Endogenesis: The Art in Kickstarter #4

Endogenesis: The Art in Kickstarter #4

Editors note: Welcome to another in my series of interviews looking into Kickstarter projects. Endogenesis (from David Goh) is well into its campaign and currently at over 1200% of its very modest funding goal. Upon seeing the Kickstarter page I couldn't help but be impressed by the production quality of this a first-time project so I'm really happy to find out more. The Kickstarter is live until 7th September so if you are curious I recommend you go take a look.

Hello David, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure! I'm a freelance art director hailing from Singapore, and I'm 30 this year. I grew up being surrounded by gaming — as a teenager, the medium of choice was video games, from old-school RPGs like Chrono Trigger to thriving new releases then like DotA. But in the last decade or so, I've been slowly steered towards tabletop gaming, primarily due to its social nature. There's just something about sitting down with a group of friends at board game night that video gaming just isn't able to replicate.

As for designing games, I've always wanted to make them since I was 15. Regardless of medium, I believe that games are the next greatest art form, and that's why I'm obsessed with them! I just enjoy taking them apart and studying them, and try to understand how some games can be so engrossing, and others evocative. The idea that games are really just a collection of rules, visual aids and predictable logical outcomes that combine to captivate the human mind with a compelling experience is just mind-blowing, and still is to me.

My first foray into tabletop game design was with a fan-made card game called 'Final Fantasy Boss Battle.' It was created as a birthday present for my wife, made quickly in 2 months as it was intended to be less of a working game and more of a really cool looking gift. We played a couple of games with our friends at board game night, and while the game was clearly unpolished and a little frustrating at times, it was actually fun for a few sessions.

Seeing how I had created something that brought enjoyment to the game night table, I felt inspired to keep creating, if only to make games that my friends would enjoy. And so I did! Over the next 9 years, I'd designed prototypes to bring to the table. Many were pretty much trash, while some had potential. One other project that went beyond the table was 'The Award Winning Game', which I worked on as part of a team of two. While we did bring it to Kickstarter a few years back, a combination of inexperience and logistical difficulties led to the project not succeeding, so we published it via The Game Crafter instead. Having a group of friends to test out game concepts has been such an amazing learning experience, and I'm glad to have such patient friends!

Looking at the present, can you describe your current Kickstarter game to us and what makes it interesting?

Endogenesis is a competitive card game that features free-for-all combat, which means it focuses heavily on direct conflict! What I think makes it interesting is that the gameplay is designed to be highly customizable and interactive. Everyone starts off with the same blank slate, but as the game goes on, you build a customized power set with the Skill cards that you're dealt with. If you like the experience of building a character that starts out weak but incrementally grows until you're a behemoth of cosmic power later in the game, then you'll enjoy Endogenesis!

While the round and turn order are quite structured, what you do during your turn isn't. You're given freedom on how you perform actions, both in their order and frequency. This includes using Skills to attack others, equipping new Skills or leveling up your character with Shards (which are a bit like stat points). With a bit of creativity, you can pull off really powerful combinations of actions, but at the same time, just a bit of miscalculation can cause your plans to fizzle. There's also an element of intrigue, where you can interact with the active player's turn with Reaction Skills, which are hidden, allowing you to set up traps when you know what a rival player is planning.

Because of my background in video games, a lot of inspiration came from that medium. A key point of influence for Endogenesis was from a custom game mode from DotA called DotA LOD, which is the precursor to the Ability Draft mode in DotA 2 now. Each session of the game sees you crafting a character from a random pool of abilities, effectively building your own synergies and combos. My goal was to recreate that experience in the tabletop medium, and Endogenesis was the result of that attempt.

How long have you been working on this game? What made you launch the campaign now?

I've been working on Endogenesis for a little over two years. Like all my previous designs, Endogenesis started out as a prototype I brought to game night, with the intention of creating something my friends would enjoy. However, the response to Endogenesis was much better than usual, so I decided to focus more effort into refining it, eventually bringing it beyond my circle of friends to other board gamers, and later on to blind testers.

