Interview with Pang Hartman of Frogdice

pang_hartman

Pang and two cosplayers at Pax East 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/57970112/GG%20Vogue/FrogdiceGames_Pang_Interview.mp3 |titles=Pang from Frogdice Games Interview]

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SVENNA
Frogdice is an independent game developer based in Lexington, Kentucky responsible for Threshold RPG, one of the oldest RPG enforced MUDs currently in operation and several other popular PC games geared towards both core and casual gamers.

Today, I will be talking to Pang, Vice-President, Creative Director, and Lead Designer. We’ll be discussing Frogdice’s newest game, Dungeon of Elements, the strong fan basis they’ve had for over 17 years, the struggles both younger and older female gamers have to deal with online, and sneak peek information on two future games set out for later this year and 2015.

SVENNA
All right so, hi, Pang and thank you so much for speaking with Girl Gamer Vogue on behalf of Frogdice.

PANG
Well, thank you for contacting us.

SVENNA
Can you tell me a little bit about your history with gaming?

PANG
My personal history with gaming goes back really, really far. I first started playing videogames when it was just text. So, all your old Infocom games: Zork, Plundered Hearts — one of my favorites – it was a romance novel text game. And then of course I went through all of the Kings Quests. Actually, I remember the very first game that had graphics. That was Guild of Thieves. It was a text game and you’d go to a certain room and it’d load a picture. I remember being so excited about that. “Oh my god, there was a picture!” And then I just kept gaming after that. I had every console system for a long time. I played all of the Super NES games and NES games. Now primarily I’m a PC gamer.

SVENNA
Yeah, that’s the same with me. I’ve kind of leaned towards PC gaming in the last few years.

PANG
So what’s your favorite type of game?

SVENNA
I like RPGs a lot but more from the Super Nintendo, Playstation era because I don’t have the patience for voice acting or all that anymore.

PANG
I am the same way! Honestly, I felt really bad because I knew how much they spent on Star Wars: The Old Republic on voice acting. But, I had to say, after the third scene I was like, “I’m done with voice acting.” I’m very much the same way. Paper Mario, stuff like that. I love those very old school RPGs.

SVENNA
What’s your favorite game?

PANG
My favorite game of all time is Plants Vs. Zombies. [laughs] I know that’s just really out there but it’s such genius game design. It’s really simple to learn but you can just play it forever.

SVENNA
What are your duties as Vice President, Creative Director and Leader Designer at Frogdice?

PANG
Well, that covers a lot of things. For a long time before I took on those roles, I programmed and wrote for all of our games. And now, I still do all of the writing for it but now I add all of the game design which means developing all of the systems. Now I go to my programmers and my artists for help in order to put everything together but knowing how to do the art and knowing how to do the programming really helps in me creating different game designs. I don’t actually get to pick the games that we make. I just have six or seven designs at any given time that I show to Michael and he decides which games we make. But, most of my stuff is just dealing with running our teams and designing our games.

SVENNA
So, I know you went to law school… did you teach yourself to do programming or did you go back to school?

PANG
I actually taught myself programming and so did my husband. We both kind of just learned on our own. I’ve been programing since basic so it wasn’t that hard to learn and I don’t do any of the deep core programming. I don’t do any of the drivers or engine level stuff like that. But, when it comes to scripting or Java, that’s pretty easy for me to pick up, though I don’t do any programming anymore. It’s just something I always did so it wasn’t that hard to just keep progressing.

SVENNA
I still think that’s amazing because I could never figure that out. [laughs]

PANG
You know, I think it’s when you start when it was so easy like when you were doing line by line and go back to line ten and run that program again then you build from that. It’s a lot easier to learn that way. Nowadays, there are no simple languages anymore. So, when kids want to learn now, they’re jumping straight into the deep end. It’s very different from how I learned.

SVENNA
Frogdice has an impressive list of games. There’s Threshold RPG, Coin N’ Carry, Tower of Elements, and of course, your newest game promoted on Kickstarter, Dungeon of Elements. Can you tell me more about it?

PANG
About Dungeon of Elements?

SVENNA
Yeah.

PANG
Dungeon of Elements is actually a game that I expanded on. I originally developed it for Coin N’ Carry and it was just a one minute mini game. It became so popular that I was like, “this could be a completely new game.” My big thing is I love, love, love RPGs so I like to take casual game play and put an RPG spin on it. That’s how Dungeon of Elements came to be. I love games like Doctor Mario and Tetris where you stack things and they disappear. It’s not that hard to put it into a system where doing that causes damage to some sort of creature. For me, I love getting loot. That’s why I love RPGs so much. I love the whole “you defeat something and get to open a treasure box with coins and gems go spewing everywhere.” It’s kind of funny because when we play MMOs together, my husband hates loot. I love going around, picking up every little piece, sorting through it, seeing what I got. So that’s basically how I created Dungeon of Elements.  I created a system where I could play casually but got to have the whole RPG experience. Does that make sense?

