In the middle of the summer, the Codename: Morningstar project was announced, stating it would be a companion application for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. News about the project has trickled out over the past two months, and the name has officially been changed to DungeonScape. During that time, I have been in communication with Rachael Bowen, Community/Support Manager with Trapdoor Technologies, the company who is bringing DungeonScape to life.
In the interview below, Ms. Bowen discusses her background, the volatile dynamics of the gaming industry, how Trapdoor Technologies partnered with Wizards of the Coast, the demonstration of DungeonScape at this year’s Gen Con, and how DungeonScape hopes to increase its footprint in the future. She also shared the official icon for the DungeonScape app, which you can see below – but read her interview first!
I was reviewing your background and noted that you are quite the Renaissance woman having earned a degree in Studio Art/Photography and being certified as a Nutrition Educator and Yoga Teacher. Now you are the Customer Care Officer at Trapdoor Technologies, the company that is creating the “Official Companion App for the Dungeons & Dragons Tabletop Roleplaying Game.” What has that ride been like for you? How did one career arc flow into the others?
I suppose I am kind of a Renaissance lady – of course I had no idea growing up that I would be making a career in games. I wanted to be an acrobat! I grew up loving video games and was the neighbor kid that wanted to hang out all the time simply to maximize playtime on your original Nintendo. My parents would not allow me to have my own console for years so I was even more excited by games because they were a forbidden fruit in my house. I finally got a Nintendo 64 and logged countless hours in Goldeneye Multiplayer, Super Mario, Ocarina of Time and Perfect Dark. After that I moved onto PlayStation, and fell very much in love with the Final Fantasy series and never really changed.
After college, I struggled with my career so I traveled to South East Asia and around the US for about a year. A friend of a friend had started working in Louisville, CO on the kids MMO LEGO Universe. I got my first job in the industry as a QA tester shortly after returning to the US from India. I learned a lot about documentation and QA in my roll at LEGO; I dabbled in QA management, production and SCRUM but found that my strengths were communication and creating and maintaining positive relationships. I left the project right before the whole thing got shut down, which was a sad day.
My first experience in the game industry was a good one – well rounded and full. Getting that first game job was exciting, but experienced my first game job studio shutting down was sad. I was hired at Backflip Studios, a new mobile game company in Boulder to do customer support. At the time I was hired in January 2012, the QA guys were answering support emails and it was less than ideal. I jumped in with both feet into a sea of DragonVale support requests. Trial by dragon fire equals the best kind of trial.
During the two and a half years I was at Backflip, I grew and managed the Customer Support Team into an efficient, professional, knowledgable and outstanding group of people. If I had to guess, I would say I have answered approximately 100,000 emails regarding DragonVale, and I can type DragonVale faster than any person alive! Through my experience at Backflip, I really learned how important excellent customer support is, and that honesty is – without a doubt – the best policy when communicating with your customers.
The ride to Trapdoor has been a little rough with a lot of long days, a lot of problem solving, and a lot of fighting fires. It has also been full of friendship, incredibly awesome customer experiences (like getting a DragonVale card from someone’s child whose game we saved from doom) and a lifetime of epic stories (like the guy who was convinced that his dragons were dying because he had not fed them in days).
What I love about DungeonScape is the community that has already risen up around it. The people who support Dungeons & Dragons are the best! It is the perfect combination of nerd-cultured, tech-savvy, well-read, geeky, smart-as-hell Dungeon Masters and players. Are there trolls? Sure – Troll is probably an upcoming new background option for Fifth Edition (it’s not…that’s a lie). But so far, I have found everyone to be incredibly helpful, accepting and excited about what we are doing. The opportunity to work for these new customers is both a learning experience (I’m only 2nd level ya’ll) and a delight.
That is quite a long and winding road! Before diving into DungeonScape, what has it been like to work in the gaming industry during the past few years? From an outsider who simply plays games, it seems like there is constant change in the industry. I imagine it is somewhat like those Mario Bros. levels where you have to keep leaping to the next platform because the current platform is about to disappear.
