Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Twin Cities Startup Resources

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

Every couple of months or so (it was twice in the last few weeks), I am contacted by someone new to the twin cities startup / entrepreneur scene. Usually this is someone looking for mobile application development, that’s how I get involved, but sometimes (nearly always) they are also looking to network and interested in pointers to various other local startup community resources. I’ve compiled a few lists of this sort over the last few years, usually tailored to a specific individual’s needs/interests. Today’s list was generic enough that I figured I’d post it here, with some additional sections tacked on for iOS and GameDev.

It’s worth noting that these are mostly about face to face events. I think all of them have both a presentation you can sit down and watch as well as networking opportunities, before after or during.

General

Minne* – MinneBar is a great event, and you should make it to MinneDemo when you can!

Tech.mn – Great resource for local startup news. Their events list is usually pretty out of date, but still a good place to start.

Pollen Midwest – Their website is super hard to navigate, but there is a lot of really interesting content there, and they organize events that are often really relevant.

Beta.mn – I’ve actually never made it to this, but from what I understand, it’s similar to MinneDemo.

Startup Week / Weekend – Only once a year, but a whole week of events worth knowing about.

Meetups:
http://www.meetup.com/newstartupmeetup/
http://www.meetup.com/Lean-Startup-Twin-Cities/
http://www.meetup.com/Startup-Grind-Minneapolis/
http://www.meetup.com/Innovators-and-Entrepreneurs-of-MSP/
http://www.meetup.com/MnStartups/
(There are too many of these, IMO, and I don’t really go to any of them, so no idea which ones — if any — are worth checking out.)

Mobile Specific

Mobilize – Relatively new to the scene, this group is only about a year old, but high quality. Presentations have been mostly focused on the business / startup aspects. They have occasionally had game development related speakers.

Mobile Twin Cities – Again, mostly about the business aspects, there used to be more development content. I haven’t actually been to this in a while, but it’s been going on for many years. (Worth noting that the full-day (or sometimes two) conference, Mobile March, grew out of this group.)

iOS Development (code) Specific

Cocoaheads MN – Despite feeling rather thrown together, and a location that is mostly inconvenient (~45 minutes out of town), this is the longest running and highest quality apple developer meetup in the twin cities. Always developer focused, full of quality people.

Twin Cities iPhone Developers Meetup – Also code-focused, this meetup has skewed toward beginner topics in the past, but looking through the last year’s meeting titles, looks like they’ve advanced a bit since I’ve been in attendance. I should probably be going to this more often.

Game Development Related

IGDA Twin Cities – Disclaimer: I help run this. With 3 meetings a month (or thereabouts), there is plenty to engage with here. Feel free to contact me if you want more specifics here.

Glitch – This grew out of a student group at the UofMN. A year ago I would have said it was still focused on students, but they have a lot going on, including an annual conference, organizing the local Global Game Jam site, and quite regular events in their office space near campus.

United Geeks of Gaming; Game Designer Sessions – The only public board game design meetup that I know about in the twin cities, they meet (currently) on the second Friday of the month.

Sharpening the Yak

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Mixed Metaphors

The title of this blog post is a mixed metaphor. It’s a mashup of two common programmer idioms, sharpening the axe, and shaving the yak. I’ve been doing both this week, but before I get into that, I’ll define the terms.

Sharpening the Axe actually comes from a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When googling around for how this applies to programming, it seems a lot of folks have (for some unfathomable reason) latched onto the phrase “sharpening the saw” instead. I can think of four general categories of specific activities this could mean:

  • direct study — Ie., reading a book on a language or API, or reading and/or studying some relevant source code. Anything that directly applies to some programming task you have to undertake.
  • indirect study — This could include reading more generally about programming or related “industry” news, or learning a new language you will not immediately be using, or any other research not directly related to your current task list but (hopefully) teaching you something tangentially related.
  • architecting — This could be formal, in that you’re writing a document or outline, or putting together a task list, or just more generally thinking about the task(s) you have at hand. (I find I do my best architecting in the shower.)
  • practice — Writing code, but not code you will be using. I’m not much for this one, but I’ve heard a lot of good programmers say they write something once, throw it away, then write it for real. That sounds like a lot of extra work to me, but who knows, it is definitely easier to write something the second time. I’m not sure it’s guaranteed to be better though.

