Q&A with Ryan Laukat
This is an archive of the live Q&A with Ryan Laukat hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the re-release of Ryan's talk, "Designing With a Story Focus." It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mike Belsole: Hey everyone! We've got Ryan Laukat here so get your questions ready. To get the ball rolling, Ryan, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do? I know you wear a lot of hats in this industry.
Ryan Laukat: Hey everyone, glad to be here. I'm a game publisher, designer, and artist. I started working in the industry in 2008 as a game illustrator. I started Red Raven Games in 2011 and I've been doing that ever since. Some of my games include Above and Below, Eight-Minute Empire, and Sleeping Gods.
Eli Edwardson: Hey Ryan, thank you for being here! What we’re some of your biggest hurdles in publishing you own designs?
Ryan Laukat: It was difficult to get noticed by the game distributors and also figure things out like shipping and fulfillment. Game distributors aren't really interested in you if you just have one game (unless it's a big hit, of course). And now, there are so many publishers that it is hard to get noticed. If I were starting right now, I wouldn't worry much about game distribution and focus on direct sales until distribution options opened up later.
When you publish your own designs, you also have to think about marketing quite a bit, much more than I had anticipated. You spend a lot of time promoting the game, thinking about how to advertise it and get people excited about it. I still spend so much time doing that.
Alex: Some games with a focus on story have rules that serve primarily to prevent actions that the game designer deems wouldn't make sense for the story. For instance, in a D+D style combat game, a rule on a "trip your opponent" attack that says it doesn't work on enemies without legs because "if they didn't have legs how could you trip them?" Do you think that these types of rules add to, or detract from, the story?
Ryan Laukat: I think it makes sense that games like that focus on limitations that work within the story and world simulation, although a lack of those kinds of rules can lead to emergent narrative. I love playing D&D with very loose rules because it opens up possibilities fore creativity. "I use a trip attack on the giant hornet," and then I have to explain how that works.
Most games are built around limitations though, and I find that you need a certain amount of limitations to make the game compelling.
Jason Heimbach: Hey Ryan, honored to have you with us. In your talk you mentioned the importance of providing choices, while hiding the outcomes & keeping them meaningful. Any advice on how you hide those potential outcomes from view, while making them meaningful to the decisions being made?
Ryan Laukat: Thank you! That has been a difficult balancing act. What we decided to do in Sleeping Gods was show the players how difficult the requirements of the choices are, but hide the story and reward outcomes. Players must make some resource management decisions, thinking about the game mechanisms at first. After making the choice and completing the challenge, the player turns to a different page where they read the story outcome and gain rewards/consequences. Sometimes the outcomes are different than the player expects. I think surprise is extremely important in a story-focused game.
On the other hand, if you're trying to be as immersive as possible, you can completely hide all requirements and just make it about the story choices. This can lead to a feeling of randomness, but some players prefer it because it means that they aren't affected by game mechanisms or resources at all. It has a more CYOA book feel.
Vassil Mihailov: Hey Ryan! Great to have you here! What is your approach to playtest a new design, especially given that lots of your designs are quite branching, like Above and Below?
Ryan Laukat: Thanks! We do a lot of playtesting in-house at first. I mostly playtest at first with Malorie (my wife and co-owner of RRG). It can be hard to do this for long in a game with stories because you quickly memorize all of the choices (especially at first because you're working with a small number of stories). So I try to take the game to various conventions and game meetups even early in the design to see how it works with different people. Of course, that's not really practical these days so I've started using Tabletopia and asking for volunteers.
James M Hewitt: Your point about playtesting in-house at first - and finding it difficult when you've got games with a lot of story - all sounds very familiar! Sophie and I (at Needy Cat) are going through exactly the same thing at the moment with a game we're working on. Being in business with your partner definitely has its challenges, right? Do you ever find it hard to draw the line between work and not-work? (Last time we tried going out for a date night, we ended up coming up with a new concept and developing it at the table...)
Ryan Laukat: That's certainly a challenge! Especially now that I work from home instead of having another player to go for work. We've tried to set limits about when we can talk about work (like I try to avoid talking about it on weekends or evenings) but it can be hard. Also, one difficult thing about testing the story games so much is that, after reading the stories so many times, you sort of can't tell if the game is fun anymore.
James M Hewitt: Yeah, that all sounds sensible! And I definitely get where you come from - it's so easy to get zoned in on one element. We do a lot of licensed games, and we spend so much time making sure things are true to the source IP that it's easy to get lost in the weeds and end up with something that isn't fun. It's all about striking that balance, I suppose!
