The After Action Report: I have to say first I love Roll20 I’ve been using it for, God, a year and a half now? I’ve got some friends who moved over to Australia and we play Star Wars Saga Edition and we were like “ah we don’t want to stop playing” and we found the site and it’s weird, I get up at like 7 in the morning to play with them at like 9 or 10 o’clock at night their side then we’ve got a guy in England who’s not quite as bad, he’s got a couple of hours more sleep than I do so it’s like the five us playing from completely opposite sides of the globe.
Nolan T. Jones: That is so awesome, it’s always really reassuring and familiar to hear that because Roll20 didn’t exist to be a… like we didn’t get in to this as “hey let’s make a business” we got in to this as “man I really wish we could play together, but there’s not a way that works for us so let’s make one”. So hearing that other people going through the exact same problems come to us and then it works for them and they don’t have to go make their own, hey we did it!
Nolan: So all three of us, myself, Riley Dutton and Richard Zayas the three that came up with this, fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons is really what started us off. We were all big World of Warcraft guys and we got really burnt out on it and we wanted to have adventures that weren’t locked in that box and it’s funny, because now being familiar with a bunch of other systems in large part because of Roll20 it’s funny how people view 4th Edition as that “horrible box” they don’t want to be stuck in because there are so many numbers and crunchy crunchy math. But at the same time it was a lot of fun for us that really got us started down the path of trying other things and it was a really great introductory game for someone coming from video games and wants to do big numbers of damage and Tactical combat in a way that was really fun.
TAAR: I always viewed 4th Edition as a good gateway drug, I’m a big video gamer myself and if there is an MMO I’ve probably subscribed to it at one point or another and I just thought it was a really smart way to put something out there for people who haven’t played since Chainmail back in the 1970s as a good point of entrance to get them to understand it and at the end of the day a rules system is only as limiting as you let it be.
Nolan: That is incredibly true, we’re all very much believers in the rule of cool. If it sounds good we should find a way to make it happen. If everyone at the table thinks we should do that and we can’t figure out the rule for it who cares? Let’s do that thing because it sounds cool! One of the wonderful thing about 90% of these games is you aren’t playing to win, you’re playing to tell a story so it’s finding how to make that story happen for the people who are playing.
Nolan: That’s something, in the history of Roll20 it’s we all moved apart from each other, we didn’t find any solution that worked. I started playing live again with some people out in Las Vegas and then started essentially bragging to Richard and Riley and Riley was “I’ve got this idea for this thing I’ve been working on it’s for image sharing.” He was working at that point for a child development non-profit so to help autistic children be able to communicate like what they wanted for lunch. So he had some ideas on what if this is something for map images and token images but to bring it back to role playing my live group that I play with, there’s a guy in that group that his character decided he was going to be some sort of nature environmentalist, and so he did all these nature checks even though his nature score was terrible! And it became one of the most iconic, wonderful, all these terrible terrible situations we got in to because we let this character do anything that involved a nature check and we didn’t go for the min/max of “Well it looks like a tree we better be certain, you know Jim over there with the high score does the roll”. I mean instead it’s like “Nah, Sean is the nature guy, he gets to do it!”
TAAR: That’s the great thing about role playing games, table top role playing games. You get the opportunity to go sideways and do something that’s not necessarily based on a number… well it’s based on a number but not always the right number to use. We had this one guy, he was always “I gotta plan” and it would generally involve throwing grenades or something when we least expect it but that going sideways with the rules is such a fun opportunity to have.
So, you launched as a Kickstarter project using crowd sourced funding, and I mean it was very successful you had a $5,000 goal and you ended up with $39,000 so what was the process of doing crowd funding a project like?
Nolan: It’s one of those things that I’m going to take more credit just because of the question being answered. I mean Riley built this program, Riley is the only programmer. But I had been working in comics and a bunch of my friends had just started doing crowd funded projects for their comics so a really example would be Frank Barbiere called Five Ghosts it’s now a book at Image Comics and it just got auctioned for a TV deal recently but back then he was this guy I was sleeping on floors with at Comic Book conventions. He had done this little Kickstarter and he had raised a couple of thousand dollars and I was “I think we should do that for this” and Riley was like “Well we can do it but I don’t want to get sucked in to trying to make the campaign work so let’s do a really short campaign and if it doesn’t work we can just cut ties and walk away”. We had done a few projects together previously the three of us, we pitched an animated series to FX and all sorts of other odd things. So he says let’s do a short campaign so we did an 18 day campaign at $5,000 and we raised that $5,000 dollars in I think first 36 hours. From that point on the train had left the station and everything goes nuts.
