You can download the podcast here…
Or listen to it here…
Interviewer: I’m here at the Game Developers Conference Online in Austin, Texas and with me today are two special guests. How about you introduce yourselves?
Michael Hartman: I’m Michael Hartman, President and CEO of Frogdice.
Pang Hartman: I’m Pang Hartman, and I’m the Creator Director of Frogdice.
Interviewer: What’s Frogdice about?
Michael: We make online games, primarily online role-playing games. But we’re also moving into Web and casual games as well.
Interviewer: So, you have these online role-playing games. What types of RPGs are they? Are they Flash-based?
Michael: Our oldest game is a peer text game. People may be familiar with MUDs. Our newest, Primordiax, is a hybrid graphical text game, and it’s a Flash client. So, it’s a graphical user interface that also has a text basis as well.
Both games focus a lot on role-playing, and they both actually require staying in character. So they’re very much about role-playing and a real virtual world where the players can actually change the world in a permanent way.
Interviewer: How long ago did you set up this RPG?
Michael: Well, Threshold, our oldest game, started in 1996. Primordiax actually started in 2001, but it didn’t seriously, it was kind of a part-time project until about 2007, and it was released two months ago.
Interviewer: What inspired you to make an online RPG at first?
Michael: At first, it was playing them. It’s like the old saying, if you build a better mouse trap, people will buy it. At first, it was just like I played games, and I thought, you know, I think I could do better. So, that’s what got me into it at first. That was the big inspiration.
Interviewer: So, you developed this RPG. How did you get players? You know, in ’96 a lot of these concepts and all these game ideas, a text-based RPG wasn’t even… People were used to MUDs, but just putting it online. How did you get that thing rolling?
Michael: That was really hard. That’s the first thing, almost all word of mouth because there was the Web but barely. The first real graphical browser was ’93, I believe. So, there wasn’t much on the Web. There was no Facebook so you could virally Usenet. Yeah.
Pang: Usenet was a big thing.
Michael: Most people probably never even heard of Usenet, but Usenet was awesome, a lot of that. There’s a website called the Mud Connector. It was a big source of getting players, but mostly, I would say 90 percent, just word of mouth. You get a few dedicated, loyal people. They tell their friends. They tell their friends, and then you’re really just going on the strength of your game play.
Interviewer: Were you working on it full-time, or when did you start realizing that this could be more than a hobby or something else?
Michael: Well, at first I was not working on it full-time. I was in law school, and it was just a hobby. I graduated, and I started practicing law, and I hated it because lo and behold you have to deal with other lawyers, and that’s miserable.
So, I decided to try to push it full-time. This is in ’96, so pretty early in the Internet. It was a risk, and my parents were freaking out about it. How can you do this? You’re supposed to be a lawyer. I was like, you know, I’m going to do it. I’m going to roll the dice, and it worked out well. It’s been 15 years now.
Pang: And you met your wife online, too.
Michael: I met my wife online, so yeah.
Interviewer: Awesome. Were you one of the players then of the game?
Pang: Yes, I was one of the players of the game, and I was in law school, also so we had something in common. And that’s just how it started.
Interviewer: How did you hear about the game?
Pang: Two of my friends from college actually dragged me into the game, saying they thought that I would like it. It just happened that I did like it. So, it was my first online game, and it was obviously a big part of my life ever since.
Michael: So, word of mouth advertising, not only brought us our players but it’s how I met my wife. So, word of mouth advertising, yeah, I’m a big fan.
Interviewer: That’s cute, yeah. Now, back then how did you figure out how to monetize it? Even virtual currency and all these other concepts were completely alien and even credit card processing and server issues, right? Servers back then were extremely expensive, I think.
Interviewer: So, how did you handle it?
Michael: Well, we started out at first in the traditional MUD method where you find an ISP that wants to have games. Back in the day ISPs used to try to offer services to their users because the Internet didn’t really have that much. ISPs were following the AOL model.
So, you would find an ISP that wanted to offer a game to their users, and they would give you server space. We ran like that for less than a year, I think, and then we did a donation drive with our customers. Donate money and we’ll buy a server, and we’ll have our own server. So, it started off with donations. The donation drive was what made me think we could actually make money.
And then, we went to really an optional what we called a registration system where it’s games free to play, but if you pay money you’ll get some extra benefits which was not really a micro transaction model but similar now to the free to play, pay for perks kind of system they have now.
Now, we were using this back in ’96. Back then, everybody thought everything on the Internet should be free. So, where the difference is nowadays there are certain challenges to different business models. The challenge then was getting people to spend money at all.
