Tabletop game designer interview with Gil Hova from Formal Ferret Games:
Gil Hova is modest about his success as a game designer. However, I think it is safe to say that he has proved himself as a designer when he made a hit with his second self-published game, The Networks. The Networks is also well regarded in the gaming community for how smoothly it integrates theme into the gameplay experience. He has followed up his success with Wordsy, a game that is getting a great deal of praise and positive buzz from reviewers. Currently, Gil is running a Kickstarter to fund an expansion of The Networks, The Networks: Executives. With 12 days to go, The Network: Executives has tripled its pledge goal. With that sort of support, it is clear there are many people eagerly awaiting this expansion. If you want your copy without having to wait for a second printing you best get in early.
"Game designer" is only one of the hats Gil has to wear, he could almost be called a Renaissance man of gaming. Gil blogs, co-hosts the very successful Ludology Podcats with Geoff Engelstein, teaches game design, as well as managing the day to day of running his own publishing company, Formal Ferret Games. Believe it or not, that's not even all of it! Gil is a creative force with business acumen blazing a path of his own and I cannot wait to see what else he has for us in the years to come. In the midst of running a Kickstarter Gil very Kindly agreed to be interviewed.
First things first, why ferrets?
Imagine a pet with the mannerisms of a kitten or a puppy, but keeps those mannerisms their whole life!
You are a designer and self-publisher, what led you to self-publish games as opposed to publishing through other companies?
Control. I had two games released by other publishers before I started Formal Ferret, and while they came out well, I felt that I could give them the attention that a company releasing many games a year couldn't. Also, there are way more designers than publishers out there, and I felt my chances were better self-publishing than jockeying for position with other designers who pitch their games.
In 2015 you stepped out of your other jobs to design and publish full-time under the name Formal
Ferret Games. What did it take for you to be ready to transition into full-time publishing and design
and what advice can you offer those looking to transition to new careers?
Go in with your eyes open. Know that your day is going to be about publishing, and you'll have very little time for design. In fact, I have to make time for game design, just as I had to when I had a regular day job. But my day work is much more pleasant and interesting to me now!
I had a few advantages. Having two published games really helped. I was hardly a household name (and even now, lots of board gamers haven't heard of me), but I had enough of a following to move the needle when I struck out on my own. I also had quite a bit of money saved up from the old day job, and lots of knowledgeable friends who helped me make critical judgment calls when the time came.
I also have a few part-time jobs, from teaching game design to editing podcasts to working as a gamemaster at a local escape room. That helps with the rent check!
But it all comes down to having a hit, and I'm very thankful that I came up with one on my second design.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days vary wildly. Some days I'm editing audio for a podcast that releases the next day. Other days I'm answering emails. Other days I'm juggling numbers and inventory count. Other days I'm on the road for a convention. There's never enough time for everything, that's for sure!
What has been the biggest challenge in pursuing your goal of being a game designer/publisher?
Capital. This is an expensive business with tiny margins. I've had friends and family help pitch in cash at crucial times to get The Networks reprinted. It's amazing how much of the budget gets eaten away by advertising, conventions, and day-to-day costs and fees. I'm at a point now where Formal Ferret is paying for itself, and giving me a bit of an income that, combined with my part-time jobs, I can live on. But things were pretty dicey for a while, and I'd say I'm not totally out of the woods yet!
You talk about the iterative nature of design and the importance of failure regularly, what strategies do you employ to stay motivated when failure gets you down?
So here's a story: I studied creative writing in college. I was on a literary magazine, and one day, the magazine's editor came back from her semester in our remote campus in Holland. She was very highly regarded by the rest of the magazine staff, and I was eager to see her review one of my pieces.
It was during a mass review session - we'd all write our judgments on submissions, with our initials. I was sitting behind this editor and watched silently over her shoulder as she picked up my short story. She read the first page, flipped it to read the second page, flipped it to skim the fourth page, skimmed the fifth page, jumped to the end, wrote "pathetic," initialed it, and moved onto the next manuscript.
That incident taught me a valuable lesson. It's not enough to have "thick skin." When you create something, it's vital to be able to separate it from yourself. When you get feedback or criticism, you have to be able to process it in a way that you know it's being directed to your work and not you personally. That's really hard for someone who's just getting into making something creative, but it's such a vital skill.
Because here's the truth about game design. This sort of criticism will live on way past the playtest table. You'll encounter publisher rejections, publisher corrections, unimpressed reviewers, fans with unsolicited suggestions to make your game 'better," and daily mentions of your game on trade and auction geeklists. It's going to be part of your daily life, even past publication. May as well make peace with it now!
What questions do you ask as a designer to better understand and improve on your designs?
My design mantra is "incentivize interesting behavior." My business is creative incentivization; I am trying to get people to engage in behavior that they find fun. So I'm usually asking myself how I'm incentivizing players, why they're behaving a certain way, why they're making a particular choice, and so on.
I'm also keeping an eye on the total experience of a game. As a designer/publisher, I have unprecedented control here, and I love being able to turn a good game into a good product into a good experience. The whole thing should feel seamless. The fact that Wordsy looks like a word game, resembles a book, and opens up into a word game that rewards longer words in a game that plays in about 20 minutes with a small ruleset that people usually want to play again... that's all indicative of a cohesive experience that I had to consciously put together. There's never a point where players say, "Wait a second, that's weird. I would have expected something different." If there's any surprise, it's in what their fellow players are capable of doing, not that the game they're playing is different than what they expected.
How did you get invited to be part of Ludology?
Geoff just emailed me! But we've known each other for a long time. We had a mutual friend who would hold poker/board game days at his house, and we played a lot of games there. I also bumped into him at the local New Jersey convention scene. And we had done a panel together in the past, and we knew we had chemistry.
(That mutual friend eventually decided to start his own publishing company, naming it after his house, which he had dubbed "The Stronghold." But you'll have to interview Stephen Buonocore to get his side of the story!)
Can you share about your current Kickstarter, The Networks: Executives, and how people can support the project.
Yes! The Networks: Executives is a big expansion for The Networks, which adds variable player powers, a starting draft, and new Mogul Cards to work towards. The base game and On the Air mini-expansion (which are the stretch goals from the previous campaign) are also all available. We'll be on Kickstarter until Friday, September 29.
How can people follow you and hear more about what you are doing?
I'm on Twitter and Instagram at @gilhova. You can follow me on Facebook at Formal Ferret Games. You can read my long-form thoughts on my blog, and sign up for my mailing list. I'm all over the internet!
I want to thank Gil for chatting with us and sharing his thoughts and journey. I hope each of you will go give him a follow and check him out on Ludology.