Welcome to our digital future - everything binary and ethereal. Our lives in the cloud. Relationships conducted via avatar, conversations via Facebook and debates via Twitter. No need for the physical, the digital is the real world now. Or so some would have us believe. Except that time and time again the digital turns out to assist the real-world as often as we worry it detracts from it. Games are a great example of this. It won't take much searching online to find articles bemoaning the loss of the kick-about in the park for FIFA on PlayStation or hopscotch in the street for Candy Crush. But the reality of what digital is doing to the world of games is more complex.
There can be no doubt that the trend for some time now is that as video games have grown and grown, other, often more physical forms of gaming have lost out. But in one corner of gameplay, we're seeing a return to a very physical and social form of gaming - the Board Game. Board games are an original mass market form of play made from simple materials (card, wood and then plastic) they could gather people around a table and let them enjoy a communal experience. Its a far cry from online shooters with their seeming screen-focused isolation and yet this older, almost innocent form of gaming is enjoying something of a renaissance, and its the digital world that is helping to foster this.
Cards on the table, I'm a huge gamer and a games designer. I love board games (having just completed the conversion of a classic 80s solo game onto digital platforms) and I love video games. I created board games and pen and paper ones from the age of 10, way before I moved on to creating digital ones. I think the processes of creating physical games is one of huge value to those wishing to make video games. I don't see much difference in the engagement that can be gained from playing a board game as a digital one; a great game is a great game. The connectivity that digital offers us as gamers and designers means that we can reach back into a past of gaming and bring out the good ideas into the now as well as use its collective power to support the development of new forms of play. Put simply; its an exciting time to be sitting around a table rolling dice! There are three main areas of this renaissance I want to look at here.
The first is crowdfunding. Turning to the crowd to fund a project that may have been deemed uneconomic is revising and inspiring many areas of creativity. Board game creators who were struggling to find outlets for their work have been able to turn to sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo and raise impressive amounts of money to create such 'uneconomic' games. Here's just a few examples: Zombicide: Season 2 has raised over $2 million, which is over 9000% of its original goal. Cthulhu Wars has raised over $1.4 million, which is over 3500% of its original goal and Tammany Hall, a game about political corruption, has raised over 430% of its goal to achieve just over $150,000. These are not isolated examples, there are many, many more such stories for board, card and dice games. While many games may not have the mainstream appeal that global toy manufacturers are willing to back them or high street shops to stock them, there are dedicated fans willing to pledge an average of $90 each to fund them which is $20 more than the video game average pledge.
The second is the rapidly improving printing technology. We see this with 3D printing where there is a lot of discussion about how this technology will change our lives with some calling it the 'third industrial revolution'. There can be no doubt that its already having an effect on board games. It means that very small runs of games with complex parts can be produced. It means that really amazing figures can be designed and explored within 3D art software and then rendered to reality with little fuss. There will be many directions to this technology and we're just at the start of what it can do for board games. But it does not stop at 3D - older 2D printing technology improvements have allowed for 'print on demand' games where the designer can upload the design and the gamers can buy a copy, printed when they order rather than need huge warehouses of games gathering dust.
Finally, many of us video game developers are rediscovering our physical roots and the craft of making such titles. I taught a game design module on a video games technology course last academic year and was given the choice of what I wanted to do. I opted for board games and the students rose to the challenge, creating amazing tiles with engaging gameplay, some adding 3D printed figures to their works. It was great fun to teach and a real experience in the craft of gameplay. There are wider examples of this interest too: Makie Labs, founded by video game developer Alice Taylor, has been allowing people to design figures ('makies') and have them printed out. Another important figure in video games, Brenda Brathwaite, known for her award winning work on the Wizardry series, has in recent years been turning to non-digital forms to expand her craft with titles such as 'Train' which looks at the holocaust.
This renewed linking of the digital to the physical can be seen via ARG technologies with titles like Skylanders, where physical toys interact with digital games and have become a huge best seller. Indeed Disney is betting the house on this concept with its $100 million investment in 'Infinity'.
There is more to explore in this area - such as how digital helps people plan real-world gaming sessions, or playing games such as pen-and-paper RPGs via video links. Those discussions will have to wait, however, as I'm off to play Blood Bowl now. See you round the table!