Frogdice: Making Games on the Road Less Traveled
We think of the video gaming industry as one largely centered around places like San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The rise of independent publishers as a legitimate phenomenon in recent years has subverted this somewhat, but even those great indie games made in people’s garages seem to come more from within the great tech hubs than anywhere else.
Maybe that’s why I was surprised to find out last March at PAX East that there were a few developers exhibiting in the Indie Megabooth who were from Lexington, KY, not far from my home. Not only that, but one of them, Frogdice, was actually 17 years old. Yes, you read that right. Frogdice has been making games for 17 years, and they’ve been doing so as far as you can get from the centers of power.
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time at the Frogdice studio, and to speak with Michael and Pang Hartman, the husband and wife who own it. We not only talked about Frogdice’s recently launched first Kickstarter – an attempt to raise $20,000 toward their upcoming title, Dungeon of Elements – but about the history of the company, and what it’s like to make games in Kentucky.
On The Fringes Of The Industry
A lot of indie developers left other jobs to start their own company. Michael is no different, although his story started a bit further away from the gaming industry than most. Back in 1996, he was a recent graduate the University of Georgia Law School, having already obtained a bachelor’s degree in International Law, Politics, and Organizations from Georgetown University. About to take the bar exam, he decided that he didn’t like being a lawyer, and he wasn’t fond of working with lawyers. Instead of investing thousands of dollars in taking the bar, Hartman decided to use that money to open a game studio.
Anytime a publisher pushes a game, or forces devs to add features that they don’t want, it doesn’t end well.
Who does that? “That’s exactly what my parents wondered for about five years,” said Hartman. “People thought I was crazy.” But Michael wasn’t starting from scratch. He already had the Threshold MUD running under the Frogdice name. A text-based multi-user dungeon, Threshold is a rarity even among MUDs in that it requires users to be in character at all times. It’s a story and character focused title, and the folks at Frogdice emphasize that aspect to users. Still, is a game like this worth throwing away a law career for? Pang thinks so, but she’s quick to point out that “You have to meet a chick who’s willing to marry you even though you’re going to throw your law future away to make games that might or might not make money.”
And that’s a Mammoth Cave-sized “might”. Fortunately, even though Lexington is approximately 2200 miles from the de facto center of the gaming industry (California), it turns out it’s not so hard for an indie studio to survive there. The Unviersity of Kentucky is nearby, which provides Frogdice access to a large pool of talented people. Michael’s also enthusiastic about the support the community has given the company. “We’ll meet people who don’t know anything about games, and they’ll have read an article about our company, and they’re super supportive,” he says. “They want Lexington to become a gaming hub – they want the city to have 10, 20, even 50 gaming companies eventually. So there’s a lot of support from the local and state governments, and that feels good to know that you have those people behind you.” The company’s philosophy on their location is embodied in the words of Robert Frost, emblazoned on the first wall you see upon entering the studio, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Michael concedes that acquiring investors might be more difficult in Kentucky, but the location also has its advantages. “The terms are not as mercenary,” he said about local investors. “The other benefit is that once you do get some investment, the expectations are not as aggressive.” Pang adds, “Anytime a publisher pushes a game, or forces devs to add features that they don’t want, it doesn’t end well. Venture capitalists can do that too. But here, the investors seems to have the attitude that we know more about making games, so they just let us do it, and that’s very important. A lot of times when you sign with a big VC, you can get just one year.”