Hello all. Last week Maya Ivanovic and Ben Stevens - media students from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney – came and interviewed me about my thoughts on the development of digital board games. They have kindly provided me with a copy of the transcript to put up on our site.
Please find it below for your enjoyment!
Could you please state your name, age and what your role is with iPadBoardGames?
My name is Angelus Morningstar, I am 30 years old and I’m the principal reviewer for iPad Board Games. I mostly review the A-list games, and sometimes some miscellaneous others, but my focus is the A-list games.
When you say A-list games, what exactly do you mean?
A-list games are the big note games, so when you’re seeing a port of a very well established board game such as Settlers of Catan, that would be considered an A-list game.
Okay. So is that all you do – review the games? How does that process work?
I mostly review games but I also try to keep an update as to what impending releases are coming up and what we know from the development sector. I also, on occasion, try to solicit interviews with designers, developers and companies. I’ve interviewed the CEO of Days of Wonder, I’ve interviewed Stephane Maurel who’s done a lot on the design of a number of games. So it’s vaguely anything to do with board games that are on the iPad.
Okay, excellent. There definitely seems to be an increase in those digitised, virtual games, why do you think that is?
Well, I think it’s largely because… First thing, the iPad creates a perfect, well a near perfect, virtual space for several types of board games. It’s portable, you don’t have to spend the time to set up, and also it’s about a tenth of the price. So you’re not getting the full experience, but you are able to spend a few dollars, which most people happily spend on most games, to get a feel for the game. And if you don’t like it, then well you’ve just lost a few dollars. So there’s little risk involved in experimenting with these types of games and because they’re digital, you can sell as many copies as you want.
You did say that they are ‘near-perfect’ and that you lose out on the experience, what exactly did you mean by that?
So, there are a number of impediments to the experience of a board game on the iPad. First of all, you are playing with a smaller size and that affects some games more than it does others. So, some games will have a whole amount of information in front of you that you’re trying to take in at any given time. So for instance, games like Android, which is a fairly big game, or games like Twilight Imperium, I don’t think would translate well to the iPad because there’s so much information to get into the user interface. Other games that don’t translate well are the ones that have a huge social interactive element, particularly games with a bidding process.
Ra is a game that I’ve noted probably doesn’t work as well because there’s an interaction of bidding and you’re trying to assess other human players, there’s bluffing and all those kinds of subtle interactions – they can be done around an iPad but can’t necessarily but done on online multiplayer as well and AI is a notoriously poor and big part of a bidding war.
There is also another type of game that I’ve found don’t translate as well. Some card games don’t translate as well, particularly ones that have a lot of detail in the card. There are games like Magic: The Gathering, which will be coming out and I’m waiting to see how well it comes across. There are games like Nightfall that, again, has a lot of detail in the card – each card is their own rule. Unless you’re inherently familiar with those cards and their rules, you’re going to need an opportunity to examine each of them as you play, and that is obviously difficult to do on that small interface. So there’s that loss of detail or accessibility to that detail there.
Okay, yeah that makes sense. So what do you think of the shift from physical games such as board games card games, as you’ve mentioned, to digital platforms?
I wouldn’t describe it a shift as that implies that one is being sacrificed at the gain of the other. And certainly, what Days of Wonder have noticed is that there has been a significant increase of sales of their physical games of the ones they have realised on iPad. So that’s true for Small World.
So is that based on the fact that…
Exposure. It’s pure exposure. People play it, they like it and they realise ‘Oh, I can actually get a physical copy’ and that’s just a huge translation of sales. Days of Wonder is particularly advantageously positioned for that because they started the development of their copy, so they’ve already got the infrastructure to easily port and you’ll see that all of their games are done in-house, all of their implementations are done in-house so it’s Days of Wonder that’s producing them as opposed to many of the other companies which never had that infrastructure from the start and they have to use third parties to actually do the implementation.
Take Settlers of Catan, for instance. Mayfair who is the creator, well Mayfair is the American provider of that game… It’s probably the most famous and the most popular Eurogame or strategic game in the world, at this point. USM, who is an online company, did the implementation of Settlers of Catan.
