Serial inventor Matt Fantastic on developing Team3… And his ‘just be cool’ philosophy
Matt Fantastic! You must get asked about this endlessly, but I suppose I do have to start with your name. Is that a family name? Or an aptronym that you chose?!
When I got married, we both decided to take on the last name of the family that raised me and helped support both of us early in our relationship: my mom, and amazing grandparents! When you go to change your name, you change the whole thing… So I thought it was funny to add in a bonus middle name – and settled on Fantastic.
Okay… For context, how long ago is this?
It’s about 15 years ago. Fast forward a few years, though, and I was a teacher. The move then was to use your middle name on social media so the students couldn’t lurk you… So then more and more people started to know me as Matt Fantastic! Eventually, I just accepted it as what people know me by – and so here we are. It’s sort of embarrassing sometimes, but it’s much better branding than Matt Meh.
In my head, we have a reader called Matt Meh… He just read that and his heart ached a little harder. Alright! When you were growing up, then, what were your favourite toys or games?
Perhaps the most defining moment of my life was being introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, and getting to join in the family game that had been going on since before I was born.
Seriously. I mean – I started very young, but the narrative-driven nature of Role Playing Games meant that even if I couldn’t manage the details of playing my fighter, High Hit, I could certainly announce what he was doing and let my Dungeon Master – uncle Nick – figure out the rules and what happened. I also played a lot of three-hand pinochle with my mom and grandfather. Generally speaking, we had a house full of games; they’ve always been a part of my life.
And were there toys, too?
Yes, absolutely… I LOVED He-Man, and then the Ninja Turtles, and spent countless hours making up rules for how to play with them. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I loved my NES and subsequent video game systems.
At what point did you realise you had a knack for developing games? And when did that become a professional interest?
Growing up a little nerd who loved games meant I was constantly making up my own games. Board games drawn on construction paper, weird ‘sports’ with my friends, creating dungeons for D&D, making up rules for action figures and LEGO sets… So it was just something that kind of always existed in my life. I eventually started volunteering at conventions and meeting people in the industry who were endlessly supportive and encouraging. Big shout out to Zev Shlasinger from Z-Man/WizKids, and Curt Covert from Smirk and Dagger for being crucial to my first baby steps into the industry. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
Consider them shouted out! And they steered you to the point of what? Inventing? Pitching?
I guess I started really ‘designing’ games, but not with much expectation for getting them actually published. Then one thing led to another, and I got a game signed, then a few more, and gradually it became something I was able to build a career around. I very much took the path of fan, to enthusiast, to amateur, to professional over 15 or more years of knocking around the industry. I know it’s totally a cliche in the industry, but I still can’t believe that I’m so fortunate to live out my childhood dreams for a living.
Of which, you’re one of the brains behind the shape-stacking game Team3. I absolutely love it! For those that don’t know it, how would you describe it?
Thanks so much for saying that! In Team3, you act like the proverbial three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil… Only you’ve started a construction company! Of course, the monkey who can’t speak is the only one who can look at the blueprints… The middle monkey has to translate silent cues into verbal-only instructions… And the monkey who can’t see has to do the actual building. Hilarity ensues.
It certainly does! Funny game. Can you tell me where the idea came from?
The dude who ended up my design partner on it came by one day and said he wanted to make a game about the three wise monkeys and suggested maybe something with hidden identities would work. I sat for a few minutes, popped up to grab a copy of Make ’n’ Break Extreme, and by the time I sat back down I had 90% of Team3 ready to go.
Well, you made that sound easy!
Right?! It’s like, the absolute worst example of the craft of making games to tell new designers! But sometimes you just get hit in the face with the hammer of inspiration.
Let’s focus on the other 10% then… How did the idea develop?
Once I had the core idea sketched out, it was a much longer process of figuring out how to take the core play experience and turning it into an actual game. I ended up showing it around with like a dozen different scoring options and ways to structure the game around that core idea.
Who showed the most interest?!
My friend Brandan Parsons! He was working at Brain Games at the time and – from the minute I explained it to him – he became the biggest champion for it and ended up getting it signed with them. They’ve been a great publisher to work with, and along with Brandan and our friend Jeff Bourbeau, we hammered out the final rules and game structure into Team3.
Great! Generally speaking, then, when you come up with ideas, what’s your process? Are you a technique-driven person?
First and foremost I make myself have a TON of ideas. I try to do a concept a day and even though the vast majority of them are terrible, just being in that creative mindset unlocks so much.
So what’s your starting point? How do you generate an idea a day, everyday?
I’d like to say I’m mostly an experiential designer in that I start with some goals around what I want players to do and feel, and then work through how to get there. But in reality I draw inspiration from all over, and it’s just as possible I have a funny name in my head or an idea for a little mechanic, and build on that. I also do a lot of IP work these days where someone will ask us to come up with some concepts for a license which we’ll eventually turn into a game. With those projects, I think about what fans of a given property want when they pick up a box based on something they already like.
