Ego Check: Russell Tomas, Graywalkers Purgatory Creator/Team Lead

For those of you who were following me on Twitter about a year ago, you may remember that I became absorbed in XCOM: Enemy Unknown on XBOX 360. I thoroughly enjoyed the turn-based strategy aspect of the game, and how the gameplay was combined with traditional roleplaying elements like leveling and specialization. Since blasting through scores of alien invaders, I have remained on the lookout for another game with a similar style.

Graywalkers CoverOne game that could potentially fit into that mold is Graywalkers Purgatory, which is the brainchild of Russell Tomas – CEO and Creative Director at Dreamlords Digital. The company has been in existence for two years and develops games for iPhone, iPad, Android, PC, Mac, and browsers. Mr. Tomas was kind enough with his time to discuss the changing climate for tabletop and mobile gaming, the lessons learned from his first Kickstarter attempt, and his hopes to make Graywalker Purgatory an intellectual property that can penetrate into the tabletop, mobile, and PC gaming market.

You have now been in the gaming industry for about seven years. What developments have you noticed since you first started in the business, and would you describe those developments as positive or negative?

I’ve worked on both sides of the industry, on the publisher side as a top executive for large MMO publishing company, and now as a developer of PC/mobile games. For the past seven years, things have moved fast in the gaming industry. Within that time, MMOs were big, then Social Games grew big, and now Mobile games are on the rise and the indie gaming industry has been revived. All of these contributed in making gaming mainstream. It has not only legitimized gaming as a viable business industry, it is now seen as one of the most lucrative.

Russell Tomas
Russell Tomas

One clear effect of these changes and growth is the large number of gamers in the market now. Games are not the domain of only geeks and nerds anymore; they are now enjoyed by most people. Of course, this is a very diverse group but I’ve always believed that once you start enjoying games consistently on whatever platform for whatever genre, you are considered a gamer. This acceptance of gaming as a whole has contributed positively to the industry on many levels. For the indie market, i think this is even more visible because we can now get open support for our projects as well as more opportunities. There are many more developments to come but I think this is the most far-reaching of them all.

One of the dynamics that has captured my interest recently is the move of tabletop games to a mobile mode of play. The first game in this category I got sucked into was Ticket To Ride, which is a table-top game I probably never would have gotten a chance to play if it were not for people I follow on Twitter talking about how fun the mobile version was. Instead of trying to organize an in-person gathering to play this game, I was able to quickly download the app on my phone and join multiple Ticket to Ride games. Other tabletop games that come to mind are Ascension and Lords of Waterdeep. What are your thoughts on this merge between tabletop games and mobile gaming devices?

I’m familiar with some of these games you mentioned – both the digital and actual versions. With regards to the merging between traditional tabletop games and mobile/online games, my thoughts are positive ones. I’ve been a big believer in technology and when used properly it can provide many positive benefits to tabletop gaming such as:

  • Allowing players to play these games on the go wherever they are. Even if they are alone, they can enjoy these games online. Of course there are things lost as well in this method but as an alternative, it is indeed a good substitute.
  • Allowing players to play with others without necessarily being in the same place. Again, this is a reality that our current lifestyle has to contend with. Running of to hang out with friends across the city may be more fun but then there’s the disadvantage of commuting and costs associated with it. If one can play online with friends, then even better. Creating and maintaining a group to play any game with consistently is definitely much more difficult nowadays.
  • Increased cost effectiveness as these games are cheaper to produce, thus cheaper to sell to their audience.
  • Using the mobile product to be a marketing tool to entice the mobile player to try out the actual game. This will hopefully get more people interested in these types of games.
  • Providing easier access to more content for the game.

Personally, part of my plan is to merge tabletop and mobile gaming…or gaming in general. This is why our game Graywalkers is headed in this direction. Putting that tabletop experience as much as possible into the game is what we are striving to do. And for the tabletop experience, we intend to use technology to augment the experience through the use of custom tools for the game. This is why even with the tabletop RPG game system I’ve built it will include a character generator, avatar generator and maybe even a virtual tabletop system that uses the game’s rule sets. Wizard of the Coast planned something like this before but somehow it didn’t totally push through.