Yak Shaving is a more complex and subtle problem. Jeremy H Brown defined it in a usenet post in 2000 as “what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.” The programmers Stack Exchange has more on the definition and history of the term yak shaving.

So what have I been doing this week?

I’m working on iCloud syncing for ActionGo, my next game for Apple TV and iOS. In a way, this is already shaving the yak, since I’m really only working on that because the Apple TV doesn’t support filesystem saving, and iCloud is their recommended solution. But after only a day or so of work, I found out that it does support NSUserDefaults key/value saving. (Up to 600 K, plenty for a saved game or two.) Since I’d already planned on implementing iCloud as key/value, so long story short, now I’m doing both. (Which is of course better, because it’ll work offline too, just without the syncing.)

But I’ve never done iCloud syncing before. *queue sharpening sounds* There are at least a couple of ways you can store data there, key/value, or document-based. Key/Value is definitely preferred for my use-case (a bit of state data for games in progress, and storing overall meta-game statistics), so I focused on that, but even then there are a bunch of different ways to go about it. Consensus seems to be that it’s really easy to get working, but almost all the blog posts and resource sites I read focused on that initial experience and I didn’t end up finding anyone who went into best practices.

So here’s the yak shaving rabbit hole (oooh, a third metaphor?): I’m using Generic Game Model for game state, which already had saving implemented on iOS using the built-in saving functionality that BaseModel provides. But it turns out that I was using an old version of BaseModel, so I had to update that. Then I wasn’t happy with how BaseModel implements its NSUserDefaults storage, so I re-wrote that. Then I wrote a wrapper that handles the syncing to iCloud whenever a key is added to NSUserDefaults (storing an associated NSDate value also, so I can just keep whatever’s latest), and only just now I’m finally getting around to testing. (Only I’m not so much, since I’m writing this post right now instead.)

When is your axe too sharp?

While “researching” this post *more sharpening sounds*, I ran into this critique of Axe Sharpening from a java.net blog post back in 2005:

But for me, the big problem with “axe sharpening” is that it’s recursive, in a Xeno’s paradox kinda way … to sharpen the axe, you need a sharpening stone… But to get there, you need to build a dog sled… But to use a dog sled I need snow, so I need to go to town to get a snow cone machine. I grab my trusty yak to help you haul the machine from town. But it’ll be summer before I get to town, and I don’t want the yak to get to hot, so I shave the yak. In mid February, I proudly lead my shining, bald, shivering yak into my quarterly progress review…

Hilarious.

My current theory on why I get more done in the afternoon

Friday, September 11th, 2015

OR

Why working 5 or 6 hours in the AM is WAY less productive (for me) than working 7 or 8 hours throughout the day

First of all, I sort of wondered if this would happen. I’m not a morning person. I’ve never been a morning person. I used to tell people I worked with that I couldn’t manage to get anything done before 10 AM, not because I wasn’t awake, but because I couldn’t convince my brain that I was awake. It took an hour to get into the groove, maybe.

But just now I came up with a new theory.

In the past, I’ve had days where my morning is productive, but also days where my morning is unproductive. Possibly in disproportionate amounts, but let’s assume for a minute they are in equal frequency. On the days where my morning was unproductive, I am often aware of this, and compensate by trying to work extra hard (or be extra focused) in the afternoon.

Additionally, I am a lunch guy. I never eat breakfast. This is relevant because, probably due to blood sugar (or something else, who knows), if I don’t eat, and I’m really hungry, I notice my productivity really drop. (Hey, it JUST occurred to me that my lack of eating breakfast might have something to do with my lack of productivity in the AM. I never claimed to be smart.) Anyway, lunch is the most important meal of the day for me, if I don’t eat lunch, I often end up scratching my head at 2 pm, wondering what I’ve done with the last two hours.

So now, if I find that I’ve had a non-productive morning, I push myself hard to get more done… often “working” through lunch, (or through when I should be eating lunch), and then realizing that I haven’t been productive even while trying to be extra productive.

