Casual Games Interview with Chris and Melanie James 0 Comments

When I first connected with Chris and Melanie James on Kickstarter, they were looking to launch a new Casual Game Insider print magazine back in the summer of 2012. Board and card games have played a huge role in their lives, both when they were first dating and now as married designers, publishers, bloggers, and game enthusiasts, so I thought I'd sit down with them for a great conversation about married life, casual games, and what they're currently up to in Tucson, Arizona.

ROB BARTEL: Hi Chris, hi Melanie. Thanks for the interview! You’ve been having fun with my two-player card games for a little while now and you recently recommended them as great stocking stuffers on your Casual Game Revolution site. Tell me a bit about yourselves and the story behind your site.

MELANIE JAMES: Hi Rob! We started up Stratus Games back in 2009 to design and publish casual games and have published 5 games so far with much success. However, we soon saw a need to branch out and promote casual gaming across the whole industry, as we discovered that great casual games from many publishers were often glossed over by the board game industry at large. We decided to fill this gap by creating a magazine, Casual Game Insider, and blog to promote casual games to both retailers and consumers. Our ideas have been met with much success so far. When did you decide to design The World's Smallest Sports Games? They seem like a great way to reach more casual gamers - have you had success getting them out to people at sporting events?

ROB: I designed the first in the series, Famous Fastballs, back in 2008 and am just now bringing them to the consumer market. In the meantime, I’ve been selling bulk orders for event support and corporate clients. Hollywood comedian George Lopez placed a custom order for his celebrity golf tournament this past year, for instance, and I’d love to support sports teams or event sponsors with their Fan Appreciation events in the future. As you pointed out, tiny sports card games like this offer a great opportunity to bring high-quality games to a broader audience. Speaking of high quality, what do you feel makes a great casual game and why are these types of games so important?

MELANIE JAMES: Chris and I have always shared a love for gaming on a social level. Sitting around a table playing a board game face-to-face is a great way to get to know someone. We have gained many friends this way, and, in fact, some of these friends were the first to introduce modern gaming to us. We became very enthusiastic about this new world of board gaming, yet soon discovered a world of complication in which gaming was tied to much more than we personally identified with. Heavy Eurogames and wargames, comics, role-playing games and the like were never really our cup of tea. We simply wanted to play fun games that were easy enough to play with our friends and family, yet found it decidedly difficult to identify more games we would like amid all of the noise.

CHRIS: What we love so much about casual games is that they can be enjoyed by nearly anyone with relatively low commitment. A great casual game is engaging, social, fun, relatively quick, and simple enough to be taught in about 10 minutes or less. Once a game becomes too long or complicated, many people begin to lose interest. A great casual game is not an intense battle of wits, nor is it complete luck, but a balance between the two that is light and social.

ROB: I agree - Even within the casual games space, I’ve found it really helpful to organize my games into Beginner (i.e. high luck), Intermediate, and Advanced (i.e. high skill) lines to really help people find the games that are right for them. So how would you define the audience for casual games? Do you have any tips for how people can get the most out of playing these games?

CHRIS: I see the audience for casual games as being everyday people who enjoy socializing or who are just looking to unplug from their computer and TV screens for awhile. Friends, family, and neighbors, young and old, can enjoy them. Unfortunately, our culture at large doesn't focus on board games as much as it should, which is why many potential casual gamers simply don't know they exist. Usually, when people are convinced to overcome their doubts and try a few games, they find them to be very enjoyable. Whether or not they turn around and buy some casual games for themselves, they can at least find enjoyment in the time spent playing them. Is that the same audience you had in mind when you designed Two By Two and The World's Smallest Sports Games?

ROB: For Two by Two (published in 2010 by Valley Games), I really had a family audience in mind and designed the game to be something that kids and their parents could all gather around the table and enjoy together. All of my World’s Smallest Sports Games are designed for two players so that really allowed me to have these very special relationships in mind as I designed the games. The first game in the series, Famous Fastballs, I really imagined as a game to be played between a father and son, something that could become a lifelong touchstone for their relationship. The second game, Famous Forehand, I always thought of as a game for married couples, something they could take with them on holidays or share a few rounds of after the children were asleep. And then the third game, Famous 500, was for old friends who don’t see each other often enough, catching up over a cup of coffee or a few beers. I find that having a very specific audience like that in mind is extremely helpful design process. Speaking of which, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned through your design and publishing efforts at Stratus Games and what have you got planned for the future?

MELANIE: We've certainly learned a lot during our time with Stratus Games. Advice we would give to a startup publisher might include: 1) define your brand and target audience as specifically as possible early on; 2) you cannot please everyone, so don't try; 3) be ready to adapt to change; 4) always pay attention to what your customers want (not what you want); 5) don't underestimate the power of networking; 6) be sure to budget for marketing expenses.

CHRIS: In terms of our future plans, we are mostly focused on our magazine and Casual Game Revolution blog, though we do have a few exciting games in our pipeline. We are also pursuing licensing deals with well-known brands to produce board game adaptations of popular TV shows and movies - we just started down this path and we'll see where it goes. What are your future plans for Famous Games Co.?

ROB: This expansion into the consumer market is still really new for me so my first priority is to make sure I get that right. I want to make sure the website is really meeting people’s needs, that I’m providing the customer service I want the company to be famous for, and that all my processes are set up to be sustainable and scalable as this side of the business grows. The next step is to get my wholesale plans in place. After the dust settles a little, I’ve got some new ideas for supporting products I want to develop, such as a set of cardboard coins for those who don’t happen to have the right change on hand when they want to play. And then there are some new sports like soccer and hockey that I really want to find ways to include as part of the line. So there’s no shortage of good ideas I want to act on. As for good ideas, I see you offer video tutorials for all of your games. What led you to take that approach to teaching people how to play your games and why is it so important to do so through a visual medium like video?

