I often hear the question of why there aren’t more board games on a certain platform. The short overarching answer is just that digital board games are a niche-market, so big game companies aren’t often willing to take the risk of making them.
However, I think there are some hints as to where board games will start showing up in the near future.
I’ll be working with the assumption that other than a few outliers (Monopoly, Risk, etc.) that are made by EA or some other huge publisher, most digital versions of board games will likely be made by indies.
This is a complicated one, but I think that we’re not going to see many new board games on consoles in the near future. The old-gen consoles were a mixed-bag for independent developers. Xbox 360 was really the only one that indies could easily get into. BlueLine could probably get into all of them at our current size, but it excludes any first-timers. Additionally, after Microsoft announced that they were no longer supporting XNA, the amount of games that sold on Xbox Live Indie Games (their deeply-hidden indie channel) dropped off a cliff.
What about the current generation? Sony has gone out and recruited a bunch of indies to build games for the PS4… but I doubt they’ll continue doing that much longer after launch – they’re flat-out funding games and that’s a big financial investment. Xbox is again trying to be accessible to indies with their “ID@Xbox” program (which we’ve been accepted to), but there are two major things holding back board games from Xbox One*. First: it’s expensive. Unlike other indie-friendly locations where the startup costs are around typically a couple of hundred dollars, a very lean Xbox One indie game runs upward of $5,000. Secondly, even in 2014, Xbox 360 still has about twice as many sales as Xbox One. A market with high costs and low sales isn’t great for niche games. It’ll be a while before the install-base of new consoles grows enough that a bunch of board games start popping up on there.
PC, Mac, Linux
There are a decent number of board-games coming to PC (especially on Steam) over the past year or so. I think more will continue to show up, just slowly. We released Hive and Khet 2.0 this year, and just our two-man team still hasn’t been bumped off the list of 10 Newest Releases tagged with “Board Game”. It’s entirely possible that our next game, Reversi will bump Hive off of the most-recent list, if no new board games come out in January or February.
PC, Mac, and Linux are probably the best platform for selling digital versions of board games at the moment.
Smart phones are a great form-factor for many board games, and a bunch of games came out over the year since they became popular. However, many have had a rough time with sales in recent months/years. Most digital board games are made by fairly small devs: we survive on the Steam store’s visibility and we’d have a really rough time in mobile because you need to be on the “top downloads” list to get any traction there. Board games are usually too niche for that to happen organically and it’s too expensive to buy the number of downloads needed to fake it. This “faking it” is the current modus operandi for most mobile games. They buy huge amounts of downloads (via ads in other games) and hope that it generates enough of a following to get them to the Top Downloads list where they get to see if they’ll actually get traction. That’s usually not a great strategy for board games!
Board gamers often lament the lack of titles on tablets – which seem like the most ideal medium for digital board games. However, I think that’ll happen even more slowly. Even though tablets are a fantastic device for playing games, the market is currently (unfortunately) just an afterthought. The games on there now are mostly because it’s easy to go to tablets from a mobile game. However, the market for tablets themselves are really small (around $3.6b compared to about $20b for PC). The reason market-size matters is just that it’s an indicator of how many games you can sell if you have great exposure. Tablets are a just a very small market at the moment, and aren’t expected to catch up to PC for about another 5 years.
We’ll get our games on tablets eventually… but it’s going to take a while. Hopefully not more than a year or so!
It’s really hard to monetize a straightforward board game in HTML5 at the moment. If you saw Goko (who got the license to Dominion) and thought that they would ever be able to earn enough to support their big dev team & pay back all that venture capital… you probably weren’t paying attention to the margins in this industry. Nobody has made it work correctly yet. The only board game sites that are currently surviving seem to be those that don’t make any money & don’t pay any royalties. Since most of those are hobbies, you can probably expect a handful of very basic implementations to continue to come out… just not with paid licenses.
What I’m most excited for in the future is cross-platform online play. It’s super time-consuming to get it working (in part because you literally need to create the game multiple times**) but it should be a lot of fun and make it easier to find online games with other people instead of having an already-niche community silo’ed across several devices, as is currently the case with Hive which currently has different 5 different online communities.
Do you know of any digital board games coming out in the near future? Let us know in the comments below.
*: There are actually three, but one of them is technical and it’s covered by an NDA so I can’t talk about it until it’s fixed.
**: I realize that Unity/MonoGame/etc. take a ton of work away from porting, but if you want the game experience to be really good, it should be designed once for consoles (with gamepads) then another way for PC/Mac/Linux (to allow gamepad and/or mouse/keyboard) and have another – probably significantly different – interface for touch/drag devices with unreliable screen resolutions.