The game industry is a bit temperamental – very boom or bust. A new game will come out and completely change the landscape of the industry such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, which was the first majorly successful free-to-play game, and DragonVale just to name a few. When I first started in games in 2010, it was already a fairly volatile industry and some would argue it always has been. When I was a kid, especially being a girl, it was weird that I liked video games. Gamers were still somewhat closeted. Things are different now as gaming news is a big deal; there is E3, celebrity voice overs, GenCon, full length feature films, Comic Con, and entire events dedicated to all things gaming. The industry is constantly evolving; but the drive to create that next big game, the smash hit, the money maker is always present in the industry. I remember when it took years for the new Mario Bros. game to come out. YEARS PEOPLE! Now I cannot keep up with my game library as I will be lucky if I can find the time to play the top 10 titles of 2013 this year.
It is definitely an exciting industry to be a part of and it is an incredibly small industry. I have made some very close friends and colleagues and even met my partner (awh, shucks) while working in games. Some of the most talented engineers and programmers I know make games for a living. It requires passion and determination. I have friends who have been through multiple studio shut downs, or even worse, a layoff before their work gets into the eyes and hands of players. After a big setback like this, the drive to make great games is what keeps people going.
One statement I’ve heard over and over in the past four years is, “[Insert situation here], but at least I make games for a living!”
I can only image the multitude of interesting “[Insert situation here]” scenarios! The product you are working on now is not exactly a game in the traditional sense. It’s a companion app for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. How did the relationship between Trapdoor Technologies and Wizards of the Coast get set in motion in the first place?
The relationship between Trapdoor Technologies and Wizards of the Coast began after our founder, Chris Matney, met with Peter Adkison at the GAMA tradeshow in 2013. Chris had recently made the rounds at publishing conferences across the US gathering information for The Story Machine but couldn’t get the “digital Dungoens & Dragons” chant out of his head. After a successful meeting with Peter, Chris was able to make contact with the right people at Wizards of the Coast and was asked to send a demo of what The Story Machine could do to their team. The next day, he had a working demo ready to go and after more meetings, demonstrations, and lawyers, Trapdoor had the contract to make the digital companion toolset for Fifth Edition D&D.
It seems The Story Machine laid the groundwork for selling Wizards of the Coast on Trapdoor being the company to bring a digital companion to life. How would you describe The Story Machine to those who have never used it, and how does that program relate to bringing DungeonScape to life?
The Story Machine (TSM) is a software as a service publishing engine developed and owned by Trapdoor Technologies. It takes in content (e.g., PDF, ePub, InDesign) and allows us to do things like parse through them. It can parse through a massive text document and automatically figure out the characters, significant places, and significant phrases. This technology is perfect for D&D – it identifies traps, monsters, spells, and then creates links so that we can easily access that information from within the final presentation of it. The Story Machine also suggests links we may not have thought of in order to link to both material within the book/document or to outside sources like wikis or books in the larger realm of the series; think Lord of the Rings.
To be really clear, TSM provides the pellets of food for DungeonScape – people will never actually be using TSM when they are using DungeonScape and no part of TSM will be downloaded onto your device when you download DungeonScape.
The Story Machine is what allows adventures and campaigns to very quickly and very efficiently be pulled into DungeonScape. If we were hand coding Hoard of the Dragon Queen and trying to figure out every link manually, then it would take approximately 60 – 80 hours of work. Instead with TSM, it takes us less than four hours. All the automation around importing text into TSM allows for a very rich and very interactive user experience in an automated way.
The Story Machine is really the heart of the publishing part of DungeonScape. If you look at the application right now, most of the focus is on character building, character management and character creation, but that is a very small piece of what makes D&D – well, D&D. TSM allows us to expand the breadth of the application with all the things that make D&D so cool like multi-threaded story lines, DM tools, monsters, creating content, and campaign management just to name a few. It lets people reimagine D&D in a way that has not been possible with the physical books.
Wow, that all sounds very exciting! Anything that can limit the amount of work hours from 60-80 down to three or four is spectacular. How you would describe your role on DungeonScape?
