Interview Date: 11/12/2017
Ross Przybylski is a man with a story in his heart, and a game to share with the world. A former developer for Electronic Arts, Przybylski recently set out to forge his own path in the gaming industry as an indie. He founded the studio D20 Studios, and set out to make the game of his dreams. Summoners Fate aims to blend the strategy of tactical RPGs and collectible card games into a frantic, fast-paced adventure.
To produce the title, Przybylski turned to the passion of gamers across the globe through Kickstarter. On October 23, the campaign launched, with a funding goal of $10,000.
We had a chance to talk with the man, himself about the project, as well as his inspirations, and experiences through running the campaign.
A huge thanks to Mr. Przybylski for sitting with us for this interview!
Anime Herald: Where did this passion to make games come from?
Ross Przybylski: My passion for games started when I was about 4 years old watching and playing games with my older brothers on the Intellivision. In particular, I used to watch my oldest brother play roleplaying games like Advanced D&D and Tower of Doom. I didn’t see the two of them often, maybe about once a week since they lived with their mom an hour away (we share the same father) and it was the thing I always looked forward to as a kid, seeing my older bros and bonding with them over the games.
I think my passion for “making” is an innate quality, and I chose games because I felt a connection to people I cared about playing games, and I wanted to share that connection and passion with others. I’d make board games as a kid and design levels in games like Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, Warcraft and Starcraft. My son was born with it, too. He’s 6 now, but he’s been designing his own game levels since he was about 2 (Geometry Dash on the iPad, then Battle Block Theater and Minecraft as soon as his hands were big enough to hold a control).
Anime Herald: $20 seems to be coming up unusually often in regards to Kickstarter. In terms of game donations, the average donation was $20. In addition, you are looking to raise 10K, and expect to put in 400-600 hours on your Kickstarter campaign, or roughly an average of $20 per-hour invested in the campaign. Do you think that’s a reasonable expectation?
Ross Przybylski: Well, I should probably clarify something from my video. The 400-600 hours I mention in my Kickstarter tips video is the time put into the 30 days leading up to the Kickstarter. Running the campaign, my wife and I are each spending about 12 hours a day every day on average, so add another 600+ hours on top of that. I’d say we’re maybe making about $8 an hour for our time invested. But that’s not what makes this the hardest money I’ve ever worked for. To get to this point, I’ve invested over 10K hours on the project and taken considerable personal risk investing our savings into our production costs while making no income for a year and half. With the Kickstarter live, I’m putting the project out there and asking the world in no small way – was this worth it? Do you care about playing this game as much as I care about making it?
What makes it hard is the emotional tension. Kelly and I are trying to find reason in the numbers we’re seeing so far and decide whether it means people care and believe in us or they are saying to us that we’ve made a huge mistake.
Anime Herald: Is the Kickstarter campaign as much about building the brand as it is about raising the money?
Ross Przybylski: Our Kickstarter is about telling a story. The absolute hardest thing for an indie to achieve is not making a game, but getting people to notice it and to care about it. Hundreds of games are released every day. Being really good isn’t good enough. The game has to be exceptional. And it needs a story people care about. The money we are asking for by no means pays for our development costs – but it helps us take our game to the next level and it gets other people invested in the project with us. Investment is powerful – even if its a dollar. When you give something to a project, you care about it and you want it to succeed. You champion it. You defend it.
For $500, you can be immortalized forever as a playable character. For $5000, you can own a card that no one else in the history of the game will ever have. I’m not on Kickstarter for pre-sales, I’m here to make lifelong relationships with our players. (Editor’s Note: As of the writing of this article, no one has stepped up to offer $5,000, but one person has volunteered for the $2,000 tier, so perhaps it isn’t as far-fetched as I initially presumed.)
Anime Herald: “I expect our Kickstarter will be the hardest money I’ve ever worked for in my life.” -Ross Przybylski
Being that’s the case going in, can you give a breakdown of the cost/benefit analysis and why you choose to use Kickstarter?
