At the UK Games Expo back in May we got the opportunity to interview Christian T. Petersen, who, two decades ago launched a little company that changed the gaming landscape forever. That company was Fantasy Flight Games, which has since become synonymous with high quality, story driven, thematic games and has helped to raise the bar on production values across the industry. Christian has witnessed 20 years of unprecedented growth and ridden the wave of board gaming’s big renaissance. He’s undoubtedly been in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion (picking up the Game of Thrones License before it became a cultural phenomenon, for instance), but his entrepreneurial spirit made it inevitable that Fantasy Flight Games would be a success.
What I was most impressed by when I spoke to him was how modest he was and how much importance he placed on creating quality products that stood the test of time, rather than rushing out something to fit the flavour of the day. That’s why Fantasy Flight has produced some of the best adaptations of high profile licenses out there, including perennial favourites the Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica board games, both of which brilliantly capture the theme and atmosphere of their respective shows. Most recently Fantasy Flight has helped rejuvenate the card game market by introducing the concept of the ‘living card game’, replacing the collectible card game’s random boosters (long acknowledged as a form of cardboard crack) with standardised regular updates for a more balanced and accessible game. The result has been the phenomenally successful Netrunner.
Ready Up: Let’s start from the beginning. When and why did you start Fantasy Flight Games?
Christian Petersen: A long time ago, 20 years ago [this June]. We first started Fantasy Flight publishing in 1995. I started that in college because I had an interest in bringing European comics to the US. I’d grown up in Denmark, so I’d encountered all these great comics. I was also a gamer and in fact I was already a bit of an entrepreneur because in Denmark I’d started a company called Pegasus Game Import and we imported Avalon Hill board games from the US into Denmark and sold them wholesale. We’d gotten the rights for Lucky Luke and Spirou and these various excellent Franco-Belgian comics, but the company didn’t do very well because Americans just weren’t ready for graphic novels from Europe. At the same time we did learn how to do print publishing and layout software like Quark Express and Photoshop, and how to talk plates and presses, and all that stuff. So I thought that there isn’t much of a leap from comic books to games. I mean there is, but I maybe felt braver than that. I’m not sure how it works here but it was common for comic book stores in the US to have board game sections. So as I’d been selling comics I’d also been interfacing with the games distribution network.
So I made a game called Twilight Imperium, which was based on my own preference for a big space conquest game, which there really wasn’t anything like at the time. It was the kind of game I wanted to play and it wasn’t around, so we went ahead and made it. And that was a revelation because it sold really well and all the comics were very sad, looking at the game boxes flying out the door! So we had to de-emphasise that part of our business. The company started in 95 and Twilight Imperium came out in May 97. It was just me at that point and there wasn’t a lot of space in my place, so I ended up running around a parking lot in the sun sticking UPS stickers on boxes.
RU: You’ve touched on it a bit already, but how different was the board game industry back then?
CP: Extremely different. There has been an incredible evolution in the thinking behind the design of the games and in the presentation. These are magnificent products and if you would have put out in 1997 what is a run of the mill board game today, it would have seemed extraordinary. It’s been a lot of fun to watch. There’s been a lot of important factors to why this has happened, but ultimately what it boils down is even the games back then – like if you take an old Avalon Hill game – It was a great experience but it was very chewable, very dense to get into and hard to release a positive experience from a game that complex. So we’ve found the right balance of telling stories with these games to creating experiences that were easier to absorb for the audience. And we all push each other. In 1997, when I released Twilight Imperium, that’s when Settlers [of Catan] came out in the US and started the whole revelation of the ‘Eurogame’ philosophy. We stuck with more American style games and we were able to get licenses like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but we tried to combine this new vision of game design with the narrative games we were making. Any one of our games you should feel like you had an experience and you can retell it as a story to your friends. That kind of emergent narrative is really special and something we’ve always tried to focus on. But the German game revolution did a lot of amazing things, particularly mechanically.
RU: I think the two sides are coming together now. We’re seeing more and more hybrid games.
CP: For us I think the most important game that set our direction was the Game of Thrones board game, which was released in 2003. Because it’s where it clicked for me how to push in the element of games from my back ground, the more complex Avalon Hill style games and the more storytelling experiences you get from role playing games, and also integrating the mechanical philosophy that came out of the Euro generation. I think we achieved it really well there and that set the style and the tone moving forward that other people like Eric Lang [designer of XCOM the Board Game] and Corey Konieczka [designer of Battlestar Galactica], people much better than I, have been able to refine, polish and bring to another level. So I think people will agree we have a certain style and we’ve been very fortunate to own a certain interpretation of how games should be in an environment with a lot of new customers coming in. I can only hope that the experiences we’ve provided have been positive and helped bring more people into the hobby.
