Playdek are responsible for bringing some of our favourite boardgames to the iPad, including Ascension and Summoner Wars. They recently released the magnificent Agricola and announced a partnership with Wizards of the Coast to produce the Dungeons and Dragons series of games. Tom spoke to Gary Weis, Chief Technology Officer, and George Rothrock, Director of Business Development, about their design philosophy, future plans and sacred cows.
iBG: First of all, congratulations on how well Agricola’s turned, it’s been really enjoyable playing it the last week.
Gary: Thanks a lot.
George: Thank you
iBG: With Agricola, the first thing I noticed as soon as I opened it was how visually different it was from the board game. Could you tell me a little a bit about the design choices that were made for that?
George: We very much wanted to make the game more accessible from the very beginning. When we originally with Uwe Rosenberg and Hanno Girke of Lookout, they were very clear to express their feeling that the game is very much open to anyone. Uwe himself and his wife spent a lot of time teaching the game to eighth graders – and with great success – all across where he lives in Germany, where, of course, it has this very big reputation as this monstrous euro strategy, with all sorts of intricacies and, of course, the expansion cards that can be added to it. So that was our supreme challenge too, we wanted to be able to make this game accessible, particularly for folks that had never played it.
Gary has been our mastermind on keeping us focussed on the kind of information that players need at any one moment in order to make intelligent decisions. That ranges from the basic kinds of things – which spaces are available, how many family members do I have left – to the much more advanced information that really dedicated player’s gain from looking over at someone else’s farm, looking at their resource pile, paying attention to what occupations of improvements they have in play.
iBG: That’s something that really comes through when you’re looking at it and it’s something I remarked on in my review. I find it really interesting how companies are dealing with the challenges of trying to make something that’s built for an entire tabletop fit on to a thing smaller than a piece of paper. The way that the square hectares of the Agricola board manage to be shut down, that really interests me, especially the way of turning the Round spaces into a town, which is lends itself to telling the story. Was that something was dedicated from the start after you’d met with Lookout and Uwe?
George: Yeah, they very much said in our first meetings, they talked about the idea that some of these cards, these positions on the board as the actions come out, that they are places you tend to go for action. So if you want wood, you’re generally going to the forest and cutting it down in the 16th-17th century. We rendered that a little more centerally in terms of a town where you can go a get wood from a wood seller. That idea of taking from the abstract of “I’m just gathering resources or taking an action”, to just giving it a bit more sense of place and personality.
iBG: It gives it a bit more of an idea of ‘this is the communal space, we all we come here. Then we go back to our private space.’
iBG: It’s something I’ve noticed with a lot of the really great games that have been coming out this year, there’s been this whole idea of intelligent use of space, which Agricola’s very definitely amongst them. I’ve noticed that there’s been a big shift to this new idea where these are board games that are made for the iPad, rather than – as we saw last year and the year before – people were making much more literal interpretations of the games they were bringing to iOS. What’s been the big shift on that?
Gary: I don’t know if it’s a shift in philosophy for us, we’ve felt that we needed to make changes to the game as appropriate, in order to bring it onto the device. I think the big change for us in tackling Agricola, is this is really the first game where our toolset and our processes have come to a point of maturity where we can have the whole team participate in the way we want them to. That’s come from doing a lot of the previous games we’ve done. When we did the curved interface of Nightfall that was a challenge, but it made us expand how much control an artist had over where things were placed on the screen. That really taught us to build out our work flow, so that with Agricola we could turn a lot more over to the artist responsible for building the town. So he could say, ‘oh here’s where the sign posts are, here’s where the pop ups appear and the art that appears with them’, they were all within his control. We gave the people responsible for those sections of the game full responsibility to be creative in the process, and think Agricola really shows the path we’ve taken over the six games we did before that. This is really the first time that we’ve gotten the full team participating in the way that they should be in creating the game.
iBG: With the whole team getting involved with it, was hard to sell … is everyone a board gamer at Playdek, or are some people not so much into that and it’s the game’s design they’re more into?
George: The core team we started this company with was almost entirely board gamers originally.
iBG: So you didn’t have the difficulty many people have when trying to get people into Agricola, trying to sell it to people with the idea of “So, you are a 16th century farmer in rural Germany”. That wasn’t too much of a problem here?
Gary: Even for me, when we first sat down to play Agricola before we started working on the project, I was saying “I’m doing what? I’m a farmer? Why can’t we get some Orcs and Elves out here, get a real game together?”, but this game – once you play it a couple of times and understand the mechanics of it, it’s very captivating. It just takes those couple of rounds of understanding. When we started, we were much smaller. Through Ascension and Food Fight we were a much smaller studio, so most of the people here had some experience of board gaming. While it is something that we look in the interview processes, it’s not the be all and end all in how we’re hiring. So we’ve added people who don’t necessarily have board game experience and that’s good for the team, it’s good for someone to sit down and not have any baggage to bring to the table with them about how a game should appear on the table, and can make an assessment about how it feels on the iPad.
iBG: So you can get some critical distance between them and the game?
George: Yeah, that’s absolutely important. For all of us with a lot of years of experience in video game development for consoles and other platforms, that sort of stock in trade is to always have that ability to look at what you’re trying to do professionally. Hold to your passion, hold on to the love for the game, but then always do what’s absolutely right for it. Everyone’s got some degree of differing opinion on that, but as Gary said, we’ve had great success at getting folks that have been gamers and love it and really got into what we’re doing. Some others maybe not so much, but one of the very first things we’re going to ever do when we’re going to start on a project is we’re going to sit down and play the game as a group, more than once. Usually, the great charm and character of the games that we’ve done to date immediately make themselves apparent to anyone who sits down to play it. Then our folks, who are very professional and very dedicated to their craft, they very quickly get into “oh my heavens, look at how many components there are”. That’s the real challenge is information and communication and knowing what your choices are and how the effect, and they get very much into that aspect of it and love it.
iBG: From a design point of view, if you’re not a board gamer beforehand, coming into it and saying “ok so you’ve got this set of systems in place, wow this actually this intricate set of rules that’s already in place” so I guess that must be quite pleasing?