I think crowd funding really worked for us in that, the program existed. We were already using it, we were already playing with it, so once we funded it in those first 36 hours we had those remaining 16 and a half days to get it up and running at a level for however many people were going to be in that initial beta and then we just worked really really hard with the people who backed the Kickstarter to make the changes they needed. And there was something too, we were so lucky with the community we got in that we were mostly 4th Edition players and we didn’t want to make a 4th Edition machine because we knew we wanted to play things like Settlers of Catan and just other games in general but having a community with so many varied interests really really really helped out of the gate to have.
One of the reasons there’s card decks in Roll20 is one of the highest backers said that he wanted to do initiative from Savage Worlds and that’s the beginning of the program and now the card deck feature is used for all sorts of things. People are playing all sorts of different card based games, people do things like Arkham Horror inside of Roll20 and the only reason that the feature to put cards in Roll20 exists is “oh I really want to put basic playing card decks in to play Savage Words”.
Crowd funding was a blast in that I think we were very fortunate in the way that we approached it and in having something. The beta opened the day after the campaign ended and that’s a great way to keep your backers happy, is to be able to immediately bring them in and have content for them to use and start crafting something with them. You know there’s a lot of people who come to Kickstarter with an idea only and then the project is late and delayed or there’s problems. Or they come to Kickstarter as like a shopping experience you know, the project is completely done and they are coming to hit the Kickstarter lottery and we were in that perfect sweet spot in that we had something done but we still needed input so I have nothing but great things to say about our Kickstarter experience. We had a blast.
Nolan: I think the opposite is true as well in that it doesn’t work well to come with a project that’s completely finished and there’s nowhere to put any emphasis or to have any input in to anything. I could see myself doing something like that, we have a web comic House of Orr and I could see us doing the House of War print, the first volume of it, but it’s never going to have the same sort of impact that a campaign that you really are working with the creative team, so you know. But people are… Kickstarter is interesting in that you know they are investing in you but it’s not monetary. They’re not getting back a monetary dividend it’s a product so I think their thumb print should be all over that product and our users, their thumb print is all over Roll20.
TAAR: That’s one of the things too, ever since I joined up. There’s a really great community, when I had questions people have been really responsive which is really positive especially in the world of the internet where it’s so easy for a community to turn toxic very quickly.
Nolan: It took us over a year to have a ban button on our forums, the first time we realized someone was far enough out of line that we had to ban them Riley was like “oh yeah, I need to go program that” like it didn’t exist.
TAAR: And that speaks too to what you were talking about with trying to bring people in and let them have a thumb print, when people have an engagement with a project they are a lot less likely to be a jerk on the forums than someone who just bought this I’m going to complain all day.
TAAR: The system you’ve got with the market place and the tokens and tiles, there’s so much flexibility there for the community to create and contribute content can you tell me a little bit about that process? So if someone wanted to create an adventure or a tile set what’s the process they would go through with that?
Nolan: The process is very hands off on our part other than a few pieces of advice and the digital specifications to best fit the interface. So it’s been really really cool to see the things people submit and the things folks get excited about. So the way the marketplace is set up is we are just distributors, we don’t own the majority of the content that’s on there except where we’ve purchased work for hire sets so we could do them as part of the mentor program pack and essentially rent them out to mentors but other than that everything on there is “I’m a creator, I made something and I want to sell it here on the marketplace.” And we’ve got people now who are making some pretty decent money off of being able to do that and, I don’t know, it’s just been so much fun to see people like Greg Taylor create all the map work that he’s done. You know, these elaborate interchangeable tiles.
That’s another thing too, we never intended for Roll20 to be used with that sort of tile set it was always just meant to be basic maps and we had to rewrite, we, Riley had to rewrite a bunch of the program to better take in that information as far as… okay I thought there was going to be one file in the back ground as a map what happens when there’s 50? How do we make it load faster? What can we do there? And that’s an effect of someone like Greg Taylor coming to us and putting it on the marketplace.
The difference with all of that is modules, modules end up being a bit different because it really requires a much greater knowledge of the interface and the rules sets. And also the rights there, because when you’re doing a module you’re probably using some sort of rules set it’s not just a generic, these are science fiction tokens, these are fantasy tokens. It’s this is Pathfinder, we’ve had a lot more applications there don’t… we’ve kept a really high standards bar on what we’re doing and I’d say the modules percentage wise are probably the applications that go “you don’t have the rights to do the thing you’re doing here,” or “you don’t have any art in here that’s of a professional calibre,” but the stuff that has come through has been really fantastic. Something like Simple System is a rule set that was built in Roll 20.
