As interest in board games continues to rise, so too does the interest in exploring new ways of playing those games. One such way is through digital ‘ports’ of those games – translating them PCs, consoles, phones, and tablets.
While digital versions may not exactly replace the feeling of a physical board game, many add subtle tweaks such as solo play, campaign modes, online competition, or simply as a more portable way to enjoy the game. This is new territory to explore. Welcome, to the Pixel Provinces.
The Market Until Now
From nearly every metric the current board game market has hit a golden age, but the market for digital board game adaptations has also been quietly booming alongside it. What once was a series of one-off occurrences has now become a steady beat. The rate at which board games are getting digital ports is increasing, with new and classic games alike getting the digital treatment. Over the past few years the market has established a pattern of faithful, high quality ports of physical games, and those adaptations have come to us in a myriad of formats, from iOS and Google Play Stores, to Steam, and even newer consoles like the Nintendo Switch.
This steady growth in the app market isn’t limited solely to games either. Companion apps and digital support for physical games have been on the rise as well. With the introduction of independently made scoring apps for physical games and game tracking apps like BG Stats, the board game environment is becoming increasingly digital. There are even relatively games which have experimented with integrating apps into their core function, like with XCOM or Alchemist, but the desire to dabble in the digital realm has been lingering in the market as far back as ten years with the release of Space Alert, whose gameplay included a soundtrack that acted as the game timer.
Wondering about the state of the market and where we might be headed in the future of this new digital frontier, at this year’s Gen Con I spoke with representatives from several companies at the forefront of this new endeavor, including Dire Wolf Digital, Asmodee Digital, and Dized.
Dire Wolf Digital is a North American studio based in Denver that specializes in strategy card games, such as their newest release Eternal, but they’re not limited to the strategy game sector. They have also closely worked with adapting physical board games, such as Renegade’s Lanterns and Lotus, in addition to the popular Clank! series. I was able to speak with Matt Hudson, Dire Wolf Digital’s Director of Marketing.
Asmodee Digital, much like its larger sister company, is an industry titan right now, dominating the distribution market with their wide selection of games and a long list of upcoming releases, one example of which is the much anticipated Gloomhaven. With them I was able to communicate with Philippe Dao, Asmodee Digital’s CMO.
Dized is an app currently in open early access from the team at Playmore Games and is an interactive alternative to rulebooks. Dized uses interactive tutorials to guide players through game sessions to remove the barrier of needing to study a rulebook before jumping into playing. There I got the chance to sit down with Jared Miller, the Marketing and Social Media Manager for Dized.
The State of the Market
Hudson, Dao, and Miller all seem to agree that the market is positive right now for digital adaptations and add that it has the potential to grow. According to Hudson, over the last few years the market has seen an “appetite for premium games in a mobile space that are polished and beautiful and tactically deep.” That appetite is growing, too, as Asmodee’s research through the mobile intelligence specialist App Annie shows that the board game category in iOS and Google Play grew 36% in volume in 2017.
With the digital market’s surge being relatively new and expanding as quickly as it is, however, there are bound to be growing pains.
When porting a physical game into digital form, one of the biggest things most developers internally focus on is the question, “What is the experience of this game?” When asked about Dire Wolf Digital’s approach to adapting a game, Hudson said they routinely ask themselves, “Is it beautiful? What does it sound like? What does it feel like when you manipulate the pieces?” There’s a strong aesthetic consideration as well, he adds. “It’s not just the nuts and bolts, although both [Clank! and Lotus] are great strategy games, but there’s also an element of how can we bring this to life?” This attention to a game’s core experience is apparently the main driving force behind a large amount of adaptations. “If you start to visualize what it’s like to play on a tablet you can imagine your way there very quickly.”
Playing with the Market
Yet in its attempt to establish a firm footing in a new branch of the board game industry, the digital board game market has already formed a now well-worn pattern. Although there isn’t a 100% overlap, digital publishers know that a large share of their app’s intended audience are fans of the physical board game, which is why the majority of titles we’ve seen over the last few years have been straight-up ports.
That is just one possible path, however. The intent of digital ports in general is to give gamers another medium through which they can play their favorite games, and while the demand for that among newer titles is great and the results have been rewarding, the industry has left the opportunity to craft new experiences out of old favorites largely untapped. Digital publishers so far have been so focused on porting over games directly to preserve the original experience that they’ve paid less attention to the potential of re-imagining these titles with new experiences, giving them renewed life through a digital medium that can potentially offer things the physical one can’t.
