Gary Games, the publishers of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, will be releasing their deck-building card game as an iOS app at the end of this month in partnership with Incinerator Studios. Justin Gary, the founder and CEO of Gary Games, took some time to answer a few questions about Ascension, digital board games, and what’s coming up from Gary Games.
GeekDad: Can you tell me a little about how Gary Games got started — your origin story, if you will?
Justin Gary: Gary Games was the culmination of a lifetime growing up as a gamer. I started really getting into gaming in 1997 when I won the Magic: The Gathering U.S. National Championship. I played Magic professionally throughout high school and college and for a year afterwards and made a pretty decent living before “getting serious” and attending NYU law in 2003. The summer after my first year of law school, I was offered an internship at Upper Deck Entertainment in San Diego, helping to design and develop a trading card game based around Marvel and DC characters. This seemed like a lot more fun than working in a law firm in New York, so I decided to give it a shot. After a few months, I knew I could never go back. I decided to leave law school and become a game designer full-time.
After working on trading card games for a few years, I was given the opportunity to lead design the World of Warcraft Miniatures Game. This was a great opportunity as Upper Deck had never created a miniatures game before. In the end, it took about 3 years to get it out the door and I had to take on the role of not just lead designer, but also Product Manager and Brand Manager, following the process from idea to store shelf. After that, I felt like I had acquired all the skills necessary to run a business and decided to give it a shot. I left Upper Deck in December of 2008 and did some consulting work for other companies while I started design work on Ascension. When I was finally ready, I recruited some of my most talented friends from Upper Deck and throughout the gaming community to form the initial team and Gary Games, Inc., was officially founded on April 13, 2010. We released Ascension in August of that year. We have been growing and creating ever since.
GD: What are some of your favorite games, either ones that you grew up with or those that you play now?
JG: There are almost too many games to count. I grew up playing traditional games like Monopoly, Sorry, and Uno with my family but also fell in love with video games at an early age whether playing Zelda and Super Mario Brothers on my Nintendo or BattleTech and Kings Quest on my Apple 2CE. Magic: The Gathering will always have a special place in my heart because of how life-defining it was for me. I got to travel the world and meet tons of amazing people who I am friends with to this day and learned to believe in myself and deal with success and loss (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars rode on a single game) from a very early age.
To be honest, these days I mostly play games I am designing, though I still make time for the occasional Dungeons and Dragons game with friends or a game of Civilization or Dragon Age on my PC. I’ve also become hooked on Boggle and Galcon on the iPad.
GD: I wrote a piece recently about the future of board games, in light of technology like smartphones and iPads, so I’m very interested in seeing games make the transition from analog card and board games to digital. What’s your take on the future of games? Do you think it’s better to design an analog game and convert it to digital, vice versa, or something else entirely?
JG: Overall, I think we will see a continued convergence of the traditional board game world and the digital gaming world. Good game mechanics are just good game mechanics and having more mediums to design for means more opportunities to create great games customized to that platform. I foresee more board games taking the path of Ascension and converting to tablet/smartphone formats but I don’t foresee these formats replacing traditional board games anytime in the near future. There is still just something about the tactile feel of holding a hand of cards, rolling dice, and moving pieces around a board that just can’t be replicated by a touch screen. In addition, getting a large group of friends gathered around the gaming table and gaming, laughing, and playing late into the night is not going to be completely replaced by the online experience for the foreseeable future. I love World of Warcraft as much as the next guy, but there is nothing like a late-night Dungeons and Dragons session to bond with friends and have a great time.
When designing a game, I always think about the platform and audience I am designing for. When designing a smartphone game, the ability to jump in and out of the game for a quick 1-5 minute experience is critical. When designing a card or board game, you need to think about the logistics and “fiddliness” of the game and make sure that there aren’t too many things to keep track of and physically manage. When trying to design a game for multiple platforms, you often have to make tradeoffs to try to make sure the experience works well on each platform. For most designers, I think they will benefit from trying out analog versions of the game first because they are so much easier to prototype and iterate on, but it is very game and designer dependent which process will work best.
