Creator of the Year 2015: Tin Man Games

By Dave Neumann 30 Dec 2015 0
Pictured: the future Pictured: the future

Tin Man Games was founded way back when the App Store was still a toddler and they released their first gamebook, An Assassin in Orlandes way back in 2010. Since then they've been one of the main drivers in the interactive fiction reboot from dead tree editions to fancy digital books that you can carry around in your pocket. They developed consistently beautiful and engaging books that hewed close to the format and rules of their paperback forebears, never straying too far from the format. 2015 was different, though. Early in the year they released the unique gamebook Ryan North's To Be or Not To Be, and we saw a side of Tin Man we hadn't seen before. That side became more and more common as the year progressed.

Later in the year they published Gamebook Adventure #12: Asuria Awakens. While it looked like any other Tin Man gamebook, the innards were a bit different. This was the first gamebook in which you could customize your character, pushing Tin Man closer to the RPG space. That was followed by Legacy of Dorn: Herald of Oblivion which saw the usual Tin Man gamebook visually altered to resemble an Imperial Cogitator. It also changed up the usual I-roll-a-die-now-you-roll-a-die combat from other gamebooks. Combat here more closely resembled the turn based battles from old RPGs like Might and Magic.

Late in the year they released Choices: And The Sun Went Out, which was a different type of interactive fiction as well as a different monetization scheme. Here was an interactive fiction magazine with a subscription model, ensuring that your story would continue and evolve every week as new content was added. While not super psyched about paying monthly for my IF fix, it's clear by this point that Tin Man isn't just thinking outside the box, they're not even sure what city the box currently resides in.

This all culminated in a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring forth that old stalwart of gamebooks, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. The new gamebook engine didn't just change Tin Man's style, it obliterated it. Gone were dusty pages of sepia-toned text, replaced with a vibrant and moving dungeon complete with miniatures and turn-based miniature combat. While not releasing until 2016, this was the final piece of the Creator of the Year puzzle. Here was a company that not only released some fantastic apps this year, but has slowly been changing their spots to where I cannot wait to see what they do in the future.

Luckily, I didn't have to wait long to hear what they're planning in 2016. Earlier this week I spoke with Neil Rennison, the founder of Tin Man Games about 2015 and where Tin Man is headed.

Pocket Tactics: I first noticed something different was happening at Tin Man early this year with the release of Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be. It wasn’t like any Tin Man book I’d ever played (or gamebook from anyone for that matter). How did you guys hook up with Ryan North and where did the inspiration for that gamebook come from (other than the obvious bardic inspiration, that is)?
Neil Rennison: To Be or Not To Be was an amazing project for us to be involved with and came about after we saw how awesome Ryan's project was on Kickstarter. We'd not long released Zach Weiner's Trial of the Clone (who was also one of the illustrators for To Be) and asked him if he could introduce us. Zach kindly did so, and after swapping lots of very amusing emails with Ryan, we signed a deal to produce the app version! You would have to ask Ryan where the inspiration from the book came from but I think Ryan essentially wanted to make Shakespeare more accessible for a modern audience, as well as writing something incredibly funny that played up to the source material and took it in new directions. For me personally, when I initially read the synopsis and found out I could play as Hamlet's ghost Dad, I was sold!

PT: Although the writing is great, my favorite part of To Be or Not To Be is the art, each piece from a different artist. Considering Ryan’s comic background, was that his idea or yours? Whose idea was it to make each piece of art collectible as you finished different endings? Brilliant.
That was all Ryan. It was tied into his Kickstarter and I believe it was one of the reasons that helped the KS raise so much money. It's a modern day who's who of web comics and illustration talent and I still can't believe at times that we actually made a game using ALL this talent. The art was always tied to the endings in the physical book, so our To Be producer, Ben Kosmina, used that format and made the art collectable to encourage people to find all the hilarious endings. Some of the outcomes are insanely written and it's absolutely worth hunting them all down, not just for the artwork.

PT: Later in the year you released Gamebook Adventures #12 which, on the surface, appeared to be a regular gamebook. It had something the other Gamebook Adventures didn’t, however, the ability to customize your character before heading in. Was that the first step in moving toward something like Warlock of Firetop Mountain with different classes?
Complete coincidence and I doff my hat here to the writer, Stuart Lloyd, who came up with this construct. Stuart always wanted to create a richer skills based character creation process and so used the background narrative of the character to build those skills, rather than blindly rolling dice. It worked really well!

PT: It seems like 2015 was the year in which Tin Man started adding more RPG elements to their gamebooks. Why is that?
I guess that's true, in a way. There was no absolute plan in doing this, if I'm being honest, but I guess deep down we're just trying to hone our craft and try and do more with our interactive fiction. While we love re-creating the nostalgia of the 80s gamebooks in our apps, which the 35-45 somethings love, we also need to be constantly mindful to a wider audience, especially younger readers who expect more from their gaming experiences. Adding in more customisation and given more meaningful narrative choices than simply take the story down the east or west path, is our aim these days and we'll keep pushing the genre in as many new and exciting ways as we can afford to do.