Trapdoor Technologies is still a very small startup. While my role as Community and Customer Support Manager takes up most of my time, I slip on different hats almost daily. Leading up to Gen Con, I was doing a lot of travel booking, event coordination, and scheduling. Throughout Gen Con I was juggling social media, press interviews, live demonstrations of DungeonScape, customer support questions through our software, feeding the team, and tending to Chris’ con crud. This is my first startup; upon leaving Backflip Studios, my mentor told me, “Whether the product fails miserably or is a huge success, you’re going to learn more in the next six months than you have in the last three years.” As usual, he was right!
In my official role, I am involved in everything customer facing. This includes (but is not limited to) user interface, hint screens, tutorials, accessibility issues, customer support software integration, hiring team members, community efforts, social media efforts, populating our knowledge base, fielding feedback and engaging our growing community in any way possible. We will have our own, dedicated forums when DungeonScape launches so that will be a huge part of what my team is involved in moving forward. Look for cool ways to get involved with the community in the future!
Given your response, it seems like you do a little bit of everything for Trapdoor Technologies while they are working on DungeonScape. What has a typically day on the project been like for you?
A typical day for me starts with water, some bulletproof coffee (Google that…!) and a check-in on email, Twitter, and Facebook. After those things are handled, I jump on a call with my minions (aka. my wonderful team, Chris and Drew), and we talk about what happened yesterday, what the plan is for the day, and how everyone is doing. As a manager, it is important for me to know how my team is doing because the best customer support happens when we are rested, happy, and feel listened to and understood. The CS Team is also wearing multiple hats right now as we are doing a lot of QA work, which means living in spreadsheets and the bug database. Imagine running through a test list for each spell in Fifth Edition – and then making sure each Race, Class, and Background gets every Bonus, Spell, and Feat at every level? Yes, we do that. It has been great for us to be so involved in the QA process because now we know our product that much better. Between social media, forums, emails, QA test lists, daily development standups and ad hocking DungeonScape, we stay fairly busy!
I followed your advice and watched the How to Make Bulletproof Coffee video. Good god, coffee with butter? I do not drink much coffee because I’m a caffeine lightweight and get way too jittery. Your Constitution must be very high!
My constitution is quite high, although I will tell you that I use decaf and do not drink it past 1PM. Full-on caffeine makes me feel like a ferret on crystal meth!
Focusing on the community building aspect of your role, the team behind DungeonScape hosted a demonstration for a select group of very active members in the D&D online community the night before Gen Con to demonstrate the functionality of the software and get feedback. The reviews from the evening were universally positive and hopeful that DungeonScape would make life easier for players and DMs.
How did the idea to screen DungeonScape in this way come to be a reality? It seems the event has your fingerprints all over it! And what were some of the lessons you and your team learned from that evening?
The press invitational was fantastic. I will take some of the credit there, although it was Evan’s idea to get a group of press people together at some point and play D&D using DungeonScape. Originally, he wanted to do it up at Wizards of the Coast but we are a small startup – so budget-wise, that was out of the question. The idea simmered in the background and then I thought, “ Let’s do this the night before Gen Con.” Rounding up press was a bit more difficult than we had imagined so I turned to our community and asked them whose review of DungeonScape they would want to read. Pretty much everyone our community asked for, I reached out to but some clear candidates rose to the top including Scott Rehm (aka, The Angry DM) who is certainly angry but he is the best frenemy ever, Jon Bolding from The Escapist and Ed Grabianowski (aka, The Robot Viking to name a few. Mike Schley, David Ewalt and Russ Morrissey were set to come as well but due to flights and travel stuff, they weren’t able to. Rodney Thompson joined us and Trevor Kidd completely crashed the party about twenty minutes into dinner. Chris Matney was introducing himself and giving the battle-scarred history of his D&D life and in walks Trevor, “Hi! I’m Trevor and I work for Wizards of the Coast!” Hilarious. We also had Brian Patterson from d20 Monkey and Kevin Smith from Melvin Smif’s Geekery, and they were great. It was a great group of people. We laughed a lot.
