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Playdek Interview, Part 1

In part one of our interview, George Rothrock, Playdek’s Director of Product and Busines Development and Gary Weis, Playdek’s Chief Technology Officer talk about what was behind bringing Ascension and Food Fight to iOS, the joys of asynchronous play and why Agricola is so appealing. Come back on Friday for part two where we talk more about Nightfall and Summoner Wars, the importance of good tutorials and what’s up with the missing third AI notch in Ascension.

What’s the background on Playdek. You’re in Carlsbad, CA, correct?

George: Yes, we are in Carlsbad, CA near San Diego. We began life in 2005 as a console development studio with THQ and after a number of very successful titles, high quality titles for Xbox 360, PlayStation, Wii, went independent and now we’ve become a publisher. We do all our own development in house and we have transitioned to this space where we bring the best in hobby and table games to digital platforms.

Your first two iOS releases were Food Fight and Ascension. If you were to look at these games in terms of their popularity among the board gaming community, they’re well known but there are more popular games out there. What intrigued you about these games to make them the first Playdek games for iOS?

Gary: We started with Ascension because I had been a playtester on the WOW miniatures game that Justin Gary and John Fiorillo had designed for Upper Deck. So I knew them from three or four years prior. I had playtested that and then had tinkered with doing my own implementation of WOW miniatures on the PC. So when they broke away from Upper Deck and started their own thing, I had heard about that and so was kind of paying attention. I had just discovered Dominion and Thunderstone and we were playing those a lot around the office and I saw they were doing something similar so I kind of paid attention to what they were doing, and as I got information, kind of threw together a prototype that I was able to show them and having that existing relationship was the impetus for starting with Ascension. They were looking to find a way into the digital space and weren’t having much luck finding somebody who they were confident could get the job done and we were exploring the possibility of trying to do something independent of a large publisher contract.

So you approached them, essentially?

Gary: I approached them with a protoype and we spent a good two, three months discussing what do we want to do with this, where do we want to take it. Eventually we decided to circle around on iOS and make that our starting point and that launched the ball.

When you approached them, did they see the appeal of iOS as opposed to another platform, say a PC or XBLA or PSN game?

Gary: Obviously, coming from a console background, XBLA and PSN was something we were thinking of early on. We were aware of the success of the iPhone and the iPad wasn’t out yet. Actually, I guess it was. We had just started playing Small World on the iPad so we were aware of the direction that was going to take us but we didn’t have any experience developing for iOS. We considered Steam, there was a strong argument to take it there and then after much discussion decided that the iPhone was the place to start and I think that’s proven to be the correct decision for us at this point.

Talking about the iPad a little, I don’t have a strong board gaming background but what intrigued me about Ascension is that it seemed like the perfect platform to try out a game such as this. How do you feel the iPad has affected the adoption rate of Ascension and Food Fight?

Gary: It certainly gets the title in front of more people than having it on the store shelves in a hobby game store. Just having somebody who you know who might be interested in this, that maybe played Magic 15 years ago or has some experience with strategy type games, it just only takes one comment to say “Hey, you should check this game out. It’s only five bucks, If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPad you should give it a try.” We don’t necessarily have a distinction in sales data between iPhone and iPad so we can’t really put our finger on who’s buying it more for the iPhone or if the iPad is a large portion of our sales.

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George: To follow along with that, the great thing about the iPad is it’s such a great platform to showcase these games on. There’s a lot of buzz around it and it commands a lot of attention when these games show up on it. Our guess is that probably more people play it on a day to day basis on their iPhone or iPod. We do universal applications so that you get it on both if you happen to have both devices. I play more on my phone than I do on my iPad, and I was kind of surprised myself at that but I have my phone with me all of the time. It’s a great focal point and it’s a great place to bring these games that are so well known for being laid out on the table and the tablet looks like that. Playdek is a publisher, we can take it to XBLA or PSN, any of these platforms, and we will consider them all for each game but we try to do the best for what the game itself wants, but the iPad has been very good for us. We went to Europe, we went to Essen last year, we had a booth at Essen, the big game show, and we found out there that the iPad is still very expensive in Europe, so not a lot of people actually have them yet, but everyone who came to the booth knew it and really wanted one and was very excited about it.