One other thing that I think has been important is the acceptance of higher price points on board games, because they are very expensive and very challenging to make. Now we have plastic pieces and beautiful artwork there’s been an acceptance to pay prices that in the past would have been unthinkable. Those prices have really spurred investment and rewarded people who have done a really good job. What we see today is the right balance of price, quality and demand and I hope that continues.
RU: I suppose that the board game industry doesn’t suffer from piracy in quite the same way as the videogame industry.
CP: Of course. It is a physical product, so you have to make it, you have to transport it, and you have to have a way to distribute it. We do have a few copycat issues in the Far East, of the more simple games, but we don’t have a lot of problems. I think that with some of our plastic components, hand painted miniatures and so on, it would be challenging in the extreme to copy, profitably anyway, without having the level of investment and market exposure we have.
RU: So why did you chose the Game of Thrones license, because probably at that time the books weren’t particularly big?
CP: I like to think that we played a little part in moving that property along. We love those books and George, and I think we may have been the first license based on them back in 2001. We’d been publishing the Lord of the Rings board game – I’m a massive fan and being able to publish that game was a dream – and the movies coming out made that such a big positive event for us, and we were able to sell a lot of games through book shops. So we said what do we follow it up with? Now that we have distribution within book chains, what else makes sense?
Someone in the office had been reading this Game of Thrones book and said it was excellent. I didn’t quite jump on it right away but one of my friends from Esdevium in England came over to Gencon and it turns out he was also reading it, and there was just enough triangulation of positive vibes, so I said ok I’ll read these books. And of course I was completely blown away by how awesome they are. But unlike Lord of the Rings, at the time this was a high quality but relatively obscure fantasy series. So when we released the TCG, we made a deal with Bantam, the publisher in the US, and we bought 1000 books and wrapped the rules around them, so we could say “this is an awesome game based on an awesome book!” We sent these 1000 books to retailers and reviewers around the US. It started off slow but spiked, because I think people started thinking “what the hell is game of thrones? Perhaps I should read the book.” So after years of promoting it and running big tournaments, I hope that we’ve helped that property at least in a small way deserve the success it has today. Of course having the TV show from HBO was pure luck. Having people take it on in such a globally impactful way was lucky.
There are a lot of artificially contrived products in the soup kitchen of marketing and media teams that are big today, but that some can still grow out of a quality, fertile earth is delightful.
RU: You seem to have been in the right place at the right time! I was going to ask how the success of Game of Thrones has influenced the sales of your games.
CP: Clearly it’s a major thing. We now have a deal with HBO themselves and we have a couple of products coming up. It’s been a significant success and the Game of Thrones board game, that we released in 2003, we did a new version of it a couple of years ago and its one of our best selling products we have today. We’ve been fortunate, but I think what’s really inspiring about that is it’s really delightful to see that high quality products with a lot of integrity make it in the end. There are a lot of artificially contrived products in the soup kitchen of marketing and media teams that are big today, but that some can still grow out of a quality, fertile earth is delightful.
RU: Moving on to your card games. I think Fantasy Flight has been really instrumental in breathing new life into card games with the Living Card Game model. How did you develop that and how do you think they compare to CCGs now?
CP: It started with Game of Thrones also in a way. We were doing the Game of Thrones TCG, and the TCG model is very difficult because of the purchasing model and how many TCGs a store can really support. Generally the problem is if you play a TCG your spend on that TCG, and the commitment that is really required because of that spend, forces gamers to play only one game. So that concept encourages retail shops to support very few TCGs, because the more they stock the more they’ll be splitting their player base. So we wondered if there was a different way to skin the cat; to reap the benefits of a continually expanded and living meta game experience, but without the random packs.