The new difference, and the productivity KILLER here, is that now I am done working around 2:15. So if I didn’t have a productive morning, even if I do eat lunch, I’ve only got like another hour or so of work remaining to try and be extra productive. I can remember days in the last couple of weeks where I’ve had exactly this revelation, and it’s been pretty demotivating.

Perhaps this is just the latest in a long line of thoughts justifying my lack of productivity. In short, writing this post: was it procrastination? Or productive?

Awe-full important

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been citing an offhand comment some eyeo presenter made about the importance of experiencing “awe” regularly in your life. After getting over that slight discomfort I always feel when citing sources whose sources I absolutely don’t know, I’ve been finding it an easy justification for all kinds of actions and decisions I make.

So I did some googling. This interesting slate article by an “emotion scientist” suggests that the state of awe provokes thoughtful reflection and skepticism. This makes sense to me because I think one thing I find so appealing about “awe” are the big ideas. And big ideas give you perspective. If I’m contemplating the nature of the cosmos, that bug I’ve been working on for the last few hours seems rather less important. (Which I’d argue often helps to solve it, but that’s another blog post.)

This Atlantic article cites a Stanford study published in 2012 whose title says it all: “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” This huffpost piece cites a paper written in 2013 with another telling title: “Approaching Awe, A Moral, Spiritual And Aesthetic Emotion.”

This quest for awe is absolutely why I made it a priority to go to eyeo festival this year. It’s why I went to Northern Spark last night, and stayed up ridiculously late looking at art. The eyeo presenter that I quoted said it’s why we go to museums. Finding awe is often what drives my decisions around what to work on when I have spare time, and what to spend my recharge time doing in my evenings and off hours. Now I just need to figure out how to trigger it with the games I make.

Asynchronous Turn Notification Thoughts

Friday, February 13th, 2015

I was recently asked by a friend my opinion about how often is too often to notify the player that it is their turn to play. I personally feel a player should not get more than two or three reminders total. I also feel like email notifications should be opt-in. (Push notifications are already, at least on iOS, but collecting an email at registration should not be license to send email turn notifications, IMO.)

I’m not sure if there are other options other than email and Push. It might be interesting to try an experiment where you make turn notifications tweets. I wonder if there are already any asynchronous games playable entirely on twitter.

So, sending a notification immediately when it becomes the player’s turn is a must. I also believe it’s a “best practice” to time out your games, and send a notification before that happens. I know I’ve seen other devs (who host their own games) post about how not having async games time-out also means there are thousands of abandoned games on their server that will essentially never go away. So when this notice is sent could be based on the time-out period, maybe when the game would auto-boot them in another 24 hours.

What Playdek has done is to allow the user who creates the game to specify a length of time for the game. This works like a chess clock, and the timer starts when you get the notification that your opponent has played their turn. (The options are 10 min, 30 min, 1 hr, 2 hrs, 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, and 28 days.) They only send one push notification when it becomes your turn. If the game times-out, you only find out after you log in again.

That solution actually feels a bit overly complicated to me, and I’ve recently started playing Star Realms, which has a similar but slightly simplified scheme where you choose a “time per turn” limit when starting a game. (The options are 3 minutes, or 48 hours.) With the 48 hour turn limit, you get a notification twice, once when it’s your turn, and another when you have 24 hours left to play. (They don’t badge the app when you’ve got pending turns though, which is just PAINFUL.)

For Catchup, I’m using the simplest possible implementation of GameCenter, which is not to have timers at all. (Timers were only introduced in a later version of the API anyway, and I wanted to support versions of iOS farther back than that.) The way their push notifications for async games work is super opaque, (and they come from the GameCenter app, not your app, which is also annoying), and one of the biggest limitations of using GameCenter, in my opinion.

One other thing I have seen, (but don’t necessarily endorse), is the ability for the user to nag the player whose turn it is. I can’t remember what app it was that did this, (maybe Trivia Crack?), but there was essentially a button that you could press in the app to send a notification to the other player.

