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Playdek Interview Part 2

Welcome to part two of our talk with George Rothrock, Playdek’s Director of Product and Busines Development and Gary Weis, Playdek’s Chief Technology Officer. We chat about Nightfall and Summoner Wars, how to get new players up to speed quickly and whether or not we’ll ever get a third AI level in Ascension. If you haven’t read it already, check out Part 1 of the interview.

When you look at these properties, does the number of expansions factor in as well, in terms of trying to pick properties with a long tail or is it simply the initial concept and how well that would appeal to players.

George: Certainly games that have deeper product in terms of expansions is always interesting but primarily we like to work with companies and designers that have a vision for their games, for their IP and are on the prolific side. We like to get partnerships, work with these folks over a period of time. So it is always intriguing from a “let’s make and sell games” point of view and that’s balanced against us really enjoying the games ourselves, liking to work with the properties and seeing something in it that really excites us.

If you could get any game to do, what would you get?

Gary: Twilight Struggle is the one that I get beaten over the head about by the other guys here in the office. That one is already, they’re already doing a PC implementation and I don’t know what the plan is for the iOS version but I’ve been told that they have the first rights, the guys who are doing the PC version. That’s one that we really appreciate the strategy to it and we think it would make a great iOS property.

George: I’m a huge fan of the old card game Netrunner but it’s sort of languishing out there. But that would be one of my personal dreams. There are lots of great games, but what it comes down to is, here at the office we probably have close to two hundred and fifty board games.

Gary: Bookcases full.

George: Gary probably owns, I don’t know how big your collection is, mine is close to two hundred, but basically there’s not enough time to play all of the games we wish we were able to.

Do you feel that there are games that wouldn’t be suited for the platform or is just the matter of the right design and the right interface and you can bring essentially anything to the platform?

George: I personally think the games that require a large degree of social interaction in order to be successful , that involve negotiation or trying to bull dog your friends into doing something, what I call eighteen inches above the table where it’s really shouting and laughing at each other, I don’t think these translates as well because some of that magic is missing. I think that games that use dice need to be approached particularly carefully because half the fun of something like Risk is shaking the bones in your hands and throwing them and waiting for the results, that sort of thing. Now, I think it can be done, and done quite well, it’s just something you have to consider.

I would agree with that. Have you played The Elder Signs implementation?

George: Yes I have.

When you’re rolling the glyphs, and again, this is a very casual board gamer, I kind of relate it to Zombie Dice. I play Zombie Dice with my kids and I always like that I know how many symbols are on each dice according to the color. With Elder Signs, I never feel like I have an idea as to what could pop up. Not having a physical copy of the game to compare, I think that dice can be dodgy without giving the player an idea of what their odds are.

George: Yeah, I have a physical copy of the game so it was a little easier for me to make that connection, but I think you’re absolutely right. I did like the way that when you roll the dice in Elder Signs, the magic tomes pages spin and the glyphs come out of it and I thought it was a nice way to approach what’s going on thematically in the game, which is that you’re going to this Eldritch lore and I thought that part was nice but as you pointed out, fundamentally if you haven’t held the dice in your hands and you don’t know the odds, it’s a little more problematic.

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Are there Android plans in the works for any of the properties?

Gary: We’re looking at all of the available platforms for us to try and crack next. We’ve got a large slate of games that we’re working on and partners that we need to work with to get their properties into the stream and so it’s a trade-off between what’s going to do the most to expand Playdek and expand exposure to our partners’ titles. And so it will reach the point where when we have more titles finished, everything is built on top of the same engine so if we port that engine once to run on Android, most of the games should be able to make the jump relatively painlessly. So we’re looking at Android, looking at the PC, looking at the new PS Vita, and consoles beyond that, it’s just a matter of which games make the most sense and when do we have resources to dedicate to that.
George: Just to follow on to that, our network plans involve being able to support multiple platforms playing against each other. Currently we’re using GameCenter as our entry point and that limits us and for us, it wouldn’t make any sense to release an Android version of Ascension if we couldn’t get the Android community and the iOS community playing against each other.