Asmodee Digital acknowledges this and is preparing to tackle this untapped opportunity with several of their upcoming releases. Dao believes, “digital board games are meant to bring complimentary experiences to players,” and as such they are beginning to create some titles with more of an ‘inspired by’ approach of the originals instead of porting them over directly, such as with the Asmodee subsidiary Fantasy Flight Interactive’s The Lord of the Rings LCG.
The team at Dized, on the other hand, is set to tackle a much different problem, this time rooted in the physical board game sphere: a game’s barrier to entry stemming from reading the rulebook. Dized’s lofty goal is to replace the need for a rulebook by striving for simplicity and convenience, and their plan to that end it is two-pronged. First, they plan to offer interactive tutorials which are tailored, “custom to who’s playing and how you’re playing,” as Miller describes. Their second step is via rules interactivity, which takes a rulebook and organizes it into categories that you can navigate through when looking to answer any questions you may have. Their app even includes a search function where you can type in your question and it will search the rules for the answer.
These companies are just small snapshots of the creativity and ingenuity present in the digital board game market right now. Each of the representatives I spoke to are confident that the digital market is heading in a positive direction, and they each have their own idea of what the future may hold.
With board games and digital adaptations facing a surge of popularity at the same time, these markets have the potential to influence each other’s growth. Hudson shares an interest in that relationship, and would like to explore an answer to the question of how digital publishing becomes integrated into the physical life cycle of a new game. He believes that we’ll be seeing “more and more examples of publishers that start out the process of launching a game with integrated app support, or digital companions or standalone digital games as a component of how they bring it into market.”
Hudson has also expressed an interest in seeing the general barrier to entry with apps lowered so that small teams of designers and app developers will be able to make passion projects together that can blend physical and digital media. The team at Dized shares this vision and is already working on a future project to see this happen. Dized is currently developing a tool set to share with publishers so that they’re able to use the Dized platform to creative interactive rules for their own games, but they also envision giving designers who are launching games on Kickstarter access to this tool set as well. Offering Dized support could be a cost-effective way to offer a stretch goal for Kickstarter projects, for instance. Dized is also working on the idea of standalone digital games for existing board games. While it won’t be offered anytime soon, Dized is actively exploring the idea of helping companies create digital expansions specifically integrated with the Dized platform that can be played in conjunction with the physical copies of games that players would already own.
Asmodee Digital is also anticipating that the digital market will see a rise in more hybrid digital / physical games and games with companion apps, as well as a growing demand for adaptations on different platforms, such as the Nintendo Switch, VR, and AR. They have already taken steps to making this vision a reality through the development of Catan VR and their upcoming digital adaptation of Gloomhaven.
What We Can Expect
The best way to stay up to date with what the future holds is to follow the upcoming projects of companies like those interviewed here, as well as other studios such as Handelabra Games, Digidiced, and more.
One of Dire Wolf Digital’s biggest projects right now is their digital-only strategy card game Eternal, for which they just released their fourth set. They’ve also launched a promotion with Twitch, where Twitch and Amazon Prime customers can get free stuff by syncing up their accounts. They’ve also recently released two new Clank! products in their partnership with Renegade Game Studios and have more coming up in the Clank! line. You can likely expect news of more digital adaptations of board games coming up in Q4, as they have a lot of original ideas and products currently in development.
Dized is working on developing their publisher’s tool set, as well as getting more interactive tutorials available on the app. The Dized app is currently in free open access, and they have three interactive tutorials available with ten more lined up. Their biggest push right now is on growing their community so that they can get feedback from other gamers. And as of this week, they are also have launched a Kickstarter to further these ambitions.
Asmodee Digital has a bevy of games in the pipeline, including adaptations of Gloomhaven, Five Tribes, and a slate of titles in 2019 coming to Nintendo Switch such as Pandemic and Munchkin. They’re looking to focus on creating new experiences with strong stories and social innovations.
With both sales and industry interest up, digital board gaming is only getting started. Whatever the future holds for the digital board game market, the collective belief from those involved is that they’ve only just started scratching the surface of what is possible. And I’m sure Dire Wolf Digital’s philosophy of not being afraid of where the fun will take you will continue to be a shared driving force for all creators working in the industry.
Sara Perry is a contributing writer and aspiring game designer with a love for games both physical and digital. Also cats. She can be best reached via Twitter.
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