Friday, 1 November 2013

Wee Gamers delve into Infinite Crypt with James Wallbank

We all love terrain.  Its the 3D map we always want to have to wow our friends and move our little toy soldiers over.  And of course many companies have done their best to facilitate our fascination for terrain.  Its is the mainstay of wargaming.  They have even let us play inside by giving us hallways, rooms and doors.  And in this regard Infinite Crypt are no different but different at the same time.

We tracked through the secret columned passageways of the Infinte Crypt to find James Wallbank, the man behind this terrain and its Kickstarter

1) James, why? You seem like a sensible fellow, got a good job that takes you to foreign parts. So why lumber (no pun) yourself with the arduous task of a hobby kickstarter?
Probably because fools rush in... I read lots of people online saying “A Kickstarter is a lot of work”, and thought... “Sounds pretty straightforward to me!” so I just dived in. Oh, how wrong I was. The sheer time involved is more than you can imagine. I have an interesting (but unpredictable) job that takes me to foreign parts – but to give you an idea of just how blasé I was about the whole Kickstarter process, I scheduled this Kickstarter with a technology conference in Brazil in the middle of it. Can you imagine? I was in a jungle telecentre (helping to fix their LAN), and in my breaks, instead of marvelling at the wildlife, I was tweeting Infinite Crypt updates through their satellite link.

I've been gaming since the '70s. (Yes, the 70's! I bought the original D&D Basic Set, and played with those only-semi-legible light-blue-on-white dungeon floorplans and combat tables photocopied from “The Dragon”.) I have a bunch of miniatures, and I've found battlemats useful, but a bit scruffy, and I've always been dissatisfied with the resin terrain I've bought. Partly because I haven't had enough money to buy enough! And partly because it's inconsistent, a pain to paint, and a pain to store. So a couple of years ago my workplace, Access Space (it's a DIY technology lab and hackspace) bought a laser cutter, to help people learn high-tech skills, make new products, become more employable, and, hopefully, create new enterprises. Part of my job has been to help people to use that laser. In the process of helping around 60 people with their own projects, I've learned... a lot!

My desire for better terrain combined with the production process I was working with, and... Infinite Crypt was born!


2) Terrain guys, even with the nerdy halls of hobbydom are oft to be found in a side room up to the elbows in things most of us chuck in the bin as rubbish, from which they produce wonderful things. So where do you see yourself within the hobby are you another 'terrain guy' or are their more strings to your bow when it comes to gaming? How active are you in the hobby and what kind of games float your boat? 
Was that one question?! (Yes but asked in a conversational way to mask it's complexity ;) - Ed.) Terrain guys! Great people, an talented crafters! I have to admit I don't really class myself as one. The reason I got into Infinite Crypt was not to create super-detailed and awe-inspiring dioramas, but to try to make an evocative, low-key context that brings your miniatures to the fore, and leaves room for the imagination.

I play a lots of games. I organise a weekly Games Group at Access Space. Over the last couple of years we've played Pathfinder, Dragon Warriors, Wushu Open, Call of Cthulhu and Hordes of The Things – and a bunch of board games as well. My wife Lisa and I play a lot of Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan. I'm fairly convinced that Catan is the ultimate boardgame – it seems so cheerful and uncompetitive – but actually it's a hotbed of deviousness, calculation and double-dealing.

But I guess my main interest is RPGs. Over the last couple or three years I've been mainly into fantasy backgrounds, but I've also GM'ed a major Traveller (hard Sci-Fi) campaign, Gamma World, Paranoia and Metamorphosis Alpha. In the last decade I've found Sci-Fi and CyberPunk tricky – perhaps because real-world technological developments turn futuristic backgrounds and scenarios upside-down on a monthly basis.

3) Given how much hobbyists spend on models paints and other materials terrain always seems to be their last port of call and where they spend or want to spend least money, why do you think it is that this most vital ingredient is the most admired but lest bought?
Totally agree. I can't count the number of times I've seen beautiful, detailed, really stunning miniatures arrayed on a scruffy battlemat, and felt that the whole effect was spoiled.

Now I'm going to be a bit controversial here: I don't think that what makes TERRAIN great is the same thing that makes MINIATURES great. My theory is that terrain should be consistent, architectural and low-resolution – NOT with the same level of detail that your miniatures have.

