Wednesday 25 August 2010

Interview with Maciej Żylewicz (part 1)

The Pulp Citizen recently had time to meet and chat with Maciej Żylewicz, the man behind Pulp Monsters and therefore Pulp City, at Salute 2010. We discussed all things Pulp City - the tabletop superhero and villains skirmish game - as well as his thoughts about the gaming industry. Part 1 posted today, part 2 will follow tomorrow.

Left: Libra Sensei, Ulthar

Pulp Citizen: So this is your first Salute?
Maciej Żylewicz: Yeah. I am planning on coming back with a more organised thing, this was very spontaneous, basically to come over and help out the guys at MaxMini, and have some stuff with me as well. If you want to do the show you have got to do it properly, otherwise it is a waste of effort.

PC: I was going to ask about the partnerships you have with the likes of MaxMini.
MZ: Oh we’re just friends. We used to be painters in the same city, we used to get together and talk ideas. Then I started my enterprise and and Przemek followed, and they are doing amazing.

PC: Is that helping you formulate what you would like to do next time?
MZ: I am fine with what I do at Gencon, but Gencon is a formula, you need to spend at least a couple of months preparing for that, so you need to add more stuff. At my first Gencon when I went pretty much by myself and only had my friend take care of the sales. I was so wasted, I had to sleep for a week after. Gencon is more straining because it is four days.
But last year it was great, I got a lot of support from the people that like the game and are willing to do things for the game, so the demo team last year was just unbelievable.

PC: so maybe demos next year for Salute?
MZ: yeah, that’s the only way you can do it.

PC: Can we talk a little bit about how Pulp City came about?
MZ: I guess it starts pretty much the same with everybody. I don’t know any people who start this as a business venture meant to bring you millions. It is mostly fans. Half the way you can go professional or you quit. I am pretty good at pursuing the cause, so I decided to go more professional.
So I had the idea. I knew there definitely was a group of people that both love comic books and love the idea of miniature gaming, there was absolutely nothing on the market in terms of the quality you want to provide people with. It starts with a very idealistic approach and then you have to start verifying certain assumptions you have made along the way. So you think it is easy to find a sculptor – no it’s not. I believe there are about twenty sculptors in the world who can deliver a certain level of quality. This is the level of quality I want. Half measures don’t work here. People will buy ‘half measure’ miniatures only if they are very cheap and have a lot of auxiliary uses. As much as I would like it, you cannot use Pulp City miniatures to play Warhammer, there is not that much crossover as there would be with other games. I guess the same thing applies to Wyrd Games. They do have their specific miniatures that end up being very good in their own environment and very odd in the others.
So you have to climb the barrier and start with the sculptors. There are two approaches. One is to fire a price which will knock you down and see if we are willing to follow, and the other is to build up the interest of your sculptor in your project. I have been fortunate to work with some good people along the way, but you learn a lot.
The first stage of me working with artists is that it was not easy for me to say “Look, I don’t like the way it looks. Please change it”. So you gain a lot of assertiveness, but it’s rarely something you get from the very start.

PC: So how was it the first time you had to deal with that?
MZ: When you take the basic starters [starter sets], there are a couple of things I’d like to improve over time. I said there are no half measures, but you also have to settle for some deadlines, and striving for perfection would mean that everything would be delayed another couple of months or years and we couldn’t afford that. At some point you get to a breaking point where you have invested so much money, that you would really like to start having some returns.
And you come across some really good co-operators. It usually lasts for a long time once you see that the co-operation is going well. Then there are times you think something is going to be good but it is not. Or somebody provides you something excellent in their portfolio and then it fails. I don’t like doing test pieces where people ask you “I’ll do something for you for free”, and if you like it you’ll buy it. So I usually try to have the sculptors and the artists that I really do like to work on our projects. Of course then you have to find the balance between the price of the artist and the quality he or she provides.