I would say that Endogenesis is the culmination of a few concepts I've been wanting to try out with the tabletop medium for a long time. Quite a few prototypes died along the way before I arrived at Endogenesis, and I feel that after a few hundred playtests and 6 major revisions, it's finally ready to be released. I've witnessed a lot over the course of testing the game; the intensity over a very close battle, the excited spark in a player's eye as they execute an elaborate game-winning combo, and their rage at having said combo be completely countered by a well-placed Reaction Skill or Wonder... I'm excited to let gamers around the world try out the game, and see what experiences they encounter as well!

Where did the world and lore of Endogenesis come from and how does that feed into the player experience?

Prior to working on the world and lore of Endogenesis, the gameplay came first. And a key part of the gameplay was the existence of Skills that would come from different categories: Cosmic, Mythic, Entropic, Organic and Mechanic — all of which meant to be very different from each other. This was the first spark that led to the direction we took while building the lore; given how different these categories were, we needed a setting that would serve as a plausible container for all of them. Thus the idea of a universe in which beings explored other planes of reality was born.

As for why the setting takes place in a tabula rasa universe with alien beings, I think that came from my love for creation myths in general. Combined with the challenge of building a setting that would see the clash of different planes of existence, I saw the opportunity to redefine the entire tone of the story by building it ground up with a whole new creation myth.

A big part of what Endogenesis offers is a "power fantasy." The journey you take starts you out as being weak, but you incrementally grow stronger and stronger until you're inches away from literal godhood. This lore feeds into the player experience by creating an epic setting that players operate in, so as to make that power fantasy feel magnified to cosmic proportions!

This lore also seems to have fed into the artwork and style, showing a mixture of astronomical symbology crossed with arcane monsters. What were some of the most important factors in making you take these visual choices?

As a huge fan of RPGs, I find world building to be incredibly fun! I also had two writer friends (Ryan Mennen and Sathya Seth) who were excited to lend their expertise, and as such we pushed ourselves to go as deep as we could with the lore behind Endogenesis.

Having a detailed setting to work off helped tremendously as I was creating the art direction of Endogenesis. One of the most important considerations was trying to decide how the universe would look. How does one portray an entire universe feels completely alien from ours? This wasn't just in a different galaxy — it was an entirely different reality, with its own physical rules and destiny.

To that end, I decided that the simplest way to do this was to avoid trying for a realistic portrayal of that universe. Instead, I imagined how the inhabitants of the universe would have illustrated their visions of how they perceived their surroundings instead — not unlike how early humans would make rudimentary cave paintings of their environments to store information. In doing so, the Endogenesis universe could actually be made to feel even more alien, since an exact representation of that reality is never seen.

With that direction in mind, I researched the ways humans have of recording observations and information across the ages. I eventually settled on star charts and runic symbols as a key visual reference. Star charts have an amazing aesthetic that feels foreign and esoteric, but mesmerizingly detailed. Combined with the use of astronomical symbols, I sought to create an art direction that gave the sense that you're peeking into this whole other alien universe through the perspective of its inhabitants.

How did playtesting and community feedback guide you in this project? What lessons did you learn and was there anything that surprised you along the way?

Besides the obvious improvements that heavy playtesting brings to a board game, the feedback I've gained also revealed a lot about me as a game designer, as well as the blind spots I didn't know I had. As someone who's still very new to the scene, this was especially important for my growth.

I would say that one of the biggest changes in my mentality as a designer was towards the inclusion of catch-up mechanics. In the early half of the game's development, I was rather against including catch-up mechanics. For some reason, I felt that doing so might make the game feel better for casual players, but worse off for experienced ones, and that that trade-off simply wasn't worth it. But on the advice from a few blind testers and early reviewers, I decided it was worth a shot.

And I was so glad I did. The game became a lot more interesting as a result, because now gaining power comes at an increased potential cost. The more you have, the more you stand to lose, so you have to consider carefully how you go about gaining power. Being able to snowball without much thought might give you a fleeting sense of power and invincibility, but it's nowhere compared to the intensity of having to watch your back. On the flip side — for weaker players — the less you have, the less you stand to lose, so you can be more proactive and fearless in pursuing opportunities, therefore giving you more agency to better your situation. I was so surprised at how much of a positive change a few catch-up mechanics brought.

You collaborated with a number of people to help create the look and feel of this game. Who was involved and what did they bring to Endogenesis?

For the creation of the Endogenesis myth, I worked with Ryan Mennen and Sathya Seth. Both of them are writers, and have unparalleled knowledge when it comes to pop culture and mythology. They're both also my closest friends and amongst the first few to try out Endogenesis, so it just made sense to work with them. 

