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.”

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21 Comments on Frogdice: Making Games on the Road Less Traveled

Dras

On June 7, 2013 at 9:13 am

Having been one of those people that have stuck around with Frogdice for over ten years now, I can tell you that there’s another part of their company, beyond the well made games.

They encourage and support a -community-. They’re not faceless developers who we rant and rave at and may or may not respond to our complaints (I’m looking at you, Bioware). They’re Michael and Pang, they’re the ones making these worlds come alive WITH our input, not BECAUSE of the cash flow.

It’s a weird distinction, and I’m not sure my words get it across correctly, but I will -always- support Frogdice. It’s not just another gaming company, the people involved, players and admins, have become friends (and one even became my wife!).

Anthony Davis

On June 7, 2013 at 9:27 am

This is almost a comfort in my eyes. When companies like THQ are shutting down completely, being a student attempting to get into the game making industry, you look to positive events happening. This shiws that even small companies can make it. Even if you arent in the center of game making hub central. Keep moving forward FrogDice!

Hoo-Rah

On June 7, 2013 at 10:07 am

When I think of Kentucky, I think of bourbon. But it’s nice to see a gaming company doing well outside the traditional meccas. Looks like they’ve found a solid niche and are doing their best to cater to its members.

Loigan

On June 7, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’ve been playing Frogdice’s Threshold for over 10 years now.

I’ve met lots of cool people in my time with them and will be going to my 4th Frogdice convention this year.

While I might not play all the different games they have made, I continue to support this company because they are great people and have a great community.

I look forward to another 10 years with Michael and Pang.

Vasco

On June 7, 2013 at 10:31 am

I believe what has really helped Frogdice more than their excellent games and content is the support and respect they show their customers. As Dras said, they are always looking for input and ideas. They want to hear if they may have introduced a new aspect to a game that had unintended consequences. Good or bad news, they are receptive and they are quick to follow up.

Even with all the input they take stances that they will not budge on. Which is a good thing. They have not changed their core mentality for core game design. When you shake up foundations, things start to crumble. They know their strengths and they work well with them and they are always tweaking from the input they receive.

John

On June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am

I’ve been playing MUDs on and off for something like 15 years now, since I was in grade school. I got really into Threshold a few years ago, and it’s hands down the most entertaining, immersive game I’ve ever played. There are MUDs with more players, or more complicated combat systems, but if you’re looking to feel like a real piece of a fantasy world, you shouldn’t be playing anything other than Threshold.

Not only that, but the people who run the game are the most responsive, available, easy to talk to admins that I’ve ever encountered. From jump street, it was clear that they cared about the game and about their players. They’ve been doing it for almost 20 years now, and show no signs of stopping now.

The growth and the new games that are on the horizon for this company couldn’t have me more excited about sticking around to see what comes next.

Tyren

On June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am

I have been a long time supporter of Frogdice. I have been playing Threshold for over 13 years now and I play and support all of their other games as well. What makes these games what are they is the community behind them. The majority of us have been players for a very long time and we have all played together through the growth and expansion. Its a crazy ride but in the end we always end up enjoying what Frogdice does with the game. I highly recommend Threshold to anyone with an imagination and an open mind, also Tower of Elements if you enjoy match 3. I await DoE’s release and can’t wait to see what else they pump out.

Pel

On June 7, 2013 at 10:49 am

Though I haven’t played much of any of their new releases I’ve been playing Threshold on and off for around 10 years its nice to see that as a company they can continue to make enjoyable, good games.

Sier

On June 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Can’t wait for this game to come out! Frogdice is my favorite indie company. :)

Loigan

On June 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm

I have been playing Threshold for over 10 years now.

Even though I don’t play every game they release, I always have and always will continue to support Frogdice.

They are a great company with great people.

I look forward to another 10 years with Pang and Michael.

Carl D Price

On June 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I’m very pleased that this article made it to this site. I have been playing Threshold RPG for over thirteen years and I always come back because the community, players, admins, and developers are just an amazing group of people. Not to mention that the world is just so stinking immersive. I can literally log into the game and not kill/farm/raid/grind at all and feel like I have accomplished something just by engaging in the in-game social interaction that has been setup. (mostly by the players!)

Threshold RPG has been around for seventeen years and it shows signs of being around for decades longer at this point. This is because the community is there and the enforced roleplay only enhances the experience rather than detract from it.

Long story, short: Frogdice is an amazing company and I hope they get the success they deserve. They may be an Indie developer, but they have the drive, vision, and ethics that are deserving of so much more.

Taila

On June 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Just joined the whole Frogdice community and I’ve only really checked out tower of elements and Threshold, but I love the games and the developers. They actually care about their community of gamers and have so much interaction with them that, it makes you feel like you’re part of a tight family of folks.