CHRIS: One of the biggest complaints people have about board games is having to read the rules. People HATE reading rules! They would much rather be shown how to play, since it is much easier to learn visually, even for lighter games. We decided we wanted to help overcome the initial learning curve by producing quality videos to teach the game exactly how we thought it should be taught. It quickly became a standard for our games, and we began to also provide a QR code linking to our tutorial videos on later print runs. We have gotten tremendous feedback on our videos from our customers, who believe it is a great service to them. You have some interactive tutorials, as well, which I found useful when learning the rules for a few of your games. How did you go about creating these? Have your customers found them useful?

ROB: I couldn’t agree more! Those interactive tutorials have been so important for my games. I started with written rules and they fit easily onto two sides of a letter-size sheet of paper but new players just found them too intimidating. Let’s face it, you don’t learn a new sport by reading a rulebook. You learn it by watching others play, you learn by listening to commentary, you learn from a friend or mentor, you learn by actually playing. So that’s why I decided I needed to create this Coach character who could walk players through my games in a more interactive fashion. Between that and the new QuickStart cards I’ve added to every game, I’ve found that it’s really solved the intimidation issue and a lot more of my games are getting played and shared now as a result. I need to update them to blend better into the new site and account for some improvements and clarifications I’ve made to the latest editions of the games. It’s all done in a cross-platform HTML5 animation tool called Tumult Hype, which I’ve been very happy with. They’ve got some new features coming up in the next release that will be really helpful so I’ve been putting off the revisions until after the Christmas rush. Another area where I think you and I see eye to eye is the importance of fan communities. I haven’t fleshed out my plans in that regard yet but I’m really interested in what you two are doing with your Stratus Sphere club. Tell me a bit more about the club and what you’re doing to bring your fans together.

CHRIS: Stratus Sphere began as a desire to measure and reward our friends and fans who were the most helpful to us - either by playtesting or demoing our games. To fulfill this need, we created a shopping cart solution in which our fans could sign up, complete reward opportunities, and earn credit in our rewards store, which includes free games and prizes. This tool has been essential to our game development process, as it offers many opportunities for "blind" playtesting. With it, we were able to refine and polish our three most recent games: Eruption, DiceAFARI, and Off Your Rocker. We plan to continue to follow this process for future games and hope to continually grow our club over time. For your game designs, how do you find and reach out to playtesters? How do you decide when a game is complete and ready for production?

ROB: I’m really fortunate to be able to share the design process with my colleagues in the Game Artisans of Canada, a national design collective I helped found back in 2008. It’s grown from a single local chapter here in Alberta to a total of six extremely vibrant and interconnected local design scenes scattered all across the country. Being able to work through a design, publishing, or business issue with other designers and other chapters is such a powerful thing and has really become instrumental to all of our work. I also have a few local playtest networks as well, including some opportunities for the all-important blind playtesting phase with strangers. As for deciding when a game is complete and ready for production, I come from a software background and never consider a game to be done. Every new print run is an opportunity to make a subtle tweak that improves some aspect of the game or how it’s presented. And that’s another nice thing about having Coach’s tutorials online - it means I can update them and make fixes as needed. Rather than making players paw through a confusing list of errata, I can simply present them with the latest and greatest training currently available. It’s really a Software-as-a-Service model. Now just to change gears for a moment, I really want to commend you on how you’ve really built your games and projects and businesses together as a married couple. Creating and celebrating casual games has clearly played a huge role in your relationship with each other. When it comes to actually playing games together, what do the two of you look for in a good two-player game? What do you do to keep those moments together special in the middle of a hectic life?

MELANIE: For the two of us, we are less interested in finding out who is smarter than just having a good time together. We really enjoy playing cooperative games that allow us to work together for a common goal. We certainly don't mind a good competitive game, as well, to create some friendly smack-talking - but it is better if there is a good balance of randomness mixed in with the strategy to keep things light and interesting.

CHRIS: With a toddler and another baby on the way, life certainly can get hectic. We believe it is a good idea to schedule some quiet gaming time in advance to ensure that we don't miss out on opportunities to play.

ROB: On a related note, I also see that recently made your Off the Rocker game a part of their Stir dating events. How did that go? What makes a great date game, in your mind, and do you have any advice for other couples looking to make games a part of their growing relationship?

CHRIS: We are still waiting on some of the feedback and results from the events, but overall we are pleased with the outcome. We always felt that Off Your Rocker was a great game for singles (being based on a similar game Melanie and I loved to play in college before we were dating). Being involved with the Stir events has been a great way to reach more single adults and the response from the team has been great so far.

MELANIE: A great date game is one that encourages you to break out of your shell a bit and show your fun side. It needs to be interactive and social rather than purely thought-driven. For couples looking to make games a part of their relationship, I would say it's important to identify your common interests, then just hit the ground running! The more you play together, the more fun you'll have and the more you'll learn about each other.

ROB: As you know, my World’s Smallest Sports Game line consists of 6 small sport-themed card games. Which one would each of you recommend as your favorite?

CHRIS: I enjoyed all of these games, but what really stands out for me is Famous Fastballs, your baseball card game. I remember playing a lot of Rock-paper-scissors growing up, and this game put a fun theme on this mechanic that just seemed to work really well for me.

MELANIE: I particularly enjoyed Famous 500, your car racing game, as it offered a lot of interesting choices and light-hearted competition. Balancing out resources and damage through the course of the race certainly proved to be a challenge. Great work on your designs!

ROB: Thanks so much, Chris and Melanie. It was a real pleasure getting to know you and listening to your take on casual games. All the best with your future work!

CHRIS: Thank you, Rob! Best of luck to you, as well - we will be looking forward to your future games.