Interview with Matt Lees at GDC

During my visit to the Game Developers Confrence (GDC) I had a chance to sit down with Matt Lees of the popular board game site, Shut Up & Sit Down. We got to chatting about the conference, the board game industry, bears, and SU&SD’s Kickstarter for their Monikers expansion. Sadly, my microphone got screwed up, so I’ve transcribed the interview below.

Jess: Hi Matt. Thanks for taking the time to chat. I heard GDC was much more about video games. Why does SU&SD come to GDC?

Matt: Well we’ve been here for 3 years and basically the person who was running it before, Eric Zimmerman, one of the guys from NYU, was running it as a showcase of board games made by video game designers. 

After a few years of running it he said ‘You know, I don’t want to do this anymore. I know the guys who should do it!’ So he got in touch with us and said ‘You guys can do it’.

We try and add a slant on it. What we do is we showcase 10 games from the past year that are of interest of people who are in the videogames industry.

Sometimes it’s having stuff that’s just visually arresting so that people want to have a look or it’s things that are a bit videogame related to peak interest, but a lot of time what we try and do is showcase stuff that has different mechanics, different ideas, things that just basically allow people to see what’s going on in the games industry and what’s interesting. Give them a bit of a flavor for where things are at and what new things are happening.

Jess: That’s really cool. I saw it was packed here, so it seems to be getting a good response.

Matt: Yeah well the other half of it of course, outside of it being an update museum-like thing, is that it is an area where people can come play board games and chill out. We think it’s kinda nice. Conferences can be kinda hectic. Especially since it’s a video game conference people are spending all their time on digital stuff and talking to people who do digital stuff. It’s a nice way to come unwind, do something a bit more personable, sit down face to face with people and have some fun. It keeps growing every year. It’s a lot of fun to come and do. 

Jess: I was really impressed with the talks that were run this year. This is the first year they’ve done them right?

Matt: Yeah, I guess we’ve had a bit of an influence on them. The board game area has been really well received since we took it over. It’s been growing, and I think maybe because of that or maybe just because of the industry growth in that area is pretty big, they’ve finally decided that GDC needs to have some time for people talking about board games.

So they had a design track in one room for talks about board game design. There was some really interesting stuff in there. Some stuff on psychology of board game design, I personally as a man who spends a lot time in the videogames world, was really refreshed to hear people talking about manipulating players by manipulating emotions to make people have an interesting time rather than it being like manipulating players into playing your thing for more time or giving you money. It’s refreshing. There was also some really interesting chat at the end of the day about generally where the business is at in terms of what it’s like for designers. That was quite eye opening I found. In the next few years, it’s not necessarily doom and gloom, but it’s definitely good for gamers, great news for people who play and buy games, but clearly tricky times for people who are in the business of making them.

Jess: A lot of people were saying, because board games have become so popular now, the market is getting flooded with all these new designers and games coming out.

Matt: I think so, yeah. Its one of these things where they say the market is growing amazingly. Between 10-20% every year of the past 5 years, but the influx of new stuff, new designers, new publishers is outpacing that.
It’s tricky to say.

While you really respect the opinions of people like Eric Lang and all those guys who really know this stuff, at the same time its always going to be the people who are at the top of their game going ‘Oh god all these people are coming in and doing stuff and taking a bit’, but I think they’re right. It’s always a good reminder to know that all of the board game publishers are just a couple of people and it is still, despite the money in the industry, a hobbyist industry for people who just really want to do it.

That’s fine, but I think sometimes people are just rushing into it thinking they’re running into a gold rush when actually it’s really like you do this if you love it.

Jess: Yeah, you’re not going to make bank immediately on something like this. It’s all about the love of the game.

Matt: Absolutely. In some genres and some areas it’s almost immediately over-saturated by one thing. No ones breaking into the collectible card game industry. Magic the Gathering has that. That’s why we have living card games. Some games just dominate the space and that’s it. If you can have a game that comes out and is huge, that’s amazing, but these are difficult things to work on. They take a long time to produce and for budgetary reasons they’re usually only made by one or two people. It really still is a passion project.

Jess: So, you guys have been reviewing games for a long time now. What do you think continues to surprise you about the industry?