SVENNA
I think that’s a really unique idea, too, because it appeals to everyone.

PANG
One of the big things is the fact that we just finished getting funding for what’s going to be our next game. We’re going to our RPG roots. It’s truly a role playing game. This is a game I’ve been designing for a year now and I’m very excited for it. When you make an RPG, you’re going to get RPG players. But how do you get any other player beyond that? And casual gamers, they can be pretty hard core. I wanted to be able to tap into that market also. That’s why I took casual game play to try to get those casual games into the RPG space. So that was another big motivation for creating this game. We’re basically training casual players to play RPGs and introduce them to all of the concepts: character creation, inventory management, crafting in a non-intense setting. When you’re playing an RPG, especially when you talk about WoW or even Diablo, there’s a lot of twitch mechanics there that can really stress people especially if they’re not that comfortable at a computer. If you teach them all of that extra stuff while they’re playing a very casual, relaxed game, they’re learning all of the concepts without having the stress that goes along with it that usually makes people just give up.

SVENNA
I know a lot of people that are intimidated by gaming and they look at a controller then they look back at their hands and can’t really do it at the same time. But, I think Dungeons of Elements is going to do well.

PANG
I really hope so. You know, it’s always a super big risk to create games that don’t follow into a specific category. We don’t fall into core. We don’t actually fall into casual. I was actually told that Dungeon of Elements wouldn’t appeal to women my age. They didn’t know that I had designed the game.

SVENNA
Oh, wow.

PANG
They said “Sorry, women ages thirty-five and up aren’t going to be interested in this game.” I was just like…well, woah. I’m a woman. I turn thirty-eight tomorrow and I’m very interested in this game. Especially because I made it! It’s been interesting that there are so many people that pigeon-hole games that badly. I hope that most players out there aren’t like that. I don’t think they are.

SVENNA
Speaking of female gamers, I saw on the Frogdice website that you claim that at least half of your players are women. How do you think that Frogdice games appeal to women aside from you creating them and putting in your spin?

PANG
The game that really got us started was Threshold RPG. It’s a really intense RPG. It’s old school. You lose a level when you die. That’s been gone from gaming for a long time. 46% of our players are women and they’re just as hardcore as the men. Now, they have other options — combat isn’t the only thing they have to do but they provide a very stable influence on our game. It’s kind of funny because that’s actually how I met my husband (Michael Hartman, Founder and CEO of Frogdice). I was playing Threshold when I went to law school and he had made it. One of the reasons why I stayed was because there was a healthy amount of women gamers. And I didn’t even know back then that I wanted that. I didn’t stay because there was a bunch of women playing. It’s just it created an environment that made me want to stay. I think what keeps it going is that we might now know we want to be around other women who play games like us.

pang_hartman2

Pang and one of Threshold’s oldest players, Wyden, at Frogdice’s exhibit at DragonCon 1999.

SVENNA
How do you feel the gaming industry has changed for women since you started working in it?

PANG
You know, it’s kind of weird because I never thought about that until this year when it became a huge issue since gaming’s become more mainstream and there’s more women getting into the gaming industry. I have to say, it never occurred to me that I was a woman in the gaming industry until very recently. Before that it was just I made games, I liked games and I played a lot of games. I think as you get more and more women in the industry, there’s going to have to be a shift because women need to learn that gaming with guys is going to go a specific way. You can’t go in always expecting them to play the way you want to play and I think the same thing is true the other way. When women start gaming, guys can’t just hold true to what they’ve always done and just expect women to fall in line. So, it’s going to be a shift on both sides. But, I have to say, when I play League of Legends…and I think I started ten days before it was released, so I was in the beta and everything. You have to be ready to be dealing with the competitiveness and the testosterone that comes out. But, I have to say, every time I play and they figure out I’m a girl, usually because I go on Skype or Vent, and then you can’t disguise that fact that you’re a girl because I sound like a girl. As soon as I speak, everybody cleans up. I don’t ask them to, it just happens naturally. Guys will start policing each other. They’ll start policing themselves. If there’s not too much emphasis on people being offended. You know, men being offended by women or women being offended by men. I think it’ll happen just pretty naturally.