Okay, I follow. Like you said, many game manufacturers and producers are releasing computer/video/app versions of traditional family games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and so on. Why do you think that that reinvention is occurring? What is the attraction to that?
One is because most of those games are public domain, so you will go through iTunes and you look through the iPad board games, you will see multiple iterations of the basic traditional board games. They don’t have to pay anyone, they can develop themselves, the rules are ubiquitous and people are familiar with the. So you generally don’t have to teach people how to play chess, you don’t have to teach people how to play poker, although I guess with poker you’re still dealing with that social interaction barrier.
But on the obverse, when you’re talking about the more complex strategy games – I’m gesturing for the record, to a series of board games to my left – when you’re talking about implementing more complex games, one of the advantages is that the medium can also become the teacher. So, there are tutorials that can take you through the steps and having that visual aid is a really useful benefit to understanding how a game works. Of course, if a tutorial is not done well then it’s just very very difficult because the more complex the game is, the more difficult to learn through iPad because you’re not interacting with pieces, you’re not able to reference multiple things at the same time and pick your way through the process. So, the more complex the game, the more well developed the tutorial needs to be and the more interactive the tutorial needs to be.
So, do you think that there’s a definite interest on the part of the board game creators to release digital forms to encourage the popularity of the original, physical copy or is it more just a separate digital market – they are not really concerned about interesting those same players?
I’d say you have a market of people who are just gamers, and so they are happy to explore it in either medium and you will have feedback from one to the other – people who are familiar with a physical game, very easy to transfer to an iPad game or a digital version and, as I have mentioned before, people who are familiar with the digital versions are happy to transfer over. I think what it is that we are seeing is that the broader community is being exposed to games that they might not normally consider so there is an increased, there is a general increased interest in entertainment of various sorts and things like the iPad are making entertainment much more accessible than ever before.
What you will find is that developers are hesitant to go into the Android market because of the investment – there’s not enough return usually from the Android market at this point to warrant most developers creating an Android version, whereas the iOS market is just saturated and ubiquitous. People are familiar with it, the app ecosystem is manifold and plentiful. And that’s just a virtual aspect of iOS devices in an order of magnitude than there are in its competitors. If that balance changes, you’ll probably see more variations shift but, at this point, more developers are keen to focus on iOS devices because they will get the returns.
The other thing that is happening is that the iOS and other digital platforms are being opportunities for developers to test games before they create a physical one. There is an example of a card game called Shadow Era which started out purely as a digital deck building game and it gained enough popularity that they were able to create a kickstarter and create physical cards which they are looking to implement and so you get feedback between the two.
Okay, great. I’ve never considered it like that before.
The developers clearly have.
You said that there’s a way to test things. Draw Something is an iteration of Pictionary, Words with Friends of Scrabble, and these are just the main ones. Why do you think that is, why are they developing these particular games?
Public domain. We have seen, what we call, clones of games that are part of an established intellectual property. Pandemic is a game within intellectual property that has a clone called Operation Eradicate, which is pretty much the same game, but the theme has changed from instead of trying to eradicate a pandemic across the world you’re trying to eradicate a zombie apocalypse, and it’s just cosmetic changes between the two games. There is a fairly famous card game called Dominion which is one of the first drafting card games, or one of the first majorly popular drafting card games to come out.
Normally you couldn’t do that, create an unofficial version but the developers, while they’re in the process of creating their own official, have allowed a third person to create their own unofficial Dominion port, provided it was free and provided that, as soon as their official one is ready, it has to be pulled. So there is some leeway and it’s largely dependent on the owners of the intellectual property but I can guarantee you that if some of these things started becoming public domain, you would see clones or iterations.
Part of the reason you will see these iterations is probably because there are a lot of independent designers – this is not based on any data, this is just an educated guess on my part – a lot of independent designers, all of them are trying to get their name out there and so one o the easy ways to do that is to produce something that is familiar, which will still showcase your skills.
So that’s like that whole Draw Something thing that we’ve seen?
Probably. I have to admit, I have not really played it because my preferences are clearly the euro strategic board games.
Definitely. So is there a concern there that because of the public domain, there’s an emphasis on recreating already classic board games that there might not be any more, or less, innovation in board games in general if there’s more appeal in recreating what’s already been made?
