A few weeks ago I had the chance to speak with Eric Hautemont at Days of Wonder. Here’s what he had to say:
Brad: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I am really excited to speak with you. I have been really impressed by Ticket to Ride and Small World.
Eric: Thank you.
Brad: You at days of wonder got in to iOS board games very early on. Small world came out with the launch of the ipad. What inspired you to enter iOS gaming so quickly?
Eric: A couple of things. I don’t know how much you know about our goals as a company but when we started as a company in 2002, we wanted to publish board games but we also wanted to use online adaptations of those board games to help make them popular. We all came from technology companies, previously we had a company that helped put computer graphics on the map. So we were macintosh developers way back in the late 80’s and early 90’s during the time of the Apple 2. So when we started to develop games like Ticket to Ride, Memoir and so on we said, Well It would be really cool to be able to give people online editions of the game so they can do two things: one is learn the game easily and the second is they can always find a willing opponent because board game are really nice and some people have big gaming groups but some people like board games but do not have game nights that frequently. And so we thought online would be a good way to promote board games. We started with Gang of Four, which is the very first game we published, which is a card game. And then Ticket to Ride which I think we launched in late 2005. And we have been basically working on online adaptations of board games from the first. So in January of last year when apple announced the iPad, it was kind of what we were waiting for all these years: a digital platform where you could truly play board games, and what was really exciting for us when they announced the ipad was that you could set it on the table and sit around it. And that is why we picked Small World as an adaptation rather than Ticket to Ride because it is a game where there is no hidden information whatsoever which means everything is on the table. Which means you can put the ipad between the players and they can play the game together. And the cool thing is there is not so much work on the development stand point, when the ipad was announced we saw that there was a development kit available that we could download it and build it on a machine, and the build would work on an actual ipad. Like 3 days before the iPad came out, we were contacted by Apple and they said, It looks like you guys are ready, do you want to come try it out? So we first tried the game on the ipad like 3 days before it shipped.
Brad: Oh wow.
Eric: Yes and we saw that it worked so we were part of the initial launch. And of course there was a whole bunch of follow up afterwards, it was very heavy. We developed it on the Mac, so we had to think how it would actually work on the ipad. You don’t typically look upside at your computer, but with an ipad you can use both sides of the device. We had to think like an ipad user would, without an ipad. It was really cool and hard at the same time. So we launched Small World and it was very successful and then we focused back to the board games. Some say that if you build apps it will detract from the physical board games but we are big believers that a digital version of a board game will promote the physical version and the physical version will promote the app. We think there is a little bit of both.
Brad: I agree. I am just curious, Small World was a great implementation to play together because there was no hidden information. And then you did Ticket to Ride which has hidden information and was focused on online play. I am just curious. Do you think one type of game is better or do you think iOS games can support both types of play?
Eric: I think it can support everything. The type of board games for the application explains why we did them initially, and in the long term people will have everything they want. They will be able to play online, they will be able to play pass and play, local play and so on. I think what is driving the applications to be the way they are today is their background. So in the case of Ticket to Ride it was a big difference. When we started to work on Ticket to Ride for the iPad, we already had a base of players who were playing Ticket to Ride online. There were downloadable apps on the Mac and PC and the web based client. So we had a different situation than Small World, where we had a critical mass of players. And so we saw Ticket to Ride as a great way to benefit the players, since in the ipad version much more polished especially in learning the game, and could provide both a great solo experience as well as a great online experience. And I think the thing we did not realize was how much people would want to play in a place where they might not have access to a network like the car or vacation. When we heard this we said we will give them pass and play, so the next update will have pass and play [Currently available to download]. The reason we did not originally put pass and play, ,and we still stand by it, is that Ticket to Ride is not the bet game to play with pass and play because the turns are micro turns. So it is hard to remember what you are doing next when you are passing it back and forth. With a two player game you will be ok but with a five player game you will have to be really dedicated to play pass and play. Another thing that we were surprise with is that in addition to pass and play, people are asking for asynchronous play and frankly its not really realistic. It hearkens back to the days of play by mail and we wonder why they would want to do that. But I think that the reason people want to play this way is that they are used to the Facebook generation. People will play several game at a time concurrently and they do not understand why Ticket to Ride cannot be played that way. I think that all sorts of play are of value and we will support all levels of play on our apps whether it be Small World or Ticket to Ride, but it takes time. And the question for us is what is the best experience. One of the things we try to do is only release one or two games a year and develop online versions of those games so we take time to get it right. We would rather be late than wrong in some instances. So we will handle these things on a case by case basis. For example, I think a game like Small World is much more interesting for asynchronous play than something like Ticket to Ride because Small World has a very small number of turns. You have 8 to 10 turns. Now its difficult to do more than two players because of the size of the screen and it can be hard on the eyes. Each turn is more meaningful than drawing 2 cards. So with Ticket to Ride we are going to have pass and play, we may have asynchronous in the next updates but we will try to decide that as we go.