Use fan expectation as a starting point… That makes total sense.
No matter the project, I spend a lot of time thinking about who’s going to play the game, and how we can create an experience that delivers on the expectations we’ve set. Empathy is perhaps the most important design skill to develop.
And once you’re on the right path, are you chunking things up or chunking things down? I mean, do you like adding things on or taking things away?
Away, I think… I try to think like a sculptor rather than a painter, in that once I figure out the central design goal, I do everything I can to cut back to that solid core rather than looking to build things by layering more and more on top of it.
When you work with others, then, how do you prefer to divide your responsibilities?
I’m a HUGE fan of collaboration and am continually inspired by the people around me – whether they’re an ‘official’ collaborator or just one of the brilliant people I try to surround myself with. No matter if I’m the sole credited designer on a project, it’s still the result of a collective effort.
Frankly, I’d like to see the industry move away from the ‘designer as auteur’ vibe we’re seeing more of and broaden that focus to include all the people involved in making the totality of the finished product. I’m gonna just call out Deirdre Coulter Cross at Funko Games and tell everyone to read the interview you did with her not too long ago for a much more articulate conversation about this!
I mean, I’m totally into being a pretentious art weirdo too… I just want to broaden the way we talk about who makes games and step away from devaluing the “invisible” roles! I love working with game systems design as an artistic medium, and one worth exploring far beyond what we typically do, but I also recognise that most people don’t want to play my sad little game about dividing your possessions during a divorce.
You’re right to mention Deirdre’s chat with Billy, though… I’ll pop a link in to that at the end. So, you’re not an auteur… What are your strengths, though?
My personal strengths… Well, each project is different and I feel like I do a pretty good job in most roles, so I suppose I’d say my biggest strength is knowing when to take the lead, when to step back and support, and making sure we’re moving forward with a clarity of vision.
And when you said, “we’re moving forward”… Who is “we”?
It’s Forever Stoked Creative, the design studio I started about a decade ago. Up until fairly recently it’s always just been me and a lot of project-by-project collaborators and freelancers. Now we have a few people who are here more or less full time, which has been amazing. And while the work we do is what drives us, we’re built on some core philosophies… Like ethics being more important than business, and a holistic approach to experiential design that values everyone in the process. We aim to lift others up in all that we do.
So while it might be nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice?
Well, ‘just be cool’ is a philosophy that carries through everything in my life, but it’s especially important to be mindful of it in business, where the norm for a lot of people is the worst side of late-stage capitalism. When we work with others, the question shouldn’t be: “What can I get out of this?” Rather, it should be: “How can we work together and be better for it?”
As Forever Stoked has grown over the years, I’ve been taking on more managerial tasks as well, which sometimes are really fun – and other times totally suck. Ultimately, though, I want to be helping others be their best selves – personally as well as professionally – which I get to do when I’m being ‘the boss’ on something.
Sounds terrific! Conversely, though, what do you see as your biggest weaknesses?
I try really hard to bring the posi vibes to my work and life, and very much believe at my core that kindness, support, and generosity lead to the best outcomes for everyone. But I’m also incredibly hard on myself and sometimes slip up such that it seeps out into my interactions with collaborators in ways I’m not happy about.
Dare I ask in what way?
Well, I’m not a yeller or anything like that, but I can be a lot harsher than I mean to be when I’m critiquing something, or we’re working through design problems. I’m fortunate to have people around me who know that even when I’m being a grump about the work itself, I have nothing but respect for them as creatives, and friends. It still sucks, though.
Interesting. It all turned a bit deep there… Let me ask you this: if you could wave a magic wand and change any part of the game development process, what would you change?
More playtesters! And a better structure around how we interact with them and compensate them for their time and effort.
Dan Klitsner suggested a compensation fund for people forced to endlessly playtest… I think we wanted to call it Fair Play.
Fair Play! I’m in!
What’s next for you?
We have a bunch of really cool projects on the way, but I think what I’m most excited about is continuing to grow Forever Stoked Creative, and continuing to bring on the most incredibly talented and brilliant people to work with me full time in the studio.
Well, these are great answers, Matt; fantastic even! Last question then: what’s the most interesting thing in your office or on your desk?
Maybe the poster-size, hand-drawn tarot card that shows me as The Hermit… my friend, and frequent collaborator, Gordon LaVasseur did it for me as a gift during quarantine. Either that or a framed front page of the New York Times with a photo of me getting arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Special mention to the index card I wrote: “If you feel like you don’t have time for a break, you need one even more.”
Very wise words! You have that on your desk?
Yes! I copied that down and it’s been on my desk since I first read it in your interview with Matt Burtonwood!
Matt Burtonwood is a constant delight! I think he’ll be thrilled to hear his words are sitting on your desk. Matt, I know you’re a very busy man so let me thank you again for your time. What a pleasure!
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