I gave a talk at this year’s CrafterCon, (a single-day convention The Game Crafter puts on before the Madison Protospiel), and they recorded it and posted it to youtube. Unfortunately, I am not in the video, it’s just of the slides, although it does include my audio.
I had a pretty great time at Protospiel. The big thing I did to prepare (aside from creating my talk) was to make sell sheets for each of the games I brought, and while I did show them to several folks, they were other designers, not (as far as I know) any publishers.
I had a great time playing other folks prototypes and hanging out with friends both old and new.
Around the beginning of October, I found out that there was going to be an open source XR conference (called FOSS XR) in my neighborhood. I attended, and took some notes. I posted some of my notes in the MSPGameDev slack, and Zach, who runs our local VR & HCI meeting, asked if I would give a short recap of my impressions. I put some slides together, which I’ll embed below the video. There were some technical difficulties getting started, so the beginning of the video is actually as I’m getting into my second or third slide.
Conversion: The labor/effort involved in porting a game from a tabletop or “boxed” version to a digital platform.
Digital Platform: An environment where software can run. Possibilities include: mobile devices (iOS/Android), desktop (Windows, Apple, Linux), game consoles (Playstation, Xbox, Nintendo)
UI: This stands for User Interface. Sometimes used interchangeably with “graphic design”, the user interface refers to the visual elements that make up your application. Typically an artist or graphic designer (or both) creates mock-ups of your UI in an early stage of the project and then the developers implement it, or “make it real” throughout the project.
UX: This stands for User Experience and is not to be confused with UI. The UX is all about the actions the user takes to accomplish various tasks or access the features of your application. UX for games (especially on mobile platforms) can be a bit more complex than non-game applications, and should be well thought-out either before, or early on in development.
Costs: For the purposes of this document, this can mean time or it can mean money. Because you can convert from one to the other.
Basic features every mobile board game must have
Basic game playability – This essentially means the “engine” of the game. It’s nothing you can see, but represents the cost of implementing rules enforcement and game state.
Game UI – A basic game screen. Costs include UX considerations and graphic design as well as the implementation of that design. This can be entirely 2D (cheaper), or entirely 3D (which will look more like the physical version, but generally costs at least 2x), or a combination of both.
Menu screens – At least a “main menu” (before start screen), and in-game (pause) menu will be required. These are usually 2D.
Rules reference – At minimum this is just the rulebook of the game implemented as a screen in the application. (See Tutorials in optional features.)
Pass-and-play mode – This is a feature where two or more players can play the game using a single copy of the application. Essentially the only cost of this is the amount of effort it takes to implement the UX and UI necessary to support the feature. (Typically fairly minimal, although it does necessitate a game setup screen.)
AI – This enables playing without an opponent. Costs can vary wildly for this feature, and there are many cost considerations and options just related to this feature. It is typically a fairly large portion of the cost of conversion, however statistics that I’ve seen show that most players are looking for solo play in their digital board game conversions. (If you do not have “play against an AI” in your list of features, many users, including some reviewers, will not even look at your application.)
AI Difficulty Tiers – Typically once an AI has been developed, it is not too difficult to make it play “better” or “worse” by tweaking some parameters.
AI “Personality” Tiers – This means implementing multiple “play styles” for the AI opponent. This is typically more work than tweaking AI difficulty. It is more noticeable/effective in some games than others.
Online Multiplayer – There are so many options and considerations here that I gave it its own section below.
UX & UI
Game Setup Screen – Depending on the game, this can be a required feature. This allows for the customization of the game before play begins.
Tutorials – There are a number of varying approaches you can take here. Simplest (and lowest cost) is a non-interactive or “step-through tutorial”, which essentially just allows the user to page through what amounts to screenshots of the application while highlighting the rules of the game as well as highlighting the actions the user must take in the application to play it. This is generally considered a poor tutorial experience for all but the simplest games. A more effective tutorial strategy is an interactive or “in-game” tutorial, guiding the player through an example game (or part of one), allowing them to perform some of the actions of the game while the rules are pointed out to them in a scripted sequence. Finally, a third approach is to allow the user to start playing the game right away, while seamlessly presenting them with “contextual prompts” that either tell them how or why to perform the actions available at any given moment. A blend or combination of all three approaches is also possible.