SVENNA
There seems to be two sides when you play with random people online. It’s either they’re like a white knight and they try to protect you and defend you or they just hate you from the beginning. Unless you play with people you know, you just get these two kinds of people and it’s rough.

PANG
It is rough. I think before it gets better, it’s going to get a little worse. There are people that have drawn lines in the sand basically. Once you’ve drawn that line, it forces people to take sides. I kind of wish we didn’t have to go through that because I do think if you let it happen naturally, it’s going to handle itself fine. You have men who are crusading and women who are crusading. Any time you have that, it’s going to get ugly before it gets better. Most of the people I play with will get upset if I mess up just like I’ll get upset with them if they mess up. I think if I had the time, I could probably be just as competitive as most of the guys I play with. But, because I don’t play anywhere as much as them, I’m just not as good. But, I’m okay with saying that. I’m okay with saying, “Look, you’re just going to have to carry me. I can pull my part but I’m not going to do anything extra because I don’t have enough practice time.” I think that’s something that a lot of people aren’t willing to admit. I want to say, “I’m equal” or “I’m just as good.” I don’t know if there’s some sort of gender relationship to how well I do or not do. I do feel there’s a certain point I can’t get past.

SVENNA
Can you go a little bit more into that?

PANG
So, I play a lot of PvP games. Most of the time, especially when it’s team-based, I feel like I hang just fine. But for League of Legends, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not sure if I can get any better. I might be at my max potential…which is not that great compared to the guys who actually compete. I don’t know if it’s that I don’t play enough or if it’s a gender related thing. I have no idea. There’s a lot of instinctive things, like I feel what my husband does naturally, I have to think about what to do for that type of game. So, is that a matter of men and women thinking differently? Is it because we’re biologically programmed to react differently to certain situations? Those are things I have no idea how to answer but I wonder about a lot.

SVENNA
Do you play ranked or unranked?

PANG
I usually play normal or All Random All Mid (ARAM). When I first started playing, there was no ranked. Everybody played the same normal matches. I never got into the habit of playing a ranked game. I had to quit playing for awhile while we were building up the business. So, a lot of the people I originally started with now have 3000 wins and are in a totally different ELO than I’m in now. I don’t try to make them play with me anymore. It’s been hard because those are the guys I started with. Those are the ones I learned the game with. I just can’t play with them anymore.  And it’s not a matter that they won’t play with me — they’d be happy to play with me. It’s more of a, if I play with them, we’re at an ELO where I just can’t compete at all and I’m such a drag on the team and then the whole team loses. They’ll still try to play with me. If I do that, I won’t play a normal game with them. We just need to find five more friends to play against in a practice match.

SVENNA
So, you said you have two young girls. How is it like raising them as gamers?

PANG
It has been pretty easy and fun to raise them as gamers. I don’t even know if I consciously raised them as gamers. It’s more like “This is what I learned from this game, I’d really like my girls to learn the same lessons that I did or be able to practice the same strategizing techniques I learned from a specific game. So I’ll introduce them to those games.” My eldest daughter loves collecting, so of course, I introduced her to Pokemon. But, she kind of got introduced to it in a very strange way. She read Pokemon books first, then got super interested in them, then I bought her the Pokemon game. Usually people start reading the books after they play the game. But she went about it backwards. She’ll see me playing and all my girls like to watch. Then they want to play the game, too. We usually try to encourage them to play games that are just a little too difficult for them. My eldest who is now ten, she started playing Spore when she was five. She actually learned how to read. She has a very good vocabulary. Part of that is because she started playing Spore when she was so young. Honestly, for quite awhile, she didn’t do more than the Amoeba stage because the rest of the game was too hard for her. But, she just constantly pushed herself to try to be able to deal with the mechanics of the rest of the game. And by the time she was 5 1/2, she was playing the whole game through.

SVENNA
I think that’s a great example to show how you can learn from gaming. It’s not just about killing people…you can learn things, you can react faster. There’s a lot of pros to gaming.

PANG
Very much so. Both of my kids persevere through a lot of things and I think that is gaming because there’s a lot of times where you lose. Learning how to lose in life is vital to raising your kids. They need to learn how to lose and lose gracefully and learn what to do in a situation. Do you just give up? Do you keep trying? How much do you try before you say, “I can’t do this.”? These are things they can explore in gaming and it’s very safe to do so. Losing a game and being able to reset — that’s not something you usually get a chance to do in life. You don’t get a do-over all the time. So, gaming you do get do overs. You do get to go back to your save point and try again. There’s very few places where you can actually do that. So I think gaming shouldn’t be ignored as a learning experience for children regardless of gender.

tehpig-business

The Hartmans’ Corgi, Tehpig, named after the Pokémon Tepig.

