Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Interview: Joshua Wardrop & Arcknight Fun Virtual Tabletop Tokens Kickstarter

This time I'm posting a Kickstarter special -- not strictly a Pathfinder product but these tokens (and also the maps Joshua mentions) can be used with the PFRPG as they are cross-compatible.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Joshua Wardrop, I've been playing tabletop games since I was a child. I got started with a old book my friend found for Warhammer Fantasy. We were probably 8 or 9, we weren't using the rules correctly at all, but that never stopped us. That book was just FULL of information, and we created hundreds of stories. We would mostly play 1 on 1. It may seem weird, but I was hooked. With tabletop, there's really no limitations; you can bend the rules, you can think outside the box, and you can create any story you want and it comes to life.

How did you get into RPG design and what kind of projects have you been working on? What have been your best experiences? 

My first passion is traditional fantasy tabletop RPGs. I 'officially' started making my own tabletop engine back in 2005, but really it started much earlier than that. We were always making house rules and converting the tabletop systems we played, so making our own entire game was just a natural extension of that. I like DnD and Pathfinder a lot, I've put thousands of hours into them and they feel like good friends, but sometimes I also want to play something  a bit different; especially when it comes to character classes. So that was a founding concept in the Arcknight TTRPG : take components that you like, and put them together to make your own 'class', your own thing. And as long as the components are balanced, it works and it can be incredibly satisfying. You can MAKE a barbarian or a druid, so it's not a restriction, but you can also make something totally different. That level of freedom can't be made up for, even with hundreds of defined classes or options. You're usually going to think "I like this and this, but none of this over here makes sense for me, I don't want any of that."

So this system is the basis of what we're doing here at Arcknight, but making a game from scratch, especially one that has so much open-ended potential takes years to develop and we're in no rush to publish it. If people are interested, they can hop aboard and beta test with us, but that's not our priority. That game will come together (and take as LONG as it takes) naturally. In the meantime, in order to play and test, we started creating supplementary products like Maps and Miniatures, and such.

When and how did your company get started? 

We launched a comprehensive "Map" project on kickstarter last year. Something we thought would be small. We had been making some maps for a board game, and it was a last-minute decision actually. I thought we should launch our maps as a Kickstarter just to get our toes in the water, see from the inside how Kickstarter worked so we wouldn't get any nasty surprises when we tried to launch our board game. We only put up a $500 limit. We knew even if it hardly made any money, we were going to make these maps eventually anyway. Well, we surpassed that limit in 1 day. The KS ended up being 3500% funded, and you have to realize this was our first official product as a company. We had NO brand name, no advertising, no Facebook likes or fans, nothing. Overnight, we went from a couple of die-hard gamers who were also making some neat products to a real company. It was such a shock to us, not because we weren't prepared or our product wasn't good, it's really good, but to take a dream and throw it out there and see people respond so fast was just incredible.

What can you tell about your maps?

We wanted to create a starting "kit". As a company, we wanted to offer a lot of different maps, all the normal maps you'd need for typical campaigns first. These maps should cover as many bases as possible, and be reusable in dozens of scenarios. If a GM had our kit, they should be able to handle most of the classic situations your party would encounter. We initially promised 30+ maps, but that quickly expanded. We decided right away that these maps NEEDED to be double-sided and laminated so you can dry-erase on them. And as people jumped onto the kickstarter we just kept adding more and more to it.

We ended up with 114 unique maps, on 58 "pages" since they're double sided, and in all kinds of fantasy genres : 6 floor wizard tower, 8 pages of castle pieces, taverns, colosseum, roads, grasslands, forests, graveyards, a huge church, city streets, sewers, dungeons, caves. We added so much to the pack that it's actually taken us almost a year just to finish the art.

We also wanted to do something totally really special with our maps. Since we're fans and tabletop players ourselves, we approached these maps from a very practical point of view - they HAD to make wonderful layouts, something much nicer than you get from any 'tile system'. Tile maps are far too ugly and constricting. But we also wanted versatility, something that a static map can't do. So we made a hybrid : a series of 11x17 maps that are gorgeous on their own, and connect to form various layouts. We started by assuming that most scenarios will be 17"x22", and you can build it out of any 2 pages, and we designed them to work in pairs so you get gorgeous maps. But we also created common doorways and connecting points, so you could spin your maps, or flip them over, and unlock dozens of potential layouts, and no matter WHAT you make it looks great. You can still do anything you want with them, like use your imagination and pretend that the castle wall is actually the gateway into a city, or the base of the wizard tower is actually a guard post… certainly use these maps anyway you like, but there are so many designs 90% of the time you don't even have to.