Summoner Wars, Nightfall and Agricola, are they still scheduled for Q1 or is going to be Q1/Q2?

George: Q1/Q2. They’re going to be coming in farily short order over the course of the next few months.

If you were to give an elevator speech on Nightfall and Summoner Wars, what would it be?

Gary: Nightfall, you can call it a deck building game, but when you sit down to play it, it’s got a very different feel from Ascension and Dominion and Thunderstone in that there’s a lot more player interaction. Every card has some effect that you need to choose a target player or a target minion that’s on the board and you’re more directly involved in having to pay attention to what cards your opponent has drafted and what you need to be aware of and what colors you’re leaving available on the chain. It’s another one that doesn’t play quite as nicely asynchronously as Ascension did, but I think we have a pretty clean implementation that will let people experience the game on their own schedule. I think it’s a little bit like taking Dominion and bringing it a little closer to Magic: The Gathering and kind of mixing the two a little bit closer. So it feels less like the solitaire experience that some people feel that their getting out of a traditional deck builder.

Summoner Wars I wouldn’t refer to as a deck building game at all. There is a deck that you assemble ahead of time and you have some control over what cards are in that deck but even more so than traditional collectible card games, each faction comes as a pre-built deck and if you don’t want worry about what’s in it, you just grab that, you throw down on the table and you play and you’re good to go and you’ve got a competitive chance. As opposed to traditional collectible card game, if you don’t have all the right cards, a large catalog of cards to choose from and invest a lot of money in it, then you’re at a disadvantage. It really stretched us beyond the deck builders because now we’ve got a map and we have to worry about the spatial relationship of things. As I mentioned before, I had done the WOW miniatures game and that gave us a big leg up in terms of a baseline implementation of the different types of structures we needed to represent. And that was one of the reasons we went after Summoner Wars, was because I had already implemented that, and Summoner Wars I felt was the closest game available on the market to what I had already put together. As far as design decisions that went into Summoner Wars, there’s a lot of interesting mechanics that make it a unique title in its space.
George: I would also say that Nightfall is very much a step towards that feel of a competitive card game where you’re directly involved with each other. The great thing about Summoner Wars is that it’s a strategy game. There’s actually positional importance on the board. It’s a great mixture of strategy game where each piece has it’s own rule set and special abilities. If you picture a chess game where each knight has got a card and it has special powers and abilities that can affect the game in different ways. So we think it has a lot of potential for appeal across a bunch of playing communities. Those who might not have picked it up in a physical form just because it’s cards, it feels more like Ascension, might actually really like it once they realize it’s about moving pieces around and feels more like checkers or chess with this additional level involved.

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How important is it to you to get, not just players that are new to the specific game, but new board game players in general with these new releases? What kind of balance do you feel is important to strike between people who are well versed in the game or people who are well versed in board games but not specifically this game and people who don’t play board games very much at all?

George: It’s very important for us because we’re constantly wanting to please the original fanbase and customers for a game like this as well as opening it up and making it available for anyone. We have two basic mechanisms for that, one of course is the tutorial. We had a huge success with the Ascension tutorial where [Gary Games designer] Brian Kibler went through and created this really great tutorial of cards, actually stacked the deck, walks the player through their first game, two thirds of a game and then kicks them free. We’ve tried to follow that on, Cryptozoic did a good job with Food Fight, we’re working on our next one. So doing good tutorials where we can walk the player through…most board games are actually taught. Usually in somebody’s game group, you’ve got one person who is willing to read the rules and figure it out and they teach it to the other players, and often times you play it incorrectly two or three times before you figure it out. Video games forever have had to get people in and playing in just a few minutes, where you launch the thing, modern video games you throw it in a console, in ten minutes you’re running around learning the controls and in twenty minutes you’re pretty good and in an hour you never even have to look at the manual.

