14 June 2018
Two years ago, I signed a licensing deal with a company called The Knights of Unity for a full-AI digital version of Scythe. Yesterday, now in conjunction with Asmodee Digital and after several extensive rounds of beta testing, the game released on Steam Early Access.
It’s been an interesting journey, so even though I’m still very much a novice in this digital realm, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned along the way. Parts of this post were influenced by a great discussion I had with developer A. Gerald Fitzsimons, who also happens to be the designer of an upcoming tabletop game called Banker of the Gods.
What do you mean by “full-AI digital version”?
In this post when I talk about digital games, I’m referring specifically to full-AI versions. That means the digital game knows the rules of the board game. In Scythe Digital, when you decide to attack another player, the computer knows the rules of combat and helps guide you through them. The AI also acts as digital players you can compete against.
This is in contrast to physics-driven digital games like on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Those games are meant to simulate the feel of having a game on the table in front of you, but the Tabletopia version of Scythe doesn’t know how combat works. You need other human players to use these types of games.
I like that both options exist. The physics-driven platforms are great for playtesting and demos, and if you know the rules to the game, it can be a way to connect with people around the world. They’re also a LOT faster to implement–Tabletopia created the digital version of My Little Scythe in weeks.
There are also digital apps that augment tabletop games, though some of what I’ll discuss in terms of budget and scheduling applies to them too. And there are AI platforms like Boardspace (which Euphoria is on) that simulate the board game experience on the web-based platforms.
Why would you license your game to digital? Won’t that hurt tabletop sales?
My primary goal for pretty much any decision I make at Stonemaier Games is how to bring joy to more people. This applies to digital games in several ways:
- They can help people learn the game more easily than reading a rulebook.
- They allow people to play a game a lot more often than the tabletop version because it’s faster and easier to set up.
- They help people play with friends and strangers around the world.
- They invite people to a world they may not otherwise experience if they don’t play tabletop games.
- They’re more affordable than tabletop versions.
As for actually undercutting tabletop sales, the data I’ve seen indicates that digital games actually increase tabletop sales. I think that’s because they help reduce the barrier to entry, giving people a chance to find something they love and bring it to their table.
Please note that I do not consider digital games to be a revenue-seeking endeavor, at least not for Stonemaier Games. It’s important to me that the developer of the digital game–more on that in a second–is profitable and that we break even, but it’s exceedingly rare that a digital game port makes a lot of money.
How do I pick a developer?
I’ve actually tried for years now to have Viticulture made into a digital game. Two different developers–both very nice people–have spent months working on it, with no final result to show for their efforts.
This experience has made me much more likely to work with a company (even a small company) in the future instead of an individual. Also, it simply may not be worth it for that individual, as they’re risking a lot of time for what could be a minimal reward. Companies typically have their risk spread out over multiple projects, and they seem to have a better grasp of budgeting and timeframes.
Recently I’ve been searching for a company to finally make Viticulture Digital a reality, and I’ve been requesting this information:
- An estimate of how much up-front investment they would need from Stonemaier Games based on an 80/20 back-end revenue split (Stonemaier gets the 20%).
- An estimate of how long development will take.
- An estimate of when they could start working on the digital game.
There’s a lot more to discuss, but I’m starting there. The companies I’ve contacted–companies that specialize in digital ports of tabletop games–are:
- Asmodee Digital
- Handelabra Studio
- Mobo Studios
- Temple Gate Games
- The Knights of Unity
- Fay Games
That’s certainly far from an extensive list, so if you have any recommendations, please mention them in the comments.
How much does it cost?
While the biggest cost is simply paying for developers’ time and expertise, there are other costs too: graphic design, music, art assets, 3D models, etc. The total cost can vary greatly based on the game, but the number I’ve heard from several companies is $100,000.
Now, that doesn’t mean you need to pay $100k out of pocket. That’s where the 80/20 back-end revenue split comes into play. That means for every $10 of profit the game makes, the developer gets $8 and you get $2. This seems to be a pretty common split.
As a result, the up-front cost to you can be much lower–somewhere between $0 and $20k. For Scythe Digital, we basically just paid for the music, with Asmodee funding the rest of the costs.
Please keep in mind that you having a game isn’t enough for a developer to say yes. They will want to see that there is a significant audience for your game in terms of quantifiable sales of the tabletop version.
Could you use Kickstarter?
Kickstarter’s rules have always been a little vague about digital products. In essence they say that you must be the creator of the product, and if you’re using the project to hire a developer, you’re not really the creator. I think it’s all in how you talk about the game–if you talk about your digital “team” and how you’re the team leader, you’re probably fine.
There have been successful digital port Kickstarters, though it’s an uphill climb due to the high development costs in relation to the low reward prices. Evolution successfully made it happen last year thanks to their method of using exclusives to push backers towards higher reward tiers (only 127 people chose the no-frills $4 reward).
What other details do you need to figure out?
Once you pick the developer you’re most excited about and start to talk about the budget/schedule, there are a number of topics for which you’ll want to state your preferences. These include:
- Are you primarily looking for a one-stop shop that handles the art, music, graphic design, etc, with you serving more as a consultant (this is what I did with Scythe Digital), or are you looking to be heavily involved in the process?
- What platform do you want the game to launch on, and what platforms would you like it to expand to? Scythe Digital is starting on Steam for PC, and it will expand to iOS and other formats.
- How do you see expansions and promos working in the digital game? For example, do you want to start with the core game and add expansions later as DLC (downloadable content)?
- What’s your priority in terms of single-player against the AI, local pass-and-play multiplayer, and online multiplayer? My personal top priority is single-player against the AI, followed by online multiplayer.
- How detailed of a tutorial do you want? Like, a separate tutorial that actively teaches players how to play, a tutorial that helps players as they’re thrown into their first game, or simply a digital rulebook you need to read to understand the rules?
- How much do you want the game to resemble the tabletop version? Remember that you’re crowding a table’s worth of content and information into a screen that might be as small as a phone. Also, you can do certain things in a digital game that aren’t possible on the tabletop, like animations. If you want to see a game that combines these factors extremely well, I recommend Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep.
- Who will distribute the game? You might have a developer who is really good at programming games, but are they good at selling them? Learn about their weaknesses early on and perhaps leverage partnerships to address them, like what we did with Asmodee Digital and The Knights of Unity.
- How do they plan to price the game?
- Do they have an “early access” strategy that is fair and equitable to early adopters?
What else have I learned?
I’m excited about Scythe Digital, just as I’m eager to move forward with Viticulture Digital. Charterstone Digital is also in the works.
But I have to say that I’ve learned not to expect much from these digital games. None of them has ever remained even remotely on the original projected schedule. So while I hope that they’ll become a reality and be great, my expectations are very low. This has helped keep what could be a stressful process relatively stress-free for me.
This is, however, the main reason why there’s very little chance I would ever make a tabletop game that relied on a digital app. I don’t want to sit on a completed game for months or years while waiting on the app.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think about digital ports of tabletop games? Do you have any favorites you’d recommend or any insights you have from experience working with (or as) a developer? As a consumer, is there anything you’d like developers and/or publishers to know?
If you’re curious, Scythe Digital is available here.
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