What are the best things about your products and what type of players or GMs would you recommend it/them for? 

We've put thousands of hours into our Map project. And these aren't made using ANY form of map-maker, these are all painstakingly made by our lead artist Philip who's incredibly talented, and he made them all manually in illustrator and photoshop using vector art, lighting tricks and multi-layer textures. I'm not trying to boast, but in my opinion these are hands-down the finest maps I've ever seen. They were made with real passion and talent, and a large company can't compete with that. They couldn't pay an artist enough to put the kind of time and energy he has into maps and make any money. If we weren't doing this because we're fans of tabletop roleplaying, and we wanted to give people an incredible product, it just couldn't be done.

For instance, we wanted to offer both Grid Squares and Hexes for our maps. Well, we started with Grid Squares, and when we were done we started converting to Hexes, but we couldn't just replace our Grid with a new Grid. For starters, we raise the contrast on our grid when it's over dark terrain like a forest or inside a building, and we lighten the contrast when it's on light ground, like dirt. This way it's never too hard to see, nor does it just blast out the art underneath. But secondly, with our Hexes, sometimes they just didn't line up with the doorways or objects are no longer clear which tile they are in. So we painstakingly rebuilt each map in Hexes, so when you're playing on a Hex grid, you're getting the BEST experience possible. Nobody else does this, but I insisted on it, and I did a lot of this editing work myself and I'm proud of it.

Of course I recommend these for any GM or player that plays Pathfinder, DnD, Vampire the Masqurade - The Dark Ages, or any other fantasy tabletop system that uses maps and miniatures. These are battle maps, designed at 1" per tile so they fit perfectly with the normal 28mm heroic miniatures or smaller. We even forgot our miniatures one night and used Hero Clix (which are considerably larger) and it was fine, just needed to pay a tad more attention to make sure people are on the proper tile. 

So these are compatible with Pathfinder? In your opinion, what makes a good Pathfinder RPG compatible product? 

Absolutely! Any maps and tokens we make are going to be as multipurpose as possible. I would love people to play 'my' games, but really these are maps for everyone to use however they want. And thats a great second question, one we've talked about a lot actually. The board game we're planning comes with maps and tokens - we could make them highly specific and just for our board game, but we don't WANT to. I WANT my products to be as cross-compatible as possible. I'm actually really tired of custom miniatures and figurines that are so specialized they only have 1 purpose. Like if you made a zombie game, and the zombies were all wearing shirts with your logo on them or something, you couldn't use the zombies in OTHER games, because they would look so out of place.

We want our [fantasy] maps and [fantasy] tokens to work in all sorts of ways. So we're specifically making the maps for our new board game to be right in line with the rest of this map pack. They're new, they're awesome maps, but if you play our board game and grow tired of it, at LEAST all those maps and tokens can be carried forward for all the rest of your tabletop roleplaying needs. It's really kind of sad that people can have a cupboard full of board games, with tokens and maps in them, and still not have any good tokens and maps for when they want to play Pathfinder. So we want to make our products more like a 'sandbox'. There IS a game, and it's going to be a great game, but you can also cannibalize it for parts or bring your other maps and tokens into it as well.

How did you join the company and what is your role or position?

The company is technically just the two of us. Myself, and my lead artist Philip Krog-Sorensen. I'm the founder, creator, and CEO. I take care of pretty much everything except the actual art. For that, I've always relied on Philip, even long before we decided to make this a real profession. We've been friends since high school, and it just fell into place.

Can you give us an exclusive teaser about a future product or Kickstarter?

