"We’re now seeing a convergence between digital and tabletop games."
In recent years statements such as this have been made with increasing frequency. It’s an interesting presumption, and it brings up questions: What do people actually mean by this? Where is the future of games actually heading, and is this it?
The differences between design in the digital and tabletop space is a discussion Dirk and I introduced in a recent episode of TGDRT. In this article I’ll pick up where we left off, plus share my thoughts on where I see the convergence taking us.
To kick things off, let’s first lay down the qualities which characterize the mediums we’re focusing on.
A game earns the label “tabletop” by featuring cards, a board or other more exotic physical pieces. A table or flat surface of some kind is usually involved (shocking, I know), although this need not be the case – games like poker can be played without them. Tabletop games are usually turn-based, and reward planning and strategy over athleticism or motor skills. Nearly every tabletop game is played face-to-face between at least two people, although there are rare exceptions like Solitaire.
Tabletop games have been around for millenia and the genre includes such wide-ranging offerings as Go, poker, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. You could even argue that an activity as inane as “spin the bottle” is a crude type of tabletop game.
In contrast, digital games are a very new medium that have existed for only 50 years, and occupied mainstream attention for much less than that. Key elements include a screen, computer and a small number of input devices – often just one. Today, most digital games are played in isolation, although this is by no means universal. In fact the earliest digital titles, such as Pong, shared many features with tabletop games, often requiring two people to compete side-by-side with one another.
Alright, so it probably didn’t shock anyone that tabletop games are played on tables and digital games need a screen – what are the more interesting differences? Let’s first examine the bullet points tabletop games can boast about.
Tactility is a key element of nearly every tabletop game. The rhythm of card shuffling, the sound dice make as they hit one another and the table, the feel of the rook as you slide him forward… there’s just something viscerally pleasing about them. What was once taken for granted is now an important feature lacking in the medium’s digital cousins. While certainly not rules design, the physical impact on players is still very much gamedesign. The inclusion of dozens of dice may not have improved the gameplay of Quarriors, but it certainly adds to the overall enjoyment provided.
The social aspect of tabletop gaming is another quality which helps shape its unique identity. While there are certainly digital games that can be played with other people in the same room, this has traditionally been tabletop’s home turf. Digital offerings of this sort also tend to emphasize action and motor skills over human interaction. There’s just no getting around the fact that poker provides many more opportunities for players to connect than Street Fighter or Gran Turismo. Not that playing these types of games can’tlead to socializing, rather, players are typically are more concerned with skillful execution than they are psychological understanding of their opponent.
The actual players of a tabletop game might not give it much thought, but transparency is one of this medium’s most pivotal qualities. With no computer brain to crunch all of the game’s numbers it falls on those actually participating to execute the rules properly. All elements must either be on the board and visible to all, or in a player or team’s “hand” where knowledge typically remains theirs alone. Only very basic information can be hidden from all players. This is a double-edged sword that we’ll get back to in a bit.
Tabletop games have many perks – particularly from a designer’s perspective – but by no means are they superior across the board.
Immersion is one front on which tabletop games can’t hope to match their digital brethren. The earliest computer games with their primitive art started off vastly inferior in the aesthetics department, but it wasn’t long before the tide turned and our digital friends have never looked back. Vast worlds with the scope of World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim are only possible with the aid of computers. Even the small faction of the racing experience offered in Gran Turismo is completely impossible in the tabletop universe.
Computers also provide an even more revolutionary tool – the ability for a truly neutral arbiter to act and store data behind the scenes. A great example from the Civilization series is the initially-obscured map that each player independently uncovers over time. Or maybe continual use of polluting factories is resulting in still-unknown environmental degradation. While it is possible for tabletop titles to offer something similar by requiring a “game master,” this approach is fairly rare – after all, how many people want to sit out of a game rather than play it?
Digital games are also alone in their ability to artificially simulate opponents. This could be as simple as enemy soldiers in a first-person shooter like Call of Duty, or as advanced as the AI which runs entire nations in Civilization. The ability to hide parts of the game state is an incredibly powerful tool for designers. Artificial opponents can behave in any manner imaginable, be it friendly, aggressive or single-minded, and in so doing offer completely unique experiences. If every enemy in Call of Duty was as ruthless and prideful as most humans, the game probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun! And some people just prefer playing alone even when the design of a game doesn’t require computer assistance, and this option is exclusively the realm of digital gaming.
There are also other obvious technical advantages digital titles have at their disposal, such as internet connectivity and the ability to mod and share one’s efforts with friends. These features are less pertinent to game design specifically, but they no doubt add significant potential value.
Alright, it’s time to wheel back around to the subject brought up in the very first line of this article.
The steady improvement of technology is the primary catalyst in digital and tabletop games being pushed towards one another. The improvement of graphics in computer games to near photorealistic levels has brought us to a point where continued investment in visuals results in steadily diminishing returns. Developers have started asking themselves “what now?” – and the answer many have come to is gameplay, and the clear, robust design found in the tabletop world. Additionally, the emergence of phone and tablet-based gaming has opened up a brand-new market starving for meaningful titles that can be played on a touchscreen and aren’t overly-complex.
So what qualities have actually crossed over?
Tabletop gaming has seen some truly revolutionary changes over the past five years. It’s now virtually a foregone conclusion that titles from this medium will eventually show up on the iPad, and this has dramatically improved the financial forecast for the industry. Many designers are now creating games specifically with a digital version in mind.
At another end of the business, Skylanders is a recent action platformer aimed at kids where real-world toy figures contain computer chips which store data about those characters’ in-game performance. This “two-pronged” approach that strikes on both the digital and tabletop fronts has lead to Skylanders exploding into one of the world’s top three most profitable video game franchises – in less than a year. A figure-based game targeted at adults might not meet with any success, but Skylanders has at least shown that gamers are hungry for innovation of this sort.
The tricks tabletop gaming has picked up from the digital end of the spectrum aren’t confined to sales and marketing. Rob Daviau’s Risk: Legacy dipped its toes into the pool of memory and persistence between gaming sessions. He also made a point of gradually unveiling the game to players over an extended period of time, which is very much a “digital approach” to design. We haven’t yet seen any true “in-game tutorials,” but that feature may not be far off!
The bleed from tabletop to digital is smaller in breadth, but no less significant. Many digital titles now feature clearer and more understandable systems that bear an uncanny resemblance to existing tabletop designs. The strategic layer in the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown has much more in common with tabletop titles like Pandemic than its early-90s digital progenitor. The clarity of supply and combat rules in the superb Unity of Command would be more at home in a modern tabletop game than most of its recent WW2-themed cousins.
A clear line certainly still exists between the two mediums, as each has only recently started testing the waters closer to the middle. Tabletop games are likely the closest to truly bridging the gap, but there is still a leap to be made. Designers in this space still cling to their roots and develop games that could still work without the help of a computer. Hidden information is a crucial element in many genres, and the more ways in which designers are able to incorporate it the better. My guess is that the first true “hybrid” will be an iPad game from a tabletop designer who has finally eschewed a physically version entirely and embraced features only a digital game can provide.
The basic lesson is the same regardless of which side of the design fence you live on. Games only work when players are able to comprehend and enjoy them. Understanding the challenges and opportunities provided by both the digital and tabletop mediums is crucial to the evolution of not just individual game designers but the field as a whole.
The future will not be occupied entirely by crossover titles, and nor should it be. Variety is good, and a more heterogeneous gaming universe is good news for everyone. A middle ground has opened up and we’re just now seeing the first bold forays into it. We’re really in for a treat once designers really learn how to take advantage of what’s there.