Ross Przybylski: This is a tough question, because on paper, Kickstarter makes absolutely no sense for us. If I wanted to make money, I would have stayed working at EA. Kickstarter’s value is intangible. It’s intangible in the same way that making an indie game instead of working in AAA is intangible. In both cases, I can make money. In both case, I can make games. The difference is how I’m raising money and how I’m making games. With Kickstarter, with indie, my whole heart is in this and the return is the impact and joy my work brings to people. It’s not practical, it’s madness. But life is short and precious, and this is what my heart is calling me to do.
Anime Herald: What is your target length of the single player campaign?
Ross Przybylski: Endless. This is not a cop-out answer. I’m dead serious. I didn’t make the sacrifices I’ve made to bet everything on black by shipping this game and moving onto the next. The hardest part for indies is building an audience and I intend to engage every player that’s joined our community so they stay with us. I’m making more than a game, I’m building a platform for continuous content. D&D never ends – there’s always a new adventure to be had – and with the design and tech I’ve created, we’ll be using procedural generation and hand crafted scenarios to deliver new adventures constantly. We’re demonstrating this commitment to our players already with our unique daily updates.
Anime Herald: Are there enemy characters and a full narrative, along with a final boss?
Ross Przybylski: Summoners Fate won’t have dialog or a final boss, but it will have story and bosses. Engagement on mobile is so rapid that most players will quit and move on before they read a paragraph. What we’ve opted for is light story fragments (80-150 characters) of text that precludes a battle and is so quick to absorb that you’ve read it almost as fast as you can tap to dismiss it.
The fragments are designed to provide atmosphere that compliment the level and subtle hints about what is happening with the story:
“The cackle of bones blocked her path.”
“In the dark corridor that led deeper into the crypt, the belch of a mighty orc stung her nostrils”
“Wearing the familiar armor of her father’s army, Sylvia remembered their strong hands training her as a child.”
Our aim is for the fragments and gameplay to act as catalysts for the player’s own imagination to derive what the story is about. If I were to give a design target for what we hope to achieve, I’d pick a platformer indie game called Braid. There’s virtually no text, but that game has one of the most powerful stories because of how it intertwines directly with what the player is doing. It’s so powerful that there are forums dedicated to discussing what it’s about.
It’s like my point earlier on the Kickstarter about giving the player a chance to invest. If I tell you what the story is, it’s not your story. If I give you pieces and let you explore, you invest and the story becomes yours.
Anime Herald: Dead Cells struggled to find a balance where players wouldn’t be incentivized to just use bows. Are you concerned that players will find the optimal strategy and eschew the variety of the game?
Ross Przybylski: It’s on my mind and I expect players to exploit balance. I’m aiming to overcome these challenges by collaborating with players in early testing. As an optimist, when I want to encourage players to try other things, I lean towards making the other things more awesome rather than take away from the thing they already love. For example, instead of limiting the number arrows, I would make it so that melee weapons are more effective at bashing through armor. Instead of nerfing fireball damage, offer a counter spell or reflect damage spell.
Anime Herald: Why are you allowing us to be so mean to squirrels?
Ross Przybylski: Haha! I was actually chatting about this recently with one of our longtime players from Hero Mages, Adam Walter, who helped us with playtesting the prototype and designed the “Squirrel Overrun” deck. Every game needs its own cute animal mascot he said. Ours is squirrels. Aside from that, I often use squirrels in memory of my dad. He had a strong hate/love relationship with squirrels. He hated them because they ate his birdseed, but then some part of him loved squirrels because he started decorating the house with them. He passed away, suddenly, just before I left EA and started this whole thing. When I say life is short and precious, I always think of this. No one should ever wait to do what they want to do in their life because it could be over tomorrow. That was a gift he left me.
Anime Herald: You’ve said your business plan is to make the game FTP and sell cards. However, you’ve also said that you don’t want the game to be pay to win. Given that, what do you see as the incentive for players to buy cards if they don’t need them for competitive reasons?
Ross Przybylski: One of my favorite games is Warhammer 40K tabletop. It’s entirely possible to play and win at this game without every buying beyond your starter army. But it is so much fun playing with different characters that I’ve purchased 5 display cases worth of miniatures. Winning alone is not what’s fun about tactical strategy games. It’s the creativity of how you win. It’s the excitement of what your opponent comes up with for their strategy. It’s learning something new, win or lose. Diversity and trying out new play styles – that’s the incentive.