Music – Usually considered the minimum effort, a single musical loop is quite easy to implement, and will improve the user experience for some players significantly. An actual soundtrack is not usually cost prohibitive, however, and the true cost is that of the additional development time incurred in deciding when to start and stop playback.
Sound effects – Note that some lists would probably put music & sound effects in the required list. They are typically a very high cost to benefit ratio, and there are a not-insignificant number of users who will complain if your conversion doesn’t have at least some basic audio effects.
Settings – At minimum, you probably want to implement a mute switch for the aforementioned game audio.
Additional “static” screens – Typically these include things like: logo splash, a sales pitch for the physical game, or about the publisher. Costs here are generally fairly minimal.
Visual Polish – “Juice” is a game industry term that generally refers to how good the game “feels” to play. This is its own discipline, and a major part of almost all commercial game development. One way to think of it is to break down each of the actions you can take in a game and ensure that they have appropriate feedback for the user. (Usually some combination of both visual and audio effects.) Often it makes sense for these effects to have animations associated with them. Generally, the more pleasing the effect, the more the user will want to continue to play the game. Most video games incorporate quite a lot of these animations and graphical effects. This is not always the case for board game conversions, because the players can be counted on to be attracted to the physical game they already know (or know about). Put another way, these players are not playing because they saw a fancy trailer or because they saw a screenshot and decided the art looks amazing. That said, amazing art and fancy animations WILL absolutely help you sell more copies of the application, which in turn will help you sell more copies of the board game. Visual polish is unfortunately, very time consuming, and while some simple animations can be built easily “as you go”, generally the more animation and “juice” a game has, the more likely the developers spent a some amount of time after the development of the basic game on additional visual polish. This additional effort is referred to as “juicing” the game.
Statistics – A collection of metadata about the user’s game playing over time. Typical statistics might include: number of games played, win percentage, average score, etc. Each game usually also has some distinct things specific to it that can be collected into statistics. An example in Chess might be the number of pieces captured by your Queen. Usually for each statistic you can give at least two numbers, a total over all games, and an average per game. Statistics generally have three costs, the cost of collecting the statistics (generally there will be a list built up during gameplay, as well as a few that can only happen when the game is completed), the cost of saving the statistics (whether to disk or in the cloud), as well as the cost of displaying the statistics to the user elsewhere in the application.
Achievements – Often the statistics mentioned previously will be used to drive these, but your game might also suggest specific goals that can be made into achievements as well. You want each achievement to be a singular accomplishment that the user can take pride in completing. Most platforms have their own systems for achievements, and many of them require an image (or icon) to be associated with each achievement. If you are building a cross-platform application, you’ll typically want to build some kind of custom visual display (UI) for these yourself, as well as push them to the platform’s achievement APIs.
Leaderboards – These are rankings or ladders where players can compare their own statistics with other players’ statistics. The best platform implementations of this allow the user to see a filtered list of these comparisons against just their list of friends on the platform. All the major platforms have their own leaderboards. As with Achievements, if you are building cross-platform, one decision you’ll have to make is whether to allow users to compare themselves to users on other platforms. If so, this is a feature you’ll need to leverage your multiplayer server to create.
ELO or Skill Ranking – This is a number meant to represent the player’s skill in a particular game. It is generally calculated after every game, and in some games (Chess, especially) used to match players with other players of similar skill.
Here are some important questions to consider:
What kind of multiplayer gameplay? – The most common options are “real-time” and “asynchronous”. Asynchronous play (meaning both players do not have to be online at the same time to play against one another) doesn’t work for all kinds of board games, so the game itself may influence this decision. In general, it’s usually possible to develop an asynchronous implementation in such a way that real-time play is also possible, but not vice versa.
