By Early-Ray Mixon / NM News Port /
When Mark Diaz Truman was 12 years old, his discovery of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd edition, would chart the course of his life.
“It was just this cool game that had monsters and elves and dwarves,” Truman said, “and it just felt so different than other things we could do with our time.”
He and friends would play the game for 15-hour sessions. Sports, dances, even sunlight were left behind in favor of the adventure on the tabletop.
“This was sort of peak nerd stuff,” he said. “Six of us sitting around a table in my buddy’s basement in Rio Rancho.”
Now Truman is a bit older and a bit greyer but no less involved in the world of tabletop gaming.
Today, he’s a game designer and co-founder of Magpie Games.
Albuquerque has become a hotspot for professional game developers.
In recent years, several companies have set up shop in the city, including Magpie Games, Level99 Games, Rio Grande Games and Side Room Games. The scene includes the Albuquerque Game Developers Guild, with almost 600 members. There are also a host of tabletop gaming stores in the city.
“These past few years, we’ve certainly been in a golden age for tabletop gaming,” said David B. Talton, Jr., game developer and founder of Level99 Games.
But now Pandora’s box has opened and Covid-19 is loose in the world and this local industry faces it’s first great challenge.
“We are in a brave new world,” Truman said.
Truman said Magpie’s Albuquerque office was the perfect work space, where he and his six person staff had a special energy.
He called it an ideal environment for sharing ideas and thinking creatively, but now they must work from home like they did in the early days, with the exception of the lone employee assigned to the empty building to run the warehouse.
The story is similar for Talton of Level99 Games.
“We got so far and now we’re back where we started again,” Talton said.
Last year, Talton’s company finally got an office and made a welcome switch from remote work to a professional environment free from domestic distractions.
Now he and his team are back at home.
The Growing Industry
“Crowdfunding has been a massive gamechanger for this industry,” Talton said, recalling how things were accelerating until recently.
He said the tabletop gaming industry began to grow around the same time as crowdfunding started to take off.
Before that, developing a quality game was a hard proposition.
“It takes thousands and thousands of dollars to get good at making tabletop roleplaying games,” Truman said, “and Kickstarter has unlocked the financing for that.”
Tabletop games often involve specialty parts along with art and design elements. Thus they represent, potentially, a heavy upfront investment. Until recently this meant that the financial risks involved with launching a game often outweighed any potential benefit.
According to Talton, it was 2009-2010 when he started thinking about his first Kickstarter campaign.
“Crowdfunding was a brand new thing and I saw independent board game companies starting up on Kickstarter,” Talton said. “I said, if they can do it maybe I can do it.”
Similarly, in 2011, Truman would try to fund his first game on Kickstarter. He had partnered with artist Marissa Kelly and after an attempt at a comic franchise that went nowhere they went to some gaming conventions and were convinced to try to make a game of their own.
“So, we put the project up for 500 bucks and raised $5,000, which to us seemed like winning the lottery and we were off,” Truman said.
Meanwhile Talton’s first game ended up costing slightly over twice the $15,000 he raised, but it was an important learning experience and became a big enough success for him to raise $150,000 to fund its sequel just two years later.
“These days I can find a thousand people that will be interested in my game, collect money from them and produce the game and deliver it without taking that risk,” Talton said.
According to both Talton and Truman, this means that small game companies can put more time and money into the quality of the final product. Games can be higher end and the creators can make bolder choices and invest more time in storytelling if they get money upfront.
“I funded ‘Cartel,’ for example, for about $56,000,” Truman said. “While that doesn’t pay our bills, I’m not rolling in money, it means that I can dedicate time and energy to it the last couple of years to make it a great game.”
The COVID Impact
Unfortunately for developers and retailers, the rules of the game have changed again, thanks to Covid-19. The path before them is now one of uncertainty and it’s hard to tell where the dice will land.
“We don’t know what happens to Kickstarter in a recession or a depression,” Truman said. “We don’t know if people are going to want to buy games if they can’t play them face to face.”
He said he and his team at Magpie finished their most recent Kickstarter campaign in March, before the virus hit hard.
Still, he said, crowdfunding remains an important part of their business model but amid quarantine, social distancing and nationwide mass layoffs the future remains unclear.
