Interview: Justin Gary returns with Ascension: Immortal Heroes, SolForge and more!

Once again we got the chance to talk to Justin Gary about the future of Gary Games. I started following Justin’s career while reading about his Magic tournament wins in Inquest and have been playing Ascension viciously on my iPhone for months straight now. With the fourth Ascension expansion getting released this week and the recent launch of their Kickstarter campaign for SolForge; to say they are busy is quite an understatement.

The last time we spoke with Justin, they were gearing up for the the release of Storm of Souls, but in the last year a lot has changed. Justin actually interrupted my best game of Ascension ever when he called, but boy was it worth it!

Jesse: How’ve you’ve been? I’m assuming very busy with Gen Con, SolForge and Immortal Heroes.

Justin: Oh yes. It’s been one of the most insane times in my life. Between Ascension, obviously and SolForge is a huge part of the convention plan, plus a few other things we haven’t even talked about yet. We’re certainly keeping busy.

Jesse: I noticed you guys just broke $100,000 on Kickstarter!

Justin: That’s right; we had a little celebration this morning. We’ve been having fun showing off the screen shots of our recent build and announcing our newest freebie promotion giveaway. If you pledge at least $25 to the campaign, before the end of Gen Con on August 20th, you’ll get a free starter deck when the game launches. It’s just another incentive for all the people out there we are trying to reach.

Jesse: We saw that up on Facebook! And I’m assuming the next few update videos will be better than Kibler’s example of using his desktop icons to show how the game works.

Justin: (Laughter) Right, right. The latest Kickstarter video has a better example of the gameplay, that has a little bit better of a description as to what is going on. It’s rough since there is still a lot of text; we haven’t implemented drag and drop. It is very raw. But now we’ve got a newer demo ready to go for Gen Con. We plan on showing it off, hopefully, next week for those who can’t make it to Gen Con.

Jesse: Sadly, I’m one of those people who won’t make it to Gen Con this year.

Justin: We’ll be filming the Ascension World Championship, the Q&A with Richard and I, the demos, reactions – all that kind of stuff.

Jesse: I’ve been following SolForge since the beginning. When we spoke last November, you spoke about how excited you were with the possibility of working with Richard Garfield. How did you get the opportunity to make a game with one of the greatest game designers of all time?

Justin: I’ve known Richard for a while thanks to my time on the Magic Pro Tour and we had met a few times. But really it started last year at the PAX Dev conference during the summer, where we connected. During his lecture, he was asked what his favorite game was and he said Ascension. At this point, I literally cheered and threw my hands up in the room going “woo!” while everybody laughed.

I went up to him afterwards and we started talking because for me, he is somebody who made the game that has had the most impact on my life of all time. I have so much respect for him as a designer and to have him be really into my game was a real treat.

We started talking afterwards and did a lot of the nit and gritty design. He’s been very interested in doing a digital trading card game, so we said why not do it together? That’s really how it started, it was one of those great moments and working with him has been a dream come true. He’s a phenomenal person to work with and full of great ideas. He’s been so supportive of the game that draws from the past. We didn’t intend it this way, but it draws a lot of interesting mechanics from Magic: the Gathering and Ascension.

Jesse: From what has been shown so far in the demos, SolForge seems to be an interesting blend of the two genres while trying to break new ground thanks to being freed from the constraints of a physical element.

Justin: That’s absolutely right. A major mechanic is that you get to customize your deck ahead of time. But with creatures that fight, but you’ve got life totals that are reminiscent of Magic. You’ve also got to cycle through your deck multiple times and the cards you play morph and dictate how you play thanks to leveling up. You’re actually building your deck as you play the game, so you never know exactly what your deck is going to look like.

Being a digital game is what allows us to have a mechanic like that, where cards can level up and change play patterns. It also allows us to hide the resource management behind leveling. For a casual player, you just pick a card and play it, it’s nice and accessible. For advance players, you’re thinking about what will happen four or five turns ahead. It isn’t all about, “what do I do now?” but is a fantastic blend that allows for depth in strategy.

