Friday, October 25, 2013

Where are board and card games headed?

Where are board (and card) games headed?  Predicting the future is fraught with perils.  Sometimes a collective group can come up with a little better projection than any individual - and sometimes not.  So I'm going to try to peer into a murky crystal ball about the future of boardgames and card games, and see what the collective has to make of it.

But even if we could come to a consensus, as unlikely as that is, about the future of board and card games, what actually happens in history is often not what's most likely to happen.  So even if we accurately predict what's most likely to happen, there's a good chance something else will happen.  Which may ultimately be what makes a statesman's job so difficult.

Following where video games lead
I think we'll follow the lead of videogames in many respects.  I'm not saying that video games set the trend, but they react to what the populace wants, perhaps faster than board and card games, and of course vastly more people play video games than board and card games.  (You may have heard that Grand Theft Auto V made over a billion dollars (yes, with a B) in the first couple days of sales worldwide - $800 million the first day.)

We're obviously moving towards simpler and shorter games.  It's just about impossible to achieve the ideal that video games already enjoy, which is that someone can play the game without reading any rules.  But simpler games mean there are less rules to read and understand.

Also we'll find more games that effectively tell the player what to do next.  This has become common in video games, for example, in single player games where the helping hand is always there.  For a game to tell people what to do next might be a little peculiar when there's two or more players in opposition, but when it's a puzzle/contest, multiplayer solitaire, then it won't be seen as so odd.  All cooperative games are essentially single player and we'll certainly be seeing more cooperative games as we go toward more puzzles and less direct conflict/competition.

Discoverability and what it's done to game design
Discoverability is a huge problem in the video game industry as thousands of small-scale games are released every month.  The really good games are being overwhelmed by the crap, much as happened in the great videogame crash of the early 80s when so many crappy Atari games were released that finally no one bought any games at all.  Nintendo fixed that problem when they came along by controlling all manufacture of games for their console, thus limiting the supply and eliminating most of the crap.

Even if your game is very good, if someone doesn't know your game exists, he can't buy it or play it.  We're getting to that point in board and card games.  I was told there were 800 new tabletop games at Essen last year and I suppose that number was closer to 1000 this year.  As a result, just as in the video game world, the *marketing* possibilities of a game become much more important than whether it's a good game to *play*.  In the video game world few games are played very long before someone moves on to the next game, and I see this phenomenon has become common in the tabletop world where a typocal game is only played one or two or three times before players move on to something else.  The games don't have to be good games in the old sense of games that you enjoy playing over and over and over again, rather they have to be games that have a marketing hook and that look good and sound good when described (the latter especially for Kickstarter, which often amounts to "smoke and mirrors").  And not surprisingly, the typical published game is pretty weak, especially those coming out of Kickstarter.

Furthermore, publishers are bombarded with so many game prototypes that they focus very much on marketing and don't generally have a chance to find out whether a game is good enough to be enjoyably played even 25 times, let alone 500 times.  Kickstarter games are almost all marketing because in most cases no one has a chance to know how well they play before they fork over their Kickstarter support money.  This is a great contrast with the past when, if you designed a game that was really good to play, you had a significant chance of getting it published.  Now whether the game is really good to play in the long run is, if not pretty unimportant to the publisher, something that's no longer vital.

Computer gaming as an adjunct or replacement for board gaming
I think that the iPad may become the new board game platform for *two player* games.  People have less and less time to play games and this pushes them toward the casual end of the spectrum, as opposed to the hard-core who can sit for several hours to play a game or several games.  In typical game club contexts, almost all the games played are for more than two, except for CCGs - and I see a lot of CCG sessions for four or more people now. What the iPad offers is games in small snippets, as in the Battle of the Bulge game by Shenandoah of Philadelphia.  (See my post of September 3: )  The iPad provides a convenience that boards or big layouts of cards on the table simply cannot provide, and it makes it easy to preserve the state of the game when it cannot be completed in one sitting.  I did say iPad, but I mean tablets in general; however, people are much more willing to pay for iPad apps than for Android apps, and there is much more piracy in Android, so it appears that the platform for developers is much more the iPad specifically than the tablet.  (Free to play (F2P) games can go onto Android, I'm talking about games that cost money to buy.  But even in-app purchases in F2P games are being heavily pirated nowadays.)