I certainly don’t know what the best choices are, but I do know that there are different categories of asynchronous player with very strong opinions about how to play. For instance, vocal proponents of short timers who only want to play games that last less than an hour or so. Whereas I personally prefer to play games with the maximum timer limit, because, for me at least, I tend to batch all my asynchronous game play in one or two sessions a day. (And some days I skip entirely!) So player choice seems important.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to play with Parse for the first time. (Essentially migrated a project from using Google Analytics to Parse objects in a day.) I never knew it was so easy, and I have to admit that now I sort of want to use it for an asynchronous game. We’ll see.

2014, a year of new platforms

Monday, December 29th, 2014

2014 was the first year I spent almost entirely working on games. (One or two freelance projects didn’t qualify, but the majority of them were games, which is very exciting!)

As usual, I tried to split my time about 50/50 between freelance work and product development. I spent a lot of that product development time in 2014 working on Catchup. And, as expected, I still spent the majority of my time this year in Xcode, working on iOS apps. iOS is definitely the platform that it is still easiest for me to prototype in, simply because I am most familiar with it, and to some extent because I can re-use code from previous projects. I think I did less iOS prototyping this year than in previous years, but there are still a few new projects sitting around that I would love to give more attention to (and release) in 2015.

But the point of this article is that I also spent a lot of time thinking about different platforms. And when I started thinking back on this, I realized there were a lot of them. So here is a rough list:

  • Unity – I’d “played around” with Unity before, but early in 2014 I spent a weekend at the Global Game Jam working with a rather large team on several games in Unity. Since I was such a newb, I ended up just playing pinch-hitter, helping out where I could, and in general learning as much as I could from the other more experienced Jammers. I left the game jam feeling like I could code a Unity game from scratch if I had to, which was far more skill than I’d had when I started.
  • PuzzleScript – In the middle of the summer sometime, a few of us at #Doughvelopment (game dev co-working on Fridays from a donut shop) started playing with PuzzleScript. Mostly this was Ian’s fault, but several of us ended up working on PuzzleScript games. I was intrigued mostly because PuzzleScript is a language written to encode a particular type of game (box pushers in the Sokoban family) as simply and flexibly as possible. I got a couple of levels into a pretty derivative design before abandoning it, (in PuzzleScript it takes a lot of extra effort to be original, I think), but I spent at least a day working in the web-based editor, which is just very different from most of the coding I’ve ever done before.
  • Board Game Development – I’ve designed a lot of board games over the years… but very few of them have had the sort of iteration usually associated with a polished (or better yet published) game design. Board Game Development is the process of playing and testing your design, then iterating on the rules (or as in my case, specific cards), playtesting again, and iterating again, etc.. The actual work involved ends up being quite different from game design, and this year was the first time I actually spent any time and effort at it during work hours. I’ve sort of put that game away for the near-future, but I do hope to get back to it again in 2015, possibly in a publishing context.
  • Physical Games – This year I had some ideas for playground-sized games, including one idea that stands out above the rest. That game is something that I now consider to be a long term goal to actually see played / implemented. It will be expensive though, which is why it’s a long term goal. Incidentally, I can think of very few projects that qualify as “life sized” video games. There are a few, but nothing like what I’m envisioning. There is a blurry line here, for sure (is laser tag a life sized video game, for instance?), but the point is that I am moving slowly toward a real life implementation of this game. There will be programming involved, for sure, but that is only a small slice of the project in this case.
  • Unreal Engine / Oculus – I do occasionally have ideas that are “bigger” than the 2D puzzle type games I typically make. Adding the 3rd dimension is not something I’m excited about, but sometimes I have designs that feel like it’s probably necessary. I subscribed to Unreal Engine ostensibly to start working on some Oculus games. (As usual, I’ve got lots of ideas.) I made a tiny bit of progress toward that goal, (got some of the sample projects working with my Dev Kit 2, as well as watched a bunch of Unreal tutorials), but ultimately haven’t really started coding anything yet.
  • Processing / Arduino / L3D – I’ve always been peripherally aware of and interested in the Arduino / hardware Maker movement. In the fall of this year, partly as an extension of the physical game I eluded to above, I started thinking a bit about prototyping games with simple LED arrays. Then the L3D project fell onto my radar, and now I’m super into creating games for it. There is a Processing plugin to stream signals to the L3D, but in my testing so far, it’s relatively bandwidth intensive, so while I’ve done a bunch of work in Processing already (a platform I’d only dabbled in years ago), I’m now moving the project to “native” code running on the Spark core that powers the L3D. This means taking a step backwards in terms of functionality, but assuming what I want to do is possible, (reading Xbox controller input from controllers plugged into a USB hub that also powers the L3D) it should be much faster, and has the added benefit of not requiring a laptop/computer to run it on. I’m waiting for a powered USB hub from amazon, then I should have a quick test for this shortly thereafter. Anyway, in the mean time, I’ll be playing with some L3D visualizations needed to help “juice” the games anyway.