Jesse: You’ve mentioned before that SolForge doesn’t have a traditional resource management system like mana in Magic or Runes in Ascension. What stops someone from just making a deck out of all the best cards across each faction?

Justin: The truth is, there is a resource system there but it doesn’t feel like a traditional resource system like mana. First of all, there are four factions in the game and there is a benefit to playing with only one, but you could play with more. But certain cards might be good early game, while their leveled up versions are worse later game.

This allows for different strategies like a rush strategy, where early game you play level 1 cards that aren’t going to level up well in hopes of overtaking you before you can play your level 3 cards. Or you could try stalling the game until playing a giant fatty or giant dragon and winning that way. It isn’t nearly as cut and dry as say grabbing the “best” card and go. The cards actually have a cost you pay, whether that is playing a weaker card now to level it up later or vice versa. It feels more organic than playing a card that costs 5 by simply tapping for five mana.

Jesse: In the mock up shown in the video next to the green health number, there is a second blue number. Does that correspond to leveling?

Justin: That dictates when your avatar levels up. We’re stilling working on the visuals to make sure that everything is clear. But basically, whenever you play a card, it levels up and is set aside in the discard pile. But every four turns, your character levels up too and your newly leveled up cards get shuffled back into your deck. So when your avatar level is level 2, you can start playing your level 2 cards. When your avatar reaches level 3, you can play your level 3s.

Jesse: As someone who has been playing Magic forever, I know a huge part of the game revolves around trading cards with other players and buying singles to complete your decks. How will trading work in SolForge? Are you looking at something like an auction house like in World of Warcraft or Diablo or something more like the bots in MTGO?

Justin: We weren’t sure at all what we wanted to do when launching the Kickstarter campaign. We’ve encouraged our backers and potential backers to sign up for the forums to talk about these things. There is actually a great debate going on now about it. As of now, it seems like people are leaning towards the auction house model which I like, so that’s where I’m currently looking.

But we haven’t determined it for sure, so if you are interested in that debate go the forums. Some people don’t want trading at all while others want a bot system. Some want a fixed store that will automatically buy and sell cards at certain rates. It is a discussion that we all are interested in.

Right now, the auction house model has the most support but this is exactly one of the things that is most exciting about being on Kickstarter is that the backers can really have influence on what the game ends up like. It’s a truly revolutionary way to make games. Now we’ve got almost 2000 people who are part of this campaign and making this thing happen, and they are the ones helping us get to where we are.

Jesse: With this being Gary Games first Kickstarter campaign, how do you see Kickstarter changing the gaming landscape as whole for small publishers like yourself?

Justin: It’s a huge impact; Kickstarter is something that has really blown up this year in particular. You’re seeing million dollar and multi-million dollar projects getting funded and a lot of the traditional board games would never have been able to produce at that level and create quality products.

There are still a lot of things to be ironed out but people will back products and teams that they believe in. It’s very exciting to see. For future products, if you know that you can do it, it is a great tool that is changing the face of the industry. But as for how it is all going to play out, nobody knows right now but I’m excited to be a part of it.

Traditionally, what we would have had to do to fund this project would be going to some investor who would take control of the company and put all these restrictions on us. We would have to compromise a lot to make this game. Now we don’t need to do this, we can just make this really for the fans. I’m looking forward to what is possible now.

Jesse: As a game collector, I think as long as this doesn’t result in any Fallen Empires-like expansions, we’ll all be thrilled.

Justin: (Laughter) I think that’s a safe bet.

Jesse: Even though you’re focusing on SolForge right now, this week you’re launching Ascension Immortal Heroes at Gen Con.

Justin: That’s correct. Even though we’re really excited about SolForge, we’re excited about the new Ascension too. It’s got some really cool new mechanics and finishing the Storm of Souls arc is pretty cool for us.

