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Sara Erikson of Renegade Game Studios Talks Leadership, Industry Bubbles, and Accessibility in Gaming

Jen Graham-Macht January 31, 2018
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What does it take to publish games that are fun, challenging, and unique? This is a question that the team at Renegade Game Studios challenges themselves to answer every single day. It’s their mission to bring these attributes to every game they make, building a catalog of products that grows the tabletop gaming community by making the hobby accessible to a wide variety of people.   Launched in 2014, Scott Gaeta has worked to build a brand from the ground up that focused on bringing fresh new gateway games to the masses of industry newcomers flooding the gates.

The California based studio published only a handful of titles at inception but their catalog now includes Clank!, Lanterns the Harvest Festival, Kitty Paw and more recent hits like Ex Libris, The Fox in the Forest and Sentient. These games could not be more different in theme and play style. They range from short, simple card games that are instantly replayable to longer board games with deeper strategies to discover. You can play a thief robbing a dragon’s lair or roam the fictional cartoon world of Scott Pilgrim. When you’re basing what to play on a group size, some of these games suit the two player market and others are more adaptable to a larger group.

Last year, they published 25 titles. In 2018, their expected releases total around 30. This is a huge number for a company just shy of its fourth year doing business. The time correlation is a testament to the true foothold owner and president Scott Gaeta has in the tabletop gaming industry and the talented team he has brought together.

We sat down to chat with Renegade’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Sara Erikson, about what it means to be on the team of one of the most popular game publishers, promoting a brand that is continuously evolving.

Play Satellite: What are some of the qualities that makes Scott a good leader?

Sara Erikson: I think he’s really good at picking the right people to work with who are able to do their own thing so he can just let them do it and he doesn’t get in the way of them getting things done. Take me for example. I’m a pretty independent person. I work from home. I don’t need someone over my shoulder telling me exactly how to do everything and micromanaging me, and I get a lot more work done when I’m able to take charge of a situation and go for it and make sure everything happens. He’s very comfortable letting me do that because he knows that I’m able to. So finding the right people to put on a team in the first place and then getting out of their way to let them do what they need to do is a really important quality in a leader. But also being able to give advice and help people and figure out where their strengths are and help them build up their weaknesses, it’s also really important and he’s good at all of those things.

PS: How do you think that impacts or influences Renegade as a label? The way that games get made the types of IPs you work with, the variety of things you are creating?

SE: I think that it means that each person on the team is valuable and everything we say has an impact. So if there’s someone/anyone on our team who gets really excited and champions an idea, then there’s a good chance that it will happen. Even if it wasn’t in their department. So somebody from Customer Service can say I really think this kids games makes sense for us to publish because I have kids. Well, that’s a valuable comment. Just because she’s in Customer Service doesn’t mean she cannot influence part of this game design. So I think that’s a really good part of working at Renegade as well, is that everybody’s voice is always heard.

PS: Do you have a specific story that relates this example?

SE: I don’t think that particular one really happened. But me in particular, I am the director of sales and marketing, but when we were at Unpub about the same time as my year anniversary working with the company, and Scott let me take on a game and be the producer of it. I got to do all of the parts from start to finish. We got the design from a really awesome designer, I got to work on the game development, do the art direction, all the way through working with the actual factory in China to get it made and then publishing it and all the rest of that. That was a really cool experience for me. It gave me a lot of good insight into how all the parts of the puzzle work. Now when I am working with my coworkers and dealing with the different parts of the puzzle, I have a better idea of where it is. And I truly believe that if there had been one part of that that had been really perfect for me, Scott would have let me keep doing that as part of my job. Turns out that the best part of that process was the thing that I’m already doing which is the sales and marketing. I’m happy to know that I’m in the right place. But if I had been just super awesome at game development, then I would have gotten to more of that. We have Steph Hodge on staff who we hired to be in charge of our social media and she is just a phenomenal photographer and she’s always done that as a hobby and now she gets to do that as part of her job. We tailored a lot of her job description around what her strengths are and are really happy with how she’s doing. She’s also interested in doing a little bit more video stuff, so we’re encouraging her to go with that and do more video content. That’s just the environment Renegade is. Everyone gets to do the things they’re best at.