There are of course infinite things to learn and do, even limiting your activity to “game development”. I made a deliberate decision when I went independent to continue working in iOS so as not to lose the “depth” of skill needed to pick up a full-time job again if Abstract Puzzle didn’t work out, and I’m definitely not going to abandon that decision in 2015. That having been said, dabbling in new platforms gives you perspective! And as hot as IoT is right now, it probably won’t be a bad thing to have some microcontroller programming on my gamedev resume.

Q&A – Porting Board Games to Digital

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

I recently answered a short barrage of questions by some non-technical folks researching the business feasibility of board game conversion. Since I gave them these answers freely, I thought I would also post them here. This is all based on my own personal experience, so feel free to exercise skepticism and I absolutely welcome your thoughts or differing opinions in the comments below.

1. What resources estimates and how much time do you feel is needed to do a strategy board game conversion to digital?

The answers for this question are as varied as the answers to the question “how much time is needed to do a mobile game?” In my experience, if you’re paying your programmer(s) what they’re worth (which is not a given in the gaming industry), you’re probably looking at a budget somewhere between 30k and 120k. Less is certainly possible with an experienced team, maybe with a code base they’re reusing, but it would raise a red flag for me. (I get a lot of potential clients who come to me with 2-5k, and I politely tell them that we can possibly make a prototype without graphics for that much.)

2. If using Unity as a gaming language, what do you think is involved in porting to another platform say from iOS to Android or vice-versa?

I am familiar with unity, but no expert. (So take this with a grain of salt.) My feeling is that android is more work, what with supporting all the different screen sizes and hardware/processor idiosyncrasies, so if you’ve already done that work, porting to iOS should not be that much more difficult. (Depending on the project, of course.) Going from iOS to android on the other hand could take longer, especially for complex games. (It’s going to depend on how many screens or “scenes” you’ve got to prepare in unity.)

3. Are you aware of what the maintenance/support costs would/could be, if so what do you believe is involved?

This is a great question! Not something a lot of clients think to ask. It’s easy to throw something in the App Store and forget about it, which is exactly what everyone else will do too.

There are obviously diminishing returns though, so I recommend planning a release with at least one maintenance update about a week or so after the initial lunch, and maybe evaluate then whether it’s worth doing another “feature” update a couple of weeks to a month later, also with a follow up maintenance update if your budget can stand it. If the game is still doing well at that point, it’s a good idea to plan to spend some time and push out littler updates as frequently as you can, more for marketing purposes than for any development related reason. All of this will require developer involvement, but it’s the person crafting marketing and messaging that should be spending the most time after launch. I generally think this is underestimated, and can easily be a full-time task.

4. Do you have an idea of hosting (storage/bandwidth) costs?

This is only relevant if you are hosting your own server for some reason. The game should have a website, which is another often overlooked marketing piece, but it will cost far more to create that than to maintain/host it. (Hosting fees shouldn’t run more than $20/ month, or you’re probably getting ripped off somewhere. I pay $5/month + $10/domain, but that comes with doing mostly my own support.)

If you ARE hosting your own backend multiplayer server, you can think of it as another domain name. (It definitely cost you more up-front to develop, so make sure your dev is including that in their estimates.) And unless the game is super successful, most hosting plans should include enough bandwidth. If you get to the point where you are paying ala cart for bandwidth, it still shouldn’t be more than a handful of dollars unless you’re at an extreme end of the spectrum, which is a problem you wish you will have.