Nowadays, it’s like, oh, can we get them to subscribe? Can we get them to buy items? Back then, getting people to spend money whatsoever on the Internet was a challenge. Back then, we just did everything over the mail. People mailed checks or mailed cash, God forbid, you know what I mean?
And for taking credit cards, there were no really awesome… There was no PayPal then. So, there was no easy system. I had to get a credit card processing account, like a traditional retail store and then just pay a penalty for the fact that I didn’t have a card to swipe. So, I had to do it really the hard way. That’s how I got that started.
Interviewer: So, you got it rolling. What were you thinking at that point? So, your customer base is growing. You realize that you can turn this into your job. What were you thinking at that point? Were you thinking about expanding into other MMOs, just focusing on this MMO? How do you keep the users engaged? You’re talking about a 15 year MMO. That’s huge.
Michael: Well, honestly at the time it was real simple. I was focused just on paying the bills, you know what I mean, like keeping food on the table. That was my first and my primary focus for the first few years, and I figured I could grow from there.
The second step for the company originally was to make virtual worlds for school districts, believe it or not, which I still think would have been a great idea. But it was really hard to get schools on board with such a forward thinking idea.
So, I was like, well, I think I’ll just focus on this one game, and the way you keep people involved in the game for so long is really just to really care about community. Other games pay lip service to it, like WoW, we care about our community. But WoW doesn’t care about their community, like anyone who’s been to their forums for five seconds, they can tell they don’t care.
They let people just savage each other. I actually think it’s part of the design. Any time anyone brings up an idea or let’s say someone brought up a really legitimate critique or criticism of the game, there will be a million people that will shout them down. I actually think that’s part of the design of that community, and that’s not good to maintain people because that just drives people away.
We really care about our community. We maintain every single person. We value every customer, and what included in that, also, is customer service. People can email us even though it’s our company, we run the company. They can mail us and say, hey, I have a problem with this or that, and we answer almost everything.
Another thing we do is we have an annual convention. Even though we’re a small company, we have an annual convention for our customers. Every year 50 to 100 people will come to Lexington, Kentucky and meet other people that play our games and stuff like that. We just always have had a very customer forward, customer first policy, and I think our customers have rewarded us for that by staying with us.
Interviewer: Yeah, so you talk of community. Does that just go so far as just putting up forums and responding to people’s emails? How are you taking that customer service or community service to a higher level?
Michael: I think it’s really deep. My wife can probably comment about this, too. But it’s like the forums are one part of it. Another part of it is the customer service, like when people have problems, helping them caring about it. Then, there’s other things like even caring about them on a personal level.
We’ve had customers that we’re dealing with like spousal abuse and things like that, and we would help them get out of that situation, help them find places, people they can go with to live and get away from a really bad situation. It’s really caring about every customer like they’re a person, rather than they’re just like a pocketbook, you know what I mean?
Pang: We announce every birth. We announce the people that have met on our game of which there’s an astounding amount. I think I’ve heard from second livers, like they have 20 couples that have met or something like that. I don’t know, probably 50 couples have come out of this, including us, you know what I mean.
So, it’s just a step, people mail us when they’re going to go meet somebody else, or hey, I’m going to meet another player. I just wanted to let you guys know, so we kind of help with their safety, you know what I mean.
Michael: And we stay involved in the community online, like ourselves, like we get on our games and we’ll get on the out of character channels. And we’ll actually hang out and chat with them. We participate in the live events that we run for our players. So, our players, they just don’t see us as an occasional press release, oh, the president said they’re going to do this.
No, on a day to day basis, they might see, oh, there he is online talking to us about random stuff, even if it’s not game related, talking about sports, talking about whatever other stuff. We maintain a presence in the community that’s more than just the corporate entity.
Interviewer: Since you’re focused on the community, do you have to spend time then still on the game design, or has it already been solidified and finalized a long time ago?
Michael: I think to be a game, even an older game, you have to constantly add new content, new game systems, revise things. I remember it was six-seven years ago we had to bring a whole new agro system because the hate based agro system had become so popular in MMOs. Ours was basically like a last hit system. Whoever the last person was to use a special attack on a mob, they had agro. Well, that system it becomes so outdated that it really hurt the game. So, we’ll change core concepts in the game even to this day.
Interviewer: How often are you changing stuff in the game? Is it something where your community can expect to get a release every week, every month, every six months, every year?
Michael: It changes a lot, depending on what we’re working on. Sometimes, there are changes daily, worst case scenario, monthly. I’d say that’s the worst. Daily or weekly is more common. Sometimes, it’s something small, some little tweak or some little thing. Now, bug fixes happen almost every day.