I think the way to interpret that is that the market is just massively increasing and the larger the market is, the more you are going to have people who are just interested in casual games. So yes, you’re going to have people like me who you could probably call a connoisseur of games. I like good games, I have certain standards about what types of games I think are appealing and what games work for me but a lot of people in the general audience are going to be much more satisfied with games that aren’t as necessarily challenging, or difficult or well-developed and are probably only interested in spending a dollar for a cheap game than spending five or ten dollars for a very well developed game. So, it’s market size in the fact that in any increase of market, you’re going to get some really good quality but that’s only going to appeal to a smaller demographic whereas cheap and accessible is going to appeal to a larger demographic.
Do you think it’s viable, in the long run, to digitise these games or do you think that it’s a current novelty as you recognise the pervasiveness of iOS devices and such?
I would not say it’s a novelty. I think the parallel process is to look at eBooks. I think that the main difference is that books are a lot more ubiquitous than games; you have literacy so you can read. What is happening in the book market is more and more people are accessing your basic things through eBook – if you want to read it, you can access it really easily, if you want to own it, people tend to want to get the physical stuff. And that’s obviously based on people’s personal preferences, some people like the physical medium and others just want the text and they’re not so worried about the physical book. I think that that kind of mentality translates across very well to board games and possibly more so because the physical engagement with a board game is going to be much more significant than the physical engagement with a book – gaming is tactile.
So is that what you see as the appeal of board games?
That’s assuming that there’s one appeal of board games. I think the fundamental appeal is that these games are entertainment. We are getting a very high demand for entertainment in our current culture. Games on the iPad are a portable entertainment that you can play in silence, so yes you can listen to music and yes you can watch things with headphones, but sometimes you don’t have those. Games change so you could probably get more use out of a game that is developed well than you could out of a television show. You may watch the same show a couple of times whereas, if it’s a really good game, you could be playing it for the rest of your life.
I think at this point, I will comment on what I think creates a good game, and I say this as a critique, I have particular biases about this and I will put them down here. I think a game needs to be challenging – it needs to give you pause to think and reflect and plan however I recognise that a lot of people, especially on the casual side of gaming, don’t necessarily want to have to go into that deep thought and are just happy to watch birds fly at pigs or fling peas at zombies. They are fun games in their own right but it’s a different level of engagement.
I think a game needs to be mechanically sound – the mechanics or the system of the game needs to be somewhat intuitive. If you’re having to refer to a book, or some kind of chart, or some kind of external document frequently to understand what your next step or point is, it’s a huge barrier. So intuition and that also transfers over to how easy it is to learn.
And the last one which I think a lot of developers are learning more recently is its visual appeal. The good thing about the iPad is rather than static images, you can get animations, you can get sounds – which you’ll get for most really well developed games. And also, the computer does a lot of the thinking for you.
So then what in turn do you think the visual appeal of a board game or physical game would be? How does that translate physically?
I think the physical game’s appeal over an iPad one is very much tactile – you can pick up the pieces and interact [with them] – at a glance see all the relevant components in front of you. You can observe your opponents, or sometimes the people you’re working with, and you sort of have that space to think and breathe rather than having to instantly interact with the machine all the time.
Fundamentally it comes down to – I think – the iPad version is cheaper, easier and more convenient, but you lose out on a lot of the nuance that sometimes I think games can provide. Whereas the reverse is true for physical games. So some games can take up to 20 minutes to set up, and just as long to pack up – clearly you don’t have that in the iPad version.
Specifically, how do you think the physical aspect compares between physical and digital games?
You’re touching a screen versus picking up pieces. It’s immediately different, partly because one’s 3D, one’s not and yes, a piece in a game is symbolic – it’s a symbol for either a rule set or symbolic for a component of the game, and you can represent those symbols on the iPad. Some of them do that well, some of them don’t.
A really good example of where the translation has been done well is Puerto Rico, one of the more popular Euro-games. So [with] Puerto Rico you’re looking at five separate player boards in front of you and a central main board, and the way [that’s played] – that’s really difficult to translate onto one screen. Some games will do that by having alternate-player games that you can flick through, but you’re still losing the ability to, at a glance, look at the playing field. Some will still have abilities to sort of pull down a map so you can look at the playing field, but then again, the more you have to flick between screens, the more difficult it is to absorb everything in a single glance. What Puerto Rico does is it reconfigures the interface so that you can see everything, it’s a very different setup, but it functions the same, and you can still see how everything works.