We really wanted to have a fun, laid back evening with these guys, talk about D&D and Fifth Edition, and show them the toolset with little to no strings attached – although Kevin Smith had to cut part of his beard off but that was not a big deal. Our main goal was not to get press exposure out of this event; our motivation was to get group of people together whose opinions and history with D&D were respected and valued in the community, and feed them dinner while talking shop. I think we will do this every year moving forward if I have anything to say about it. I am still trying to scheme another game with The Angry DM because by the time we got down to the adventure, it was almost time to vacate the premises and Scott and I would have had a BLAST playing together. We seem to be similarly evil, neutral and apathetic with a twist of cynicism and wit. Kevin Smith was the first to arrive and the last to leave – he and Chris had so much to talk about. And Brian Patterson gives really excellent hugs.
One of the best takeaways from the event was that getting people together for a game of D&D over dinner and drinks is always a good idea. Taking the time to answer questions – especially the tough ones – and get to know people is invaluable.
That is really excellent that the evening was such a success, and I regret not being in Indianapolis for Gen Con to follow through on the invitation you offered to attend the demonstration. Next year, I plan to be there! I should commission Brian Patterson to illustrate a ferret on crystal meth for the interview…
Following up on the interactions from the event, what are some of the tough questions the DungeonScape team is still wrestling with at the moment?
I would love to see Brian’s version of my meth ferret! From my perspective the toughest questions I am dealing with are, “How much does it cost?” and “When can I download it?” The reasons behind that are pretty self-explanatory. It is always a balance with your community between telling them everything and not telling them enough. I try to be as forthcoming with my answers and communication as possible, but we would rather be vague about something than attempt an answer that may very well change the next week. Most people understand this but it becomes difficult when those are the two questions I am asked twenty times a day! Believe me, I WANT YOU TO KNOW ALL THE THINGS! But as a team, we are very committed to doing things right. And that takes time, my friends.
One of the other things we are dealing at the moment is creating an incentive program for our beloved local gaming stores (LGS). With Fourth Edition, there was not a great deal of incentive for LGSs to get behind promoting D&D, and we are hoping to change that with Fifth Edition and DungeonScape. We are working with some folks from GAMA and have had a lot of input from long time store owners on what might work best, and we are really excited about the collaboration. We want LGSs to want to tell their customers about DungeonScape because they are excited about it but ALSO because they get some kickback from it! Makes sense, right?! Personally, I think it would be awesome if LGSs could have their own badges that customers could input and show off to their friends.
It must be great to have the community so excited about the product and at the same time be challenging for you to hold back on specifics about when the product will be available and how much it will cost. I will refrain from asking those questions! However, what question about DungeonScape do you wish you were being asked that you have not had the opportunity to answer yet?
One of the things that comes to mind is, “What are the differences between my physical Player’s Handbook, and what is offered in DungeonScape?” A lot of people are getting hung up on pricing without having actually seen the app, and that is completely understandable. Some folks are missing the information that presents what we do offer and how that makes DungeonScape different than an eBook or a PDF.
Wizards of the Coast and the design team behind D&D have taken great pains to remain open about the process of creating the new edition of D&D. First through an extensive playtest with numerous transparent updates about the design hurdles through the official Wizards of the Coast site, and more recently by collaborating with active members of the online community to preview sections of The Player’s Handbook. It feels like these moves have generated positive momentum and goodwill for the product. How important is community involvement in a product like D&D compared to other projects who have worked on in the past? And how can you continue to ignite the community’s passion after the release of DungeonScape?
For us, community involvement is a must. Dungeons & Dragons is a group-centered game at its core – so naturally, a huge D&D community has formed since its inception. There are so many things involved in D&D; there are rule books with an insane amount of information (oh, and multiple editions of them), player-created content, maps, stats, accessories, lore, and an entire library of D&D-inspired fantasy novels, movies, cartoons – the list goes on and on. Because there are so many details, it is natural for fans and players to want to talk about ALL OF IT! Online communities, Local Game Store communities, gaming conventions, and Facebook Groups are commonplace. At the heart of it all though, it is about getting together with your friends and role playing. You can go big and subscribe to every single online forum you want or you can geek out with your friends from college around the table with beers once a month. The communities built up around D&D are as big or as small as you are comfortable with.
