Tuesday, January 26, 2021

People Behind the Meeples - Episode 263: Kenny Michael-Otton

Welcome to People Behind the Meeples, a series of interviews with indie game designers.  Here you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the people who make the best games that you may or may not have heard of before.  If you'd like to be featured, head over to http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html and fill out the questionnaire! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples. Support me on Patreon!

Name:Kenny Michael-Otton
Location:New South Wales, Australia (moving soon to Canberra, Australia)
Day Job:Speech Language Therapist
Designing:Two to five years.
YouTube:Jolly Swagman Games
Other:Discord! https://discord.gg/sMz45zThx5
Find my games at:Usually via Discord https://discord.gg/sMz45zThx5 I actually have posted SCRAP to the Steam Workshop, but you need to contact me in order to get the rulebook at the moment.
Today's Interview is with:

Kenny Michael-Otton
Interviewed on: 1/1/2021

This week's interview is with Kenny Michael-Otton from Jolly Swagman Games. He's currently working on an action programming game about robots in an apocalyptic world, called SCRAP, and has recently started a Youtube channel where he covers all sorts of board game related topics, from designer diaries to strategy guides to game overviews. Read on to learn more about Kenny and his projects!

Some Basics
Tell me a bit about yourself.

How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Two to five years.

Why did you start designing tabletop games?
Tabletop gaming has been a passion of mine for around 17 years. I think the best moments in my life have occurred because of tabletop gaming, and the experience of sharing a game around a table with us is truly magical. I want to be able to facilitate those experiences for other people. Plus, I love the process of trying to bring my ideas to life.

What game or games are you currently working on?
The most major design I'm currently working on is a game called "SCRAP". It's a 4X game about Robots who have just become sentient. Their world was mostly destroyed by an event called "The Singularity", and they're trying to work out why it happened while building their own empire and upgrading themselves.

SCRAP's major mechanical feature is an action que (programming); each turn, you'll resolve your rightmost Function (action), then shift each of your other two functions one space to the right. Finally, you'll place a new function into the leftmost slot of your board. Effectively, you're sending orders to your Robots with a two turn delay, meaning you'll have to plan and learn to expect the unexpected. The game also has a heavy focus on interaction between players as opposed to turtling behaviours, because ultimately I think that interaction is a heck of a lot more fun. SCRAP is hopefully going to be going to Kickstarter in early 2022, but I'm willing to be flexible with that time depending on how "ready" I feel the game is.

Have you designed any games that have been published?

What is your day job?
Speech Language Therapist

Your Gaming Tastes
My readers would like to know more about you as a gamer.

Where do you prefer to play games?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic going on right now, I usually play via Tabletop Simulator. There's a few servers I hang out on to find games (The Paddle is my favourite), but I also co-host a Cthulhu Wars specific server with my good friend Mikey (we played over 150 games of Cthulhu Wars EACH last year!). When I'm in person, I tend to play at my parents' house with a few close friends (my mother and her partner are both gamers as well). Their house has always been the central gathering point for all of us for gaming.

Who do you normally game with?
In person, as I said above, I tend to game with a handful of my closest friends. Online, however, I'm happy to play with whoever is keen to join in the games I want to play! I've met a lot of wonderful people online through Tabletop Simulator and Discord, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go if they haven't already.

If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
If I had a physical copy, I'd probably get them to playtest SCRAP for me (because I'm sure they'd love it as well!). One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a mainstay for us, and we all know the game so well that we have some complex mindgames that tend to go on (For example, it's well known that I ALWAYS lie straight up, so I like to mix things up sometimes by telling the truth and acting as though I was lying). I recently got to try out Dwellings of Eldervale and would love to get that back to the table; it's got a little bit of everything, so I'm sure that each of my friends would find something to enjoy. Cthulhu :Death May Die would be high on my list as well. I'd also try and get a game of Blood Rage in, given it's currently my favourite game of all time!

And what snacks would you eat?
What snacks WOULDN'T we eat? :P We'd probably have a couple of chip bowls on the table and a bag of chocolate / lollies. We'd follow that up later on in the day with either a pizza from a local place, or even some burgers or fried chicken from any of the fancy places around.

Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
We don't always have music going, but if we do, it's one of two kinds: either a mix of 80s and 90s classics, or ambient music that matches the game we're playing (e.g. Western music for Great Western Trail, space music for Terraforming Mars).

What’s your favorite FLGS?
It used to be Good Games Top Ryde, mainly because my mother worked there. Since she stopped earlier this year, I haven't really had a FLGS that I've gone to. So in my heart, it will always be there.