Matt: I think we are seeing, alongside this growth, a lot of flexibility and reverberation of ideas. It feels like things are advancing quite quickly in a lot of ways. People are making quite big leaps in terms of lots of basic things, like what you see Fantasy Flight doing with their 2 manual system. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a lot closer. I think that kind of innovation continues to impress me, because you play games from 10-15 years ago and some of the manuals are just…eh. You say ‘This game’s classic’ and then you open the manual and you go ‘Awww…’ You know it’s going to be great, but its a lot of work. Now we have resources where you can go and watch people playing games and have someone explain it to you, which is, obviously, the optimal way to learn how to play.

It’s also really cool that we’re seeing lots of people experimenting with ideas like hidden movement games, hidden identity games and deception games, playing with narratives. I’m also really excited to see the future of digital stuff being integrated. I enjoyed the stuff X-Com did with that. and I think that, especially for narrative games, there’s a lot to be done there.

Jess: I’ve been loving the stuff they’ve been doing with Descent and Dead of Winter ; these stories that you can discover as you you play. You don’t have to see the full card and have it ruined for you.

Matt: Yes, exactly! You can hide things so people cannot stumble into them in the manual, which is great. In Pandemic Legacy I love the fact that you get stickers that you stick in the manual. I like the mystery there of knowing there are gaps and being like ‘What’s going to fit there?’

At the same time its equally good to have things that are just squeezed in there that you never could have expected. There’s a lot more elements for surprise.

I remember when I was playing through Imperial Assualt, I thought this is kinda cool, but I always have to balance the campaign myself a little bit. Either I need to start playing like I’m an oaf or I need to give them more stuff or myself less stuff to get it working.

I think the way that campaign tracks stuff is by like ‘Did the good guys win or lose the last main mission?’ by doing that you can track the history of the main missions, but you can’t track the side missions. So even by just having some sort of tracking app for that, you could have something that at the end of each game will ask ‘well how are you doing?’ and it can actually do things to balance the game for you.

There’s all sorts of things like that. There’s a ton of scope with that digital stuff. I know a lot of people feel differently about it. They feel like introducing this somehow detracts from the hobby. I think people have a right to be worried about that because a reason a lot of people come to board games is as an escape from screens. That’s certainly what I find as a 32 year old man who’s grown up with games and screens for all of my life. At the same time I think its a really valuable tool especially as board games are a very affluent hobby. Most people who are into board games have a phone or an iPad. I think integrating these things as tools is really exciting.

Jess: When I first saw it coming out for the X-Com game I was a little hesitant at first because I thought well what happens when iPads are no longer viable. How can I continue to play this game? Seeing how everything’s evolved and how people are starting to utilize these things is really exciting.

Matt: You’re right about that. In terms of legacy, it does provide some interesting questions. There’s a lot of interesting struggles in the video game sector that are the same thing. How do you go about archiving these things? At what point do you archive them? Every iteration of a video game? Every Patch? I think that is a worthwhile question. Especially since you can have a board game in your cupboard from the 80’s. X-Com, if you get that out in 20 years time, is that still going to be supported? That’s a tricky conversation.

As people were talking about yesterday (during the GDC talk) there’s a feeling that there’s a trend, in terms of games increasingly being weighted towards being played once or twice.

Increasingly, the data isn’t lying, a lot of people say that people do just play stuff once or twice and then they’re kinda done. Everyone wants to play it more. It’s not like you think ‘Oh I’m done with that forever.’ You just don’t. You move on to something new.

I’ve got stuff I’ve played once, twice that I want to play again, stuff I haven’t tried that I’m looking forward to and I’m always getting new stuff. It’s an interesting challenge. As the market gets flooded, as we’re seeing now, curation becomes even more important. What we try to do on the site, the best as we’re able, is to curate things that interest us.

What I’d love to see more of, not like we’ve had in video games with the kind of websites that try to review everything, is to have more niche things. To have more websites that just cover certain sorts of things, being like ‘We love this kind of game. We’re just going to pick the best of these and talk about them.’ There’s an interesting opportunity for that, rather than getting caught up with the cycle of trying to do everything. Obviously the Dice Tower and Vassel do an amazing job of that. They try to keep on top of everything, but then in the same way it’s like if you have a scenario where you’re doing that then all the reviews and videos that you’re making are just as prone to being lost in the noise as the games themselves.

Jess: So what do you think needs to change about board gaming now that the hobby’s growing?

