Jonathan Ying - From DreamWorks to Board Game Designer
This is typically where I insert a short description of my interviewee. This time though, I'm making an exception and copy pasting Jonathan's own description of himself on his website: "Jonathan Ying is a savage creature that appears to have the body of a giant Bear and the head of an Owl. It has a razor sharp beak and dagger-like claws and is extremely strong and tough. Also it appears to make a habit of designing games, writing books and scribbling pictures of cowboys and superheroes."
I think this already tells a lot about Jonathan. But read on ahead if you want to discover more about this fascinating creature :)
Hey Jonathan, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Happy to be here! My name is Jonathan Ying, I’m a game designer, children’s book author and illustrator. I grew up in California but my education and work have taken me to New York, Minnesota and a few other places. Overall, as one might expect, I’m a huge nerd. I read a lot of comics and watch a lot of cartoons.
You have a colorful resume that stretches across writing books, working for DreamWorks Feature Animation, and designing some of the most beloved board games in the industry. Could you share the story behind how you ended up pursuing game design as a career?
So game design was a hobby for a long time. I’ve always had a sort of casual interest in the subject via shows like Extra Credits and attending the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. While I grew up playing Yu-Gi-Oh! Magic the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and Go, I never really got into board games as a hobby until I started watching Shut Up and Sit Down back when they were on Penny Arcade TV, and from there it was off to the races.
I had a few ideas and prototypes built but it was mostly a hobby project until I saw a post on the r/boardgames subreddit that pointed out Fantasy Flight Games was hiring designers. At the time it was a bit of a shot in the dark, but things worked out pretty well. My design test was well-received and the interview went well. I wasn’t sure how successful or long-term this career would be at the time, but I count myself supremely lucky to have gotten such an opportunity.
If you had never been let go by DreamWorks, do you think the game designer side of you would've eventually bubbled up to the surface? Or would you have continued to nurture the artist/illustrator in you as a career?
I honestly suspect that I would have stuck to writing and drawing and attempted to pursue a career in animation. It’s possible I might have pivoted to video-games or game design eventually but it’s hard to say with any kind of certainty. There’s a lot of crossover within the various creative industries and I know a lot of folks with pretty eccentric career trajectories, myself included.
In the end, you seem to be a born creator brimming with ideas. So how do you manage to reign it all in when working alongside a team of designers, developers, etc.?
I think that right there is definitely the most important lesson I learned at FFG. Proper collaboration. I think the fact that I worked in an office environment before was something that helped me since they knew that I knew what it was like to operate in an environment with coworkers. Many designers are pretty isolated by the nature of the job and so it can be tricky to learn how to collaborate and let some of your precious ideas go.
I learned pretty quickly that while I certainly had a lot of ideas, it took a fair amount of skill to be able to keep them in line with a project’s scope and needs. A lot of things I wanted to implement were things that would be super cool, but might work better in future projects, or they were simply unfeasible or poorly considered when weighed against the product as a whole.
Working with industry veterans at FFG was really helpful for reining in my own ego and seeing the decision making process up close helped me calibrate my own design sensibilities going forward. It’s hard work to maintain a strong core vision while still making all the compromises you need to.
I feel like the writer, artist, and designer in you all come through in Bargain Quest. How did the idea of the game come about and what was it like to have full creative control over the project?
It was honestly pretty overwhelming. At FFG I only had to worry about a comparatively small slice of the game’s overall direction. We focused on the design, meanwhile the art, production, and marketing of the game was someone else’s problem. Often by the time a game was released we’d already moved on to another project! I reached out to some of the designers who I knew had done similar projects like Tim Fowers and Luke Crane and they were invaluable in showing me the ropes of being an independent designer. The absolute creative control of the project was pretty wild, I was able to make whatever aesthetic or design calls I wanted throughout the whole process. Of course on the other hand, I also was responsible for a lot of the production and logistics behind the scenes which was pretty exhausting.
