As someone who grew up in a construction family and has flipped a few houses in his time, Rusty Axe Games CEO Lennard Feddersen knows a thing or two about real estate. He’s poured that knowledge, combined with more than a decade of game design experience, into creating strategy games that deal with the nuances of buying and selling property. Fedderson spoke to Gamezebo about Real E$tate Empire and his latest game, Big$hot, and what he’s got planned for the future.

Hi Lennard, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Rusty Axe Games.

Hi Erin, glad to have the opportunity. Rusty Axe Games is the company I started after leaving mainstream game development after about 17 years. Initially I worked on some games for the Pocket PC, Tapwave Zodiac and other handheld devices but eventually found that the market there is small and the games, the price points are really low and new devices just keep coming.

That wasn’t a good business model when you have kids and a mortgage so I moved into the casual PC market. I really like designing games for the PC – anyone who has read my blog rants about Vista know that I’m not a fan of Microsoft, but their C compiler, Visual C++, is a terrific tool to work with every day.

In the past couple of years I’ve drifted towards doing financial strategy games. Real E$tate Empire was my first game of that kind and I got a lot of feedback – both positive and negative – and I felt like that really helped me in the design of Big$hot. At this point I’m working on a sequel to Real E$tate Empire which I think people are going to like a lot. It’s going to be another thinking players game but with a lot of refinements that should make it more accessible to the casual market.

Rusty Axe Games is a pretty cool name for a game studio. How did you come up with it?

Thanks. It’s been quite awhile since I came up with that so I honestly can’t entirely remember – although the masked guy with the big axe was drawn for a game that I canned during pre-production called Dungeon Crawl – The Mad Alchemists Laboratory. I really liked the graphic and so I hired the artist from my last few games to replace a big hammer with the axe and it has been our logo ever since.

In a moment of weakness I toyed with the idea of re-branding to something a bit more business like last year. Sometimes I wonder if the dungeon dude with the big axe might be off putting to some of the folks who come to my website looking for a nice financial strategy game! Ultimately I decided that the Axe has been around too long and while maybe not great from a business game branding perspective it leaves me open to doing other kinds of games in the future. I’ve been noodling around with a Battle Castles 2 design for a long time and sooner or later I expect I’m going to get to it.

You’ve described your latest game, Big$hot, as "Monopoly for grown-ups." What was the inspiration behind the game?

When I was growing up we played a lot of Monopoly on family game night. Collecting properties, fixing them up, making trades, all of that stuff is a lot of fun and I still play it with my kids. That said the underlying mechanics of the game don’t offer a lot of room for strategy and the business model of staying a night at Boardwalk when you know full well that it’s going to bankrupt you… well that doesn’t make any sense!

When I was done Real E$tate Empire I started thinking about an upgrade model for a business game that would really boil down some key aspects of running a business; improving efficiency, quality/brand building and advertising so that you could have a very simple game that could still reflect some of the complexity of running real businesses.

I also wanted to be able to have synergistic businesses that would help your other businesses so I added media companies which reduce your advertising costs, construction companies which drive down your future improvement costs and real estate companies which let you sell your properties without having to pay commissions.

Adding more than one property of a kind to your portfolio also helps drive down advertising costs and increases profits while completely improving any property will turn it into a super brand which gets a profit boost every month and will also steal traffic from weaker competitors in the same industry.

That’s pretty much the game in a nutshell – I know that it’s a bit complex but making it simpler would mean dropping out key features which would mean that a player who loves the game (and I’ve received email from people who do) would get less out of the experience. My goal is to make games that I would like to play and to hope that those games can go out into the world and be somebody’s favourite game.

Big$hot, like your previous title Real E$tate Empire, is by your own admission a niche title that’s very different from other real estate sims like Build-a-lot. How should people be approaching this game?

That’s a great question and the answer starts with the games tag line – "Part game, part simulator, all fun!" A player who didn’t like the game (and perhaps that person would take exception with the all fun part…) wrote a negative review at Reflexive and said that they had spent all of their money fixing up a house and then found that they didn’t make any profit. As somebody who has flipped a few houses and grew up in a construction family, I can tell you that that outcome does reflect reality.

For example, if you are in a down economy and you own a 3 bedroom house in OK condition worth 175K and a cherried out 3 bedroom down the street sold for 200K then you can’t rip out everything on your OK condition place, spend 75K on upgrades and then sell it for 200K and make a profit! On the other hand, taking a completely trashed place that you pick up at a reasonable price and replacing everything can be a perfectly profitable strategy. You just have to think about what you are doing and to pay attention to what an upgrade will cost with respect to what it will earn for you.

Interestingly our local real estate market turned white hot about 2 1/2 years ago and property values surged past the cost to construct new homes. Local housing starts jumped for the first time in about a decade last year. Unfortunately those surging prices peaked around last May and we are now seeing the start of a contraction that I think is going to go on for a couple of years due to the global slowdown.

