Swimming Against the Current: Moving from Video Game to Board Game Design

I am a video game designer. Or at least, I was. A few weeks ago I made a seemingly giant leap: from the profitable, growing-like-wildfire world of free-to-play digital games to the low-profit-margin world of board games. I left my awesome job at PopCap Games working with creative, talented people to pursue my life-long passion. Developing board games is still dark and mysterious to me, but I’ve found that what I’ve learned from building video games can shed some light on this new world.

To give you a quick background, a few years ago I was a Game Designer at SilverTree Media working on a variety of web and social games contracted by Disney and EA. At the time, PopCap was looking to hire Monetization Designers – people that can design game mechanics that are simultaneously profitable and fun. I hadn’t designed monetization features for a game full-time before, but I had experience balancing games at SilverTree and had a firm grip on the social game landscape. I always wanted to work for PopCap, so when I was recruited for the Monetization Designer position I knew I had to take it.

I entered a world full of ball-spitting frogs and Nerf gun fights as PopCap put me on the lively Zuma Blitz team, a game that was just launching. I was later fortunate to work on Bejeweled Blitz, and then Solitaire Blitz from the time it was in its infant stages. Over the next two years, I would be heavily steeped in the trying landscape of free-to-play games. Every day involved questions like, “How much play time should we give the player before we ask them for cash?” or “How should we balance the game differently if we have a low ARPU (Average Revenue per User) paired with a high ARPPU (Average Revenue per Paying User)?”

Every week held different challenges that enabled me to grow. A couple of months into my time there, the company held its quarterly “PopCamp” — a weeklong game jam for the studio to flex its creative muscles and make whatever we wanted. I used that week, as well as every following PopCamp, to create a board game related to one of our game franchises. These garnered interest within the company, but ultimately fell flat. Eventually this happened, which I wasn’t a direct contributor to. After working on board games as side projects for my whole life, I knew I eventually had to venture into the space full-time. Three weeks ago, I became an indie board game designer. I now spend my days writing up rule sets, crafting game content, and playtesting and iterating on my games.

Why did I finally pull the trigger? After being responsible for lifting profits for two years, I got tired of thinking about how to monetize players. It’s a skill that I will carry with me into owning a business, but I’m thankful it’s not one I’ll have to directly apply to board game design. The non-digital world certainly has its own forms of microtransactions (think booster and expansion packs), but for the most part players don’t expect these purchases to be a requirement of owning a board game. Board game players expect to buy a boxed product for a fee, and receive hours of gameplay in return. This model lets designers focus on the fun of the game, instead of having to structure it so that purchasing is tied into the mechanics from the ground up. Tying money into gameplay is tiring and never feels good. It only feels necessary.

Now, I’m not knocking the video game industry for focusing on free-to-play design – it gets more players to play, and it makes companies more money. In a way, it’s win-win. The problem is that we end up with a great deal of frustration on both sides – designers don’t want to have to think about asking for money, and players get frustrated being asked for it. In addition, we ask players to bother their friends to install the game, because in some way players need to pay us to play our game (friends are potential monetizers). No one wants to feel this awkward pressure, but the market demands it. I got tired of pushing this agenda; I want players to play games with each other on an even playing field – even if it means that I won’t make as much money as a business.

Despite that I don’t want to “monetize” players in that way anymore, designing those types of games granted me the valuable carryover skill of balancing numbers to achieve specific play patterns. As I mentioned earlier, we’d often discuss how much play time to give players for free. This extends to other things like how much currency power-ups should cost, or how often players should receive large sums of currency. All of this utilizes the skill of number balancing. In the espionage game I’m working on, I’m balancing how much cash the different quests should reward, as well as how powerful spy items should be. Some key goals of balancing are to make the game fair for competing players and make the game’s behavior fairly consistent – but I always like to throw in a few purposely “unbalanced” numbers just to shake things up and make players feel powerful. Luckily, this kind of general player psychology transcends all forms of game design.