PC: For a long time, sculptors and creative collaborators aside, you [Pulp Monsters] have been a one man show, haven’t you?
MZ: It is actually still a one-man show. I had some co-operators but the people I worked with – and I honestly don’t blame them – were not able to focus on the long-term goals, so the interest died at early stages. But at the same time I came across some people that as I changed to them, it clicked and is working perfectly now.
Right now I am more of a two-man show, as soon as my sales manager takes over the entire business part. Again you cannot forget that I am being supported by a group of people that are willing to commit to a lot of things and help you out.
Now one thing is that they will commit to it and the real-life issues will sometimes show up, but there is always somebody to step in their place and take over. So it is comforting to know that you are not left with certain thoughts unverified by the others; that is super-important for the creative process.

PC: Now you are able to step a little bit away from the business side, where do you see your role heading?
MZ: You know I always wanted to be ‘Creative Director’. I seem to have a lot of talents, but never very well developed; I do draw but never good enough to provide the pieces for my own game. I do paint but not as good as I would like my miniatures painted, and you suddenly find out that that you find a lot of enjoyment in seeing other people do that. You just stand there and feed them with ideas.

PC: Something that’s evident with Pulp City, and you have talked about quality all along, is the high production values - packaging, painting, sculpting especially.
MZ: It is not like it is a golden solution that provides you with all of the answers. There are different ways of manufacturers appealing to customers. It is equally important to appeal to your retailers. Some people choose the easy way, and go direct. This way they can sell the miniatures at extremely low prices and still make some profit. While remembering that if you go retail and distribution you lose fifty-sixty per cent of the final price of the miniatures. So if you add in that it is a niche amount of product produced, you end up with high maintenance costs. So some people say “Get over it, if it’s going to sell it’s going to sell in blisters with unified card backs printed”.
I didn’t do it [go with unified blisters]; I keep going back and forth, to see how it works out. So far it is working okay, but again the next level of commitment has to happen for the game to step up.

PC: When you say about stepping up, do you mean for the game itself, or for the brand?
MZ: I think for market penetration. Being recognisable in many more places than we are right now. And I know it sounds hard, but take a look at the US distribution. We do have a lot of distributors. But not much effort to push the game.
You are just basically waiting for the retail to ask you “Hey, do you have that game?; okay we can sell you that”.
Now look at the French market. It is unbelievable what one man with a team of other people can do (Antre du Blup). The game in the French market is thriving, and I sometimes feel guilty that I am not dedicating enough effort to keep it promoted over there, but it also shows in not only the retail sales we get over there, but also the individual sales.

PC: If a market like France is very hungry for a game like Pulp City, and the US is perhaps a little more resistant, what would you put that down to?
MZ: I guess it’s about determination of retail or distribution, to get the game at low cost, because that is what Pulp City is about. You can get the game at really low cost without having to stock tons and tons of products.
One of the downfalls of Confrontation [here referring to Confrontation up to third edition] was that you had to support about 15 different armies, and in each of them you need at least 10 blisters to create a reasonable army. With Pulp City this is not a problem because you can stock ten products, and still be able to offer your customers a very game-able army. So I guess the game should be easy to promote, also with its production values, but again we are talking about the niche. It is easier at the same effort to push many more board games than it is to push a skirmish game.

PC: So when you say a niche do mean within war-gaming specifically or gaming as a whole?
MZ: I think that war gaming is a niche. If you think about the turnover of two major companies that is still going to be low compared to the production of socks or bottle caps, so we are not talking those volumes. But then within the niche, there is another niche which is not post-Tolkienist fantasy or non-classic sci-fi, and so we are in that niche. But as you see some other games get a lot of success on the way, but they are also niche games. There is a lot about the determination of the manufacturer.
I really admire Nathan from Wyrd Games, and how Malifaux is becoming more and more recognised throughout the world. I guess he set a new standard that there is for niche companies.

Image © Pulp Monsters, used with permission

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