I'll give you two. I've mentioned our "board game" a few times, and it's not really a board game. It's another hybrid - a dungeon crawl, tabletop RPG, tactics… board game. It's basically a much faster and 'ready-to-go' version of the Arcknight Tabletop Roleplaying game that's been streamlined with a few key objectives. We want the game to be easy to learn, play fast, and use 'cards' but NOT as a card game. Rather, your normal moves and abilities are simply ON cards for your reference and convenience. Your "level" = your # of cards and powers, and the cards really define everything you can do, and keep things simple. You virtually don't need a 'rule book'. Sure, there are some common rules that you just need to know, but everything else is about you and YOUR powers, and they're right there in your fingers. So character creation is a snap, and you jump into a dungeon crawl in minutes instead of an hour (or even hours with some games.) But other than that, the heart of the game is very similar to a full tabletop roleplaying game. You have a persistent hero, you level up, you find treasure, you can play this game over multiple sessions, and when you 'die' you die. It's not really a board game, where you sit down for 20 minutes and maybe you win or lose, it's a real dungeon crawl experience, and it's heavy enough for real tabletop roleplaying gamers. In actuality, since it was designed for this experiences, it's BETTER than using a traditional tabletop RPG and using it as 'just' a dungeon crawl, because so much of the rules aren't designed for that. It's also a fully cooperative "tactics" game, and we've designed it to ride the knife edge between exciting and really hard. If you just stroll into combat with terrible formations, and don't protect your casters… you're going to get eaten alive! It's a hell of a game, we love it immensely. I actually convinced Phil that we should develop it, and he was really skeptical. He saw it (correctly) as a huge delay on our Tabletop engine, and he didn't believe it could be that fun since it's not really his type of game. But as soon as we started on it, he fell in love with it, and he's never doubted the project since.

Also, remember that I said I wanted to make everything a "sandbox"? This is our prime example at work. It comes with new arcknight maps (and they connect to the rest of our maps), it comes with a slew of token/miniatures that can be used in any tabletop RPG and will greatly spice up your gaming; with all the main heroes and monsters from the game. And we're also including anything else you may need so you can use these core pieces to build new campaigns and carry the game in any direction you wish - from bringing your pathfinder adventures to this format, or vice versa.

Second, and this one will be much more of a 'teaser', we've designed a new type of miniature. I can't say much, but I'll tell you that they're beautiful, using hand-drawn art from a new artist we've sub-contracted, and they aren't paper craft. These are pre-produced you won't have to do anything to build them except pop them in a reusable base, and we have a special process that makes these incredibly cheap. They won't 'replace' your normal 3d miniatures in any way; people love their miniatures and we're not trying to compete in this front. But what we can do with these is something really really unique; we can make tons of miniatures to supplement your gaming experience for everything else you wish you had miniatures for - packs of wolves, bears, dozens of villagers and elementals and all the things you'd love to have on your table - things that would potentially cost $6-8 a piece if they were traditional minis - and you can put them right alongside your normal miniatures for pennies. They'll also pack up nice and easy for shipping anywhere in the world. We're SO excited for this project, and we could potentially launch this within the next month. We're just waiting on a supplier - and without this the project has been on hold for months, but they're coming, and I promise you it's gonna be big.

What are the current goals for your company? What are the biggest challenges?

We're actually in the middle of a much smaller Kickstarter right now. Just something fun and casual that we think is great, and caters more for the Virtual Tabletop crowd. You can check out the kickstarter here: 

But in a nutshell - in order to use online VTT's like Roll20 or Fantasygrounds you need "Tokens" for all your units. Heroes, monsters, that sorta thing, and they need to be formatted and transparent, and the right size, or they just look terrible. You can buy them from online marketplaces, but it's hard to find good ones, or get much bang for your buck. So we introduced a HUGE line, just staggering - probably going to end up around 120 heroes and 200+ NPCs, and we're only charging $2. It's kind of an experiment, it's a digital format in a digital world, so what's the point of charging more than the absolute minimum? We're trying to incentivize people to say "2 bucks? Thats it?" and potentially get thousands of backers. We'll see how it goes. There's not much exposure, and the style is a little chibi. But if you need tokens, they are exactly what you need and are so cheap compared to any other option out there. Most packs online sell for $4.99 and you get like 30 tokens. So this is us stomping into this market and trying to shake things up. Plus they're vector, so even if we make nothing on the project, it won't take Phil THAT long to complete it.

The challenge with this one is actually just getting people to see it, and to absorb what they're seeing - how good of a deal it is. People go "ehh" and they move on, which is strange to me, since these are really really cool. Even if you just ended up using a few of them and printing them on your home character sheets or using the art as demo art for a game you're making, it's WORTH $2. You'll have this art for the rest of your lives, hundreds of little heroes. So that's hard, it's advertising I guess, how do you show it to people and not make them think 'ohh… it's some dumb kickstarter, I'm going to down vote that.' When it's really much more than that, it's just ALSO 2 bucks. When every other kickstarter has their little "$1 - we'll give you our thanks!" tier, we've come along and said "Naw, we'll just give you everything…" I mean I want people to have these, really, they might as well be free, it's just that I need to compensate my artist somehow.