We thought there was a whole range of advantages to this. First off, the buy in would be less, but why not bring out a couple of games, because the model of small investments at a time. When a TCG is updated two or three times a year people spend hundreds of pounds, and I’ve always found myself feeling slightly remorseful after opening all the packs. It’s a kind of binge process, which I think has turned off a lot of people over the years. We thought that maybe there were a lot of people who loved those kind of games but felt overwhelmed by having to invest so much. So we could provide them with a different format that provided them with a full game experience at a fairly low price, that you can play just like any board game, but because its expandable a certain percentage of those players will want to be engaged in that way and follow the game. The biggest advantage we saw was that with this model you could play two, or maybe even three of these games, so what that means is that your chances of finding someone to play with has exponentially increased. That will allow the game stores in turn to have a more diverse portfolio of products, which will appeal to more people. So there was a lot of inherent benefits to quite a simple model.
The shops are our ambassadors; they’re our embassies and consulates out in the world.
It encourages people to go into retail shops to play, which grows the hobby, and having these small packs makes it more likely that you’ll buy from a local store rather than online. Online ordering has typically been detrimental to promoting play, and meeting new people and engaging with the games. Because if your spending hundred on a booster pack, you can save a lot online, but for a small monthly pack you’d maybe only save a couple of bucks, and then there’s shipping. So we hoped that this would push people to the shops. The shops are our ambassadors; they’re our embassies and consulates out in the world.
RU: Having set releases helps with game balance too I imagine?
CP: We generally release less cards than a TCG and we get a little more time to study the general balance than maybe a TCG does. TCGs generally have to release 150-200 cards in any given release, and they do it three or four times a year, whereas we release 240-260 cards a year. It also helps as a business to be less reliant on one giant game. Having five or six well supported LCGs has been a great experience for us. In terms of business size games like Magic [the Gathering] are so big that I don’t think that LCGs are taking up 10-20% of the total business, so there’s room to grow.
RU: You must be pleased with how well received Netrunner has been. What made you decide to bring that game back?
CP: We as a publisher look at our portfolio of games and we cut our releases up into three pie pieces of a circle. One is licensed games, and hopefully we’ve picked a license that transcends generations. Another part of it is proprietary products, like Arkham Horror and Twilight Imperium, games that we own. The last part of it is what I call classic games, and those are games that had meaning and impact on hobby gamers that we played when we were younger. We published Fury of Dracula from Games Workshop, Cosmic Encounter, Tigris and Euphrates. We published Dune as Rex, because we couldn’t get the Dune licence. There’re a number of games we look into because we want to continue this tradition, because we do think some of these games need a bit of a facelift mechanically and visually, and we will change some more than others. Netrunner was part of a group of games that we negotiated from Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, because they had a whole host of legacy titles through Avalon Hill. There was a number of games we acquired: Merchant of Venus, Nexus Ops, Fortress America and Netrunner. We thought they were all really great classic games. We put them out and Netrunner turned out to be something really special. We got to take our Android universe, which is one of our classic universes, and make it an exciting theme on top of the game.
RU: Is there going to be more love for the Android Universe going forward?
CP: The Android universe is a very important one to us, and we have things in the works. I can’t tell you exactly what they are. Android has not only been such a successful game in itself, but its allowed us to create so much visual texture and forced us to think about so many nuanced details. We put out a series of Android novels too, so it’s definitely not going to be left behind.
RU: I loved the original board game.
CP: That was a very unique game.
RU: It’s almost five very unique games in one!
CP: Yes. I’m very proud of publishing that because it was almost more of an indie arthouse release, because it was so ambitious and far reaching.
RU: It also had that really strong narrative element that you were talking about.
CP: Exactly. A very strong narrative element. That was a fun game to watch come together. In terms of commercial success it’s been Netrunner and Android merged that’s been the real high flier.
RU: What are your thoughts on the UK Games Expo? Do you see it becoming Britain’s answer to Gencon?
CP: I certainly hope so. Britain is one of the most important gaming nations in the world and before now it’s never really had the ability to connect that enthusiasm in a show. Shows are important because once you hit a certain size then all of a sudden you get people to pay attention and actually try to develop experiences and releases. The growth will really help give a lot of German, American and of course British publishers and designers, and anyone who tries to make those experiences for gamers, worth their while to come, which is going to make people feel better about gaming, which is going to attract more gamers. So I’m very hopeful, I’m very encouraged. I was here last year for the first time and it exciting to see so many players come together, and now I’m seeing even more. Once you get over 10,000 people you get into that territory that should be a critical mass, and it should reach a level of importance that will help it keep growing. I’d like to see it be 25,000 people!
RU: Well there’s always next year.
CP: Or maybe the year after.