I admit that part of the impetus for doing Bargain Quest the way that I did was to see if I could do something like this on my own. If it hadn’t worked out I’d have possibly left game design entirely to pursue another career.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Bargain Quest was kickstarted to a modest success and then really blew up after the Shut Up and Sit Down review.
Ah, yes, I remember watching that video as well and I was instantly sold on the game! (Readers, if you haven't seen it yet, keep scrolling down for the video).
I feel like one of the main "hooks" of Bargain Quest is that you've given a spin onto the hero genre and placed spotlight onto the "NPC's," where it feels like the writer side of you is coming out to tell a story about the life of the shopkeepers. What are the core mechanics of the game and examples of "flavor" that enhances the players' immersion into the mind of the shopkeeper?
We did a few subtle things to make sure that players got into the correct mood during the gameplay. Having each shop be aesthetically unique helped give players a sense of ownership over their little shop. “This one is mine, and it’s not like the other shops.” making sure that we didn’t give any of the heroes names, only referring to them as “Fighter” or “Paladin” etc. was important to depersonalize the adventurers. As far as the shop is concerned they are simply customers.
One of the bigger odd flavor choices was the currency. The smallest unit in the game is actually a 5, there’s no smaller denomination. That’s a bit odd since it would make math somewhat simpler if we used smaller numbers, but conceptually the idea of selling a suit of armor for a measly 4 coins or a longsword for 2 just felt wrong. The larger denominations made it feel significantly more like you were amassing some significant wealth.
From interviewing your sister Victoria, it seemed like you also ended up illustrating some parts of the game. What was it like to return to your "artist side" during that time?
It was quite enjoyable! I had to do some work trying to match my sister’s style for the game and I met with some mixed success. You can see below an example of some items illustrated by her vs the ones that I did. Folks who know our work can spot the differences in style but we did our best to try and keep the shapes and elements consistent.
Bargain Quest's campaign for the 2nd printing and expansion did remarkably better in comparison to the 1st campaign. What do you think were the biggest differences that attributed to this?
Far and away it was the positive review by Shut Up & Sit Down. We got a lot of positive press in the lead up, showing the game at SXSW and PAX South, earning some accolades and special recognition as an up and coming title.
Were there any marketing (or any other) strategies learned from your experience at FFG that you utilized for Bargain Quest? By the way, I already love the art by Victoria but the guest art on the Chaotic Goods pack is a brilliant touch!
I probably should have paid better attention to the marketing department while I was at FFG as that was one area where I sort of had to figure things out on my own. I got to speak with a lot of industry veterans like Tim Fowers and Patrick Leder about putting together the marketing and getting word out about Bargain Quest. Your resources are really different when working independently as I didn’t have a relationship with a lot of Games Media outlets or Reviewers the way that FFG did. We mostly operated through word of mouth, going to conventions and showing off the game. The Chaotic Goods Pack was mostly a result of Vicky having a lot of friends who were also popular artists and board game fans who were willing to do us a favor. It was pretty awesome and I think added a lot of character to the game.
Going back to your work at FFG, you're known for designing fantastic games around IP's with a large fanbase. What are some unique challenges behind working on such games? Which one was the most challenging in terms of having the most restrictions placed by the license owner?
I’ve done a few talks about this subject and honestly I could probably burn the rest of the interview discussing licensing stuff. Designing for a franchise with an existing fanbase is always a bit tricky as you want to make sure that the game can be enjoyed by fans without being too esoteric and difficult for other players to understand. Generally I find that it’s often best to focus in on making sure the game FEELS right and keeping fan-specific knowledge as easter eggs that a dedicated fan will catch and feel good about.
I find it really useful to have this preexisting setting to work with because it provides a solid framework and direction for the game. “Does this FEEL like Power Rangers? Does this FEEL like Doom?” these questions allow me to move past a lot of indecision because I can focus in on the theme as an overall target. I’ve worked with a lot of different licensors over the years and they all have different approaches. Some companies like Lucasfilm or HBO have actor contracts and other media to consider which can affect what choices are available to us and what art pieces we can use.