One of the things that I like about the iPad, is that you guys make some really slick interfaces and not just for Ascension. What is your secret to making these interfaces, because they are extremely well done.

George: While that’s a trade secret and we can’t just give that away in a interface, it’s equal parts, over a decade, 15 years of experience in high quality console game development here, both [Playdek COO] Jeff Garstecki and Gary and the developers we have here. Then it’s equal parts collaboration, playing the original game and discussing what is key about that game, working with the original designers and developers and it’s a process, it’s a lot of iteration and development and play time.

When you guys sit down to discuss bringing a property to iOS, what are the beginning questions have to be asked and the considerations that have to be made to determine if it’s something you can do, and if you decide you want to do it, to be able to tailor the table top experience to the iOS platform as well as possible?

George: For my part of it, we play it, we see how often Gary wins and, no I’m kidding, we play, we discuss, we talk about the different features that would make the game more accessible, that would make the hardcore fans really enjoy it. It’s a big Venn diagram and each title is a little bit unique.

Gary: Just to add on to that, we play the game in its physical form to see if there’s something there that we enjoy. We don’t want to spend four to six months working on something that we’re not going to enjoy when we do have a lot of properties that we can choose from. We sit down and we play it, I spend time to start out with, getting a prototype of the rules in place, trying to at least get the core gameplay elements in place so we can start to do a digital testing on that. Have that all in place, before we’re starting to work on the interface so we understand which effects and which cards are going to be the ones that are tricky, that need to be incorporated in in a special way so we can be sure that the overall design of the interface can handle the requirements for all of the things that need to be presented . Then we spend some time thinking about what’s it going to take to do an AI for this game, some of the stuff we have coming up, in terms of implementing a computer player is going to be a little more difficult than what we’ve seen with Ascension and Food Fight.

Speaking of Food Fight, what is it about that game that interested you in bringing it to iOS?

Gary: We had a connection at Cryptozoic through our agent and he put us in touch with them as soon as we knew we were going to be doing Ascension and that established a relationship. They were looking for someone to do digital versions of their upcoming stuff. Unfortunately, everything they had done previously was the WOW trading card game and I had implemented that five years ago, I did the base set as a digital version, but obviously, Blizzard isn’t going to be interested in moving forward on that at that pace and so working with them required us to work with their upcoming stuff, and Food Fight was the one that was closest to being ready when we were talking with them. So that got us to sit down and to start to playing that with them and discussing what would it take to get it on to the platform, what would we need to do to try and maintain the theme and the flavor of the game. It was a big step for us, in taking on the campaign mode just because one of the more attractive features for us of Ascension was the asynchronous play and that game laid down in a way that you could take your turn, I could take my turn and Food Fight required more micro decisions and an interleaving of decisions between players so we felt that it was important to provide more content for a player who might not find the asynchronous play in Food Fight as attractive.

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Talking about the asynchronous play, the appeal there, is it as simple as being able to let people play the games on their own schedule or is there more there from a design and implementation standpoint?

Gary: There’s more to it on our end on the server side, to be able to track the state of every game and make sure that players, when they log in, they can download the current state, make some decisions, upload those to the server and have that reflected to the other players and get a push notification that it’s your turn to play again. When we were first looking at Ascension, we felt that was important because there were other games on the platform that supported it and we knew it was a mode of play that people wanted to use with this device in their pocket all of the time but there wasn’t an off the shelf solution that really worked for us. We talked, very early on, to OpenFeint but they only supported two people, and we knew that we wanted to do four for Ascension, and so we ended up having to implement our own solution and it was only as we were completing that, that Apple announced that iOS 5 would have the asynchronous play mode. I still feel like having done our own solution and having our own server in place now, will allow us to do more and take it beyond what is available in the Apple implementation.

Do you have a rough idea as to how many notifications you push out in a given day?

