Featured Nerd: Doug Davison on Fantasy Grounds
Featured Nerd: Doug Davison on Fantasy Grounds
If you aren’t able to go to ConGlomeration this weekend, there’s another convention you can attend. Even better, you can attend from the comfort of your home and it’s free.
The folks behind Fantasy Grounds will be hosting a worldwide, online gaming convention using their software from April 8 to April 10. The convention, dubbed FG Con, runs pretty much 24-7 and a wide variety of game events are being held (check out the full listing here). Gamemasters with an Ultimate License can host players who are using the free Demo License. Furthermore, if you want to try out a Standard or Ultimate license, you can sign up for the 30-day trial and cancel after the convention. Nerd Louisville is also giving away an Ultimate license on Facebook.
Want to learn more about Fantasy Grounds and its Master Architect? Read on.
Written by Mike Pfaff; photograph of Doug by Mike Pfaff; screenshots provided by Smiteworks
The faint, wretched chortle of goblins can be heard behind the door. A grizzled warrior positions herself to thrust open the thick, wooden door and surprise the sinister beings beyond so that the crackling, eldritch energy held between the fingertips of the party’s wizard can be thrown into the room. With a nod, the warrior leaps to action, slamming her armor-plated shoulder against the door and splintering it open with a crash. But the goblins seem to be aware and ready to attack. And, to make matters worse, one of them seems to be wearing a crown of dizzying, enchanted jewels––one jewel starts to spark with lightning that almost yearns to leap toward the intruders.
Roll for initiative!
Most players of Dungeons & Dragons know what happens next: it’s time to snatch up some dice and see whether steel and magic are enough to take out the goblins. Only, this game is happening with players from all over the world and snatching up dice is done with the click of a mouse. The game is happening on Fantasy Grounds, a virtual tabletop designed to replicate all the nuance of playing roleplaying games, like D&D, in person. For nerds who have moved to a new town and want to keep their old gaming group together or just can’t find anyone nearby to play with, Fantasy Grounds is the solution.
Doug Davison, co-owner of Smiteworks USA, the company behind Fantasy Grounds, said he combined his entrepreneurial spirit and gaming at an early age, well before he bought Smiteworks. As a kid, both his uncle and father had vast libraries filled with fantasy tomes that he’d borrow and read. Doug said he knew when both of them would recommend something that it had to be good. Later, it was White Dwarf magazine and its images of beautifully painted armies and battle reports written from the perspective of the combatants that lured him into collecting figurines.
“All my money as a kid went to that kind of stuff,” Doug said. “I’d go cut grass, get some money, and then go up to Something 2 Do and spend it all.”
In those days, you could buy molds from the magazines and melt your own figurines on your stove: a nation of 10-year-old alchemists creating armies of vicious orcs and elves riding pegasi to do their bidding on miniature battlefields. Doug decided to start selling the figurines at school. He’d get 10 cents a pop or sell them in a lot, “Hey, here’s a whole group of goblins on wolves!” And, then, he’d reinvest the profit into more figurines. Still, hindsight is 20/20. Doug lamented not investing in actual Games Workshop collectibles, “They might be worth more now!” It wasn’t long before Doug was immersed in D&D and Magic: The Gathering.
Roleplaying wasn’t his only interest, though. Doug started programming in the 6th grade, copying code from programming texts. His first instinct was to apply his programming skill toward gaming. He wrote a program that was basically a timing game, where an airplane went across the screen and you hit a button trying to time a parachuting soldier to land correctly. Then, he tried his hand at writing a version of Zork, the text-based adventure game. Doug dotes on Zork like a proud father might dote on his child.
“Zork is actually a pretty sophisticated game,” Doug said. “Whoever wrote Zork was a great programmer.”
Author’s note: it’s about then that Doug gave a lengthy lecture on parsers, but I’ll spare you the details.
Doug kept learning and programming. He worked a job at Brown & Williamson where he had an absurd amount of free time, so he learned Visual Basic. He even learned HTML and designed the first website for Brown & Williamson.
“It had an animated flag,” Doug joked. “My contribution to their demise? Maybe. I don’t know.”
His passion for gaming was always there. At one point Doug wrote a program to create armies for Games Workshop and even tried to sell it to them. They declined with a generic response letter. Doug’s skill at programming matured, and he eventually graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in computer science. Throughout college, Doug’s gaming waned, but when he graduated and moved to Illinois with his wife so she could finish her studies, the itch reappeared.
