Dan Higgins is the CEO and demi-god of Boston’s Lunchtime Studios. With his crack team of creative artists and programming ronin, they craft the characters, scenery, aesthetic, music and code that come together to make amazing apps and games.
Dan is no stranger to video games with a pedigree in the industry working on titles such as Empire Earth, Rise & Fall: Civilizations at War and SimCity Societies as well as published works in Game Programming Gems and Game Engine Gems.
After meeting Dan at this year’s PAX East show, we had a chance to catch up with him to talk about the upcoming game, Lords of New York, find out why he’s drawn to 1920′s New York, must have elements when designing video games and the creative collaboration within a game studio. This interview is in three parts, so buckle up as we transport you back to the time of “gangsters, flappers, bootleggers and jazz.”
SeagateCreative: What’s the “origin story” behind Lunchtime Studios? Aside from Lords of New York, what other projects have you worked on?
My wife and I are big gamers, and I’ve worked in the AAA games business for many years. We felt the games industry wasn’t pushing the title innovations enough and many of the games we loved to play years ago had vanished due to smaller markets and rising costs for game development. Publishers were playing it too safe — picking games with an existing proven pattern. We wanted to build games that left a lasting impression, games people talked about years later and we were willing to take design risks to develop innovative titles, so we formed our family business!
Over time, we settled on a focused identity. Our mission is to build games with compelling stories, innovative features, high quality execution and game play, all with the end goal of building memorable games.
Being a small company, it’s tough to match all of those goals with little to no resources, but it’s our identity. Fortunately, we have a number of incredible AAA developers, a lot of passion, and a great wealth of creativity on the team. We know it takes a number of products to build a reputation, and Lords of New York is our first big step in our journey.
Actually, our first title was supposed to be a children’s storybook app. We will complete this one day, but with such a backlog of great ideas, it’s difficult to pick the right one to work on. Each night at bedtime, I make up stories with my son. Our children’s app was going to be a place other parents could post their made up stories and see some of ours (or user voted) stories come to life. It’s called “Tonight’s Story”, and the app I made to prepare for it is a free one on iOS: atPeace.
My son is 8, but we have a 14 month old who will be ready for my son and I to make up stories for her, so Tonight’s Story will get finished after Lords of New York.
I mentioned atPeace as an app we’ve released. It was built with the goal of teaching us as many lessons as possible and testing our technology. It did just that. It taught us lessons in marketing, publishing a title, supporting a title, amongst others. These apps have no story, no depth, no real game play, just a sandbox for testing our engine. We did, however, include original music by a famous game composer, Keith Zizza. That alone makes the download worth it! In our apps, we experimented with free, paid, in-app purchases, cross marketing, ads, and to summarize what we’ve learned:
We hate micro transactions. As a customer, I feel slighted, suspicious, and disappointed when I see in-app purchases. Of course, there are some great in-app purchase games — like buying an expansion pack, or character / map that enhance an already “full” experience, but you never know what games are giving you. Are you getting a shell and hoping you’ll buy the things that make it fun? We’ll avoid doing micro-transactions unless they substantially add to an already complete game, such as additional playable characters.
Ads are annoying – Customers don’t like ads, no one clicks on them unless they are built into places that trick people. “I packed on 15 lbs of muscle from this one weird trick” – ugh. Ad’s just get in the way and take away from the experience.
Some titles are big hits in certain countries. atPeace, our free app (and really just a game engine test) has a lot of downloads, half of which come from Korea.
SeagateCreative: Tell us what the game Lords of New York is about?
It’s an adventure RPG poker game set in 1920′s mafia controlled New York City. That’s a bit of a mouthful because it’s a lot of different genres packed into one experience. It’s like Boardwalk Empire meets Rounders inside a game mechanic like the 1990′s Shadowrun where you had two worlds, but did combat in the matrix. We have the adventure / story line, with poker as your combat mechanic.
The game play is centered on you being a poker superstar so we give you superstar abilities. Additionally, it’s poker with tells, so you’ll be reading tells from opponents, and trying not to give away your own as you drive up a pot to win a big hand. Lastly, the poker game isn’t just about winning; you have different quests and motivations for playing. Maybe you need to keep a guy at the table long enough for someone to search his apartment. If you see him getting upset because he’s a bad player, you may have to throw some hands and try to get him to win.
Originally, we planned for 3 different players, each with their own poker talents, game play, storyline and end goals. Their stories overlap so that you interact with one of the playable characters you could have chosen. This allows you to play through circumstances from multiple angles. Our characters are:
Vincent: A captain in the mafia, his world began falling apart when his old nemesis Lucky was released from prison. He battles his conscience and performs good or evil acts, which alter the direction of his character. His talents focus around cheating, intimidation, and using his goons to help him win.
Tony: An undercover agent sent to bring down the mob. He gets close to these guys by playing poker with them whenever he can. He becomes important to the mafia after a series of events, and becomes sympathetic to certain members. It’s made worse by his handlers from the government who are doing downright illegal things and Tony is caught in the middle. Somehow he has to do his job, bring down the mafia, minimize collateral damage, and not end up killed or in prison. If he succeeds, a top position at the bureau is in his grasp. He’s the best of the card players, and his talent tree specializes in probability and statistics.
Veronica: She’s an ambitious girl from the Midwest, destined for greatness. A lioness in a man’s world, she’s trying to break into journalism in a big way. With doors slamming in her face, and offers to clerk or be a stenographer, she decides to risk her life by doing scoops on the mafia. If she succeeds and her articles are accepted, she becomes famous. She’ll have a great position at the newspaper of choice, fame, money, and respect. Her poker talents focus around likeability, people skills, and intuition. She’s the only one who can uncover the truth behind the main storyline that befalls all the playable characters.
Unfortunately, we trimmed back to just Vincent since our Kickstarter didn’t succeed, but we’re still planning all 3 so that we can add in Tony and Veronica after the game is released. If our next Kickstarter reaches its stretch goals, we’ll ship with all playable characters on day 1.
In a nutshell, it’s poker with story-based goals, talents and tells wrapped up in a deep storyline. It’s set in the 1920′s and we give you the ability to make decisions, which impact the game’s direction.
For Vince, we also add in a struggle between his own good and evil impulses. Depending on his actions, he’ll gain abilities, and access to different locations and items. It’s quite likely gamers will want to play where they swing back and forth between good and evil, just like an old world mobster who isn’t quite evil.
Lords of New York is certainly a unique game. It’s got adventure, story, poker with talents / tells and its share of surprises.
Check back Wednesday for Part 2 of this interview with Lunchtime Studios.