Deirdre Cross – General Manager, Head of Funko Games – on why Star Wars is a dream licence

Funko Games’s Deirdre Cross discusses the stylised figures and immersive play of Star Wars: Rivals.

Before we start, Deirdre, let me check something… I’ve got two job titles for you. I have you down as VP, Funko Games, and as Head of Funko Games… Which is it?!
Well, I was VP and I was promoted to General Manager of Funko Games about a year ago. You can call me General Manager, Head of Funko Games.

Perfect! ’cos Vice President… I don’t even know what it means anymore; it’s a confusing title.
Right?! My kids were quite excited when I was VP. They were asking, “If the president of Funko dies, are you the president of Funko?”

Ha! And were they mixing potions as they said it?!
Ha! But I said, “No, there are a lot of VPs… It’ll be like Game of Thrones.”

Ha! Okay… So, you’ve just been showing me Star Wars: Rivals, described as an expandable card game with collectible figures. That scarcely does it justice; it’s a work of art, it really is… Absolutely beautiful.
Oh, thank you!

So in a minute, you’re going to walk me through a round of the game. For now, how would you describe it?
This is a fast-paced, two player, head-to-head card Star Wars card game. One of you plays as the Dark Side, the other as Light. Each of you builds a team of your favourite characters looking to outmaneuver your enemies. The Premier Set has everything you need to play, including four exclusive characters, 12 locations and an exclusive prism die. There are also Light side and Dark side ‘booster packs’ with new characters, hologram characters, locations, and abilities.

Super! How did this project come about, Deirdre?
We actually started this back in 2020. We were brainstorming around what would be our dream license to make an expandable, immersive game for. And really, working with Star Wars as a fandom was absolutely at the top of our list. So that’s the genesis of it…

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games
And out of interest, why was Star Wars top of the list of licenses? What gives that an edge?

Gosh! Well, we’re all huge Star Wars fans in the studio – you know – lifetime fans. This franchise, this universe has been around for 45 years. It’s spanned all these generations, and there’s all this beautiful new content coming all the time from Lucasfilm. And we love that… A licensed property that has both the legacy and the newness. It also creates all this energy…

And when you refer to “this energy”, I should say that we’re talking today at London’s Star Wars Celebration where there’s a very palpable energy…
Right! There’s all this energy around something that’s alive and vibrant and beloved. That’s something that really connects to us. And I think, when you look across the fandoms, there are only a few shining bright points that really do that on this scale – and Star Wars is one.

Great answer. And you’re right, there are many franchises that have this degree of pedigree, loyalty and and energy. It’s off the chart! Now, one of the things I noticed about the figurines in this game is that they’re very… Well, actually, what’s the best word?

Stylised IS the best word! Thank you! And I’ll put a picture in here because these things are so beautiful… So the question, I suppose, is why ARE they so stylised? Why not do something less stylised?
Interesting question! The answer is that a lot of beautiful ‘miniatures games’ already exist for Star Wars… And we know them well; some of them are here at the show – really terrific. So if you want something that’s in-world; something humanoid – you’ve got that. It already exists!

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games
Got it; there’d be nothing new…

So then the question becomes: how can we make it fun and special and uniquely Funko Games? And really, the answer is that stylisation. We probably spent six months just working on the stylisation of the characters and working on it with Lucasfilm, going back and forth… Sketching styles, then sculpting new styles and a range of the same character in these different approaches.

And it’s worth noting, too, that you didn’t use the existing Funko style either – which would have been an easy thing to do.
Sure! And we do make the Something Wild card games that use the Funko Pop characters. But we wanted something unique in the Star Wars games canon; a style of character that hadn’t existed before. And then once we developed that, we tried to imbue the figures themselves with as much of the characters’… What would you say there?

Ethos? Attitude?
Yeah! So when you look at the way that Boba Fett stands, he’s got a swagger… The way his weight’s balanced, the way his head’s tilted – it really is exciting. Or, look at Count Dooku: he’s standing there with all of his big energy, holding his lightsaber right in front of his face in this way. So the stylisation of them is important because we want to create all that attitude with it.

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games
Great answer. I’m really curious then, because you’ve got all these designs and sketches and sculpts… I’m imagining now that you have a whole factory of people, an army of clones, working on these things…
Ha! I wish it was a whole army…

They’re all bringing you stuff and saying, “Is this right? How about this? This?”
We have a very talented team, obviously; our Funko Games team in Seattle is incredible and prolific. And yes, I’m involved in the final conversations and decisions. But our VP of Games Product and Creative is over that team, working with them on all the different iterations and the styles. And they’re also working, of course, hand in glove with Lucasfilm.

And in regard to Lucasfilm… What’s that relationship like?
Oh, they’re incredible. And you know, they’re the biggest fans of their brands; they start from the place of fandom. They’re deeply invested in these stories and these characters, and they know them so well. And because we’re also huge fans, we pour everything we have into the work and perfecting it, and making it beautiful – and
presenting it to them and hoping they like it… And they’re incredible partners in coming back with feedback.

And when that feedback comes, is that ever difficult?
No, no; not at all. It’s all part of the process. With licensor feedback, the attitude can’t ever be: “Do we want to hear it? Do we not want to hear it?” That’s not it at Funko; that’s not the mindset…

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games
What IS the mindset?
The mindset is that we’re in collaboration, and we’re working together to make this the best product it can possibly be. And with Lucasfilm specifically, you know, they really know their fandom… They know their license. They know it better than anyone in the world. And so if they were to tell us something’s not right, then it’s NOT right!

