Industry Spotlight: Format Games
Format Games might not be a name you’re familiar with, especially if your usual board game cup of tea is the sort of game I often review here. It’s a game design studio headed up by two people: Laurence Emmett and Matt Edmondson. If you’re from the UK and recognise the latter of the two names, you might be wondering “Is that the same Matt Edmondson from BBC Radio 1?”. The answer is yes, it’s the same Matt Edmondson. One and the same.
Format Games specialise in small, lightweight party-style games. I met Laurence at this year’s UK Games Expo, at one of Asmodee’s areas. They’d recently signed a distribution deal with Asmodee, and were keen to get their games seen and played. After sitting down to chat with him about their games and how they came into being, I managed to grab an interview with the boys.
Adam: Before we get going, can you tell us who you are, and what brought you into the hobby of tabletop games?
We’re Matt and Laurence, owners of Format Games. Matt does all the inventing and games designing and Laurence runs the business day to day.
Matt: I have always loved playing games, and have to think up lots of them for my ‘day job’ of being a BBC Radio 1 DJ. A few years back I invented a game that found great success with Big Potato called Obama Llama, and it was a fantastic gateway to the industry. Since then I’ve invented quite a few games, and during the lockdown of 2020 set up Format Games with Laurence. I have regular games nights with my friends, and I genuinely love discovering new things to play.
Laurence: Luck and chance for me. I had a few small businesses in the service sector and was keen to move into online retail. During a chance discussion, Matt suggested we make a game that he’d been sitting on for a while called Ansagrams. We had absolutely no idea how to get this game to market, but we knew that between us, we had the skills to make it happen.
For each of you, which are your favourite games?
Matt: Where to start?! I love really simple, snack-able games with simple rules that are fast to learn and have really compelling gameplay. I love games like Gobbit, Dobble, and our own game Noggin which is the game I play the most regularly. I also love The Chameleon. Sometimes I’ll delve into more complex stuff- my favourite ‘big game’ is Colt Express. Every part of it is genius.
Laurence: A childhood favourite was Monopoly, I guess it spoke to my entrepreneurial spirit, and In my early 20’s I was quite a keen poker player. More recently Cross Clues is a fantastic game and I’d highly recommend it. Of our catalogue, I absolutely love Wheels Vs Doors (I’m a bit of a stat-nerd) and it combines poker-style gameplay with amazing stats – it’s perfect for me.
As I understand it, at least one of your games was created during the Covid lockdown. Were you toying around with game designs before the pandemic, or was Covid the catalyst?
Matt: I already had several games out in the market that I’d licensed to other manufacturers, but when lockdown hit a few of my television projects got delayed, so I found myself with some time. I had a raft of unfinished but fully-formed game ideas, so I suggested to Laurence that if he could help me with the ’serious bits’ of running a business, I could try and get some of them designed. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I love learning and I have quite a high tolerance for being bad at something before I get good at it, so I learned Illustrator via Youtube and just sort of figured it out. I think had the pandemic not occurred, I would have been unlikely to have been able to accelerate my skillset to the point where we’ve been able to output eight games titles within the first 18 months of the business.
Laurence: Without doubt being stuck inside with nothing to do pushed us to produce Ansagrams. For me, one of my companies (a domestic cleaning franchise) was closed and I was genuinely concerned for its future, so I saw this as a way of diversifying. Even though we had zero experience of designing a game, I trusted Matt 100% and knew he would create something brilliant.
You self-published your first game, and sold it on Amazon I believe. It’s quite an investment to get started that way. Did you have a belief at that point that this could be a real success for you?
Matt: We had absolutely no idea what to expect. We both went into this treating it as an experiment. In terms of actual cash investment, it was surprisingly low, so the stakes weren’t high and we felt like we had nothing to really lose and everything to gain. Crucially we knew the game, Ansagrams, was really good. We’d played it loads with friends and family, and we ordered about 3000 copies of it. I assumed it’d take us over a year to sell them all, but they sold out within two weeks, which was amazing and also a little frustrating as we could definitely have sold more! Once we saw how well that game had done, it was easier to conceive of this as being a serious business that had a future beyond that first game.
Laurence: Yes we dipped our toe in initially. We had other sources of income, which was vital, as we waited over 18 months to actually pay ourselves for our work. We were very lucky to be in a situation together that allowed us to invest our time, and a little bit of money, without taking on substantial risk. I absolutely did think we could make it a success. We both have a pretty good track record at what we do, and we both felt confident that we had every chance of succeeding, but honestly, we had no idea it would get so far so soon.
Can you talk us through how the deal with Asmodee happened? It sounds like it was a whirlwind.