What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
My current favourite game is Blood Rage; I simply love the action-packed and heavily interactive gameplay and the amazing combos you can pull off with the various upgrades. The game is jam packed with so much "WOW" that I love it every time and am always down for a party during Ragnarok. Hmmm...least favourite game that I still enjoy...that one's tricky. I'm actually not really sure how to answer that one. I'm just going to say Nemesis for now; I think that the premise of Nemesis (semi co-op survival game) just doesn't work at all as the game is already hard enough as it is, and you're often at the mercy of die rolls and card flips, but man is the theme rich and engaging. As a cinematic experience, I'm fine with Nemesis, and think it's excellent. As a game with engaging mechanics? Nah. The worst game I've ever played is a game called Ruddy Vikings, which I doubt many people have heard of. However, this year, I also played a relatively new game called Rival Restaurants, a game with beautiful art...and that's it. Chaotic negotiation, real-time gameplay that is really not real-time at all, wildly unbalanced and punitive player powers, huge take-that moments...it's an absolute mess. It's the only game in recent memory where I actually requested that we quit it early. Truly one of the worst games I've ever played, and certainly amongst the most disappointing.

What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
My favourite game mechanism is hand management. I find the challenge of trying to optimise your plays with your hand and the planning required in doing so extremely rewarding and engaging. Not Alone, Twilight Struggle, BattleCon, Great Western Trail....the list of games I LOVE with the mechanism goes on and on, and the best part is that each of these games does the mechanically differently! SCRAP also features hand management as a primary driving mechanism (part of the programming).

It's really easy to point at something like "roll and move" for a least favourite mechanism, so instead I'm going to talk about a mechanism that usually drives me nuts: open trading. Open trading tends to favour experienced players disproportionately, or simply result in kingmaker situations. I think it is one of the most abuseable mechanisms in any game. It can make for some fantastic and interesting gameplay (New Angeles, for example), or it can really fall flat on its face.

What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
Food Chain Magnate is a tricky one. I really love that game, but it's very punishing and can be daunting for newer players. It's hard to tell someone "You're going to play this game for several hours and probably lose, but then you'll be better next time", especially given just how crushing Food Chain Magnate can be. One of my friends always reminds me of the time he ended the game with $12 while I had $800 or so. He's never played again.

What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games, Miniatures Games, RPG Games, Video Games

Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board Games, Card Games, Miniatures Games

OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
I mean, it's fine? People are allowed to have fun however they want. I've played it and had a good time, but I would never recommend it as a "board game" to anyone.

You as a Designer
OK, now the bit that sets you apart from the typical gamer. Let's find out about you as a game designer.

When you design games, do you come up with a theme first and build the mechanics around that? Or do you come up with mechanics and then add a theme? Or something else?
It all depends. Generally, I'll start with a premise of some kind. For example, for SCRAP, I started off with: "I want to make a sci-fi themed area control game with powers that combo well together."

So there was a little bit of theme and mechanisms in that initial pitch. I have this "hierarchy" of design principles in my head, one of which can be summarised like so:
"Mechanical and thematic integration is the pinnacle of game design, and should be achieved if possible. However, if the thematic integration is causing mechanical issues, then the mechanics should be prioritised."

As an example, in SCRAP, there has been a mechanism in the game since inception where you could analyse other robots and gain access to their technologies. It has been an absolute NIGHTMARE to get to work in a mechanical way that I feel is smooth and rewarding. As such, I am considering losing some of the thematics of it in order to smooth out the experience and make the game mechanically more robust.

Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I've never entered one.

Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
I have a lot of respect for Bruno Cathala and Reiner Knizia, who I think are both amazing game designers with good philosophies (even if I don't love all of their games or even play many of them anymore). Sandy Petersen is an inspiration as well, as he's managed to create some really interesting social dilemmas in his area-control games.

Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
If I knew, I'd just farm them all the time. The reality of design is that inspiration can come from anything at all. I find that most of my best ideas for mechanics or even game designs come from things I'm doing outside of gaming. For instance, SCRAP's concept primarily came from WALL-E thematically, while I'm considering working on a Gravity Falls-like game in the future.

Mechanically speaking, I sometimes am inspired by playing games I don't like, or I think miss the mark; I like the puzzle of trying to make mechanics "work". SCRAP's programming came about because I thought that most programming games I'd played had been huge misses for me, so I wanted to make one where the programming would be the main draw card.

How do you go about playtesting your games?
Usually I organise playtests with my friends over Facebook, or with any number of playtesters over various Discord servers. I now run my own Discord server where I manage all of my stuff relating to SCRAP, including future playtests.

Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
Generally, I enjoy working alone, but I do often discuss mechanical ideas with my playtesters (I have a whole channel on my server dedicated to that). I have, however, enjoyed working with my artist, David, who has been an integral part of making SCRAP into what it is today.

I'm just a little too invested in my work, and I think that having co-designers on board is usually more frustrating and means that my particular vision won't come through entirely.

What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
Time. Plain and simple. Game design takes a HUGE amount of time. I was very fortunate last year in that I was able to work very little yet still have enough to pay rent, feed myself, and save towards a house. This meant I could dedicate 20+ hours each week to design easily. Every aspect of design simply just takes a lot of time, and balancing that with everything else in life is challenging.

If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
Star Wars, for sure. It's my favourite universe, and I'd love to be able to create something magical within it.