Overall, I am very excited about the new audiences that exist because of technology. I think platforms like the smartphone, iPad, and Facebook are good for more than just games like Farmville and Angry Birds. The joys of traditional and hobby gaming are going to have to adapt to the new world of instant social connection and mobile touch-screens, but I think in the end they will only benefit from the ease of access and larger audiences just becoming aware of the joys of gaming.
GD: Speaking of transitioning to digital, what was it like turning Ascension into an app? Did you encounter any challenges you weren’t expecting, or did you find anything that you felt worked even better in the app version than the physical card version?
JG: There are a lot of great things about bringing Ascension to the digital space. Ascension has always boasted a quick set-up time, requiring players to only shuffle their personal decks, the center deck, and place out the always available cards. But on an app this entire process is instantaneous and all future shuffling, sorting, and tracking of points is done instantly. The ability to play against an AI that takes turns in a flash is also fantastic — I can now play a game of Ascension in less than five minutes!
A lot of the challenges in the design process were making sure that the interface was smooth and intuitive. Especially working with the small screen of a smartphone, it is very important that everything is laid out very cleanly and that all the relevant information is communicated with very little space used up.
GD: What’s in the pipeline for Gary Games? I see that there’s an expansion for Ascension coming this summer. Anything else in the works?
JG: Gary Games is really two companies in one. Gary Games is both a publisher of games and a game design studio. As a publisher, we are continuing to make Ascension expansions and will be releasing Ascension in several other languages including Japanese and Chinese this summer. Our biggest imminent release is the long-awaited first expansion to Ascension — Return of the Fallen. This was a great design experience for me because I was able to finally reveal a lot of the cards I had to cut from the original game to simplify it. We also have a fun, quick dice game (which also doubles as a drinking game) which we hope to have out in time for Gen Con in August.
As a consultant working with other companies, we have already released a game with the Wharton School of Business designed to teach Entrepreneurship through a roleplaying exercise played in class. We have created an amazing trading card game for kids called Redakai which is coming out this summer along with a cartoon on Cartoon Network that we helped create and direct. We also have a fun skateboarding trading card game called SuperHeat which is releasing this summer and will be a huge feature at the X-Games this year.
In addition to all of the above projects, we have several more as-yet-unannounced projects that run the spectrum from pure digital games designed for the core gamer audience to licensed toy-based games, to pre-school educational games. I personally love the challenge of designing games for different audiences and as you can see from the portfolio we’ve already put together in the short time we have been a company, I think we are on the right track. We now have several major companies looking to work with us to make games associated with their brand for marketing purposes and I think that there are a lot of exciting opportunities in the social and mobile gaming world to take the expertise we have developed in the traditional board and card game space and bring it to entirely new audiences.
GD: I had read that you’re one of the designers for the upcoming Redakai card game — could you tell us a little more about that?
JG: Redakai was a great challenge for us because we not only had to design a game, but we also had to help create a cartoon based around the game and to incorporate some amazing technology into the gameplay including 3-D cards, clear stackable gameplay, and custom animations built in to each card. Redakai is a game for kids, but we tried to make sure there was enough going on that parents and kids would have a great time playing together and so that kids could grow up with the game (we have both a basic and advanced way to play). Redakai will be available in hobby stores in June, on Cartoon Network starting in July, and in mass market retail in the US and Canada starting in August.
Ascension was a game I created for people like me and you – gamers who grew up playing traditional games and who don’t always have time to collect Magic cards or get a group together for Dungeons and Dragons. Ascension gives you a taste of that experience in one box and about 30-45 minutes a game. Redakai, however, is my attempt to create a whole new generation of gamer. Maybe 5 to 10 years from now I’ll sit down to play with someone who grew up on Redakai, moved on to Ascension, and then created a whole new generation of game that I can enjoy. Whether that game is a traditional board game, a smartphone game, or a hologram doesn’t really matter – the key for me is to keep the joy of gaming alive and well. I owe a lot of the adventures, success, and life-long friendships in my life to the day I picked up my first trading card game. I’ve done my job right if I get to create that same experience with people who play the games I’ve designed.
GD: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions!