Q+A: Nicholas Fortugno of Playmatics
Playmatics is a game development company focusing on merging stories with interactive experiences in both the digital and real world, guided by the mantra "Discovery Through Play". Their passion for play has brought them to the attention of some major brands, and they've partnered with Nickelodeon, Paramount, Lego, and the Smithsonian Institution–just to name a few!
We sat down with founder and CEO Nicholas Fortugno, to talk about the great diversity of the game design industry, the evolution of games for the future, and, to be expected, the battle for credibility and funding.
Tell us about Playmatics! What do you do? What’s the origin story?
Playmatics is a game design/game development company. We specialize in what we call “innovative game design,” which means games about non-game things, for people who don’t play games. Now that could mean anything from games for journalism, public policy, or healthcare, etc. to games for specific brands or gamification exercises. Playmatics is about 10 years old. My business partner Margaret Wallace and I started Playmatics originally as a consulting company, but it quickly turned into a development business and we’ve been running as a development business ever since.
We specialize in what we call “innovative game design,” which means games about non-game things, for people who don’t play games.
You said you have games for journalists? Are they mainly games intended to educate people or to entertain as well?
Every time you make a game you’re creating a piece of entertainment. In my mind a game should be entertaining, although that doesn’t necessarily mean “silly” or “fun” in a traditional sense. A lot of the games we create are what I call “instrumentalized,” meaning that you didn’t make the game just to be a piece of entertainment, you made the game to talk about an issue, to teach someone about a topic, or change behavior, motivate activism, etc.
In journalism for example, we worked with the public on something called “The Waiting Game,” which was a game experience that helped people understand the experience of asylum seekers coming to the US. That game should be engaging and I would argue it should even be “fun” in the broad sense–but being an asylum seeker is also not a pleasant experience, and the game is designed to teach you that it’s not a pleasant experience.
How did you get into this field, and into virtual gaming?
I became a game designer very young as a hobbyist, which for people in my generation was typical. You couldn’t study games anywhere, it wasn’t even really well-known that games were a professional field. I was just making games in my spare time, from live-action games, to role playing games, things like that. Through that process I met people in the game space who eventually had me intern with them, and then hired me.
I got involved in digital games because that was the first place I worked, but since then I’ve been doing all sorts of game design. It's different now because you can go to school to study games and get a formal education in them, which I recommend. But when I was growing up and becoming a game designer, I did it the way most people did: I studied something else in school (in my case English and Philosophy,) and just made games as a hobby. I got lucky in the case that I met the right people and was able to turn a hobby into a career and had success early on to allow me to make my own company.
Games have an iterative design methodology to them–you really don’t try to pre-plan a lot. You try to build quickly and break, and then rebuild.
How do you go about testing the games you create, making sure they’re right for your audience? Who is your audience?
Games have an iterative design methodology to them–you really don’t try to pre-plan a lot. You try to build quickly and break, and then rebuild. You make a lot of early failures and you learn from those failures. That’s the basic methodology. What that means is that testing becomes a precious resource. For example, if you’re making a game for 35-year-old men in a certain region and of a certain income, how many of those people do you know? How easy is it to find those people? But the thing is, a lot of the testing you do early on, really doesn’t matter. If someone can’t find the button, a 35 year old man of that region won’t be able to find the button either.
Imagine the process as a funnel: you start off with the broadest possible audience, and you use them to test certain mechanics and methods. As you get closer to the final product, you start narrowing down the target market. A lot of what you’re testing with interactive design is whether someone understands something–you can’t test with the same people twice. Once they’ve seen it one time, they understand it better the second time around, so you’re no longer testing if they understand it. In that case, you want to preserve the audience as much as possible, especially if it’s a small number. But we also work with partners who often have access to the audience. Whether it be an education institution or an advocacy group who has access to their audience, we’ll negotiate with them as part of our development cycle to reach them. Then it's a little bit easier because you have a built in audience, you just have to control how you use it.
Can you share a project you’ve worked on recently that you were particularly excited about?
I’m really excited about a project we worked on with ProPublica called “The Waiting Game.” I think that was an interesting expression of journalism, so I’m very proud of that.
I also o-run a festival in right here in Dumbo called “Come Out and Play,” which is all about street games and street play. We recently won the Bernie DeKoven Big Fun Award so that was a really big deal for us. We’re going to be hosting “Come Out and Play” again this year on June 26, and I’m working on a couple of new projects too. Some of them centering around existential threats, and building horror experiences out of existential threats.
Let’s go analog for a second - what are your top three favorite board games?
My top three favorite board games always shifts! Right now I’d have to say one is Puerto Rico. As problematic as the narrative is, I’ve definitely played that game more than any other game. It inspired the modern board game movement in a lot of ways, so I think that game is terrific.
I really like Azul because it’s a modern pattern making puzzle game. It’s pretty simple but deep, it’s a really well designed and interesting game.
And I would say Pandemic Legacy is another groundbreaking game recently, especially season 1. I’ve never played a board game like that before in terms of it’s narrative potential. You have to play it like 16 times to really get the whole thing, but it’s an amazing experience.
The theme of this year’s annual meeting is futurists. What do you see is the future of gaming, and how is Playmatics shaping that future?
It’s cool that it's about futurism because I’m a futurist essentially; I genuinely believe that research into science and technology, and innovating in human intervention/into the world, leads to better outcomes for the world and humanity as a whole. It’s a theme that I celebrate and I believe that if we concentrate on learning about the world and using design and engineering to fix the world, the world will be a much better place.
Games are in an interesting/weird spot where I think we’re in a liminal place. They’re now basically understood to be an art form in certain places, and they’re not accepted as such in others. If you said games are an art form, no one would question it. But there’s no funding structure, no partnership relationships, and the business models are all kinda broken for independent developers. It’s problematic, but I think it’s a growing pain of the whole field trying to figure out what it is. I think that games are right now exploring more content than they’ve ever explored in history. Just by continuing to make new work in the gaming field, you are pushing boundaries. And by making innovative work, which we do, we are ourselves pushing boundaries.
The way I see all of this moving is that we’re all going to start appreciating some of the principles of game design as essentially principles of how people engage with things. Once we understand that, all these other disciplines will change to use the advantages that game design has already discovered. I see Playmatics playing a role there because we are people at Playmatics who recognize that. We have the ability to leverage those tools now; we’ve done innovative work because we’ve been willing to apply interactive design to things that people didn’t think you could. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll expand the field of games.
we’re all going to start appreciating some of the principles of game design as essentially principles of how people engage with things.
Why do you think that games aren’t taken as seriously compared to other forms of entertainment?
It’s crazy because games throughout history have been commercially successful. This weird hiccup is happening where we recognize other art forms that we fund–like theater and film, which have huge failure rates–but we still fund them. People find ways to get them off the ground because when they do succeed, they skyrocket. Games are arguably more commercially successful than those other forms, but they don’t get the same kind of funding. And I think soon enough people will have grown up with games to see their true value and potential. But I also think it’s incumbent on games to tell their stories better.
Right now in the field of games we’re challenging the very definition of the word “games” as well. Game designers themselves are challenging what games are, and what games can be. It’s a really great fight to have to broaden that definition of games and not have it be tied to a juvenile connotation. It's really something to say that League of Legends sold out the Staples Center, that is a major accomplishment that we should be talking about! But the games industry itself has been horrific at funding art games, we don't have the likes of Redford or DeNiro funneling money back into the genre. That’s embarrassing, considering the amount of success we have. We still have no arts culture support to back us up. If you want digital games to do the same thing you can’t do it cheaply, you need funding. And until we as a culture start to shift our mindset around this, we’re going to stay in this liminal place.
I know you’ve been in and all around NYC for most of your life/career. Why Dumbo for the business?
All my life actually. You know, New York is so big, it’s easy for things to go unnoticed. There are whole communities in the city that go unseen because they just disappear into the masses of people. There’s a benefit to being in smaller places where you have clear districts, and community events where you get to know everyone. What’s interesting about Dumbo is that I legitimately feel like we’re a part of a digital creating community here. The movement to make Dumbo a commercial and residential based hub has largely succeeded. I want to be here because I feel like I’m part of a team with peers in my industry and that’s rare in New York and cool.
What’s interesting about Dumbo is that I legitimately feel like we’re a part of a digital creating community here. I want to be here because I feel like I’m part of a team with peers in my industry. That’s rare in New York and cool.
And finally, what’s your favorite place in Dumbo?
Honestly, the Archway because we’ve hosted “Come Out and Play” there so many times. I think it’s cool that space is allowed to be as crazy as it is. I love the fact that cities allow themselves to be crazy sometimes.