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Interviews

Staking A Claim In The Game Industry

An Interview With Scott Starkey

I first heard of Scott Starkey when Jim Doherty released his second game, Monkeys on the Moon. Scott did the artwork for that game and he followed up, this time with more illustrations, on Jim's next game The Penguin Ultimatum. I was surprised last summer to learn that Scott is not only an illustrator, but he designs his own games as well.

We added his game The Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch to the Fair Play site last year after he sent us a review copy. From the first time I tried it out I've enjoyed the game quite a bit. It's a great little filler that offers some room for decisions and includes a healthy dose of humor. I'm always glad to have it hit the table during a gaming session, particularly when I'm playing with a group who knows how to ham it up with those drifter cards. The rules state that a "campy western accent" is optional, but I find using one is nearly unavoidable when I play. I should also note that Scott also illustrated his own game. His cartoon style adds that extra touch of fun to the game, making the final product an impressive show of talent on all accounts.

The following is the interview Scott was kind enough to grant us.


Mike Petty: When you're not designing games, what do you do for a living?

Scott Starkey: For my "day job", I am a computer technician for Purdue University's Athletic Department. I set up new computers, fix them, do network/database administration, and that sort of thing.

MP: How long have you been into gaming?

SS: You could safely say I've loved games my whole life. My father played games with me like Chess, Poker, and Skat at a pretty young age. I grew up in the 80s loving the Avalon Hill classics and role-playing games. Late in the 80s and early 90s, I was part of a regular Eon Cosmic Encounter group. Today, I play anything I can get my hands on.

MP: What are your favorite games to play?

SS: You can probably always get me to play the classics: Poker, Chess, Scrabble, Cosmic Encounter, or even Survive! (out-of-print Milton Bradley game, but a good one). That being said, I always love playing new games. Currently I'm itching to play Pitchcar, , Knizia's Lord of the Rings, and Nobody But Us Chickens.

MP: What turned your interest to game design, and what made you choose to self-publish?

SS: About three years ago, I made a New Year's resolution to become a game designer. Before that, I had designed games as a hobby, but I'd never treated it quite seriously before that. After I made that decision, the light came on in my mind, illuminating game design. The ideas started to flow faster than I could prototype them. Sticky Gulch came out of that initial rush of ideas, and was one of my favorite designs of that time.

Yet, I was unsure of how to get it published. I talked to a game manufacturer (one which happens to be about 10 miles away from where I live!) to get estimates on the cost of publishing. They only wanted to print orders in big batches of 10,000 or more units, which were unlikely I could afford. They suggested I talk to an agent, which I did at great length. The agent explained a bit about the American game industry to me, how the big manufacturers would generally not talk to independent designers without an agent. Even with his help, it would take years for my design to hit the shelves. Also, I would be considered an inventor and not a designer or artist, and likely be uncredited for the work. I wanted credit for Sticky Gulch, and I was pretty sure I wanted to do the art for it too. I was proud of the project. I wanted to find another way. I discovered the Yahoo group SpitAndBailingWire, a helpful forum of shoestring-budget game designers. After fiddling around with the tedious process die-cutting my own cards, I decided I would shop around for some printers that would allow a print run of 1000 units or so. I chose Delano Service because of their excellent customer service and their distance geographically to me

If I could jump in the "wayback machine," I might try to sell my game to some of the small hobby game publishers around. There are some that accept outside submissions. Then again, I might have ended up back at the same spot I am, now. Regardless, I don't regret the decision I made.

MP: I know you also did the artwork for two of Jim Doherty's games. Did he provide any of the inspiration for you to pursue your own designs?

SS: I met Jim on the SpitAndBailingWire list. When I introduced myself to the group, I mentioned that I was a cartoonist. He was needing some custom artwork for this new idea he called Monkeys on the Moon. So we hit it off.

So, yes, he did provide mentoring and advice in getting my designs published. There's a veil between the "insider world" of game publishers and regular gamers. I mean, the game design seems like a fun job, and it is, but it's also hard work! So, Jim was the voice of reason for me. I listened to about 72.3% of his advice, and I wish I had listened to him 100%. He also helped me by splitting a booth with me during GenCon 2003.

MP: Briefly tell us how The Mother Lode of Sticky Gulch came about.

SS: Well, the name came first. The name "Sticky Gulch" was the name I always used when I played that old SimCity computer game in the '80s. "Sticky" is a corruption of my last name, and it's a little more rustic-sounding than "Starkey Gulch." Its double-entendre also made me chuckle.