Pang: Big systems take a lot of time like, for example, we talk about… We actually told our players we would probably never have a crafting system because we didn’t believe in trying to tack on a crafting system in the first game, in the original game, the 15 year old game.
But now, we’ve figured out a way so that’s been one of the major systems that we’ve been working on. Now, we have other small things that are coming out the whole time, but that’s our major system. And it’s probably been in the works for about three months now.
Interviewer: What inspired you then to do another game? So, you’ve got this one game working. What inspired you to move on and do other games and go into Flash and stuff like that?
Michael: Well, two things. One is technology, like a lot of the technology improved, and there were things that I really wanted to do that were really hard to do with Threshold for technology reasons, just by the code base. It doesn’t have a database back end. So, everything I save is all file based.
So whenever I want to save changes to the world, it’s really labor intensive from a design standpoint where as Primordiax has a MySql back end for storing data which gives me a lot. It makes both the persistent worlds, but the persistence in Primordiax is much easier whereas the persistence of Threshold requires an enormous amount of work. So, that was one thing, technology.
The second was story line. We used the same IP for all of our games. So, Primordiax is the same game world as Threshold. It’s 4,000 years in the future. So, there are a lot of things story-wise that we really wanted to tell that would work that way.
Also, one of my favorite themes in fantasy and science fiction is time travel. If we have two games at these distant times, then it opens up the possibility for some time travel story elements that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
And then, as far as the Flash game, we like them ourselves, and it’s kind of that same mentality I said before. What got me into games the first time was playing games I liked and think I can build a better mouse trap. Well, there’s a lot of Web casual games we like, and we’re like, we could do that.
Pang: Well, another thing, also, is the fact that we had a family. Well, we have a family, but our kids are growing up so they don’t need us as much. They don’t need us there all the time now. In fact, our youngest one is about to enter kindergarten, so they’re going to be gone all the time. Instead of running our company as a lifestyle company, we’re now ready to expand because we have the time to expand. We focused on family first, and now we’re moving on.
Interviewer: Another thing in the pre-interview you mentioned was the concept of, you actually have a lot of women playing this game. Can you talk about the percentages of women playing the game and also women on your staff?
Pang: Yes. We have about 43 percent of our players are women, and 50 percent of our development staff are women, also. We find that’s kind of important because 64 percent of online gamers are women, but only 11 percent are on MMOs. So, our design concepts are targeted towards making what we think is like making it a safer and less stressful gaming environment for women yet still having the challenge that most gamers want.
A lot of PVP games will have, I don’t know, one percent women or less, popular games, League of Legends. We just found out Tank Wars, they’re 95 percent men. But we have PVP or I games, but we’re still 43 percent women.
Interviewer: What would you say, I mean, what is the design that’s attracting both men and women compared to some of these other games that you mentioned that only have, maybe, 11 percent women?
Michael: Well, I think the first thing is, I would say, this doesn’t quite answer your question, but It’s something that kind of builds to it. The first thing is people don’t understand that designing a game to appeal to women doesn’t mean dumbing down your game.
We were just talking to someone on the exhibit floor who said something about, are you doing anything to attract more women? And you mean, like making World of Dolls? That’s the first mistake you can make is to think that women only like dolls and stuff like that. They actually like all these other kinds of games, also.
I think that if you’re looking for specific features, women are really attracted to games that have strong community and have a lot of customization because they want to be able to make their mark on the game world itself. They’re not as much into just the visceral experience. Men are probably a little more into the visceral experience at the moment.
But one thing, I think it’s dangerous to generalize too much because I think men and women gamers do actually like a lot of the same things. I think you can actually put off women when you start to think you need to do these things. Another big example, I would say, you’ll read these posts every now and then saying, oh, well, if maybe we made the female avatars in our game less sexual-wise, maybe they would attract more women.
People need to pick up Vogue and Cosmopolitan Magazine and see like the women in those magazines are very sexualized. Women are not turned off by that. They don’t think, oh, they want their character to be attractive. So, it’s really easy to go the wrong way.
Interviewer: So, with your RPG part of it is because you can modify the world. Do you think that’s one of the reasons that, in addition to the community and in addition to the social aspects that actually makes it attractive. You came into the game and honestly, even me as a guy text-based games aren’t my thing. So, what was it that attracted you?
Pang: Well, keep in mind back then there really wasn’t the MMOs and everything. So, it was a way to play competitively but with other people.
Interviewer: So, you did feel that social component at that time?