The 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons had recently been released, and they were living in a college town, so it was easy to meet fellow nerds to game with. Doug became really active in the community and even set up a gaming forum for Champaign Urbana called CUGaming which led him to run some mini-conventions. He continued programming, even forming his own company called Luster: “Don’t go there now, it’s a porn site or something,” he warned. But Doug never lost that aspiration to combine gaming and programming.
“There’s always been a part of me that really wanted to do game development,” Doug said. “I wanted to write a game. Business stuff paid the bills, but it’s not what I love.”
After his wife finished her degree, his family moved back to Louisville, and his gaming group was left behind. Doug started looking around for options for continuing to play with them online. That was when he stumbled upon a program called Fantasy Grounds and started programming everything for an epic Star Wars SAGA campaign. Doug also had some excess cash from selling his company and was looking for investments. The stock market wasn’t working out for him.
“When I put money in the stock market, it tanks,” Doug said. “If you ever want to make money, just invest in the opposite of what I invested in. I’ve always had better luck when I started my own business.”
The Star Wars campaign never got off the ground, but Doug began doing more with Fantasy Grounds, coding rulesets and other custom content. This seemed like something he was interested in investing in. He reached out to the owners, three fellows from Finland. Initially, they didn’t want to sell. And, some of Doug’s co-investors backed out. But, since his molding figurines for 10 cents a pop days as a kid, Doug was – and still is – a hustler. In 2009, he finally came to an agreement to purchase Smiteworks and Fantasy Grounds. Not long after, one of the investors who backed out decided they wanted back in. Today, they own and operate Smiteworks together.
Since Doug and his partner assumed ownership of Smiteworks, the Fantasy Grounds software has grown by leaps and bounds. One of the first things Doug did was put Fantasy Grounds on Steam. It was a hit and revenue instantly doubled. Then he instituted a monthly subscription model in addition to the lifetime subscription. Fantasy Grounds was taking off, but Doug still worked at his full-time job and wasn’t getting much sleep. Eventually, after some changeover at his day job, he decided to start doing Smiteworks full-time. This allowed him to pursue licensed content and to shore up some third-party content already being sold for Fantasy Grounds. Still, the big haul was getting the Dungeons & Dragons official license.
Doug had been in talks with Wizards of the Coast for years, but Wizards’ plan during the 4th Edition era was to use an internal development team to create their virtual tabletop. Those plans bombed and when the 5th Edition of D&D was announced, Doug jumped on the opportunity. His team began creating mockups of the 5th Edition rules for Fantasy Grounds and sending them to Wizards. Eventually, someone took note.
“The polish of our tabletop is probably what got us the contract,” Doug said. “Wizards of the Coast is really particular about the visuals and the art.”
Smiteworks signed a contract to become the official Dungeons & Dragons virtual tabletop. And, the impact has been huge. Smiteworks now makes in a month what they previously made annually. Big game-related websites, like Polygon, began interviewing Doug about Fantasy Grounds leading to huge visibility for Smiteworks. Now, if you want to play 5th Edition D&D with a virtual tabletop, Fantasy Grounds is the only one that allows you to preload all the rules for seamless integration. Fantasy Grounds is even a popular place to play Adventurer’s League games since it’s technically public, and you can get a lot more experience points for your character than you might at local game stores.
Doug said the success of Fantasy Grounds has been gratifying. He’s finally combining his love of programming and gaming into a career, and Smiteworks continues to grow.
“We’re barely scratching the surface,” Doug said. “We continue to see new DMs buying in. And, as new D&D products are pushed out in print, you can see it immediately digitally in Fantasy Grounds too.”
As Smiteworks grows, the community remains one of the best aspects of Fantasy Grounds. There are even times when the “super users” in the community have already solved customer support issues before Doug wakes up. The community is also the catalyst for the “digital GenCons” being run online using Fantasy Grounds.
“Our community is amazing,” Doug said. “It was one of the reasons why I wanted to buy the company. Everyone is friendly and positive. Our old community members will often help new people who come in, offering people to help setup a router or run a game for people to show them the ropes.”
Smiteworks is working hard on a wide variety of new features for Fantasy Grounds 2.0, and soon Doug may also have his dream of working on a full video game come to fruition. Smiteworks is in the process of forging an MMO-style video game for a unique IP.
Doug still plays Pathfinder, a D&D style role-playing game, every other week in-person, although he always suggests that the group put up Fantasy Grounds on a 55” screen. He uses Fantasy Grounds to enhance the tabletop experience by being able to resolve battles with speed and keep track of stats digitally. Though, there’s something great about the clatter of real dice on the table.
Find out more about Fantasy Grounds at: www.fantasygrounds.com
Get involved with the FG Conventions at: www.fg-con.com
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