You bring up the idea that games are very much a social endeavor. Table-top games by their very nature force players to interact with each other in a face-to-face environment, and the mobile versions lack that component. It seems to shift the focus from a shared experience to a single-player experience. How does that affect your design process as you try to merge the tabletop and mobile gaming experience?

There is definitely some difficulty in this because of the nature of the social component. Though technology is heading in that direction, we’re not fully there yet and we’re hoping that what we are trying to do pushes us a step closer in that direction. I think with design, it’s important to focus on the most important aspects of what makes the experience the most enjoyable and rewarding. Also, it’s important to know the current limitations so that you can clearly see what can and cannot be done at this point.

For example, in Graywalkers, we’ve identified a few things that we felt would bring the tabletop RPG experience to the game:

First, we’re using an actual RPG system that I developed based upon my exposure to GMing for approximately 25 years and running/playing almost every major RPG system made . This system will be the governing system for all things happening in the game including combat, skill use, interaction, character growth, etc. Second, were making each major NPC an interesting and interactive character. This is why we put personalities and motivations to each character. Yes, you are only playing solo but with this, it will feel like the other people in the game you interact with are as if they are their own person rather than automatons that you control. Third, we’re striving to have a rich background that makes the world you are in a more believable one. Many games that are not based on a RPG franchise rarely care much about the game world. And I found this especially true in mobile games.

I’m a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, and tried WOTC’s early beta for a virtual tabletop. You’re right, their efforts never advanced that far, which is a shame. Why do you think WOTC’s plans fell through, and what challenges must you overcome to create an effective virtual RPG system?

There are a few reasons why their virtual efforts didn’t push through. First, it should have been built as if it was a video game, rather than as software. Though there are rumors and news that 4e was built to become an eventual MMO, they didn’t build it properly towards that goal. Second, I think when they were developing it, it wasn’t with the right developers. I’m not sure who was building it but i think if they worked with a good game development group, it would have been done pretty fast (1-2 years depending on how much resources pumped into it). They have worked with game companies in the past and those products were pretty good. They could technically have even used their old Neverwinter 1 or 2 campaign generator and just tweaked it for tabletop use if they weren’t going to invest too much. All the components were already there. In the end, working with the right partner would have made them come up with a product that’s cost-effective and functional. Third, it seemed like they didn’t want to invest too much into it. Even if they used old systems from their partners who built D&D games already, I imagine the financial deal would be quite expensive. Also, they probably felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward. In the end, not that many systems would be bought because people would probably only buy like one system per group, instead of one per person.

Screenshot from Graywalkers Purgatory
Screenshot from Graywalkers Purgatory

The key challenges that need to be overcome for an effective virtual RPG system are possible to overcome. The system needs to be easy enough to use or learn. In the end, it’s a tool and if it isn’t easy, then it would definitely discourage very many people from using it. The goal of a virtual tabletop (VTT) is to enhance the game visually and to automate things that slow down the game like calculations and stuff. The VVT has to have enough content at the start to be useable. Obviously you can’t cover every situation but you should have enough to work with for the most common situations. For example, if it was for fantasy, then it should have content for the most common features of dungeons, caves, sewers, city streets, taverns, inns and general outdoor areas like plains and forests. These things don’t have to be extremely detailed, but it should provide enough to help with the imagination.

A good VTT needs to reliable manage multiplayer connectivity and use. This is the most crucial part because in the end, the game is about having everybody interact with each other and the game. Doing this as seamlessly and painlessly as possible will be most important for a successful VTT. In addition, the opportunity to portability needs to be used. It’s simply the issue of making all of them work together harmoniously. For example, the VTT needs to not only run on the tablet or laptop, but the players should be able to use their phones or tablets to interact with the VTT on the DMs device.

You’ve been running tabletop game sessions for approximately 25 years. What are your two or three favorite roleplaying game systems during that period of time – and why?

Tough one, I have favorites for each genre. For fantasy, my new favorite is Pathfinder. Don’t get me wrong, I love D&D! It’s how I got started in RPGs, and it will always be important to me. But as a GM, I think that Pathfinder continued the right direction that 3.5 set. Sure, 3.5 had tons of problems and balancing issues but it was the right direction in my mind. Pathfinder continues that legacy and direction.

