Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Justin Gary (@Justin_Gary), an award-winning designer, author, speaker, and entrepreneur. He is CEO of Stone Blade Entertainment and creator of the innovative and award-winning Ascension deck-building game series. Prior to designing games, Justin was the youngest ever Magic: The Gathering US National Champion. He has studied creativity and applied the principles of design to create dozens of products over his 20 years in the industry for brands that include Marvel, World of Warcraft, and the Wharton School of Business. Today, he designs, consults, and teaches creativity around the world as a digital nomad.
Justin is also the author of Think Like a Game Designer: The Step-By-Step Guide to Unlocking Your Creative Potential and host of the Think Like a Game Designer podcast.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Justin, it is nice to see you. Very nice to see you again.
Justin Gary: Yeah, Tim. Great to see you again as well.
Tim Ferriss: And you are at maybe undisclosed, or you could disclose, but you are overseas at the moment, so we are across the pond or many ponds, as it were. I’m glad we were able to make the timing work and I thought we could begin with Magic.
So, Magic. Magic: The Gathering is a game that I never really became familiar with because I was older guard at that point, Dungeons & Dragons, a lot of the very first editions. But my younger brother, on the other hand, really became immersed in Magic and actually competed on some level and his friends were just obsessed with Magic: The Gathering.
So could you, please, for people who don’t have the context, explain what Magic is and I suppose how you became involved and what that trajectory looked like?
Justin Gary: Magic is a trading card game invented by Richard Garfield. And so what trading card game means is that you can buy it, not just like a normal game like Monopoly, you’d buy it in a store, it’d be a single box here. Here, you buy packs of cards like you would baseball cards, and each one has different gameplay elements. The way I like to describe it for people who don’t know is it’s sort of a cross between chess and poker where you get to decide what deck of cards you’re going to play and what pieces you get to play with.
So there’s the poker element of I’m drawing a hand of cards and maybe I can bluff what I have and you don’t know. And there’s the chess element of there’s tactically, once I play those cards, there’s tactically ways I use them that kind of battle back and forth. Then, of course, it has fantasy characters and so it appeals to people who like Dungeons & Dragons so you’ll be playing wizards and dragons and warriors and stuff like that.
I first got involved with Magic in a pretty funny way, actually. So I used to be on a competitive laser tag league. So I am a very, a very competitive person by nature. I’ve been involved in pretty much whatever I do, I’ll find some way to compete with it. In between games of laser tag, people were playing this card game that looked really cool I’d never heard of before. I watched them play and I was like, “Okay, what is that?”
Okay, so I go to the store and I just buy a pack of cards and, as I mentioned, the cards are totally random. So I just took all the random cards I bought and just went to go play and I got my butt kicked and was, of course, okay, you actually have to construct and build your deck and build your strategy and that helps it come to life. So I came back the next week and, okay, now I played a little better and a little better and eventually, at one point, all the guys from my group were all going to go to a state championship tournament.
Tim Ferriss: And how old were you at this point?
Justin Gary: I was 16 years old.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it.
Justin Gary: So I was a young kid, so I was like, “Oh, hey, come along. Come on the car ride.” And those were some of my best memories in general. Just a bunch of guys hanging out, jumping in the car and just talking about games, riding up. As it turns out, I won that tournament and so I ended up becoming the state champion and that got me an invitation to the national championships.
Again, I was not ever taking this sort of seriously, I wasn’t even intending to go. In fact, I was supposed to go to debate camp that summer. Yet another thing I was arbitrarily competitive in. And it ended up being my parents couldn’t afford to send me that year to debate camp. So last minute, again, my friends were all super supportive here, I ran a tournament at my local game store. They let me run the event. I collected the entry fees from that tournament.
I used that to pay for a plane ticket to fly to Columbus, where the US National Championships was happening. I slept on a friend’s floor. I was now 17 at this time and I ended up winning the US National Championships and that ends up taking me on a career of traveling around the world, playing Magic for a living.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s dive into a bunch of things that you mentioned. I was not aware of the debate camp component, the debating piece, and I have watched debates. I have never been part of a debate team. Could you just explain for folks what a debate competition looks like, or a debate as a game, per se? What does that look like and why were you good or at least competent at it?
Justin Gary: There’s a few different categories. I’ll just talk about my favorite one, it was called Lincoln-Douglas debate at the time. It basically means that you have a topic that you’re debating like, say, the US should have closer relationships with China or it’s better to sacrifice the good of a few for the good of the many or something like that, some topic. And then you would have to pick one side of the argument.
There’s a judge in the room and you have a certain amount of time to make your case. Then the other person has a certain amount of time to make their case. Then you have some time for rebuttal and they have some time for rebuttal. At the end, the judge or judges would then decide who won. So that’s kind of the outline.
Tim Ferriss: And there’s a coin toss to decide who goes first?
Justin Gary: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Because that seems like a major advantage. All right, so there’s a —
Justin Gary: Well —
Tim Ferriss: Go ahead.
Justin Gary: It varies, right? So from round to round, you’ll go first or second and this was sort of how we did it in high school. My favorite version of debate was what I did in college, which was called parliamentary debate where you could, literally, make up any topic you wanted and just start talking about it and the other side would have to defend the other side. You would just play and have fun and try to figure out and convince people that this was the way to go.
It was such a fun exercise in just persuasion and kind of tactically how you wanted to frame everything. It became something I really spent quite a bit of time on and really enjoyed. Then it ended up being very useful for quite a few things later in life. It turns out being able to speak good has value.
Tim Ferriss: So if we look at, say, the Lincoln-Douglas format or the parliamentary, I suppose the former is maybe a better example to use here, knowing nothing about it. But how much time do you have to prepare? Once you are assigned or have chosen one side of, let’s just say, the US should have closer ties with China and you’re either pro or con. How much time do you have to prepare that?
And are you just basically making it up, but you’re using the strength of your logic that you construct, even if your assumptions are off to defeat your opponent? How does that work?
Justin Gary: So for those formats, the same topic will hold for a while, for months, like a season, and so you can prepare very much ahead of time.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Got it.
Justin Gary: Then there’s other ones that like the parliamentary one, where you have no idea what you’re going to talk about until you start going up there a lot of the times. So that was more fun because it was a little bit more extemporaneous, so there’s varying degrees. So when you have the same topic over and over again, you’d start to notice common threads about how people will present it. Then some people would, you’d try crazy things.
So may be that the US should have closer ties with China and you would take a position, actually the US should not exist anymore, it should dissolve. And you start making arguments around that and you just kind of have to take the argument seriously, in a sense, because the job of the judge is to sort of leave outside their preconceived notions and just hear what you have to say.
So that, having to think on your feet and react and be able to kind of come up with unique answers and change the flow of things was really quite a bit of fun.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so in that, I will move on. To everybody listening, I will move on in a moment, but I really want to understand this because I suspect, as you mentioned, that these are threads that tie into other things later, at least some of them. These are not isolated skills.
If you’re practicing, say, the parliamentary style and you are developing this approach to structured thinking and presenting and you don’t know what you’re going to be speaking about until you really sort of get on the stage and somebody hands you the mic, it’s a sort of freestyle rap battle. When you get up and then you give your spiel, how do the judges judge? What does that look like?
Justin Gary: Great question. So —
Tim Ferriss: Because presumably they might not know anything about the topic that you’re discussing, so they can’t really fact-check a lot of what you’re saying, I would assume.
Justin Gary: That’s right. There’s no live fact-checking in these formats, it’s about your persuasive ability. If I were going to break this down into kind of core skillsets and what the judges are doing, which is also what I’m doing as a competitor, is any time my opponent is saying something, I’m writing down their points. So I’m breaking them down into kind of concrete notes and I want to make sure that for each point that’s brought up, I am addressing it in some key way.
Now a lot of times I can make some broader point that will maybe take out a few of their points. And because you only have a certain amount of time, how efficiently are you able to use that time to both refute the points that they’re saying, as well as bring up your own points that are hopefully harder to refute. So it becomes a kind of process of being very good at listening and taking notes.
Then being able to structure how do you want to set up your replies so that you’re gaining time advantage, if you will, with your persuasive ability to give you more time to make your own row of arguments so that hopefully they don’t have time in their thing to properly address and attack everything.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, great. So, as promised, I’m going to move forward in the chronology.
Justin Gary: This is great. I’ve never been asked about this before, so this is fun.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’m trying to do my job as best I can. Returning to Magic. So you mentioned that led to all these adventures traveling around the world, competing. What does that mean? Could you explain what that looks like in terms of incentives, stakes, how profitable is it for someone to be a full-time Magic player? I imagine it depends on the person, but what does it mean to travel around the world and compete?
Justin Gary: So now, we’re taking this back now. Date myself a little bit. But this is ’97 when I won the US National Championships and the core of my career was about the six years from ’97 to about 2003. That time there was what was called the Magic Pro Tour, which was put on by the company that made the game as a way to promote it and they would have millions of dollars of prizes available.
So at any given tournament you could win. So my biggest tournament winnings would typically be in the $30,000 range. So a pro tour in Houston where I won that or these different tournaments. So to give you a sense, a first place in one of those tournaments was $30,000-ish all the way down till top 32, maybe you’d get a thousand dollars. Then you’d have to get invited to these tournaments. There’d be maybe 300 people-ish that would get invited.
So I would do a tournament in Prague. Then there’d be another one in Sydney. Then there’d be another one in Seattle. There’d be another one in Tokyo and so we got to literally just meet up. And again, I’m in high school, I’m a teenager, so this is just like crazy.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a lot of money.
Justin Gary: Oh, my god, it’s crazy money, right? So I was just, such a fun thing. But when you think about it as an adult, it’s not a crazy, crazy amount of money, but it was great at the time. You can’t win every tournament, but when I was playing at my peak, it was maybe $80,000 a year I was making, so it’s still not —
Tim Ferriss: That’s no joke for a teenager?
Justin Gary: At that time, it was great. I mean, it’s how I paid my way through college. So it was better than flipping burgers, I’ll put it that way.
Tim Ferriss: What was your major in college?
Justin Gary: I was a philosophy major.
Tim Ferriss: How did you choose philosophy?
Justin Gary: Well, as you might guess, I love debating. I mean, I’ve always been very interested in just sort of talking about the deep questions, trying to get down to the fundamentals of what is interesting and what matters.
I tried a few different majors in history and I was on my path to be a lawyer because my parents are lawyers and that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. But I found most classes, when I went to them, the job as a student in the class was to regurgitate whatever it was that the professor told you back to them and that bored the hell out of me. Whereas in philosophy, the job was to make a reasonable argument.
It didn’t matter, just like in debate, it didn’t matter what your position was, is can you defend it? Do you have good logic for it? And to try to, I loved being proven wrong. I loved when I would have, I think there was something, this was a kind of strength and a weakness. I loved debating with people and I loved it when someone told me something I didn’t know or convinced me I was wrong. I was like, “That’s amazing. That’s great.”
It took me a very long time to realize most people are not like that. In high school I was voted most likely to disagree with anything you say.
So I learned to be a little bit more cautious and compassionate in my conversations with people, but I really enjoyed it. So philosophy let me explore that space of really what matters in the world and what matters to me and really refine my thinking and get challenged on my thinking when I was unclear or fuzzy.
Tim Ferriss: I want to mention for people who may not notice this pattern that on this podcast there is disproportionate representation of former philosophy majors, however, that could be severe survivorship bias. I’m sure there are many, many philosophy majors who do not end up on large podcasts.
However, it is notable to me. You have people who are deeply interested in philosophy who also end up in these conversations with me. Reid Hoffman would be another example who, I’m not sure if he majored in philosophy, but he has taught philosophy and takes it very, very seriously.
Why were you comfortable and maybe even invigorated by being proven wrong or converted in that way? Did that come from being raised in a family of lawyers? Did it come from something else? What contributed to that?
Justin Gary: Yes. I think there’s two factors here. I think one, you’re absolutely right. My parents were wonderful in the sense that as a kid, I could argue my way to a later bedtime or I could argue my way to, “Hey, if I finished my homework, I can get an extra setting of dessert,” or whatever. They encouraged if I could kind of debate my way to something, then I could get it and so it trained me very young.
And similarly, my dad and I, we would be playing cutthroat games of Monopoly around the kitchen table quite a bit. But they did, they reinforced that after the game, what did you learn? If you lost, what did you learn from it? And that’s the biggest thing that I credit for, certainly my success in Magic, and I’ve tried to apply that everywhere else in my life is that when you lose, which you inevitably are going to lose in life. It doesn’t matter what it is that you look first to, “Okay, what could I have done differently? How could I have set this up differently so that I wouldn’t even be in this position?”
It’s easy when you’re playing a game like Magic where your opponent draws a lucky card. It’s a one out of 60 that they draw that card and they beat you because of it. And you’d hear in the hallways, other people would be complaining about what’s called bad beats, right? “I got unlucky. Oh, my God.” But the best players wouldn’t do that. The best players would say, “Actually, if five turns earlier I had made this different play, it wouldn’t have mattered what card they drew at that turn.”
That skillset was something that was drilled into me, and it’s something I definitely credit quite a bit of success across a variety of fields.
Tim Ferriss: This might seem a strange question, but do Magic competitors — or did they study games in the way that chess players study historic games of chess where those moves and decisions are recorded in some way? I’m not sure if it lends itself to that.
Justin Gary: Oh, it absolutely does. And people would break these things down. So again, we’re going to take ourselves in the way back machine, ’97, ’98. This era, the internet is still relatively new, right? Still relatively light and so people would go to what at the time was called the Magic Dojo, which you can now find in the internet archives.
It was where everybody would post tournament reports of, “Okay, here’s what I played, here’s what happened.” And people would comment on them and break down kind of more classic bulletin board style. That’s where the core of Magic strategy and discussion started to form. And now there’s dozens of sites and dozens of places where you can find this.
But it was unlike with chess where people have been doing this strategy and breaking down games for hundreds of years, Magic‘s 30 years old or whatever and at the time it was very new. And so I got to see the origins of these strategies come together and break down individual games and individual moves, and it became obsessive.