The game testing and stuff like that was something the creator, Dash Inventor Games, he had done his play testing via us. How ridiculous is that to be a part of something where even the rule set is being built in the interface. Then we have things like all the people now who are Pathfinder license creators and we have a fair amount of that content or things that are indie games like The Quiet Year which is an absolutely fantastic fantastic game, something that we had played ourselves and approached the creator and were like “hey, we really think this would be a great fit would you be willing?” And Avery was up for it, and now it’s something we’ve got our effect every month! How cool is that to have that sort of community there? The marketplace I think is an amazing place for potential; I still feel the marketplace hasn’t met the potential of what it can do in all the things it can provide. I hope that one day it’s more of a one stop for folks who are looking to get in to a game and use sample rule sets for things like Savage World, 13th Age, whatever and they can go there and jump in and hit the ground running and I think we’ll get it there but it’s just one of those things were I think we haven’t got it there yet.
TAAR: Have you guys thought of working with some of… you mentioned Pathfinder which has the OGL system but Wizards of the Coast or any of the other big publishers and partnerships?
Nolan: There’s not a name you can come up with that we haven’t had a conversation with at some point. We have talked to absolutely everybody at some point, I would say the reason bigger deals haven’t materialized yet is a myriad of things. One it does require somebody’s got to put in some effort if it’s us knowing the rule system like the back of our hand and bringing it to the interface and we don’t think that that’s ideal in a traditional store relationship. We’re the store, we’re the distributor you make the product and we market it to our user base. We would hope that somebody comes and has some idea of how to use the interface.
There’s a work hang up level but I think the bigger issue is the failure of previous virtual table tops, there’s a lot of virtual table tops out there that got licensing deals with the bigger publishers and it didn’t translate to money and so now they look at it and go “well why take a risk on another system?” I can’t fault that I can only say, well we’re 650,000 users and none of those other virtual tabletops got close to that. So, it’s a battle that I think as time goes on and we continue to things, like every time we win an ENnie, we’ve won the best software ENnie for the past two years conversations start back up that were dormant. There’s a lot going on that’s helping make that happen, and even from a time frame stand point from us we hired two new employees this week. That gives me more time to focus on trying to make this happen as opposed to trying to just manage all the things we’ve got going on just from our community standpoint.
TAAR: Some of the tools I’ve really enjoyed using are things like Line of Sight and Dynamic lighting, are there any features or anything you’ve got in the works coming down the pipe that you’re really excited about?
Nolan: Okay, early next week we’ll have a small update and you’ll probably see some imagery going up in the next 48 hours that are going to make some pretty big changes to dynamic lighting to allow some of the things people have requested specifically for Pathfinder with low light and the like. They’re actually, right now it’s the first thing that our new developer is working on with Riley. I just saw, literally just before I got on this call with you just posted in our collaborative chat “oh here’s some gifs to spread around to show what we got done today”. It should be, for mentors on the development server, if not now here any minute. So, yeah! You couldn’t set me up any better for that!
TAAR: It sounds like you’ve put the new folks right to work there!
Nolan: I think it’s necessary, the new folks that we got (Steve Koontz Developer and Stephanie Powell Community Manager). It’s been a three person team the entire time, we just hired two new people, and it was very important to us that we hire people that can hit the ground running, that had some experience and could get some things done so that’s what we did. We’re really really pleased with how they’re looking so far and we’re hopeful that you know, the sky’s the limit for these folks.
TAAR: One of the things I really liked as well was the ability to share journals, and share materials between myself and the players. As a… I’m one of those obsessive… this is my little quirk as a GM I’m one of those obsessive world builders I very seldom use pre-built worlds. I build them out with these elaborate timelines and pantheons the entire deal. Are there any tools in the works that you guys are thinking about to help facilitate that process, custom worlds, custom building. You’ve got some great tools for characters, great tools for adventures, is there anything larger campaign scope material?
Nolan: I’ve got to say, you do a very good job of seeing the holes currently. That’s definitely a hole we’re looking very seriously at it’s just a question of when and where that hole gets filled but yeah. Internal conversations are very much focused on that sort of realm. Nothing to full on announce yet what that’s going to look at this point but that’s very much in the conversation for down the line.
TAAR: That makes sense, you work from the bottom up, it doesn’t make sense to build a world until you can play an encounter or play an adventure or create your character. That’s one of those things that makes sense to leave until later once you have everything running as it should.
Nolan: We’re very close to having those things running as they should, so hopefully soon.
TAAR: I just want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me Nolan and going through everything that you have. Is there anything you’d like to mention or add before we wrap up?
Nolan: I don’t think so, looking at the next couple of weeks here in terms of what we have going on we’ll be doing some announcing to introduce the two new hires shortly now they kind of got their feet wet. In addition to that update, that will contain some new things for that lighting, as well as the 5th edition re-roll mechanic I think we’ll be starting up a winter t-shirt campaign for those who want to wear Roll20 gear. That’s pretty much the outlook here for the next couple of weeks, the hot off the press exciting stuff.
TAAR: I want thank you very much for your time.