Dan Higgins has worked as a programmer on games such as SimCity and Empire Earth but now runs his own indie game studio, Lunchtime Studios, together with his wife and fellow developer, Courtney Pinnell.
Their small team is dedicated to quality storytelling and focused on immersive gaming experiences. Set in the mafia world of 1920s New York, ‘Lords of New York’ is a poker-centered RPG.
PokerListings' Sophie Jackson had a chat with him to find out more.
Sophie Jackson: Tell me a little bit about Lords of New York. What is the idea behind the game?
Dan Higgins: If you’ve seen the movie Rounders, then that was basically the main inspiration. I wasn’t even a poker person before but I just loved that movie.
I wanted to build an experience like that. Having admired the genius of poker, but not being a great poker player, I wanted to create something where you could feel that you’re a powerful poker pro.
As the game is so heavily focused on the experience and the feeling, I had to place more value on building a game about people more so than a game about the cards. If you understand the people you’re playing, and learn how to manipulate them and intimidate them, then that’s how you become a powerful player.
So that’s really what Lords of New York is about.
SJ: So you can cheat, intimidate and show tells just like in a real game of poker?
DH: Yes, we wanted to make the experience similar to real-life poker. If you play against the character Veronica, for example, then she’s a reporter and she’s great at tuning in on your body language and picking up on nonverbal cues.
If you raise again and again then eventually you’ll start showing some signs of anxiety and she will notice that. Lucky, on the other hand, is a character who doesn’t focus so much on your body language.
Basically you have to pay close attention to who your opponents are and use your talents and items for each game accordingly. It’s very strategic in that sense - each round you will base your playing style on who is sitting at the card table with you.
SJ: Do you become a better poker player over time? Can you unlock skills?
DH: Well, you play as Vince who is a great player. At the same time there are skills you can pick up to make you better.
As you progress through the game you get these new skills but you can only take certain talents into each poker match. That’s when an understanding of your opponents is really important.
You need to decide which talents you should employ to win the game, which skills are most important - cheating, concealing emotions, and so on.
SJ: What kind of poker is played?
DH: Texas Hold’em, although eventually we’re planning on adding a few poker variants and also Blackjack. In the 1920s people didn’t really play that, but we felt like Texas Hold’em would be best for the game.
The objective of the poker match can differ as well. It’s not always about winning money. In some games, the goal might be to embarrass a guy. You’ve got to get him upset, so you could make him lose several matches in a row, for example.
That might mean losing money in order to achieve that objective. So it’s not just about making money - it’s story-driven poker. You’ll be winning money from one guy and intentionally losing it to the next.
SJ: Will there be a multi-player option?
DH: We’ve actually decided to delay the release a little bit and add a multi-player feature early so people can try playing with their friends before the full release.
It will basically be a ‘taster’ that lets people try out the different talents and items and decide what they think is fun. We can then use the feedback from the mini-game to improve content in time for the full release.
SJ: Which level poker players do you think will enjoy the game?
DH: That’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t know which kind of poker player it’s appropriate for, because I’m not an experienced poker player myself.
We consulted a couple of professionals - Andrew Brokos, who has played in the WSOP, and Zachary Elwood, who has written books on poker psychology, to help with that.
I hope that the game is geared toward both pros and amateurs. The level of poker in the game will basically adjust to how well you progress. At the same time, we want to make it fun for people who are less interested in poker and more interested in the story.
It would be great if the game could help introduce some people to the world of poker.
SJ: Are you a better poker player now that you’ve been working on the game for so long?
DH: I’ve really felt the beauty of poker when working on this game. Since we focus so much on the ‘people aspect’ of poker, it will be exciting to see what I can personally do later on in a real poker game.
I haven’t really had a chance to put it to the test, but maybe I’ve improved as a player. It’s weird though - I want to hang on to that ‘poker newbie’ feeling so that I can relate to some of our audience, but at the same I’ve obviously picked up on a lot of poker knowledge and really deepened my understanding of the game.
I think it’s easy to get into but difficult to master. But I definitely enjoy poker - it’s a genius game. It’s the people that make it what it is - poker is all about the people.
SJ: Why the 1920s?
