You’ve probably noticed that we here at NoHighScores are big fans of PlayDek’s card and board game to iOS conversions. Well, if you’ve yet to purchase some of their smooth, usable and generally excellent games or are short of a few in-app purchases keep an eye on the app store this weekend when everything PlayDek will be priced at 69p ($0.99 in barbarous foreign currencies). Summoner Wars is particularly good if you’ve yet to take it for a spin, with deck-builders Ascension and Penny Arcade following close behind.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.