Anime Herald: How much of the music for the game will be produced by Albert Fernández?
Ross Przybylski: I haven’t decided this yet, but there’s a high likelihood we’ll be working with Albert and potentially other composers from our music competition as well. Those who participated were very keen to recognize that the competition was about more than winning the prize for the trailer. I only choose to work with individuals that are willing to take some risk and put effort up front because that’s what is required of myself and my team every day to make this game happen.
Anime Herald: This is a bit more general, can you talk about what player progression feels like during the game? Do any of the characters level up, or are they always the same power level that they started as?
Ross Przybylski: As you explore and complete adventures, you’ll collect cards. Cards will enable you to build different teams and devise new strategies. The progression is driven by real growth in the player learning how to use cards together effectively, not artificial systems. Characters won’t level up and return to their same power after a dungeon is completed. While exploring a dungeon, you engage in a series of battles. Throughout the adventure, your characters and their states, weapon and armor (equipped via cards in your deck) carry over from room to room. There is a strategic choice about what you choose to bring on an adventure and when you choose to use it.
Anime Herald: How does casting spells work? Do you have a mana pool? Or can you cast one spell a turn? Or something else?
Ross Przybylski: It’s a mana system. Cards cost between 0-5 mana to cast. The player generates 3 mana per turn and can store up to 5 mana. You can cast as many spells as you have in your hand and have the mana for. Decks are currently sized at 20 cards. The player has a hand of 3 cards and you draw back to 3 cards at the start of each turn. Discarding is only allowed if a card cannot be played due to targeting (not having enough mana is not eligible for discard).
We have a Discard mechanic for cards with specialized targets. For example, Animal Overrun gives all animals a boost. If you don’t have any animals on the board to use it, you can discard it instead and draw an animal card.
Anime Herald: The gravity combo system: Is it something the AI takes advantage of as well?
Ross Przybylski: Yes. The AI has a pseudo learning capability through optimized permutation simulations. This enables our AI to naturally recognize card combinations and strategies, such as the combo system, and make effective moves appropriate for the deck it’s playing. It’s not foolproof, and its permutations are limited to the context of its own turn and what it has available and predicts the opponent has. It does not have a “self-awareness” of the deck its using like a player, but it’s fast, effective and fun to play against.
If you’re curious about how I made the AI, I share the methods I used to create it in a talk I did for our local developer group that you can watch on my Youtube channel, GameDevChats: https://youtu.be/QUjtDdKM6oc
Anime Herald: What games did you love growing up? Were these also the games that influenced your decision to enter the industry?
Ross Przybylski: D&D, Tower of Doom, MtG, Legend of Zelda, Warhammer, Warcraft, Starcraft, and more. Yes.
Brief follow-up interview:
Anime Herald: Your Kickstarter has now been funded. Elation? Or is your nose still stuck to the grindstone?
Ross Przybylski: When it happened, it was certainly a moment of elation and emotional relief for Kelly and me. We have several awesome stretch goals planned, and with time on the clock, we’re still at it working hard.
Update: In an unfortunate turn of events, we discovered the hard way this morning that it’s possible to go below funding after hitting your goal. A handful of large-amount supporters canceled their pledges without explanation. We suspect these folks were not serious to begin with, and while it was emotionally devastating to break this news to our real supporters, we maintain our resolve and will work our hardest to ensure the success of this project and the release of the game. (Author’s Note: The Kickstarter is again fully funded, but I suppose that is still subject to change)
Anime Herald: Has the response been what you’ve hoped for in terms of engagement with your players? You were concerned the world might reject Summoner’s Fate, and that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Ross Przybylski: From the beginning, our biggest challenge has been reaching our audience. We have no doubts about the quality of our game or whether fans of the tactics/CCG genres will love it. The Kickstarter has certainly validated this assumption, with our average pledge over $125. This is truly remarkable considering we aren’t pre-selling folks a product, we’re promising a platform of free entertainment.
Those who have supported us are quickly becoming die-hard fans, and that is what we had hoped for. We need to reach more fans, no doubt, and every day we’re trying something new to find our audience and help them discover Summoners Fate.
