A new construct: Stone Blade CEO Justin Gary on the future of Ascension

By Owen Faraday 21 Feb 2013 0
Justin Gary from the Ascension Online Kickstarter video. "A little planning and a lot of luck got me here."

Justin Gary has got a tiger by the tail.

An oft-laureled professional Magic The Gathering player in high school and college, Gary parlayed his competitive success into a career as a game designer for Upper Deck, the American trading card and game publishing company. In 2010, with a wad of savings and a sketched-out business plan, Gary struck out on his own to create Ascension, a deck-building card game that borrowed from some ideas from Magic and other hobby card games but rendered them into a more accessible, faster-playing structure.

Ascension proved to be a hit with board game hobbyists from the very first printing in 2010, but when Playdek's masterful iOS translation of the game hit the App Store the following year, it opened Ascension up to a broader audience of people who'd never delved into card games before. With his studio's first product being an unqualified success, Gary doesn't have to worry about his still-young company going bust ("When I started out I wondered sometimes if I was going to be living in a house made of Ascension boxes"), but  -- SolForge, the pure digital trading card game he successfully Kickstarted last year, raising the money to build a development studio to take it from blueprint to finished product entirely in-house. But with SolForge nearing completion, Gary decided to return to Ascension to tie up some loose ends.

The new Kickstarter for Ascension Online ruffled feathers when it was announced last week. Ascension Online would be a new product for Android and PC. An Ascension-centric platform that promised cross-platform play, deeper customization, and no lag between the printing of physical expansion sets and their arrival in the digital app -- something that had dogged the iOS edition of the game.

But where did this new project leave the fans of the Playdek-developed iOS Ascension? Gary quickly moved to assure iOS fans that Playdek's app would be getting Immortal Heroes, the next expansion to the game -- but then what?

After the jump, my conversation from yesterday with Ascension designer and Stone Blade Entertainment CEO Justin Gary: what the future holds for Ascension on iOS and other platforms, his company's relationship with Playdek, and more.

Owen Faraday: I think what really struck me when I read what you wanted to do with the Ascension Kickstarter was how big an idea it is. You're not building a game, you're building a platform. That's a big project for a new studio.

Justin Gary: I'm nothing if not ambitious. And it's a very big job. But as we've been building SolForge, we've been building it so that we can make plenty of games utilizing the same features. There's things that we had to do for SolForge already, like the architecture for online play connectivity, and tournaments, collection management, storefronts, the campaign mode infrastructure. We built all of that stuff so it would be useful for whatever else we wanted to do besides SolForge.

Also a great Jay-Z track. An event card from the Immortal Heroes expansion.

OF: It's a modular system.

JG: Right. So with Ascension we're taking a game that we've already designed and we already know that people love and plugging it into that same backend and giving it a little special sauce to make it Ascension. We know how to make great card games, hobby games -- and being able to bring that experience to online is awesome. And we're now in a great position to do that.

It's something I wanted to do since the first inklings of Magic Online. We all knew when that started that it was a pretty incredible idea but the technology wasn't there yet. Magic's a great game and I owe pretty much the entirety of the course of my life to it, but it's not really optimally designed for the digital space. It was made for an analog world.

OF: Sure, with all of the interrupts and mechanics that work well face-to-face but ruin the pacing of an asynchronous game.

JG: Exactly. Ascension was built to be this sort of hybrid where it's a great physical game and it's able to be ported very well to digital. SolForge is that next step where we can go pure digital and break the restraints that the physical world brings. I there's a place for all of [those games]. It's an awesome time to be a gamer.

OF: Ascension was one of the first really polished iOS game to come from the board game space, full stop. Is part of that down to the design because you had digital in mind when you were creating it?

JG: I did, but it was definitely secondary. Part of my design aesthetic is about keeping a game easy to get into but rewarding to learn in the long run. Ascension is easier, faster to play - those were things that I wanted to see out of games anyway, but things that lend themselves to digital games. A little planning and a lot of luck got me here.

