For the past couple of decades, videogame consoles and PCs have grown exponentially more capable with each hardware update. Processor speeds double and triple, and the number of simultaneous operations dramatically increases as a result. For the average consumer, this advancement in technology is most easily discernable in the so-called “graphics race,” a constant push toward photorealism through higher polygon counts and particle effects.
How strange, then, that humble board and card game adaptations have begun asserting their strength in the crowded gaming market.
2007 marked the beginning of an industry-wide refocus on classic non-digital games. The popularity of titles such as UNO on Xbox Live Arcade, and Scrabulous on Facebook signals what could be the beginning of a revitalization of board and card game adaptations. In 2008, these types of games will only grow in popularity as the casual game market continues to expand, social networks become even more ubiquitous and digital distribution finally arrives on the last of the major gaming platforms.
The genre’s made a major transition over the years, from passé cash-in to legitimate next-generation offering, but are board games really the new black? Will these tabletop genres really stand out?
The UNO Factor
Though the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade launched with the oft-celebrated Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, the revolutionary service wouldn’t receive its first breakout hit until UNO in May 2006. Despite the console’s penchant for hardcore gaming titles and retro rehashes, the classic card game continually topped XBLA’s bestseller list for months and went on to become the most heavily downloaded Xbox Live Arcade title in 2006, beating out both Geometry Wars and Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting. Two years later, UNO is still riotously popular, holding the No. 3 slot on Xbox.com’s list of top Arcade titles at the time of this writing.
Of course, this is partly due to the high quality of the adaptation, handled by veteran Microsoft developer Carbonated Games, but UNO also carries with it an undeniable mass-market appeal. It’s UNO, for crying out loud. Spanish classes in high schools across the U.S. still play it on slow days, and no board game-loving family would be caught without the colorful little cardboard box sitting on a shelf in their closet, next to Clue and at least two different editions of Monopoly.
UNO‘s success has taught game developers that there is a right way to bring tabletop gaming to a digital platform, and that doing so effectively can yield tremendous results. The unprecedented success of something as banal as a card game adaptation may have opened the floodgates for future tabletop adaptations, all hoping to replicate the UNO phenomenon.
Ease of Implementation
However, it’s not merely the formula’s proven success that appeals to developers. It’s also the relative ease of moving these games into the digital realm, allowing for a quick development time with potentially lucrative results.
Of course, new difficulties arise when adapting these titles – namely, support for single-player excursions. Last February, I spoke with Brian Reynolds, CEO and Creative Director of Catan developer Big Huge Games, on behalf of Joystiq. Among other topics, he talked about the difficulty of applying challenging but fair artificial intelligence to a game as nuanced as Settlers of Catan: “One of my two initial concerns was whether we’d be able to make a decent A.I. for the computer player,” he said. Luckily for him, Klaus Teuber – the original game’s designer – anticipated the need for single-player A.I. and put time and thought into strategies calculable by the computer. “[Teuber] had these Excel spreadsheets full of formulae, plus a nice write-up he’d done,” Reynolds said. “So I was able to blast through all of that stuff in a few weeks, and use most of my time refining the really high-end game for the expert players.”
Few developers can rely on the original games’ designers to help balance the A.I., however. It’s fortunate, then, that tabletop games are known for their multiplayer experiences more than their solo outings, and that they can effortlessly connect players from around the world through Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Furthermore, the turn-based structure of tabletop games ensures that latency won’t degrade the player’s experience, unlike more fast-paced multiplayer titles like Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix or Halo 3. It’s low-impact and just as fun as the real thing.
The relative simplicity of adapting tabletop games does more than reduce development costs – these games also often have a smaller digital footprint, ideal for services with enforced size limitations for downloadable games. These limitations have plagued releases on Xbox Live Arcade, and Nintendo is already strongly recommending developers remain conservative with their file sizes when creating games for its WiiWare platform. No worries with tabletop ports: The graphics don’t have to be mind blowing; the soundtracks don’t have to be symphonic; the physics engines don’t have to … well, exist. It’s the well-kept secret of these titles: You don’t have to be technically complicated to be successful.
Board Game = Casual Game = PROFIT
It’s become common knowledge that the market for casual games is growing rapidly. Carbon-copy match-three and falling tile games saturate casual portals across the web, and they’re beginning to migrate to XBLA and PSN, as well. From a designer’s perspective, however, the term “casual gaming” refers to more than just an endless sea of Bejeweled clones. “Casual” refers to the approachability of a title and its status as a non-threatening gateway drug for potential consumers both young and old, male and female.
Given the second definition, oft-overlooked in this market are the digital adaptations of our favorite tabletop games. They might not look like Hexic, or play like Zuma, but they certainly attract the same demographic, and it’s this untapped audience for which developers are most definitely shooting.