George: Yes, and then the challenge is understanding what’s readily apparent to someone sitting at the board, what are people who have played the game taking for granted? What are new players going to need to know in order to be able to play well? What are the feedback loops for that? All board games and these hobby card games and dice games are, as you mentioned, sometimes very sophisticated in terms of feedback loops and understanding that is the biggest challenge for us, in terms of communicating it, letting people act on that.
iBG: That’s one of the things that’s interesting with Agricola – I don’t know if this is something people have said before and I might get lynched this by readers when the interview goes up – but how much looks, if you don’t know what it is, like Farmville. I was able to sell it to my mum, who’s not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. I thought I’d show it to her, reckoning that she’d probably really dig the family version. Her initial response was “oh no, I’m not interested, I don’t play games, I don’t like board games”, but I told her “just give it a try; it’s a bit like Farmville”. So then she was playing it for about three or four hours, before turning to me and saying, “but this is much better than Farmville!” Like… yes, yes it is. So it has the appeal to the hardcore strategy gamers, but then there’s a whole casual audience there as well.
Gary: You have no idea how vindicated we feel by that!
George: It’s the ultimate challenge, particularly as the games get more sophisticated and more intricate and lend themselves to hardcore strategic play, to balance that. This comes straight from Uwe and Hanno, this game must be for everyone that’s why they have such a beautiful system of scaling of your experience. You can start with the family game, play that, play the solo series, you can add the complications of occupations and minor improvements, then they bring out more cards and you can add more. It’s very much built into the game from the beginning, all we did was… the brilliant thing that Gary and the team were able to do was put a face on it that was so much less intimidating than seeing a 4×3 foot swathe of components on the table.
Uwe and Hanno were very supportive of the choices we were going to make, when we talked from the beginning. They told us very expressively, cardboard is the medium that we work in because that’s the medium we have to work in. So there are no sacred cows here, in the sense that this is what we’ve done and what we have to work with, but it’s the core of the game, it’s the experience, it’s that delight in going from very basic “I’m going to grab some wood, I’m going to build a fence. Hey look I’ve got a sheep, I’ve got a cow in my house, that’s cute” to being able to navigate these fourteen rounds of very sophisticated choices and trying to earn the best score and have the best farm possible. That one of the neat things about the game, everybody plays to the end, everybody ends up with a neat little model of the farm, and anybody can relate to that and enjoy it.
iBG: A little bit more generally, within the industry, this year has been remarkable for board games coming out on the iPad. There’s two fields that are obviously doing really well, the area where Playdek has gone before with card games and now Eurogames, but there’s also a host of miniature games coming out now (Ace Patrol, XCOM, Space Hulk, Warhammer Quest and Playdek’s D&D license), is there something about the iPad that’s making digital board games viable and popular? Obviously, the technology for making board games has been there for a while on the PC and other platforms, but it’s only now we’re seeing quality digital board games coming out. Is there something that’s kicked this off as a big thing now, or is it just an idea that’s time has come?
George: It’s a fantastic device for hobby gaming because it so closely mimics what you do on the table – dice being the place where everyone’s got room to grow in how to do that really well – but pushing components around, looking at a board-esque space, being able to pass-and-play or set it in the middle of the table like it actually a virtual board game, then there’s the online ability to extend your experience with the game and play with other people when the game itself might not hit the table – it’s just a perfect storm of all of that. It really has a lot of great opportunities for players to be able to get a bunch of really great games in front of them.
iBG: It’s the tactility of it then?
George: Yeah, we certainly believe so.
iBG: So talking about that sense of tactility, particularly with the dice throwing issue – let’s move onto the D&D license, which is a great property to get your hands on. Are you able to talk about that at the moment?
George: Not yet, look to the GenCon timeframe for announcements coming out of Wizards of the Coast and Playdek. We’re very excited about it. For Gary and I, D&D goes back to our childhood and Wizards are a great company to be working with, so we’re very excited about it.
iBG: It’s quite a different type of property from what Playdek has done previously, going from hardcore eurogame to something so very different like Dungeons and Dragons. Is that sort of versatility something Playdek is aiming for, developing attention to the entire hobby?
George: We’ve got partners who specialise in lots of different areas of the hobby, that’s one of the best things about the hobby. That’s one of the beautiful things about the hobby, there’s so much from something light and fun like Flux or Can’t Stop, all the way up to something very sophisticated like Agricola. As gamers and as players, we like a lot of different things and we’ve been fortunate enough to connect with companies that do a lot of things. The last thing we want is to be identified as just this, or just that.
iBG: So, what are your favourite, non-Playdek iPad games out at the moment?
Gary: I’ve been enjoying the single-player portion of Eclipse; I think they did a brilliant job of laying that out. It’s a game that I hadn’t had a chance to play previously, I was fortunate enough to meet the designer at GDC this year though. I had a really good time learning that one. Going way back, I really liked the implementation of Samurai, a lot of the online structure of Ascension was modelled pretty closely after that game.
George: I’ve been addicted to the Tichu app, that’s been my go to app to relax. I enjoy Tichu in person a lot and I love playing against a computer. That being said I have practically all digital tabletop games that are out there. I’ve also played with Eclipse.
iBG: Finally then, what games would you really like to get your hands on to bring to the iPad?
Gary: Netrunner! Not the new Android one, the old CCG version. That’d be very cool.
iBG: Thanks for your time