Interview About Magpie Games

To start with, what made you and Mark Truman decide to start up the studio back in 2011?

Mark and I met at a local gaming event in 2008 and much of our spare time was spent playing and running tabletop roleplaying games for friends. But the Southwest was a bit isolated from the happenings and going-ons of the indie games community, and many of the mainstream games we were playing didn’t feel like they were really about storytelling. We wanted to tell collaborative stories without putting an enormous burden on the players at our table, and we didn’t know of any games that did what we wanted to do. Our experience wasn’t unique: many gamers create amazing homebrews that do the job of opening those doors.

For the two of us, we knew that making a game for our homegroup wouldn’t be enough to satisfy our desire to create. We wanted to make products with the potential to expand the tabletop gaming library with quality gaming experiences that speak to a larger audience.

So we started our company, Magpie Games, and in 2011 we began our journey of creativity and learning. Mark and I traveled around the United States to different conventions, met some folks in the indie publishing community, entered contests, and got to work!

What kinds of challenges did the studio face in early years?

We had never published anything before, we had no budget, and we decided to launch our first couple of projects just before moving to a new state—Mark was starting a grad program at the Harvard Kennedy School and I was finishing my undergrad at UMass Boston. We had a few hurdles to overcome, but our skills complemented each other well and that teamwork helped us get through some of the more traditional publishing pitfalls, like art costs and project budgeting. And for the skills we didn’t have in house, we found partners and hire experts in the industry who guided us, folks like fellow game designers Brennan Taylor, Daniel Solis, and Will Hindmarch.

One of the things we decided to take a chance on was Kickstarter. The website had just launched in 2011 and seemed like a great way to bring our first game to a broader audience. That decision helped us to reach our funding goal and became a foundational pillar of how we think about releases. We’ve only released a handful of titles since without using Kickstarter to market, promote, and fund them!

Are the challenges different eight years in?

Absolutely! The challenges are different today because the industry is different today. And while some of the issues of funding still remain, what is at stake has changed. Today Magpie Games employs eight part and full-time employees and many more freelance contributors. Failure carries a much heavier burden when so many people’s day-to-day relies on success and progress.

We do what we can to stay ahead of the curve, continuing to try new things and take risks, but even with thirty-five+ products under our belt, every day is a hustle. We’ve built something strong and unique—a minority-owned, award-winning roleplaying game studio—but we have to keep breaking boundaries to make it last.

I’ve personally had the experience of playing a game that, while marvelously intricate and fascinating, took so much time to set up and read through the starter guide that by the time we were done, my husband and friend and I decided we were too tired to actually play the blasted thing. How do you balance role-playing and in-depth story and mechanics in the creation of a game against the time commitment involved?

To make an experience that is as fun and rich as possible without requiring players to spend countless hours learning the rules, we focus on player experience at every step in the process. First, we know we need to catch their attention with the cover dress, then we have to reach them through our layout and writing, and we have to keep them coming back through our quality and design. Including making sure they actually can play the game the first time they sit down to try it!

The “how do you balance” question is dependent upon the exact game and what experience we expect it to deliver. Each game we design has a very different system because at some level, we believe different kinds of fiction require different systems. Some games require a larger investment of time; some games can be played in ten minutes!

Urban Shadows, for example, is a deep game that really sings after you play it for many sessions, while Bluebeard’s Bride is short, potent, and well suited to one-shot play. I would be doing Urban Shadows a disservice by trimming it down to something like Bluebeard’s Bride and vice versa.

Regardless of the ultimate goal of a game, we want to make products that are accessible. So while most of our games require our team to pour a lot of blood sweat and tears into the design and presentation, we hope that the players can focus on bringing their interesting perspectives and imaginations to the table.

Which of your currently-existing games is your favorite, and why?