I mean, if you look at my old college notebooks, they are covered in Magic deck ideas and scribbles, and at least as much as there are notes about philosophy or whatever it was I was supposed to be studying.
Tim Ferriss: What were the main innovations? If you had to try to identify some game design elements that led to or contributed to Magic becoming such a global phenomenon, what would you say were the innovations? I mean, there’s definitely the slot machine, dopamine potential of buying these packs just like buying baseball cards, right? But what else is there in the game that made it at least have the possibility of exploding in the way that it did?
Justin Gary: So there’s a lot of factors. There’s a deep answer, but we have a long-form podcast, so if you don’t mind.
Tim Ferriss: I love deep answers. Take all the time you want.
Justin Gary: I teach game design and there’s sort of five major categories of what people are looking for out of games and Magic hits all of them in ways. So I’ll talk about the categories first and then I’ll talk about why Magic succeeded in such an incredible way.
So the first is immersion. You’re looking for certain experiences or you’re looking to craft a story. The second is connection, right? You’re looking to socialize, you want help other people, you want to connect with others. The third is aspiration. This can be in competition, this can be achievements. You want to win, you want to prove you’re better than, prove you can achieve something.
Then the fourth is growth. You want to learn, you want to continue to move up and improve your skills. And the last is expression. This idea that you want to customize or role playing works this way because we express different parts of ourselves through role playing. And so those are kind of the major categories.
I think Magic allowed people to both not only have these competitions like I was doing, but it allowed people to customize and grow in a world where it’s infinitely deep. At a certain point with chess, it’s a deep game, but there’s only so many pieces. I can learn them all. I can know kind of the frame I’m playing it. With Magic, there’s constantly new cards coming, there’s constantly new things to do, and I get to own, I get to customize and own my experience.
So to relate it to something you’re more familiar with, Dungeons & Dragons, the idea that you get to tell the story, that you get to create the character is so powerful and so immersive and Magic is very similar. If you want to build a deck with all elf cards, you could do that. If you want to build a deck that has every card that you could imagine and is 300 cards deep, you can do that. If you want to be the hyper competitive, hyper-focused guy, you could do that.
There are so many experiences that you get to, in a sense, design your own game. And it’s one of the things that I’ve learned, much like you talked about, a lot of philosophy majors end up on your podcast, a lot of the game designers started from a game like Magic or Dungeons & Dragons. Because as you play, you’re crafting your own experience, and I think that was such a unique and powerful thing. Dungeons & Dragons could be a little intimidating for people because it’s so open-ended.
Tim Ferriss: No, it’s so intimidating. It’s so complex. Or at least it can be.
Justin Gary: It can be.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a real commitment.
Justin Gary: It can be. Exactly. Whereas Magic, you’re playing inside of these box and these rules, but once you start exploring it, then this whole world opens up. I think that was really the “magic” of it, and it really made it feel like something that was very new and spawned an entire genre of games.
Tim Ferriss: And I remember at one point, I think it was certainly at the time, I think TSR, I was reading this book called, I believe it’s Art & Arcana. Or arcana. I’m not sure how you pronounce that word properly, even though I’ve read it a thousand times, which is a visual history of Dungeons & Dragons.
And at some point they realized one of the major stumbling blocks was people having to develop from scratch their own characters. And they provided out-of-the-box templates, which was one of the ways they jump started wider adoption. It’s giving people an easy place to start with some type of positive constraints, let’s just say, in a sense. That makes me think about Magic. Now, can you remind me and listeners of who developed Magic?
Justin Gary: So Richard Garfield was the lead designer. He created the game along with of course a lot of other people that supported, but he was the lead, the creator.
Tim Ferriss: I remember listening to, and you’re going to have to fact-check me on this, but I think I’m recalling this correctly, listening to at least one, maybe two interviews with Richard on your podcast, Think Like a Game Designer.
He was talking about game development, and I guess folks who were auditing the cards and the decks and the idea that some cards would get retired or removed from circulation or banned because they were too powerful. But if there were no cards that were too powerful that they were also erring on the side of caution, something along those lines. Could you expand on what I’m very clumsily trying to recall from an interview I listened to a year ago?
Justin Gary: So there’s this idea in games of balance, which is a very, it’s a term that people throw around a lot but gets very confused. And the principle of it is that you don’t want some part of your game to be so unfair that you can’t, nobody can beat you. So if it’s in Tic-Tac-Toe, if you get to make three moves at once, that would be pretty unfair. The game is already over. You got your three in a row, that doesn’t make any sense. So the game’s no fun.
So the idea is you want to make sure that there’s no one strategy that’s too good. But some people think that that means everything needs to be exactly the same and that’s also not true because the idea, if every card is just as equally good as every other card, then you deny people that discovery. You deny people that ability to learn and say, “Oh, wait, hold on.”
As a new player you don’t know anything. And then you can learn, oh, actually, you know what? This card’s better than this card. Or the excitement of chasing and finding something that’s very exciting that now you can combine with something else that you have and suddenly that gets better. And so the way I define balance is not everything has to be equal. It’s that everything, there’s no one strategy that should be unbeatable.
The best analogy is if you think Rock-Paper-Scissors. Perfectly balanced game. Rock is great, but if I know you’re going to throw rock, I’ve got a plan. I could throw paper and I’m going to be okay. So there’s a lot of ways that you can approach balance, but that can give you a sense of what it should look like. And so for Richard, he wanted to make things that were exciting and chase and you’re really hoping you open up in a pack.
Of course, he didn’t have any idea that the game was going to be as popular as it was. He talked about in the podcast episode that he thought you would just never even see all the cards. That some people would have a couple of packs and other people would have a couple of packs, and you just discovered as you went. And that is actually, it’s an exciting prospect but very quickly people would buy all the cards. Now there’s spoilers on the internet and everybody sees everything immediately. So it’s changed a lot since his initial concept.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so as the next lily pad, I want to explore one of two things. We’re going to get to both so you can choose which you think makes sense to talk about first. So the first option is your path to where you are now as a senior partner at a law firm. Just kidding. So law school. The other is what happened in your Magic life after winning the nationals and that story? So which of those do you think makes sense to tackle first?
Justin Gary: Well, I think let’s start —
Tim Ferriss: Or you can imagine, or you could talk about both in tandem. Either one, either or.
Justin Gary: We’ll go in chronology order so that the Magic career kind of has its arc before my law career has its much shorter arc. So I’m 17 years old, I win the US National Championships. This was a huge, awesome, cool thing for me. But then I go to the world championships and at that point in Magic‘s life cycle, the US was dominant. The US had never lost a world championships ever. And not just me, but a team of people that were representing the US and unfortunately we did not win. We did not do very well.
So that world championships, I had this albatross around my neck of being the first loser US National Champion. At least this is the story I was telling myself. So I was like, “Okay, this is not great.” And my career was good, I was doing good, but it was something that always stuck with me and so I kept wanting to try to get back on the national team to redeem myself.
So fast forward five years later. Finally the US loses again. Loses to the Germans. So now I’m not the only loser. Not that I was rooting against the US, but it was nice to not be the only loser. And then the very next year I make it back on the US National Team. And so this is my chance, my chance at redemption. After six years, and I’m with two other people on the team and the two people that are on the team with me, they were pretty new to the game.
They kind of had come out of nowhere just like I did when I first started, and I was so committed to making sure we did well. I paid to fly both of them to Boston where I was living at the time, to stay at my place and work. And we trained for a month, a month and a half together with my team, who was Your Move Games was the local store and group we would playtest with. So we trained, we slept on my couch, we worked together to be able to make it back.
That year, the world championships were in Berlin. So we’re going into enemy territory and it comes down to literally we make it to the final table, to the final game. It comes down to me playing this match and we’ve got stage lights, we’re covering it. This is everything I have worked for. There’s some online records of the experience but I remember just sort of feeling in that moment that — I’d been in tournaments, I’d won tournaments, I’d lost tournaments. There’s a certain amount of excitement and pressure.
But for this one, it was so much of a personal story, a personal kind of drama that I was playing out for me. And I drew my hand the first time for this final match where everything’s on the line, people are watching. There’s a rule in Magic where if you don’t like your hand, if you don’t like the starting cards you have, you can take a mulligan. And what that means is you throw the cards away, but you get one less card and it’s a big deal. Less cards is a huge disadvantage in the game.
But I draw my hand and I’m trying to make this decision, and I’m just, “All right, do I deal with what I have or do I just take a shot?” And I didn’t like the hand. I wasn’t going to take a shot. I wasn’t going to let the world championships be decided on that hand. So I mulligan, throw the cards away. My teammates are groaning in the background just like, “All right, here we go.” Shuffle up, draw the hand. And it becomes one of those moments where you kind of see it come together. The hand was good enough. We start playing it out. I get some board advantage. My opponent’s kind of on his back foot and he’s got a couple tricks. There’s some cards I have to play around, I’m not really sure. And then finally I’m able to get to the point and win this fight after however long people rush the stage, able to finally take that off of my back. And it was a very exciting moment for me. It was a very fun journey, and it was a result of a lot of hard work. It was a lot of dedication that got there, but it kind of felt, for me that it was the end of my Magic career. It was the thing that I had, I had been striving to do that. I kind of checked those boxes and that was kind of like, let me move to this next stage.
Tim Ferriss: So before we get to your short arc in the world of law, was there something, coming back to your previous comment that you learned after losing on the world championship stage first, was there something you learned or decided to change about your approach after that?
Justin Gary: I think that this is, now we’re talking about years of gap in between. And so what I did learn and the major thing that I realized in that Magic is generally a single-person game. I’m playing a match against somebody else in competition. But in this case, it’s a team game. And I think the biggest shift in focus was I didn’t just think about myself. I had to think about how do I lift everybody else up and all thrive together to be able to make it through. And it really changed the way I focused there, changed the way I focused with other teams I’ve worked with. It made a huge impact. And then just being willing to, again, come back from a loss and not let it discourage you that you can’t overcome it.
But I think that being able to work, typically most of the games I’ve played have been single player, whether it was debate or wrestling or most of Magic, it was all about, “I’m here to win.” And I think my shift in mindset was, “No, I’m here for us to win.” And that was a really huge turnaround for me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a big, big shift in terms of looking through the prism.
Tim Ferriss: So law school.
Justin Gary: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Tell us about law school.
Justin Gary: So just to frame this, right, so I’ve already mentioned both of my parents are lawyers, my mom’s a lawyer, my dad’s a lawyer, my stepdad’s a lawyer. I was debate captain. I was supposed to be a lawyer. That was just my path from as early as I can remember, that’s what I was supposed to do. And even though I had been making a living and traveling around the world playing Magic, at no point did it ever occur to me that I would make a living in games, none. It was just, oh, this is a fun thing to do while I’m in college. I had this mental block. And so I graduate, go get into NYU Law. I teach the LSAT for a while. I go to law school and I’m lucky, I’m a pretty happy guy by default. But this was the first time I was really depressed.
I was very unhappy for an extended period of time. And I will remember very specifically, there’s one day I’m getting up in Brooklyn, snowing outside, just covered in ice in the floor, and I have to get trudged up, put on all of these ridiculous clothes, and go to get on the A train and pretend like I’m not staring at anybody else. So everybody has to studiously avoid looking at anybody else in New York. That’s just the rule. And make it all the way in. Have my Boston cream donut for breakfast, because that’s just how I lived back then. And I go into this NYU law library, which is like, you know, could picture this just cavernous, giant library with old oak and towers of books. It was back when you had to use books to learn things. It was a wild time.
And I checked out the law books I had to read before class and I’m — stack them up, these just towers around me, and I’m just there and I’m there for hours just reading case law and just not very happy. But a couple of hours later I realized I’ve got to get to class. And so I sit up and I have this jolt of pain through my spine, like, huh, jolt of pain. I can barely move. I’m hobbling to get out of there. And I realize I threw my back out from reading, from reading. That is how unhealthy I was. I was over about 40 pounds heavier than I am now. How just miserable I was. And this was my first clue that I’m on the wrong path. And I think this is something I, it’s a really important lesson, I think. I imagine there’s a lot of overachievers in your audience, and that this path of trying to win whatever game’s in front of you, it can be way worse to win the wrong game than even to lose one that you actually enjoy playing.
And that was a big shift for me. And fortunately that summer I had an opportunity to go, instead of interning at a law firm, I got to go work on a Marvel Comics card game, a Marvel versus DC Comics card game for a company called Upper Deck in San Diego. So summer internship, working on comic book games instead of — that sounded great. And so I flew across country to go and worked there for the summer. And again, even though I knew I was miserable, even though I’d had this terrible experience, even though I now had a kind of opportunity in front of me still, my assumption at this point was, I’m going to go back to law school, I’m going to go back. I’ve got to finish that path. But I come out to start working on games and I am in love with it.
I’m super passionate about it. I’m enjoying it. Again, we’re debating these really interesting ideas about design and definitely happy to dig into what that looks like. But then when they offer me a full-time job, I’m still stressing about this. And it’s still finally when I make the decision, I tell my mom, she literally cries when I tell her I’m leaving law school to go become a game designer. It was so hard. And I look back, and it’s so silly to me. “This is one of the things you’ve taught me.” I didn’t have these words at the time, but, “I learned it through you.” This idea of fear-setting where, in fact, I wasn’t really giving up anything. I could always go back to law school, but it just didn’t feel like that at the time. And so being able to break out of that spell and then go follow a path that was really passionate for me that I was really excited about, one of the best decisions I ever made.
Tim Ferriss: How did you find the internship?
Justin Gary: So this was fortunate because of my Magic career. They had reached out to me to just vet their game and try to check it out and stuff. So some of the other people on the Magic Pro tour who people who I’d known had already kind of been hired there. So they were like, “Hey.” And they knew I was miserable. I would chat with them. They’re like, “Hey, come out for the summer, come work on this thing. You’ve got nothing to lose,” kind of deal.
Tim Ferriss: Has your mom come around, or is she still hoping for that day when you return to law school?