GURPS is another favorite and I use it for every campaign when it requires realism. I’ve used it for many different kinds of campaigns, even one which we call “Real World” wherein you get to play as yourself. You stat yourself out as close to the “YOU” as you can get including advantages and disadvantages and try to survive in multiple scenarios.

My favorite for sci-fi is Shadowrun. I love the world and concept so much. The idea of mixing magic and technology just makes things bigger and with more options. The ideas there jived with many of the ideas I have for the kind of world I really wanted to build. I think that’s why Graywalkers has been compared to Shadowrun, which I honestly don’t mind. In fact, I’m flattered if people think so, even if we seem pale by comparison. Of course, we also hope one day Graywalkers will be as loved as Shadowrun is. Lastly, my new favorite for superhero gaming is Mutants and Masterminds. It is as good as it gets so far for superhero gaming, at least for me. I love the classics but M&M captures the 4-color flavor of comic book heroes.

How have tabletop games influenced the design of Graywalkers?

Playing tabletop games is the single biggest influence in the design and creation of Graywalkers, and many of the other games we have lined up to build. Many of the stories being told are inspired by what our campaigns have gone through in one form or another. Many of those heroes created by the players will find a form of it in the game somehow. Weirdly though, the Graywalkers world is the game I have not truly ran yet much compared to the others. Our module for it would always be just 1-2 sessions and it’s mostly introductory. I guess I want the world to be a surprise for my players and they can go through it when everything is set more properly.

Your first Kickstarter campaign aimed at bringing Graywalkers to life was not successful. What lessons did you and your team learn from that process? What needs to change the second time around for the Kickstarter to fund?

With our first Kickstarter, we learned a lot. There were many factors that affected what happened and I think we are more prepared now. I can honestly say that we were totally unprepared for the first one. I guess that’s why I never truly felt that bad that we didn’t make it the first time around. I did my research and prepared but there were many things we failed to do beforehand which would have improved our chances. For one, we didn’t do much in the way of marketing. We didn’t do any pre-marketing, and marketing during the campaign was limited. I think the only reason we even got to $44K was simply on the fact that many loved the idea of the game. Our video wasn’t all that great as well, so that was another drawback. It was too long and lacked gameplay video. We only got gameplay footage after the campaign was going for over a week. Also, luck and timing was not in our favor. When we came out, it was like all the best RPGs all went to get funding. We were competing with other games I personally felt I would like to pledge to. In the end, many of these great games didn’t get funded as well. They said one major reason was the string of bad PR for indie game groups in KS that didn’t keep their end of the bargain and also because of KS fatigue. Being too close to Thanksgiving and Christmas also didn’t help, as well as having the launch of PS4 and XBox One happen those same weeks. Everybody was simply tapped out of excess cash.

Preparing for battle.
Preparing for battle.

This time around, we hope things will get better. Things have happened since then and we’ve changed our strategy to match our new situation. This time we’re going to engage in pre-marketing on social media and forums. We also plan to get more press to know about us early in the process. We still have a month to go and we’ve been getting good press so we’re on the way towards that. We’re also lowering our target. We now have some potential investors lined up that we just need to convince of the support for the product. If we reach our goal, then it will prove to the investor that we have a market backing the game. Also, with a lower target means we appear better on KS charts and press, which will hopefully encourage more to support it. We will do a staggered development tier based on the stretch goals. We’re looking at maybe $35-$50k this time around but our goal is still to hit at least $100K. We’re doing a smaller, simpler game at the low-end but as we go up the stretch goals, the game gains more features and more content. Take note that the game will be playable and will already have lots of options at the base, it will just be less ambitious than we originally set it out to be.

We’re also building a demo this time, which we’ll be able to show to press so they can actually play the game. We’ve been improving the design based on feedback from the initial community we’ve built. We also have a shorter video with more focus on the gameplay itself – and less on the developers. It seemed earlier campaigns focused on developers; now the community simply doesn’t trust unknown groups. The hope is to make people want the game so much that it doesn’t matter who the group is. It’s all a risk now even with known people, we might as well make it worth the risk with something they truly can’t bear not to play in the future. There’s a lot more small stuff that needs to change but i think these sums up the most important parts.