Where will you store the online games? – For all multiplayer, there is a server component needed. Here again there are a lot of options. Generally speaking, the easiest option is to use a 3rd party multiplayer service. (Some examples are PlayFab and Photon, both providing relatively “turnkey” solutions for Unity developers.) Many of these exist, and each have their own costs (as well as features and trade-offs) associated with them. Each of the platform holders also have their own multiplayer servers, but then you are limited to multiplayer opponents (and features) specific to that platform. Yet another option is to create your own “custom server application”, which allows for a lot more flexibility and some efficiency gains, but has a higher up-front cost.
Will you require an account? – You can do online multiplayer without accounts, but generally the user won’t be able to switch devices or recover the account if they delete the app and reinstall it. There are other limitations as well. Some server options (platform-specific ones especially) have accounts “built in”.
What kind of matchmaking? – Some examples of matchmaking: “pit me against a random opponent”, “invite my friends to a game”, “play a game with someone at my skill level”. Each of these has their own difficulties and feature requirements. Some options will not be available on all server types.
What social features? – Like matchmaking, which social features you chose to implement will have a lot to do with the capabilities that are available on whatever choice you made for your server component. Here are some examples: “allow the user to create a friend’s list”, “allow the user to react to another player’s move in some way without text (an emoji, for example)”, or “allow the users to chat with one another (text or audio) during a game”.
Anything above a straight fixed-price for purchasing the application (the fixed price could be free) is going to take additional development effort.
Ads – I generally recommend against this approach to monetizing digital board games. You’ll need a significant number of daily active users in order to see any appreciable revenue (generally around 100,000), and there are significant drawbacks.
In-app purchases – These come in basically two flavors, although both flavors involve building some kind of UI, in addition to the costs associated with integration with the various platform (or separate payment platform) APIs. Some examples:
1) The most straightforward in-app purchase has a single-use. (Examples of this include game expansions, or sometimes cosmetics, for instance allowing the user to play on a different game board or with different color pieces.)
2) Another common in-app purchase is for “consumable goods”. Examples of this include coins or some other currency in the application that can then be “spent” on essentially whatever you like. Other examples include allowing the user to purchase hints (or undos) in a puzzle game, or tokens redeemable for additional multiplayer games, or any number of other consumable digital goods.
Subscriptions – This is a strategy that is gaining in popularity, but is not very common for individual games. All the major games platforms have a subscription service, and it’s worth noting that these platforms do solicit games to be included in their service. As of this writing, Apple Arcade is boasting about including over 180 games, and Google Play Pass says it includes “hundreds of awesome games and apps, completely free of ads and in-app purchases”.
Conclusion / About this post
I wrote the original version of this document many years ago. (At least 5, but that probably came from notes I’d made even earlier.) I was recently exchanging emails with a potential board game conversion client, and I mentioned that I had a list like this floating around. I made another significant revision before sending off, and decided to present it here. I’m sure it’s missing some things, and of course every game has its own considerations above and beyond the ones that are listed here.
This year I attended my first ever Essen Spiel, the world’s largest board game convention.
Bucket list item: Check.
…as you can see, they are mostly (but not all) abstract strategy games. And for the most part (with a couple of notable exceptions) they are games that I am unlikely to see in a store here in the states. I haven’t played them all yet, but I have made a dent, and I’ve quite enjoyed Control V, Nova Luna, Hetrix and Stackers so far. My family played a game of Miyabi, and my wife even declared she approved of the purchase!
I was demoing and exhibiting with Adam’s Apple Games, who had, months ago, during the kickstarter, hoped to have Thrive there for sale, but alas, there have been manufacturing delays, and it now looks like it’ll be next March (probably at the earliest) before we see the final production copies. You can see me here standing next to the 3D printed prototypes that we’ve been showing around for the last year or so.
Spiel is more like a trade show (they refer to it as an expo) than most of the other board game related events I’ve been to. Comparing it to Gen Con in particular is interesting, because at Essen there are really no “events” at all. Some exhibitors might post a list of events they are having in their booth, (signings or tournaments most likely), but the convention itself has no designated spaces for events, and doesn’t post a schedule. At Gen Con the expo hall is maybe 1/4th of the designated convention center space, and probably 1/2 of the total space is purely for events. (Many of which are ticketed and cost additional money.) Another difference is that most people expect to actually play games in the exhibitor booths. So most booths, even the smallest ones, have a demo table (or a dozen!), and folks sit down at them mostly to play entire games. Although many of the larger games at the bigger publisher booths (but not all) were just shorter-length demos, which is usually what you get to do, (if anything!), on the show floor at Gen Con. But of course Gen Con has all that additional space for events, most of which are just scheduled times to play specific games.