OF: But at the time in 2010, there must have been more scepticism about getting into iOS, with the perception that it was a more casual market.

JG: Fortunately we had our great partnership with Playdek. They had a similar commitment to quality that we did. They were able to show that they could get it done and there wasn't anybody in my team or the people that I talked with that didn't believe that going into that market was a bad idea. It was about finding a good partner to work to help execute on it and being in the right place at the right time. We worked very, very hard to make sure that the interface was right. To make sure that the interface displayed the information the player needed and was fast and responsive and it took iteration after iteration to get it right.

I'm incredibly proud of what we were able to create [with iOS Ascension] and we've got hundreds of thousands of users and over forty million games played on iOS. The only downside of that is the Android users asking every single day, 'When is Ascension coming to Android?' Literally no question gets asked more often.

Finally someone made a post, 'why don't you just do a Kickstarter for this?' We thought, 'why not?' We wanted to make Ascension for Android but we couldn't get it done fast. Now we totally can. We've got programmers chomping at the bit and excited to get to work on it. We just wanted to get this done. That's why we took the unorthodox approach of only running a ten-day campaign.

Cardboard monk. Actual physical Ascension cards. (Image by Nishidake.)

OF: I thought that was a mistake, to be honest. I was skeptical that you'd left yourself enough time [to raise $125,000]. But it looks like you've just cut the fat out of the typical Kickstarter -- eliminating those middle twenty days when nobody pledges.

JG: Exactly. We looked at the SolForge Kickstarter where we were  incredibly successful and over-funded and those middle twenty days were when we got a fraction of the money that we ended up getting in. When a Kickstarter is live, it takes an enormous amount of our time and attention -- I'm responding to comments and messages and making updates and making sure fans understand what is going on and there's this unavoidable compulsion to constantly check to see where we're at [laughs]. There's nothing more addictive than doing this campaign and constantly peeking to see what's going on.

OF: It's literally a pot of money that's filling up.

JG: Yeah. I can't properly describe the feeling of knowing that there's all of those people out there that are so into what we're creating and what we're doing. I started my workday yesterday at 8am and finished at midnight. I started up today again at 9 and it'll probably be a similar night in the office again. I'm driven by these fans. They put this money down and they believe in us so much that they're going to put their money down sight-unseen. Especially for SolForge. Ascension is a little bit different because they know Ascension. But they put a lot of faith in us and we take that very seriously. I want to make everybody proud.

OF: Part of that faith is just in you. But part of that comes from people like me -- this whole group of people who've never touched a deck-building game or a CCG or anything in that vein before the iOS edition of Ascension came out. So part of that fanbase is definitely built around the sheer quality of Playdek's app, which is why there was fear last week when people thought that you were shucking Playdek out and doing your own thing.

JG: I totally get that. I jumped on your forums myself and I wanted to weigh in. We love Playdek. We have nothing bad to say about Playdek. We were their first game launch, they were our first digital game launch. We collectively propelled each other's companies into the spotlight and into success. We still have a strong relationship and we're still working through this.

Playdek became so successful that they were able to get all of these game licenses and launch all of these other projects and that's fantastic -- but at the end of the day that means that they can't spend all of their time focusing on Ascension. We wanted things like online tournaments and faster expansion set releases since the day of release! But from their own business standpoint, they don't judge it to be in their interest to do that.

Still the best. Playdek's iOS Ascension app.

That is totally understandable, but now that we have the digital team that we built for SolForge, we have the capacity to build that infrastructure and build that backend that we talked about, now we can give Ascension the attention that it deserves.

OF: So the impetus for striking out on your own was to be able to have developers that are focused 24/7 on Ascension.

JG: That's right. That's the main goal, is to be able to have people who are focused on Ascension and to be able to make even more stuff for the fans. Ascension is the best deck-building game app, maybe the best hobby game app. My ambition may shine through, but I'm telling you that we can do even more. We can do better.