As smartphones become ubiquitous, we may see more boardgames that require (or offer optional use of) a smartphone to track information and do calculations that today's gamers may find annoying, if not difficult.

Cardgames rising, boardgames descending
It appears to me also that cardgames are becoming more popular and boardgames less.  This is what's happening with FFG's lines, I've noticed.  This is quite apart from Magic, which is massively popular (some $270 million a year).  There are several reasons for this. One is that it is easier and cheaper to provide colorful visuals with cards, than with the board and pieces.  Visuals on the cards don't generally have anything to do with the play of the game, whereas the visuals on a board are usually important to gameplay, and so cannot be fooled around with.  Now there are exceptions to this like Smallworld which has such a busy looking board that when you put the pieces on the board it's very hard to see them.  But this hasn't prevented Smallworld from becoming quite a popular game.  (It is one of the great puzzles to me that an out and out wargame has become popular among Euro players, furthermore, a wargame that is broken, compared to the predecessor by the same designer (Vinci), and which has dysfunctional graphic design.  *Shrug*)

Another reason is that cardgames are naturally shorter than boardgames, if you consider each "hand" individually.  Moreover, it's easy to limit the length of a cardgame by relating length to the draw deck (if there is one), a limit that feels less arbitrary than a given number of turns.

Thirdly, one of the great advantages of a game that's primarily cards is that you can put the rules (and especially, the exceptions to the standard rules) on the cards, and this makes it easier for someone to read the game rules so they can teach other people to play the game. (They don't have to read the cards to learn to play, they can read them as the cards turn up.)  Also, the great popularity of Magic: the Gathering (which grew by more than a third last  year) and Yu-Gi-Oh makes certain kinds of mechanics that are used with cards quite familiar to a large number of gamers.  At the NC State tabletop gamers club last year, often more than half of the players present were Magic players rather than players of boardgames and other cardgames.  (This has changed markedly when meetings moved from Thursday to Friday this year; some suggest that the organized play at game shops on Fridays has drawn off the CCG players.)

Furthermore, a cards-only game tends to limit what can be done by the player, and especially limits the gameplay depth of the game as compared to a game that can use both boards and cards and perhaps other elements as well.  But there's great potential for variety in the form of additional cards and decks of cards.  In this century variety seems to be displacing gameplay depth as the most desirable aspect of play of a game.

Positive and Rewarding
Video games in the age of free-to-play are rapidly going away from the idea that you have to earn something in the game to the idea that games are constant rewards, constantly positive.  In this century egos are fragile and people not only don't like to be frustrated, they don't like to move out of their comfort zone at all.  This will certainly be reflected in boardgames and card games.  Part and parcel of this is the de-emphasis of competition.  We'll have more games that are puzzles (you can't lose to a puzzle) and more co-ops that are essentially single player so that no player is putting his or her ego on the line.  Consequence-based gaming is being replaced in the video game world with reward-based gaming, and the same thing is likely to be expressed to some extent on the tabletop.

Game players versus game buyers
There are three different groups of gamers that I have been involved with in the past several years. 

One group is mostly-over-40 third-Friday-of-the-month boardgamers who are increasingly Euro oriented and increasingly part of the Cult of the New.  A fair number of those folks, although certainly a minority, buy games fairly regularly. 

The second group is video gamers who were students in my classes, and of course they didn't buy boardgames at all because they had not been exposed to them, although some of them were perfectly happy to play them at the game club (not during class hours - though they would've been happy to do it then too!).  They bought some video games, but they also pirated a lot and played a great many free-to-play games. 

The third group is at a University tabletop game club that has existed for seven or eight years.  Only two or three other members actually buy games, while the club buys a few games each year with membership dues (which are optional).  Most of the players are happy to play their favorite games week in and week out, such as Betrayal House on the Hill, Red Dragon Inn, Bang! , recently Munchkin, and others.  They are not Eurostyle players per se because they're perfectly happy to play directly competitive games where players can easily hinder or harm one another in the game.  Many of them are just as interested in the social aspects of being with a group of people to play games as they are in the specific game that they play.  The majority of them play video games as well, though usually free ones, and many are also RPGers.  Very few of them are involved with Boardgamegeek.

