One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers and publishers in the UK gaming scene. To this end I’m establishing a new series of articles where I interview various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it. 

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Thomas Pike is the co-designer of Escape the Dark Castle the first game from new publisher Themeborne. It’s a deeply thematic game pulling on the nostalgia for computer RPGs and Choose your Own Adventure books that many folk have, including myself, and I think it’s great. Thomas was kind enough to answer some questions for me speaking to how he has found running his first Kickstarter, plans for the future and getting your game into general retail.

You’re towards the end of the journey for ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ what has that been like for you as a first-time designer and for the company in general?

Personally, it’s been exhausting! No, honestly it’s been fantastic and completely life changing. There seems to be something happening every day now which is the kind of thing you dream about – whether it’s nice reviews from people you’ve never met who’ve played the game, or compliments from bigger publishers you respect. Even just seeing the finished product on the table at the Themeborne studio each morning, you think, “Wow, we made that!”. This is the result of years of hard work and investing every penny I had into a project I believed in, so it feels great to see it finally coming to fruition. That said, it has completely consumed my life for past 2 years and that looks set to continue – nothing good comes easy.

For the company, it’s a very solid start. We are off the ground and our first game is about to hit the market. In a way we can say, ‘Mission Complete’. But again, it’s only fair to admit it hasn’t been without challenges – from a typhoon knocking out power to our factory, to customs deciding our container needed a special inspection. We’ve also made some mistakes, and we’ve learned a lot. But, as the saying goes, ‘we do a lot with a little’ here at Themeborne and all things considered we can be very proud of where we are. The next steps are very exciting indeed.

What has been the most difficult thing for you to deal with during the course of the campaign? Is there anything you wish you knew at the start of the Kickstarter campaign that you found out during the course of it and the subsequent months?

The most difficult thing is perhaps just the overall amount of work required to run a good campaign. You don’t just throw your game up on Kickstarter and sit back as the money rolls in. It starts a year or so before you go live, and it continues for another year after your campaign ends. During the campaign itself, and no matter how much people warned me beforehand, I was not prepared for how demanding the process would be – just keeping on top of it all. If you think about it, you are going from zero to running a games publisher in the space of a month. Well, in the space of a day really – the moment that page goes live you are publicly responsible for your game, your brand, your company’s reputation. That stuff really matters and can make or break new companies.

Behind the scenes, there was something urgent and important to do every single day – big decisions to make under pressure that ordinarily you would much rather take more time over. It all happens very quickly, and small mistakes can really blow up fast. We were not perfect by any means, but the feedback seems to be that we ran a good Kickstarter. I am especially proud of the amazing community that built up around this game, our backers really saw us through.

Alongside delivering to backers you are ramping up to a retail release. Was it always your intention to make sure the game could reach people outside of the Kickstarter? What is your opinion of games that are effectively Kickstarter exclusive?

We always planned for this game to have a retail release. We knew our Kickstarter was just the beginning, that the ‘standard edition’ of Escape the Dark Castle is what would go on to represent the long-term future of this game, this range, and this publisher – it had to be excellent in its own right. When the Kickstarter first launched, there weren’t really that many stretch goals because the game was already done, already so complete – the best we could possibly make it. So, while the Kickstarter-exclusive stretch goals are very cool, when the game goes to retail without those extra things in the box we can still be very confident it will hold its own.

How I feel about games being Kickstarter exclusive depends on the motivation behind the individual creators doing it. First of all, you have to realise that going to retail after Kickstarter isn’t simply a choice you can make. I think a lot games end up being Kickstarter exclusive because they don’t manage to get the distribution required to go into retail. They can try to supply stores direct, but to do retail in a major way you need to partner-up with a distributor, and distributors are overwhelmed with new games to choose from. It’s highly competitive.

On the other hand, some people who put games on Kickstarter don’t actually want to be games publishers at the end of it. Their games might be Kickstarter exclusives just because they have more of a designer mindset – all they really want is to make one game, get it into the hands of backers and be done. Where you have publishers that avoid retail by choice, it’s tricky. I can totally understand it from a business point of view – you make a lot more money selling to your consumers directly than you do after your distributor takes a cut. But I happen to believe in the value of brick and mortar stores, and the community of players they cultivate. Long term, retail was always going to an important part of our plan.

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One of the things that drew my eye to ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ was how much it dripped of the theme of computer games and choose your own adventure books I loved in my youth, and still hold great affection for. What were your primary influences when designing the game? How do you feel those influences are reflected in the game?

There was a certain atmosphere to the early Games Workshop products and to the Fighting Fantasy series of books from Puffin. These both used black and white images in the interior of their books, mainly due to budget constraints at the time, but in doing so created this incredible atmosphere that we feel is totally missing from games today. That cranky, slightly sick art style has stayed with us since childhood, and it comes out in Escape the Dark Castle. Sure, there is something to be said for the digital, anime-inspired modern artwork that has become the norm for big box fantasy games, but what really strikes an emotional chord with us and with many of our players lies in a very different visual direction. After one look at Escape the Dark Castle, people know what they are going to get.

You have hinted at investigating other themes in the future with a similar core mechanic to ‘Escape the Dark Castle’, what is currently on the drawing board?

The drawing board is overflowing with ideas. We have at least 3 or 4 years’ worth of games already in development, some of them quite far along in the process. The difficult thing honestly is deciding what order to do them in, which to do next. However, our focus now is fixed squarely on launching Escape the Dark. Castle was always going to be the first game in the Escape the Dark series and establishing this brand is a huge part of the plan. There is already one expansion for Castle, Adventure Pack 1: Cult of the Death Knight, and more are planned. We also want to do an advanced edition down the line for those who want something a little more involved – we think of Castle as the starting point, perfect for newcomers or people who wouldn’t normally be that interested in fantasy gaming. Our next big project will be more products in the Escape the Dark series, which we will be making an announcement about in the next few months.

What games do you have in development outside of future expansions to the Escape the Dark Castle group of games?

The Escape the Dark series is all about atmosphere, storytelling, and a high replay value rooted in never knowing what will happen next. One of our big upcoming games is a real departure from the random nature of that – a pure strategy title with what we believe are some genuinely ground-breaking mechanics. No luck, just tactics and the intense head to head outplay of your opponent(s). Again, we can’t tell you very much about that one yet, but even though it will sit in a very different category and perhaps appeal to different players, it will of course carry our trademark emphasis on theme, style, and player experience above all. Beyond that, we have something in the party game category, team-based, fast and furious. I could go on. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

What games from other UK designers have you most excited in 2018?

For me it is always interesting to keep an eye on what Modiphius are doing. I think Chris and the guys over there are a very smart team doing cool things. In some ways I think Themeborne is on quite a similar path to them, just in terms of how we have started small but seem to be gathering pace quite quickly – they went through something similar, but of course we are quite a few years behind!