Justin Gary: No, my mom has come around. I’m sure she’ll listen to this episode. Hi, Mom. She did. And this is the thing, the people in our lives, there’s a lot of pressure that we all feel, whether it’s from parents, from friends, they want the best for us. So you just want us, me, to be happy and safe and comfortable. And you’ve got to realize that you, in order to find the path that you actually want for yourself, the path that you will be fulfilled by, you’ve got to be uncomfortable. You’ve got to be unsafe, right? Parents, I think, try to protect their kids so much and reality, you can’t. You’ve got to be able to push past that. And she knows that now. And she was very happy it all worked out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All right. Well, we’re going to fill in the gaps for those people who aren’t your mom listening. Hi, Mom. Since we have a lot to fill in and look now I feel like I should defend your mom also, certain paths are more predictable than others, and there is the perception and maybe even the reality of safety, consistency, stability with certain choices. But as you said, choosing the right game is more important than winning the game that just happens to be in front of you. And at least certainly in my experience, in the experience of a lot of people on this podcast, and just because something is unpredictable does not automatically make it unsafe. It just makes it less certain.
And as you put it, many of these things, for instance, I’ll give you another example, and this is very analogous. When people invoke the names of, say, Zuckerberg or someone else who dropped out as this throwing caution to the wind, burning the boats behind them to take the risk of entrepreneurship, whenever possible, I try to point out that’s actually not the case for most people who, say, take a leave of absence from a Harvard or Stanford. They can go back any time they want to go back. So it’s —
Justin Gary: Yes, 100 percent. 100 percent. And again, you’ve said this better than honestly anybody, like this idea that most of the fears that we have, this resistance to uncertainty is just made up in our head that there’s so many ways that you could recover and go back and that if you can — just remember that I could have gone back to law school later on when I quit my game design job to start a company, I could always get another job. Those things are those illusions of uncertainty and fear. If you can push past that, it changes everything. I mean, most of the times we take risks, we’re not jumping off cliffs or into burning buildings. It’s just, okay, yeah, your career takes a different path or you’re behind in school or whatever. It’s a very low cost.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Most often recoverable. So I will, I’ll link to fear-setting and people can just search fear-setting, goal-setting with a hyphen in it. And all sorts of things will pop up if you just search that or go to tim.blog/ted because that was the topic of my TED Talk, I suppose quite a few years ago now.
But moving on from fear-setting for a moment, it might come back into the conversation, who knows? But what did that first year or six months, month could be the first week, however you want to frame it, of designing games look like. What was that experience like?
Justin Gary: Yeah, yeah. So it’s a really fun question because people just make this assumption that because I was good at playing games, then that means I would be good at making games. And they are 100 percent different skills. I did not think of myself as a creative person there, thought there was just some kind of magic special secret sauce that other people had, and I was just going to fake it and go out there and see what happened. And so when I go there, I’m having serious imposter syndrome. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to make this come to life. And I researched a ton. I read some great books on creativity, A Whack on the Side of the Head is one I’d recommend. And I started to talk to other people who I did respect as designers and kind of break it down. And over time I realized that there’s nothing that differentiates a creative person from a not-creative person other than process.
And so as an analytically minded person, I was able to break it down into what I call the core design loop, which is a six-step process of how do you create not just games, but I think every creative field that applies to. And so learning that, and I was very lucky, I’ll talk about the details of it. I won’t leave you hanging on that piece, but the experience being —
Tim Ferriss: I won’t let you leave me hanging. Go ahead.
Justin Gary: Just to immerse the experience of it. I was lucky in a sense in that I went to go work at a company where I had a lot of friends that were already there, and I had immediate deadlines. This game is going to release. You have to turn over the file with the cards and the things within two months you have. And so there was no choice but to act. So what I say is that deadlines are magic. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what you’re doing, you have a deadline.
Tim Ferriss: I was literally going to just say the exact same thing verbatim, and it’s like, what a beautiful constraint. It’s just remarkable what you get done.
Justin Gary: So that was, I think, a real powerful tool about why. So one, really short deadlines, and my job was on the line, so I had stakes, right? And I didn’t want to go back to law school. And two, that I had other people that I could ask and talk to who were smarter than I was, who had done it before, and I could get some insight into. So being able to find either books or mentors or other people that you can talk to has also helped accelerate it. So that eventually turned into this kind of step-by-step process. So if you’d like, I can go into that now or I can jump into other stuff.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Actually before we get into the process, could you explain why a A Whack on the Side of the Head was impactful for you or what you took from that that was valuable? Because in the course of doing homework for this conversation, I noticed that you had mentioned this book before, and I actually have a deck of cards designed by the same author. I have not read the book, however. Could you speak to why that had an impact or why you recommend it?
Justin Gary: So it’s nice in that it helps to, in a sense, demystify creativity and just bring it down to a very kind of simple, granular level. And I’ll give some examples. So one of the principles in it is that I’ve used all the time is basically, and I forget how they word it in the book, but basically turn the object around in your mind. If you take something that you normally think of one way, how many different ways can you look at that same thing? So if you have a pen, right? You can say, all right, well, what do you do with a pen? Well, you can write with it. Okay, well, no, all right. I could use it to help force me to smile by biting it. I could use it to prop up my microphone. I could use it. You could, trying exercises that give you different frames were very powerful and ways to break you out of your thinking.
The idea of using random constraints. So one of the exercises I encourage anybody to do if they want to is if you’re having a problem, some creative challenge, some block, go to a random book on your shelf, open it to a random page and point to a random set word, some substantive word. Now, figure out how that word relates to whatever your problem is, and journal on that for five minutes, 10 minutes. And you’ll be amazed at how, all of a sudden, it can crack open something because we get so linearly focused on the problem in front of us. And even a completely random constraint can open up the door for you. And we’ll give one more to just move past the, quote unquote, right answer. That you may have an answer and say, “Okay, that’s fine.” And then you stop. Most people stop. Instead say, “Okay, I’m going to look for the third right answer, the fourth right answer, the fifth,” right?
“I’m going to look beyond that to go deeper and find more things.” So just these little exercises. And you could just do those exercises would suddenly say like, “Oh, wow, okay. I’m already seeing myself be more creative. I’m already seeing myself do more than I was.” And so the book was impactful because it could just, by the time I was done reading it, I had already seen myself do creative things I didn’t think I could do in ways that sound pretty stupid. I’m sure to me, saying it, pick a random page of a book, be more creative, trust me, try it. It works.
Tim Ferriss: Without having read that book, I have used this approach. And actually writing teachers that I had long ago, back when I had hair and was in school, also would offer these types of random constraints. It’s almost like the itching approach to creativity, right? It’s like, okay, you just throw a bunch of Scrabble tiles on the floor and you’d pick the three that are closest to you, and that’s your constraint, or that’s the filter in a sense, or what directs the exercise. Very, very powerful.
And I wanted to mention, since you were talking about going past the right answer and finding the third right answer actually reminded me of something a former guest said, Derek Sivers, who’s one of my favorite people, he’s been on a few times. And when I asked him who he thought of when he heard the word “successful,” he said, “Well, my first answer might be, say, Richard Branson, but that really ultimately depends on his goals in life. And if his goal was to have a quiet life undisturbed by entrepreneurship, then that wouldn’t be successful. So let me skip the first answer, get to the second answer, get to the third answer.” And he said, “What you should ask people is, ‘Who is the third person who comes to mind when you hear the word successful?'” And it’s really a powerful heuristic that you can use in all sorts of ways.
All right, so that’s a snapshot on A Whack on the Side of the Head. Let’s talk about the core loop.
Justin Gary: Yeah. Before we jump into the core design loop, I’m going to give one more thing. It’s not from A Whack on the Side of the Head, but it’s something I’ve actually developed more recently as a process that I find super valuable. And one of the things that we try to do in our company is always surface our assumptions. There’s a lot of things where you’re assuming a game is going to be fun because of this. We assume people are looking for that. We assume we’re making this category of game, et cetera. And a really great exercise to do that’s in this spirit is once a quarter, we’ll do an assumptions challenging exercise. And what that means is you surface every assumption you can. So if you’re on a, you can do this by yourself, or if you’re on a team, everybody writes down on their own all their assumptions, you put them all up on a shared board or a shared Google Doc if you’re doing remote like we are.
And then you, one by one, “Okay, what if that weren’t true?” Or to use your terminology, “What if I did the opposite?” And it’s so powerful because sometimes it doesn’t mean anything, right? Sometimes it’s like, okay, that doesn’t make any sense. You move on. But without fail, by the time we finish that exercise, we find some core assumption that all of a sudden changes everything. And that ability to just take what you assume to be true, one, making it explicit in the first place is super powerful, just so you know really what you’re doing. And then two is this inversion process is incredibly powerful. So, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give any examples just to make it a little concrete in the minds —
Justin Gary: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: — of folks listening of what those assumptions might be?
Justin Gary: I made this game called SolForge with Richard Garfield, the guy that created Magic. And we did this over a decade ago, and we made it as a digital trading card game. And so purely you play it on your phone, no physical objects at all. And the game was successful. We ran it for a few years, and eventually we took it down and we were talking about we wanted to bring it back because we loved the game, we wanted to bring it back. And one of the exercises we did, okay, SolForge is a digital game. And then we’re like, wait, what if it’s not? Like, what would that look like?
And we had built it to be a digital game, but then all of a sudden we’re like, well, now it’s seven years later. Digital printing technology is way better than it was. You can actually algorithmically create one-of-a-kind cards and create things. And that started us down this road of investigating this new technology. And so the new version of SolForge, called SolForge Fusion, is now a physical card game that has this new technology built into it, which never would’ve happened if we had just gone with our assumptions of, oh, okay, we’re going to remake the same game again. So it’s one example that was recently impactful for me in this.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I love that. I have, well, I can’t tip my tip hand too hard here publicly, but I’ve been very much focused on possibly working on my first book in five or six years. It’s been a long time. I wasn’t sure I would do another one, but I’ve been very strongly considering it. And I’ve been not in written form, which would be more helpful, I think, but in a sort of meandering mental form, which is sort of a mix of reverie, skepticism, and daydreaming, looking at some of the basic assumptions. Is it a book? I think of it as a book, but does it even need to be a book, period, or I should say question mark? And if it is a book, for instance, generally if you’re going through the publishing process, or you have been through the publishing process, your thinking has been shaped in a certain way over and over again.
You’re like, okay, I have to do print, audio ebook, and you sell all of those to one person. Well, what if we split those up? What if there was no print whatsoever? What would that look like? And just testing these very basic assumptions. And I’ll give you one example also, which people might not realize, or if you’re outside of publishing, why would you realize this? But none of my books in the US have ever gone to paperback. And if you were to ask most authors, “Why have you gone to paperback?” The answer would generally be something along the lines of, “Well, the publishers always do that. A year and a half after the hardcover, they lower the price to make the market larger for the book. And you come out in paperback.” And I was like, “But if you look at the math, does that make any sense for you?”
And then they think about it and they’re like, “Well, let me think about that. Okay. I was making 15 percent on each hardcover book, which is already discounted on Amazon to something very affordable. And now when I go to paperback, wait a second, my royalties just got cut to seven and a half or six and a half. Now I have to sell twice as many books to make the same amount in royalties. Oh, shit, that makes no sense whatsoever.” It’s also not really relevant in a world where ebook is an option, if that makes any sense. If somebody is looking for a lower price, they can buy it on ebook. So hence from the beginning, none of my books have ever gone to paperback.
So if you’re open to it, we can certainly, I mean love, as you know, you know this very well, I love digging into testing assumptions because those are the rules that, that’s like the operating — your assumptions of the operating system that governs your life in a way.
Justin Gary: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: And you want to make sure want to, those rules can be justified on some level, but maybe it makes sense to hop into the core design loop and talk about that.
Justin Gary: Yeah, it’s perfect. I think it’s a perfect segue because exactly what we’re talking about with assumptions is going to come into play in the core design loop. So the core design loop is how games are made, it’s how creative projects are done, but we’re going to focus on games. That’s the kind of main topic I teach at it. So the core design loop is six steps. It’s inspiring, framing, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and iterating. So step one is inspiring. What is it that’s driving you, right? What’s the core of what you’re excited about? So it could be you want to make a game for this IP, this world that you love. Could be you want to make a CØCKPUNCH game. Could be want to make a game about fantasy warriors, right? Hypothetically speaking, it could be that you want to —
Tim Ferriss: Or miniatures if you love miniatures.
Justin Gary: Exactly, yeah, you love miniatures. You know you want to make a miniatures game. It could be a component, could be a theme, could be a mechanic, could be you want to make a game about dog walking, whatever it is, you’re excited, what is at the heart of what you’re doing. And in general, the heart is going to be an experience you want to create for your audience, but you start at something, whatever high-level thing gets you excited. Then framing is a lot what we talked about. We want to put a box around it. We want to put constraints around it. And so that constraint should always include a deadline, ideally a short deadline to whatever your next step is. So I’m going to have a prototype to test in two weeks. It could be —
Look, one of the most common mistakes I see game designers make, they come to me, “Okay, I want to make a game that’s Halo and World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, but all rolled into one with a bunch of cool stuff happening.” And these are massive games that take millions and millions of dollars and teams of people, and it’s like, well, you’ve never made a game before. Maybe let’s start with a simple card game. So constraints with your components, constraints with time. What’s the space I’m playing in? Step three is brainstorming. And brainstorming is where you ideate and come up with your ideas. And I’m very particular about how I recommend people brainstorm. And this comes from research from the Wharton School of Business and work that I’ve done with them. But the basics are three phases. And to get really granular, because I know that your audience likes that, I break it into three steps, 20 minutes each. First is where you are open exploring, you write as many things as you can, as many ideas as you can, and don’t stop.
There’s always this critic part of our brain that’s like, “No, that’s stupid. No, that won’t work.” Turn that off. Just write down as many things as you can. If your pen stops moving for more than 10 seconds, you’re doing it wrong. As many ideas as you can on the paper. Then the second stage, also recommend 20 minutes, is organizing where you take this massive, ridiculous, some cool ideas, some ridiculous ideas, and you start to try to find patterns between them. And if you’re trying to make something specific, you start to think through, okay, if I’m trying to make a game, what’s the victory condition? How do people figure out what are their moves? How do they interact? You start trying to put some structure around it. Or if it’s a book, okay, what’s the book? What’s the opening of the book? How are people — how’s it going to help people? Who’s my audience? Whatever it is, right?