So we have to, sort of bridge that tutorial level, plus then if your interface is designed really well people can kind of poke at it and figure it out, “Oh, ok, yeah, now I see.” In addition, we’re finding that because it’s on a digital platform, people are a lot more willing to do trial and error, whereas if a game is set up and you’re friends are going to teach it, you want to win, you’re worried and it’s a bigger deal whereas if you just launch it, you might try a thing, if you’re just playing by yourself you may say “Aw, I lost, no big deal. Oh, now I see how it’s played.” And they might play their way into competency. So part of the challenge with that is communication, letting people know what the games are like, how good they are and how un-daunting it actually is.

Gary: Just to add to that, I think that the iOS space has provided games that are bringing people towards us. People who have never played a game in their life are picking up Words With Friends and playing Scrabble with friends of theirs around the country and kind of understanding, “Ok, this is how I can play a game over several days in this environment.” Obviously the jump from Words With Friends to Ascension might be a big one but they’re that much more prepared to take it on.

If you look, they just released Hero Academy, which is similar to Summoner Wars but with slightly simpler rules, and they’ve got a large player base that might be learning up to Hero Academy that are that much more prepared when Summoner Wars becomes available, if we can find a way to get in front of them that they’ll be that much more adaptable to take that one on. And I think that one of the big advantages to Summoner Wars is that the rule book is really thin. The basic things that you need to understand about the game can be written on one sheet of paper and then it’s the individual cards that make it difficult. So if you start out with a faction that’s relatively uncomplicated, and there’s a number of them that are easy to pick up and learn, and then there’s other factions that are designed as kind of an entry point for people who have familiarity with something like Magic and so we just need to make sure that we can get people into the right mode of play and right starting point, I think that there’s a path for all of them to enjoy the product.

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One final question and then I’ll let you guys go, is there a plan to bring a third AI notch to Ascension? It seems like there’s supposed to be something there and it’s not there yet.

Gary: Yeah, there is supposed to be something there and we were in the works on that next level of AI when we decided that sending out the first two was enough and that the hill that needed to be climbed to get to where we wanted to be was pretty significant so it wasn’t worth holding up the property. Since then, there’s always been one thing that needs to get done that’s a higher priority than that, than finishing that off and so it’s a snowball thing. And now I’m working on AI for Nightfall and Summoner Wars and getting other pieces of functionality in place to handle AI better, I think we’ll end up looping back around here before too long and getting that into place. I realize that it’s an important piece of the single player experience that’s missing and I think we can do a relatively good job with that.

George: He’s saying that he can write an AI that destroys us all.

So, of all your games, which AI is the hardest to implement?

George: Summoner Wars.

Gary: Yeah, there’s very little contest there.

George: There’s a lot of axis going on in Summoner Wars. One of the things that makes it an accessible and great game, you have the positional, moving pieces around, and of course that’s different with every faction because the rules on every card are different. And then, when you add being able to do custom decks, it’s one of those games that the more you kind of poke at it and play it, the more you fall in love with it.

Gary: Also, Agricola gives us the cop-out that it can be played solo so we want to try and tackle an AI for that one but it’s entirely reasonable to think that it may arrive with just letting you play the solo series…

George: The feature list hasn’t been announced yet.

Gary:..right but just to prepare you for that. In addition, to go back to the previous question real quick, I was thinking about how for Agricola, you were asking about how approachable are some of these games, Agricola has that family mode and [Agricola designer] Uwe Rosenberg says he teaches that to eight year old kids in Germany. We feel that that’s a good learning point that people can come in and play the family mode and understand the structure of the game before you’re throwing fourteen cards at them and expecting them to get how that all comes together. There’s a learning curve, but I think that we can make it approachable.

So, Summoner Wars, Nightfall, Agricola in Q1, are they in that order?

George: Nightfall, Summoner Wars, Agricola is the expected launch order and over the next few months you’re going to see them coming out.

Gary: And you should start seeing announcements for the other stuff we’re working on.

[Post edited to correct Brian Kibler’s title.]


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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