Thursday, February 05, 2009

Electronic productions of non-electronic games

I was asked recently by someone who is VP of a computer services company what potential there is for boardgame play online, and for electronic versions of boardgames in general. In responding I’ve ended up with a fairly long disquisition, and I’m sure there are many online efforts I don’t know about. So I’m posting this on BGG and here, then I’ll revise it and send it to the VP.

So the question for today is, how do boardgames (and card games) tie in with digital, especially online, production? Is there money to be made? Who makes it, and how?

Here are some of the categories I’ve found:
• Pay to Play Existing game in online version
• Make your money from advertising
• Make money retailing the games people are playing online for free
• Board or card game playable only online, probably at just one site
• Sell a physical version of a game first offered free online
• Online play to help encourage people to buy a game first offered physically
• “Casual” games
• Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs)
• Second Life and others like it

But first, Free Play with online assist
First, though, we need to note that some games are playable by mail or email through hobbyist efforts. For example, Britannia is played by email with the help of a dice roller that has a version specifically for Brit. Diplomacy has been played since the ‘60s by ordinary mail with the help of a neutral referee, and is now played with the assistance of online non-commercial “judges”, programs that adjudicate moves. No human referee is needed. There have been two commercial software versions of Diplomacy, but I don’t know whether either was intended to assist online play, and both certainly received heavy criticism and must be regarded as failures, particularly where computer opponents are concerned.

Wargamers have Vassal, Cyberbox, and ACTS available to assist play of two-player games by email (PBEM)--most traditional wargames are two players only.

“VASSAL (http://www.vassalengine.org/community/index.php)is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games. It allows users to play in real time over a live Internet connection (in addition to playing by email). It runs on all platforms, and is free for personal use.”

Cyberboard (http://cyberboard.brainiac.com/) is a “PBEM Boardgaming System for Windows”. It’s individual setups are called Gameboxes or Cyberboxes. “The system allows you to easily graphically design the various parts of a board game on your computer. The players can make their moves and exchange recorded versions of the moves with their opponents. The opponent can then play back the moves. Although many types of games may be created using CyberBoard, games that use counters or chits such as war games work particularly well.” As with Vassal and ACTS, there is no computer opponent.

Both systems have been around a long time. These two involve graphical depictions of boards, hence copyright questions come into play. It can be especially touchy as we get into an era when electronic versions of boardgames may be retailed–already are through Xbox Live. What will a publisher of an electronic version think about a Vassal/Cyberboard version? If they’re smart, the main purpose of their electronic version will be a computer opponent, and facilitating online play will be secondary, nonetheless they may object to these free versions.

The Automated Card Tracking System--ACTS (http://acts.warhorsesim.com) helps people play wargames that use cards, especially “Card Driven Wargames”. ACTS only manages the cards, not the game as a whole, but it’s the hidden information on cards that prevents such games from being played by email.

None of this costs a dime; none involves making money.



In general, keep in mind that it is much easier to create an electronic game to be played by humans, than to be played by a human against the computer. The computer opponent is pretty difficult to create (as the commercial Diplomacy debacles showed us).

Pay to Play
The first thing that might come to mind for making money in this context is “pay to play” games that have a physical version, via computer online. This has been a bust. There’s a mindset in general on the Internet that most things are “free” (even though that free may be advertising supported). Add to this physical games that you can buy and play at home for free. Why would anyone pay to play online? Lack of opponents would be the only reason, and that doesn’t seem to be enough.

The most well-known of these sites is HexWAR (hexwar.com) . For several years these folks have been computerizing old out of print SPI hex wargames, which subscribers can play online ($12.95 a month or $10 a month when signing up for a year). They also do some Decision Games (Strategy & Tactics magazine in large part). I'd guess this has provided a modest income that doesn't seem to be increasing with time (remember that hex wargames aren't a big industry now, and are not growing).

Face to Face Games (http://www.f2fgaming.com/) tried this, beginning with Hammer of the Scots (Columbia Games), a well-known “block game”. (Block games, having hidden information, do not lend themselves to PBEM.) They were at WBC one year, trying to recruit business, and the next year they'd gone to free play rather than subscription but were not actually at a booth, and I'm not sure they're an *active* business now. The site has not been updated since 2006 but is still there.

Advertising
Many Web sites offer free play of games–usually Flash games, but they could be boardgames–and make a modest income. The games are often free ones that the sites have gathered from all over the Internet, not ones the site owners have created. In a recessionary economic climate, however, advertising dollars dry up rapidly (NASCAR fans really know what this means...).

Game Table Online (http://www.gametableonline.com) for several years offered online play for a monthly subscription of a selection of boardgames. They have now switched to an advertising-based model, as far as I can see. They certainly have more users online now (155 in early afternoon Sunday 18 Jan) than they did when using the subscription model (less than 10 typically).

Here is an interesting look at the participants: “According to our April 2008 user survey, our users:
• Are primarily male (81.1%)
• Between the ages of 31 and 49 (67.6%)
• Spend between $20-$50 per month on tabletop games (36.9%)
• Spend between 2-4 hours per week playing games in person (30.6%)
• Enjoy a wide variety of games (82.6%)
• Primarily come to our site so that they can fit more gaming into their schedule (75%) “

Make money retailing the games people are playing online for free
Brettspielwelt.de is a well-known site for playing boardgames online. They don’t advertise, and they don’t charge fees. I’m not sure how they support the costs, but they do offer you a way to purchase physical copies of the online games, so this may be how they offset expenses. I wouldn’t think it is a profit-making proposition.
http://www.brettspielwelt.de/?nation=en
http://www.brettspielwelt.info/ English Helper server.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brettspielwelt
It uses a download client for the graphics for all games.