A lot of people attend Spiel, this year nearly three times as many as attended Gen Con. (If Wikipedia’s numbers are correct, 209k vs 70k.) But for that, it never felt significantly more crowded than Gen Con to me. Yes, there is more physical space, certainly, but I think another factor could be that more folks attend Spiel on day passes than Gen Con, and so you have fewer people at any given time. Certainly Saturday and Sunday did feel very crowded, but I saw very little shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-of-humans that is common walking the expo floor at Gen Con.
You can’t throw a stick without hitting a designer. Not thinking of the attendees so much, but as I walked around the convention, the folks staffing the booths were quite often the game designers themselves. This was definitely not as true in the larger booths, but the smaller ones it felt very common for the designers to be present, and if there was only one person staffing the booth, I’d guess it was 50/50 whether that person also designed a game being shown.
It was super multicultural. There were definitely publishers there from all over the world. I personally met folks from Australia, Korea, China, Spain, the UK, Ireland, and of course Germany. But as large as it was, not all the US publishers were there. I can only speculate why, but certainly some of them don’t think a cost/benefit analysis holds up, but I also think it’s just plain impossible to go to all the events all the time. I’m fairly certain you could find a board game event somewhere in the world to go to every weekend, if you tried hard enough.
I’m definitely glad I went, and I would do it again. I really enjoyed wandering around the show floor and seeing all the new games.
Last weekend was Protospiel MN. After how much fun I had at the Madison protospiel (was it just a month ago!?!?), my expectations for this one may have got away from me. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the last few weeks prepping new prototypes. Here’s what I brought and tested:
Adam Rehberg and I both brought copies of Thrive in various states of quality. It was interesting to compare his 3D printed pieces to my own. (We are using a new model courtesy of local artist Colin Cody-Waters, and his printer does a better job with it than mine.) At this point, we are more in marketing mode than actual play testing, but we did have some new things to playtest.
I managed to get a new “pyramid tile laying / fitting / stacking game” to the table several times. The tiles are (some of them) glued together in 1/4th overlapping shapes and patterns. (This is harder to describe than I realized.) I’ll include a photo of one of the end-game pyramids below, but you can’t really get a sense from the photo which tiles are actually glued together and which are singletons. The idea is that you use the singletons as currency to pay for the larger tiles. One of the last parts left to design was how to score the game, (though I had plenty of ideas), and I got lots of useful feedback on those ideas, as well as plenty of other helpful suggestions from my play testers. One of the games we ended up calculating scores for each player in 4 different ways. None of them fully met my criteria for how I wanted the scoring to incentivize building up rather than out, so I still have some thinking still to do on this one.
Oh Tetrominoes! – just the blocks – I made a version of this game by gluing 1-inch cubes together (pictured below). It was easy to get to the table, because it just looks and feels really nice, I think. Adam gave me some great feedback about wanting a “qwirkle moment”. And someone suggested having blocking pieces. Next time I play it I want to try where only the three polygons score, and the spaces marked X are blockers. Notably, the game board (with score track) was the first and only thing I’ve ever created in Illustrator, only about an hour of work.
Windrose – I did playtest this again at the convention. There were some new ideas thrown around. I sort of thought this was “done”, but the conversation left me bristling with ideas. I sort of feel like most of them would result in a different game entirely, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I did also bring my Blinks dev kit, which was running my game Takeover. I only actually brought it out on Saturday night, after the main convention hall was closed for the evening. Immediately after we played it, we played Oh Tetrominoes!, and someone paid me the compliment (paraphrased) “You’ve shown me both the most sophisticated (technically), and least sophisticated (physical components) games that I’ve seen this weekend.”