And then as you start making these connections, you’re naturally going to see gaps and you’re going to fill those gaps in. And then the last step, which is also 20 minutes, is elimination. And that’s where you went from starting with as many ideas as you can. And now you want to get to as few ideas as possible so that you can start moving to testing them. And so that’s where you go and you’ll try to like, okay, what’s the minimum amount that I can prototype? Which is the next step to test my idea, to test my assumption, to test the core of what I’m doing? And so prototyping is exactly what it sounds like. Talk about an MVP or this minimum viable product. What’s the smallest thing I can do to test my idea? What’s the easiest way I can do this? And then step five is testing where you actually show it to somebody, you get some feedback, you actually figure out what’s going on there.
And then step six is iterating where you take what you’ve learned and then you cycle back through the process. And what I’ve learned is that the skill of creativity, specifically with game design, but really with anything is how well you can kind of flow through that process and get the most out of each loop and go through as many loops as possible.
Tim Ferriss: All right, we’re going to come back to brainstorming in a second, but what I want to do for people listening is highlight, and you said this already, but I want to just make a few notes and give a few examples. This process can apply to almost anything. And for instance, you want to start a podcast, I’ll use that as an example, right? Inspiration thematically, where are you going? What is the format that you’re excited about? What is driving you to be considering starting a podcast, right? Setting parameters, thinking about the constraints. What are the constraints? How do you keep it interesting enough that you continue to do it, but simple enough that you don’t quit after three episodes? And the example you gave of, “I want it to be like Halo plus World of Warcraft plus Warhammer,” and you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, easy.”
The reason there is an elephant graveyard of a million dead podcasts that stopped after episode three is they’re like, “I love This American Life and I think it’s going to be like This American Life meets Serial meets Joe Rogan.” And I’m like, “Whoa, slow down Tex. There’s a reason the credits are five minutes long at the end of This American Life. Yeah, I’m not sure you realize how much goes into making that and then brainstorming,” right? Coming up with whether it’s guests, ideas for questions, et cetera. Prototyping, right? Giving it a go. Maybe you record as I did five or six episodes before publishing your first so that you have a chance to kick the tires and try to figure out what’s working, the testing you’re going to get in this case, testing with your guests, but also with test listeners, let’s just say. And then iterating. This also applies to books. This also applies to really any creative project that I can think about.
And to come back to the brainstorming for a moment, when you are brainstorming, what is your personal preferred method of doing this whiteboard versus pen and paper versus typing on a keyboard versus a tablet of some type? How would you like to do it?
Justin Gary: Yeah, so I am a huge fan of, in particular, an app called Workflowy. And it’s a totally free app, and it’s basically a series of nested lists. And the nice thing about it is it’s infinite. So I can continue to make list and sublists and sublists and sublists and I can link pieces to pieces. And so I find over the years now, I’ve been using that for seven or eight years, that is my personal favorite tool, but I have used — the important advice for people is not to copy the tool, but whatever works for you, whatever’s easiest, flow, the least resistance.
So a lot of people like Notion, it’s a similar type of tool, but it’s bulkier and a little bit slower, in my experience. And that speed is everything. I don’t want anything that’s going to slow me down. So that’s where pen and paper’s great, but I don’t like, unless I have a giant sheet of paper, which I do enjoy. If it’s a big, big poster board and you have markers and bigger things, especially if I’m working with a team. So either a giant whiteboard or a large poster board on the table because you can all share the same space and see ideas form, that I think is great. But a small sheet of paper for me, my brain, when it sees a page start to get full, my brain just subconsciously thinks, “Okay, well you don’t need any more ideas. Your page is full. You’re good.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s like the goldfish in the fishbowl, right? It’s like, “All right, I’m not going to grow anymore. This space is getting a little constrained.”
Justin Gary: Yeah. So I like Workflowy because it’s got that infinite kind of growth and I can shrink or grow nodes or I want to deep dive deeper into this idea and link ideas together. That’s been my favorite.
Tim Ferriss: And what are some of the ways that you like to prototype? I’d love to know where you think people most often get stuck — in between or after, which step do people get stuck? And as someone who’s been, as you know, because we’ve had conversations about this and you’ve been incredibly helpful, thinking about prototyping and games and design. I’ve been very excited about this for a while now. I tended to get stuck at the prototyping phase because, well, it’s also my first sort of rodeo with this.
But the inclination is to try to make something that’s really good and kind of polished. I know I’m not trying to make a finished product, but the more I have studied what you’ve done, listened to the podcast, talk to people like Elan Lee or others, the more I appreciate how quick and dirty it is.
And also just as a reference, I think I have a blog post about Stephen Key, who is an inventor, product developer who’s based in California, at least he was at the time, who has done extremely well developing toys for major companies. And the toys are ultimately some finished product that look great, but he will use construction paper and newspaper to prototype. And based on that and a description and maybe a video of how it functions, he successfully licensed products all the time to huge companies. So could you speak to maybe the prototyping phase?
Justin Gary: Yes. And you’ve already hit on the core of this, but I’ll just leave it, keep it simple, stupid. The KISS principle. It is the tendency to overdevelop and make your prototype super nice or not feel like you can show it to somebody or test it without it being super nice is the graveyard of the most games probably of anything on the planet. And the most ideas, frankly, in general.
So let’s make this very concrete. Probably one of the games I’m most well known for is a deck-building game called Ascension. Been around for 13 years. We’ve got lots. So I first prototyped that game. There was another deck-building game, and a deck-building game, for those that don’t know, it’s unlike Magic, which is a trading card game where you’re buying packs of cards and trying to build a deck.
In a deck-building game, you have a fixed box of cards, you buy it like a box like you would Monopoly, but during the game, you’re acquiring cards for your deck. So it’s like you get to play the game of building a deck, deck-building game.
So there was another deck-building game called Dominion, which was released. It was the first of its category. And I fell in love with that game. I started playing it a bunch, but then as I played it like 100 times, I was like, “There’s really some things I would like to see differently. The cards are too static, there’s too many rules and resources. I wish I could change it.”
And so my first prototype of Ascension was literally just instead of having Dominion cards, which are all kind of laid out at the beginning of the game, takes 20 minutes to set up, I just shuffled them all together and dealt them out and said, “What would a game look like if it was randomized?” And I played that way, and the game was not good, but it gave me enough of a proof of concept that like, “Oh, there’s something fun here and if I spend the time to do this, I can now move forward.”
Tim Ferriss: And just for clarity, you were using the Dominion cards, but changing the rules to see how it impacted gameplay?
Justin Gary: Exactly right. And so if you can prototype using something like a deck of cards around the house or take a Monopoly set, I know I keep using Monopoly as an example, whatever, most people know it. So say, “Oh, hey, what would this look like if instead of going around Go, you actually had dinosaurs that would try to eat each other as you’re moving around the board, what would that be like?” I’m like, “Okay, that sounds kind of fun. Let’s see what happens.”
And so it’s literally that simple. So for my prototyping tools, my first round of prototyping is just, I have a bunch of stuff. I have a bunch of dice and my D&D dice with all the random signs. I’ve got decks of cards, I’ve got random pen and paper. I will draw things. In fact, when you and I worked together a little bit, I showed you some things. I showed you what my early sketch prototypes look like, and they are ugly.
This is kind of, I talk about the phases of design. And so every time you go through the core design loop, your questions are go from bigger to smaller and smaller. And as you go through it, you’re going to get more and more, like you’re going to care about polish more. So if you’re just trying to figure out where is the fun, what is the idea, what’s the theme, what am I doing here?
It’s like, imagine you’re building a house and before you’ve even laid the foundation, you’re worrying about the paint color on the walls and where the furniture goes. You’re not going to get very far. You’re wasting a lot of time. Make sure you’ve got a solid foundation first. Worry about the paint color later. And so I think a lot of designers start by worrying about the paint color being wrong and they’re never going to finish a house that way.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so I’m going to stand in, I mean, this is a lazy sort of rhetorical trick here. So I’m going to defend the newbies, including myself for a second, and ask a question, which I think is actually really important, at the very least helpful in all sorts of disciplines, not just game design.
One of the reasons a lot of writers get stuck or aspiring writers is that they kick out a first draft. It’s rough, it’s ugly, it’s really, really rough on all the edges. And they compare their rough draft to the final draft of incredible writers. And the rough draft of those writers is invisible. They never see that rough draft.
So what has been helpful to me, for instance, when thinking about potentially writing comics is seeing the original scripts and how they were tweaked and how the concept art was modified over time to ultimately land on what we see in the finished product. Because then I can see the ugly babies in the beginning. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Okay.” That’s very reassuring and it gives me more confidence to work with my ugly baby to try to shape it into something that ultimately is good, because if I’m comparing everyone’s finished product to my rough product, it can be really demoralizing.
So the question is there a way for folks to see the rough drafts of games, the prototyping and so on, if they wanted to explore this as an example?
Justin Gary: It’s one of the reasons why I started my podcast is to sort of unlock a lot of that stuff for other designers, talk about their origin stories, talk about where they’re not — the things that inevitably fail. You can also go, there are a variety of places where people will have prototype testing. Let’s say you have a favorite game company or game designers, we do this at Stone Blade, at my company. You can join our Discord, and then we will periodically put playtest requests out so that people can — because we want to get feedback, we want to get feedback from people, and they could see how terrible those games are.
Now, we’ve already gone through a few iteration loops before we put it out into the public. So to see the most raw forms, I think there’s not enough of it out there. I think it’s something I really want to encourage more of because it’s really helpful. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and my first prototypes are hideous. So if you want, I can share some. I’ll put some up on the thinklikeagamedesigner.com/tim.
Tim Ferriss: Or the show notes.
Justin Gary: Or the show notes. Yeah, whatever.
Tim Ferriss: That’s great.
Justin Gary: Because I want to demystify that process. It is okay. In fact, it’s better. In fact, I’ll go even further because not only is it faster and because you don’t get hung up on making it really pretty, it’s faster to prototype, it’s actually better to change. It’s easy because you need to iterate. So if you’ve put a lot of time into making a beautiful board and beautiful cards and then you realize you’ve got to change a card, you’re going to feel weird about it. Whereas if I have just some ugly cards —
Tim Ferriss: Your sunk cost fallacy is going to come to latch onto your back.
Justin Gary: I have a card that I’ve messed up, I’m just going to cross out something on it with a marker and write something else. And then, okay, now it’s this, go, and I’ll make a little note. The resistance to change is so much lower. So it’s actually net negative for you to invest in making something pretty early on in the process.
Tim Ferriss: Makes perfect sense. So you’ve mentioned your company a couple times, but last time we left young Justin in our chronology, he was working at a game design company. So could you fill in the gaps for us and tell us how you went from working for somebody else to working for yourself?
Justin Gary: Yeah, this is a fun story and you actually come into this story Tim, so I’ll share it. So I moved from working on pure card games to, I had an opportunity to lead a project that was the World of Warcraft miniatures game. And this is a very exciting project for me. I get to build something that’s super cool with an IP everybody knows. And I had worked on it for about 18 months and we had, the company that I worked for was called Upper Deck. They had made trading cards forever, most known for baseball cards. And they made Yu-Gi-Oh! and this Marvel game I’d been working on, but they didn’t know how to make miniatures games.
And so they eventually just were going to kill the project. The executives come and they tell us after 18 months of working on it. And this is pretty common in games, but I had never had a project I had worked on get killed like that. And I was like, devastated. My dream project, I’m going to change the world with this game. It’s going to be incredible, now all of a sudden, ashes. And so I refused. I didn’t want to let it happen.
And so I said, “Listen, I don’t know what I’m doing here, but if you’re going to kill the project, give me six months. Let me see if I can figure it out. You’ve got nothing to lose.” And I was able to convince them to let me become a project manager and try to figure out how to make games, how to make a miniatures game, specifically.
And so same kind of process like I did when I first started to design, I was like, “All right, let me talk to people who know what they’re doing. I’ve already got a very clear deadline.” I talked to Jeremy Cranford, who’s an incredible art director, and I talked to the guy that made the Dungeons & Dragons miniatures.
I just worked months and months and months, try to figure out how to make this work, fly to China, fly to the factory, figure out how the plastics and paints and all this crazy stuff.
Tim Ferriss: And making it work, just for my clarity, is making it financially work for the company?
Justin Gary: That’s exactly right. Financially, how do you make it work? Because Blizzard, who makes World of Warcraft, had very exacting standards about their miniatures. They have to have spiky pauldrons this high and these amounts of colors. And nobody had ever done anything quite like that before. And it needs to be financially viable to make this product for the company I was working for. So that’s a partnership.
And so I have to go figure out all these logistics, set all this stuff up. Finally, and this is where I first read The 4-Hour Workweek, so this is actually was super impactful for me in being very efficient using 80/20 principles. And I’ve learned to set up auto email replies, so people didn’t bother me. So already getting my efficiencies in it, but I’m in this zone of just, I’m going to finish this mission.
And then I finally go to — I have the opportunity to speak to the executive team. I’m going to make my presentation. I’m going to make my case. Is this project going to live or is this project going to die? And I’m just some kid who wants to make a game and I’ve got to convince — so I’m there. And I will never forget. I mean, they had this ugly green carpet. I’m sitting, waiting for my turn to get called in. The details are super stuck in my mind. And I’m like, go down this long corridor.
And I’m like, my palms are sweating. I go, you open these huge oak doors and it’s a huge sports memorabilia company. So there’s a Babe Ruth-signed bat on the wall and a Michael Jordan jersey and a Tiger Woods golf club. And the rich mahogany conference table. I mean, it’s boardroom cliche, but it’s very intimidating for me at this time.
