Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Does online play of pblished boardgames help or hinder sales?

The subject expresses my basic question, but some explanation is called for.

Boardgames tend to be social activities. But sometimes a game is sufficiently unusual that it's hard to get people to play at the local game meet (or maybe there isn't a local game meet...). Online (or e-mail (PBEM)) play is an alternative for those who can't find interested players locally, or who want to play at a more convenient pace than face-to-face requires. Online/PBEM play tends to emphasize the strategic aspects of a game at the cost of social aspects. Online play can be set up to be real-time, more like face-to-face, but PBEM is always non-real-time.

I'm interested in these possiblities in relation to my game Britannia. Brit is a long game, and a game that requires some study and thought to play well. It isn't the sort of game that people just pull out at a game meet and recruit players to play it right then. Hence it lends itself to online/PBEM treatment, and the PBEM community is quite lively. I have "watched" a couple PBEM groups that play at a very fast pace (several moves a day), using an online dice-roller to resolve combat, and these folks play one game after another (one group is on its 20th consecutive game). There are PBEM tournaments as well.

Yet Fantasy Flight Games, the current publisher, chose not to post on their Britannia Web site an excellent article about how to play by e-mail. (It's on pulsiphergames.com if you're interested, and also on the BGG Britannia site.) The reasoning was that someone could use the Cyberboard kit (which includes a map), with the rules posted online, and play without purchasing a copy of the game. (They'd actually have to get copies of the nation cards as well.)

Make no mistake about it, there are certainly times when people play a game by making a copy themselves (pirating it), rather than purchase one. Evidently, respect for copyright, or for rights of creators, is much lower than 30 years ago. In old hex-map and cardboard counters days it was fairly easy to make a copy of a game, given a paper map and paper pieces. Years ago no one gave away the rules to their game, as many publishers do today. I think pubishers realize that in the computer age it's so easy to scan rules that there is no way to "keep them secret" from people who haven't bought the game. So why not post the rules so that players have a chance to read them and decide whether to buy the game?

Even today, desktop published games use the same make-your-game principle. I believe that one major reason for the inclusion of three-dimensional "bits" in games, and of attractive color art (especially on cards), is to help persuade people to buy the game instead of using a pirated scanned copy.

On the other hand, Days of Wonder makes free online play of some of their games part of their support package. I recall hearing that Ticket to Ride had been played online more than a million times, and that was two years ago. Evidently, they don't believe that online play hurts sales of the boardgame. But Days of Wonder games are short, not long like Britannia, and the games tend to be not-very-strategically-complex as well.

We see companies that specialize in offering online play of boardgames. Hexwar's games have been out-of-print stuff, so the question of affect on sales does not apply. f2fgaming offers Hammer of the Scots, a two-player game of a popular type (block games) that is actually more convenient to play online than face-to-face, because you don't have to manipulate the blocks. (I thought f2f was charging a fee, but the site now says "Free" and has no news less than a year old.) Game Table Online offers currently-published games. Tower Games offers two games (in many varations) that are not available in a physical package. Their clientele may be history buffs rather than boardgamers. All of these except f2f are either pay-by-the-game or by-the-month. GTO is offering free memberships to those who play at least five gams a month, in an effort to make more opponents available.

I have sometimes thought that it will become common for a game to be offered first in an online-play version, and if that is successful, then the boardgame will follow. Has that happened with any game yet?

This is of interest to me because I retained the rights to online play of Britannia as I submitted it to Fantasy Flight (not as it was published, though in fact the two are virtually the same). I have several times been approached by people who wish to write on online-referee program, or host such a program if someone else wrote it. Nothing has come of it so far. I have to think that FFG might not be happy to see the game played online, for fear that it would cannibalize sales.

My opinion is that some people might play online and not buy the game, but those people were never going to buy the game in any case. On the other hand, some people who cannot find local opponents, and who aren't interested in PBEM play, might be happy to play online and would buy the game if the opportunity for online play was available.

Though Wizards of the Coast thinks they'll be able to make money by charging for online play of boardgames at their new Gleemax site, it appears to me unlikely that there is a significant market of people willing to pay to play online.

What say you, folks, about online play and its affect on sales, and about the market for pay-to-play online? Obviously this is a skewed audience, as the people in online forms are familiar with using computers in relation to games, and are also more enthusiastic about games than the average player, but I still think it will be interesting to hear your experiences and opinions.

(This is going to be posted four places: my game design blog, BGG general gaming, Consimworld, FFG Britannia site.)

Lew Pulsipher


Tim Harrison said...

I've purchased several games after first discovering and playing them online (Hey! That's My Fish, UR, and Caylus Magna Carta, for example). Likewise, I've never not purchased a game because I can play it online.

If I discover it and enjoy it online, I purchase it.

Ian Schreiber said...

My understanding is that online playability (particularly on BSW) is aimed at the German market where boardgame sales are huge compared to the States.

In German culture, games are meant to be played in person with family or friends. Online play essentially becomes a demo, not a way to play the game "for free". Consider card games like Microsoft Hearts or Spades; do you think anyone who enjoys those games doesn't also have a few decks of cards lying around the house, because "I don't need a deck of cards since I can play online"? It's like that. Publishers consider it advertising for their games.

That said, to my knowledge, no one has ever done a public study to show the effect of an online version on sales. So it's all circumstantial.

Best I can say is, the boardgame publishers have millions of dollars at stake (for the more popular games, anyway) and they choose not only to allow online versions but to fund them. Since it's their core business, presumably they have good reason to do things this way, so I'd assume online play helps sales.

Todd D. said...

Days of Wonder is now running a contest where all the players in the 10 millionth game played at their site will win a variety pack of Days of Wonder stuff - I believe the winner receives most of their in-print catalog.