5. What’s your thoughts on the digitization of family board games, and what may happen, and when?

Well, “family board games” is a term that might mean a bunch of different things, but here are some initial off the cuff thoughts:

a) it’s already happening to some degree, see Monopoly, Scrabble, Jenga.

b) The family market is much larger than the hobby market, but much tougher to crack. Quality is going to be a very important consideration, as is ease of use and first-run experience, including tutorials and teaching.

c) It’s possible that the aforementioned digital game examples are mostly getting played by board game hobbyists, rather than the general populous you’d expect to be playing a family game, which would be hard to prove either way unless you are the publisher of one of those games.

d) In general, (this is advice I like to give to anybody thinking about physical game conversion), the advantage that board game conversions have over their fully-digital counterparts is that there is already a population that knows about that game and to a lesser extent how to play that game. So the bigger that group, the bigger your advantage. How successful your board game conversion will be is very much influenced or enhanced by how successful a game you are choosing to convert.

6. Are you familiar with Steam, and would you recommend porting or building for that platform?

If you want to target desktops (OSX, Windows, or Linux), then I would highly recommend building working with Steam. I cannot make a recommendation about whether those platforms are viable for board game conversions in particular. Steam is a bit like Apple’s App Store and Game Center rolled into one, but cross platform for desktop games. There is an API that you as a developer can write to, and implement Steam achievements and various other social offerings.

7. Do you feel the effort to port from say Android/iOS phones requires more work to port to Tablet versions as well, or not?

Generally there is a portion of every project devoted to UI work. The amount of time spent will be different for every project, but generally I think it’s a higher percentage of the project for games than other application types. Let’s say, for a game, 50% of the development effort was put toward UI work. If you had only developed for one screen size at that point, you might have to re-do or at least re-touch much of that work. If you plan from the beginning of the project for multiple screen sizes, you can save yourself a lot of pain in “porting” to a different screen size, but it is still more work, no doubt about that.

8. What about PC/Browser porting, are you noticing or see the need/demand or value in doing that, and if so are you familiar with the effort in that case let’s say after a mobile version has been completed?

I do see this happen from time to time, though not with a lot of board game conversions. My concern would be monetization, since the folks who play web-based games are used to getting their games for free, and you have to have a very large active userbase (in the hundreds of thousands, from what I understand, although I’m no expert) to make money with advertising alone.

9. How many people do you believe is needed to convert and maintain a board game digital conversion, and what roles?

For a “full featured” conversion, I see the following needs:
– Programmer/developer
– Artist/graphic designer
– Sound Effects person and Musician (often can be the same person)
– Some kind of project manager or person making feature decisions
– A person (or team!) in charge of marketing

I have worked on a lots of projects where there were a couple of developers who split duties. This includes several apps with Tysen Streib, who would expertly craft the AI and game logic, while I handled all the rest of the application, including ultimately integration of his code into the project.

Another optional role I’ve found myself filling briefly at the start of smaller projects is that of UX designer. It is always nice to have a blueprint to work from, and good wireframes can really speed up development as well as help keep your team on the same page if there are multiple developers.

The mix and makeup of all of these roles will be different on every team, no doubt. There are certainly some indie developers who tackle all of these tasks for every project! I’ve found that keeping scope small is always a good thing, work toward manageable milestones, and you’re less likely to be surprised by how long something takes you to complete.

Five Years in the App Store

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

It’s pretty amazing that it’s been five years today since I had my first app approved.

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 11.23.05 AM

It’s been a fun ride.

GDC 2014

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Since I posted last year’s GDC badge, I figured I’d do it again. Be sure to scroll down for some of my thoughts about the conference this year, as well as being a speaker for the first time.

20140328-115954.jpg

Being a speaker at GDC was definitely a double-edged sword. All bets are off if I get any consulting work out of it, but if you break down how long I spent preparing for my talk, I definitely invested more of my time than the cost of GDC admission. On the other hand, there were certainly less tangible benefits as well. I got to go to the speaker party, for instance, which was really only “valuable” in terms of meeting other speakers and making some industry contacts. I spent quite a while there talking to Chris DeLeon, for example, who runs Hobby Game Dev. (I finally decided to check out his site, and got completely sucked in, btw. Be careful, there’s so much content over there you can easily lose an afternoon!)

