We’d met Chris through the artist alley scene at comic and anime conventions, where his company, Team Kultzow, was selling “Kaijulry” (original jewelry designs based on Kaiju, Japanese rubber movie monsters) and "Klicks" (modular jewelry sets!) At the time, we’d bonded over being small arts business people, loving of weird movies, and enjoying tabletop games. Years later, as Kevin and I stared down the barrel of our own possible game, Chris was an obvious resource for questions.
Chris is Director of Digital Tech at a mid-side full-service advertising agency. He’d spent his college years playing with game design, AI, and simple systems. Most importantly, he’d spent the past 4 years developing and self-publishing his own indie tabletop games.
I’d say that the most important aspect of game design that we learned while working with Chris, was that NOTHING is set in stone. Just like a well-conceived comic project, the ‘final form’ of a game is shaped by a huge list of factors, some not immediately obvious.
ART ON ONE SIDE - Since the original goal of our game was to get people invested in Kevin’s characters and to replace the more fan-driven art cards in our product lines, we wanted Pocket Rivals' character art to be a huge part of the design! That’s a significant stipulation in a card game, where space typically needs to be allocated to the function of the card first.
We solved it by making the back of each card unique… but that had an impact on the way you could play with the cards. Since the backs aren’t uniform, no player could hide their card hand! Suddenly, our desire to feature Kevin’s artwork and our solution, meant that we were playing a game on a flat surface, more like chess or checkers than ‘go fish.’
TIGHT BUDGET! - Kevin and I needed to be able to bank-roll the first printing of the Beta Edition tester cards using limited funds. We were at a point of the year where a lot of our money was tied up in pre-payments for the year’s convention registrations. With limited capital, we needed the game to be lean.
Chris knew about a Wisconsin-Based game manufacturer, The GameCrafter, which specializes in small print runs and ultra-customized game components. He’d had good experiences working with them, and knew that their “cards per sheet” for poker-sized playing cards was 18. You could certainly order sets of 24 cards, but you’d pay for 2 sheets (36 cards) regardless. With that in mind, we based the game's ‘teams’ on multiples of 18.
2 PLAYERS FROM OUR DEMOGRAPHIC - We were looking at 18 cards per team and 2 players per game. However, since the game would be played flat, 36 poker-sized cards laid out would take up too much room. Space concerns coupled with the fact that convention-goers and card game fans appreciate compact packaging led us to shift our concept again. Now each team features 9 characters and each sheet of 18 produced and packaged by our manufacturer accommodates enough cards for two players.
TONE - It makes sense that facts and needs would shape the gameplay. Stuff like ‘your budget’ and ‘your business goals’ are KEY to any project under the sun! However, for any product to be successful, it must be presented to the people who will like it in a way that encourages them to embrace it. Tone of art, game terms, and game instruction language will actually influence your audience!
We defined our demographic (more on that in a later blog post!) as being young gamers who would be attracted by Kevin’s art, who would enjoy the complexities of the game so much that they would stay with us as they got older. With that in mind, we needed to adjust how we talked about the game and the actions in it. When we first tinkered with Pocket Rivals, characters ‘attacked’ one another. They did ‘battle.’ They ‘died.’ It was very gladiator-style, and frankly that didn’t mesh with Kevin’s art or our demographic.
Now, characters meet on the ‘playing field.’ They ‘challenge’ one another to 'contests.' They are ‘benched’ when they’re defeated and they’re ‘substituted’ back into the game when a replacement is needed. They have ‘talents,’ that they can use under ‘conditions’ rather than 'attributes' for a 'cost.' You’ve got ‘teammates’ who are ‘allies’ and 'opponents' who are ‘rivals.’ All those words sound far more like a sports game than a war. The tone of the game language is more friendly, younger, and more on-message with Kevin’s art. Even the name “Pocket Rivals” is a nod to the compact nature of the game and the friendly, but intense, competition at its core.
STORY CONCEPT - We’ve got one last thing to address in this post, and a huge one for our future with Pocket Rivals--the story. Why are the Robots and the Monsters competing? Will there be more Robots or Monsters? Where are they? What’s the point in challenging each other anyways?
By setting up the game in a universe of Pocket Dimensions where war has been eliminated and replaced with THE GAME as the interdimensionally-recognized conflict resolution method, we can expand our teams, our team members, and our match-ups indefinitely! It gives us a jumping off point for story-telling, for world-building, and for character development. So all that talk in earlier blog posts of ‘expanding our IP’ and ‘pleasing our fanbase who loves a good story,’ are not mutually exclusive ideas and should take us to some great places!