This allows the same corner, wall section or archway to appear again and again in a game session, without the details starting to annoy, and it makes your miniatures pop! Detail is truly wonderful for dioramas and displays – but for practical RPG-ing, and tactical battles, you want to set up, battle, then set up again, maybe twice or three times in an evening.

Have you ever noticed how the backgrounds in Comic Books don't take over?

4) Now there's a host of folks have set up making 'this' kind of terrain, regardless of what wee think- what to you makes infinite Crypt the cut above the rest for modular terrain of this type?
A “laser cut” above the rest?  (Groan.  Okay James, we'll do the jokes ;-) - Ed. )

I guess that the design concept is the thing that makes it different.  Most laser cut terrain is about surface detail – it's relatively simple, blocky shapes, etched or patterned. Infinite crypt is about shape, not surface detail. If you want detail or texture, use paint!

There's also the fine-grained modularity. Some laser-cut terrain is truly impressive, but how modular is it? Often, you can only really create one thing with it, just configured slightly differently.

There's also the design. Though I say it myself, it looks great! I've studied architecture, and I know how real stonework works. Look at the shadows it casts. Cool, eh? That's the structure being right.

One of our backers eloquently commented “a triumph of laser-cut detail - while also feeling aggressively 8-bit.” I wish I'd thought to write that!

The three key factors that make Infinite Crypt different are:
  • Architectural (Provides structure, not texture)
  • Modular (It's flexible, thus better value)
  • Abstract (Works across genres, makes your minis pop!)

5) Why did you decide to go with Kickstarter? What's it allowing you to do you couldn't otherwise? And how have you found the KS experience? 
Why Kickstarter? It's the biggest crowdfunding platform.

What can I do with it that I couldn't without it? Finance a dedicated laser. While my job is truly interesting, I work for a charity - needless to say, charities aren't in a position to pay all that well!

How have I found the Kickstarter experience? There's a whole book to be written there! Try this (in some kind of order...) Confusing, terrifying, exciting, uplifting, positive, frustrating, fascinating. 95% of Kickstarterers (is that the word) are really, really positive people. There are just a few who are somehow trying to game the system (and not “game” in a good way) and you need to watch out for them.

Most of all, it's been an emotional roller-coaster. Yay! A new backer. Aw shucks! He's reduced his pledge! Yay! He's increased his pledge. Noooo! He's cancelled his pledge. Yay! New Backer... Fortunately, I've been distracted by leeches, malarial swamps and lack of internet access for a few days in the middle. Otherwise, I don't think I could have taken it.

6) Where do your concepts come from? And how long does it take/ what process do you follow from concept to finished kit?
As we play out RPGs, we apply logic - what's needed the most? What's next?
Then there's a whole load of problem-solving:
How feasible is it to produce? Will it fit it into our modular template? Will it work across genres, or is it too specific? Will it work well with other elements?
After I'm satisfied there, then it's a question of actually drawing out the shapes, and fitting them together:

How can the pieces fit together in the most optimal way on the sprue? How can we double-up cuts as much as possible (so that one cut defines two usable pieces)? What's the optimal path for the laser beam? How much MDF does it use? (We have a weight budget fore each element). How many seconds does it take to cut? (We have a time budget for each element.) Do all the pieces stay in the sprue, but also push out nicely? When we put it together, is it REALLY robust? Is it easy to assemble? (You'd be surprised how easy it is to accidentally make something that you need three or more hands to put together!) If you paint it, do moving parts still move nicely?
If we get through the whole of that process, and the element still looks great, it's in!

If we're lucky, and the element's simple, then the whole process can be complete in half a day. If it just doesn't turn out right, there may be several iterations.

7) Let's take for granted for a moment a successful kickstarter, which you deserve, where does Infinite Crypt go after this? What's next?
Thanks for your encouragement! I'm genuinely confident that, with your help, we'll be successful here. Even though Infinite Crypt isn't an established company with a marketing department (which seems to be what makes the biggest difference with Kickstarter) the word is spreading, and there's enough time to gather the handful of backers we need.

After the Kickstarter, we're looking to set up a production facility for “Terrain on Demand”. What do I mean by that? Our laser-cutting process will mean that we'll be able to stock THOUSANDS of elements, just by having the design files on hand.