SVENNA
So back to your Kickstarter promtion for Dungeon of Elements. Is this Frogdice’s first Kickstarter promotion?

PANG
Yes, that is our first Kickstarter. That was all Michael — my husband. He made me do the Kickstartrer while we in the process of starting up our new game. We’re currently in the middle of finishing Dungeon of Elements and Tower of Elements 2. We usually at some point have an overlap between our games. Anyways, so he was like, “we’re going to do this and we have to do it within this time frame.” So, it was pretty tough to do. I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. I’m the type of person that likes to hold the product in my hand before I purchase it. So, Kickstarter is not something I’m drawn to naturally but I’m super excited that we’re doing it and it’s been really, really good. It’s been very uplifting to see the amount of support we’ve had already.

SVENNA
You’ve already made over half your goal of $20,000. I think that’s impressive.

PANG
And we had that on our first day! So, I was really shocked by that and I think sometimes it’s really good for developers to see you’ve got a lot of people behind you. Honestly, it was good validation for me because I have doubts sometimes where I don’t know if people want to play these games. Am I some sort of weirdo maybe that’s in between core and casual? Does that mean nobody else is like that? I’m seeing now that there’s a lot of gamers like me. I don’t mind being different but I like to know I’m not alone in this world. So it’s been really good to know that a lot of people think this game is something they want to play. Michael said it’s basically like a pre-sale. It’s been very validating. I’m very excited. It has been very motivating, too. I’ve just been very excited to start on our new game and finish Dungeon of Elements.

SVENNA
Are you looking to do a Kickstarter for your second Tower of Elements game?

PANG
One of the things that we love to do is allow our players to help personalize the game. I think Kickstarter is a wonderful way to do that. When the game is released, the people who participated in the Kickstarter will have things that are personalized to them. I really like the ability to reward early supports of a game or an idea. That’s always been big in our campaign. Kickstarter gives us a way to do that.

SVENNA
What are some incentives for contributing early?

PANG
Now, for Dungeon of Elements, one of the things we’re really excited about is the ability to name an achievement. With our achievement system, I can actually create brand new achievements pretty easily. I’m very interested to see how some of these super creative people request that their achievement be placed into the game. They’re some tiers where you can design your open weapon. And that’s been since Threshold that we’ve allowed that. There are just amazingly creative people who will  never get to make a game but this gives them the chance to have a permanent impact on a game. That’s something we really love to do.

DoE

Dungeon of Elements gameplay inspired by old school games like Tetris and Dr. Mario.

SVENNA
Are there any similarities between Dungeon of Elements and any of your older Frogdice games?

PANG
Dungeon of Elements has a branching storyline that incorporates some of the names of our Player Characters who have played Threshold. It also makes reference back to Threshold’s areas like the Ruins of the Green Griffon Tavern. The GGT is where most of the Threshold people hang out and get together and party. There’s also the gelatinous cube which is a boss monster in Dungeon of Elements. It’s a monster that most Threshold players absolutely hate. Most have died at least once. Since now we’re making graphical games, we’re able to depict the Gelatinous Cube with a player inside of it who has been digesting for 1000 years. That’s actually one of our players who is huge backer, so I promised him we’d be putting him into every single game from here on out and I didn’t say how I was going to do it, so there he is: getting digested by a gelatinous cube.

SVENNA
So, was he a boss [ in Threshold]?

PANG
Nope, he’s just the guy that got eaten by the boss. But there are guys that are bosses or monsters or NPCs. Sometimes they get a little shout out in a description. Coin N’ Carry has plenty of shout outs to Threshold and has items that first originated in Threshold. Actually, Dungeon of Elements, the main gameplay is you’re an alchemist who uses capsules to destroy monsters and match them up. The exploding capsules have been in Threshold for 17 years. That’s a big shout out to them too.

threshold_rpgclient

The Threshold RPG online client from Michael Hartman’s tutorial video.

SVENNA
Frogdice has a somewhat large following via Facebook, Twitter, and the forums on your website. There’s the Pollywogs who are volunteers, interns and hardcore fans and there’s also Froggacon, an annual convention you put on for your fans. How did this dedicated community start?

PANG
It really started through our first game, Threshold, which is a text MUD. MUD communities tend to be close because they’re very niche communities. Back then, there were very few people gaming on the internet doing multiplayer games. We started as a bunch of people coming together and finding this game on the Internet and playing together. One of the reasons they say it’s very easy to meet someone online while you’re playing a game, there’s been marriages from these types of games is because it’s already a system where you can build trust by setting up dates. We’re going to party together, and you’re already relying on these people. I think we’ve had about 20 babies born from couples who have met from Threshold.