A bit about the process of being accepted as a speaker: When my talk was provisionally accepted, the organizers made some suggestions for directions they’d like to see the talk evolve, and made it clear that my acceptance was contingent on those changes. I (of course) had the opportunity to bow out at that point, but chose to work with them and make it the talk they wanted rather than the talk that I’d submitted. I would definitely like to be a speaker again if I have opportunity to present something I’m very passionate about, but that revision process is not something I think I’d like to participate in again, not because it was unpleasant in any way, simply because it really sapped my enthusiasm for speaking. In this case specifically, my talk was initially not so much about usability, and while I think usability is definitely an important aspect of game development, it’s not a topic that I’m super passionate about. If I speak again, I want it to be something I can get fired up about. (Certainly mobile board games are a topic that fits that qualification, but specifically because that aspect of the talk was deemphasized, my enthusiasm also suffered.)

GDC, for me, has always been about soaking in as much of the panels and content as possible. Performance anxiety really put a damper on that goal (certainly on the day of my talk, but it had ripple effects the day before and after) so that definitely felt like another downside. On the other hand the added prestige associated with the speaker ribbon was a definite plus, especially in terms of talking to and meeting people I would not have otherwise.

The other big difference this year was that I attended GDC from the perspective of an igdatc organizer. I went to various meetings and talked to quite a few other chapter organizers from around the world. My take-away from this is that we are doing just the right amount of stuff, I think. There are definitely chapters WAY ahead of us in terms of volunteer effort and event planning, but there are also chapters that put in way more effort and have less events and fewer attendees. Our new Multiplayer Extravaganza series is humming along, and many of us are super excited to create our own local multiplayer games to showcase there.

Finally, the other thing that felt different about this year’s GDC was that there was a lot more opportunity to PLAY there. In addition to the IGF booth (that has existed on the show floor for years AFAIK), as well as the “doing it on the table” (boardgames exhibit that I believe was new as of last year), and GDC Play (which is a paid exhibitor space where you can show off your game), there was also: the Mild Rumpus, Indie Megabooth, alt.ctrl.gdc, and a Killer Queen arcade cabinet randomly positioned near the expo hall entrance. All these were welcome additions, and made for relaxing interludes that definitely helped with that speaker anxiety I previously mentioned.

I feel like this entire week has been “coming down” from GDC. (Which probably explains my high-frequency blog postings.) I definitely feel more energized about game development after this year’s GDC than I felt after last year’s. I don’t think industry events like GDC are required to be a game developer, but if you are developing a game, attending GDC will feel like a giant room full of 24,000 people with whom you already have something in common.

When Board Games Go Mobile

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

When you consider some of the game design imperatives for mobile games — playable in short bursts, interruptible, simple touch controls, UI that fits on a small screen — you may not immediately think that board games are a good fit for the medium. After all, many board games are an all-evening affair, require complex strategies, and cover the dining room table while they’re being played. But there are several reasons that board games are extremely popular on mobile, even games without the marketing budgets and brand recognition of Monopoly or Chess.

First, it should be noted that these are games with an existing fanbase. With a few notable exceptions (see Solforge or Cabals: The Card Game), mobile board games already have a physical version. This means that there is a certain niche fanbase that probably already knows about the game. Quite possibly there are hundreds or even thousands of people who have already played the game and know its rules. Some games already have enthusiastic fans that will help promote a digital version without even playing it.

As anyone with a marketing background knows, the more times a person sees a product, the more likely they are to purchase the product. So a fan of board games might have seen it in their local hobby store or read about it on Board Game Geek. By having a digital version on the market, your game has a leg up on the competition by sheer virtue of name recognition. In fact, this cross-media marketing can go both ways. Notable board game publisher Days of Wonder has been fairly public about the boost in sales their game Ticket To Ride has seen when the app version goes on sale or is otherwise promoted in the app store.

