This is the first of hopefully many interviews we'll do on iOS Board Games. As my first interview for the blog, I was really hoping to get to talk to an iOS developer for a game I really liked and focus on that game, its features, and the developer's experience in creating it.
As for my choice of game I really liked, I chose Puffin Software's Viking Lords. When I first discovered it in December of 2010, I could hardly believe my eyes. Here was a Commands & Colors system game for the iPad inspired by Richard Borg's BattleLore! The game is an old favorite of mine. Because of this, I bought the app on first sight and played through the entire campaign on both easy and hard settings.
As excellent as I think Viking Lords is, it is not however a choice without some controversy. The app has been criticized by a vocal minority here on BGG for taking more than just inspiration from a print board game to turn it into a mobile app. So I wanted to ask the developers about that too. I finally caught up with Johannes Päivinen of Puffin Software last week.
iOS Board Games: Hi Johannes. So, who is Puffin Software and what inspired you to develop Viking Lords?
Johannes Päivinen: Well, Puffin Software is three guys from Finland - me and my fellow programmers Mika Vehkala and Petteri Kamppuri. We all play board games, and one of the games we liked to play was BattleLore. But it was a bit difficult to find time to get together and play it. We also disliked the amount of time it took to set up the scenarios.
So we started thinking, this type of game would work well on a computer. We wrote a Mac prototype. It was an interesting project to hack with, so over time we just kept on adding to it. Network play, cross-platform, fancier graphics, etc.
We even pitched our prototype to Fantasy Flight Games. They were mildly interested, but were slow to respond and didn't seem to be too much into it. So eventually we decided to take our game to a different direction.
Then the iPad came along and we realized this platform was such a perfect fit for the game that we should finalize it and publish it on iPad.
Puffin Software is just something we set up to release this game and other future projects. We all have day jobs elsewhere, in games and software industry.
iOS BG: When you say "take it in another direction," what was that other direction?
JP: Vikings! We introduced a new theme and created a single-player campaign. We started to take liberties with the gameplay, tweaking and streamlining things that we felt didn't work.
At the same time we made sure that we were not violating any copyrights, so the game could be released.
iOS BG: Ah, of course, vikings was obviously not it's first theme. You had to change it. Ok. Let's come back to that later.
It certainly is a great fit for the iPad. Can you say why you chose to develop ONLY the iPad, instead of going Universal and/or enabling play on the iPhone too?
JP: The game was made for a large screen. It's non trivial to do a good iPhone version - just doing a direct conversion would result in bad usability.
We're still considering doing a proper iPhone version, if we can find the time for it.
iOS BG: So by non-trivial, do you mean its not just as simple as adding an ability to zoom in and out like in Carcassonne?
JP: Zooming in on the board is one thing, but there's also other things to consider. Most of the screen layouts would need to be re-organized, and we would also like to support older iPhones which have lower resolution and less RAM.
iOS BG: Once you realized the iPad would be a perfect fit. How long did take to go from that point to the released app? Can you describe the process for those in our audience who might not understand much about app development or the app approval process?
JP: It was far from complete when we decided to go iPad. It took about 10 months to finish.
We worked on programming, art and audio, based on one big "to do" list of features that we wanted to include in the final game. There was a lot of discussion about the features. We wanted to only include things that were well thought out.
We especially focused on user experience. The rules can be quite overwhelming to a new player. So how could we make the game easy to learn, and how could we make it clear to the player what is happening, while still keeping it fluid?
Graphics were challenging because we didn't have a real 2D artist in the team. For the units we used 3D models, but for the rest we combined stock photos, textures, all kinds of stuff.
The approval process itself was painless for us. Developers submit the game to Apple, who checks it for technical problems and accepts or rejects it. Our game was fairly bug-free at that point, so we didn't have any problems.
iOS BG: 10 months? Wow! Speaking of the rules, I recall that BattleLore has an excellent rule book with many tutorial-like examples. And in regard to the tutorial, your app's voice-overs with animated fade-in text are extremely thematic. Where did you get this idea? Who did the voice-over and was it hard to work in to the game? And as far as the graphics go, I think they are very evocative of a another era. So are you basically saying that the overall graphic effect in Viking Lords was basically achieved through a collage-like process?