Any classic non-digital game has the potential to become a casual hit. The turn-based nature of these games makes for a slower, more relaxed play experience. A working knowledge of many titles allows players to approach with some degree of skill right off the bat, lowering the barrier to entry. Name recognition also goes a long way in promoting sales. Any non-gamer perusing the titles on Xbox Live Arcade will more quickly download UNO than Outpost Kaloki X, Monopoly than Mutant Storm Empire. Board and card games are inherently casual experiences, and the digital adaptation market can only benefit from the growing success of the casual cash cow.
The Social Network Phenomenon
Social networking, at its core, gathers people with like interests together and creates channels of communication between those users. What better way to communicate than through play?
Social networking sites appear to be slowly picking up on this trend. Facebook fully embraced its applications framework in May of 2007, allowing users to develop their own games and other unique features for the site. MySpace, meanwhile, has launched its own games portal, allowing members to play titles like Desktop Tower Defense on yet another website, and even embed games on their profile pages.
Unfortunately, focusing on single-player gameplay entirely misses the point of social networking. When hundreds upon thousands of individuals are linked together, who wants to play alone? Sure, large-scale leaderboards amongst friends and associates may be keen, but the casual, passive atmosphere of social networking makes it an ideal environment for – you guessed it – tabletop adaptations.
There’s no better example of this than Scrabulous, the web and Facebook application that out-Scrabbled Scrabble. Though highly (OK, entirely) derivative of Hasbro’s classic word tile game, Scrabulous significantly improves upon the original by introducing a passive play style. Clearly inspired by “play by mail” games like Correspondence Chess, Scrabulous encourages players to launch the application from Facebook, make a move and then go about their day. The next time their opponents log in, they play their moves and the process repeats. Whereas Scrabble has always been a sit-down-and-play game, Scrabulous matches can go on for days or even weeks, depending on how often players bother to log in.
Scrabulous provides hard evidence of just how appealing this passive play style is for casual players. As of May 2008, the application boasts more than half a million active users every day. Common sense would indicate that more social networking games should emulate Scrabulous by offering more drawn-out, turn-based gameplay.
Unfortunately, developers for these sites haven’t yet gotten the memo. Instead, sites like MySpace and recent Webby winner Kongregate still function as giant Flash portals, albeit with user profiles built in. Newcomer Zynga – founded by Mark Pinkus in 2007 – builds cross-platform multiplayer clones of games like Battleship and Risk for a number of social networking sites, including Bebo, MySpace and Facebook. The Zynga system forces players to act in real-time, however, concentrating gameplay into discrete play-sessions rather than allowing the action to play out over a longer timeline. Zynga may not achieve the popularity that Scrabulous has, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Simplified System Revival
“A game is a game is a game,” writes Gamelab CEO Eric Zimmerman in an e-mail on the topic of tabletop adaptation. “The fundamental qualities of how games are defined, how they are played, and how they can be designed to create meaningful experiences for players does not vary qualitatively across media in which games manifest. From a game designer’s point of view, a board game and a videogame are far more similar than they are different.”
Zimmerman is correct to point out the similarities in digital and tabletop games, but he downplays a couple of key differences.
I spoke with several game designers on the topic of non-digital games. All the designers I talked to are also professors of game design, and all utilize non-digital games in their classes to teach the fundamentals of the craft. One such designer is Brenda Brathwaite – a veteran of the gaming industry and head of Savannah College of Art and Design’s Interactive Design and Game Development department. “I use non-digital games to get aspiring designers away from the computers,” she writes, “away from the polygons and frame rates so that they can see – if just for a single class – that there is something underneath all that: the game design. It strips it bare.”
The emphasis on non-digital games in today’s classrooms means that tomorrow’s game developers will enter the industry with those principles fresh in mind. At Gamelab in Manhattan, Eric Zimmerman and his staff reinforce the importance of non-digital gaming to the development of casual games by hosting game nights. “We’ve been doing these events since we founded the company eight years ago,” he writes, “even before we had an office!” Continues Zimmerman:
Board games also put their players in touch with the formal rules of the system in a way that digital games don’t. In a board game, the players are the CPU – they are the ones that have to process the rules and move the game forward each turn. For that reason, you often have a very clear understanding of how the underlying mechanics of a board game work, something often hidden under layers of cinematic graphics and automated processes in a digital game.
His hope is that, as more designers are weaned on non-digital games, more of their digital titles will retain a “non-digital” feel. After all, it’s not truly about rehashing the classic tabletop games (no matter how badly I want to see Richard Garfield’s RoboRally on XBLA). It’s about creating the new generation of simplified systems.
Scott Jon Siegel is an enthusiastic game designer, a professional blogger and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at http://numberless.net.