My favorite Magpie Games tabletop roleplaying game to run is Urban Shadows, an urban fantasy roleplaying game set in a politically-driven city. As I mentioned earlier, it is a deep game that lends itself to a multitude of amazing stories and perspectives. Urban fantasy is a gateway drug for tabletop roleplaying games. You don’t have to know the physiology of an elf or the ancient history of some lost kingdom, instead all it asks is that you imagine your everyday life and then some. There are so many tropes that both me and my players can easily tap into and expand on.

Urban Shadows was also a formative text for many people who were looking for advice on how to create their own moves and homebrew designs in the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genera of gaming. Specifically, the master of ceremonies (MC) support sections of the game gives players clear and concise advice for running and designing within the system.

Let’s talk about your newest game, Wizard Kittens, which was funded on Kickstarter in just one day. Can you tell us a little about the development process you go through in putting together this game?

From development to gameplay, card games are a very different animal than our typical tabletop RPG product. For example, we can put a tabletop roleplaying game up on Kickstarter and adjust how the product is structured based on the response and stretch goals, but a card game needs to be completed regardless of the initial response.

Initially, Wizard Kittens production was slotted for later in our schedule, but due to the delay of another project we bumped it up to early 2019. My team and I worked tirelessly to turn the idea of Wizard Kittens into a reality.

In our normal fashion, we designed, mocked it up, and playtested the game, and once we had something really strong, it was time to make it a reality. We worked with artists to solidify a style and a cover along with commissioning enough pieces for a demo version of the game. While we constructed the Kickstarter page and looked for marketing partners, the game was sent off for more playtesting and reviews.

Luckily, it was a huge hit! The Kickstarter went on to raise over $165k and we have been thrilled by the overall response to Wizard Kittens thus far. All that work paid off!

I love the idea of what you call “ashcan” games – games that are out in beta testing, but not quite ready for full consumption. Can you tell us a little about how you learn from these games?

For those who are not familiar, the term “ashcan” came from the comic book industry where a preview version of the comic would be released without color. At Magpie Games, we use the term ashcan very similarly! It is a softcover preview release of a game that has everything needed to play. You can pick up a copy, try out the game, spread the hype, and even give design feedback before the final version is released.

Feedback from these preview releases is a wonderful way to engage audiences and gauge what excites them about our new designs. We also use these ashcans to help and guide new designers through the process of publishing a game with all the support and funding of our experienced staff. Through the ashcan program we are able to team up with enthusiastic designers who are still finding their voice in the industry. We strive to support their work with the hope that after they go through the process of publishing with our direct support they will be better equipped to move forward with their own games, publishing companies, and careers.

What are some lessons in game-creation that you’d like to share with newcomers to the field?

Know what you want. There is a lot of reward from designing something for your home group and calling it good. But if what you want is to start your own publishing company, then do it and do it hard. To succeed you are going to need to keep pushing forward, even when it is painful, heartbreaking, and no fun. But the day in and day out of creative work alongside a badass team is invaluable.

If you’ve got the passion and the team, you’re on your way. Game design is about giving people the tools to tell stories but like all product design, the devil is in the details. Be ready to kill your darlings and keep working on your game long after you are tired of it. It’s a hard and rewarding process.

But also be thoughtful about whether you even want to own a publishing company. Many people we meet just want to make a game. Don’t create a whole business just to make your one game; seek our partners who can help you make it a reality and leave the shipping, marketing, and publishing to folks who know what they are doing.

What do you wish you’d known when you started out?

Time will fly. You’ll bleed for this, but take the time to stop and smell the roses before they die. Be grateful for your successes; they will always seem fleeting.

Marissa Kelly

Marissa Kelly is the co-founder and co-owner of Magpie Games and has served as an art director of 100+ products, including 7th Sea: Second Edition. She is also a founding member of a number of other gaming organizations, including the Indie Game Developer Network and NewMexiCon. In addition to her volunteer work in the industry, Marissa has helped to manage successful Kickstarter projects which raised over $2 million, won the Grand Jury Prize at IndieCade 2019 for her game Bluebeard’s Bride, and often spends summers as a research assistant for both archaeological and paleontological digs.