Jesse: We got the chance to sit down and play Immortal Heroes at PAX East thanks to Rob Dougherty bringing a copy he had made at home. But it wasn’t a complete set, so watching the spoilers get revealed as they come out is great since it’s been a blend of “that was awesome to play with” and “whoa, that’s new and does what?!” The big part of the set is Soul Gems, what was the inspiration for this mechanic?

Justin: It was partially driven by story since Kythis was known to be trapping souls of the fallen heroes in the first war in the year one story arc. We wanted to have that be representative. In addition we wanted to play around mechanically with variations of the trophy mechanic that was introduced with Storm of Souls. Trophies were a way to save the rewards from monsters until you wanted to use them, which added a lot of strategy to the monster killing in Ascension.

Part of the reason Soul Gems work is that they are an exciting reward that you don’t know what you’ll get. You have to use them the turn you get them, but you have the flexibility of when you play them on your turn. It’s funny because we’ve been doing a lot of previews, but it is hard for people to really appreciate the Soul Gems giving cards new life. You’ve got everything from little one-costers all the way up to big seven costers, so each Soul Gem is exciting.

One of the great things about Ascension is that when you get cards from the center row, you get that top decking feel.  Whether it’s a “this is exactly the card I need!” feeling from revealing the Mechana construct you were after or a new monster to defeat. And now you get that same feeling every time you draw a Soul Gem. I think people are really going to enjoy it.

Jesse: One thing I saw during the previews, especially from people who haven’t gotten to play with the cards yet, is that some people aren’t thrilled by the Soul Gems being all reprints. Was that a concern you had of balancing flavor versus mechanics? Or was it a way for new people to get a feel for what the game used to be?

Justin: It’s not so much about showing what the game used to be, but showing the cards in a new context. Everything old is new again. The value of certain Soul Gems is very, very different from when they first debuted. Soul Gems are not cards in your deck, so it makes you look at them differently.

For example, Druids of Stone Circle has a pretty good effect but it is very often a bad card to purchase because it sucks up the resource generation of your deck. When you draw it, it doesn’t add any power or runes to your deck despite the fact that your deck may have a high number of those resources to draw. But when you have it as a Soul Gem, you get that functionality off the top and it is actually pretty awesome. While people may think, “Oh these are the same effects we’ve seen before.” It isn’t the same when it is in context of a Soul Gem. So while they are cards you know, they end up feeling different.

Trading card games have done this before where they will reintroduce old cards but the players approach them from a different angle which creates a new experience. Soul Gems are really catering to old players who have seen them before but can now experience them under a different light.

Jesse: When I got to play with Soul Gems, I noticed that I would gauge them differently simply because they were not worth honor for the end of the game, so it was no longer about buying things to boost my score at the end.

Justin: The mechanic and the concept are sufficiently different enough that I don’t think anyone will be complaining about us repeating cards. It’s really a very different animal. We’ll have the game at Gen Con, PAX Prime and leading stores in September so don’t take my word for it, have fun.

Jesse: Once I played with Immortal Heroes, I immediately began rethinking my Ascension Cube. It’s really exciting though to see what the new expansion is bringing.

Justin: I love seeing people’s custom cubes and they are one of the things I was hoping people would be doing once the sets got out there. There is a lot of content between the sets and you need to try out the experience yourself.

Jesse: Is the popularity of the iOS version of the game influencing the way cards are designed and developed or is Ascension still a card game first and foremost?

Justin: It’s a card game first and foremost.  We do consider iOS implementation of cards; we try not to make things that are impossible to do. For example we probably won’t make a card like Vortex again. It was a tongue in cheek reference to Chaos Orb for Magic, but it’s things like that we keep in the back of our minds when designing cards. For the most part, the goal is make the best physical game we can and then if we need to make modifications for digital, we will.