That makes absolute sense. In terms of Funko’s attitude towards this license – or any other, come to think of it – your work is the antithesis of a label slap. So when Funko Games comes up with a new idea for a game, where do you actually start?
Right. First of all, we asked: how do we distil 45 years of storytelling into one game experience?! And the first thing we do – and with any game that we’re making – is think about what’s at its core. What’s the story? And in Star Wars: Rivals, it’s this push and pull; a head-to-head struggle. So it became very clear, very quickly – and stayed from when we were first working on the game all the way through to the finished product – that the game would be about the Dark Side versus the Light Side…

And having identified that as the key element, we looked across the whole galaxy of stories that exist. They characters are vying for influence in that way, at all these different planets and bases and locations; all these different spaces…

But is that something that’s come up in a formal meeting? Or a brainstorm? Or is that just a conversation between two or three people? Or is that a presentation where you say, we’ve decided that this IS the direction… Start thinking!
The collaborative process starts very much in a brainstorming sort of way. The game makers and the project producers come in, and – if you imagine a whiteboard – they’re saying: “What are the key themes in Star Wars? What are we looking for?” After that, you very quickly get to who is in the game… Which of these characters MUST be there?

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games
Got it. So it’s actually very much a case of applying some limitations early on; giving the project some edges. And with this project, specifically, I imagine narrowing down the characters really helped…

Yes – because there’s so many characters in the universe! We can’t have them all, which means we need to decide which characters are essential to the storytelling.

Great stuff! That’s fascinating to me; the creativity of those limitations…
And then, of course, there’re the mechanics of the gameplay. They’re so important. We wanted to make sure that the mechanics ‘feel right’, if that makes sense…

It does, yes, because – from what I see – the authenticity of the brand is on every character card, isn’t it? The playing pieces change the outcome of the game by doing things that’re entirely congruent with their characters.
Exactly right. It feels authentic.

Absolutely. And actually I’d dare to suggest that’s where some boardgame brand extensions really fall down… In order to make the mechanics work, they compromise the characters. Oh, perhaps, in order to preserve the characters, they compromise on the mechanics.
Right. Here, though, the quotes are authentic, and you use the characters’ influence in a way that ties into the mechanics of the game. And that helps tell a person who’s playing for the first time how to play… It’s shortcut to understanding what you’re trying to do to win.

And actually, that’s something I’m curious about… If super-fans play this, they’ll – presumably – read out the lines in the voices of the characters; a Yoda voice or whatever… So the experience becomes bigger and livelier the more you’re into it – but not at the expense of people that haven’t seen content from the entire franchise.
Yes, yes. Exactly.

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games

Fantastic. And we need to start wrapping this up, but you’ve chosen to launch the game at the most visceral brand experience this license could possibly have! Super fans of every kind have gathered to celebrate Star Wars over the course of four days… How’s the game gone down?!
Oh, it’s been so beautifully received. These projects are very close to our hearts… And when you announce it, and you’re like, “Okay, we’re gonna let this little bird out into the world, will it fly?” And to bring it here and to have the game’s first big launch into the world, be here with this fandom that is so just passionate about everything Star Wars. It’s been incredible to get the games into their hands, to see and hear them play it, and even come by the next day.

And in terms of the Booster Packs, you were saying earlier, I think, that people that’ve bought and played the Premier Set have come back the next day to buy the Booster… The Booster Packs are selling out?
Yes. Because we were limiting the number of Booster Packs people could buy to two per person… So they were coming back the next day and buying more – they’re so excited; searching for certain characters.

Fantastic. I’ll wrap this up by saying thank you for your time and energy, Deirdre. You seem so passionate about the licenses you hold and the games you make… Surely you can’t have this same energy level for every game?! You’d be exhausted!
I think maybe I DO feel this way about every game! Ha! Because while not every game is as big as Star Wars: Rivals, we still put the same amount of care and passion into all of them. And they’re really meaningful to us because of what they represent.

The rest of the team is the same?
Yes! I’ll give you an example… Earlier today, one of our associate producers and one of our artists – Arnel Baluyot – the lead artist who did the character card art for Rivals –
were both here at the stand.

Deirdre Cross, Funko Games, Star Wars, Film & TV, Toys & Games

No, they both happen to be on vacation here. Even so, they each got a ticket to come the show. And the artist looked at the crowds and said, in effect, “I can’t believe my game’s gonna be played by hundreds of thousands of people…” Because at this event you can really see how the game resonates; how it fits into people’s lives and how it connects with people. That’s why we’re doing it; why it is so meaningful.

Just out of interest then – I know I’m putting you on the spot – does Funko Games have a mission statement?
Well, yes. I mean… What we’re doing was said best by one of our founding partners. Alan Pruzan, one of the co-founders of Forrest-Pruzan Creative…
That’s our studio that Funko aquired in 2019. Alan used to say that we are looking for the intersection of beauty, commerce and meaning.

The intersection of beauty, commerce and meaning! Blimey; that’s good… I’m glad I asked! That’s brilliant.
So that’s what we’re looking for and that’s what we’re doing here, and – I think – what we’re seeing here at this show with this audience. We may have connected the meaning for these fans.

Brilliant! Thanks Deirdre! As always, you’ve been a fantastic ambassador for the brands Funko represents as well as for Funko itself.

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