Blaseball’s latest era wrapped up July 26, and the credits have rolled. In that last era, the sun exploded, a black hole swallowed the rules, and fans — as a studio spokesperson said — melted The Coin and “the concept of money in the game was destroyed.”
In other words, it’s just another season for Blaseball, The Game Band’s horror game-in-fantasy sports wrapping. Blaseball isn’t really baseball in that it follows the rules of that game (or is about winning by scoring more runs). It’s a weird fantasy sports-like sim that runs off the votes of its players and their whims.
I talked with The Game Band founder and creative director Sam Rosenthal. The studio isn’t just working on what’s next now that the expansion era is over. It’s porting Blaseball to mobile, with a bunch of improvements and quality-of-life additions (such as notifications). It wants to add more story to Blaseball. It’s also overseeing the mobile port of its first game, Where Cards Fall. The studio has the wherewithal to do this thanks to a $3 million funding round from Makers Fund and 1UP Ventures.
And maybe catching its breath after Blaseball’s breakthrough 2020, one that saw it catch on during the pandemic and garner coverage from sports and mainstream media (such as the excellent baseball podcast Effectively Wild and The Los Angeles Times). Not bad for a project that started out as a backup plan for the company as the pandemic struck.
Three top investment pros open up about what it takes to get your video game funded.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: 2020 was quite a year for Blaseball and your company. How has that success carried into 2021?
Sam Rosenthal: 2020 was wild for everybody, but for our company, it was crazy. It represented a gigantic pivot that we didn’t expect. Blaseball is our experimental side project. It was something we were doing, like a Hail Mary from a business perspective at the studio, and also something we wanted to make to bring people together. We didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did. We’re very grateful for the response and that we were able to raise around it so that we can move into the future.
It’s been an interesting spot in 2021 so far, because we’re both carrying forward the momentum we built up with Blaseball and finishing up the expansion, but we’re also literally expanding the team right now. We’re preparing for the future, all these grand plans we have for the game, while we’re also very much working on the game as always. Blaseball is not the type of game that typically had, in its previous incarnations, a very long product road map. It certainly had one, but not more than about a month. It’s very different today. It’s been a balancing act in those two spaces.
GamesBeat: Are you working on another game now too?
Rosenthal: Our very first game, Where Cards Fall, came out for Apple Arcade in 2019. That title is going to be re-released pretty soon on Switch and PC. We put a lot of work into the re-release, although it’s still a mobile port. But that’s also coming out this year. We had our hands full.
GamesBeat: Are you doing the port yourself, or are you getting anyone else’s expertise for that?
Rosenthal: We worked on some aspects of the port internally, and then we also worked with a studio called Midorium. Midorium worked on the original release for Where Cards Fall, especially on the optimization side. They’ve been handling all the platform specific stuff for bringing it to Switch and PC.
GamesBeat: What about Blaseball? Have you thought about making some sort of an app form for that so it’s not running on the web and can be played elsewhere?
Rosenthal: Absolutely. That was one of the focuses of the raise, to bring Blaseball to mobile. That’s our very next step that we’re gearing up for right now. We’re hiring around that. Blaseball, I’m glad that we released it on the web, because we wanted it to be as low friction as possible. For a game as weird as Blaseball I think it was the right call. This was also during the pandemic when everyone had browser tabs open that were not work. It made sense at the time. But at this point more than half of our players are playing through their mobile browsers, and the mobile browser experience for Blaseball is not up to our standards. We’re excited to make a good mobile app. Once we have things like notifications and such, I think the game will be a lot easier to follow. There’s so much happening live all the time.
GamesBeat: You’re on HTML 5 right now for the web version, or did you use something else?
Rosenthal: It’s mostly in React.
GamesBeat: As someone who played Blaseball in 2020, what you said about notification was my only criticism of Blaseball: It was very hard to follow.
Rosenthal: I completely agree with you. It’s funny; I got the casual player experience when I went off to do fundraising, because all of a sudden, I couldn’t be as in the day to day, and I had a hard time following a game I was working on. If that’s the case, we had our work cut out for us.
A bunch of that comes from the limitations of the web itself. We don’t have ways to notify you passively about things that happen when you don’t have time to pay attention. I do think the notifications will help. But we’re also doing a lot of work on making the story easier to get into as well. For the era that we’re wrapping up right now, we were exclusively adding things to the game. It was the expansion era. We added new teams and modifications and all that stuff. But we’re not necessarily going to be doing that again in the future. We’ll be looking a lot more toward what we can subtract, how we can get it to be a simple experience and take it off in a different direction.
GamesBeat: One of Blaseball’s charms is the simplicity. Are you worried that by bringing it to other platforms, you’ll make it more difficult or introduce additional friction?
Rosenthal: I hope that we actually end up making the game simpler by putting it on mobile. Anyone who sees a sports app on their phone already has a nice frame of reference for how a passive sports experience could work. Mobile unlocks notifications. It unlocks a lot of things that are natural approachability features to help bring more people into the game. Ultimately, our philosophy with Blaseball has always been to meet the players where they are. We met you on Discord. We met you on Twitter. We met you on the web. Now we’ll meet you on your phone as well. We’re not asking you to get a whole bunch of proprietary stuff or play it on some platform that you have to go out and buy. We want to go to places where we already see people playing the game.
GamesBeat: Is this for iOS and Android?
Rosenthal: We at the very least are going to do iOS at the beginning. We want to do Android. too. We’re going to do both at some point. The question right now is more about the order and the timing. We’re figuring that out.
GamesBeat: Last year, when Blaseball got so popular, did you track and see how many average players you had?
Rosenthal: We did. We don’t usually talk about our exact numbers, our exact metrics, but the game itself came out July 20 of 2020. We’re just approaching its one-year anniversary. The first week of the game, there were less than 1,000 players. The second week there were a lot more than 1,000 players. It was an exponential growth. One joke the community likes to always resurrect is the first election. We always publish how many votes are cast. The very first election of the game, the first week, that set up all the horror of Blaseball was when the fans voted to open the Forbidden Book. One of the biggest story beats was passed in that very first election. I don’t remember the exact number of votes cast, but it’s a paltry amount compared to what we have right now. The current fans of the game love to bring that back up, because one of the things that changed the course of the game forever was passed with barely any people playing.
GamesBeat: Have you ever had your peak number be more than, say, 500,000 people logged in and playing at once?
Rosenthal: Not yet. We’re hoping we’ll get to that point soon.
GamesBeat: Before you secured the funding round, you financed The Game Band through Patreon, sponsorships, and your own resources, right?
Rosenthal: Yeah. The funding represents a big shift in our studio’s business model. The Game Band has been around since 2015. That’s when I founded the studio. When I founded the studio, I was targeting more of a publisher type of model. That’s the model I was the most familiar with. I had worked in the game industry at places like Activision and Giant Sparrow. These were all publisher-driven companies. We went out and we made a game called Where Cards Fall, the one I mentioned before. That one was an Apple Arcade title, published by a small studio called Snowman, with a revenue share agreement. That game, commercially, did OK for us. It didn’t do incredible. Critically, it did great. Commercially, it did just OK. We didn’t have a ton of funds to continue.
When we were pitching new projects, this was early in 2020, late 2019. The whole industry was kind of in a spending freeze, or all the publishers that we were talking to were at least, because of COVID. It turns out that the game industry did just fine, but at the time, there was a lot of nervousness.
We started to talk about backup plans. Blaseball began from both a creative desire to bring people together but also as a backup plan. We had a project that was pulled from us, which resulted in some layoffs at the studio, which was really a low point for us. We needed a way that we could generate some revenue quickly so that we could at least give ourselves a bit more time. What I thought we were going to do was pitch another larger-scale project and get publisher funding.
With Blaseball, we ran sponsorships on from the very beginning, and we put up the Patreon. We’re very grateful for all the support we got from the Patreon and the sponsors. It wasn’t enough to ultimately sustain the studio, but it extended a lifeline a bit, which is what we hoped for. Then the game took off in a way that we didn’t expect, and suddenly, everyone on the team was working on it. It looked like it would be our future, so I knew we’d have to go out and raise.
GamesBeat: What’s interesting there is you’re talking about how, at the beginning of the pandemic, people weren’t sure what was going to happen. But it didn’t take long before everyone started seeing how high engagement would be. They started investing in a bunch of studios and a bunch of companies. At what point did you start talking with your investors?
Rosenthal: Makers Fund had come in as our lead investor in, I want to say it was November or so? In November or so of 2020.
GamesBeat: At that time there was a lot of money washing around looking for investment.
Rosenthal: Yes. We talked to a lot of different investors. This was a learning experience for me, to be totally candid, because we’d never gone to venture before. I had to learn what that world was like very quickly. I thought it made sense for us, though, because Blaseball is not the type of game, like Where Cards Fall, where you sell it for a fixed cost or sell it on a subscription service and it’s done. This is a game we want to grow. This is a game that’s live in the truest sense of the word. We expect to expand upon it for a very long time. That’s the type of thing that needs a very different type of model. Maybe we don’t make a ton of money from the game in its next year, but hopefully we set up a place for it to become sustainable. It’s a very different model for the studio, but I think it’s the right one for us.
GamesBeat: What role did 1UP Ventures play? I know Ed Fries, one of its general partners, is very plugged in to the game startup community.
Rosenthal: Ed Fries is fantastic. He was the one that introduced us to Makers Fund. If it weren’t for Ed, we wouldn’t have even met our lead. He’s terrific. The community he’s built at 1UP is amazing. He was the glue.
GamesBeat: In your funding announcement, I saw you mentioned you wanted to create a better and healthier experience overall for Blaseball. We’ve talked a bit about notifications, but what else does that mean?
Rosenthal: It means a few things. There’s two sides to what “better and healthier” means for Blaseball. There’s the side for The Game Band itself, and there’s the side for the fans. For The Game Band that means developing better processes and having more talented people on staff so we don’t constantly burn out. This is an exhausting game to work on. We love working on it, but because Blaseball is running around the clock, it feels like it never stops. A huge part of the difficulty in its first year was that we were just too small to handle the type of experience it ended up growing into. We’ve already started to hire people to fill a lot of roles we needed to fill. I’m excited to have a proper team to make this game. That’s part of it.
The part for the fans is, we’re so grateful about the fans who have latched on to Blaseball in the way they have. So many fans are making so much stuff around the game, which is so great. But we’ve seen over and over that fans start to create a project around Blaseball, and then they find out the project itself is unsustainable because Blaseball moves so fast. It takes up a lot of their time. They end up burning out, and that’s not something we want either. We’re looking at finding ways to make the game easier for people to follow and understand, and also incentivize the people that are creating things around the game, so that it doesn’t feel like they’ve gone into some hobbyist project that they’ll never be able to continue and sustain.
GamesBeat: Are you looking at some of these people who are making stuff for Blaseball and saying, how about we do some sort of official partnership between the studio and those individuals? Or are you finding other ways to support them?
Rosenthal: We’re looking at a lot of different ways to support them right now. There are some cool ideas, but we’re not quite ready to talk about them just yet. But one thing is that we don’t want to step on the fans’ toes. If fans are going out there and making unofficial merchandise or they’re making their own artwork and their own podcasts and such, maybe there comes a point in time where we want to do some of that stuff too, but we’re never going to ask any of them to stop. We’ll always try to find ways to promote what they’re doing.
Blaseball as social commentary
GamesBeat: When it comes to your current road map and the next season you’re going into after the expansion era, do you have a name or a theme in mind for that next era?
Rosenthal: We’re not quite ready to talk about it just yet. Blaseball is all about the element of surprise. We’ll keep that close to the chest. But when the expansion era concludes, I think there are some clues right there. That said, a lot of the focus in the next era is going to be on a more back to basics approach. Coming back to, what’s a simple version of this again? And letting fans build it up again into a different monstrosity.
GamesBeat: From your perspective as not the maker of Blaseball, but as someone who plays and enjoys Blaseball, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve seen other players vote on?
Rosenthal: One of our favorite things to do is be wrong about which decrees we think fans are going to pick. I’d say every time we design decrees, we have an expectation for which ones will be the most popular based on what we see in the community. And I’d say a large portion of the time we’re very wrong. Part of the fun of Blaseball, I think everyone that’s a designer on the game is interested in things like psychology and social experiments. The game itself is sort of this mass social experiment where we get to put a lot of things out there for votes or for fans to latch on to without really knowing where they’ll take it. Then we get to see and react ourselves. That’s always a real delight. My absolute favorite things coming from the community, as far as it relates to the game itself, are the things where they identify a bunch of different systems or features that fit together in a way we don’t expect and then organize around it. My favorite one to bring up was in the very first era of the game. They figured out how to resurrect a player from the dead through a series of very specific coordinated actions. It was something we knew was possible, but we didn’t really expect them to do it. Then they did it, and all of a sudden that became a cornerstone of where we took the story. We had to respond to it. That was a delight for us all around.
GamesBeat: What about actual major leaguers? What have they told you about this?
Rosenthal: It’s funny. We do have sports fans that are really into Blaseball, I would not say the majority of our audience. The majority of our audience is people who are really interested in tabletop RPGs and collaborative storytelling and horror, things like that. Weird internet phenomena. We see a lot of fans who are learning the rules of baseball through Blaseball, this story version of the game. But yeah, I think it depends. The game itself is out there. It requires a certain tolerance and openness to that type of wild tone that it has. I put it in front of people who have been sports fans and see reactions, looking for 5 seconds, they say, these aren’t real teams, why should I care? Then you put it in front of someone that isn’t a sports fan and they say, oh, ’80s Tigers, what a bizarre thing, and they totally latch on and see what else is there.
GamesBeat: Speaking of more real life things, Blaseball has a lot of betting in it. Do you at all worry that because sports and betting have this growing, not necessarily healthy, relationship, that you might be sending a message you don’t intend to about sports? Or is Blaseball so different from real sports that you don’t think there’s any message there?
Rosenthal: Every time we bring an interaction or a story element into Blaseball, we’re doing it as commentary. It’s very much intentional. From the beginning we described the game as a horror game, because this is not a game where all the things that happen in Blaseball are treated in a particularly positive way. Humorous, yes, but not always positive. It’s a game where we have mechanics where players can get incinerated in the middle of the game. We have a looming coin who is serving as the CEO of Blaseball, which may or may not be acting in the fans’ favor, even if it certainly thinks it is. A lot of elements in there, if you look hard enough, they have parallels to both real world sports and just the world we live in as a whole. And we’re not shy about bringing our viewpoints into the story.
So betting, we don’t necessarily view the betting as something that should be taken as, oh look, this is a fun gambling game. It’s certainly a loop that the game is designed to get you into, but it’s also designed to get you thinking about it as well.
GamesBeat: Looking forward, should a situation arise where a lockout or a strike happens in the major leagues, would you try to add that to your story?
Rosenthal: We had something similar happen during the Black Lives Matter protests. The NBA had a strike. We thought deeply about how we wanted to handle that, and we ended up closing down Blaseball in solidarity with them when it happened. That said, as much as we like to take the viewpoint of, when things happen in the real world — we bring these parallels into the actual text of the game, but with that one we decided not to. We felt like it was something that was affecting real people’s lives, and it wasn’t our place to make light of it in any way. We just stood out in solidarity with the NBA at that point. But that’s always going to be something we’re looking at and being very conscious of.
If there’s something happening that’s very cynical and upsetting to us, that’s probably good fodder for us to turn it into a horrific element within Blaseball. But if it’s something happening that deserves more of a solemn respect, then we’ll make sure that we don’t overstep our place as well.
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