Talton and his company, Level99 Games, have a slightly different business model than Magpie and are feeling the impact differently.
“We’re a retail and wholesale business so we feel the effects that the customers are feeling,” Talton said.
He described an economic chain reaction from the customers to the retailers and finally to his company.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Both Level99 and Magpie have experienced a rise in online sales.
For example, Truman notes, the digital version of Magpie’s apocalyptic game “Zombie World” is selling quite well right now.
Retail Also Struggles
The thriving ecosystem of local gaming stores in Albuquerque has also experienced setbacks due to Covid-19.
Two such retailers have risen to the challenge by adapting their business to continue operations during the pandemic. Empire Board Game Library and Slice and Dice have both switched to dropping board games off at their customers’ doors.
“Basically we had to close the store down, but we’ve been pretty actively making deliveries about three or four days a week to people’s homes during this entire pandemic,” said Rory Veronda, the owner of Empire Board Game Library in Nob Hill.
While the delivery model may be keeping things afloat, like other businesses hit by the pandemic, Veronda’s store is losing money.
“Maybe we’re doing 25 to 30 percent of what we were making on business — but it’s 100% retail,“ Veronda said.
Much of their pre-virus business was based on in-store activities. However, with the restrictions on business expected to loosen up soon, Veronda has a plan which he hopes will have his doors open to customers by June.
“What I was thinking about doing for June was making it sort of a themed month and calling it The Empire Board Game Club, where you can only get in with a reservation,” Veronda said.
He hopes that by only keeping ten or 11 well-spaced tables open and reserving seating he can strike the right balance between social distancing and social gaming. He also plans to bring on new staff to help keep the games and the tables sterile.
Gaming is Different Now
In spite of being busy designing games and running companies, Truman and Talton both still play tabletop games — but sheltering in place due to Covid-19 has made the hobby more complicated.
“Since we’re all social distancing and staying apart from each other, I’ve played a lot of games online,” Truman said. “We’re on video chat together and we have a little dice roller that we use.”
“To be honest, it’s really important to me to spend time with those folks.”
For Truman, however, gaming via video call is not the same as playing in person.
“When you’re sitting at a table with four or five people, I can look around and know you all are having fun and see the energy of the room. When we’re online I’m constantly looking at this little screen. Are you engaged? Are you having fun? Is this good? It’s so much more work,” Truman said.
The way Truman sees it, the game provides a context for simply engaging with others.
“What would we do if we weren’t playing the game? Just hang out and talk for twenty minutes?,” Trumon ponders. “Since we spend all our time in our house now there’s nothing to talk about — but the game gives us something to continually engage with.”
“It’s not a video game we’re playing separate from us, it’s us, ” Truman said.
Defensive Measures and Future Plans
Neither the developers nor the retailers have been idle when it comes to planning for the coming months. All sides are taking measures to ease the financial burdens on the gaming community and restore some aspects of normalcy as the campaign against the virus continues.
With all gamer conventions cancelled through July, Magpie Games has introduced a Curated Play option on it’s website to help fill that gap.
“This is a program where we’re selling tickets like a convention where you buy a ticket to a game and you come and one of the game masters who we’ve worked with before will run a game for you and the other people who register,” Truman said.
He described it as a means for gamers to connect online and for game masters to get paid for their skills during the pandemic.
“I think it’s really easy to get into games, but I also understand it’s hard if you don’t know anybody. That’s one of the things we’re trying to address with our Curated Play program,” Truman said.
“The industry has really banded together to help protect these retailers” — David Talton of Level99 Games
Meanwhile, Level99 Games has been issuing coupon codes to some of the local retailers like Empire Board Game Library to allow them to share in the proceeds from online sales and account for at least a small part of the business they’re losing.
“The industry has really banded together to help protect these retailers,” Talton said.
For both Magpie and Level99, in spite of the logistic and financial challenges to the business end, the creative part is going full steam ahead.
Truman said he’s in his home-office every day, writing until about 6 p.m.. His next game, which he considers his best to date, “Cartel” is scheduled for a release later this year.
Talton and his team, meanwhile, are also working hard on their next release. “Bullet” is a space shooter inspired tabletop game.
Early-Ray Mixon is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.