While I'm excited about my current Kickstarter I think it's really important to look after your existing backers so have been doing plenty on the previous one too. Most recently I've had a discussion with our backers about the possibility of creating some Wizard's Academy DLC on a digital games platform, over 100 backers have chimed in with their feedback and there's a lot to think about. One of the points that keeps coming up is the comparison between Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia, which I thought would make an interesting topic to discuss today.
There are multiple pros and cons to each platform, but to my mind each platform has one significant advantage that I would consider indispensable to the future of the hobby. It's my profound hope that one of these platforms manages to modify itself to adopt the best advantage of the other, because the result would be spectacular for gamers and game designers.
Let's do Tabletopia first, it's big advantage is free access. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference that this makes. Anyone will be able to sign up, join a room and start playing a game without forking over a penny. There are plenty of reasons that's huge, for one people won't trust the digital format until they've had a chance to get used to it, by now everyone's had an experience with a bad digital format and the opportunity to make sure that you like it and it works is going to be really positive.
It's also going to have a great influence on your chances of finding a game, you'll likely see more people in the lobbies and if you don't you can ping any of your friends over your internet chat client of choice and say "Hey, want to play?". That's a huge deal for me as a designer too because I've got friends in countries all over the world that I'd love to invite to my early playtests, but at the moment can only say "Hey, want to pay £15 to try out a prototype that might suck?" That's nowhere near so appealing or so easy.
So what's TTS got that Tabletopia lacks? In a word "Permanency". I'd like digital tabletop environments to share everything that makes physical board gaming great and one of the things that I can do at the moment is pull down my fathers games, which were created before I was born and crack them open for a game. I still do from time to time.
If you download or buy a game on TTS is yours forever. It doesn't matter if the designer or publisher stop supporting it. Hell if TTS itself went down you'd still have it locally and someone'd probably hack a server together somewhere.
Tabletopia does things differently. If the game has any non-standard 3D components then someone needs to pay $20/month to keep it live. If they stop then the game is gone for everyone. Now I notice this particularly keenly in my position because I work for three different groups, at least two of which plan to publish one game and move on - and the third might decide it doesn't want to be in the industry in the long term depending on how things pan out. So I'm very aware that if I were to upload games to Tabletopia they might disappear on people in the future and that makes me very hesitant to do it.
Tabletop simulator has a huge advantage in terms of being able to offer people something that can be theirs forever rather than disappearing in a puff of vapourware in a year or two. It especially makes me hesitant to upload prototypes and do playtesting because it'd be a real shame to introduce something new that people are enjoying and that they can't get anywhere else and to have it swiped from their hands before the thing even exists. Or even if that digital copy turns out to be the only version that ever existed if it's one of the (many) ideas that doesn't make it to full game hood. Essentially I don't like taking things away from people that are making them happy.
Let's talk about money.
Tabletopia is free to play non-premium games, for $5/month you can play all premium games and for $10/month you can play all premium games and invite people playing for free to join you.
TTS is costs $23/lifetime but you have to buy premium games individually for $5-10 each. You can always play with anyone you want to.
From a consumer point of view the ideal platform depends on what you want it for, but I suspect that Tabletopia will generate a huge userbase of people who are playing for free and then convert some portion of them into paid subscribers as they try premium games in rooms run by gold subscribers and decide that they want them too. It's a very powerful approach.
I suspect that TTS will see less commercial success but would be a better choice for more subscribers in the long run. I buy less than one new game every month, so if I consider buying new games as they come out the 'subscription' to TTS it costs less per month but more up front. In the long run me and people like me (who buy less than one game per month) would do better on that platform, but the benefit wouldn't start to show for half a year or so. People typically aren't that patient so if I was predicting commercial success I'd suggest Tabletopia have it at the moment.
But this is an analysis of which is best for the gamer, to which the answer is "It depends on how long you plan to play games and the rate at which you buy new games."
So what about creators?
On Tabletopia you can create one game for free, five for $10/month and ten for $20/month. If any of your games need a 3D model then you need to pay the subscription for ten. You'll be paid 70% of the revenue from your game - calculated based on the proportion of time that paying players are playing it.
On Tabletop Simulator you create games by agreement, but there's no monetary or practical limit. You'll be paid 50% of the revenue from your game - calculated based on what people pay to actually download your game.