Anime Herald: You talk about building lifelong relationships with your players. You also noted that your goal is for the single player campaign to be “Endless”. What do you expect the game to be like for the players past hour 10? Hour 50?
Ross Przybylski: Players are known to play the same Minecraft world for thousands of hours. Minecraft does this with content consisting of thousands of repeated blocks and a simple set of rules for interacting with those blocks. It works because the game offers players uncapped freedom to explore and express themselves. The experience of Summoners Fate will work in a similar way by using a raw construct of loose narratives to explore an endless world and cards (building blocks) that can be configured in countless permutations to express the player’s creativity.
Summoners Fate is a game with very deep mechanics (by virtue of the genres it encompasses) but my goal is to open these genres in an accessible way, both to new players of the genre as well as returning veterans who don’t have a lot of time and want to be entertained immediately. I will be spending considerable time ensuring the first several hours of the game invite players at a gradual pace and give them a chance to explore and experience the various mechanics that make Summoners Fate original and exciting. 50 hours into the game, players will be mastering what they’ve learned, solving tougher challenges that require mastery of these mechanics with ingenuity and unexpected card combinations. Hardcore players will also have the pleasure of tracking down cryptic clues to discover hidden areas and find Easter eggs. Ever read “Ready Player One?”
(Author’s Note: I have. Long story short:
Anime Herald: I’m somewhat familiar with the Warhammer business model. In most cases, they look for a small-to-medium investment from their players. However, online games are known for having a much more important high-end. From the article on EA:
“the reason is that EA and those big publishers in general only care about the highest return on investment. They don’t actually care about what the players want, they care about what the players will pay for.”
How will Summoner’s Fate avoid the issues that have plagued other Freemium games (Skinner Box Manipulation, reliance on a few big spenders)?
Ross Przybylski: Having myself worked at EA for nearly four years in the mobile industry, I am very familiar with the business mindset driving strategic decisions. If you think Summoners Fate will be anything like this, please consider this: I left. I’d said earlier that there are much better ways to make money. I left my very well paying job with awesome benefits at EA to make this game. Kelly and I quite literally risked everything we have saved and can give of ourselves to do this. There are more powerful things to strive for in life than money. For us, building this game and the positive community around it, creating a haven for fans of these genres to reconnect and share fun experiences – in any small bit that this helps make the world a more enjoyable place to be – that is something we are both proud to spend our lives doing.
We’re not fool-hearted or saying we could possibly survive as a family on no money, but our motivations are certainly not to exploit players with psychology gimmicks so that we can maximize return on our investment. I’ve considered our business model carefully. In order to sustain us, we need a DAU (daily active users or players logging in to play each day) of 11.5K. An audience of this size wouldn’t even pay the facility operating costs at a AAA studio, let along the developer salaries and certainly not hit any executive profit goals. But, we’re not a AAA studio, we’re a small indie team, and we have developed some pretty innovative tech that will enable us to service our game at operating costs unheard of in the industry (see my AAA Production Pipeline for Indies video – and yes, I want to make this open source when the project is released because I want more indies making game studios).
To more directly answer your question, my laser focused answer is “exceptional service”. When players are treated as individuals and not just another number, the most amazing thing happens: they trust you! I can’t tell you how many games or products I’ve invested in, only to be turned away by the way I was treated as a customer. Kelly and I personally respond to each of or players; that’s how I ran Hero Mages and that’s why that game was a success – because of its community and how players felt they were being treated. It’s this simple: hear players’ concerns, respect them, and treat them like individuals and they will love you. I don’t understand why this is so hard for large companies to figure out.
Anime Herald: Final question: Who wins in a fight: A squirrel or a dragon?
Ross Przybylski: That depends on a multitude of cofactors specific to the tactical situation and strategic configuration of the decks players have carefully constructed: has the squirrel been enchanted multiple times with animal growth, has the dragon been afflicted with a curse of squirrel aversion, is there an ample supply of nuts stored for winter?
Honestly, Seth, you’ll have to play the game and find out. I’ll be waiting for you on the battlefield – are you going to play the squirrel or dragon deck? (Author’s Note: Nuts!)