How do you generally find new freelancers to work for you? What is the application process like?

To date, I've probably hired ~10 individual freelance artists, and 1 cartographer. In each case, I had a specific need, and I basically went to deviant art and just started looking for artists that were impressive, and sent them big emails explaining what we were looking for, what our contract could be, and how little I was going to pay them. We were so small when I started doing this, the 'pitch' was that they could sketch these pieces in relatively small amounts of time, whenever they're board, and between the rest of their work. We couldn't pay much, but it would actually be fun work, and our demands were very small. I got a lot of rejections - people saying they couldn't possibly work for what I was suggesting. It was disheartening for sure. In reality, if the artist was GOOD at a fast, sketchy style, he could completely perhaps 4-5 of these mockup pieces in an hour, and make upwards of $100… you know in theory. And I was only messaging VERY good artists, those I felt were so skilled that even if they "whip out" some quick art, it's gonna be stylish and exactly what I wanted.
Well, eventually I actually hit the jackpot. I had a couple people say "you know what, this project sounds rad and I'm in." in most of these cases they could only do a few pieces here or there, but my pitch worked - they would do them on their free time and I'd pay for whatever they submitted, hands down. If we didn't like it, we just wouldn't hire them for more pieces, but they were guaranteed a flat pay 'per piece'. And a couple of these guys gave me just stunning works, I was so happy with them. 
Now that we're a little farther along, I've started building a little repertoire of talented freelancers. As I come up with new projects, I can now email them more specifically (and with a better budget) and say 'hey, would you like to take this on?' and I've had great success keeping artists for other projects.

What are the main requirements for a freelancer to work for you? What other skills and/or experience are useful?

They need to be good! Haha. Basically, Philip and I have a lot of talents covered just between the two of us, and we're putting out quality products. So we only really have a "need" for people who have talents we DON'T have. For instance, I wanted a world map for a flash game I'm developing, and it wasn't really Phil's thing - plus he's busy with other projects - so I went to the cartographer's guild and found an amazing cartographer. We're planning on making a new collaboration really soon.

Can you describe a typical assignment you give to new freelancers? What steps does the process typically include from the freelancer's point of view?

First I'll will say that we're looking for a skilled artist who's comfortable with illustrator to 'pass the torch' on our maps project. We want to make a LOT more of these, but I need Philip working on new projects, so when the right person comes along there's a really neat job waiting. It's a lot of process-work, it's not particularly hard, and you're mostly just regurgitating work that Phil has already laid the groundwork for.

Second, for the freelance artists and people on Odesk I've hired, I try to do everything on a 'per piece' basis. A company with more cash-flow can probably handle the normalcy of a regular paycheck, but we have to be more frugal than that. If some artist claims he did 50 hours of work and delivers half of what I'd 'expect', and wants to bill me for his time, I can't accept that. I have no real way to know if he's lying about his hours, and he has no confidence that a startup company will pay him a full commission upon completion. So as I said before, we always give them ground rules, and set a flat price for the initial (small) piece that's paid in full whether it's good or bad. If it's bad we just don't continue working together, and if it's good we renegotiate. You have to build trust and rapport first.

What advice would you give to aspiring freelancers?
Also, abandon everything you learned in art school. Seriously, I know this hurts to hear, but you're entering a dynamic business environment where everyone wants a specific thing from you. You should be proving that you have a variety of good skills, but whoever hires you wants something specific and they'll likely train you or show you HOW they want it. Not for Arcknight, but for another reason I happened to be looking through art resumes, and we were all getting frustrated at how cookie-cutter they were. Everyone is being "taught" how to be an artist, and that's nonsense. Just keep doing it. Its just practice and commitment. One of the most annoying habits is when you're trying to get an artist to 'let go' of the 'rules' they were taught. I worked as a sort-of editor for a few years in an art department, and I remember one time an artist right out of school told us 'we're not allowed to put a glow on a glow in illustrator, "because" a professor taught her.' Except we had literally done that trick for YEARS and it saves gobs of time.

In your opinion, what are the most important things to consider when starting a Kickstarter]?