It seems to me that successful Kickstarters have a few common themes. The first is if it’s launched by a known entity. I referenced Numenera previously, which is the creation of Monte Cook. He’s been in the RPG industry for decades and built a solid reputation. He set a goal of $20,000 to create a new RPG and ended up with over half-a-million dollars. The second is if the product lends itself well to mass production where it’s expensive to make one copy of the product but inexpensive to make 10,000 copies of the product. Reaper Miniatures has now had two Kickstarter campaigns that have netted over 6.5 million dollars, and Dwarven Forge followed a similar model to gain close to two million dollars with their campaign. The numbers from those campaigns are staggering! 

What is it like to see some campaigns be wildly successful and others struggle? I imagine it’s a mixture of hope and anguish!

It is frustrating, exhilarating, stressful, and exciting. The Kickstarter campaign is one of the most grueling things you can ever do to yourself physically, mentally and emotionally, all at the same time. For the whole time of the campaign, you will not be able to properly sleep, eat, rest or anything else. Kickstarter will be your world every waking minute that you have till it’s done. I don’t recommend it for everybody but if you relish the challenge, then by all means, go for it. It definitely builds character and I truly believe that it’s worth the risk. It is a unique opportunity and if you have an idea or a dream, you have an opportunity to reach it. You just have to be honest to yourself about the support you get. Based on the feedback, you can tell if your product is a great one or not.

You talked about the intense competition for the gamer’s dollar that exists now. I can only speak from the consumer end, but I feel bombarded by great options. There are a ton of well-rated games I haven’t played yet on XBOX 360 and PS3 – and I haven’t even purchased the next-generation systems yet. There is the mobile gaming explosion with options to take up one’s time. There are so many tabletop RPGs out now that it’s tough to keep up with them. When I was younger, D&D was the main kid on the block – now there is Pathfinder, 13th Age, Numenera, and multiple editions of D&D. And that list does not include non-fantasy systems like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and Mutants & Masterminds. One factor in trying these games is finances, but the other factor is perhaps more precious – time.

With movies, comics, television shows, and games all available at the touch of a button, how can you make Graywalkers stand out from the crowd to entice a player to devote time to the product? To put it another way, what void will Graywalkers fill?

With regards to making ourselves stand out, we created something that was familiar and attractive to the audience but yet presented them with new ideas mixed in with those they already know. With Graywalkers, there have been many nuclear based post-apocalyptic games, but very few have gone the supernatural route especially in a modern-day setting. The idea of angels, demons, magic and technology all rolled up together and similar ideas have not been seen much in a turn-based game. The majority of them are either fantasy or military in nature. Graywalkers intends to fill the spaces in between several of our favorite old school games. I mean, the simple idea of having X-Com, Jagged Alliance and Fallout rolled together isn’t really an original thought, but it really hasn’t been done despite those games being around for many years.

To be able to compete with other mediums, I think our solution is to technically not compete with them, but to be a part of them. Graywalkers is more than just a single game. As you already know, part of the plan is to release games, comics and other products depicting the same world. I guess you can say we’re really trying to build this IP. By showing up in more mediums, we have a chance to reach more people and attract them to the other products.

Going further out, how will Graywalkers appeal to the gamers who often play mobile games while waiting on a bus or taking an – how should I say…extended bathroom break – and gamers who are looking for a meaty, long-term campaign?

With regards to those who play mobile, our goal is really to bring the same PC experience to the mobile platform. Most people think that mobile means very shallow gameplay and hardcore PC gamers hate the idea of porting to mobile because the experience changes and demeans their favorite game. With us, we want the game to remain essentially the same beyond superficial changes. It is our goal to bring new mobile gamers to enjoy true RPGs on the tablet because we believe it is possible. XCom and Shadowrun have led the way and we want to follow in their footsteps.

On a side note though, we do have plans to release other mobile games for mobile platforms that are for the casual gamer. As I said earlier, what we want is to build a known IP. This will give us an opportunity to get the brand known to casual players and hopefully entice them to try the “hardcore” game of the RPG later on down the line. So with this plan, people can be confident that we don’t need to jeopardize the PC game in any way even if we plan to port it to mobile or other platforms.

You mentioned how Graywalkers is putting a supernatural spin on the post-apocalyptic setting. What interested you and your team to create a game with that concept?