As a designer, how do you "get into character" when working on such games? As in, do you hit the books or watch the movies to get as familiar with the topic as much as possible?
Oh yeah, it’s really important that I immerse myself in the media as much as possible. I try very hard to make sure that whatever licensed projects I work on are things I am personally a fan of. Passion is hard to fake, and it helps a lot to be genuinely enthusiastic about doing the research.
It seems like Star Wars: Imperial Assault was your first project after joining FFG. How did it feel to be a part of the design team behind one of the most popular franchises around?
It was incredibly daunting and also pretty surreal. I got to design the mechanics for the STORMTROOPER of all things. I think the craziest moment was when I overheard some players discussing characters and Gideon Argus, a character I both designed and named, was mentioned in the same sentence as Han Solo. It was crazy, but I will forever be grateful to have had the chance to make my own small contribution to this franchise that has brought me so much joy growing up.
What did you enjoy the most/the least while working on Star Wars: Imperial Assault?
My favorite part of Imperial Assault personally was getting the chance to design the various Hero characters. Giving them each a unique mechanical identity and theme is something that I find really personally engaging and satisfying. It’s sort of an indulgent exercise, like coming up with the backstory for a favorite D&D character.
There wasn’t much about working on Imperial Assault that I didn’t enjoy, but I will say it was very difficult to pass the reins of the game on to the Development Team. After the base game was released I slowly transitioned over to other projects and developers like Paul and Todd took over creating expansion content for Imperial Assault. It was hard for me to let go and give them room to work and I’d often wander by their desks and check in to see how it was going.
I read that you are a big Power Rangers fan! So what was it like when you were given the opportunity to work on Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid with Renegade Game Studios?
When Scott Gaeta mentioned that Renegade had gotten the license and were looking into creating a Power Rangers game I can honestly say my heart skipped a beat. I remember my first thought was just “Don’t screw this up. Don’t screw this up.” as I stated in no uncertain terms that I was a huge Power Rangers fan and that I would love to be the one to design the game. Thankfully I was actually the top of Scott’s list of potential designers so I didn’t have to fight anyone else for the job.
What were some noticeable differences between working on this game vs. all other games from the past that also featured an IP? Did being a true fan of the work (rather than just having a good knowledge of the source material) affect your design process/quality of the blending of theme and mechanic?
It was honestly pretty similar to working on Star Wars for me, since they occupy similar levels of personal fandom for me. However being in total control of the game, I felt tremendous pressure to get it right and to create the sort of Power Rangers game I always wanted as a kid. My knowledge of the franchise was a tremendous boon in helping me figure out exactly how to make the characters feel appropriate to their role in the show while matching them to more traditional mechanical roles. (Like Leader, Tank, Damage Dealer etc.)
There were some struggles of course, certain characters who are either canonically particularly powerful (Like the Green and White Rangers) or characters who I was personally fond of (Like Adam Park) were difficult to keep balanced. Expressing what made them powerful while not making them overpowered was tricky, and I had to work hard to rein in my own biases as well.
What is your favorite style of combat in the game and does it coincide with your favorite Ranger?
The short answer is “Yes”. I really like functioning as a high-damage sweeper and playing into big risk vs reward mechanics. Both of which I am happy to say were well suited to Zack Taylor, my favorite among the original Mighty Morphin’ team. Adam Park as Zeo Ranger IV was another character who I designed with a specific mechanical gimmick in mind that was inspired by digital Fighting Games like Marvel vs Capcom and Street Fighter, which I’m a huge fan of.
I thought Power Rangers could have been a gamble in having a large target audience, but in the end, the Kickstarter campaign was a massive success (~$705K pledged with close to 3800 backers). Did you expect the campaign to do as well as it did? What do you think was the key to its success?
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. As big a Power Rangers fan as I was, I wasn’t sure if this sort of game would resonate with that community. In particular the Power Rangers have seen so many iterations over the years, the fanbase is remarkably varied in both age and in favorite seasons. I think it wasn’t until we got to show it off at Power Morphicon (a Power Rangers convention held in Anaheim) that I got to see PR fans play the game and be excited about it in person!