So I get up there, the owner’s sitting in his leather chair and staring me down, and I’m like, I give my presentation and I’m stammering through it, but I’ve done my research, I’ve done my homework, and I go through the presentation and heart’s beating. Finally, I stop and there’s this pause at the end. I’m looking around, what do they think? It’s like CEO, CFO, all the big wigs. And they start talking about the idea and they start joshing around and I start thinking, “Oh, my God, I think they like it. I think this is really going to happen.”
And then they start pontificating and they start talking, “Oh, well there may be this problem with this thing or this thing.” And it took me a minute to realize this, but as they were talking, I realized that they had no idea what they were talking about. I had finally done enough research that I knew they didn’t know what they were doing. And up to that point in my life, I feel like I had just assumed that the adults in the room knew what they were doing. This is the same company that makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Of course they know what’s happening. And now all of a sudden that illusion is shattered.
And I started out terrified. I’m terrified. I mean, we’re literally, this project, it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hopefully it’ll make millions, or it could lose millions, who knows? And nobody knows what they’re doing. And so I’m like, “Oh, my God, what do we do?” And then I walk out of that room, my heart’s beating, and I’m just like, “What’s going to happen? How do we do this?”
And then all of a sudden, a cold splash of water in my face: nobody knows what they’re doing. I cannot know what I’m doing at least as well as anybody else. This idea that the difference between a leader and somebody else is not like that they know something or that they have some special access. It’s that you’re just willing to make some assertions and own the consequences. That’s it. That’s the difference.
And so then [it] finally clicked for me, the other parts of your book, that not just this efficiency and automation, but this idea of defining what you want and then creating the freedom for yourself to do it. And so that’s where I suddenly started doing the fear-setting exercise and going through, “What’s the worst case scenario for me if I quit and I do my own thing?” And the dream lining exercise, which is basically, “What is it that you really want?”
How do you define what you want? How do you make that very concrete? And so then that transformed like, I’m going to get this game out the door. I’m going to save up enough money so I have a year of savings, and I quit. And that’s exactly what I did. And it was a life-changing moment for me because it was exactly that. That’s taking ownership of my future. And again, I’m so grateful for you as a key part of it. And I’m so grateful for those executives because they really opened the door for me. And I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing all the time either. Most of the time we’re making stuff up, but it’s being conscious about that, surfacing our assumptions and learning as you go. It’s been a powerful journey.
Tim Ferriss: So thank you for sharing that and for saying all that you said. And I would love to know when you did the fear-setting and you’re trying to identify the worst case, how you can mitigate against the worst case, what you would do as sort of a backup plan in case the entrepreneurship does not work out or maybe doesn’t work out at least with the first inning. How were you thinking about that at the time? In addition to what you already described, which is the realization that, “Oh, my God, almost all the emperors have no clothing. So I think I can do that. At the very worst, I can also do that.” How are you thinking about risk assessment and what you would do if things didn’t pan out perfectly as you went into entrepreneurship?
Justin Gary: Yeah. So I got very concrete. So what is my actual minimal living expenses? What do I need to be okay and have what I need? And I figured out what that number was, and then I was like, how much time am I willing to give myself to run this experiment to see if I can figure it out and make entrepreneurship work? And I decided a year of savings was what I wanted. And so I focused on saving up. So I have that cushion, because if you’re in the red, if you’re like, “I don’t know how to make my next paycheck, I don’t know how to make rent next month,” you can’t be creative and be free, you’re making decisions for the short term. And I wanted to be able to make decisions for the long term.
So step one was have enough of a cushion that I could feel comfortable. Now other people can do this as a side project or after hours, whatever. But for me, I wanted space to just focus on this. And then the other piece was like, well, let’s assume it doesn’t happen. And after a year, I’ve gotten nothing and it’s not working. I had done enough in my career at that point, I could just get another job. I could either be hired back at the same place or hired at another company. It’s not like I was going to go hungry on the streets, or if I have to live on a friend’s couch for a little while, that’s not that big a deal either. So I went through all of those things. I could go bankrupt, my house catches on fire, hilariously like you did in the book.
And so that’s where it highlights the same kind of lesson as before, which was when I quit law school. It sounds scary. Everybody thinks, “Oh, my God, you’re such a risk-taker.” I’m not. I mitigate risk at every turn. It’s like when you’re playing Magic and you’re trying to set up so you can’t get outdrawn on a game, I’m just mitigating the number of ways my opponent could beat me over time. And in this one, I could always go back to law school when I quit law school. I could always go back to a job when I started this entrepreneurship. And same thing later on when I became a digital nomad, sold all my stuff. It’s like I could always buy more stuff. I could always get a house again.
So I strongly encourage people to just go through that. If you really, really think about the worst case scenarios, 99 times out of 100, they’re totally recoverable within a year. It’s often way less.
Tim Ferriss: And what was your, knowing how methodical you are, you were not just hopping out of this job with savings, with no plan. So what was your plan?
Justin Gary: I’m sad to say there wasn’t that much of a plan. You kind of set me up for having a master plan.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I guess with the core design loop, I guess you are going to be following some version of that probably, but did you have an inkling of what type of game or what types of games you wanted to make?
Justin Gary: Yeah, so I knew I loved — obviously card games were kind of my specialty. And so I knew that that was a space I wanted to be in, but I really wanted to create that open space to figure things out. And so as you mentioned, of course, the core design loop was part of it. I didn’t have it as clearly defined as I do now, but this idea that I’m going to try things and prototype them and test them.
And so during the day, I would work on some designs, make up some prototypes, and then I would go find my friends who were still working at the company or elsewhere to try it out, give me some feedback and come back. And I didn’t have any ideas. I hadn’t designed a game ahead of time. I didn’t know what I was going to do ahead of time, but I had enough space that I could figure that out.
And then it worked out that another person from another company contacted me to see if I could do some contract work for them. And so I started working on some kids toy-based games, which was great. And so here’s another fun story. So they knew me because they used to work at Upper Deck where I used to work, and then they started working at this other company and he’s like, “Hey, we need someone to help us design a game. Can you do that?” And I’m just like, again, no job, no plan. I’m just figuring it out as I go at this point. And so I’m like, “Yep, definitely I can do that.” “Okay, well give us a quote.” I’m like, “Okay, quote, how do I quote? I’ve never quoted anything before.” So I’m like, “Okay, let me just think about it.”
All right, how many hours do I think this is going to be? And then what’s my minimum hourly rate that I think I should be paid? And I am like, “Okay, that’s what I’ll charge, make it easy.” And I send him the quote and he literally laughs at my face. And he’s like, “Yeah, okay, sure. Sure, man. No problem.”
Tim Ferriss: And you’re like, “Uh-oh, wait a second.”
Justin Gary: I’m undercharging. I still try to overdeliver, do a great job. Next time I get another thing, opportunities, “Okay, what do you quote?” I doubled my number. They still laughed at me. It’s like, “Okay, great. All right.” Doubled it again. That — my strategy was I kept doubling what I asked for until I met resistance. Until someone was like, “Hmm, I’m not sure.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s what I need to be charging.”
Tim Ferriss: There’s one other story, I’ll just as a side note mention, which also just underscores the fact that part of the frustration, but also joy of entrepreneurship is you have to figure out a lot on the fly. You cannot prepare for all the eventualities. You don’t know what you don’t know. And I recall, I might be misattributing, so my apologies to the founders of Nantucket Nectars if this is misattribution, but when I took my first entrepreneurship class, first and only actually, high-tech entrepreneurship with Professor Ed Zschau, who changed my life in so many ways, he used what a lot of people refer to as the Harvard case study method where you have sort of a business situation, then a problem, and then there’s a break and you have to try to figure it out. And then only after you’ve had the chance to try to figure it out on your own as a class, then you read the outcome and the decision they made and so on.
And there was part of this Nantucket Nectars story where these guys are selling juices in Nantucket and they end up with a tiger by the tail because their drinks become really successful and they decide to make the shift to retail. And they meet with a distributor and they’re talking and talking, and the distributor’s like, “So do you have good plans for POS?” And they look at each other, they have no fucking idea what he’s talking about. And they’re like, “Oh, we have great plans for POS. We’ve thought it through and we think we have an excellent strategy.” And he’s like, “Okay, great.” And then they leave the meeting and they’re like, “What the hell is POS?” Point of sale. Displays.
So it makes for a lot of good stories. So you start to figure out your pricing by doubling and doubling and doubling. And just maybe you could flesh that out a little bit in terms of you’re doing this contract work for people who are giving you specs of some type or another.
Justin Gary: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: But you have some money coming in the door with fewer, fewer, and fewer laughs at your proposals along the way.
Justin Gary: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: What else is happening in that first year?
Justin Gary: Yeah, so I’m using my kind of spare cycles and there’s this really interesting thing, the difference between an entrepreneur who has no employees or anything, and some dude just sitting on his couch can be very subtle. Until you start really getting income coming in and start making things happen. So there’s definitely a window of uncertainty.
Tim Ferriss: I mean even now in my life, the distinction’s pretty blurry.
Justin Gary: Right, it is. Now I’ve got a team and the people, it’s like, okay, I feel like I’ve got a business. But it’s not an easy distinction. And when you’re trying to create something where you don’t necessarily know what it is, it’s even harder. So what I would do is I would, in between doing this work for hire, I would work on just projects that I thought would be fun. And so I would just make prototypes, try them out, try them out on friends.
And I remember it was actually with Ascension where I didn’t make Ascension specifically to think, “Oh, I’m going to start a company with this game.” I made it because I really wanted that game to exist. I played enough of Dominion and I was missing something I really, really wanted. And then I showed it to a friend of mine, Rob Dougherty, and he has his own — he actually was the guy that owned Your Move Games, the store, and where I used to play when I was younger.
And I show him the game and he’s like, “Dude, you have the ball, run with it. This is great. Make this a thing.” And he had been an entrepreneur for a while. And so he helped me kind of like, “Okay, no, let’s do this.” And that started down the road. So, “This is going to be my project now.” And I started. My early prototypes were ugly. And I’ll find a way to share them with you. I mean, some of them are horribly inappropriate. We had just really just rude pictures and I won’t share those, but they — just ridiculous. It was just for fun.
Tim Ferriss: Rude pictures. How dare you?
Justin Gary: I know.
Tim Ferriss: Continue.
Justin Gary: Yeah. Anyway, it was —
Tim Ferriss: Imagining that’s code for lots of dicks everywhere?
Justin Gary: Well, you know, I’m not — I’ll leave it to the imagination of the listeners on this one. Not appropriate for public consumption. Leave it at that.
Tim Ferriss: You know what, just to defend my dicks comment, I will say there’s a place called Hotel Biron in San Francisco. Great wine spot, excellent place. And I don’t know if this is true, but I heard at one point, this is one of the first places with a console for digital signing way back in the day. And the rumor was that of all the guys who went there and bought drinks, it was like 75 percent just drew dicks as a signature, which I thought it was pretty hilarious.
Justin Gary: Well, there’s an important game design principle I didn’t talk about here, which is the TTP, which is time to penis. Any opportunity that you give people to create their own thing, at some point someone’s going to make a dick. That’s going to happen.
Tim Ferriss: TTP. I’m going to add that to my metrics.
Justin Gary: Key show notes. I mean, so what it is, the more broader point is anytime you allow people to customize, you have to think, what are they going to do with it and how does that share and how does that build your community? But TTP’s the shorthand for that. So it is an unfortunate reality of our society that is just going to happen.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So you’ll —
Justin Gary: I did not see this interview going this way, I’ll tell you that right now.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I didn’t either. Thanks, CØCKPUNCH Coffee. All right, so let me try to right the ship here for a second. So you’re talking about roughs and the prototypes. You’ll filter out some of the rude pictures and we’ll share some of that. When you were chatting with, if I’m remembering correctly, Rob, and you say, “You’ve got this, run with this,” were you at that point at all thinking of how it fit into the potentially competitive landscape and how it was differentiated? Or was it just enough for it to be something that you used to scratch your own itch and you assumed, “Hey, if this is exciting for me as one person who plays a lot of games, I assume it’s going to be attractive to more people?”
Justin Gary: So three things. One, absolutely, it has to scratch my own itch and I have to love it. I loved it. I wanted to see it exist. All of my most successful projects by far are the things that I make for me and that I really want. And then I know they’re going to be great. So I think that’s really important.
Two, I do not chase trends. I hate chasing trends. In fact, every time I’ve tried to chase a trend, it’s been unsuccessful. The idea of I’m trying to build something for some hypothetical, I think this is hot right now, has never worked. However, there’s a third point here which is important, which is it can’t be just about you. And so the rule I like to use is I will show the game to people and I’ll prototype it and test it. And when people start asking me to play again without me prompting them, that’s when I know I’ve got something. So it’s not just me. That’s why Rob, who I respect a lot, he was like, “No, this is great. Play again.” And I would show it to some other game designer friends and show it to some other people and they’re like, “No, this is great. Keep…”
So as you’re going through, you’re getting a wider, wider sphere of feedback that’s helping you move forward. And if your game is targeted at a different target audience — so I make a game called Bakugan, which is a toy-based game for kids, obviously how much fun I have playing it is not nearly as important as a five-year-old or an eight-year-old. So you have to test with your target market in that sense.
So I don’t say that target market and testing is not important. It is, but don’t try to chase a trend. Make something that you know is fun and that you enjoy and then get the feedback and iterate as you go. And so as you get that positive feedback, now I’m willing to invest more and more into the product.
So now I actually am going to go and start putting some real art on it. And the story behind the art is, I guess it’s at this stage I can tell. So back when I was living in Boston, I met the guy that lived down the hall and he comes and knocks on the door and says, “Hello.” At this time I’d just moved out of college. So I’m like — black light posters on the wall. It’s still basically a college doom room. I just transported it into an apartment. And then the guy comes back over 20 minutes later with a bag of weed and, “Pretty sure you guys want to smoke this, right?” It’s like, “Okay, cool.”
So we hang out, we’ve become great friends and he actually, it turns out, he’s an incredible artist. His name’s Eric Sabee, and whatever. We became friends. I have one of his art pieces on my — well, not on my wall anymore, but in storage now. But actually it’s on the wall of my dad’s place. I didn’t put that one in storage.