Thankfully, there’s even more overlap between game development in the two industries. Being a Monetization Designer wasn’t just about ensuring fun, profitable experiences. I had to make sure the features and changes I proposed were of small enough scope to fit within our production schedule. This mentality of seeing the forest and the trees is a must as an indie board game developer. I must know the answers to pressing questions: How long will it take me to design, manufacture, ship and store a board game while my precious bank account burns away in the process? How much time do I have before I need to ship my games from Seattle, WA to Essen, Germany in time for the Spiel conference? How much will it cost me to self-publish such a game, and how will I acquire those funds? (I hope Kickstarter is still doing well when my espionage game is ready for it!)

Speaking of, that initial Kickstarter video must catch the eye of potential backers – the same way that PopCap tutorials get players invested within minutes of playing. If they didn’t, we’d lose the player forever. In the board game world, it’s easy to sit a bunch of playtesters down with your new rule set and see if they can understand it. In the video game world, it’s not so easy to just whip up a new game tutorial. In video game development, there is a giant gap from the time you design a feature to the time it’s implemented; the designer doesn’t get immediate player feedback about his/her designs. There are so many different features that must fit together to create a social/mobile game. The building blocks of code, art and sound compose bigger features that must mesh together: the main game loop, economy, meta-game, player messaging, user interfaces, achievements and leaderboards, edge-cases, etc. Then all of those things have to come together with the server backend that holds player and game information, the Store, Message Center/social platform capabilities (for Facebook it’s requests, shares, likes, etc.), advertisements, and so on. That’s a whole mess of stuff!

So what happens is, once you’re out of the prototyping stages of a video game, you design all of these features and then you don’t actually see them in the game for a long time. For good reason, it takes the team a while to build all of it. It’s tough to wait for so long, because you don’t know if the feature you designed is going to test successfully with players, and by the time it’s implemented it might not be the best design to work with the other features you’ve designed since then. Granted, we try the best we can to alleviate these issues by testing paper prototypes and mockups, and designing features that can accommodate a variety of future features. But sometimes your best just doesn’t work out, no matter how hard you try. This exhausts precious time and resources.

On the flip side, in board game design you get immediate feedback. You think of a design, take a couple hours or days to build the test, and then you try it. If it works, you keep the design. If it doesn’t, you change it. It’s the difference between changing a few lines of language in your rule set (an hour tops) and changing entire chunks of code (this can take days or weeks). In addition, you know that the end user will be playing with very similar feeling materials – after all, you are using a paper prototype for a product that will eventually be made out of paper. The same can’t be said for the video game world; paper prototypes are helpful in the video game space, but they can only go so far.

Ah, but everything can’t be better in the board game world – there’s the bear of distribution. While social/mobile games take a long time to develop, they are quick and easy to distribute. All players have to do to play social/mobile games is visit a Facebook page or download an app. This scales incredibly well to large player bases, because all they require is server bandwidth. With board games, we are talking about physical products, so every individual product must be shipped via snail mail at some point or another. This is costly and time-consuming. In addition, board games need to be kept in warehouses, whereas digital games only need server space.

That kind of scalability is something I’ll miss, but it’s just another tradeoff – in return, board games grant players the treasure of intimacy. Modern video games brag about being “social,” but they still come down to individuals sitting in front of screens by themselves (unless it’s the fabulous Spaceteam). Board games, which go back thousands of years, encourage the time-tested joy of interacting with other humans in real life. What a concept! It’s a simple difference between the two, but a significant one.

I’m sure I missed some similarities and differences between video game and board game design, but those are the big ones that I’m contemplating as I delve more into the darkness each day. Hopefully we can keep intimacy and human interaction alive. If you’re interested in chatting, I’d love to hear from you.

Andy is currently designing an espionage board game in Seattle, WA. His mission is to craft games that change our perception of life. Catch more of him on the Friends on Play podcast.

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