An Interview with Game Designer/Lawyer Craig Stern

Craig Stern is a Chicago-based game designer best known for his game studio Sinister Design, and Telepath Tacticshis turn-based strategy RPG. Craig also organizes a regular meeting of Chicago game design students, appropriately titled, Indie City Games. If that were not impressive enough, he’s also a lawyer. Clearly,  Craig’s real life character class is Renaissance Man. I got the chance to talk to Craig, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his work and his games.

Ross A. Hersemann: Being an attorney and a game designer is a very unique skill set. What made you decide that you wanted to make games, what made you decide that you wanted to be an attorney, and how do you manage to do both at once?

Craig Stern: I have two parts of my brain that were involved in the decision: the part of my brain that has a burning need to create, which all but forced me to pursue game design; and the part of my brain that likes stability and not starving to death, which influenced my decision to enter law. I manage to do both at once through an innovative combination of high stress and inadequate sleep.

Hersemann: Does your expertise in law influence your game making in any way, or vice versa?

Stern: Well, law certainly influences the steps I take when working with contractors and securing my intellectual property! Among other things, it allows me to draft my own contracts, which I’ve found enormously helpful.

In a more abstract sense, I think there’s a neat little area of crossover between statutory interpretation and programming: a statute is a lot like a program, with its sections and subsections analogous to functions, and clauses analogous to lines of code. It takes much the same sort of logical reasoning to divine the functioning of a statute as it does to peer at code and figure out what it does.

Hersemann: What are some unique legal issues in games you feel other game designers need to be aware of?

Stern: I wouldn’t say that this is a problem unique to games, exactly, but I find that designers often have a hard time understanding the importance of writing out contracts to govern their relationships with artists, musicians, and other designers. It never seems like it’ll be a problem to operate without contracts…right up until it is.

As far as unique issues go, I’d say that games occupy a distinctly complex place in the world of IP law, with the ability to incorporate protection from just about every single intellectual property regime in various parts of their structure while somehow receiving no protection at all for the core thing that makes them games: their interactive systems. Designers would do well to invest in making the copyrightable, trademark-able parts of their games super appealing.

Hersemann: What unique challenges did you face in making Telepath Tactics? Technical ones? Business ones?

Stern: The biggest challenge I faced when developing Telepath Tactics, quite frankly, was an extremely common one: dealing with stringent time and money limitations. I was able to stretch the game’s budget well enough after the Kickstarter campaign succeeded, but time limitations were much more difficult to work around.

I had to manage a team of artists and a composer, program the engine, write the game’s story and character dialogue, build the campaign, create and integrate sound effects, and find and fix bugs while holding down an unrelated full-time job. The temptation to rely on my fan base to help me find bugs was great, and I ultimately surrendered to that temptation to a degree that proved detrimental to the game’s state on launch. In hindsight, I should have delayed the game and spent multiple months finding and fixing bugs by myself.

Hersemann: Tell us about your experience with KickStarter. What should aspiring game makers know about the crowdfunding process for indie games?

Stern: Kickstarter was an absolute godsend for me. It dramatically increased my audience reach and provided funds that proved crucial to finishing Telepath Tactics with a reasonable depth of content.

As for my advice to developers who are thinking of using Kickstarter, it just so happens that I’ve already written two whole articles on this very subject! (Those would be How to not fail at Kickstarter in 12 easy steps and How to not fail at Kickstarter in 8 more steps.)

Hersemann: You’re mostly a self-taught game maker. What do you wish you had known starting out?

Stern: How to program properly, for one thing!  Beyond that, I wish I had started out with a less aggressively goal-oriented mentality when it came to developing games; I think it would have saved me a lot of time in the long run had I taken the time to learn proper programming techniques before taking on big, ambitious games. When your engines are comprised of hacked-together amateurish spaghetti code, it really tends to slow the whole development process down.

Hersemann: As you continue to make games, what will you do differently in the future? What lessons did you learn making and marketing Telepath Tactics?

Stern: The most salient lesson I learned is to not rely on your fans to do beta playthroughs and report bugs–not when you have a single-player narrative-driven game, anyway! Just as importantly, I learned not to treat the silence of these presumed early players as evidence that the game is in a bug-free state. Badly wanting a thing to be true does not make it so.

Hersemann: What’s next on the horizon for you and Sinister Design? Is there anything our readers should keep an eye out for from you?

Stern: Absolutely! For my next project, I’m actually trying my hand at a board game! If you enjoy turn-based strategy, have a look at True Messiah, a surreal and disturbing game of post-apocalyptic cult warfare with gorgeous digital art.