Anyway, so 10 years later when I’m making a game, I’m like, “Oh man, his art was really cool. I’m going to call him up.” And I called him up and said, “Hey, would you want to make art for my game?” And I built the IP and the story around his style because I knew I could get this batch of art without having to pay for a whole new artist and new things because he’d already made it so I could pay him less.
And he was a good friend and he hooked it up. And so now I start bringing art into the game and figuring out how you can use what’s around and build the lore and build a style around what’s available. Okay, now we’ve made some art, now we’ve got some cool-looking cards. I’m investing a little bit more. And then I take it to a convention called GAMA, which is a game manufacturer’s association event. It’s like an industry insider tabletop game thing. So publishers and retailers and distributors are all there. So not a public show.
And I get a little booth and I bring my little fake prototype there. And I realized actually as I was going to the show that I didn’t have — in the game, you get what’s called honor. It’s like victory points basically. And I forgot to make anything that you track, how do you track how many points you get, how many honor you get? And I was like, “Oh, man, what do we do?” And I went to a Michaels store, like a little —
Tim Ferriss: Craft store.
Justin Gary: Craft store. Yes, thank you. And they had these little beads, these little plastic fishbowl beads, and they’re all oddly shaped. I was like, “All right, whatever. Let’s try these. I’ll just use these for the prototype.” So grabbed a bunch of those, put them in, and we start demoing the game. And people get drawn to these beads and they’re like, “Oh, my God, this is awesome.”
Tim Ferriss: They’re like pros finding a shiny button.
Justin Gary: Yes, exactly. They’re super shiny and they come over and they play the game. They like the game. It’s like, “Oh, this is awesome. These are going to be in the game, right?” I was like, “Yes, yes they are.” This is like the POS example you gave earlier. I have no idea how to get these things. I have no idea how to make them. I don’t know what’s going, but they are definitely in the game.
Anyway, so that show, the response was so overwhelming. The people loved it. Stores wanted to order it, distributors wanted to order. So now all of a sudden it’s like, okay, now I’m going to literally, I’m all in. I literally put my entire life savings now, all the extra that I’d saved up to print at the time was 10,000 units of the game, which is pretty crazy. Probably a little over it.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like a lot of units.
Justin Gary: It was a lot of units.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like a lot.
Justin Gary: Yeah. Most times people are going to start a new game, it’s like you print a thousand units, maybe 3,000.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, you better hope to God you don’t have a manufacturing anomaly.
Justin Gary: Oh, dude, nightmare stories around that for sure. That’s a whole different beast. But again, this is not — I had worked with manufacturers before. I had made games working for another company, so this part wasn’t totally new to me, but it was — and I wouldn’t have put all of that money into the — I used to joke, “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to have to build a house out of Ascension boxes. That’s all I’ve got.”
But I wasn’t, again, just to demystify the risk, I had gotten so much positive feedback. I had stores and distributors already waiting to order the thing. So now it’s like, okay, it’s willing to put the money in and take a risk.
Tim Ferriss: And also just for folks who are unaware, I mean there are all sorts of ways to potentially finance things if you have that demonstrated demand. I’m not suggesting this, you’ve got to do your own diligence on these things, but invoice factoring, if you have people who are pledging and signing whatever it is, letters of intent or something more binding to purchase a certain quantity, you can use that with manufacturers to then get finance terms. And there are companies that independently do this as well. So there are ways to work around it.
My question that I want to ask next is related to GAMA. How many exhibitors or people with games like yourself, game developers, were there at this show? Actually we don’t even need to be specific to game developers. How many booths or exhibits were at this show?
Justin Gary: At the time, I think it was about 30.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, okay. All right.
Justin Gary: It’s not huge. Now it’s bigger, maybe two or three times that. It’s less than 100.
Tim Ferriss: It’s not gigantic. Got it.
Justin Gary: No. That’s one of the nice things. This kind of game industry is still a little smaller than a New York Toy Fair is the more big one that’s like, it happens and that’s got thousands and thousands of booths and you’re spending millions of dollars to have a presence there. It’s like a much bigger piece. This one’s a little smaller.
Tim Ferriss: So the reason I’m asking is that in fact, if somebody wants just a separate collection of stories around these types of trade shows, and I think it was the New York Toy Fair, Todd McFarlane, the legendary comic book artist, has some stories around this from our conversations, which are hilarious. What I was wondering, and maybe it doesn’t apply because there were 30 tables or 30 booths, but did you do anything to draw attention to yourself or the game at this event? Or was it simply enough to pay for a booth and then assume that there would be enough foot traffic to bring the right people to you?
Justin Gary: So the principle you’re driving at is critical. You need to get people’s attention, you need to find a way at these booths, even at Gen Con, which is the tabletop, more public-facing table convention where I actually did launch Ascension and there’s a lot more people and a lot more vying for traffic at shows like GAMA, anywhere, or even on a store shelf. Why is someone going to stop and pay attention to what you’re doing?
The great thing about where we are in our modern world is it’s easier than ever to make stuff. You can print your own books, you can print your own games on demand, you can make anything you want. The downside is we’re flooded with stuff, not surprising. And so how do you separate from the crowd? How do you draw people’s attention? So at GAMA, I mean, I already told you by accident almost, the shiny beads helped.
Nobody had those shiny beads. That was a really attractive thing. But I also invested in a video drop. I had a TV screen and I made a little cool rotating loop showing the things. Most people there didn’t do that. And so finding something that draws people’s eye and brings them in. So it can be a cool unique component. It can be a cool giant visual.
I had a game I launched years later called Bad Beets, B-E-E-T-S. It’s a kind of play on the poker term of bad beats, but with actual beets. I had someone dress in a giant beet costume. I put one of my team members into a giant beet costume. And yeah, it’s gimmicky, but it worked. So if you have a great product, it doesn’t matter if nobody ever looks at it. And also all the gimmicks in the world won’t help you if you don’t have a great product. So step one, have something great. Step two, have a reason for people to pay attention to you.
Tim Ferriss: The workshopping attention grabbing in real life I think is really undervalued in today’s increasingly digital world. And this applies to, for instance, workshopping book material by giving speaking engagements even to a very small group. You’ll figure out very quickly what works and what doesn’t, what’s confusing and what isn’t, what people will remember versus what they immediately forget or didn’t even pay attention to in the first place.
And the trade show stories are bringing back memories because I recall back in my former life had my sports nutrition company and I would go to these trade shows. And as you know, I have to imagine this is true for these other trade shows. Once you get there, you are a captive audience. And if you want a chair, it’s like, oh, yeah, you can rent a chair for 300 bucks for a day. And I was just going in somewhat naive because I paid the exhibitor fee and I was like, “Oh, great, I’ll figure out the rest. Shouldn’t be too bad.” But it was pretty bad.
So I remember trying to figure out how to draw attention and at one particular trade show, I had next to no budget, because there were a couple of things that were mandatory that you had to rent, which struck me as a little bizarre, but it exhausted my budget. So what I ended up doing was also getting, I bought a TV at Best Buy, a big screen that I could return, and I put on highlight reels of Muay Thai kickboxing because it’s definitely going to grab some attention. But to provide a little context, it was a strong man/sports event. It was kind of like the Arnold Classic in Columbus. For people who might know that, that’s a huge event. This was much smaller, but there were a lot of athletes and competitors and so on milling about.
And I also brought, I think it was four or five of these hand grippers called the Captains of Crush, which are incredibly and increasingly difficult to close depending on the poundage to the extent that some of them are so difficult that there are maybe five or six people or 12 people in the world who at that time could close whatever the highest-rated Captains of Crush was.
So I laid those out for people to test with all these athletes milling about, and then put this video up, ended up getting the couch and chairs at a Goodwill, and I had to bribe a guy to help me with this truck to get it over.
Justin Gary: Oh, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It ended up being a really hilarious experience, but it taught me a lot about what worked and what didn’t. And I was able to iterate because it was a multi-day event.
And taking a step back for a second, and then I want to come back to Ascension and all the adventures there. What have you learned about good playtesting or good playtesting versus not terribly effective playtesting? And what I mean by that is when you’re providing your game to people, certainly one pass fail is do they want to play it past the point that you need them to play it? That’s sort of like the Viagra test. They send it out to test patients for whatever it was, hypotension, hypertension, something like that. And then lo and behold, all of these guys over the age of X didn’t want to send back their medication. And it’s like, huh, interesting. Let’s look at that. And that’s how Viagra came to be in its current iteration.
But there’s that, and the reason I’m asking this, I know this is going to be a very long paragraph question, is that when I am doing the equivalent with my books and chapters, there are definitely better and worse ways to elicit feedback.
If you’re like, “What do you think of this chapter?” It’s a crapshoot. And if people are trying to be nice, which comes down to who you select also to be your playtesters, in my case proofreaders, you’re going to get a bit of a scattershot of responses and it might not be actionable. But if I ask, “Read this chapter, tell me the 20 percent that I should absolutely keep no matter what.” And if you then tell me the 20 percent, if you had to cut 20 percent that you would cut, you’re going to get very, very different type of surgical feedback.
Similarly to someone who’s maybe less experienced as a reader, you could just say, “Note any place that is confusing or where you find your mind wandering,” and then that gets you to also stuff that you might cut. What have you learned about eliciting feedback or evaluating feedback when you’re letting people test a game?
Justin Gary: Yeah, that’s a great question. So it’s going to depend upon the phase that you’re in. Every time I go through the core design loop, I like to think of myself like a scientist. I have some hypothesis that I’m trying to test, and that’s what I’m focused on in that testing session. So when you’re early on, you’re like, is this even fun? Is this idea of rolling dice to try to punch somebody and making combos fun or whatever it is. You want to just see, “Is it fun?” I’m not asking, “Is it balanced?” I’m not asking, “Is it pretty?” I’m not asking, “Does the game last too long?” I’m asking, “Is this part fun?” And that’s what I’m focused on. And so I know when I’m testing that if I start getting feedback on these other parts, I’m not worried about that. I can set that aside, because that’s not what I’m looking for here.
And the whole, I want to keep playing, I want to play again test, the Viagra test as you put it, that’s not going to come true until later on in the cycle. Your early prototypes are most likely not going to meet that, so you’re looking for other things. So I do, like you, I have a questionnaire that I’ll use. I have, it’s up to for free on thinklikeagamedesigner.com/media, or we can link it in the show notes, which has a bunch of specific questions. You can just print it out and use it. So I will ask, “All right, what are the three things you liked the most about the game? What are the three things you liked the least about the game? Where did you get confused?”
And much like your book question, you really want to pay attention to where people get lost and confused. And nonverbal communication is at least as important as anything they’re going to write down and tell you. Because people, if you say, “Give me the three things you like the most, three things you like the least, what would you change?” Whatever. People will say something to you just because they feel like they have to say something to you. It doesn’t always mean that’s really what they feel. You’re prompting them to it. So you have to use your intuition to say, “A, is this relevant to the hypothesis I’m trying to test and the stage that I’m in? B, does this align with what I see visually of what they’re doing?” My mom tells me she loves all my games even when she really has no idea what’s going on in some of them. She’s very nice.
But if I see that somebody’s getting lost or leaning back or checking their phone, watching for those nonverbal cues is so important. And you sort of train yourself over time to get better at that. But so asking questions to prompt for the specifics, being focused on what’s important to me right now, looking for nonverbal cues. And then in best case scenario, just like you mentioned, you have some more sophisticated readers and you have less sophisticated readers, you have more sophisticated game players and less sophisticated game players.
So if you can test with other game designers, they’re going to be better at zeroing in on, “I don’t care that the card doesn’t have pictures on it or that the numbers aren’t balanced. I know what you’re looking for and I can give you feedback assigned to it.” If you just take it to somebody, just a regular person, they’re going to get hung up on a lot of little things. And so their feedback’s a little bit harder. You have to parse out a little bit more of what’s important.
Of course, as you get more and more focused on the final product, somebody that’s in your target audience, their feedback matters a lot. And then the last thing I’ll say is a quote that I think is also one of your favorites. It’s definitely one of mine from Neil Gaiman. “When your reader says that something is wrong, they’re almost always right. And when they say how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.” I don’t know if I’m butchering it, but that is 100 percent true in games too.
If you’re testing with multiple people in your target audience that are consistently saying that something’s not good, you as a designer have to fix it. They definitely do not have the right answer for how to fix it. That’s your job. But that’s another key part when I’m testing is that, I’m looking for themes, looking for patterns. One person telling me they don’t like something, maybe I can dismiss it, but if 20 people that are all in my target audience say that, that’s something I’ve got to focus on.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. No matter how pretty the paragraph, no matter how shiny the fishbowl pebble you might have.
Justin Gary: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: If a bunch of people are saying, “I don’t get it, it’s confusing,” you’ve got to cut it. Not always the easiest thing. So what happened with Ascension? So you have enough Ascension kits to build a house, at least you put in the order.
Justin Gary: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: And what unfolds?
Justin Gary: So then I go and I get a booth at Gen Con as mentioned, and this was where I’m going to have the unveiling. And now again, I’m very poor at this point.
Tim Ferriss: Now, Gen Con, for folks who don’t know, can you just maybe paint a picture or an analogy for what Gen Con is and the significance of Gen Con?
Justin Gary: Yeah, so Gen Con is the tabletop and role-playing game mecca of the United States, possibly you could say the world. It’s from Lake Geneva is where it started. It’s why it’s called Gen Con. It’s not there anymore. But that’s where it came from, where the original Dungeons & Dragons people got together and played. It was the first place where people gathered, and it kind of built this core of what gaming became today.
And so now it happens in Indianapolis, it’s like 60,000 people every year, somewhere in that neighborhood. And every type of game you can imagine, people are playing all hours of the night. They call it the best four days in gaming, but it’s got anything you can dream of is there and many things you can’t dream of. So it’s kind of the place to be, if you will, for tabletop and role-playing game nerds like myself.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so you show up at Gen Con.
Justin Gary: All right.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve gone from 30 booths to God knows how many, right?
Justin Gary: Yeah, can’t count how many, and I’m just a little guy. I have no company.