PT: Autumn saw the release of Legacy of Dorn, which turned the standard gamebook into an Imperial Cogitator. It also made changes to normal gamebook combat. Where did these changes originate? How were they received? Is this something we might see in future gamebooks as well?
For production and resource reasons we decided to take Legacy of Dorn back to our older gamebook engine used in Gamebook Adventures. Obviously having a papery feel would not have worked so well for a Warhammer 40k look, so we played with some ideas to see if we could adapt the UI of the engine to look like a computer terminal. After doing some research into cogitators used in the 40k universe, it made perfect sense to set the reading experience on one of those, displaying the book as if you were reading back a data file of the gamebook's events. By going this route it meant dice had to be removed too as that didn't fit in with the vibe (ironically as dice ARE important in the table-top game). At the time our tech artist, Ed Blanch, was doing early 3D scan tests for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and decided to try a few 40k miniatures. The results looked really great and he designed an awesome 3D shader to make the 3D models look like holograms, which then pushed us in the direction of our using them as part of the combat. Clinton Shepherd, our lead coder and talented board game designer, came up with the combat mechanics by taking the complex dice-rolling structure from the original gamebook and re-working into a turn-based, first-person combat. In a way it takes inspiration from the combat from classic games such as Bard's Tale and The Eye of the Beholder, but with a 40k spin. Will we see this again in future digital gamebooks? Maybe - it all depends if we have another license that it lends itself well to, as we wouldn’t want to shoehorn it into a game where it didn't fit.

PT: Choices: And the Sun Went Out was another bold move for Tin Man. A different kind of interactive fiction and a different way to distribute the interactive fiction. How are things going thus far, and do you see Choices continuing for the foreseeable future?
Choices started off as an idea I had on the train. Whereas Legacy of Dorn: Herald of Oblivion and upcoming The Warlock of Firetop Mountain are all about adding visual flourish and advancing the gamebook combat mechanics, I also wanted us to try something simpler and take the medium back to its base choose-able path roots. The question we asked ourselves was what if we could make a purely choice-based narrative that was an ongoing  in much the same way as the old black and white serial adventure shows such as Buck Rogers? Most importantly for a small team like ours, how would we finance that knowing that amount of content? The answer was a subscription service where people pay a very small amount and join us on an ongoing adventure and so far it's working out okay. We knew from the outset it would be hard introducing a new business model on customers, and humans being humans, they would probably be a little adverse to it. While it hasn't changed the world of interactive fiction thus far, it's early days and most importantly it's currently almost sustainable for us develop. Time will tell if it works out, but I really hope it does, as I think it's a great way for a small company like ours to build an audience and craft something that has the potential to be truly epic.

PT: Of course, the big news for Tin Man was the successful Kickstarter for Warlock of Firetop Mountain. This looks unlike anything you guys have ever done and, frankly, looks different than pretty much all other interactive fiction out there right now. Inspirations?
I have to get Sorcery! out of the way I guess - those craftily talented inkle guys turned gamebook apps on their head. But aside from inkle inspiration, any comparisons to what we're doing with Warlock end there. We always wanted to take Fighting Fantasy back to its table-top roots as FF books were essentially solo D&D games where Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson were effectively the Dungeon Masters, so it made sense to create digital representations of metal miniatures. The big criticism of any gamebook media format is limited re-playability and it's our aim to also extend that lifespan, while remaining true to the source. It was a natural progression in our development process that we had the opportunity to tell many stories within Firetop Mountain and then by easy deduction tie those into individual digital miniatures.

PT: The future of Tin Man. Are we going to see movement away from the traditional gamebooks that you’re known for and into more “gamey” fare like what we’ve seen from the short bursts we've seen thus far of WoFM gameplay? Any future plans and/or projects you’d like to tease?
The success of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Choices: And The Sun Went Out will certainly drive these kinds of decisions for us. We're already looking at a sequel to Warlock, which will be Deathtrap Dungeon and beyond that Citadel of Chaos and City of Thieves. I don't want to reveal too much yet but we want all of these games to work together so you can take miniatures you've acquired from one adventure into another!

I can also tease at this stage that we are already working on adapting the Grailquest series (more revealed in 2016) and are writing and illustrating Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze, which we signed up this year. Miss Fisher is based on the hit 3-season TV show based around the 1930s Lady Detective, Phryne Fisher, and will be presented as a visual novel, more akin to something like Phoenix Wright than any other previous gamebooks. Both of these releases are being adapted in our Gamebook Adventures Engine version that was used for To Be or Not To Be, Appointment with FEAR and Choices. We're really excited about both of these projects and the artwork is looking amazing.

PT: Thanks, Neil, and congratulations.
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