SVENNA
Wow.

PANG
That includes my two girls because I actually met my husband on Threshold.

SVENNA
That’s amazing.

PANG
We’ve had international couples, people having to move from one continent to another. We’ve always taken our players input and done things, like if we start a new game, we try to give our players the ability to have a benefit just from supporting us for so long. Kickstarter’s made it a lot easier for us to do that. It’s just a very strong community. Very, very loyal players and we try to be very loyal to them.

SVENNA
Do you still play Threshold?

PANG
Once I started dating Michael, I stopped playing because we felt I had an unfair advantage. Which I did, since I had access to the code. Once I started coding for the game, there was less discovery. I already knew what was going to happen. Since it was a role playing game, I stopped playing. I really did need to stop playing. It’s a competitive role playing game so it wasn’t very fair if I kept playing.

SVENNA
Hopefully you can enjoy the next RPG you make, since you’re not doing the coding.

PANG
I’m very excited about it. We’re doing an RPG, ironically.

SVENNA
Do you have a release date for that?

PANG
It’s probably not going to be until winter 2014 or early 2015. We’re going to start on it probably this September then our community will be our alpha testers. We add people to that community all the time. It depends on how fast we’ll build our team. If Dungeon of Elements does really well, we’ll build our team faster and the game will get released sooner.

SVENNA
What is it like working with your husband?

PANG
Well, I’ve threatened to quit on a weekly basis.

SVENNA
[Laugh]

PANG
But, you know, it’s good because it just reminds us that we’re a team everywhere: at home, at work. There’s lots of times where he won’t get home until 9 o ‘clock and I try pretty hard not to give him any grief about it because I know he’s out there working hard to get our games out in front of the users but every now and then it causes conflicts,too, where I’m positive something needs to be in a game a certain way and he’s positive it doesn’t need to be there or it needs to  be in a different way.  It’s hard to leave things at work, we’ll go home and fight about it. It’s been an interesting experience.

MeltingPot

Pang and her husband, Michael, at a recent Frogdice celebration at the Melting Pot.

SVENNA
What does the future hold for Frogdice?

PANG
Well, I’m hoping that in the future, Frogdice will have a very big collection of games that will encourage families to game together. What we want to be able to do is if you have a family of core and casual gamers, they can help each other by playing different games and unlocking things for each other. If you have a wife who doesn’t want to play a hardcore RPG but loves casual games…maybe she’ll play Dungeon of Elements. By beating a board on Dungeon of Elements, she might unlock a tower for her husband in our roleplaying game. If you have kids that play Coin N’ Carry, they can earn money for the entire family account.

CoinNCarry

The Coin N’ Carry main title screen from Frogdice’s intro video.

SVENNA
You use a system called medallions, right?

PANG
Mmhmm, yes.

SVENNA
I like that you can kind of spread it out between any game. I think that’s a really good system.

PANG
Not only can you spread it out between any game, if you have a family, your medallions can be spread out through your family. So you don’t have to have $20 on one account then $20 on one account. Say, if you have a husband or boyfriend, and you two share a Frogdice master account and use money from that same account.

SVENNA
I think that’s a really good idea that a lot of mainstream gaming publishers haven’t tapped into.

PANG
It’s a lot more maintenance. What happens if you break up and want to un-link accounts or who gets what part  of the money. Also, they like it if you have multiple accounts to keep money on. It makes them more money. We try to think of what’s best for the family. Obviously,  in any business, you’re concerned with what you’re making because if you don’t have any money, you can’t make any games. But, we’re just  little bit more concerned with making the family gaming experience a little bit better.

SVENNA
Anything else you’d like to say to our viewers?

PANG
I love your site! I hope that tons of people come and you guys grow a lot. I think it’s very awesome at what it tries to do. I am definitely going to hunt down a bunch of [the fashion items] like the sandles that are on your site that have the Mario charms on them. It’s just a great site and I love that it exists.

SVENNA
Thank you so much, Pang, for taking the time to speak with us.

PANG
Thank you.

SVENNA
This interview was conducted by Sara “Svenna” Ventura for Girl Gamer Vogue on May 24, 2013 via Skype. You may not alter or reproduce this interview without contacting Girl Gamer Vogue prior.

For more information on Frogdice games and the Dungeon of Elements Kickstarter, please visit frogdice.com or http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/frogdice/dungeon-of-elements

Svenna is a writer and the Public Relations Director for Girl Gamer Vogue. For more from Svenna, check out her Twitter Twitch and YouTube Channel.

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