It's not like a casting process, where you only have a limited number of moulds. We'll just keep material in, and make everything to order. We aim to offer a service whereby gamers can propose new elements which we design and make, especially for their game, at a sensible price. Then we'll add their new element to our range, so it expands continually.

We'd also like to work with terrain builders. Some gamers don't want to assemble and paint, and we're ONLY planning to ship the elements as flatpacks – so there'll be opportunities for skilled terrain builders to buy from us in bulk, build elements and sell them painted and/or textured in local games stores. This is somewhere between scratch-building and assembly, and could be a great way for gaming crafters to add value.

8) what's been the most unexpected positive you've had since you embarked in this process of going 'professional' ?
The feedback we're getting from the gaming community is really wonderful. People are taking the time to engage with the ideas I'm putting forward, see the newness, and responding intelligently. I also REALLY appreciate the few people who sent “I know what you're going through, keep going!” messages. But not quite as much as I appreciate actual cash backing!
People have been GREAT at passing the word on to their friends. There have been several bloggers who've taken the time to quiz me in detail about the product, and even a dedicated Twitter follower who translated the Kickstarter page into Japanese. What a guy!

9) has there been any big setbacks that made you think 'French connection UK! This for a game of soldiers I outta here'?
We had one backer who put in a substantial pledge (our second largest at that stage) and then proceeded to tell us he was “Just seeing how it went”. He cancelled within 24 hours. That was dispiriting. What was it all about? A couple of days later, we realised that he was either messing us around, just for fun, or using this temporary backing as some way to game the Kickstarter system.
I guess it's just been a case of gritting teeth, girding loins and keeping going.

10) what's the thing at the end of the day that you take out of this, what's the personal satisfaction value?
Well I now have a pretty big set of Infinite Crypt – around 150 elements! And while I kid myself I'd have “gotten round to making it sooner or later” I reckon I wouldn't have. I've also learned loads more about design, and now, on a good day, I can visualise the invisible, internal joints of even a horribly complex slot-together design.

I've also made some GREAT contacts across the gaming community. We all know that the tabletop gaming industry is dominated by a few big players, but the community it serves is alive with surprising and challenging ideas – and great personalities! It's been a real privilege to meet and talk with so many thoughtful, creative and imaginative people. 

11) what advice having got this far, would you offer a fellow traveller on the road to development?
Do it. You won't be ready. But do it anyway.

I reckon that the biggest hurdle is marketing. If you're an individual, or, like me, an individual with a handful of friends helping out when they can, then you won't be able to match the marketing slickness of the pros – but at least you can be genuine.

Before this Kickstarter I'd never used Facebook. Ermmm... Yes, I'd never used Facebook. It seems to me that FB literacy is just about essential to get the word out. It takes longer than Twitter (my primary social media vice) but it seems to mobilise people as groups, not just as individuals.

I'd also suggest getting your head around the day-to-day details of communicating with people. In my job I write A LOT of emails. This has put me in a good position to respond to enquiries, thank backers, have conversations, and do interviews like this one.

If you don't spell so well, or can't easily express yourself in words, get a partner who'll work with you who can. Write to everyone. Write to backers, write to bloggers, write to journalists... Try to look at the project from THEIR point-of-view – what's interesting about it?

12) what does James do when he's not making terrain, what's the real life and fun and relaxation that keeps you sane?
This presumes that I am actually sane. 

I like to play games (of course!) work at Access Space, (which is kind of a hobby of mine, as well as work) and bicycle. I discovered cycling a few years ago when I had a bad knee. The doctor told me to strengthen it up by sitting on one of those stationary bikes. I knew I'd never have the patience to do it – so I started cycling to work, and now I cycle for fun, too. It's changed my life! Not only am I healthier and better off (and I get to feel smug about saving the planet) I've also found that I'm getting to work FASTER! Win! Win! Win!

Apart from that? I'm interested in Linux and Open Source, Raspberry Pi, Sci-fi literature (favourites: JG Ballard, John Brunner, Philip K Dick, Iain M Banks) and films... (Really liked “Elysium”, not so sure about “Oblivion”) I also have an ongoing, unprofitable, but interesting career as an artist – but that's another story. Crikey – sounds like I'm quite busy, doesn't it?

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