Keep up the good work! =)

Chris Angelico

On June 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I’ve been playing Frogdice games – specifically, Threshold RPG – for about ten years now. There are literally no other games that I’ve played for anything like that long without a break; some games I’ll return to every once in a while, but nothing that I consistently play for over a decade. Why? Because it’s a huge community. I’ve met friends through Threshold (and some people have met *spouses* that way), and there’s no way that I’d ever give that up.

And part of the awesomeness of DoE? It includes that community. There is a little easter egg in there somewhere of a Threshold RPG character, depicted magnificently in a completely new setting!

Halyanne

On June 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Back in the day when MUD’s were popular, I tried and played quite a few. Then a friend of mine suggested Threshold. I gave it a try and haven’t looked back since. I loved the roleplay enforced structure. I loved the stories. I loved the people I met both IC and OOC. I love being able to contribute to gameplay through suggestions, ideas and concepts that I make up for my character. I love being able to bring things I love, to the IC public, so to speak. The possibilities are endless. They also make it easy for you to try things, have it not work out, and able to roleplay your way back to before.

As the years have gone on, Frogdice has come out with other games. I love playing Coin N Carry. I usually have that playing while I have a character playing on Threshold. The support that Frogdice gives is totally amazing. Certainly not something you see from big game developers. This is even more awesome in a story driven character game like Threshold. They really do mean it when they say that the people run and decide the fate of the stories.

There is a reason Frogdice has been around for 17 years and I have no doubt they will be around for another 17. And I will be playing along side them.

Tethon

On June 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Been an active member on the Frogdice scene for over 15 years and am still entertained. Hope this trend continues with new games/content through the years!

Chris Angelico

On June 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Actually, the reason I’ve hung around is because of the dual nature of Threshold. When the community or admins offend, I can just talk to the computer (play the coded game). When I don’t have much time to invest in actually playing the game, I can still chat with the community. Hence I’m still around after ten years.

Matt Johnson

On June 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

It’s so cool to see a fantasy setting that has been a fun part of my life for over a decade come to life in so many creative ways in Frogdice games. I will be really excited to see what they do next!

Halyanne

On June 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I started playing MUD games about 19 years ago. I played quite a few, some I stuck around with for a year or two and others I didn’t. But never has there been a game that I have played for so long than Threshold, Frogdice’s first game. When I was first introduced to the game, the biggest attraction was the enforced roleplaying and strict structure of the game. Threshold is a game where your suggestions and character driven ideas matter. People are given so much freedom in the game to do what they want to do. That is amazing for a MMO. The people at Frogdice are always supportive and there for questions, to hear your comments and a lot of times they often use your suggestions.

I’ve made some really good friends via Frogdice games. Some people I speak to every day. The community that Frogdice develops is an everlasting one. A game with administrators that support their players like they do is the reason they have been around for so long. That is also the reason they will be around for many years into the future.

yrizaria

On June 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm

This is a really wonderful, indepth article! Helping a small company like this get funded on Kickstarter should make every gamer out there feel good about him/herself. Players are loyal to games like Threshold because of the caring company behind the scenes. If you thought this company sounds great you should pledge a little something to help on Kickstarter and be a part of games like this growing and succeeding!

Nicole K

On June 8, 2013 at 7:16 am

I’ve been a fan of Frogdice for years, and it’s really exciting to see them constantly developing and putting out new and exciting games. Threshold was my first MUD, and it quickly became my only MUD because of how wonderfully developed and immersive it was, and still is. I enjoyed the stories, and my character’s part in them, so much that I actually went a little bit fangirl and got a tattoo inspired by the game.

Another big thing I love about Frogdice is the community aspect. When you get involved in any of Frogdice’s games, you become a part of this wonderful family. The staff and players are fun and supportive, whether you’re a veteran gamer, or a total newbie, and I can definitely credit Frogdice with introducing me to some of my favorite friends.

That said, I can’t wait to see how far Frogdice can go with DoE (and anything else they do in the future)! If it’s anything like my love affair with Threshold, it’s sure to be a hell of an experience with great interactions that will keep you entertained for hours.

Halyanne

On June 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

As someone who has played Frogdice games for almost 15 years, it’s awesome to see such positive articles such as this. Beginning with Threshold, the Frogdice team has always cared what their customers want and need. They have been instrumental in such a supportive community. I can’t even begin to tell you how many friends I have made via Frogdice games. Lots of people I speak to every day. I might not have met them in Real Life, but I still consider them friends.

Besides the many friendships I’ve found via Frogdice games, I can’t even begin to tell you how much their involvement in their games is refreshing. They are always there to answer questions, field comments and concerns and to listen to your ideas. Many player ideas have been implemented into all their games. No where have I found a game that that lets you be as creative or involved in your roleplaying than Threshold. You can pretty much do anything with your character. Bringing in things that you love, like various games, stories, even cooking ideas, makes Threshold a game that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing for almost 15 years. What other game can really brag that they have people who play who have been playing for so long. The main reason behind this is the dedication of Michael and Pang. I’ll always be there to support their games.