Games, Art, and Kickstarter!
There are a few things that I really love to do: design board games, play video games, and drink craft beer. So naturally when I learned that another board game designer with a background in the video game industry moved into my town, I took him out to the local beer hall to find out more about him!
Greg Grimsby is an Assistant Professor in Computer Game Design at George Mason University with over 20 years of experience in computer game development, including 6 years as Art Director for Electronic Arts. His board game, Alien Petshop, is currently on Kickstarter, and the following is our conversation:
Michael Melkonian: I love talking about someone's gaming history to get a better idea of who they are, so let's take a trip back in time. Pick some point in the 1990s, what's Greg playing? What's plugged in under the TV? Has he even thought about working in the industry yet? Where is he in his development as an artist?
Greg Grimsby: 1990’s Greg was playing DooM, released in 1993. So I had a PC that I used for gaming and school work. I wanted to be a comic book illustrator and that’s what I focused on in undergrad. I had no clue about getting into game design then, even though I had already written 2 RPGs (not published). I also started making fan levels for DooM and replacing graphics in the game. But back then I had not connected the dots yet. I had a BFA in painting in drawing, but had no job making art.
MM: Did tabletop games play an equally important role to video games in your life as you were developing both as a player and as an industry professional, or did get into tabletop games later on? If so what got you into them?
GG: I’m too old. Monopoly was the board game in my formative years. RPGs were WAY more important to my role as a game artists and wannabe designer back then. I would not really get into modern board games until, um, there were any.
MM: My community has heard this story a hundred times, but I wasn't really into playing board games outside of mainstream titles like Life or Monopoly until I had a chance encounter with Arkham Horror. The combination of a heavy emphasis on theme, gorgeous artwork, the option to play solo, and playing as unique characters with names, biographies, and personal abilities tapped into the very same reason I was interested in video games in the first place.
GG: I think Betrayal at House on the Hill was the first modern BG I played that got me hooked. That was first edition back around 2006-7 when I first played it.
MM: Arkham Horror has probably shaped my philosophy on design more than any other game I can think of. While on the surface there seems to be little commonality between Dance Card! and Arkham, many of the features that I mentioned earlier that drew me to that game are present in Dance Card! What tabletop game or games had a similar effect on you, if any?
GG: I think Magic the gathering affects any designer who played it heavily. Man it still influences card graphic design SO MUCH. The idea of cards doing special things is in all three of my most developed games.
MM: What was it like to transition from being a fan to being a professional who works in the industry? Were there things that you learned to appreciate more once you were behind the scenes? On the flip side, were there any aspects to games or the industry that you romanticized as a kid that were maybe diminished for you once you got to see how the sausage was made, so to speak?
GG: I was glad to have a job and one that I loved. I started in 1996 at Kesmai studios doing banner ads. After a few months the game design team snagged me to do pixel art for Legends of Kesmai. I don’t think I was as self-aware of my being in the industry at that time. I did not ‘other’ folks outside of the games business. I was just a young man doing cool art. Going into it, I really had not idea how game teams functioned or were structured. I would say I really appreciated and admired my fellow artists who were more senior. I REALLY wanted to learn and be as good or better than them. As to the sausage making, since I didn’t want to do game design as a kid I didn’t really have any sense of the curtain being pulled back once I was in. I think most folks outside of games don’t know how much work it takes to make games, and how many specialized skillsets are involved.
MM: The closest I ever came to working on a video game was being part of a focus group for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which was fun. I got to visit Naughty Dog and pose with the Jak and Daxter statue by the entrance. That's my entire resume.
GG: YES! I do remember when I first visited Epic games. I so wanted to work there. Even as a Kesmai employee I had ambitions.
MM: I think a lot about the similarities and differences between board games and video games, how they're designed, and what kinds of experiences they are better at presenting to their audiences. I'm curious what you think of that, as someone who's actually worked in the video game industry and designed a board game. For me, the difference is in "zoomed in" experiences versus "zoomed out" experiences. Video games are perfectly suited for character-based scenarios where players become intimate with specific, well-defined characters, whereas table top games tend to be "zoomed-out" experiences where players control units on a map, or manage resources, while not really playing a specific character. Of course there are examples of the opposite, and I'd say that something like Age of Empires or Warcraft III have a lot in common with board games, while something like TIME Stories or even Arkham Horror feel more "video-gamey" in their presentation, largely because of their focus on individual characters.