What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
That it would be the most rewarding thing I'd ever do. That would have made me really get to it much earlier.

What advice would you like to share about designing games?
This above all; to thine own self be true.

What I mean is to stay true to the vision you had for the game. Playtester feedback is important, but make sure that you're happy with your game first, or it will never be amazing.

A few months ago, I started showcasing SCRAP for the first time to people I didn't really know. The feedback was generally positive; players loved certain things they could pull off within the game, and the engines they could build. The problem? SCRAP wasn't intended to be an engine builder!

As such, even though a lot of player feedback was very positive around engine building, I decided to remove most of the engine building because it was distorting the core promise I had in my head of what SCRAP would be. Even though some players do miss the engine building, I believe the game today is around a thousand times more interesting and improved than it could have ever been had the unintentional engine building stayed around.

Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Games that I'm playtesting are: SCRAP - The core bones of the game are mostly finished, and now each of the different areas of the game just needs fleshing out and significant playtesting.
Games that are in the early stages of development and beta testing are: Cookie Conspiracy - A social/logical deduction game where you must get the most cookies from the cookie jar.
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: Unnamed Boss Battler

Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
Many of them, but I only find some of them to actually be useful.

And the oddly personal, but harmless stuff…
OK, enough of the game stuff, let's find out what really makes you tick! These are the questions that I’m sure are on everyone’s minds!

Star Trek or Star Wars? Coke or Pepsi? VHS or Betamax?
Star Wars, Coke, VHS

What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
You mean there are other hobbies? Jokes aside, I enjoy playing some video games here and there (I have a Switch I play with sometimes). I watch a lot of movies and TV shows with my partner, sometimes even willingly! I'm also a massive foodie, and love travelling around to various food trucks in search of the most delicious burgers in the world!

What is something you learned in the last week?
I learned that hot drinks are forbidden within the Church of the Latter Day Saints. As such, one of my friends doesn't drink tea or coffee!

Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
For music, I'm a big fan of low-fi stuff. Just makes me feel really relaxed. In regards to books, I used to really enjoy reading romance manga (shoujo). Nowadays, I don't read very often, but I do love the Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend, and have just started reading Obama's autobiography "A Promised Land". Finally, movies. Anything sci-fi will usually get my interest. I also love a good kids movie, particularly Pixar stuff. I watched Soul last night, and it was simply magical.

What was the last book you read?
The last book I read to completion was The Bromance Book Club, about a footballer who is trying to resolve his marital problems by reading adult romance novels with a group of his friends. It was enjoyable enough.

Do you play any musical instruments?
I can play the recorder and the drums (a little bit). I've practiced a bit of guitar and keyboard, but I couldn't confidently say I could play something on them.

Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
I can speak reasonably fluent Korean (it was my major in university!).

Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
I think I've been a mostly sensible person my whole life. Adventure is certainly NOT my middle name!

Biggest accident that turned out awesome?
During my final placement as part of my Masters degree, I very nearly burned the whole building I was staying in down due to some poor instructions. I started a reasonably large fire in a pan with a lot of oil; smoke filled the entire kitchen (quite a big area), the building had to be evacuated, the fire brigade had to come, and I didn't even get to eat my dinner! It ended up making me very well known and a public face in the student accommodation, which meant people approached me more readily and joked about me being "The Fireman". I became very good friends with many of them.

Who is your idol?
The Hon. Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand.

What would you do if you had a time machine?
Go back and start design earlier!

Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Definitely an extrovert, although even I need my quiet time sometimes.

If you could be any superhero, which one would you be?
Probably The Flash. Super speed is just such an awesome and flexible power.

Have any pets?
None right now.

When the next asteroid hits Earth, causing the Yellowstone caldera to explode, California to fall into the ocean, the sea levels to rise, and the next ice age to set in, what current games or other pastimes do you think (or hope) will survive into the next era of human civilization? What do you hope is underneath that asteroid to be wiped out of the human consciousness forever?
Well, that's probably the most unusual question I've been asked during an interview. Heck, I'd love for all pastimes to still exist, because even if I don't love it, somebody else surely does. I would hope that the internet would also survive, because it has been perhaps the most significant invention of all time (in my opinion), and has revolutionised the world so substantially, making us all much more connected. If I was hoping for something to be wiped out, it would be some pretty grand conceptual stuff. War, wealth gap, gender inequality, those kinds of things. I don't think an asteroid is going to solve those issues, unfortunately.

If you’d like to send a shout out to anyone, anyone at all, here’s your chance (I can’t guarantee they’ll read this though):
Shout out to all of my playtesters for being a part of my journey, as well as each of my friends and family members who have put up with me talking about SCRAP non-stop for the past 9 months. Also shout out to The Paddle for being the friendliest place to play games online!

Thanks for answering all my crazy questions!

Thank you for reading this People Behind the Meeples indie game designer interview! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples and if you'd like to be featured yourself, you can fill out the questionnaire here: http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html

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