Tom Martin Q&A: Digital game developer Frogdice part of growing Kentucky tech, gaming community

Michael Hartman, founder of Frogdice, sat with the office mascot at the video game company's offices on Winchester Road. Hartman launched the company in 1996, when "people felt that if you were going to do something on the Internet, it should be free."
Michael Hartman, founder of Frogdice, sat with the office mascot at the video game company's offices on Winchester Road. Hartman launched the company in 1996, when "people felt that if you were going to do something on the Internet, it should be free." Lexington Herald-Leader

Frogdice is an independent game development studio in Lexington. Founded in 1996 by Michael Hartman, Frogdice creates online and digital download games, the role-playing or "RPG" variety, in particular. Tom Martin talked with Hartman about his company and about gaming.

Tom Martin: Do we have something of a gamer community here in Lexington?

Michael Hartman: We do. We probably have up to 10 studios in the region and a lot of hobbyists. We have a group called RunJumpDev with members from Louisville, Cincinnati and Indiana. It has a big meeting every month when we talk about game development. And it's a very healthy and growing group.

Martin: What kind of expertise do you need to become a competitive game business?

Hartman: Well, if you're going to start your own studio, you need at least three people: a really good programmer; a good artist who can make 3D models and things like that and you need someone with some business knowledge. That third person is as important as the other two because navigating marketing, getting your game up on various portals and websites where it could be sold, knowing how to interact with the media and things like that are just as important.

Martin: Frogdice has been around now about 18 years ... Was it difficult in 1996 to capitalize a startup gamer company?

Hartman: Definitely. E-commerce was in its extreme infancy. People felt that if you were going to do something on the Internet, it should be free. That was a really hard thing to combat.

Martin: How did you overcome it?

Hartman: We did it by framing the way that we sold things in our game. Basically, Threshold is, as far as I know, the first "free to play" type game. ...

That was our first game. It's an online RPG. People could pay for optional additional features so that made it have a really low entry — you could still play the full game without paying anything. That helped ease people into it. Now, almost 20 years later, free-to-play is probably one of the most dominant business models in the gaming industry. But at the time, we invented it almost out of necessity.

Martin: And how do you make money on that?

Hartman: If you make your game fun enough that people play long enough, eventually they'll buy something. That works out really well for us and as a result, we have one of the highest, if not the highest conversion rates in the industry. About 99 percent of our players have bought at least something, whereas your typical free-to-play game, you know, Candy Crush Saga or something like that, usually hovers around 2 percent. Over half of our customers on Threshold have played for almost 10 years. And with even in our newer games, we're seeing the same thing: people stay with our games a lot longer. A higher percentage of people that play one will then buy at least one or two of our other games. And I think that's because of our long term value.

Martin: How has transitioning over various platforms, from computers to consoles to mobile devices, affected the way games are made and used and is there a different mindset at play for each different platform?

Hartman: Frogdice has always been primarily a PC developer and when I say PC that includes Mac, Windows, and Linux. Anything on the traditional desktop-style computer or a laptop.

It's funny because every four, five years, something comes along and everyone says, 'Oh, that's it, the PC's dead. No one is going to make games for the PC anymore.' And then a couple of years later that new trendy thing kind of flames out and then the PC is biggest again. Whether it's consoles, PlayStation, and Xbox, you know, there was a time when they were crushing the PC, but then social games on Facebook, things like that became really popular. Now, mobile games are really hot on your iPhone, iPad and Android devices and those kinds of things. But, we're seeing that people aren't really willing to spend a lot of money on those games — especially on the phone. It's really hard to get people to pay even a dollar for a game. So, as big as the mobile platform is, the amount of money you can make on those games is really small because the experience isn't that great. Even if you're having fun on your phone, it's mostly for time-wasting. There are exceptions, but most people aren't going to choose to sit on their couch and stare at their phone when they could be looking at their 60-inch television or sitting right in front of a 30-inch monitor that is super high resolution. You're sitting in your desk chair, it's comfortable, your arms are supported, you have good ergonomics. So, there have been other platforms and they add a lot to the overall gaming ecosystem, but they eventually channel people back to the PC.

Martin: There used to be more of a stigma surrounding game players and computer enthusiasts as social outcasts. Not so much, anymore. We see in pop culture things like The Big Bang Theory, Community, The IT Crowd and renewed interest in gaming. Has that had an influence on the trajectory of your business?

Hartman: Definitely. When we started Threshold we had a young 18-to-25 crowd. Now, half of our users have been playing for ten years, so now it's people in their 30s with kids. Early-on we targeted much more hardcore gamers who were going to play our game thirty, forty hours a week. Now, if somebody only has five hours a week to play our game we want to make sure they still get a good experience.

In fact the average age of a gamer is 38, and 26 percent of the market is over the age of 50. Those are pretty surprising numbers. Most people think, 'Wow! I thought it was still, you know, teenagers.' But really, the meat of the industry is people in their 30s, 40s and 50s and it's also about 50/50 men and women.

Some of our games are 75 percent women, 25 percent men. So, we have definitely tailored our company to cater to those big and growing markets of older players, both men and women. I think part of the reason for the success of our company is that we've been aware of that demographic and how it was growing and then we targeted them.

Martin: Lately, there's been a lot of chatter about routine violence against women and misogyny portrayed in video games. What are your views on that?

Hartman: I'm really happy to see that this is getting a lot of attention. As I mentioned, our games are very popular with women, so it's very important to us that women feel comfortable in our online communities. Even on our out-of-character chat channels, we don't let people do misogynistic joking around. We have a total zero tolerance policy for that kind of thing. And I think that's why we have so many female players because they feel comfortable in our online community. So, I am very glad to see that it's getting more attention now.

Martin: Anything new and exciting on the Frogdice horizon?

Hartman: Yes. The game that we're working on right now is called Stash. It is an MMORPG — that's a Massive Multi-player Online Game. That's a game like World of Warcraft or Star Wars Old Republic or EverQuest. It's the biggest game we've ever made. It is in some ways the graphical successor to Threshold, so it's an extremely cool game. It's going to come out next summer. The alpha will actually come out this Christmas and then beta in the spring.

We've been working on it for about eight months now. It's the biggest game we've ever made and the most awesome game we've ever made, so I'm extremely excited about it.