A few of the ways I want to continue engaging the D&D community and build up our own is by introducing a sort of ambassador program. If we have power users who have been using DungeonScape since Origins – or a Twitter follower who has been excited about us since Day 1 who finally gets his or her beta invite and gets really involved in our community – we want to acknowledge them. These are the people who are on forums answering questions, referring folks to FAQs, tweeting answers to support issues, posting on Facebook pages – and all because they are psyched about what we are doing. There will be more details on this as we go and as those exemplary individuals rise to the top!
The other aspect of community building we’re focusing on is an LGS incentive program. As I said before, we want for LGS to be excited about DungeonScape and not just obligatorily say to customer, “Oh…hey…yeah, use DungeonScape so we can make some extra cheddar.” We are working on a lot of cool perks and things to get owners into it and as a result, encourage more community around D&D.
I am curious about your ideas working with LGS to incentivize the use of DungeonScape. What have you learned so far from owners about what currently works – and does not work – with the Encounters program and how D&D is implemented in their stores? How can DungeonScape help the D&D brand in these stores?
To be honest, we are just getting green lights for the store partnership program. It was something that was always part of the plan for us as LGS are near and dear to our hearts. The details are still in the works so unfortunately I do not have more info on that right now as far as what we have learned from owners. I can say that we have got some pretty cool ideas, and one of them being a Store Nomination Program. We want for stores to feel empowered by our partnership and excited to share it with their customers, and in turn for customers to be excited about getting their LGS involved. Discounts, perks and store news displayed in the app are also on the table as possibilities. At the end of the day, D&D is about getting together with your friends in your community and having fun. We want to continue fostering the communities that LGSs have built up around D&D as much as possible. We are hoping that partnering with stores will be a great way to get new players into D&D and into the community at large.
That all sounds very exciting; I am curious to see how that develops over time. One of the things I’m currently undertaking is starting up an online campaign using the Hoard of the Dragon Queen material. I have been researching the best way to communicate with players across the country over a virtual tabletop. Feedback from other DMs I have received so far suggests using Skype or Google Hangouts for communication and Roll20 for the virtual tabletop. The limited details about the DMs Release indicated it will allow DMs to track combat, modify encounters, share campaign information with players (e.g., maps, NPCs, text, items), and add notes. Along with the later Forge Release, which will allow users to edit and create content, how fair would it be to say that DungeonScape is angling to replace services like Roll20 as the go-to virutal tabletop for Dungeons & Dragons?
As far as Roll20 and other virtual tabletops, we have absolutely no desire or intentions to replace that software! We love what they bring to the table. DungeonScape does not currently directly integrate with any virtual tabletop software, and we do not have plans to do that specifically moving forward. The cool thing about our app is that you can use it however you want. We have had a couple of iOS testers say that they use DungeonScape with their non-local group via Google Hangouts and Roll20. If you have formed a party in the app and everyone is connected using Wifi, you can message back and forth in the DungeonScape while using Google Hangouts or Roll20 during the game AND play D&D. It is cool!
As I’m getting ready for a new campaign with various players around the country, it would be great to have DungeonScape just to have all the character information in one place. I look forward to it! Thank you so much for your time, and discussing not only DungeonScape and D&D, but your career path and thoughts on the industry. Before we close, I cannot help myself – what might be a nugget or two of new information you can share about DungeonScape at this point in time?
We did get asked about localization this week and I can share that – YES! – we are planning localization for 2015. The other thing that is pretty cool is the three different character creation modes that will be part of The Players Release. There will be standard, basic and simple creation modes for users to roll up characters with simple mode only taking 15-20 seconds. That’s right…seconds! I final thing I can share is the icon for the App, which was just finalized. Isn’t it lovely?
Any final words as we conclude?
My final thought would be to convey how excited we are for everyone to try DungeonScape. We have a lot of things to prove as it were and we really do believe the app has a lot of what people are looking for. People can stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest with DungeonScape through our blog, which posts every Thursday.