For the creation of the monsters from the Realm of Chaos, I worked with an illustrator named Yang Shao Xuan. These Monsters were inspired by Lovecraftian horror — they're creatures that emerged from the source of pure entropy, and are powerful enough to serve as threats to cosmic beings. Shao Xuan was a great fit for this, given his keen eye for detail and skill for portraying anthropomorphic characters. His monster illustrations were very flavourful and distinct, which was no easy task given that they're just silhouettes!

Lastly, being a project made in Singapore, I sought to work with as many Singaporean talents as possible for the needs of the project. Not that there's anything wrong with looking abroad for help — I just wanted an opportunity to showcase the works of local talent!

I think it's really important to support your local communities when you can. So what should people be doing to make them a part of their projects?

The best way to start is to definitely go out there and make connections. It's never too late to start, and it's incredibly easy to do so. Go to flea markets, artist alleys, youth events and meet people. Join groups on Facebook where artists gather and interact with them. Find out they care about, and see how you can help. Another thing you can do is to look up old friends, school mates and see what they're doing right now, and see how you can trade expertise with them.

Do you have any advice for people looking to launch a Kickstarter game?

I'm still in the midst of my first Kickstarter, so I kinda feel ill-equipped to give advice. I can, however, speak from personal experience and talk about the things I felt I could've done better.

While I did a great deal of preparation work for the campaign, the campaign went off in a direction I never dreamt of, which led to me feeling like I was in catch-up mode for the first week. Initially it made me wonder if I didn't do enough prep work, but looking back now, I think that it's just down to the simple fact that unexpected things happen. Especially if it's your first time — no amount of discussion with other creators or reading of articles can fully prepare you for how people will respond to your work. So I'd say do as much prep work as possible, but expect that the unexpected will happen.

Another thing would be to not underestimate how difficult it will be to say no. It's one thing to say no to a stranger, it's another to do so to someone who's investing in you and your vision. The latter takes a lot more out of you. Saying no is something I feel like I've been doing fine at so far, but I just never expected that it would be so difficult. In hindsight, I suppose I should've been more prepared (though, how does one really prepare for that?!)

That's all I have at the moment, I'm sure I'll have more thoughts and ideas once I'm further along the campaign.

Are there any artists and designers in the community whose work you’re inspired by?

This is probably something you hear a lot of, but I'm a big fan of Jamey Stegmaier. His approach to crowdfunding, customer engagement and competence as a game designer just wows me. I think it's safe to say that many board game designers (including myself) would not have found success on KS if it weren't for his articles.

I'm also just blown away by Daniel Aronson and the work he did for The Isle of El Dorado. I came across his campaign very late, but I was just wowed by the game's level of polish and how the campaign was designed. I've never seen anyone use pre-1900 art in such a way that looks so attractive and modern. And as someone who had to build most of the art in Endogenesis single-handedly, I'm amazed at the amount of resourcefulness Daniel had in conceptualizing his game's art direction.

Lastly, there's a game designer who frequents the game design forums on BGG by the name of Jeremy Lennert (Antistone). Every time I come across a post by him, I stop and take the time to read it carefully. He's so incredibly knowledgeable, insightful and eloquent, whenever I read his stuff for just 5 minutes, I feel as though I've squeezed in an hour of game design classes. Absolutely riveting.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

I'm watching Psycho-Pass now, a cyberpunk anime that's mind-blowingly good! If you haven't guessed, I'm a big fan of sci-fi :D I'm also doing a playthrough of the entire Dark Souls series with my wife. Dark Souls is a huge source of cognitive dissonance for me — there are so many design choices I disagree with in the game, and at times I'm very frustrated by it... and yet, it's brought about some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments I've encountered in my life as a gamer. I recently played a game of Rise of Moloch too, and while I didn't enjoy the heavy usage of dice combat, I find the asymmetric gameplay to be very attractive. I'm hoping to get back to it soon (as soon as things with the campaign get less crazy!)

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?

You can check out Endogenesis on Kickstarter.

My personal portfolio can be seen at http://www.awesome.sg and my illustrations at http://www.hyperlixir.com.

(All images supplied by David Goh)

Josh Emrich: Art in Board Games #42

Josh Emrich: Art in Board Games #42