting object-oriented programming, and watching the pieces click where they’re like… Because it really changes from then on out. They realize, “You know, I can make something think for me.” It’s very empowering.
DTD: Oh, I’ve used programming my whole life. Like I said, I was programming when I was five years old. And this is 1970… 7, 6, 5… Somewhere in there.
TF: Well, the clock started in ‘72, right? The Linux clock.
The original clock in UNIX was just a counter, counting away the seconds from Jan 1, 1970. Currently, the maximum size of a 32-bit number limits the clock to January 19, 2038.
DTD: Well… [laughs]. So let me blow your mind a little bit. Does name Ken Thompson ring any bells?
DTD: So, my father created UNIX in 1969.
I know I tell this story a lot, but I am really incredibly proud of my father’s accomplishments. It just feels disingenuous to cut this part of the interview.
DTD: And the C programming language in 1972.
TF: Oh, OK. So yeah, alright, no pressure!
DTD: No pressure, no. So, I definitely did not go into programming. I went into biology, about as far as I could.
TF: Well, that’s super cool. Yeah, my… All my all my programmer friends would be… And there’s definitely like… So going through college, I hung out with the programmer crowd. And they were very much into Linux. And they were very much purists about C and C++.
DTD: Well, C++ was my dad’s intern, Bjarne [Stroustrup].
Bjarne adopted a stray dog and named it “ken”. There’s a story there. It involves a garage.
DTD: Yeah, and there’s a lot of stories. C was indirectly named after my mother.
DTD: Well, the original language was for the first version of Unix, was called “bon”. That’s my mom. And that became B, and that became C. And then C turned into C++ and C#, and all this stuff. I was one of the many uncredited, who would grab these mainframe programs, and reprogram them for myself. So, early roguelike games on mainframes, I added characters and monsters and things like that.
Many argue that the name B came from BCPL, but I have it on authority from ken that his wife believes it came from “bon” and he would be in trouble if it were not true.
TF: You could mod them.
DTD: Yeah, I don’t know if you know the whole rogue lineage.
TF: I know, was it nethack?
DTD: There were two branches off of rogue. There was Moria, which was very traditionalistic, hard core, D&D. And there was Nethack, which was very tongue in cheek and loose and funny. And I was on that Moria side.
I added Paladins and a few monsters to Moria around 1984.
TF: Interesting. Well, so I mean, have you got games to your credit?
DTD: No, definitely not.
TF: Well, with all this different…
DTD: I’ve helped and I’ve played, but it’s all hobby. And I haven’t done anything of note.
TF: Yeah, well. I mean, that’s usually what I do, is I just push people off cliffs. I’m like, “Hey, this will be fun! Give it a shot!”
DTD: I could say that I was the beta tester for Hunt the Wumpus. [laughs]
TF: I know that one!
DTD: That was originally included the Unix builds, because the games directory was made for some unnamed four- to five-year-old kid to play with on the mainframe, so… wumpus, trek, gorilla, eliza, bulls and cows. All these old, old, old.
I played through all of the original games within /usr/games. I remember anxiously checking each day to see if there was a new file in the directory. trek, snake, rogue and adventure were staples. gorilla and eliza I played when I was younger.
TF: Well, I remember some of them from the programming magazines, where you read the source code and you’d have to type it in.
DTD: Yes! I know, I lived off those stupid books. It’s funny, I did one of these dinners with Geoff Engelstein, and we talked about these old games, and his eyes lit up and he ran off. And he brought the magazine with all the souce codes.
Someone should interview that… I guess I already gave it way.
TF: He’s so cool.
DTD: He still has them.
TF: He’s been helping us with the Tabletop Network.
DTD: Oh fantastic, he’s such a nice guy. So smart.
TF: He’s just kind of the patron saint of game design, to the whole industry. So, he’s involved with running several different things, including ours. But he runs the one, the GDC Tabletop Day. He helps with that. And like, he’s all over. And he runs his whole company. He’s got a pinball game.
DTD: He’s got his hand in so many pies.
TF: Yeah, but he’s just a delight.
Come on back next time for more breakfast, more coffee, more history lessons. Tim talks about recent games that have piqued his interest, the whole concept of originality and standing on the shoulders of giants, and how these early innovators specifically influenced Tim’s designs. Plus, more coffee. Which I need.