So we have a lot of game players who are not game buyers.  From the point of view of the future of the board and card game hobby how do we regard these folks?  They play games but they don't buy games.  They provide players for the people who do buy games.  But they don't put any money directly into the industry.   So are they part of the hobby but not part of the industry?

The videogame industry is faced with problems that mobile games can rarely be sold for more than a pittance ($.99), and most people who play free to play games never spend a dime on them.  Combine this with rampant piracy and it's becoming hard to make money on a mobile game.  ( Perhaps this is more or less the equivalent of having so many tabletop gamers who don't actually buy games.  But the one great blessing we have in the tabletop industry is that it's hard to pirate a physical game, though you can pirate RPG books and rulebooks easily.

A really safe prediction is that self-publishing will continue to grow, whether through POD like, or through crowd-funded games.  Self-published games inevitably tend to be of lesser qualtiy as games (ignoring the physical quality), just as self-published books tend to be a lesser quality than those going through traditional publishers.  Will Kickstarter failures (funded but no game is ever published) and general low quality of self-publishing ultimately lead to the kind of crash that affected video games in the early 80s?  Who knows?

The "Cult of the New"
My wife (who I met through Dungeons & Dragons), dislikes any changes in how the audiovisual and computer equipment works in the house.  She is the opposite of worshipers of the "Cult of the New".  But she's also not a game player.   To go back to my three groups of gamers, the college aged tabletoppers are happy to play the same games over and over again but are also happy to play new games.  But the Cult of the New is not noticeable.  On the other hand, they don't buy games.  BoardGameGeek, which is seen by publishers to be very influential in game buying, is a stronghold for the Cult of the New.  Is there something about game players - or I should say, game buyers - that makes them more likely to be part of the Cult of the New?  From a publisher's point of view the Cult of the New means people who do buy games are likely to buy more games than fewer.  But it seems to mean that buying is spread out over more games and so each game sells less than in the past, which is not good for publishers.

A Decrease in Design Quality
Many of the games being sold (or at least, demoed) at Origins or GenCon don't need to be very good designs.  (I'm talking about the design, not the graphics/marketing hooks.)  They only need to be good enough to be interesting for several plays, because the fate of most games is to be played only a few times before the owner goes on to the next game.  There are lots of reasons for this, e.g. the short attention span of the "Internet generation", and the vast number of games out there calling for play.  Moreover, in a "demo" environment such as a game convention players are strongly affected by "cool", which is often in graphics or theme, because they don't have time to learn whether the game actually has much to it, whether it can last more than a few plays.

As a result, a lot of these games simply aren't very good.  In a way it's like video games: most of the published ones aren't really very good, time killers more than anything else, though they may sound good or look good.  And that doesn't count the 90% that are funded but never see the light of day.  Board and card games are much less time-consuming to produce, so more of the "90%" are likely to actually be published/self-published.

(Not very good: as far as I'm concerned, a game that's only good for killing time isn't very good.  Whether it's played a lot by people or not.  (Card Solitaire is an example, 'course that's really a puzzle, not a game.))

Result: a lot of weak games.  Yet they all compete with the good games.  Unfortunately much of the sales process does not depend on how good the game design is, so the result is that the good games sometimes suffer, getting less sales and attention than they deserve.

Lower sales of individual games
And that brings us to the last "prediction", that sales of individual games will continue to fall, though that may not be true for the several really big hits each year.  The total sales of games may be climbing, but that doesn't help publishers whose profit depends heavily on the cost per unit.  The more copies of a single game you can print (which means, you can sell), the lower the cost per unit.  If sales are spread over a much larger number of titles, publishers then become more dependent on hits, and even though we as gamers spend more money on games, publishers don't make more money, they make less.

This is not very optimistic.  For an optimistic view, see Mary Couzin, "Establishing New Connections Through Board Games"


Knicksen said...

Interesting post, as usual. I'm intrigued by your comment on Small World being broken compared to Vinci...happy to elaborate? (not a trap question for a pejorative response, I'm just curious)

Lewis Pulsipher said...

As far as I'm concerned, Vinci itself is broken, in considerable part because of rampant leader-bashing. It is much too easy to attack the leader, such that being in the lead late in the game is often (usually?) a bad idea.

A friend of mine with vast game-playing experience loves Vinci above all other games except Robo-Rally. He tells me Smallworld is broken, though I don't certainly remember enough of the details to elaborate here.