Tim Ferriss: You’re at a Taylor Swift concert now.
Justin Gary: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so what I had was I bought a 10 by 10 booth, which is the smallest booth you can, 10 foot by 10 foot booth. And then they had a newbie competition, a little submit your marketing plan and we can give you a 10 by 20 booth for the price of a 10 by 10. And I won that contest. So fortunately, I got a 10 by 20 booth, which is still very small in the scheme of what’s there.
And I set up my stuff. And people had started to hear about my game because I showed it off at GAMA before, and I start kind of putting it out there in whatever way I can. But this is just posting online and sharing with friends. I don’t have any marketing budget or anything like that, but I’m posting and whatever I can get.
And then I get there and not only do have — we had some of the early adopters who had heard about it run to the booth, but then they play the game and they loved it so much, they would then take it, open up, buy it, open it up, and then start showing it to their friends. They would set up. And so we ended up — this is not allowed at Gen Con anymore, by the way, but they would just take over nearby tables at the seated area and just start demoing the game for me, totally for free. Didn’t ask them to, didn’t pay them —
Tim Ferriss: The Ascension splinter cells.
Justin Gary: It did. And I would start seeing people play it in the halls, and then I would see people carrying boxes around. And so it became this kind of viral, before this sort of viral sensation, in a way that it was very exciting. It was a very incredible moment. And so we sold out of everything we brought.
So this is a very rewarding, very cool experience. My team, it’s not just me now, I’ve got other people there working really hard to make this come to life. Team is like four of us. And then I got an offer that was very difficult offer to refuse. So at this point, I had early product that was shipped for Gen Con, but the rest of the stuff was still on the way. So I still haven’t sold these 10,000 units with all my life savings tied up into it. And I get a call from another very, very big gaming company, and I don’t think I’ll say the name just because I don’t know.
Anyway. And they say, “Hey, we like your game. We want to buy it out, all of it. We’ll take it over. It’ll be our game. We’ll pay you a royalty. You don’t have to worry about anything. It’ll be all done.”
Now, this is a very tough moment for me. This is, in a sense, it’s a dream come true. They buy all the stocks. So my money’s off the table, they are a big company, they can push it, they can sell it, and then I can just go back to making games and I’ll have some amount of royalty and that’ll be good to go. And I sat with it, and at the end of the day, I was like, this is my baby. I’ve worked so hard to get it here, and I want to see it through. I want to see it through. I want it to stay mine. I didn’t want to sell it off. And I said no. And it was one of those, I might regret this one later.
And then 30 days later, product shows up finally after delays. Funnily enough, the product launch delay was launched such that it actually launched while I was at Burning Man, which was not supposed to be, but there it was. And when I come back from Burning Man — so I have a little release party out in the middle of the desert on the fly, and when I come back, we’d sold out, everything was sold out, the entire run, and we had to make a reorder. And it was like, the company’s working. I can reorder, start making expansion. And the rest of the company’s history kind of evolved from that in a way that, well, I’m glad I made the decision I did.
Tim Ferriss: All right, many questions. So at Gen Con, how many games did you sell, roughly?
Justin Gary: Oh, man, I don’t remember exactly, but it’s the hundreds.
Tim Ferriss: Hundreds.
Justin Gary: Some number of hundreds.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to bookmark this. This is not going to be my first question, but just how you sell 10,000 after selling a few hundred? Was it word of mouth online? Was it something else? Just what factors do you think contributed to that, because it’s not an immediate obvious outcome, right?
Justin Gary: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: At least not for me listening to this story. But before we get to that, because this all undergirds a lot of what you’re talking about, how do the economics of say tabletop games or card games work? What’s the kind of traditional model? How do people get paid? Who’s getting paid? What are the percentages? Is terms of royalties? What is that a percentage of? Could you just give us an overview of what the economics of that world look like as a template?
Justin Gary: Sure. So when you’re producing games, most of the time you’re going to produce them overseas. So now with cardboard stuff, it’s starting to become a little bit more economical to do it stateside. We do some of our games stateside, but mostly do it overseas. And whatever the retail price of the game is, you typically need — the cost of the game has to be about a fifth of that,. And the reason is that as a manufacturer, you are going to sell the game to a distributor at about 60 percent off the price of retail. They’re going to sell it to a retailer at 50 percent off the price of retail. So they’ve got a 10 percent margin for distribution, and then the retailer has that 50 percent margin for the rest of it.
Tim Ferriss: So if you’re manufacturing, if you were a game designer and manufacturer, then it sounds like 20 percent margins generally on games, something like that?
Justin Gary: Yeah. Now, if you’re a game designer, typically if you have an external game designer and you pay a royalty to that designer off whatever you’re selling. So if you’re selling it to distribution, you sell a percentage off the distribution price. If you sell it direct to consumer, you sell off to consumer price. And that can vary depending upon the designer. In tabletop games, typically it’s going to be anywhere between six and 12 percent at the high end. For more mass market games, big scale games, it could go as low as two percent or three percent, but somewhere in that ballpark.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, I got it. This is important, because it highlights how challenging your decision to say no was. Because we’re not talking about, I’m keeping 90 percent of — well, I mean maybe with direct-to-consumer you are, but it’s not like 90 percent margins versus six. It’s like there’s actually a narrower gap, which is also true, for instance, in books for self-publishing and traditional deals, people think they’re miles and miles apart. In some cases maybe they are, but when you start to factor in all of the costs, the delta between the percentage that you take, say self-publishing versus traditional, it’s not as wide as people might think. So thank you for giving that. Is there anything else you’d like to add to that?
Justin Gary: Yeah, well, it comes down to it was a little bit more than just the money and the dollars in the sense of it. It was a matter of like, this was my baby, this is my IP. You’ve worked with publishers where they now take over the rights of stuff and you can’t just do what you want with the book anymore. You can’t do things —
Tim Ferriss: I would imagine if you want to do Ascension expansion packs or Ascension, A, B, C, D, and E, you want to do a whole derivative line. If the publisher owns those rights or effectively owns those rights, you’re in a tight spot.
Justin Gary: That’s right. And now think about where we are now, 13 years later, there’s over 16 standalone expansions for Ascension. We made Ascension Tactics, which is an Ascension miniatures game, which we did another expansion to that. Ascension‘s been featured in a major motion picture. We are working on trying to take the IP and make cartoons and make other things, comic books out of it. There’s all of these things that are fun.
We’ve had conversations about this sort of stuff. It’s fun to create and grow and expand your storylines. When I first made Ascension, I had sketched out a three-year story arc of what the world of Ascension would be if I got the whole thing done. And now of course, it’s 13 years later, so I’ve had to make some more stories since then. But that’s the part I love. Just like when growing up playing Dungeons & Dragons, the process of coming up with the stories and making it and bringing that world to life is just, I love it. And so I didn’t want to lose that.
For people that are listening, that are trying to make these decisions, it’s not obvious. Even though I’ve been fortunately successful with it, it’s not obvious that it’s the right decision for everybody. I spend way less of my time just designing games because I’m running a company. I have to manage logistics, I have to manage people, I have to plan out the marketing strategies. There’s all these things that come with running a company. And so I think a lot of people would actually be better off, if all you want to do is make games, then selling to a publisher is a great strategy. I wanted to build worlds and build something bigger. And so here I am.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ll just repeat a name I mentioned earlier, Stephen Key. I don’t think he does what some people would refer to as venturing, which is basically building the business to do it mostly yourself or a lot of it yourself. He loves developing new toys and new products, and he’s really good at the licensing game. And that, as far as I know, maybe things have changed, but that’s the game game he plays. And I would say just on the do something bigger side, there are different ways of doing something bigger.
So if you want to have the freedom to do the extensions and so on like you have, on some level you almost certainly have to retain rights. But for a product developer who doesn’t have the business knowhow or doesn’t want to develop it, doesn’t want to spend time that way, licensing to a gigantic company that has a global footprint and distribution could be the perfect path or the best available path for making a large impact in terms of distribution and having some type of — putting a spin on the ball of culture.
Justin Gary: Yeah, speaking of putting a spin on the ball, the game Bakugan I mentioned earlier, is a game that I work on that’s Spin Master, the company that owns it, they have toy plastic balls, and there’s a game that, I designed the game, but they own the rights, they own the game, they own the distribution, they do everything. And that is by far the biggest game I’ve ever worked on. I mean, it’s all over the world. It’s in toy stores. Anywhere you go, there’s a cartoon, multiple cartoons. It’s enormous.
And so that is also fun and also a really cool, exciting thing. And so that path is totally viable. So you can do work for hire, you can create projects and sell them and make a royalty. You can launch and publish your own things. There’s an enormous number of ways to go forward. And a lot of it comes down to just getting clear, defining what it is that you want, what’s important to you, it’s like, “How do I make a living as a game designer?” That’s like the surface level question, how questions are a trap. You need to get below that. It’s like, “Wait, what does it mean for me? What is it I actually want? What does success look like for me?” Then even deeper than that, “Why am I doing this?” Because I want to make super cool worlds, and I want to grow into a universe, or because I want to collaborate with people, or because I want to reach millions of people, or because I just want to have something to play with my friends and do something on the side. Those questions, there’s no wrong answer to any of those questions, but if you don’t dive deep enough for yourself, you’re going to end up chasing down a path, like I did many times, where I’m just going to compete, or move on a path for the sake of it, because I want the most dollars. The most dollars is the wrong game to play, I’ll tell you that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, totally. It can lead you astray really quickly. Important to keep your eyes on the cash flow, but also —
Justin Gary: Oh, yes.
Tim Ferriss: It can be a trap.
Justin Gary: Don’t run out of dollars, but —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, don’t run out of dollars.
Justin Gary: But don’t just optimize for dollars.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so maybe this ties in. You’ve mentioned a number of successes, do you have, in your entrepreneurial journey, after starting your company, any favorite failures or near-death experiences, or anything like that that you can describe?
Justin Gary: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I can. The life of an entrepreneur is definitely one that has a lot of ups and downs, as many of your guests can attest to it. You can attest, I’m sure. So what I mentioned earlier, the game SolForge, we originally — we’ve since relaunched it, but at the time it was a purely digital trading card game, and I partnered with Richard Garfield, this is the guy that created Magic: The Gathering. This is a dream come true for me. I’ll tell you the brief story. So we meet, we’re at a game conference, I’d seen him around before, but we hadn’t really met. We’re at a game conference called PAX Dev, it’s like a developer conference, and he’s giving a talk on design, so of course I’m in the audience listening because I want to learn from the master. At the end there’s a Q and A, and then somebody asks him, “Hey, what’s your favorite game right now?” He says, “Ascension,” and I literally jump up out of my seat from the back of the audience and go, “Woo-hoo,” like a stupid kid.
Everybody laughs, but it gives me the opening, and so I go and I start a conversation with him after the talk. We start talking and we get excited. It’s clear we’re both excited about the same project, and so SolForge is born. Now, this was a project that was my first digital game I’d ever done, and I was a little cocky at this point. I won’t lie. I’d succeeded, my first project, Ascension was a huge success. Everything I touch turns to gold, it’s all going to be great, we’re doubling in size every year. We do a crowdfund, and I thought it was going to cost $250,000 to make that game. We crowdfunded with that target, and we ended up crowdfunding double that goal, almost double that goal, like $500,000. It’s like, “Oh, this is amazing. We’re going to crush it. We’re so good.” As it turns out, making digital games is very expensive, and it turns out that that cost $3 million to make.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man.
Justin Gary: So I had to go and try to raise funds again, and we have to launch the game before we’re ready. Again, we have followers, we have cash, but the cash burn is — over time I can see the cash burn is higher than the income, and it’s not working, and I overextended. I started borrowing more money, I start trying to like, “I know I could make this work. I’m not going to let it go. This is my baby. I’m going to keep it going.”
Tim Ferriss: How are you raising and borrowing money? If you don’t mind adding a little more detail.
Justin Gary: Yeah. So it starts off with we just do a kind of friends and family convertible notes kind of round, so that means they give me a loan, and then in theory it turns into equity over time.
Tim Ferriss: Into equity.
Justin Gary: Yeah. Then after that, then I start taking some of those refactoring loans like you talked about, so I’m getting loans against my future income on Ascension to pay for SolForge, and then starting to run up credit cards, and all the things you really are not supposed to do. I get to a point where I have to finally realize, “Wow, I’m going to go bankrupt. I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to lose everything.”
This was just one of the hardest things that I have ever faced, because not only is it like I feel like I owe it to my team, who I’m going to have to lay off these people whose livelihoods depend on it, we have fans and people who love the game, and not only is this — in a traditional tabletop game, if I stop making Ascension, let’s say, you still have your copy of Ascension at home and you could play it for as long as you want, it doesn’t matter if I don’t make anymore. But when I stop making SolForge, it’s a digital game, that means the server is turned off, that means your entire collection is gone, that means you can’t play it anymore, everything you spent, it’s all gone. I’m like failing myself, I’m failing my team, I’m failing the fans, everything, and I have to make some very, very hard decisions.
Tim Ferriss: Not to mention the friends and family.
Justin Gary: Of course, yeah, people — I literally have — my parents had taken a loan against their house to help me at one point. I am so overextended. I am so in the thick of it, shame and — it is tough. I have to come to a realization, and come to the other side of it where I had to go through this process of accepting. I had to get to the other place like, “Okay, it happened. I’ve lost everything. I failed, now what?” Right now, this is a different kind of fear-setting exercise because now I’m on the other side of my worst nightmare. It took me a little while, but it’s like, “Okay, you know what? I will still be alive. I will be able to pay off some of these debts over time with some other things. I can recover from this. It’s going to be okay. The people who got laid off, they’re going to get another job.”
It was not easy, but then once I accepted that worst case outcome, and then I was able to say, “Okay, now how do I make this less likely?” So I had to lay people off, but I also renegotiated debts, and negotiated payment plans, and reduced our overhead, and took on more contract work, and slowly but surely I was able to dig myself out of the hole. I don’t think there’s any chance I would’ve been able to do that if not for being mentally ready with, “Okay, I’ve lost it all, I’m talking to bankruptcy attorneys,” and that gives you a different kind of attitude and approach when you’re trying to — you’re negotiating with a lender that you owe money to, and they’re like, “You owe me money, you should collect,” I’m like, “I know, but either I’m going to go bankrupt and you’re not going to get anything, or we’re going to work something out, and I’m going to do my best to pay you off.”