We have changed the way some of the mechanics work subtlety in the digital game. Like when playing online, we let the opponent make the choice of which construct to destroy after defeating a Corrosive Widow at the end of the turn so limit the interrupting of turns. We won’t change what the cards do from the physical game, but we do our best to make the iOS game flow the best as possible.

Jesse: What is the future for Ascension after the release of Immortal Heroes?

Justin: We’ve been working hard on set 5 with our new big set starting the year three block, which has some really cool mechanics that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. We haven’t actually announced it yet, but we will be announcing a Collector’s edition for year one. It will have all kinds of cool content in it, like featuring premium year one content and will be out in time for the holidays. It’s great for the Ascension lover or potential Ascension lover out there and has some exclusive items that I’m pretty excited about.

After Gen Con, Ascension will have been out for two full years and we are entering year three of this game. We’re bigger than ever and continuing to grow which means we can actually have history and build out more content.

Jesse: What lessons did you learn making Ascension that impacted how SolForge is being created?

Justin: We’ve learned a lot. I always work very hard between balancing showing off all of the really cool things you can do with your new game and trying to narrow it down so that the gem of the idea, the best part of it, is what shines through at the beginning. Especially when you’re trying to build a game that is going to last for years and years, it is always going to get more complicated. You’re always adding new mechanics, always adding new spells and stretching the design. It makes it harder and more complex. In Ascension I tried very hard doing that, but I could have done a better job. There are certain cards that are more complicated than they needed to be.

Ascension taught us a ton about what works on mobile devices. It was originally just a card game, but when we ported it to the iPhone we got really lucky. We had well designed cards, an interface that was translatable and working with Play Deck was great. Managing the other aspects though, like playing asynchronously or the key to short playtime integration, like playing for only a few minutes or a few hours, is a really important thing. All of this is getting applied to SolForge.

Jesse: What is Gary Games working on besides SolForge and Ascension?

Justin: We do have other projects coming down the pipeline. They are other exciting things that we have been working on and I unfortunately can’t really talk about them. I can talk about one… wait, actually I can’t. I lied. We have a couple things planned for the future, but for now we’re focusing on Ascension and SolForge.

Since starting Gary Games, we’ve always been focused on making the games that we want to play. That’s it. You can tell when you go to our Kickstarter page and watch the videos; you can see the enthusiasm we all have because it is genuine. When Ascension was made, I didn’t know if anybody else was going to be interested in it. I didn’t know if I was going to fill my house with unsold boxes, but I really wanted to have that kind of experience and play that kind of game.

Now with SolForge, if we can get this Kickstarter campaign off the ground, and I’m confident we will, this is going to be huge. I was playing the game right before this, it’s just the prototype for Gen Con but it is fun. It’s the game we wanted. It takes advantage of the platform and it’s something we can play for hours and hours – just like playing Magic! It’s going to be great and that is what we are really focused on.

Jesse: Was there anything else you wanted to pass along?

Justin: Come and be part of the discussion on SolForge! Come to the forums, the Facebook page and Kickstarter page to be part of this and have your voice be heard. If you are at Gen Con, come say hi to us at both 1831 and we’ll be at PAX Prime. Those are the places to be to see what we are working on.  Pick up the new Ascension set; it’s going to be a lot of fun. We thank you for your support at all levels and we love the fans at all levels for allowing us to bring these awesome products to life.

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To say I’m insanely jealous of everyone who is able to make it to Gen Con would be an understatement. Between Ascension Immortal Heroes and SolForge, this year is looking to be a fascinating one for Gary Games across. More information about the Ascension Collector’s Edition will be arriving after PAX Prime and Immortal Heroes is planned for a September release.

To thank Justin for his time isn’t enough, we need to thank him for the hours (if not days) of enjoyment he has brought us over the last two years with Ascension as well. If you haven’t pledged to the SolForge Kickstarter yet, what are you waiting for? Look at this piece of exclusive art: