Fantasy Flight Interactive’s debut game is The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game, an adaptation of Fantasy Flight Games’ groundbreaking tabletop game that Asmodee Digital is publishing. Living Card Game is a trademark of the gamemaker, and this PC version will bring a different economic model to a $1 billion card game market — no randomized packs, with a focus on a narrative experience, not a competitive one full of foes wielding the hot netdeck of the week.

It’s coming to Steam’s Early Access program sometime this quarter. And it makes sense that Fantasy Flight would choose this pathway. While some studios like how this enables them to make money by selling a game as they continue working on it, the model’s greatest value may be in how it enables designers to collect feedback from players. In our story earlier today, community manager Luke Walaszek mentioned several times how comments from people watching developers play on stream have already shaped development, and this is before folks are even playing it.

Walaszek explained why Fantasy Flight took this route. He’s an edited transcript of that part of our interview.

GamesBeat: Why are you doing Early Access?

Luke Walaszek: We thought it was a good way to get the game in the hands of people before we go into full release. Fantasy Flight Games is a name that carries a lot of clout, but this being the first Fantasy Flight Interactive product, we wanted it to be a collaborative development. We get one shot to make our first game. We want to make sure it’s something that players agree with, that they feel really strongly about, and that the balance issues aren’t there. Tabletop games, card games — there’s a lot of issues with nerfing, a lot of issues with balancing. Early access gives us a period to really think about those numbers and tweak them and redesign as we continue to play the game.

GamesBeat: Considering that this has been out for years as a tabletop game, why would you have to worry about balance?

Walaszek: The tabletop game is very much a different beast than this Living Card Game in digital form. There are a lot of systems and numbers that have been eliminated in order to make sure it works on a digital platform. The game is notoriously difficult, and we wanted to both maintain that difficulty and make sure the game was accessible to new players. There are systems like an armor system in the tabletop game — are you familiar with the tabletop game?

GamesBeat: I’ve played Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: The Card Game, which I never thought was complicated.

Walaszek: Yeah. There’s a bit more of complexity to Lord of the Rings, because you’re playing against an enemy that’s within the staging realm — Sauron has a bunch of if-then checks that you as the player have to keep track of. This spider is only going to attack this hero if it has this threat, but also Sauron has to have this many resources. Systems like that. The AI streamlines that and cuts down a lot of those numbers. Things like armor, that concept is gone.

GamesBeat: So this is an adaptation, not a translation.

Walaszek: Yes. This is not at all one-for-one translation. The idea was capturing the spirit. How would we do it in a modern game?

GamesBeat: Why do you think video game players need a dumbed down version, not a direct translation?

Walaszek: I don’t know if I would call it dumbed down so much as it would be that — Lord of the Rings was the first narrative LCG we made at Fantasy Flight. Since then, we’ve made great strides in how that system should work and how we would have probably approached it the first time we were designing it. At the same time there are players who love Lord of the Rings and would not want it to change at all. I think if we were to do a second edition of the game at any point, it would look like something a bit closer to this.

GamesBeat: So this is more like — in a way, this is how you would envision it from the lessons you’ve learned.

Walaszek: Yeah. And if we were starting out putting it out on a digital platform.

GamesBeat: Like Games Workshop doing an updated version of Talisman, which Fantasy Flight handled on the board game side. It streamlined a lot of rules in the fourth edition.

Walaszek: I’d shy away from specifically saying that this is our second edition or anything, because I don’t want to speak for Fantasy Flight Games. But I think that analogy is — there’s something to that, for sure. Like I said, there’s a lot of things going on in Lord of the Rings that, even compared to Arkham Horror, are handled in a different way.

GamesBeat: How large is Fantasy Flight Interactive at the moment?

Walaszek: Fantasy Flight Interactive is a studio of four people. We’re working with the designers at Fantasy Flight Games, up in Roseville, Minnesota, so we’re close enough. We’re also working with a development team, Virtuos, in China, handling some of the code.

GamesBeat: You already have a lot of prebuilt art from the card game. But giving those cards actions and animating them, that’s the next step you have to do along with making the systems work?

Walaszek: Yeah. The art, obviously, speaks for itself. It’s strong stuff. There are some new pieces you’ll see. I think maybe there might be one or two within the card pool here today. We’re doing other stuff with it, too. We have a big pool of freelancers to help us with art. But yeah, making sure animations are not overpowering, but are still engaging enough to make it feel like a living thing.

GamesBeat: So while you have four people at home base, you have what, about 60 people between freelancers and Virtuos working on this?

Walaszek: We have a big group of people working on it.

GamesBeat: It’s not a little shop here. It’s the little shop supervising it all.

Walaszek: Sometimes it can feel that way, but definitely, yeah, we’re a relatively large team.

GamesBeat: Early access also accommodates that type of development model better. If you’re working with people from China to Roseville — there’s what, a 16-hour time difference?

Walaszek: Yep, that sounds about right. Something like that.

GamesBeat: Having this Early Access as a way to manage everything helps you take in community feedback.

Walaszek: We have a lot of irons in the fire. We wear a lot of hats. That early access period is a great way for us to do that.

GamesBeat: Early Access has been a boon to lots of smaller developers because it lets them fund a project as they go. But larger developers seem to say it’s not about the money so much as the feedback. How important is that community feedback? I know you already have people playing the alpha.

Walaszek: Yeah, there are people internally playing. Nobody external has the game yet. There will be people who are working with us, but I’m not sure. Anyway, feedback. It’s already come in swathes. I host a bi-weekly stream of the game, and a community has already started to form around that, people who are very passionate about the tabletop game. That feedback has been hugely helpful.