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Friday, December 3, 2021

[Interview] Gaming In The Deep: An Interview With FLOAT Designer And Creator Freddie Carlini

For as much as I love playing with friends online via trading card game simulators or other video games, there’s nothing like the in-person tabletop experience. Whether it be something like Dungeons & Dragons or Arkham Horror, sitting around a table with a group of friends, playing through a story, maybe even taking on some roleplay – there’s nothing like it. It’s a communal joy that not only allows for great memories, but also makes for a special form of gaming interaction.

Freddie Carlini of creative agency Bright Light is a fellow gamer who shares similar passions with myself. For him, games have become so much more than just great fun and memories – they’ve also become a career. Some of you may be familiar with Carlini’s previous game, Mixtape Massacre. Pulling inspiration from ‘80s horror, Mixtape Massacre functions as a board game/card game hybrid that pays homage to that era of horror filmmaking.

Through his creative insight, Carlini knows what makes a game engaging – which is also why his agency is on the verge of releasing a new title. For fans of tabletop games, and those who enjoy aquatic horror, Carlini is excited to release FLOAT: A survival game where players must work together (or not) to survive the terrors of the deep. Utilizing cards, a board display, some minis for further immersion, and more, Carlini and his team weave together their personal interests and experience into the design of FLOAT, making for a game that looks to submerge players into aquatic tension. The game’s Kickstarter campaign has already concluded, but you can still sign-up to be notified when pre-orders for the game go live!

With FLOAT really catching my attention, I wrote to Carlini to see if I could learn more about the game. Not only did he share the design philosophy and background in creating FLOAT, he also shared what he learned in making Mixtape Massacre, his own experience growing up with games, his drive to create games, and what tabletop games have to offer for entertainment within the horror genre.

Michael Pementel: Have you always had a love for games? If so, what kind of games are you into?

Freddie Carlini: Absolutely. As far back as I remember, I’ve always played games, be it board games or video games. When it came to tabletop games, I of course played the classics like Monopoly, Clue, etc. with my family, but also got into things like Magic The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. I used to love this game called RAGE. It was a werewolf card game. I even dug some IP releases when I was really young, like Dick Tracy or Batman and stuff like that.

MP: Where did the itch to create games come from? Was it something you always wanted to do?

FC: It was definitely when I was young. Be it creating characters for games never to actually be or drawing on graph paper with my Dad’s 8-Bit game ideas, I just loved creating worlds and coming up with ideas. Getting lost in your imagination and creating things is my happy place for sure. I think my real itch/kick in the ass was when I quit drinking and got sober about eight years ago. I was going to game nights with friends, and during one of the nights, I was kind of looking around the table at the game options noticing a real lack of the horror stuff I enjoyed, as well as the fact that everyone was getting frustrated with spending two hours reading a rulebook and not really playing the games. I think that for me was the final inspiration to try to create something, and led to our team, Bright Light, doing our first game, Mixtape Massacre.

MP: What were the challenges in creating Mixtape Massacre? How were those challenges met in creating FLOAT (if they were present at all)?

FC: I think most of the challenges are similar challenges anyone has when creating something. It’s a lot of asking yourself a cycle of questions like: Is this fun? Does this make sense? Will people like this? Is there an actual market for this? How do we market this?

At the time, when doing Mixtape Massacre, the Kickstarter tabletop community was still fresh and the resurgence of the tabletop game market was literally being talked about. I remember only a week before we went live with Mixtape Massacre on Kickstarter, the Today Show was airing a segment called, “BOARD GAMES ARE BACK.”

Today it’s way more saturated, so going out with a new product, no established IP, is a lot harder. It’s why you’ll probably notice a lot of the games that blow up are sequels, or riffs or reskinnings [sic] of preexisting games, because there’s an established audience for the game, making it easier to market for. Or they’re products from a large company with a big foot in the market.

For FLOAT, a lot of the challenges were the same. But I will say for Matt (Matt Corrado, co-owner/my business partner at Bright Light/illustrator and designer), I think the challenge for him was we kind of had left the comfort of Mixtape, so we were starting over in terms of discovering a look and style for the game. So, he spent a lot of time sketching and pitching ideas to Merrijoy Vicente [designer on FLOAT and Project Manager at Bright Light] and I based on discussions the group would have about look and style, characters, and that kind of thing. The gameplay was also a challenge, but only because, we purposely wanted this to be a different game entirely from what we did with Mixtape. But at the same time, still wanted to keep it approachable both for new players, and for more hardcore gamers, so that it was a game you could jump into without a lot of lead up or prep.

MP: What sort of feel or atmospheric presence did you want FLOAT to have as players play the game?

FC: Well, if I am being honest, my biggest irrational fear is the ocean. This is stuff that dates back to incidents when I was a kid. I am terrified of the ocean. It’s where the idea for the game came from. And I think part of that fear is the whole “what lies beneath” aspect. So, I think in terms of atmosphere, since a lot of this game is drawing cards, we wanted to create that same anxiety of “what lies beneath” and the fear of reaching for a new card. What am I going to draw? When the next day starts, what creature will be trailing our ships? And most importantly, you’re afloat in the middle of the ocean. There is no escape from the situations that arise.

MP: How did the main concept behind FLOAT’s gameplay come to be?