Pang: Oh, definitely. The social component is what made me stay for so long, and it’s what’s made so many people stay for so long even in a graphic heavy world now. But one of the other things was, well, not for me because I really do like PVP but for a lot of the other women in the game, they really like the ability to progress without having to do a ton of button mashings and stressing out and dying all over the place or whatever.
They can progress through other means, a social means, and that helps a lot, I think, for a lot of the women gamers where they get power, but it isn’t power from just button bashing, you know what I mean?
Interviewer: Yeah. Now, you folks were mentioning growing your business. How are you going to get past word of mouth? Word of mouth is definitely important, but do you feel that you’re going to have to transition to these newer technologies just to make it more accessible to everyone else which may alienate your community a little? But at the same time it makes it so that other women and other men can appreciate your game more because it’s more accessible to them visually.
Michael: Right. I definitely think that’s the case, and that’s the way our company has been going, too. That’s what I was saying, our second game that was started in its design stage 10 years ago, if it had been made right then, it would have been pure text just like our first game. But we eventually realized that wasn’t going to work.
I had to kind of fight actually with some of our other designers when I insisted, look, we’re going to have a Flash client for this game. Even when I finally got to the point where we were going to have a graphical client for the game, that was the first battle. Then, they were, let’s make it a Java and blah blah.
I was like, yeah, Java is great but then people will have to install Java, and that doesn’t happen whereas Flash is 98 percent market penetration. Everyone’s already got Flash, so I said, look, we’re doing it in Flash. I don’t care what it takes. Why do we have to change? We have to do it that way. It needs to run in a browser. It needs to be in Flash for that accessibility reason.
And then, that’s when we got in the casual game because we decided we wanted to make a game where we could reach a wider market. Now, they all share the same virtual currency.
Pang: And the same world.
Michael: And the same world, the same IP. So, if people play our casual game, then maybe if they like our IP and they’ve already invested money in buying some of the virtual currency that we call medallions, they can play those other games for free, and they already have the virtual currency. So, it will help market those other games, also.
Interviewer: And so, finally, what suggestions do you have for other game developers that want to go on their own, start their own company, have their own community? How does it feel to wake up every day working on this MMO RPG or online RPG?
Michael: It’s great having control of your life. It’s great to live wherever you want to live. What I would say to someone if they wanted to start their own company, I would say get some good friends to do it with. I would also say fine somebody right away who knows business even if you’re an artist or a programmer and you don’t know anybody.
Say you’re a college kid and you want to start your own company, go to business school and find somebody because having somebody who understands the basics of that kind of stuff it will benefit you enormously, things that you couldn’t even expect.
You might think, oh, he doesn’t know anything about games, but that knowledge of basic business concepts is really huge because they also understand, and you’ll be surprised at what they know. Most business people, they learned a lot about statistics and analytics and things like that, that will benefit you as a game designer, also.
You know, my background at first was legal first before. I never took a computer science class in my life. I had to teach myself programming from scratch, and that helped me a lot, the legal, that legal background. But business would have been even more valuable, and I wish I had gotten someone on board very early in the company with a business background. That would probably have saved me five years.
Interviewer: Now that you’re attending these conferences and a lot of these analytics because that seems to be one of the important aspects of business is just these analytics, measuring stuff, tracking stuff. Now that that’s just way more accessible, do you really need a business person? Can you just take some of these services now that you even see it at this conference where it’s plug in this virtual currency thing. So, maybe, do you need a business partner at this point?
Michael: I think you definitely do. In a way, almost the presence of those almost makes it more necessary to have a good person because you need someone who can… Now, there’s so many. You need somebody that can look at those and know that one is bad. That one doesn’t work for us. No, that’s more than we need. No, they’re charging too much because you also need to understand, like the deals.
Oh, this licensing deal, this isn’t fair. They want a royalty. They want this. We’ve look at different engines, and everybody has a different… There’s no standardized contract. Every piece of middleware you might look at, some of them charge a flat fee. Some of them require a three year support contract. Some of them want a royalty. And that’s a really tough Web to navigate if you’re just a computer programmer, you know what I mean.
I think that business person is still really, really necessary to help you from making a big mistake. And you could blow all your money on a couple of licenses, and then you could be totally screwed.
Interviewer: Yeah. Where can developers find more information, or where can they play their games?
Josh: Well, our company is Frogdice. So, our main website is www.frogdice.com. That’s like a frog and dice. Our games are Threshold and Primordiax. Those are out. You can reach them on that game.
If anyone has questions about getting in the industry, they can email us just right off the website but, yeah.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.