Gary: We don’t have that, but we have counts on other stuff that’s going on. We’re up to almost a hundred and fifty million moves submitted and about, I think we just ticked over eight hundred fifty thousand games that have been created on our server. There’s a lot of Ascension being played.

George: Just to follow on the asynchronous question, what we really love about what we do, is there are two things that we think that games on this platform do for the player. One, you get to play the game you really enjoy more than if you have to hit the table with your game group. I can pull the game out and I get to play. And it expands the number of people that you can actually play with. I actually love asynchronous play. There’s a guy, I don’t even know his name, but we both really like 14 day games, and so for how long now, I’ve had a continual game and every time it ends we immediately hit rematch and we play. We’re always with a couple of points of each other. For me, it’s been a really great way to play, and I do occasionally play games immediately with someone, in real time but we really like that asynchronous allows people to play more games.

One of the things that people I play with have wanted, is some sort of chat facility, either to send a message or be able to chat while the game is going on. Is that something that you would be interested in bringing to future games?

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Gary: We realize how important that feature is, it was probably the most requested feature that we didn’t get in from our playtesters as we sent the game out of the door. Obviously it’s been a while now since Ascension came out and it has been continuously requested by the fans and we want to find a way to get it in. It’s part of a bigger server reorganization that we’re going through in order to be able to support four titles. So we’ll see it hopefully sooner rather than later but when it arrives we’ll do it in a way that makes sense and provides the feature in a way that everyone can take advantage of it.

I’d like to talk about the upcoming properties: Summoner Wars, Nightfall and Agricola. Let’s start with Agricola. If you look at the games that you’ve done and the games in the pipeline, Agricola looks like the odd man out. It’s a little drier than the other properties and has a longer playtime. What was the draw there?

George: Agricola is a fantastic game, in and of itself. It is certainly incredibly popular and a great seller, all of those kinds of things but for us, it’s a landmark game and we wanted to be able to do it. What we’ve announced, on our slate, does look very card heavy but we definitely have a portfolio of games that we’re going to be doing over this year and bringing out. We’ve only announced a small portion of our calendar, essentially the first couple of quarters and there will be more coming from us. But Agricola, first and foremost is a fantastic game and we’re really looking forward to bringing it out. It’s dry, I don’t know if I would say that, maybe compared to…

I don’t want to knock the game, but if people look at what you offer, you’re banishing demons, you’re fighting werewolves and then you’re farming, at first glance, without getting into the guts of it, it doesn’t seem as exciting.

George: Play it with my wife. (laughs) You’ll find yourself in a struggle for your life.

Gary: The majority of the people that are working here are board gamers, we like to pull something out at lunch time and get together and play for an hour and there isn’t one type of game or one genre of game we have a preference for, it’s just that we started with a card game and that attracted more of the same and that was easy for us to approach and figure out and you know once we got Ascension done, Nightfall isn’t that far off in terms of the mechanic that we needed to implement. Obviously, Agricola is a departure from that so we had to start over and implement from the ground up in terms of the game mechanics. We want to be in that space as well with worker placement games because there are others that we could potentially be doing that would build on and off of Agricola. Some of the other stuff that we haven’t announced is very unique from what we’ve done in the past and that will allow us to diversify in the types of things that we’re bringing out.

Which decks are going to be in Agricola?

George: We haven’t announced all of the launch features, we will definitely be supporting everything. We partner with these great companies and launch features will be set soon and we will be announcing what will be available then and either updated later or purchasable at launch. So you’ll here more about that but we will definitely support everything.

So is that the similar answer for the factions that will be available for Summoner Wars?

George: Yes, absolutely.

Summoner Wars has a number of faction decks, Nightfall has a number of expansions, Ascension already had one expansion and presumably you’re working on the next expansion. Is that true, are you working on bringing the next Ascension expansion out?

Gary: Yep

George: Yeah, absolutely.

A big thanks to George and Gary for taking the time to sit through my long winded questions. Again, come back on Friday for part two of our talk.

Brandon

Brandon loves games, which shouldn't be a surprise given where you're reading this. He has written for GameShark, The Escapist and G4, and made them all less relevant as a result.

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