A little while ago I had a chance to pick the brain of game designer and publisher Brad Talton Jr. Brad is the founder and publisher of Level 99 Games, a game company that has been putting out many quality game releases lately. In addition to running Level 99 Games, Brad is also a game designer. Some of his more notable titles include: BattleCON, Mystic Empyrean, and Pixel Tactics (which we recently reviewed). I had a few minutes to ask Brad some questions about being a publisher, a game designer and running campaigns on Kickstarter. I hope you enjoy this bit of insight into Level 99 Games.
Board Game Quest: First off, for anyone who might not be familiar with Level 99 Games, tell us about yourself. How did you start Level 99 and what are your goals?
Brad Talton Jr: We started Level 99 Games to publish great games. I guess that’s everyone’s goal when they get into publishing! 😀
For me, great games are those that create a strong sense of player agency, that lend themselves to many repeated plays, and which have extensive variety, both in setup and decisions available. My favorite games are competitive head-to-head games, and so that’s what we’ve primarily published up to this year. However, since early 2013, we have been branching out with a lot of new genres.
BGQ: Level 99 Games is a great company name. Who came up with it? Why did you choose it?
BTJ: Well, 99 was always the maximum level in old video games, so it creates a sense of ‘best of the best’. When we started out, we made digital RPG products, even though we primarily do board and card games now. I liked Level 99 Games because it had a hint of digital gaming with a hint of classic gaming, both of which I wanted to pursue with the company. I originally came up with it in High School, but really started using it for our prototypes in college. When we became a real company, I didn’t see any reason to change.
BGQ: Level 99 Games has a lot of titles. Your flagship title seems to be BattleCON. Is that your favorite of all your games? If not, which one is?
BTJ: I like all of our games alot. That’s like trying to pick a favorite child (lol). Personally I really like Blades of Legend and one of our upcoming competitive narrative games, Variant Souls. Both of these are secret teams games, and a blast to play with the right group. I wouldn’t say I like any of our games more than any other though–they all have their own time and place.
BGQ: On a related note, do you have any of your games that, looking back, you might have done differently?
BTJ: Looking back, I don’t think I could have done any of my games differently–everything is a stepping stone, and if I hadn’t made those games that way originally, I might not be where I am now. We are reprinting the original BattleCON with new art soon, which I think will be quite a nice to have, but I don’t think it would have been possible to do it all with that level of professionalism from square one.
BGQ: At Gen Con last year you released 7-Card Slugfest, Disc Duels and Pixel Tactics 2. Which one had the best reception at the convention by your fans? Were you surprised by that?
BTJ: It was no surprise to me that Pixel Tactics 2 was the top seller at Gen Con. We had a ton of good press already for [Pixel Tactics 1] (which released alongside it) and the good reviews combined with the price and ease of running demos made it a great launch. Disc Duelers might have fared similarly well, but due to some logistical problems, we only received 10 copies of it for the convention. It may have done even better than Pixel Tactics, had we received more, as they all sold out in the first hour of the con.
BGQ: That’s pretty great news. Selling out at a convention is a good problem to have I’d say. Your mini game library was a really great idea. I love that you get 6 different games in one box. Which one is your favorite and why?
BTJ: Like I mentioned above, I think Blades of Legend has the highest potential for fun factor, when you get the right group together. Since I like head-to-head games though,
BGQ: You’ve had 5 kickstarter campaigns [at the time of this interview]. How have they gone. What’s a couple of things you’ve learned about running a successful campaign?
BTJ: I think the most successful element of a Kickstarter Campaign is to meet your backers before you even start. Build hype, build fans, keep engaged with people and start conversations online. If you need 100 backers to make a campaign succeed, you should meet those 100 backers before you ever launch the campaign.
BGQ: What would you say was your biggest mistake you’ve made on Kickstarter?
BTJ: I think our biggest mistake was our expectations for the first Power Play campaign. We started off wanting to produce a ‘premium edition’ of the game that was very expensive. While we had enough support to make a standard edition, we just didn’t have enough the hype for a product that didn’t exist yet. I realized that the game was such a novel thing that people needed to see it in action before we could do something like a premium edition, and so we canceled and restarted with a more modest edition of the game. When Power Play sells out, then we’ll revisit it with a premium edition 😀
BGQ: Some people might not know that Level 99 also produces iOS games. Have you released any yet? If not, what’s in store for iOS?
BTJ: We released a bunch (DM Toolkit, RPG Cartographer, Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 3, Internet Defense, BattleCON). Then I stopped making iOS games to focus on our board game line. Recently though, we’ve put a programmer back on staff, and we’re expecting the rerelease of NOIR to come pretty soon, followed by a digital edition of Pixel Tactics later this year.
BGQ: Some people might say you are “living the dream” by being a full time game publisher. Can you talk a little about how you got started. How long have you been doing that full time?
BTJ: I certainly feel like it! It’s a long climb to get to do what you love for a living though, and it hasn’t been (and still isn’t) always easy. There’s a lot of stress in being responsible for your own income (and even more in being responsible for other people’s, once you have employees). I’ve been working full time on this for about 4 years now, but I only started paying myself a salary last year. Hopefully I’ll be making a reasonable living by the end of this year. My wife gave me a 5 year deadline to make my business pay as much as my degree would if I went to a salaried job, and so far I’m on track to make that goal.
BGQ: Do you have any advice for people thinking of going into game publishing? What were some of the hardest things you had to deal with when getting Level 99 up and running.
BTJ: Game Publishing is a full-time job, so go into it knowing that. Publish small first–books, card games, etc. For example, I really want to make a console video game, but I know that even if someone gave me a hundred million dollars, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it yet–there are things you have to do before you can get to that level. Take things step by step and know what you’re capable of and where you want to be at the end of each product. Build up to your Twilight Imperium big box, or your Dungeons and Dragons, or your Console Video Game–don’t try to tackle it all at once, but instead look at what you’re capable of making right now.
The biggest hurdle for me starting up has been managing all the money. I always tend to overplay my hand and do as much as I can imagine, which leads to overreaching. Nowadays, I know to set aside cash for shipping, for operating costs, and for unexpected events that always come up. I’m still working on projecting realistic launch dates though–I think BattleCON: Devastation has been delayed 4 times now (lol).
BGQ: So we know what came out at Gen Con this year. What else does Level 99 Games have in store for us?
BTJ: Well, the big one is BattleCON: Devastation [which was released] in October. We also have Power Play and Variant Souls coming out in November [Note: both games seem to have been delayed]. Both very novel games that should be a refreshing surprise to those who play them, and hopefully a new Kickstarter Project for a Pixel Tactics big box coming soon! I recommend signing up for our mailing list–that’s the first place we go to announce whenever we launch a new project or product.
That’s about all the time I had to bother Brad. I want to thank him for taking a few minutes to chat with us and for answering all of our question. Be sure to keep an eye out for the new releases from Level 99 Games, they have a lot of great things on the horizon!