  1. You won't make money. Eventually you CAN make money, but you're putting the cart before the horse if you want this to be your million dollar business.
  2. Stop making crap. Especially in the digital download / pdf only department. We've got enough black and white line art. And
  3. If you make a LOT of money on kickstarter with a good idea, I cannot stress enough that a few marginal mistakes can consume all of that money, even if it's staggeringly large, and you will fail the deliver your kickstarter - And that's because kickstarter is "Per Backer". If you were planning to make $20 "per backer" and you have 1 million backers, thats 20 million dollars, right? Well, when your shipping is 10% more costly than you thought, labor is 20% more involved than you thought (ESPECIALLY if you figured you'd do it all yourself, and now you have 1 MILLION copies to make) or you forget that you're going to be dinged 2-3 times for 5% KS fee and 5% amazon transfer fee and then taxed on income… Oh… but you promised a new stretch goal every 50k and now you have 20 stretch goals…. You are going to make NOTHING and still be sitting on 1 million products promised. And this is a chain reaction, when people see a $1,000,000 KS and it seems so glamorous, but it's really a trap. Do NOT plan on making money on your kickstarter, really. If you get out of it with a profit, that's great, but really it's just to get momentum and get you some initial backers, you won't make any money. We had a 3500% Kickstarter, that means a lot of stretch goals, which means the final packs are grossly underpriced. We didn't make any money, really. And we did this knowingly, because we wanted our name out there, but we also didn't LOSE money. I see some of these projects with people promising shirts and pins and new formats and dice, and everything under the son, half a dozen DIFFERENT products as stretch goals on a product they're making… and it's all going to collapse and all those backers are frankly being robbed. It's unprofessional, and as a small-time developer like myself, I sure wish you guys would have that extra $100 bucks in your pockets so you can back something that's real.
What skills, tools or other resources do you consider to be the most important in running a Kickstarter?

There are a few key things that I benefit from, that were more by chance than anything else, and if they didn't line up I couldn't be where I am today. I have access to friends who are incredibly talented, and I collaborate with them and use them to better our products and help me play test. And I'm very fortunate to have a close personal connection to a printing company to handle our production. I've often thought "if this didn't line up this way, I couldn't DO this." But after many times coming back to this point, I have to reject it. Sure, it might not have been THESE benefits that were available, but really I'm tapping into the resources of those around me, and that came from having friendships and bonding with people, and collaborating. So maybe in a different world, I wouldn't have a friend who's an artist, but instead had a friend who's a game coder? My business may ch who was a friend? Or even if I had neither, who's saying I couldn't find one? The point is to keep your eyes open for young talent and work together. Trade skills, be passionate, and it WILL work.

What do you find most rewarding about running a Kickstarter? What about least rewarding?

I'm still at that stage where every sale makes me go "YES!". This isn't a real income yet, I still have a full-time day job that I can't justify leaving until we're bigger. So everything is exciting and terrifying. If I "think" I'm ready to make this a full time job and I'm wrong, there are a lot of people depending on me who are going to be hurt. So that's just something you have to deal with, and it's scary. But that's also the best feeling in the world, dreaming about an idea for a long time and watching it materialize is just incredible.

Least rewarding? Well that would be Taxes / regulations, etc. Im in California, so it sucks twice. Not just the 'rate' really, but the concept that you're only allowed to make money under certain conditions, or you have to "prove" that you're not a criminal, while begin treated like a criminal. I love it here, geographically, its great weather and I've been here all my life, but I'm in the very unfortunate position of trying to start a new business in a very broken state. It may not seem that daunting to an outsider, but regulations on a business are just onerous, ESPECIALLY when you're tiny and $200 here and $60 there is crippling. Things like filing and proving that you're a 'real' business by paying fake newspapers to publish your name "in writing" when were in a digital era.  Or "proving" to the state where I purchase the paper I'm printing on, because I may not have paid my proper sales taxes. Or the fact that as a startup business I can't "try" to create or sell a product without a permit, developing that product could take years, and after 1 year of no reported sales they yank your permit. Just shit that nobody should have to deal with. This is 'Murrca right? If I can produce something and sell it, the government should just say "woohoo!" and take a flat % off the top and leave me the hell alone to go sell more. Instead I have probably spent as much time keeping exquisite records to protect myself as I have actually producing work. And that's not even to MENTION that if I wasn't taxed as much, I'd have the expendable income to hire more people and get booming far faster, which would mean more taxes to the government.

Is there any further advice you would give to someone interested in running a Kickstarter?

Enjoy it! Really, even if my business crashed and burned, as long as I could financially recover I wouldn't have regretted it. That first KS was one of the most exciting times of my life, and every time I play Tabletop now I'm playing on amazing maps. So even if it's just this one thing, that thing is ours, and it can't get taken away.

No comments :

Post a Comment

A Sword for Hire