Joseph Z Chen: You wear so many hats, from artist, designer, and publisher! Which hat do you enjoy the most and how do you balance between all those responsibilities? If you could off load one responsibility to someone else, what responsibility would that be?
Ryan Laukat: There are two things I enjoy the most: sketching out game ideas in my notebook, and illustrating the games. The thing I wish I could have someone else do is graphic design, layout, and editing. The truth is that I have a team of people doing editing work, but it is still something I have to do as well.
Joseph Z Chen: Not a question, but when I set out to publish my own game and I was doing some research on art direction and box covers I walked into a game store to see what boxes stood out and the first game I picked up was Islebound. I took a look at the artist credit and realized you were also the publisher. That helped inspire me to be able to do the same thing.
Ryan Laukat: That's great to hear! Yes, the box cover is one of the most important things. I tend to repaint each cover three or four times before settling on the final version.
Hankins Feichter: Love and respect your work, Ryan! What do you think you’ve learned about the intersection of traditional narratives and analog gaming? Do you have any advice for those hoping to explore that intersection? Thanks :)
Ryan Laukat: Thanks! What I've learned is that it is very difficult to make traditional narratives and analog gaming flow together, especially in an open-world setting. The most challenging thing about designing Sleeping Gods was giving players meaningful choices but also having the stories and the world make sense. For example, we want to have players learn about the characters and have the characters grow, but everything a character says and does has to make sense in an open-world formula, so there were a lot of limitations. For example, if a character has a fight with another character that leads to bad feelings in one encounter, it can lead to problems if they later act like good friends in a different encounter.
I feel a bit like I'm rambling at this point, but there is one thing I've noticed about storytelling in games: the game experience is more satisfying and fun for the players if you give them room to make the story their own. Let them fill in some of the gaps instead of cramming every detail down their throats. Shorter paragraph descriptions can lead to more immersive storytelling. Encourage the players to make up parts of the story, wherever possible.
Hankins Feichter: I think it’s impossible to ramble on something like this! The greatest strength of the medium is the creativity of those at the table, so I really like that approach. The best story games provide a solid base for players to build on, thinking of your work. The struggles things like consulting detective sometimes run into I think stems from too firm of a baseline. I really appreciate your answer :)
Konstantinos Karagiannis: Hey Ryan. Thank you for being here to chat with us I really appreciate it! I was wondering, when you are choosing a new project to design and publish how important is it in your design process the target audience and what "would sell more". Do you design just for you, your wife and your friends in mind. And how much has your process and design decisions been changed from your first publication until now?
Ryan Laukat: I'm glad to be here! It's a constant battle when deciding what to publish. I have quite a few game design ideas that I'm personally interested in but I know they won't sell very well, at least not enough to justify spending a lot of time on them, so I have to put them aside for now. But I also find it impossible to work on a project unless I completely believe in it and am passionate about it. So I usually run through a bunch of ideas until I find one that I'm passionate about and that will also sell enough copies to keep the lights on.
As time goes on, I also find myself thinking more about the player experience with each game. Sometimes I get caught up in thinking too much about the mechanical puzzle I'm creating, and I still deal with that quite a bit, but focusing on player experience is so important. I'm also at a point now where I have little hesitation dropping something from the design if it isn't working (or completely throwing away a design).
Konstantinos Karagiannis: Thank you for your answer. If you have the time, could you analyze a bit more how "you know" that one idea would sell more over one other? What are your criteria, is it just a gut feeling?
Ryan Laukat: I go through so many designs trying to figure out which one will stick. It really is a gut feeling. I have to be passionate about it. I have to want to work on it, and think about it, and teach it so so many times. That can be a big indicator. "Do I want to teach this game and play it 100 more times?" If the answer is no, well, then I know it is time to move on. I think if I am passionate about it, there will be other people as well. It's also helpful to set up the game and explain it to playtesters and watch their reaction. Do they have a glazed look in their eyes? Hmm...perhaps it is not as cool as I thought.
Konstantinos Karagiannis: Excellent! Thank you Ryan!!!!
ian: Ooh, I would love to hear about a design idea that you want to make, but wouldnt sell well enough to justify - if you’re comfortable sharing, of course!