I think the high production value and respect for the source material and audience were all huge factors in its success. The art by Dan Mora is pitch perfect for making the Rangers look cool while still retaining a colorful and lighthearted style.
What do you think are some unexpected IP's that are filled with untapped potential for a board game adaptation?
Hrm, that’s tricky. I for one would love to do a game based on Disney’s Gargoyles cartoon from the 90s.
With so many hopeful board game designers out there, what would be your #1 advice for those who'd love to be in your shoes?
Playtest your rulebooks. I’ve seen so many amazing prototypes with strong concepts and interesting core systems that were let down by a difficult to read or wholly incomprehensible rulebook. It’s definitely the thing I see novice designers trip up on most often.
Now that you have years of experience under your belt, what do you think is your own design philosophy?
Oof, that’s a tough one. My design philosophy has evolved a lot over the years and to be honest I feel like I’m still learning a lot every day. One thing I try to keep in mind whenever I’m designing is to make sure that the game has a consistent and clear vision. Early on in a game’s design there’s so many cool ideas that it’s hard to pick and choose. There’s a lot of interesting mechanics or concepts that end up on the cutting room floor because they distracted from where I wanted the player focusing during the game. I used to be really anxious and precious about cutting these ideas but I’ve gotten a lot better about it lately. I recognize that I’m not cutting these mechanics, but shelving them. If they’re really that good, then they can show up in expansions down the line or even expand out into their own entire games!
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I try not to judge my games too much based on their financial success. (They can’t all have “Star Wars” in the title, after all.) But it is deeply emotionally validating to see positive posts and reactions online of players enjoying my games. There’s so many amazing Imperial Assault and Bargain Quest stories, it makes me giddy just thinking about them!
I don’t tend to think in terms of specific milestones but these days I’d love to get a chance to work with a superhero license like Marvel or DC.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
Power Rangers is doing well enough that we’re continuing to support the game line for a while yet, which is pretty exciting. Beyond that I’ve got some upcoming ideas for Bargain Quest and other stuff that I’m excited to share but need to keep quiet for now!
Questions from Our Users
/u/BenjaminK: What is your favorite game? (Or one of your favorites.)
Android: Netrunner will always be near and dear to my heart. It’s such a fascinating piece of design and it was one of the first games I was taught by my coworkers at FFG!
/u/sdirrane: I'm so fascinated by Imperial Assault's ability to make maps with all the pieces. It feels like it'd be such a puzzle. How much time does it take?
It’s been a while since I’ve made one but it can take a bit of time. There was always a bit of a running joke in early development where you can tell who made which map by their particular habits. Justin Kempainen liked to make big maps that looped in on each other with minimal use of the little end-caps. Corey would do maps with lots of weird branches and pathways, and I had a weird tendency to make linear maps that were kind of gun-shaped.
Assembling maps was always kind of a fun exercise and you wanted to try to make sure that you conveyed the right elements of the mission with each construction.
/u/sdirrane: How many playtests do campaign missions go through to ensure the map is right with the theme?
Imperial Assault maps would generally go through at least a dozen playtests over time though often the early tests don’t resemble the final form very closely at all. We try to make sure to run each mission through its paces with a few different heroes and, if they’re side missions, at both early and late game gear/experience levels. It’s a pretty long process and honestly we never have as much time for testing as we’d like, but we do our best.
/u/BenjaminK: Games like Imperial Assault and Bargain Quest seem vastly different from each other. With that in mind, is there a certain type of game you prefer to work on? What is it?
The one thing that they definitely have in common is a strong emphasis on theme. I definitely feel much more comfortable designing thematic games rather than more abstract experiences. I am a huge fan of games like Arboretum or Splendor and it blows my mind how those designers can create such engaging games with just a bunch of colors and numbers!
Thanks again Jonathan for making your time for us!
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You can find more of my interviews here.
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