Last year, we had the opportunity to do a video interview with Joel Goodman and Gary Weis from Playdek while at Gen Con. Since that interview, there have been some really great announcements regarding several games from GMT Games being adapted to digital versions. I was glad when they contacted us last month to help them spread the good news about Fort Sumter designed by one of our favorite designers Mark Herman.
After those announcements, I was asked if I would be interested in interviewing Gary Weis who acts as Playdek’s Chief Technology Officer. I was interested, reached out and here is the product.
Grant: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. First off, how did you get your start at Playdek?
Gary: I’ve been at Playdek from the beginning of the company. We had formed an independent studio coming out of THQ in 2009. I had met Justin Gary when I playtested a game he had designed for a local board game company, and I was interested when I heard he was publishing a game on his own that was an evolution of Dominion. We approached him about doing a digital version late in 2010. After we successfully launched Ascension in mid-2011, we created a new company to focus on developing and publishing digital board games.
Grant: Why has Playdek focused on bringing board and card games to the digital platform rather than more traditional video games?
Gary: We’re making games that we want to play. We’re also able to eliminate some of the risk factors in developing a game by starting with a completed, well tested game design that has already been approved by the board game community, and we have name recognition for the game title among players who are already familiar with the board game.
Grant: What are your thoughts on the board gaming industry and its future? Are we in a “golden age”?
Gary: The board game industry has transformed over the last 10 years in a similar manner to the video game industry. Steam and mobile app stores have lowered the barrier of entry for smaller teams to release their digital games to the public. Board game designers have received a similar boost through crowdfunding and other alternative methods to releasing their designs besides the traditional publishing deal with a larger company. This has certainly created more “noise” in the available releases, but it also led to some great games that otherwise might never have been published.
Grant: Let’s focus on your past successes a bit. What have you learned from doing games like Waterdeep and Ascension? What lessons have you learned?
Gary: We released 9 games prior to Twilight Struggle that all used our proprietary engine. Ascension was built specifically to run on the first iPad and iPhone 3/4, and then the engine evolved to meet the needs of each of the other games that came after that. This led to some issues with porting the games to Android and PC, and only Ascension and Summoner Wars were able to make the jump to other platforms. With Twilight Struggle, we switched to using the Unity engine by wrapping our rules engine, network architecture, and AI systems into a plugin for Unity. This has made cross platform releases a much simpler task, and it has insulated us against future cases where changes might be required to the engine in order to remain for sale on certain platforms.
Grant: Why did you seek out a partnership with GMT Games? As you know they do stuffy wargames and historical conflict simulations. Surely there is no market there for these type of games on the digital platform, right?
Gary: First and foremost, partnering with GMT Games means we get to work with Gene Billingsley. We couldn’t ask for a better partner. GMT also has an expansive catalog of game titles and an impressive number of revered game designers who are associated with the company. There is a market for digital war games and historical conflict simulations, and GMT has also branched out a bit over the past several years with interest in more traditional strategy games. They’re currently publishing around 30 games each year, so we won’t ever come close to working with that number, but we certainly won’t be lacking for quality titles to work on.
Grant: Has the success of the Twilight Struggle digital offering surprised you?
Gary: Not really. We expected the digital version to do very well because it was the #1 game at boardgamegeek.com at the time it was released, and it worked very well both in real time or asynchronously. What was a little bit surprising was the sharp increase in sales of the physical game that came immediately after the release of the digital version.
Grant: How has it compared in sales numbers to your other more traditional board game efforts?
Gary: I’m not able to discuss the specific numbers, but the digital version of Twilight Struggle has had a significant impact, both in terms of revenue directly from the various app stores and on GMT’s sales of the physical board game.
Grant: You currently have at least two other GMT Games titles in development, including Labyrinth and Fort Sumter. What status updates can you provide our readers?
Gary: Fort Sumter is almost done. We’re in the final stages of polishing the interface and tutorial modes, along with making some last minute adjustments to the AI opponent. Labyrinth has been in closed beta testing since the middle of March, with many dedicated GMT players giving us great feedback.
Grant: Do you have timelines you can share on both of the games? I hope they will be out next week!
Gary: We’ve just announced that Fort Sumter will be released in the last half of May, so not next week but shortly after that. There is still a lot of work we’d like to get done on Labyrinth, so we’re currently targeting a Q3 2019 release.
Grant: For our edification, how long does a game take to develop and release from proposal to the day it hits the App Store?
Gary: It really depends on the game. Twilight Struggle, Labyrinth, and many of the more popular titles in the GMT lineup are bigger games that require more effort across all of the disciplines we deal with to make a quality digital product. I usually start working along on the rules implementation, which is typically about a month to get all of the rules and card effects working along with a simple interface. From there, we add more developers to upgrade the look and feel of the game, making it more accessible to players who aren’t already familiar with the rules, adding tutorials and interface cues to help guide user decisions, creating music and sound effects to build an atmosphere for the game, and adding in all of the online components that are staples of our titles. This process usually takes 3 to 6 months for a larger title, at which time we begin the process of polishing the game features and experience.
Grant: How much insight and input do you get from the designers? Are they intimately involved in the process?
Gary: Designers are as involved in the process as they want to be. We usually get a good amount of input into what the designer would like to see in the digital version as we’re building that first prototype, then it slows down as we work from prototype to an alpha build. Once we are moving from alpha towards beta, the designers are given builds as often as the rest of the team, and their feedback is incorporated into the daily focus of the development team. Some designers have a better feel for what will work well in digital than others. Some of them don’t typically play digital board games, but they still know their own game better than any other source available to us. We’ve realized over the years that the best tutorial for the digital version will draw from the experience of the game designer, as they’ve usually taught the game to players thousands of time and have learned the best sequence to introduce the different game mechanics.
Grant: What do you love most about your job?
Gary: We get to make games as our full time job. I think everyone at Playdek appreciates the nature of our work. When I was working on console video games for larger companies, I would often spend my personal time working on the same types of projects that we’re working on now, but I didn’t have any outlet to make those game available to a wider audience.
Grant: What games are in your future, from GMT Games, but also others?
Gary: From GMT, we’ve previously announced that we will be working on Imperial Struggle and the COIN series, but we don’t currently have details on when those games will be making an appearance. Beyond that, there are a large number of GMT titles that we’ve taken a very close look at to evaluate their suitability for a digital version. We’ve learned in the past that it’s easy to look too far ahead, so for now we’re focused on getting Fort Sumter and Labyrinth wrapped up, and then maybe we’ll be ready to talk about what’s coming next.
Thanks for your time Gary and for being willing to give us updates on the progress of the games you have in the development pipeline. I want to remind everyone that Fort Sumter should be available for purchase on Steam, Android and iOS as of May 21st!
playdek, if you are reading this, I implore you to consider a digital version of Space Empires 4X. I have stated this elsewhere on TPA, but I think it is worth repeating here.
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Really looking forward to Labyrinth and the COIN titles – also for solo play!