Graywalkers Purgatory Concept Art
Graywalkers Purgatory Concept Art

The idea for Graywalkers was created I think in 1997 or ‘98. It was originally an idea for a graphic novel during the days I was creating comic books. The original Graywalkers was set in the modern era and part of the core of the story was the original end of the world scenario regarding 2012. This was from a time wherein the concept was barely even known by the masses. We started it out but somehow the idea got shelved. Through the years, I have always attempted somehow to try to finish the book but never got to it because of other responsibilities. When I decided I wanted to be a game developer, that’s when the idea came back. We wanted to make it a turn-based game but there was no market for it back then. I then decided I wanted it as an MMO but though putting it in modern times would be quite difficult. So I came up with the story based on the original graphic novel idea wherein “They failed” in their goal. What Graywalkers is now are all because they failed in their mission to prevent the “Rupture” from happening. So, I tried to figure out what would have happened after and that’s how we have a post-apocalyptic setting with a strong supernatural (with religious undertones) setting.

You stated that Graywalkers will have multiple points of entry for consumers. There will be both a video game and a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. Structurally, which came first, and how do the two versions of the game influence each other?

Yes, there will be video games (several different kinds), a pen-and-paper RPG and a comic book. Timeline wise, I think the idea for the game came first. Back then, I didn’t really think of creating my own tabletop RPG system. It became a byproduct when I realized that to bring the tabletop experience to the game, it needed to have a tabletop system. Thoughts of using others crossed my mind but I realized that no single system was right for the game, and that lead me to build my own system. And with the influence of so many systems on me, the new one was inspired by the best features I personally loved about those systems and found a way to make them work together.

What is your favorite mechanic or rule in the tabletop version of Graywalkers?

My favorite rule in the tabletop version of the game is that almost everything is an opposed roll. I’ve always liked the idea that forces are always constantly in motion against you or for you. To support this rule, I also like the fact that we use a bell curved probability system with regards to the die roll, and with us using three (3) D10s for the rolls, it make the randomness of the probabilities softer in their impact.

I find dice mechanics fascinating. Could you describe your 3d10 and bell-curved probability system in more detail, and perhaps provide an example of how that functions in gameplay?

In our game, the 3d10 roll governs almost every dice resolution required in the game. This includes use of skills, combat resolution, ability resolution and others. Its use is pretty simple, just Roll 3D10 and add the specific modifiers which may come from many things like attributes, situational modifiers, To succeed, you need to roll equal or greater than the target number. In opposed situations like combat or opposed skill checks, both sides roll and whoever is higher wins the test. The beauty of using 3d10 is that the median is much more prevalent than the extremes. In our game, a roll of 3 (three 1s) is a critical failure and a roll of 30 (three 10s) is a critical success. This means the chances to get a critical roll is much less, unlike when rolling a single die like in D20, the chances of rolling a 20 or a 1 or any number for that matter, is pretty much an even 5% chance. This basically lessens the randomness of the result of your actions, and lucky (or unlucky) rolls now become more significant when they do happen.

Graywalkers seems like quite a tactical combat game. How much room is there for a more narrative, story-based campaign for groups who do not want “all combat, all the time”?

We made sure that there will be equal room for both. We did this by having two modes, one to focus on each of these aspects. The Campaign mode is focused on the story, and players need to explore the story (and the sub-plots) to even finish the game. We’ve integrated an epic story line and Graywalkers Purgatory is just the first installment of that story. The other game mode is our “Freeform” mode. This game mode focuses more on the strategic and tactical combat. The maps are procedurally generated so each time you play the game, it will be different. They are not restrained by the story and can explore doing many things not normally allowed in the campaign. This way, both types of players can find enough gratification from the game.

On a final note, what would you like to say to readers who might be interested in learning more about Graywalkers?

First of all, thank you for having us for this interview. It was fun and we appreciate the support and exposure. To your audience, we would like to invite everybody to support us during our relaunch on Kickstarter sometime this March 2014. We will keep you updated as we finalize a date. In the meantime, we are currently trying to get our game Greenlit on Steam, so if you have an account there, please Vote Yes for us. For more info or updates, visit our website at Graywalkers. With regards to the table-top RPG of Graywalkers, we will start inviting people for testing it out later this year. Thanks again!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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