– My standout game for the convention was a numbers-heavy (but not at all otherwise heavy) strategy game by Patrick Yang. He’s calling it Mathemagical, which is a great name, and I really liked the game.
– I got to play a tetromino stacking prototype called Lots. It was light and quite fun.
– My daughter attended with me on Sunday, and she ended up spending at least an hour (maybe two) prototyping a game in collaboration with another little girl who was there. I think they both really had fun, and there were even some neat ideas they came up with together.
This was my first time at this particular Protospiel. I do think the space was bigger than the MN one, but only by a factor of maybe 1.5x or 2x. I heard tell it was actually more space this year than previous years, but I have no idea if that was true. I also heard there was less of a publisher presence this time around. The only ones I saw, were Adam Rehberg from Adam’s Apple Games, (who I traveled over with), and the GameCrafter (if you count them as a publisher). Of course others may have been there incognito. (Or just less obviously.)
Adam (who is publishing my game Thrive) and I set up Thrive as a blind playtest on one of the back tables. This was the first time it had been shown with (some of) the new artwork, and we got a lot of praise for it. (I’ll post a photo.) I did feel bad briefly on Saturday when it was especially packed for taking up the space, but there was almost always someone playing it, and I had so much positive feedback, both about the game itself, and about doing a blind playtest at Protospiel (which several folks said they’d never seen before), that the feeling was easily allayed. We got good feedback on the rules, and added about 15-20 names/emails to our signup sheet to let folks know about the kickstarter when it happens. (Incidentally, we talked about a date for the kickstarter on the car ride home, and we are currently aiming to have it now in March.)
My personal goal was to get more games of my two current favorite designs in, and I got both on the table several times. The first, (with working title Oh Tetrominoes!), was played 3 times to completion, and only actually broke on the 4th play through. While it mostly felt like it works mechanically, I think the consensus was that it’s a bit fiddly, and not especially fun. It’s a mashup of three or four game ideas I had that all feature tetrominoes, and while they are integrated well (I got compliments on this!), they still feel weirdly disjointed, and one of them really feels like the core of the game (which I reluctantly agree with). After the last (failed) gameplay, one of the playtesters actually convinced the rest of the table (including me, but I didn’t need much convincing) to play a game of just that main core mechanic, without the other features. That went really well, and I’m definitely going to pivot the game a bit. (I mean really, I think it’s basically done, but I suppose I should playtest it a few more times to be sure. I’ll probably try and re-use the other mechanisms in a different game… someday.)
I felt like my other game, Windrose, had each playtest go better than the last. My goal for that one had been to play it with 4 players. as It had previously only been tested with two. I got in 2 more 2-player games, 3 4-player games, and one 3-player game (in that order). It really felt like it worked just fine with 3 and 4 players, although after the first 4-player game, we added a rule that changed strategies quite a bit without making the game feel all that different. I do think I prefer it with the new rule. Otherwise, the game didn’t actually need any tweaking, which feels kind of amazing to me. It’s another super simple abstract strategy game, and creating one of those that plays 4-players is really exciting to me. (Probably not something any publisher is going to be interested in, but you never know!)
Other highlights for me include:
– Playing a couple of new-to-me Adam’s Apple Games prototypes.
– A game played with “kite and dart” Penrose Tiles, which really looked cool.
– Seeing, (but sadly not actually playing) Cartographers: A Role Player Tale, which looked like a contender for my favorite take on the emerging “Flip and Fill” genre that is hot right now.
– Having dinner with Nick Bentley, who I have been acquainted with for some time, (I turned his game Catchup into an iOS app a few years ago), but until this trip might not have actually called a friend. We had such great conversations at dinner on Friday that we resolved to do it again on Saturday, and then I managed to convince him to play a couple of games late into Saturday night.
There were way more games that I was interested in trying out than I actually got to sit down and play. I did play a lot of games though, and I hope I gave some good feedback. I’d say the ratio of playing my own games to others’ was probably 40/60. All in all, definitely a great event for me. I’d recommend it, and definitely hope to do it again.
For years I’ve been a very vocal proponent of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC. This year’s session hit the internet quite fast (over on the GDC Vault), and I consumed it last night. As usual, I’d definitely highly recommend game designers and developers give it a watch.