JP: The tutorial came after some unsuccessful attempts of using tooltips only. Players were having a hard time concentrating on the information, so we decided some force-feeding of the basics was needed.
I had toyed with the idea of a book metaphor, that there would be a "book of battles" - so that starting the game would be equal to opening a book, and the book could be read through by playing through the game.
We tried to stick to "natural" materials - wood, leather, paper - and old fonts to get the right feel. And yes, it was one big collage, various elements composited together.
Our audio guy Stakula did amazing work on music in short time, and also had contacts to voice over companies. Voice work was directed by AudioGodz and acted by Sam Mowry. We had limited chances to direct the voice-overs, but they got it right from the start, so that was a smooth process.
iOS BG: As a developer, what part of the Viking Lords app are you most proud of?
JP: I'm most proud of how the vision for the campaign was realized. All along we had the idea of an easily approachable single player experience, which would be thematic and kind of lure the player in into the game. I think that worked out well. The campaign came very nicely together, with illustrations, music and voice, but much of that happened in the very end.
iOS BG: I mentioned the voiceovers for the prologue, briefings, and tutorial because it's usually the first thing a new player sees, but I take it that the lion's share of the work went into the game play mechanics, which are pretty extensively implemented.
As an experienced BattleLore player, I noticed with delight that all of the basic mechanics were there. From the cards to the different units, to their color strengths, to bold and battleback, to terrain and structures. Can you talk about the process and decision-making for bringing this all together in the app? Did you add anything that BattleLore did not have? Were there things that you later discovered that you missed?
JP: As a BattleLore player you know that to some extent it's also a game of luck.
We did numerous changes to reduce the luck factor. For example, we adjust the card deck based on map, removing cards that are not useful in that map. We also added the "Any 2" card that is always available. Hit points and damage were tweaked so that units last longer, and the randomness of damage evens out.
We added elements we felt would make the campaign more interesting, like mountains and commanders. We removed dice rolls entirely and changed some of the concepts to make the rules more understandable.
We didn't want to cater to seasoned board gamers only, we also wanted to reach new players. In hindsight, we could have streamlined the rules much more than we did.
iOS BG: It's also clear that you purposely excluded some things, Lore being the most notable. Can you talk about that and why it was excluded?
JP: Lore was just a matter of game complexity. I understand some might miss the added depth, but we felt there were enough elements in the game already.
iOS BG: Will Lore be added at a later date? And more generally what are your plans for future updates? Are their important bugs we should know about? I seem to recall some players complaining about the lack of an "undo" feature at points where it clearly would not conflict with an outcome. Any plans for that?
One more thing I observed that you included that doesn't come with the base set of BattleLore is a wider variety of units, mounted archers come to mind. Any plans for more units in future updates? Any plans for in-app purchases?
JP: We'll continue supporting the game and fixing any bugs that might pop up. As for updates, I think we will look into the iPhone version first before adding any major features.
Releasing something like a new campaign as an in-app purchase could be interesting. No plans yet, though.
iOS BG: I think a sizable portion of our audience will be thrilled to hear about Viking Lords for iPhone. As a fan of the game, I am excited to hear it simply for the opportunity to have more potential opponents and opportunities to use the online mode. I don' think I am alone in observing that the online mode seems very difficult to simply find an opponent right now. Until this morning I had never been able to connect to another player.
Can you talk about the game's online capability, it's weaknesses, and what Puffin Software is doing to improve it? As you may know, Days of Wonder (BattleLore's old publisher) is doing an online realtime Web-based version of Memoir '44 (another C&C game, similar to BattleLore). Is there anything that you can learn and apply from how they are doing it?
JP: With the multiplayer, our aim was to create a community where people could compete and opponents would be readily available. That has been less successful. It turns out that most people who download the game are not that interested in playing online. That, together with the overall small player base, means that it's hard to find an opponent.
Sorry to hear that you had connection problems. IPad is a a wireless device, and weak signal can sometimes cause difficulty. We are fairly well prepared for multiplayer, with one server in Germany and another in the US.