PS: You said numbers are not relevant because “you haven’t caught up to demand yet.” How do you measure demand and success for the company?

SE:  It is tricky. Forecasting is something that I would love to be more of an exact science than it is, but it is just a lot of guessing. We know we haven’t caught up to demand yet because we’re sold out and we see distributors being sold out and then we see retailers being sold out. We can follow that through to the food chain to retail and see that it’s sold out everywhere then we can see that there’s more demand waiting for it. That’s what I mean by no we haven’t caught up yet, because there are still all these people waiting for this game and can’t buy it because it’s not available at their local retail stores. Of course there are people online who might be selling it because they bought a bunch and maybe they’re selling it for over the retail price or close to it but really, those retail stores don’t have it so we know there are people out there waiting.

PS: Let’s talk about success in a different way. The company has grown very quickly, in four years. Not just in the amount of games that have come out, though you guys have a huge catalog for four years and you don’t just have an existing catalog that is successful but a full release schedule coming up that everyone is excited about. How has Renegade made that possible?

SE: No sleep.

PS: Do you think feel like you achieved success?

SE: Oh Jeez, I guess I don’t think about it that way. I think our company is successful but I don’t feel like we’ve gotten to some point at which success has suddenly happened because there’s always so much more to do. I never want to feel complacent but I’m so happy with how much we have gotten done in the last three years. It’s been crazy that we could do this with such a small team. I think because Scott was great about finding absolute rock stars to be on the team, its made it possible. Everyone here works incredibly hard and Scott is very good at picking awesome games and knowing how far he can push us to get the most out of each one of us on the team. It’s been really cool to see that grow so fast, and I think he has a really good vision of where he wants to be too. It started out as a company that was making family games primarily because we had all these brand new people coming into the industry a few years ago who had never played board games before. Who had never seen anything beyond Monopoly and they wanted something fresh and new that was accessible. A lot of our early games were really for that group and as those fans grew, we did too. So then we had a little bit more complicated but still very accessible Clank! come out and World’s Fair that had a little bit more depth, a little bit more complexity and now this year, we’re starting to see some of our more modern euro games like Kepler 3042 and Castell and those are both much meatier games than anything we put out in the first couple years. But that’s because our fan base is growing with us and looking for those deeper experiences.

PS: This sort of suggests that there is a progression through which a new gamer can use Renegade to scaffold their board gaming experience. Do you think that the games you put out four years ago are still relevant?

SE: Oh, absolutely and I can say that just from looking at sales data. We’re still selling a ton of Lanterns and that game is a perfect entry point into this hobby. It’s very clean and beautiful and accessible and interesting and anybody can pick that up and play it and have a great time. No one’s bored on their turn. All of these great things. And that game was great three and a half years ago and it is great today. We still see great sales on it. Same thing with Fuse. We have a reprint of Fuse coming in this week because we just keep selling out of it and that game is three years old. That’s really neat to see that if you do put a lot of effort behind a really great game and getting it out there in the market and getting people to find out about it, it doesn’t have to go away like a movie that comes out and you hear about it for two weeks and then it’s gone forever. Which is kind of the trend that we’re seeing in board games now. They are this type of entertainment that you get excited about what’s the new hotness and then you completely forget about it and don’t care anymore two weeks later. We don’t want that to happen to our games so we put a lot more marketing effort behind them to try and keep them relevant and on top of mind for anyone that’s coming into the hobby. And that seems to be working.

PS: Do you think the mission on Renegade’s homepage is subject to change?

SE: I think it should be evolving. I’m looking at my mission right now and I think “making games for everyone” is still a part of what we do and I don’t think that part of it has changed at all. We started out making games that anybody can play and that’s very much true. Even with the modern euro games, they might take more time to get to the point where it makes sense to play those in your gaming life cycle, but I still think that those are games that everyone can enjoy and would have fun with when they’re ready for it. And we also are starting to do RPGs [role playing game]. We have Overlight that’s coming out this year. That is another whole side of the hobby that most of our current fans have never been exposed to really. We’re trying to make an RPG that people who didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] could love, but people who did play D&D in the 80s will also love. I think that goes with that mission statement. We’re expanding what that means.