On a strictly mercenary level it'll depend upon the volume of games you have, what components they need and how much traffic you'll get.
To estimate for Tabletopia let's assume that the average paid subscriber plays ten different games each month (that's a game evening a week with 2-3 games in an evening) and all games take an equal amount of time to play then you'd expect to get $0.35 for each person who's playing your game in a random month.
To estimate Tabletop Simulator let's assume that 5% of players who are playing bought your game this month and that you're charging the minimum fee. That means you'd expect to get $0.25 for each person who's playing your game in a random month.
Making the comparison your initial gains on Tabletopia pay for your subscription and then you're working at a better rate than TTS and will start to catch up. The point at which it's better depends upon your subscription
$0: 1 player
$10: 100 players
$20: 200 players
Obviously any or all of the assumptions made in the calculation can be false, but whatever numbers you plug into the equation the result is that TTS is better for a creator below a certain number of players, Tabletopia is better above a certain number of players. I guess I'm calculating based on players who like your game enough for it to represent 1 in 10 of their games played - so it's probably a substantial underestimate of how many regular players you'd need to be sustainable. I guess you could try to calculate it from the size of a print run and some estimate of what proportion of people who bought a game become regular players - but then the barrier to entry is lower in the digital environment. It's tough to tell how likely particular player counts are because the new environment will change things.
In any event I am not strictly mercenary, I'm interested in society and community and all of those woolly ideas. I feel obliged to ask the question "As the game ages and fewer people are playing it, at what point am I better off retiring it?" which it turns out is calculated the same way. Then the natural follow on would be "If 199 people were having a great time with it how would I feel about taking it away from them because it's losing money to let them keep playing it."
It gets more complicated once you account for multiple games, since if you're releasing a steady stream of new games then keeping one or two old ones about won't cost anything extra so long as you don't bump up against one of the changing cost thresholds - though you'd still have to retire things from time to time.
Which is what lead me to the fundamental permanency issue with Tabletopia that I brought up near the start of this article. The notion that games might disappear is not that abstract, I can envision the situation that one company or another that I worked for would have to withdraw support from something, so it's easy to imagine others doing the same. The tabletop industry can be volatile and publishers going out of business could wipe entire catalogues. I don't like the feeling of things being lost so easily.
So where does this leave us going forwards?
In the short term it means that the Wizard's Academy DLC will be on Tabletop Simulator. Ultimately a drawback of "Barrier to entry" feels less important to me than a drawback of "People give me money but don't really own the game in any real way". There are other reasons too, though they feel more minor. TTS has been around longer and has benefited from patches and experience in that time. It also has voice chat which Tabletopia presently lacks. None of these are really important though and I'd be surprised if the advantages persisted for more than a few months.
In the long term, I'd like to see both platforms compete fiercely to become more than they are. Neither of them is very far removed from being in a position where they could be the best of both worlds and I suspect that the first platform to manage it could dominate the emerging digital gaming landscape.
All TTS would need to do would be to add a free version of the game that doesn't let players host rooms. That way anyone could join, get to try all of the neat games, but they'd still have the opportunity to make converts because the hosting tools are really nice and who doesn't want to get to decide which game gets played next? The platform works really well, if they gave lots of people the chance to play it for free with a one-off fee for a significant meaningful upgrade they could do fantastically.
All Tabletopia would need to do would be to switch their creator pricing structure to a monetisation pricing structure. If I could put free games on there without having to pay for it I'd try playtesting everything there and once I've done that a lot of my assets are already in place for building digital versions. Then if I wanted to charge for something I could stick it into the premium catalogue and start paying them their fees and collecting revenue, but with an option to check so that if I got hit by a bus (or whatever) the games would revert to free games that anyone could play and nobody'd lose a thing.
Obviously there are a whole *host* of other improvements to be made - but those are the ones that would get away from "It depends on who you are and exactly what you want" and onto "This is the best platform to use."
An article with "versus" in the title demands a specific outcome, so I'll add that at the moment I still think Tabletop Simulator has the edge, for me personally and the majority of people that I know (who are, of course, somewhat like me). However these are new technologies and the landscape of digital board gaming is still being formed, anything could happen and I would love to see that be for the good of gamers, game designers and board gaming as a whole.