Playdek opens up about adapting hobby games to digital platforms

The 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.

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.”