PS: Renegade has a marketing strategy with a clear goal of transparency. This is evident in the efforts you make to be visible to retailers and accessible to consumers. You also have a blog on the website, with multiple authors. These things make Renegade’s brand stand out as a publisher that is down to earth and open. Why?

SE: I’m not sure why other people don’t do it. I think it’s probably just because there are a billion things to do and it’s hard to remember what things are important, and I certainly have that challenge too. I mean, you have a billion forms you have to fill out to sign up for different conventions each year, and customer service emails to answer and everything else in between, some things just get lost. Then it’s easy to let things like the blog slip to the wayside. Honestly, I wish that we could do even more with the blog than we do but it’s always a challenge of balancing all these different things. One thing that has been very important to Scott since the beginning of the company is being very transparent and I think it’s more and more obvious that this is important to people especially with Kickstarter and it’s almost getting to the point where it’s expected because when you back a Kickstarter project, the idea is, now you have put money toward this project being a thing and you should get insider info for that investment that you made in it. At least that was kind of the feeling at in the beginning. So people starting getting all these little updates, like we’re printing this in China right now, it’s on a boat right now, and all these things that you would never have known about with any product before. Fans are really getting to be experts at how this whole process works because they get so much insider info when they back a Kickstarter. So why don’t we do that as a manufacturers who don’t use Kickstarter? We might as well. These fans already know this stuff is happening and I think it’s fun for them to see behind the curtain.There’s no point in hiding it. It makes them more engaged and excited when they get to see it. I always liked watching Mr. Rogers when he went to the warehouse and showed us how the sausage was made so I want to do that for our fans too.

PS: Where do you see Renegade in five years?

SE: It’s so hard to tell, I thought we would not be where we are now until five years from now. We’re growing like crazy. I think it will probably slow down a little bit after this year possibly although that’s just a naive thing to say at this point.  There’s so many new people coming into this market that we haven’t ever even talked to yet and there’s so much potential there. It’s something that as we get more and more connected digitally, we really crave that social interaction and that time together at a table. That’s not going away. I went to a movie yesterday, we went and saw Molly’s Game and it was awesome, but I was really surprised that the last movie I had gone to was Jumanji, which is based on a board game, super ridiculous, and then I saw a trailer at this movie that was basically Clue the movie. Of course these are not exactly modern euro games or anything but its funny to me that people are thinking about board games in a very different way than they did in the 80s. I think that’s super cool and I don’t think that’s going away at all.

PS: Renegade represents a very small portion of the industry, valuable but small. For every one person you put Lanterns into the hands of there are still five people having gatekeeper experiences. So continual growth in production may not be the true way to combat those experiences. How does the model account for this?

SE: I think there is a bit of a bubble on the publisher side, that you’re right we maybe shouldn’t be making this many new games or we maybe don’t need so many new publishers in the industry but I don’t think there’s a bubble on the fan side of it. I think that’s an important distinguishing point. That means you’re right there are all of these new people coming into the market. When you look at Dice Tower’s regular views of any one of their videos. They are probably the biggest reviewer in the industry. A lot of people who are part of the industry are watching their stuff and they are getting maybe 100,000 people watching one of their really successful videos. But then you look at the Tabletop episodes with Wil Wheaton and those were hitting half a million people or more in just the first few days. So there’s that many more people who have never even heard of the Dice Tower before. Who are not actually part of this industry yet but are interested enough to watch a whole hour long program about a board game. I find that very surprising but in a super happy awesome way. We just have to make sure we’re putting out games that do help the whole industry, and we’re really  very surprisingly friendly with other publishers too because we do all have the same goal. If we can all make good games that are getting people into the industry and making this industry a little bit more professional and awesome then we’re all going to benefit from that.

PS: So I’ll ask the question again, where do you see Renegade brand in five years?

SE: I think we’re gonna be a brand that is more overarching in the whole industry. Right now we’re just in board games. I think we’re gonna be a bigger part of hobby gaming in the future. Even just this year, expanding into RPGs we’re going in that direction. We’ll continue in that direction for the next five years. So I don’t specifically what other things we’ll be making but I don’t think we’ll stick just to board games. And I think we’ll also follow the trends. So if we’re seeing a whole bunch of people playing family games compared to anything else, I think we would focus more on that again. But being able to do a little of everything and diversify is pretty important to keep us healthy.

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