Price point is also worth talking about, as most hobbyist board games cost between $20 and $60, and most mobile apps cost between $0 and $1. A board game conversion application can often command above-average “mobile market value” (usually between $3 and $10) simply because it is being compared to the price of a physical game that is priced considerably higher. To a hobbyist board game connoisseur, picking up a $5 app to “try out” a game that would normally cost much more is quite a bargain. If the game includes a tutorial (as it should!), it might even attract a secondary market in players of the physical board game who can’t, or won’t, be bothered to read a complicated instruction manual.

Design Considerations

All of this should not be interpreted to mean that you can ignore the mobile game design imperatives mentioned at the beginning of this article. In fact, those should be some of your primary considerations when you evaluate converting a board game to mobile. Can you shrink all the information onto a 3.5-inch screen? Can you adequately distill the strategies and experiences of playing that particular game into a single-player experience, and will that experience still be fun? Sometimes the answer to that last question is only maybe, or flat out no, but mobile has another compelling attribute that will allow the game to still be worth making: always-on internet! This means it is perfectly possible to make a mobile game that is multiplayer only. There have been some really successful examples of this, (Words With Friends, for example). Another important question is whether the game can be played asynchronously. What I mean by this is: can each player take their turn without needing the input of the other players? If so, this allows for non-realtime (asynchronous) multiplayer and vastly simplifies the implementation of single-device multiplayer.

I would still recommend you include a single-player experience if you can swing it. The main reason for this is related to the cross-pollination I mentioned earlier between physical and digital. Folks who already own a game will have less reason to pick up a digital version if it is multiplayer-only. Sure, they can play against strangers and over long distances, but it is incredibly compelling to be able to play a board game you enjoy without needing to wrangle up several friends to do so. Some mobile board game publishers claim that their usage stats also show more single player games played than multiplayer, but that is highly anecdotal evidence.

Another question to ask is: does anything need to change when going from physical to digital? Should you use the art from the original board game? (If you can, the answer to this one is absolutely yes.) Obviously, you don’t have little wooden bits to move around, but of course you could simulate those. What if the wooden bits in the game are just counters? Would it make more sense to just show the number they are meant to represent instead of showing the pile of wooden bits? Anything that can be represented numerically is something you should contemplate.

I’ll illustrate this with an example from one of the first (and still one of the best) iOS board game conversions, Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a tile laying game, where on your turn, you have a random tile to play. In the physical version, you randomize by making face-down stacks of tiles or by pulling one from a bag. Theoretically, you know how many tiles there are left “in the bag” (and even what kind they are) by counting the ones already played on the table. In practice, that’s rarely something anyone figures out when playing the physical game. Yet, in the digital conversion, the developers chose to show a list of all the tiles in the game, with the number remaining of each type clearly displayed. This simple inclusion immensely changes gameplay because players will spend less time trying to determine whether or not a particular tile will be available to them later in the game. This allows for a much more strategic playing of the game.

Final Thoughts

I don’t have space here to go into all the nuances of licensing a board game property for mobile conversion, but I will say that you can bet most of the more popular games have either already been licensed, or have some other reason for remaining unlicensed. There are thousands of board games, however, and there are many, many diamonds in the rough. Likewise, I could write an entire article about UI considerations. How to best represent physical components on a touchscreen device is question that has been answered many different ways already, and only a few great games have really nailed it.

A few board games have now been released simultaneously with their digital counterparts. Marketing a board game is not so different from marketing a video game, and platform dominance applies to both. There may come a time in the not so distant future when we expect these simultaneous releases. Perhaps someday, digital “conversions” will not be considered “conversions” at all, but rather, just another way to play the game.

Note that I originally wrote this article for the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter, and it was posted at the end of November along with the following bio (which I also wrote, just FYI).

Martin Grider has been developing iOS applications since late 2008, when he launched his first application ActionChess, a Chess and puzzle game mashup. At the end of 2012, he developed and helped launch For The Win, an iOS board game conversion for well-known board game publisher Tasty Minstrel Games. Martin is passionate about mobile game development as well as game design for both video games and board games. He is a proud member of the IGDA, where he has presented for the local Twin Cities chapter on iPhone Game Development, Mobile Game Design, and his own mobile games.