Board or card games playable only online, probably at just one site
This seems to be rare. Tower Games (http://towergames.com/index.jsp) is the only site I know of using this model. They began in 2003 with an American Civil War (ACW) game with many scenarios, charging $1 per play, and attracting mostly ACW fans (such as re-enactment people) rather than typical gamers. Recently they started to offer a WW II game. Some years ago I was going to have a simple two-player boardgame of mine, The Princes, hosted on the site, but ran into terrifically unrealistic expectations of one of the proprietors. Then my programmer, who had made a brilliant computer version of one of my games in Visual Basic, wasn't sufficiently familiar with Java, which is how they host games, and so the project died stillborn. The site is still running, but clearly is not a high growth hub.

There may be potential here–think about it, MMOs are games that can only be played online at one place–but I think there’s more potential for offering a game first online, then selling a physical version.

Sell a physical version of a game first offered free online
This is a form of the next “method”. I don’t actually know of any site doing this. The difference would be to offer the game first online, later physically, instead of first physically, then online.

Online play to help encourage people to buy a game first offered physically
This is quite common. Days of Wonder, publishers of many Euro games such as Ticket to Ride, offers free online play, and TtR has been played literally millions of times online. Many people play online specifically to help them decide whether to purchase a game. From that point of view, every publisher ought to offer online play of every game they publish, but that’s an expensive proposition.

“Casual” games
In the video game world, “casual” games attract a different group than the hard-core AAA list video games. They are generally 2D rather than 3D, programmable by a small team instead of 150 people. They are sold through Web sites, usually offering a downloadable version that can be played for 30 minutes, and a $20 downloadable full version.

Some of the games are Xbox Live and competing console-based services fit in this category. Electronic versions of Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, at least, are available through XBL.

One might expect a market for boardgames in electronic form of this type. Certainly some of the “casual” games available are not far from boardgames. Lately this category has been filled with many competitors, yet the most successful casual games support growing companies (such as the company that makes Bejeweled).

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs)
This is where a great deal of money is in the video game world. These games can only be played online, there is no version a person can play without participating in some fee structure. This usually involves a monthly fee (World of Warcraft), after you buy the boxed product. Less often, buying the boxed product gets you free play (Guild Wars), and frequent expansions provide the continuing profit. (Of course, WoW has expansions as well.) In many cases, microtransactions, sale of temporary (or permanent) benefits in the game, provide the revenue stream. Maplestory, Combat Arms, and many other MMOs use this model, primarily with an Asian origin. See http://maplestory.nexon.net/WZ.ASPX?PART=/CashShop/ItemGallery for an example.

I don’t know of a boardgame-based MMO, though there are certainly massively multiplayer games played online that resemble boardgames.

In particular, I’ve not heard of an MMO that offers players the opportunity to purchase a boardgame with much of the flavor of the MMO. This is certainly possible, and I’ve done some design work for such an enterprise, but I have no idea how much demand there might be for this kind of thing.


Second Life and others like it
Some people think of Second Life as a game, and Linden Labs is certainly making money. But I don’t see any connection with boardgames. I have read that someone designed a game in Second Life that was later published in the real world because it was popular in SL, but I know no details.




So generally, people play online to help them decide whether to spend the money to buy the physical non-electronic version of the game, or they play games that they cannot play any other way.

Standalone electronic versions of boardgames or cardgames can offer a computer opponent to players who cannot find local players. Computer opponents generally aren’t as crafty or as good as live human opponents, but they can be better than nothing. I don’t know of any online games that provide computer opponents other than MMOs–and an MMO without other human players is going to have limited appeal.

So the purpose of a boxed retail electronic version of a boardgame would be first to provide a computer opponent or opponents, second to make playing online especially convenient--but a dollar cost to play online is not at all convenient.


Insofar as a big draw of boardgames is the face-to-face contact and company of other players, online already has a strike against it. How big a strike? I don’t know.

3 comments:

Yehuda said...

Nice survey.

Something to remember: there's a balance between offering things for free and how these drive sales.

If you're selling almost nothing, offering a free online version is a must. If it takes off and gets 1,000,000 players, you now have a million person fan base. Many of these will buy the game or your next games. This is called creating a community. It can't always be measured in direct sales.

And if you already have millions of fans, offering an online version is also a must; it's not going to destroy your sales, it will solidify your community.

The unknown area right now is the middle area. If you have a small community, but with income, will offering it for free rob you of your existing sales, or introduce sales to new people (which will only happen if the game takes off)?

Yehuda

Eric Hanuise said...

Days of Wonders had been introducing a 'buyer code' in its products, giving access to some online goodies.
An online version of the boardgame could be one of these goodies, fitting between the 'free' and 'pay to play' models : play is the 'free' for those who bought the physical game.

Pay-to-play for an online version of a physical boardgame is a dud, that's for sure.

Ian Schreiber said...

FYI, the BrettSpielWelt model is development-supported, not player-supported. (Primarily German) board game companies hire BSW to create an online version of their physical board games. In Germany, it's assumed that people will still play mostly in person and that any online version is not "OMG free gamez!" but rather "try before you buy". You could think of BSW as an advertising space for board game companies.

As far as I know there are no known figures or estimates of how much this impacts sales or whether the development costs are a net gain or loss. I'm not sure that the board game manufacturers particularly care.

This is my understanding of that model, anyway.