Ryan Laukat: Haha, well, I have a bunch of ideas like that. One that I keep thinking about is a historical game about Park City, a silver-mining town near where I live. I mean, I think it would sell some copies, and maybe I'll be able to revisit the idea some day, but I don't know if makes sense to focus on it right now.
Diana Ruyi Dai: Similar question - how can one tell if the game design ideas won't sell very well?
Ryan Laukat: It's mostly a gut feeling, combined with observations about which games people keep coming back to and that sell well. It's shocking how many bland or extremely niche themes I've seen in game prototypes. One of the most important things these days is for a game to have a good hook. What sets it apart? What will make people notice the game? Why should it be published? Is it different enough than x, y, and z game? Will it be a "must have" product?
Steve Unfred: I like the thought you all have been giving to targeting audiences. I've thought about it but I usually just listen to my gut.
Breeze: Hey Ryan! If you could boil down two or three lessons in marketing as a small publisher, what would they be?
Ryan Laukat: I've tried a lot of different things to market the games, and it seems like meeting people is one of the most important things. When I say meeting people, I mean everyone. Going to conventions and meeting players, reviewers, content creators, other designers, other publishers, podcasters, cosplayers, photographers, artists, distributors, and game store owners! This, of course, takes time and patience, and is much harder these days. Meeting people leads to marketing opportunities down the road. This, combined with social media marketing, works quite well. I think expensive print ads aren't nearly as effective.
Breeze: Designing 'open world' games - how? lmao. I've been having trouble grasping the fundamentals of the genre with my OW project, so what are some things to shoot for mechanically/player experience-wise, and what are some things to avoid in the same light?
Ryan Laukat: Open world designs are quite tough to nail down because it can be difficult to figure out player motivations and make a compelling narrative and mechanical game arc. At first, I looked at a lot of open world video games. It took a while to realize that the things that make those work don't translate well to a tabletop experience. Open world video games rely quite a bit on atmosphere and collecting endless amounts of resources. That doesn't work quite as well in a tabletop setting, at least in my experience. One big thing that took me a long time to accept: the players need some kind of time limit or there is no tension.
Steve Unfred: Hi Ryan, I like hearing what you have to say since emergent storytelling is one of the goals of my game. It asks players to imagine Greek myths but with the roles the gods play mixed around. To that end, I wanted to ask: do you ever intentionally allow for situations that don't completely make sense from a story perspective, with the intent of leading to humor in the player's emergent storytelling?
Ryan Laukat: Yes, I think that does lead to memorable moments, when you allow players to "fill in the gaps" when something isn't completely explained, or seems bizarre. It leads to humorous moments. I know that not every game experience is appropriate for that type of thing, but I think it leads to a lot of player satisfaction.
Steve Unfred: Thanks Ryan! I realize I didn't leave much room to expand on that in your answer, but it gives me confidence to hear it from a professional. I appreciate your time!
Jason Heimbach: After you've come up with your theme & story, how do you approach the question of which mechanic(s) best fit the theme?
Ryan Laukat: It usually involves a ton of trial and error. I like coming up with ways to use game mechanisms, so I sort of just sit there with a pad of paper thinking, "Okay, what do I want the players to do on their turn? What player actions would simulate the feeling or the world or the story I'm trying to convey?" The mechanics often don't work out the first time, or the second time, or the tenth time, so I just try to approach the game from many different angles until something works.
Alex: Following up on your answer to themes: We all know there are lots of themes that are overdone. Are there any themes that you think are "underdone" - that they would be popular but not a lot of people have made games with them yet?
Ryan Laukat: That's a tough one to answer. After judging for the Ion Award for a number of years, I noticed one thing. Game settings are more compelling when they are more specific. Instead of "This is a game where ninjas fight each other," it should be something like, "The ancient cat ninjas from the kingdom of x have come to the castle of the dogs for revenge!" I know that sounds silly, but it can be helpful to think this: "Would this also work as the premise for a novel or a comic book or a show on Netflix?"
Hey thanks everyone! It's been great to talk to you all.
James M Hewitt: Thanks for coming here and answering questions. See you around the place.
Diana Ruyi Dai: Thanks so much for your time and sharing insights with us. Looking forward to your next design!
Eli Edwardson: This was insightful, thanks for chatting Ryan.
Steve Unfred: Thank you for your thoughts and answers, Ryan! You've gotten me to think about story from a new angle. I'm glad to realize I'm on the right track with my current game's theme, but listening to you will help me make sure I learn the right takeaway from what is going well.