Brad: So for Small World, is it in the works to have online asynchronous play?
Eric: It is not in the works right now but I can say that down the road we have plans to update Small World and make some forms of online play available. What, in what form and when, we just don’t know yet.
I mean one of the differences compared to other board game companies is that we actually do all of our own development in house, we want to control the user experience, we think we understand best what works and what doesn’t when you adapt a board game online. And so we actually have our own development staff that is doing all the development for things like Ticket to Ride and Memoir. And maybe we are slower than traditional board game companies who give their games to development studios but the upside of that is we control the user experience and we can get the game exactly the way we like to get them out there.
Brad: Do you have any plans for iOS 5 features? Do you plan on incorporating them into the apps you have so far or future apps?
Eric: Yes, we are looking at iOS 5 and there are two things that are interesting to us. One is the turn based feature that could be an interesting way of introducing some forms of asynchronous play in Small World or Ticket to Ride. The other thing that we think is interesting is a lot of the rated achievements they are introducing and we think that are some interesting things that can be done on the achievement side. Now in terms of achievements, we haven’t done anything yet in terms of Ticket to Ride and Small World, but if you download Memoir 44 online you will see that we have incorporated some achievements into that game. And so we are looking at the achievement support in iOS 5 as something for Ticket to Ride and eventually when we upgrade Small World there will be achievements as well. So we think the turn based play and achievements are interesting in iOS 5.
Brad: We have recently starting to cover android. Do you have android support plans?
Eric: In terms of Android tablets, frankly the market is not there right now, the numbers of tablets purchased is a small market. Now in terms of Android phones there is a much larger market, large as or larger than i-devices, depending on whose numbers you believe. There are two fold issues, one is the number of platforms, it is difficult to get the game to work on every android phone that is out there. And we care a lot about the user experience, and we do not feel there is way for us to develop games on android because there are too many platform variations. And the amounting tweaking and individual testing that would be done is just impossible. I am sure in the future things will be easier, but it is not there yet and we do not want to be pioneers there. There other thing that is holding us back is the monetization. There are too many apps stores on the android and the issue is that none of them have the command like Apple does on the ipad. What’s great about the iOS platform is that Apple has a relationship with millions of people. So if you can get on the app store with the challenge of being notice, the challenge of developing the good games but if you can do the good things the downloads will follow. Our idea with the android is that we are not sure we could make money with it, right or wrong that is our choice. Because we are a small company, we cannot afford to develop stuff that may or may not be usable down the road. So for now we are taking a wait and see approach. We don’t want to be there first but when we do go there we want to have the best applications. We don’t think we have the tools to do that right now.
Brad: Will ticket to ride come to iphone?
Eric: So that is a very interesting question. The question that we asked ourselves was: how is the experience or the way people use the iphone and ipod touch is in many ways very different from how people use the iPad? They don’t use it in the same place, the amount of time they spend on the device is different. Our thought was well, we could do what others have done and release a universal app, but is that the best way to deliver the Ticket to Ride experience on the iphone and that answer is we are not convinced. I think it is more likely we will design something for the platform rather than a straight port of the ipad version which does not make any sense. One of the neat parts about the online system that we have is that you can play with people that our playing on macs or pcs, the problem with introducing iphones to the equation is that do you want perhaps half of the online player base to be interrupted by a phone call while they are playing online with you? And we don’t people in the online community to avoid playing games with certain players because they get interrupted or drop games to often so we thought lets create the application from the ground up and lets see what the most fun experience will be and that is what we will focus on.
Brad: You really have the end user experience in mind.
Eric: We don’t have a choice, we do a very small number of games so we have to make sure we do them right.
Brad: What’s the next Days of Wonder iOS game coming out? If you can’t tell us and are going to surprise us can you at least tell us when you will surprise us?
Eric: So the next thing will be updates to Ticket to Ride and beyond that we look toward updates for Small World and beyond that we do not have a schedule. You may have noticed we did not announce Ticket to Ride until it was ready, so we took some people by surprise. Sometimes it is nice to be surprised. We don’t really have a schedule, I know some people are eager to get Memoir on the iPad and from a gameplay standpoint that would be the logical next step. The problem there is that technically we do not believe ipad platform can support the game. That amount of memory we need to make the AI play a good game is such that the ipad 2 is a little bit short. The focus on the ipad is with Ticket to Ride and Small World but we still feel like we can keep making improvements with those applications.
Brad: Really no Memoir 44?
Eric: Memoir 44 from a computer stand point is vastly more complex than Ticket to Ride or Small World. To give a since of the complexity, we spent 3 and 1/2 years developing Memoir online and we spent 7 months developing ticket to ride online, so that is an example of the complexity of one over the other. We personally would love to play memoir on the ipad but from a practical standpoint we can’t see it happening anytime soon.
Brad: Thank you for speaking with me today.
Eric: You’re welcome.