FC: In truth, the game FLOAT is now, is not the game it was three years ago. When we first started working on it, it was a completely different game, especially in terms of gameplay. We put it on the backburner when we launched our second game for Mixtape Massacre, Escape from Tall Oaks, and when we came back to it, more had changed. Some of FLOAT’s original mechanics actually got moved into Escape during its development.

Over three-plus years, it was a game we always came back to, and then always shelved as we were continually expanding the Mixtape Massacre universe. It almost became this tug of war of making current customers happy and creating new content for Mixtape Massacre, while at the same time wanting/needing to do something new to stay happy creatively. And that’s not to say we’re not happy making stuff for Mixtape. But being able to step away and do something new and different was very exciting for the team.

When we got back to FLOAT, I’d say the biggest change was [that] there was originally movement required of each player each turn, whereas now, the game is on a seven-day (three parts to a day) track that all players move together on each round, rather than separately. The board also went through a big evolution from the original board. The player station boards also evolved with each player having their own danger meters, water meters, etc. I’d say in some ways the game was a little simpler than it is now.

As sharks are part of my irrational fear, the main enemy when we first started FLOAT was just a shark. But now, the game has multiple creatures with different effects and stats.

MP: What are some works of aquatic horror you enjoy?

FC: Aquatic horror is probably my favorite sub-genre of horror. When I was young, my two big gateway films into horror were Ghostbusters and Jaws. Jaws has stayed with me to today. Shark movies are the only films that actually make me lose my cool and cower in my seat. My friends will tell you it’s more enjoyable most of the time watching me watch a shark movie than watching the movie.

I love aquatic horror, so picking favorites is hard, but I’d say some of them would be: Jaws, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six, The Shallows, Underwater, The Lure, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dead Calm. Some would probably call Dead Calm a thriller, but meh, whatever. And I’d say, from the films I listed, you’ll probably see a lot of inspiration from all of these movies in FLOAT.

MP: What do you think makes for good survival game experiences? How do you present those qualities through FLOAT?

FC: As I said, I think anxiety is important. That feeling of like, what is below us? What’s to come? I also think, be it in FLOAT or with Mixtape, we like to play on tropes from horror films. I think we all love as a team the idea in horror movies and survival films, that as the situation and film progresses, the people also become the monsters, so we give players certain cards and choices to betray and hurt those around them, or afflictions, that makes them dangerous to their crew.

MP: In general, what is the process in creating a tabletop game? Is your team wearing multiple hats when it comes to roles regarding who builds what and who writes what?

FC: For our current games, it usually starts with some brainstorming and ideas on my end, as well as some wireframing. When I feel like I have something “good,” I bring it to the team (Matt Corrado and Merrijoy Vicente) and we will kick it around and see if it has legs. We also are very keen on making sure it’s not redundant with other games out there. If it’s original, then it is even more exciting. From there, as a team, we develop and test, bringing in friends for testing when we feel the concept has reached a good point. MJ and I tend to do a lot of the writing and dev. Matt handles illustrations and design concepts. I help with some of the designs. But we all contribute to the different aspects.

We’re a small team, so yes, it’s definitely a process of everyone wearing different hats, and sometimes all wearing the same hats depending upon the task.

There’s also the marketing side. You need to have an audience. Luckily as Bright Light is a creative agency, we have years of experience in putting together creative and marketing. But even marketing for us, can be very hard in a saturated market like tabletop games.

MP: In designing a tabletop game, what is important for a designer to keep in mind in creating an immersive experience?

FC: This is going to sound like a simple or cheap answer but, I think of that GIF of that kid, “Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun! Fun!” That, for me, when it comes to a game, is most important, because if everyone is having

fun, then the experience is a good experience and something you’ll want to repeat. If the experience is good, then it’s something people are going to come back to and revisit. After that, the theme and look of the game. If anything, the theme should be adding to that fun.

MP: Do you think physical tabletop games have any qualities that lend themselves to the horror genre? Specifically in terms of creating fun or tense atmosphere within horror-driven narratives.

FC: As I said with FLOAT, the anticipation/anxiety when drawing cards is there. Even the rolling of the die. More so, when you’re playing in groups, it’s the continuous question of what is everyone else doing around you? How is this going to affect me? And most importantly, as I sit here watching others actions, what will be my actions when it’s back to being my turn? Those are definitely some of the tropes and elements you see that make great horror films.

But the biggest quality or element I see in tabletop games that lends itself well to the genre, or at least the most obvious, is a group of people trapped in a room, all working together or against each other on a task. If that doesn’t scream “horror,” I don’t know what does.

MP: With Mixtape Massacre and FLOAT now under your belt, what new lessons have you taken away in designing games? Especially after FLOAT.

FC: There’s a lot of lessons and things I’ve taken away from making this a part of our business these last six years. But I think there’s three main important lessons I’ve taken away from this experience:

· There is no overthinking when designing and developing a game. The more you think about it, the more you question it. [and] the more likely you are to find the cracks in it.

· Playtest. Playtest. Playtest. And then…playtest some more.

· Find your audience. Build your audience. Because without an audience, a good or bad game doesn’t matter if you don’t have the people to play it; or in the case of a Kickstarter, having the people to back it.

A big thank you to Freddie Carlini for his time in answering my questions – I am super excited to get my hands on FLOAT! While the Kickstarter for FLOAT has concluded, you can still sign-up via email to be alerted when pre-orders go live!


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