Often, I want to refer back to the session after, or follow a particular work I saw there, but it can sometimes be quite difficult to find a list of participants for a particular year. This year’s seemed especially un-google-able, so I’ve compiled a list here:
Baba is You, Arvi Teikari – A sokoban-like game where the rules of the game are also pushable blocks, and can be rearranged.
Untitled Goose Game, Nico Disseldorp & Stuart Gillespie Cook, House House @house_house_, A game where you play as a goose and interact with your environment and an AI controlled gardener to complete objectives.
Everything is going to be Okay, Nathalie Lawhead @alienmelon, This is an art game, or “an interactive zine”, that focuses on using humor to confront modern horrors.
Noita, Petri Purho Nolla Games – An action rogue like game where every pixel is simulated, which means they are both destructible and have real-world (and fantastic) properties.
Time Watch, Balthazar Auger and Lucas(?) from NGD Studios @ngdstudios – A FPS that allows you to play a single death-match three (or more) times, all the while altering causality.
Feng Shui, Saúl González and David Marull from Ludopia @LudopiaNet – A puzzle or architecture game allowing you to place furniture in a room and incorporating the principals of Feng Shui.
Luna, Robin Hunicke and Brad Fotsch of Funomena @funomena – Luna is a VR game with music and flowers.
Freeways, Justin Smith from Captain Games @manbearcar – A game about drawing freeway lanes and making efficient paths.
La Tabla, Chaim Gingold and Luke Iannini @tablaviva – An open source table and projector combination with lots of exciting possibilities for interaction and play.
Of these, I was most surprised by Baba is You. It won two IGF awards, so I guess I wasn’t the only one. I have already downloaded the game jam version from Itch, and played through all the levels. I am definitely going to pick up the full thing when it launches on steam.
I have also been following Dynamicland when I can, and I’d be interested in hearing about the relationship between La Tabla and it. I know that some of the people involved are or were involved in both, but that’s about it. Maybe I can interrogate someone about it at Eyeo Festival in a couple of months. La Tabla is on github, and I’m pretty tempted to put together a table so I can play with it myself.
I’ve been pretty lax on posting here this year. The main reason for this post is that I realized I hadn’t posted about Donuts in Space, which is a game I made explicitly to put on the Donutron. In case you’re not familiar, the Donutron is a donut-inspired arcade cabinet installed at Glam Doll Donuts on Nicollet and 26th in South Minneapolis.
The Donutron currently features all games made by local-to-Minnesota game makers. Donuts in Space was the first donut-themed game on the cabinet, and is a game where you play as a donut rolling around on top of a giant donut floating through space, racing the clock to collect mini-donuts. You can also play split-screen multiplayer. Here are a couple of screenshots:
So the other reason I wanted to post is that I keep meaning to write about Unite Austin. First of all, I decided to go to Unite because a) Unity is a good chunk of my freelance work now, (easily 50% in the last year, possibly as much as 80%), and b) it had been a while since I went to a technical conference where I expected to learn anything. I did learn a bunch, mostly about the new Timeline and CinneMachine features built into Unity 2017.x, but also a bunch about various AR stuff. I also got to try out demos of the Microsoft “mixed reality” headset and software, as well as the Meta 2 AR headset.
When I registered for the conference, the website also managed to upsell me on taking the Unity Certification exam while I was there. (So yes, I am now Unity Certified, at least for the next two years.)
Let’s see, other random stuff that’s gone unmentioned this year:
I also added Root Down to the lineup, and changed some wording here and there.
Sadly, For The Win will be moving from “Mobile Board Games” to “Retired” sometime in the next month or so. I got the same email from Apple about it as I got for the other two games. I don’t have time to update it to support all the new screen sizes (and that app in particular would probably require some new graphics).
I gave a very similar (but slightly different and less long-winded) talk at Minnebar 2017 to the one I gave a few months ago at Cocoaheads. Probably the only notable difference is the inclusion of a screenshot from my new Unity port of ActionGo, for which I made this 30 second trailer.