Fast forward several years. After I decided to become a game designer, I thought it would be fun to do a wild west game based on Sticky Gulch. The mechanic of covering spots on a card and then making prospecting rolls on it seemed to fit a mining theme, which worked. Out of my original batch of games, Sticky Gulch turned out to have the broadest appeal between gamers and non-gamers, so I went with it as my first published product.

MP: Late last year Sticky Gulch was selected by Games Magazine for their top 100 games. Congratulations on being selected with your very first game.

SS: Thanks!

MP: What was it like to find out your game was selected?

SS: Wow, when I heard the news, I just about fell out of my chair. I have been a long-time reader of Games for about twenty years now. To me, such an honor is difficult to fathom. But I hope it's just the tip of the iceburg. Sticky Gulch was my design from three years ago. I like the games I've been producing recently even better. So, I'd like to try again.

MP: As I'm sure you know, there is no shortage of would-be game designers out there looking to get their games published. Now that you've seen your own design go from concept to a successful finished product, what advice would you have for other hopeful designers?

SS: Well, my first advice would be playtest - playtest - playtest. Then, when you can't stand playtesting any more, you must playtest some more. It's helpful that I've got a group of good friends (a circle of would-be game designers near where I live) who I can bounce ideas off of and are willing to play almost anything I thrust in front of them. Bonus points if you have a group who will tell you when one of your ideas stinks. (In a nice way, of course!)

If you need help, seek out advice from other people doing the same thing. For example, it might be helpful to check out the YahooGroup SpitAndBailingWire or the Board Game Designer's Forum at http://bgdf.com. Odds are, someone has gone through the same problems you have, and people seem to be generally helpful and nice there.

Then, I would try to see if another company would be willing to publish your stuff. Don't just send them a prototype out of the blue-that's rude. Send an inquiry email first, or maybe ask one at a convention. Ask if they are in the market for outside submissions, and if so, find out about their submission procedures. There's several small presses out there that are looking for external work.

Many designers get in the biz by first getting their name known in contests. There are a number of contests for unpublished authors: Hippodice, Piecepack, and more. Find them, and send them your work.

Only after you've exhausted other avenues, would I consider self-publishing. The market for new games is tight, and even a modest project will cost in the thousands. It's also difficult to round up art, lay it out in a proper format for a publisher, copyedit your own work, etc. And that's the easy part. After you get the project, you must become the accountant, promoter, marketer, and salesman (in addition to being the game designer, layout designer, artist, and editor). If this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. And even after doing all that work, the game still may or may not sell.

However, it is a very interesting path I've chosen for myself, and I don't regret it. And I'm currently in the process of developing another game to start the crazy process all over again.

MP: Well, speaking of this process, I contacted you early this year for an interview, but before we finished it, we ended up working together on something completely different. Specifically, you did the artwork on the New World Games version of my game of What's It To Ya?. I read one of your comments at the Boardgame Geek stating that the job had special challenges. Hopefully that wasn't because you had to work with me! What was different about that job?

SS: Ha-ha! No, you were pretty easy to work for. I had a few challenges in What's It To Ya?. One challenge stemmed from the fact that the game was totally in black & white. When I started out as a cartoonist, all of my artwork was in black and white for the student newspaper I worked for. Over the past few years, however, I think my artistic brain tends to think in color, and forcing it back into monochrome was difficult.

Another challenge can be summed up in two words: Anthropomorphic Arrows! That's a first for me, my friend.

The shape of the cards was a little different too. I'm used to hogging an entire card with my picture. But in this game, in order to make room for the words, the action had to be pushed to the margins of each piece. I wanted the space in the middle to seem natural and part of the picture. So, I made a template for myself with a blacked-out center to make sure that I wouldn't encroach on the word-area, and that seemed to work.

All in all, the project ended up being a fun challenge for me.

MP: My favorite illustration from those cards is the pre-historic scene with the gigantic dinosaur version of Up chasing Down in caveman garb. It cracked me up when I first saw it because you took my original idea of arrow guys so far beyond what I envisioned.

SS: The dinosaur scene is one of my favorites too. I seem to work best with some general guidelines about what the designer wants, and then take that idea and run with it.

MP: Well, back to your games, what can you tell us about games we might see in the near future?

SS: Of course, it depends on your definition of the word "near". I have a couple of sequels set in Sticky Gulch that I really like, one of which I hope to show off at GenCon 2004. I've also got several other games in various stages of prototyping, which will come soon after I convince my family that producing another game would not be a fool's errand. Or after I sell the design to another company, whichever comes first. =)

MP: Either way, we look forward to seeing the results! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us.

SS: Sure thing, Mike. Thanks for the opportunity for the interview.


Scott's games:

Games illustrated by Scott:

 



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