: That’s a tough question. I think there’s a bunch that needs to change. As I say I think there needs to be more of an emphasis on curation on the front of media covering stuff. We’re trying to do that and we’re still not that great. We still naturally gravitate towards the big games that we really like. It’s difficult to get away from that. Especially when you have an audience that wants you to cover the stuff they’ve heard about. I think its tricky.

There’s gonna be some friction, especially towards what we were talking about earlier, the fact that we had panels of people talking about how they feel like in the next few years, maybe 75% of new games coming out will be skewed towards being the most enjoyable  on the 1st and 2nd play. Rather than being these honed games which are made to last for years, as we’ve seen in thew 90’s an onward. So I think that’s tricky because you do have some perspective. You have people saying ‘Well we want these balanced, beautiful things that we can play forever,’ but in reality that’s not how people are consuming things. People are always buying new things and looking for that perfection. So I think there’s going to be a bit of friction there.

In terms of everything else, I don’t think there are any rules and that’s what I kind of enjoy about board game space. There are no rules about success exactly. There are in some regards actually that’s why on the editorial side we are less interested in the Kickstarter games, because there is much more of a traditional marketing angle that works. You make a game which has a big box, loads of minis, preferably some cleavage and that what works for Kickstarter. That’s how you make money on Kickstarter.

Its a much more traditional approach, but what I love about the board game industry, outside of that, is whats going to be a hit, what’s going to be good? You can have it be like Feast for Odin, you know, Vikings preparing a big feast, or you’ve got Sherlock Holmes or people exploring caves or nuclear submarines, or even like Ladies & Gentlemen is a classic example. Its Victorian ladies and Gentlemen! I love that there’s such a wider richness of theme within board games. It feels to me that there are less rules. Yes you can still print money by doing dragons and swords and zombies. Zombies are in vogue.

Jess: Cthulhu…

Matt: Cthulhu is the new zombies. I’m guilty of it. I love  the Arkham Horror Card Game. It’s awesome, but it didn’t have to be (Cthulhu). it could have been something else and I’d still love it. So there are still rules to print money, but it’s not as bad as say movies or video games.

Jess: Its very formulaic.

Matt: that’s probably because there’s money involved. When you’re making investments that are in the millions people want to have safe bets. Whereas there are less safe bets in board games. I really hope that that continues. it’s the thing i treasure the most about the industry. I can go around to Quinn’s house and I’ll be like ‘What are we doing today?’ and he’s like ‘We’re playing a game about being monks.’ and I’m like ‘YES!’ Space battles one week, gardening the next.That’s just something you don’t see anywhere else and I treasure it.

Jess: My next question was for Paul, but he’s not here. Why bears?

Matt: Oh I don’t know why he loves bears so much. It’s just his thing. I think its because he’s in Canada and he thinks there are bears there. He just enjoys people sending him pictures and videos of bears on Facebook all the time. I think that’s it.

Jess: You guys are running a Kickstarter right now for Monikers. How did that happen?

Matt: Well actually its funny. We’ve had people in the past approach us about all sorts of stuff. Most of the time it just doesn’t work. We have some pretty strict rules of our own about how we function on the site and we don’t ever really want to do anything that would compromise the editorial at all. That kinda rules out a lot of advertising, marketing, anything like that really, but every now and then we have these things where we think ‘Well that could work.’

This is one of these circumstances. We reviewed Monikers a couple of years ago, so that’s in the bag. We figured it would be a really fun way to write something funny and it’s for a game we love so its an exciting new project to do.

Its kinda a funny one for us because we kinda forget all the time that our site is quite popular and so when we launched the Kickstarter and it just went a bit crazy, we went ‘Oh! What’s going on?’ It’s kind of wonderful!

It’s great fun being critics. its great fun making videos, but there’s something quite wonderful about the idea of actually being a part of creating a thing that you can hold.So that for me is very, very exciting. At the moment the Kickstarter is doing so well, I just hope that people get it and they love it.

Jess: Big thanks for Matt taking the time to talk with us about everything! It is an amazing and exciting time to be involved in the board game industry and there is so much to chat about. You can find Matt on Facebook, Twitter, and the Shut Up & Sit Down site.

Also, if you would like to get your own copy of the SU&SD Monikers, it is on Kickstarter, but only for another 47 hours. So go now!

This interview was edited down to fit the format of the site. Image Credits: J Fisher, Matt Lees, Shut Up & Sit Down.

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