All the features that we talk about: the campaign, the tournament systems -- that's really compelling. Being able to have a campaign where your starting deck can be modified and your opponent's starting deck can be modified, having different kinds of achievements. We have a vision for content that we can make and new play modes that we can introduce.

I got into this to make awesome games. That's what I want to do. I'm building this platform because it's the easiest way to make the awesome games I want to make. At the end of the day, rather than finding a way to have control over the process with an outside developer, I want us to do it ourselves. SolForge is -- for me -- the culmination of ten years of thinking about what a digital card game could be. For [SolForge collaborator and Magic designer] Richard Garfield it's twenty years in the making.

OF: So for the PC and Android Ascension players reading this interview, everything they've seen so far is awesome. But if you play Ascension on iOS, where do you sit? You've already said you're going to put Immortal Heroes out on iOS for the Playdek app. But where does that leave Rise of Vigil and expansion number six for the iOS players? And all this other stuff you're building?

JG: I can't give every answer that people want right now because we're still talking to Playdek about what the final answer will look like. We were hoping to just build cross-platform play and all of our features into the Playdek app, but after talking with them the last couple of days that's not possible.

OF: Is that for a technical reason?

"We wanted things [that Playdek] don't judge to be in their interest to do."

JG: I don't know. They just said that they're not interested in pursuing that anymore. It would be technically difficult at least, I'm not a tech guy. They basically said 'we can't consider it anymore'.

I'm not going to leave iOS players out in the cold. I'm not going to not give them all of these awesome features that everyone else is going to have. But, I also don't want them to have to sit and wait for a year and not have new content. That's why we're working with Playdek to give people stuff for the next.. however long it takes. And then at some point-- and we're still working out the details of it -- we'll put Ascension Online onto iOS so people can utilize that.

I'm working out how I might be able to make it so that people that bought content for the Playdek app won't have to re-buy them, but I can't completely control it. It's a different platform, a different developer -- there's not that much I can do.

OF: And then that involves Apple, too.

JG: I just don't think that's going to be possible. What we're talking about here is for the people who've invested in Ascension on iPhone, I hope they've gotten their play value out of it, and we're going to be releasing Chronicle of the Godslayer [the core Ascension base set] for free to everybody as part of Ascenion Online. There's going to be a couple of expansions on PC and Android that if they buy them for PC or Android they will automatically transfer over to the iOS version of Ascension. We'll see what we can do about somehow crediting people who bought expansions on the iOS version, but it's just logistically challenging. We're still talking with Playdek about how this is going to go forward. It's my goal and I know it's their goal that the fans feel well-treated. Nobody wants to be orphaned on any platform for anything.

It is a little funny maybe that Android users get to take a little bit of glee about being the first to get something.

OF: They don't get that very often.

JG: No, they don't. But look, I've got an iPhone, I've got an iPad -- I want these features, too, if only for selfish reasons. As soon as it became clear that we weren't going to be able to get cross-platform play with iOS, I felt there was no choice but to bring Ascension Online to iOS to make that happen.

The base set of Ascension -- Chronicle of the Godslayer -- is going to be free, for everybody regardless of platform, if this Kickstarter funds. Once we've made enough money to get the game released, we can just release the game.

One of the things that was most exciting to me about bringing Ascension to the iPhone was the number of people we were able to reach -- yourself included -- who wouldn't ever have touched the physical game who were able to try it digitally.

OF: The app is much less intimidating than a physical set.

JG: Of course. And how much less intimidating would it be to try it for free? Instead of paying five dollars to try an app, you try it for free. Just download it and play. How many more hundreds of thousands of people will be able to play Ascension? And not just play Ascension, but enter the world of hobby gaming.

I don't see other publishers and developers as competitors, I think we're working together to grow this space. To bring more and more people into hobby gaming. We get to play more games by bridging the gap between casual games that have historically been at the center of mobile and the core games that people like us love. Everybody wins.
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