How do you think socialising with another player differs between the two [physical and digital]?
That’s an amazingly big, but amazingly subtle difference. I think anyone who’s played games on a regular basis will immediately appreciate it – you have table-talk.
And this is physical games?
Yeah, this is in-person, which admittedly you can kind-of do with an iPad, you either have two modes of physical interaction, you have what’s called ‘pass and play’ where you hold it, you pass it, or as a table-top where it’s just sort of set in front of you and it’s designed to respond to the fact there are players on the other side.
So that can be done, but I still think that when you’ve got the whole thing in front of you, you’ve got more space around you, you’ve got more things to look at and you’re not all trying to crowd around a very small space. It puts people more at ease, I think, that’s been my observations and it just sort of helps make it [possess] more of a social aspect.
Is that something then that physical game players really value over digital players? They really want that social aspect?
Yes. Those who tend to game frequently I think would appreciate that. Clearly it can’t be universally true, but I think most people who do board gaming with people will generally want to use a digital medium to play when they can’t otherwise play with people. So either they’re looking to do online multiplayer, or they’re looking to play against an AI opponent. So that’s [in] their own time.
Do you think that perhaps playing a digital game, people are exposed to situations and people that they ordinarily wouldn’t, because it helps cross that international boundary for example?
A: I will admit the multiplayer aspect is an area that I don’t tend to explore myself. Partly because I mistrust playing games with people I don’t know. It’s a social thing for me; I don’t want to play a social game with a complete stranger unless there’s some kind of context for me to enjoy that in. Different people have different levels of attitudes, some people are just happy to play with anyone because the competition is more important than the collegiality or community aspect of it, but clearly multiplayer is very, very important in the development of a game – online multiplayer as well as being able to have physical multiplayer in-person.
There are three things a [digital] board game needs to be basically successful: good tutorial – and if your board game’s simple enough you can get away with just a written tutorial, but if it’s more than three or four pages you’ve already lost half you audience; good multiplayer – there needs to be an opportunity to either play with other people through online systems or play with them in-person, and an AI opponent if it is a competitive game. So for instance there are some games that are co-operative, which you probably don’t need an AI person [for], so everyone wins or everyone loses – and they’re quite fun!
One lesson to learn comes from a game called Cyclades – which is there, gesturing again to my left – it is a very, very good game by Matagot. It’s very clever and very subtle, but it was brought out without any AI or any multiplayer online support, so the assumption at that point seems to be you’d be playing this game with other people who probably already need to know the game. The tutorial just fails in all three boxes and even though it’s a good game, it’s not selling. Fortunately with the iPad, and with other digital mediums you can update, and that’s the update they’re gonna be working on.
I guess that’s something – an ‘advantage’ – that doesn’t come with a physical game.
Do you think the proliferation of digital board games reflects a wider trend in the way physical interaction is valued?
How do you mean?
Well you said it’s important to have that sense of community, or at least you identified that is valued in both digital and physical games.
That’s certainly important to me, but obviously different people get different experiences from games. I tend to be more on the competitive side, so obviously I can appreciate the game for the game, and enjoy it for the win. Whereas other people, it’s not important whether they win or lose they just like getting around with friends, but I think you’ll find anyone who wants to play games on a fairly frequent basis will have some level of competitiveness to them. So it’s a combination of that social aspect and that underlying competitiveness.
Ok, well what I mean with ‘Facebook’ for example, everyone’s saying it’s redefining the way we look at physical interaction, conversation, that sort of thing. So do you think the fact that people can play online with their friends from the comfort of their own homes, or perhaps online with a stranger, do you think that’s a translation perhaps of how ‘gamers’ maybe value physical interaction?
I think there’s an important difference between social media, and gaming. Social media – communication – comes fairly naturally to all of us and we have over the course of a decade or so adapted to social media. I think the difference – and I could be proven wrong in this – the difference between gaming media is it’s not an interaction currently as natural to everyone, which is why gamers tend to be a small subset of society, rather than implicit. Whether the accessibility of games will change that is going to be an interesting question that I find difficult to predict. I think you’ll find that the proliferation of casual games may in fact suggest that people are looking for a cheap entertainment fix more than necessarily an interactive experience.