Laurence: Again it was luck and chance. Following on from Ansagrams lightning sell-out over Christmas 2020, Matt and I approached John Lewis and they agreed to stock our game for 2021. At the same time, I was tendering for manufacture and called Asmodee’s UK office.
They politely informed me that they did not manufacture other companies’ games, but once I explained our situation, they made an offer to distribute Ansagrams for us, to John Lewis and other retailers across the UK. That was January 2021, and by April 2021, Matt magically invented three more games (Noggin, Egg Slam and So Wrong It’s Right) and suddenly we were a thriving games studio. By the time we demonstrated at Toy Fair 2022, our catalogue had grown to 8 games and the amazing reaction from retailers encouraged Asmodee to offer us a 3 years distribution deal, which for us was a total game changer.
Matt: It feels like we’ve been really fortunate to have met the right people at the right time. The games are seriously great, and the thing I want above all else is for people to play and enjoy them, so having a distributor with such a great track record and amazing reach is really important. With games like Noggin, in particular, they’ll live or die on great demonstrations – I truly believe if you play Noggin once, you’ll be playing it for the rest of your life, so we love what Asmodee has done with Dobble on the demonstration front and want to forge a similar relationship.
The deal with Asmodee is a huge thing. Has it changed any future plans for either of you, now that your games are being sold and distributed around the world?
Laurence: It’s turned my world upside down. After Toy Fair in January I made the decision to sell my cleaning company and take a back seat on the other businesses I am involved in. I’m now full-time Format Games, and I absolutely love it!
Matt: The entire thing has been a bit of an unexpected whirlwind. A lot of my life is embarking on fun creative projects and then seeing what sticks, but the pace of expansion with this one has been really astonishing. I’m going to keep coming up with games (in fact, I’m typing this up whilst on a flight back from some games meetings in NYC and I had an idea for a game about 15 mins after take off which is BRILLIANT, so I’ve started working on it straight away!) and Laurence’s role will be to help us grow the business both in the UK and internationally.
My readers know me as someone who loves more complex games, as well as family and party games. Does either of you have any plans or ideas for something heavier, a big box strategy game, or something similar?
Matt: I am in awe of the big strategy games, and when I play the really complex ones I often think ‘how did anyone come up with this?’. I’m not sure my mind is wired for creating that type of game (although never say never) and my mission in almost everything I do is to keep it as simple as I can. I want all of our games to be really accessible for both seasoned gamers and people who only play one game a year at Christmas. We’re going for mass market but with a playful and personality-driven tone.
If there are any budding game designers out there, what advice would you give them to get started?
Matt: I think the first thing to do is to make a prototype of your game and then just play it with your friends loads. From that, you’ll work out which bits work and which levers to turn up or down to make the game more fun. I’d then also decide a route to market. For the first few years of my career, I was incredibly content licensing my games to other companies, and they always did an amazing job with them. I wouldn’t be able to run Format Games on my own, so if it wasn’t for Laurence my inventions would have ended up with other games studios or sat on my shelf gathering dust. It’s been a lot of work getting these different products out into the world in the quality we expect, and so I think if I was still a solo games designer I’d be pitching my game ideas to companies whose games I already love.
What’s next for Format Games? Do you have anything new on the way you’d like to share with us?
Matt: We’ve had fairly rapid growth and now have a slate of eight games (in just over a year!) so our plan is to focus on two of our big releases this year, a game called Karen – all about ridiculous one-star reviews found online, and Wheels VS Doors – a hilarious debating game with a brilliant betting mechanic and the most mind-blowing stats you’ve ever heard. I’ve got three or four other games I’m currently working on, but we’re trying to pace ourselves. I frustratingly have more ideas than we could ever hope to make, so it’ll be a case of seeing what’s working from our existing range and then trying to compliment it with new stuff.
Laurence: We are such a new business, you could arguably classify all of our games as new. This will be the first Christmas season that our games will be available in most retail outlets, and it’s our first proper launch from a pr/marketing perspective. In 2021 we had such limited stock available we had to launch in, and stay in, first gear, this year we can hammer the throttle a little more and we’re hoping that momentum will continue into 2023. We plan to release 2 games next year, Matt has so many ideas it will be a case of working out which 2 we run with and launching them at Toy Fair in Jan 23. Exciting times!
Finally, and maybe most importantly, which is the best biscuit?
Matt: This is a controversial answer, but I’ve just discovered I’m dairy intolerant (noooooooooo!) so I’m backing the Bourbon. It’s ‘accidentally vegan’ which means it doesn’t have any milk in it and is therefore a staple of my life now!
Laurence: Two compete for top spot. A dark chocolate digestive, and a chocolate hob-nob. Mainly for their superior dunking properties. But you have to time it right. There is nothing worse than losing half a hob-nob in your mug of tea.
If you’d like to know more about Format Games and their range of titles, head over to their site now.
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