DH: If you look at the 1920s, specifically the year 1927, then you’ll realize it’s an absolutely crazy and fascinating time with a lot of change.
We wanted to focus on the epicenter of the era, which is why we went with New York. We wanted to highlight the 1920s simply because it was so interesting and had so much going on.
SJ: Besides the soundtrack, what aspects did you incorporate to capture that 1920s feeling?
DH: We did a ton of research into the decade and worked small things into the story every step of the way.
There are so many crazy things that happened in the 1920s that nobody really knows about, so we wanted to expose the players to that and have the real history kind of unfold around them.
For example, there are newspapers in the game which show headlines from real events at that time. There are loads of subtle details incorporated into the background to add to the atmosphere.
SJ: You’ve mentioned that Pixar is a big influence for Lunchtime Studios - in what way?
DH: I feel like our philosophies are similar; to start with an incredible story that’s worth telling and build around that. In our case, you play Vince who has his storyline, but you can also play other characters indirectly involved in his story, and kind of influence it in subtle ways.
As a player you get the opportunity to see the same situation from different angles and to have an effect upon it. So the focus is on story first and, just like Pixar would do, we build the technology to make sure that the story can be told in the best way possible.
We want to be the Pixar of 2D games, and we’ve put a lot of effort into building a type of 2D technology that can express the story in exactly the way we want.
SJ: You didn’t have success with Kickstarter. How did you work around that?
DH: We learned our lesson with Kickstarter. It has to be done in a certain way to be successful. At the time, we didn’t have any game footage and so were kind of relying on people to visualize the concept.
We’ve actually had better success demoing at PAX where we’ve got great feedback. If we do another Kickstarter, it will be for voice actors. We have a great guy who does Vince and a few other characters - he’s gaining a lot more recognition now.
I do a few voices, too - like the prison guard. We have to work with the budget we’ve got without compromising quality.
SJ: What has been the most unexpected aspect of working on Lords of New York?
DH: It’s taken longer than I wanted. I have a day job and I work on this at night. This is the third year, and I’ve been working seven days a week without vacation.
I love it, so I think of it more as a hobby, but it really has taken a lot of time. It’s like 400,000 lines of code later ... it’s just crazy. There have been some really good discoveries along the way.
I hadn’t predicted how good the animation technology would be. That was a nice surprise - we have 2D expressive characters that can be voice acted, and we can use this model in the future. In fact, there’s a ton of stuff we’ve learned through this game that we’ll be applying in the future.
I guess a difficult part is getting known and finding an audience. We’ve won a lot of contests and awards, but it’s still a challenge to always make sure we’re getting enough exposure.
SJ: What is your advice for someone looking to have a career within game development?
DH: We have two goals at Lunchtime Studios; we want to be the Pixar of 2D games, and we want to help people get into game development. Game development is not as hard as everyone thinks, and you’ll have a fun career and you’ll be paid well, so we want to help bridge the gap between leaving school and getting into game development.
I was terrible at school; I went to the cheapest school in my state yet programming is something you can always be amazing at. You just have to be logical and have the motivation - you don’t even have to be good at maths.
I’m awful at maths but I’ve become successful in the industry because I’m fearless and I put the hours in.
Studying programming is always good - even if it’s self-taught. Just do it everyday. If you’re into drawing, draw everyday. If you’re into writing then write everyday. You can apply all these skills in gaming.
Just get rid of the fear and doubt, because 90% of people will quit before they get to the level where they start getting noticed. If you don’t quit, you will beat the competition. It’s all about staying motivated and believing in yourself.
If you hang on long enough, you will make an impact. It’s also important to start at the easiest level so you don’t get overwhelmed. Work your way up gradually, building upon the most basic foundation.
There’s a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle which explains how people become masters in their fields. It talks about wiring in the brain and how to train your cognitive responses with practice.
It’s really interesting in terms of looking at the science behind talent and skill.
SJ: Thanks for your time, Dan!
The ‘Lords of New York’ multi-player pre-release will be available on Steam for Mac and Windows in August 2016. The full game is scheduled for release in early 2017, and will also be available on iOS. For updates, follow Lunchtime Studios on Twitter or catch them at the next PAX convention.