Playdek opens up about adapting hobby games to digital platforms

playdekfeatureThe past year has seen social and mobile developers making a serious push into bringing popular board games to digital platforms. Groups like Goko and Keesing Games have launched high-profile projects like Settlers of Catan and Stratego. Carlsbad, Calif.-based Playdek, however, was one of the industry pioneers when it comes to bringing board and hobby games to mobile devices. The company’s launched new titles at a measured pace and has more planned for the next year. We recently sat down to chat with Director of Business Development George Rothrock and CTO Gary Weiss about Playdek’s ongoing efforts to bring the popular hobby genre of board games to digital audiences.

Playdek was founded in 2011, an outgrowth from Incinerator Studios. The company focused on porting physical games to tablets because its staff loves the genre and because the market wasn’t being seriously tapped into. “We’re passionate board gamers, hobby gamers and card gamers,” Rothrock says. “When we were looking around at the market, we saw there was this huge number of people playing hobby games and nobody was addressing it in a serious manner.”

“There was a real opportunity to take these games we were passionate about to a market that would be glad to have them,” he further notes.

Keeping the portfolio diverse

Currently, Playdek has seven titles available on iTunes’ App Store (though Nightfall and Ascension have purchasable expansions, too) and three more announced for this year. Because Playdek’s an independent developer, it’s been able to form partnerships with 10 hobby game makers, including Cryptozoic, AEG, Stone Blade Entertainment (formerly Gary Games) and Plaid Hat Games. Rothrock and Weiss explain they looked at Days of Wonder’s board game Small World as an example of how to bring a hobby game to mobile devices, but they also realized that a developer like this was only going to work with its own IP.

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While the main audience of Playdek’s players have been core gamers, the developer has made a point of trying to make its games appealing to casual gamers. “It’s still an interesting proposition to get more casual players to come to these games that are more sophisticated and need a deeper effort from a player to get into and enjoy,” Rothrock reflects.

Weiss believes the way people view their mobile devices has made this task easier, though. “If you look at where we are today as to where we were five years ago there were a large number of people who looked at their phone as a phone,” he says, “and then Words With Friends came out and got people to look at their phones as entertainment or gaming devices. It showed people they could play a game asynchronously with other people without sitting at a computer or the dining room table. It’s bite-sized entertainment. They’re that much closer to picking up one of our titles. It may not be this year; it may be next year or the year after that. They’ll start to feel they can play games in this manner but want something that will engage them differently or require more strategy.”

With a catalog as broad as this, it’s difficult to describe what the most successful of these titles is. Rothrock explains the company is careful about releasing numbers because of all its partners, but he notes Ascension has been on the market longer than any other of its titles and has been huge success outside of the core market, thanks in part to occasional sales. But he also says it’s not fair to compare Ascension to some of the other games Playdek is putting out.

“It’s kind of apples to oranges if you compare Ascension to Penny Arcade,” he tells us, “depending on how you slice it, some games are played ravenously offline, some games are ravenously played online. Ascension and Summoner Wars are our two leaders online, but we think Fluxx and Penny Arcade are going to give them a run for their money  in time, after they’ve been on the market for a while.”

Creating a social experience with online play

We’ve noted in the past that games can’t really get more social than when it comes to playing board games with friends, something we bring up when Rothrock talks about the online gameplay in Playdek’s titles. “Online technology expands the number of plays you get to have with a game you really like,” he explains, “because some of these games might only hit the table on game night with your grame group. Now you can play them whenever you like and play against other people.”

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Playdek is taking a thoughtful approach to how it monetizes its games. With some, like Ascension, the titles are sold at premium prices and receive occasional major expansions that are also premium-priced. Others, like Summoner Wars, are free-to-play with smaller expansions available as in-app-purchases.

These different pricing strategies are working out well, Rothrock says. “We’re looking at all these performances and figuring out what makes the most sense for the market. We’re finding that for those who love the game, they’re willing to pay even more than the prices we originally came out with. No matter what we charged for the quality of production we were giving, the implementation as well as the depth of the game, anyone who bought the game felt they were getting value for it. We weren’t excited with the free-to-play, in-app-purchases model because we felt they were out of step with the core market. Hobby/board/card gamers are used to paying quite a bit of money on their hobby: They can buy one box and be done, but they’re also comfortable with buying boxed expansions afterwards.

“The feedback we’ve received is that people feel like they’re getting a fantastic value.”

Likewise, Rothrock notes putting out these expansions means Playdek has a built-in fanbase to help expand the online player base.

“It has a lot to do with the difficulty of implementation,” Weiss notes. “There are three or four other companies that are doing a reasonable job of taking hobby games and releasing them —not at the same rate we are— but they’re producing playable games. There’s also a number of other companies making an effort to  put something out, but the quality’s not there. If you’re going to start a game company, one of the difficulties is taking a particular game is the rules and artifacts are all built and playtested as board games. If you want to take something like that and convert it while staying true to the product, you have to implement everything as written. For a first time developer, you’ll want to take a game with fewer of those unique effects, something that’s a more straightforward game, or you’d want to develop your own game design that can be targeted towards the platform and you can avoid things that will make the interface difficult.”

That latter approach doesn’t work for Playdek, Weiss notes, because removing cards from a title mean established fans of the physical versions would feel the developer wasn’t being true to the actual game.

Although Playdek’s titles are only available for iOS at the moment, we’re told the company considers itself platform agnostic given its staff’s background in console development. As a result, the company isn’t ruling out putting its digital hobby games onto platforms like Facebook or Kongregate. For the moment, though, the developer seems quite happy with where it is. Rothrock tells us the company is constantly looking at all platforms and technology, while Weiss notes “once we tackle a title for one platform, the rest of them should follow pretty closely behind.”