GG: There is a HUGE variety in digital games, based on the platforms. AAA console/pc games are very different than mobile games, or Facebook games. Even within digital games and then to bring in board games, we have to talk about the level of abstraction. That is some of what you refer to as ‘zoom’. Board games by necessity tend to be more abstract. We represent health with cubes or counters. We roll dice instead of hitting A at just the right moment or at the right pixel on the screen. By necessity board games use components and mechanisms as stand-ins, or proxies, for the things we care about in games. Immersion and details are not board games’ forte.
MM: Abstraction is definitely an important factor. It's not exactly the same as the "zoom in/out" factor mentioned, but it's a big part of it.
GG: Digital games tend to be about immersion, and they excel at it, ESPECIALLY in VR. Digital games can use sight and sound, and have a dynamic, changing ruleset, game world, and UI. Mobile puzzle games tend to feel more like board games in their mechanisms and abstraction. That is why digital versions of board games tend to do well on mobile. Ticket to Ride, Catan, etc… Mobile games are not about immersion or persistent world building. But beyond abstraction, there is the social context and the difference between the mediums. Board games are about what I can the “social puzzle”. Your enjoyment comes from tackling that puzzle with or against other players. Those interactions within the closed system of the game are part of the experience. A good designer designs for these interactions, its not just the mechanistic puzzle. Aside from solo board games, board games are either a collaborative puzzle or a competitive one. I refer to these as puzzles because there is a solution we are moving towards, with many pieces and small decisions that we make as we attempt to understand the game state and how to best ‘solve it’.
MM: Do you feel like your background of working on video games affected how you approach table top game design?
GG: I would say as an artist first, designer second AND from my background in digital games, that immersion and theme are very important to me. Theme is important to me. The experience is SO critical as is designing for moments.
MM: Theme is central to what we do at Cardboard Console, so I relate to what you're saying. One of the ways to immerse players in your game world is with high quality artwork. I had to commission a lot of art for Dance Card!, and while I love all of the artists I work with, I am a little jealous that you were able to do your own artwork. What were the benefits but also challenges of that?
GG: I always feel a little bad acknowledging the advantage of doing my own art. It really is unfair. There is a challenge there though in that my attention is split between the design and the visuals. The biggest challenge is making sure I don’t waste my time on art before a mechanism or content has been locked down. Its VERY easy for me to start drawing when I should be researching and playtesting. Being aware of this and using reflective-practice helps me to stay focused on what truly needs to be done at each stage in the design. Another disadvantage is that I cannot work in all styles. There are artists doing amazing work out there that I cannot do. By doing my own art, I am limited to the styles that can work within.
To speak of some of the unexpected advantages, as the designer I know what I am tying to do with the game visually and mechanistically. So doing the graphic design work is just an extension of the game design work. When I think of a rule or mechanism, I am already thinking how to present that information to the player.
MM: Alien Petshop will be your first published board game, and it's currently up on Kickstarter. Tell me a little about your experience with Kickstarter, if it's something you would pursue again, and also sell the readers on what Alien Petshop is and why they should be interested.
GG: Kickstarter as a crowdfunding platform is great. Self-publishing however is so much work, and its not creative work. Its a lot of research and emailing and worrying.
MM: You're telling me. No one realizes how much work it is until they do it themselves. It can be incredibly overwhelming. It was too late for me to talk you out of doing it!
GG: Hah, I would and will do it again because I have invested this time into learning the ropes. For the next game I already have this domain of knowledge. As for the game itself, Alien Petshop is a engine building game for 2-4 players who each run their own cosmic petshop filled with cute and mildly dangerous pets. Gather, care for, and even mutate alien critters to meet the needs of your customers. Manage your dice workers and the chaos to run the very best Alien Petshop!
MM: As someone who has very recently gone through the process of fulfilling and distributing a Kickstarter-funded game, I'm excited to follow up with you on how your experience plays out!
I want to give a big thanks to Greg for taking the time out to have this conversation. Alien Petshop is live on Kickstarter right now!
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