I’ve just started Real E$tate Empire 2 and one of the features I’m thinking about incorporating in the game editor would allow game builders to build towns and put them through preset economies so that you could simulate living through a variety of economic periods. This is something an early user of Real E$tate Empire 1 requested. That feature didn’t make sense to add to an update of REE 1 but I think it will find its way into the sequel.

Big$hot is your fourth game as an indie developer. What have you learned along the way, and how would you say that you’ve grown as a developer in that time?

I think most of my growth has been as a designer. I remember being in the mainstream industry and going for interviews and one of the questions was always "and what games do you play now, what games are you passionate about?". And I remember thinking, wow, you must be crazy if you think that I play video games after working 60-70 hour weeks. I was spending my spare time just trying to get my eyes back to normal shape and to get my back unkinked. Caveat, when I worked at Midway Games West they encouraged us to spend work time playing the stand up arcade units they had kicking around and I played a lot of Rampart there.

Anyhow, one of the things about my life now is that my schedule is a lot more relaxed and I actually have time to play games and, as a designer, that’s pretty helpful! I realized about 20 years into my career that I became a programmer just so I could design games and so now I spend most of my time thinking about what I would like to play and, from all of the designs that come from that process, which designs actually make sense to pursue.

You’ve worked in both large studios and as an independent. What are the biggest differences between the two? Given the opportunity, would you ever go back to your former lifestyle?

I think the large studio model is some kind of metaphor for run away capitalism. At some point people realized that the most popular games make way more money than their counterparts so the companies started to spend like crazy on new titles because, even if you spend 3 times as much on a title as your competitor, if you sell 5 times as many copies and steal market share then, in a business sense, you win. What this has evolved to over time is a kind of escalating arms race and studios have developed a very risk averse model that expects that most of these expensive games are still going to lose money while a few hits will carry the company.

The life of somebody working in one of those studios involves pretty long hours and typically living in expensive regions of the country. When those studios crash – see Gamasutra.com for some of the latest announcements of companies contracting and/or going under – you are stuck with a big mortgage, a big monthly nut and you are probably pretty burnt from working long hours.

As a father and a guy in his forties, none of that is very interesting to me these days. I love the fact that I get emails from customers directly, that I get to make the games that I want to and that we are financially sound without having to depend upon some organizations ongoing stability.

I did have an opportunity to take on a Dungeons and Dragons game utility project right after Real E$tate Empire and that was so cool that I almost took a year and did it. Ultimately the project budget wasn’t anywhere near expectations so I had to back out so I wouldn’t say I won’t ever do anything else with my time. At this point I’m very project oriented and whether it’s Real E$tate Empire 2, putting wood floors into a house, growing a garden or doing a project for somebody else… none of it looks like going back to a big game studio kind of life.

Why did you choose Terrace, BC as your home base instead of, say, Vancouver? Does location really matter all that much for an indie developer?

I grew up in Terrace and still have family here. I found myself coming back most summers and so it made sense to either live near here or near upstate NY where my wife’s folks live so that we could increase the amount of time we spent with family every year. We also owned a rental property here – a 6-plex with 3 little houses on the same property – so it made the most sense to come back here.

Also, Vancouver is pretty expensive and so doing a startup up with a wife and kids there would not have made any more sense than where we were living in Santa Cruz. I miss good restaurants but small town life has a lot of appeal for me – the time it takes me to walk downtown is shorter than my commute time to Virgin when I lived in Southern California!

What are the biggest challenges facing today’s indie game developers?

Economics. Most indies don’t drive enough website traffic to survive without being on the portals who take the lion’s share of earnings (typically 60-80%) and who are pushing prices down with game clubs and other systems. Couple that with dramatically rising development costs and I think that those developers who survive working with the portals are going to become a lot more risk adverse.

Can you give us any insights or sneak peeks into your next project after Big$hot?

Real E$tate Empire 2. I’m excited about the game and I’m trying to get a demo out as soon as possible so I can get direct feedback with people who liked Real E$tate Empire 1 and Big$hot. The game will be a little simpler to play than REE 1 and will incorporate a lot of little design nudges that have come from feedback I have received about REE 1 and Big$hot.

One of the ways that I feel that Big$hot improved upon REE 1 is that the game is less predictable while still involving a lot of strategy. REE 2 will have that same characteristic while offering up a variety of towns to play through, much longer game play lengths and an easier to use interface. I think people are going to like it.

Any last words for your fans?

Thanks for supporting us and I hope everybody enjoys the games. Really, thanks for seeking us out, taking the time not to pirate our games and to play and pay for them.

I have read a lot of stories about the late 70’s and early 80’s – the period I just missed when I moved to California in 1986 – where people were making the games they wanted to make and dropping floppies into baggies to sell through retail chains. The Apple II lab at my high school had some of those games and that was such a vibrant and interesting time. With the internet and our ability to sell direct to the consumer it feels like we have that opportunity again and it’s the most exciting thing.