Fortunately I was able to turn that around, and it was not only did I learn — the important lesson is you can go through a lot, and you can recover from it, but also to not put myself in that position again, not to overextend to that degree, and learn to make smaller bets, and grow as you can. It was a very important and powerful thing, which then of course, I’m now been able to come back to with reinvigorating that very same game.
Tim Ferriss: So to ask a question related to that, you have this dream come true partnering with Richard to create this game, how did you two communicate, or what led to the ability to maintain that relationship and now work together again? Because there are, I suppose, as I’m imagining different ways this could have played out, I’m sure there are ways with many different collaborators, where things could have exploded, and it would’ve damaged the relationship, and that would’ve been the end of that. So why didn’t that happen?
Justin Gary: You’ve got to be honest with people, that’s really what it comes down to. Act in integrity when you work with partners, sometimes you have bad news, you tell them bad news. Have some humility around when your ideas are not working, or when you’re trying things and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s what…” When I talk about nobody knows what they’re doing, when I realize the other executives do it, I don’t hide the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve got good ideas, I’ve tried things that work, but whenever you’re pushing the boundary and trying something new, sometimes it’s not going to work. So when you’re working with somebody, and again, fortunately Richard has been — he’s a professional, he’s not only has he made games that were uber successful, but he’s also made plenty of games that weren’t uber successful too, so he knows this.
Anybody that’s done this for long enough, any creative field you cannot predict. Everything is not going to be a hit. So when it’s my first major failure, for me, it felt like the end of the world, but the more you work with professionals, the more you realize that that’s just part of the process.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. What have you learned or what decisions have you made related to your company or entrepreneurship, how you run things, that you think are worth mentioning? It could be after that experience, it could just be in general, maybe ways that you have simplified things or challenged assumptions, turned things upside down, anything at all that comes to mind.
Justin Gary: One of the things that I’ve realized is that the same way you design games, designing a great game and designing a great company are not all that different. In a great game, you have clear goals, you know what you’re trying to do, it’s very clearly defined what you’re trying to do. You are getting a lot of feedback, and rewards, either that be from points for achievements or [inaudible]. You’re getting constant feedback loops. The challenge level is appropriate. You’re focused on learning one thing at a time. The skill level is appropriate where you want to be. Probably the most important thing about games, when we play games, we take a certain kind of mindset, if I’m playing a game, I expect to lose, I expect to have challenges. In fact, that’s the whole point, if you play a game and there’s never a challenge, why are we even doing it, right?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Justin Gary: So I have tried to cultivate all four of those things in my company. We set clear goals where it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to try to have this metric, this specific metric, like our email subscriber list, we’re going to try to increase it by this amount, and here’s how we’re going to do it over this quarter,” or we’re going to try to get a new game in this category, that we’re going to have a prototype ready to go in two weeks. Clear goals. We have something that allows us to have daily focus and feedback. What I love is the rule of three, I think I first learned this from Chris Bailey, his book The Productivity Project, but I’ve applied it at every level of my company.
So what it is, is you have everybody posts their three daily goals, what are the top three things that I want to focus on? Three is really important because we all have an infinite laundry list of stuff to do, we’re never going to finish our to-do list, but if you can finish your most important three things, you can make an enormous amount of progress, and we scale that to every level of the company. So every team we have have three weekly goals, we have monthly goals, we have quarterly goals, and so everything kind of scales down. I even built this into my own personal life. I have a thing, The Level Up Journal, which I’ve made, which I’ve got, it just has a journal that just — it fits in your pocket, it has three goals, three habits, and then a little gratitude practice. So every piece of it, by focusing on very few things and making those the priority, it makes a big difference.
Then lastly, with the mindset, we set very aggressive goals, and it’s okay not to hit them, like a game you want to win, you take winning seriously, but you don’t cry when you lose a game. You say, “Okay, what can we learn from this? How do we get better?” Start to take that attitude and approach it, sometimes easier than others, for sure, but cultivating that mindset and focusing on what’s important, and making sure that the goals are clear, and everybody knows what they are, and you’re moving day to day, that’s how I structure the company. Again, it came from just the principles of design, applying them to what we do, and I found it to be really powerful.
Tim Ferriss: Where do people, if people in the company are posting, for instance, the rule of three, their three priorities for the day, where are they posting these?
Justin Gary: So we have a company Discord, we have a channel in our company Discord that everybody posts their three goals for the day. There’s a separate one for weekly goals, separate one for monthly goals, and a separate one for quarterly goals, and so you can always look back and see what everybody’s doing at any given point, if you care to, at their main focus. It also helps us to stay connected because we’re a 100 percent remote team now, so even though I may not talk to a given person or see a given person, I can quickly glance and see what’s most important to them right now. So it keeps us all connected and accountable.
Tim Ferriss: Two questions. The first is, is there any follow-up on those three or is it just the act of someone publicly stating their priorities that makes everyone feel connected, and hopefully gives them some felt sense of accountability that you think leads to the better output?
Justin Gary: Yeah, let’s start there. So yeah, the daily is — there’s not much follow-up on the daily, it’s about staying connected, and I think it just forces you to plan. It forces you to assess for yourself, “Okay, what actually is important to me?” A lot of people will just start checking emails and going down rabbit holes, and they’re working, they are working, but they’re not doing what’s important, they’re just doing whatever’s in front of them, and so this forces, just as a habit it forces you to think things through.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, great point. Then?
Justin Gary: Then for the weeklies, we do have that, so we have our weekly goals. We have a check in at the end of the week, where people will post, “Hey, here were my goals for last week. Here’s how they went. Here are now my goals for the next week,” or, “What can I do? If I didn’t meet a goal, what am I doing to fix it?” So there is some accountability, and I read through those every week for the team.
Tim Ferriss: That’s on Friday? So people are setting their priorities for the following week on Friday.
Justin Gary: Correct.
Tim Ferriss: Why Discord versus other tools? How did you choose that?
Justin Gary: We tried a lot of them, and I’m obsessed with productivity tools as you are, I think, with a lot of these things, sometimes to a fault. We tried Slack. We tried a couple of other custom ones. We tried Asana. We tried Monday. We tried a bunch of them. But the nice thing about Discord is, one, it’s very easy to use, you can just start up a channel for free, you can have voice chat and text chat. You can also upload bigger files, and you can with — Slack restricts that unless you have a paid program, it’s much easier to load files and share things.
Honestly, Discord started as a gamer-focused thing, and so we actually built our fan community in Discord. So you can go to the Stone Blade Discord, and it’s kind of funny because it’s sort of a front-of-the-shop, back-of-the-shop kind of vibe. It’s like the front of the shop is where all the fans are there, they’re all chatting about the games, we can jump in and chat with them. Then we are in this private channels that you can’t see, but we’re talking about making the next things that you’re going to be talking about six months from now. So it automatically gives us a sense of connection to our fans, because the same place where we’re doing our work, one click away you can see and interact with fans. It has a nice bonus effect of making us feel a little bit more connected to the community.
Tim Ferriss: How much of your work do you do on laptop versus phone? What percent would you say?
Justin Gary: Oh, 90 plus percent laptop, for sure. My phone is, I’ll occasionally check emails to make sure I’m not missing anything, but I hate working on my phone.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I figured it was probably something like that, I’m the same way. What is the mobile experience with Discord? I’ve never used it on mobile.
Justin Gary: It’s fine. Again, mostly when I’m there, I can check messages. I turn off all notifications for everything, I don’t want my phone bothering me, or pinging me, or distracting me. I’m using my phone consciously because I want to look at something specific. It means I have a meeting and I’m not at my desk, I’ll go to Discord, go to the meeting thing, check it, or I have something I want to post at a public channel. This is another key thing about it that’s great, because you have so many different channels and you can make threaded discussions. One of the things I try to encourage is that we have, as much as possible make communications public. A lot of times people will have side chats and side conversations, and come up with some great idea, and then it will get lost because people are just in a private channel somewhere, and so we’ll make sure that people have public discussions as much as possible so people can add comments, and can get involved and stay connected if they want to.
But to continue with your question, the mobile experience, it’s mostly just for some — I will only use it if it’s like there’s some specific communication, or meeting, or connection I need to do, that’s when I’ll use my phone. If I’m going to work, it’s because I’m set up at a laptop, designating time to work and connect.
Tim Ferriss: All right. We could keep going for hours, and maybe we will do more rounds, but there’s a prompt here that I would love to explore, which is how a trip to Thailand helped you to escape your need for control. As someone who focuses on systems, predictability, controllability, et cetera, this might be therapeutic for me to hear. So could you unpack this for us?
Justin Gary: Yes. Yes. I think we’re very similar in the sense, Tim, it’s not — I wouldn’t call myself a control freak just because I don’t want to say mean things about myself, but I very much want things to be good, and I believe I know how to make them good, and I want to make sure that they are good. So that’s what control freaks say. But the point being like, “Look, I know I’m good at my job, and for the most part, with most of the jobs that people are doing, I know how to do them as well as they do, that’s how I know if they’re doing a good job or not.” This is the story I’m telling myself. I hired a lot of very smart, very capable people, and I ended up, every extra person I hired suddenly became more work for me, because I had to keep checking to make sure that they were on track, or setting up more systems to have this, if they weren’t doing something the way I thought they should be coming in, or they would come to me with questions.
At some point I’m like, “Listen, this is too much. This has gone kind of crazy. I need to step away.” So I said, “Look, I’m going to take a three-week trip to Thailand. I’m not bringing my laptop. I’m not reachable. I’m going to do that in six months.” I gave the team plenty of time, “What do you need from me? How do we set this up so that you don’t need to talk to me?” They, “Okay, we need access to these things that only you have access to. We need to know this, whatever.” It was very little as it turned out, and then I go to Thailand. Now, I am still too much of a control freak, so I really did bring at least my iPad with me so I could check in, but I didn’t respond, I didn’t do anything. What magically happened is everybody just stepped up, and they answered the questions that they would’ve asked me themselves because they were perfectly capable of doing that. They started taking initiative, and building new things, and doing stuff that I didn’t even think to do.
I realized, with some embarrassment, that I had been holding them back, that I had, by not allowing them to fail, or do things that would be different than I would, I had been constraining them from becoming leaders, and doing the things that they should be doing. I had built work for myself, I had made them less effective at their job, and I had made my life less good. So that was one of the best vacations I ever took, because it actually really changed the entire way that I managed, changed the entire way I viewed leadership, and I love Thailand.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. Just building the systems that then persist after you get back, what a liberating experience that must have been on so many levels, the gifts that keeps on giving.
Justin Gary: Yup. It’s something you talk about a lot, and it cannot be underestimated. What is it? So you asked the question, what would it take for me to let go? What would have to be true for you to be willing to not get into this? It could be some key metric that you care about that they have to report. It could be that they have to stay within a certain budget. It could be that they’re — in reality, you’re just making up stories of, “Oh, well, I just feel like I need it.” Let those things go, let people grow. In my experience, it’s just been incredible, I now have a team that can literally run itself. I get in, and I focus on the key new projects. I focus on the most important things I think are wrong, but for the most part, I have stepped away from a lot of the day-to-day, and I have watched my team get better and better, and better.
Again, it’s part of that mindset, they make mistakes just like I make mistakes, and sometimes the question is, “What do we learn from it?” And don’t make the same mistake twice. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and it’s been pretty amazing.
Tim Ferriss: So Justin, we’re coming up on almost two and a half hours, two hours and 17 minutes or 18 minutes, I’ll ask just a few more questions, and then we can slowly land this plane. The next question is one that many long-term listeners will be familiar with, the billboard question. If you could put a quote, a question, a phrase, a word, anything on a billboard, metaphorically speaking, to get it in front of millions or billions of people, what might you put on such a billboard?
Justin Gary: Yes, I’m excited to get this one. I had anticipated it might come up. I’ve listened to a lot of the podcasts. I’m going to use one as a mantra for myself, which I say to myself every day, which is: “Cultivate comfort with uncertainty and impermanence.” Cultivate comfort with uncertainty and impermanence. It sounds maybe a little woo-woo to people, but in reality it’s so much of what we do, and we talked about this a little bit earlier, is because we’re afraid that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re afraid we’re going to lose something, and the truth is, you never know what’s going to happen, and you’re going to lose everything. We’re all going to die.
If you can just be okay in that space of not knowing, the control freak piece of it, the staying as a lawyer or a safer path, and be okay with the fact that things are not going to stay the same all the time, then life gets so much easier, whether that be your creative path, or your relationships, or anything, that has been one of the most powerful things for me personally, so I’d hope to share that message.
Tim Ferriss: That is a perfect place to begin to wrap up, and that is exactly what we’re going to do. So Justin, people can find Think Like A Game Designer at thinklikeagamedesigner.com. You mentioned the /media for various things. They can find you on Twitter @Justin_Gary. Any other websites that you would like to mention, or places you’d like to point people to?
Justin Gary: Yeah, sure. You can come to stoneblade.com, it’s for my games, if you want to pick up any of my games or join our Discord, there’s a link there. We, myself and my team, are all there chatting, so you can chat with me on Twitter, and on the Discord. I love talking with people that have design and creativity questions, always happy to help. This has been so much fun, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: It’s such a blast. People, take him up on it, I highly, highly encourage you to engage. Thank you, Justin, for taking so much time. I’m glad we were able to finally make this happen. I really took so many notes, so lots to follow up on, personally. To everybody listening, thank you for tuning in. As always, we will link to everything we discussed, and probably much more in the show notes, tim.blog/podcast, you can just search Justin, and I’m sure that this will be one episode of very few, maybe the only that pops up so you’ll be able to find everything there. Until next time, please be just a bit kinder than is necessary, both to others and to yourself, and with that, Tim Feriss signing off.
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