It's great to see Memoir '44 online. Days of Wonder seems to understand the potential. Technically, it's a bit different from what we are doing. If you want to do pure multiplayer, a web version is definitely the way to go.
iOS BG: I'm glad to hear that you are well prepared for multiplayer. I still hold out hope that a community can form and I wonder if you would be open to suggestions from the player base about how it could be improved? Have you considered more and better informational feedback mechanisms such as:
- a lobby, to show who is/has logged in
- a chat/bulletin board feature
- a saved game feature
JP: Those are good suggestions, and we have been considering some of those. I still think new platforms are a priority. Save game will be necessary on iPhone (you might receive a call mid game), so if we go that way, it will get implemented.
iOS BG: What do you think of asynchronous multiplayer for Viking Lords? It seems there is much waiting while the other player takes his turn, with the only exception being the need to sometime fight back. From a player perspective, I think it could work quite well. What do you think from the developer perspective?
JP: Playing Viking Lords asynchronously sounds quite bizarre to me. Of course there's many ways to play it, but personally I like a faster pace. Asynchronous playing sounds much better suited to games like Diplomacy.
iOS BG: It has been done well in games with shorter turns that Viking Lords. Anyway, I was just glad to see such a polished app that had online multiplayer right from the beginning when it launched in December 2010. With its release you reached gamers like yourselves, like me, who were interested in this game system, which was your goal. I don't know how well you guys did in sales, but it's reception on places like TouchArcade.com seemed pretty warm and on BoardGameGeek.com somewhat less so because of it's similarities to BattleLore. Where you happy with how the game was received commercially? What about critically?
JP: Well, it was not as popular as we expected. I think this is mainly because it's the combination of two niches, turn-based strategy on iPad. So it would be interesting to see how things would work out on iPhone.
However, those who bought the game really seemed to like it. In App Store the game got an average rating of 4.5 / 5 and lots of good reviews. We're very happy about that .
iOS BG: What about how the game was received critically by its detractors?
JP: Well, the reaction from hardcore game fans was a bit unexpected. But I can understand it, and it shows that these people care a lot about board games and game designers. We never intended to offend anyone, but merely adapt a game that we liked to play, and make that available to others
iOS BG: Speaking of those reactions, I'd like to go back and talk more about your meeting(s) with Fantasy Flight Games and how that contributed to your decision to go into a different direction?
JP: We did not have meetings, but some exchange of email with FFG. They seemed very busy with other stuff and it always took a long time to get a response. After some months of back-and-forth we got the feeling that co-operating with them would not work out. My impression was that they didn't really want to get involved in computer games.
iOS BG: And now that your game has been released for four months, has there been a reaction from FFG, Richard Borg, or anybody officially connected to BattleLore? Does anybody connected to BattleLore have any problem with Viking Lords?
JP: We got one complaint about trademark infringement, which we proved false.
Viking Lords is completely legal and not violating any intellectual property rights whatsoever. So I don't see why anybody would have a problem.
iOS BG: I pretty much agree. Do you have anything to say to those who DO have a problem with your game and other print games that have been ported over to iOS without the consent of the print publisher or original game designer?
JP: Just get over it. In digital games, mechanics are not as sacred as they might be in the world of board games. Mechanics get copied, adapted and evolved. I think it's for the better, especially when the print publisher couldn't care less about the digital medium.
Copycats are so commonplace in the App Store that I wouldn't be surprised if a Viking Lords clone appeared some day.
iOS BG: Speaking of the App Store, as a board gamer yourself are you following this trend to port board games into iOS versions? What are your favorites? Are they any you deem particularly excellent and would seek to emulate in some way?
JP: I haven't been following too much what others are doing. There certainly seems to be a lot of games appearing. It's been interesting to see Reiner Knizia's designs appear from various developers.
Another interesting thing is the "everybody on the same iPad" type of multiplayer. I think that has a lot of potential. Whenever you have access to an iPad you can set up a game of, say, Catan or Carcassonne, which, by the way, is a well-polished implementation. Nicely done.
iOS BG: So on that note, can we look forward to more different games from Puffin Software in the future or will you be focusing on Viking Lords? Also, what's up next for Viking Lords that we can expect soon?
JP: We have some ideas...it's likely that we'll start a new project. Can't say much more about that yet. Regarding Viking Lords, porting and maintenance are top priority right now.
iOS BG: Great! Well, thanks for the interview.
JP: My pleasure.