Looking forward, do you think that there is room for a digital and physical copy of the same game?
Yeah. Easily. For the various reasons I’ve mentioned.
Definitely. And is there a concern that an emphasis on simplicity and accessibility in the digital market may stymie innovation in the genre, especially when you’re appealing to the casual market?
No, because it will broaden the market and the broader the market, the more there is for people who want something more than casual. I don’t think the market’s yet reached any kind of plateau, so once you’ve started hitting that plateau maybe and you’ll reach some sort of saturation point, but…
What kind of plateau do you mean?
The market [reaches a point of] not expanding. So there’s people producing more apps but they’re not consuming more apps. I realise that my interests represent a sub-set of people who are engaging with gaming media, but it’s still a fairly young market so with expansion will come experience; [for example] Cyclades has taught us a mistake, and we’ve already learned from that mistake largely. You will not see another Euro-game particularly come out that does not have AI or multiplayer, you may see some that have imperfect AI or multiplayer, so you’ve already observed that.
Remember the iPad’s been around for two years now, so it’s still young. I used to be one of those people who thought there wasn’t a significant difference between the iPad and the iPhone, and I can tell you that’s a very big lie particularly with gaming media, and probably also a little bit with visual media and reading books, because the availability of information is significant and that goes back to how much detail you can access. Some games you just cannot play on the iPhone because there’s not enough space for the detail.
Is that the only difference you would say between those two devices, just the size or…?
I would say… interestingly enough, the weight also has part of that tactile experience. So holding a phone, there’s not so much of a tactile impression, and you’re also very familiar with having it as a communication device, whereas with the iPad, particularly where you’re not having as many telecommunication you’re interacting with it in a different way, and I think people get accustomed to that weight being for a specific type of interaction, a specific type of purpose. Maybe I’m talking too much on personal experience there, but I’d be not too surprised if a lot of people just automatically translate those types of tactile experiences to an automatic understanding of that type of experience.
How long have you been doing iPad boardgames?
I started last year in about February, so [my interaction with] the website’s about a year-and-a-half old.
And how did you come into that sort of thing?
I was looking for reviews for iPad board games, ‘cause I’m a consumer, and a picky consumer.
Have you always been into games, that sort of thing?
Of some sort yes. Probably my interest in board games has really piqued in the last five years, but I’ve always been interested in role-playing games or video games. Certainly video games go back to my early childhood.
Would you classify yourself as a gamer?
I frequently do.
We spoke to somebody else about the distinction between those who classify themselves as gamers and those who don’t, especially with like you said more casual gaming, people don’t identify themselves as ‘gamers’.
It’s a matter of opinion. Like any identity politics, you have a community which is a subset of society and identifying yourself as a gamer is clearly an indicator that you identify with that community, and so it’s less about the ‘hi, I play games’ but I’m an active participant in this community in some way or form.
Is your preference physical games, or games on the iPad?
As a general rule I prefer them in person, but I recognise there are certain realistic limits to that. [Playing physical games] I have to have the people there at the same time as me, certainly as I get older that having friends who are available at the same time as me diminishes – you know, you have real life commitments – and so I guess the iPad is a nice convenient supplement.
So you think that overcomes that barrier that may be experienced?
No, not overcome but certainly it’s better than nothing. And that’s not me talking down the iPad experience so don’t read it as that; I do enjoy playing the games on the iPad. If given a choice between doing it in the physical and doing it in the whatever, I would [choose physical].
I guess that maybe the ultimate blend of both advantages is if you eventually get one of those table-top computers ready and you’ve actually got the pieces you can still interact with, and there are some inroads in developing around that such as the E-Pawn device which is a large screen that’s flat that you can just plug into your iPad or something and will replicate the image on a larger scale and will actually physically recognise the pieces that are on top of it and interact with them. So hybridisation of digital and physical is probably not too far away and that’ll help save on set-up time and the portability issues because you probably only need a few pieces to play a bunch of games.