Saturday, February 05, 2011

Wargaming Gone Digital: Has It's Time Come?

I have made several posts saying that I would dearly love for gaming to move into the digital realm, as music has over the last ten years, video (both content and gaming) as we speak, and print is taking the first steps into. Digital has it's downsides, especially the fact that you can't play a digital game when the power is off, but in many ways it's a far superior format. As someone who owns far too many books, CDs, DVDs, and games (they take up a surprising amount of space in my house, with the games alone requiring a large 16'x12' bedroom), the savings in the amount of space you need to enjoy your hobby is perhaps worth it alone.

Board wargaming has 'gone digital" for several years now, from games specifically designed to be played on computer to digital implementations of physical games that you can play online with programs or sites such as Cyberboard, WarGameRoom, SunTzu, and of course VASSAL. In the last cases, these games are intended to be managed by the player rather than an automated AI, and frankly I prefer that to a certain extent. I've played wargames intended for the PC, and in most cases I end up wondering what the hell just happened when the computer took it's turn and why my units are suddenly dead. Me, I like to see under the hood, but when "under the hood" requires a degree in nuclear physics, I start to lose interest.

At this pre-"Surface" stage of the tech, where we don't have smart paper we can lay down for a map or use for counters that we can move around the map, if you have opponents that you can play in a face-to-face game, paper wargames are still extremely viable, in much the way that mechanical hard drives are still viable, but you can see a future that isn't that far off where they won't be necessary. The biggest problem for the industry, of course, is that it is a niche hobby within a niche hobby and the publishers are barely able to get the paper games they sell *now* out the door. How in the world would they be able to transition to a digital world?

I suggest that the answer to that is by starting right now.

Not with everything, mind you. Just with some games. Large games intended to be played solitaire. Games like Steel Wolves.

Wolves is a very large game. There are ten or so countersheets, most of them containing representations of every German, French, and Italian U-Boat that saw service from 1939-43. There are hundreds of counters that represent shipping and naval vessels from 15 different countries that have to be resorted into "War Mix" cups every eight turns (more often if you screw up and put ships from one cup into the wrong one). In addition to a map, there are three letter sized cards with the minor ports in various parts of the world, another four sheets (two of them double-sized) for placement of those ships during combat, and another several sheets with various tables. It's a huge amount of paper requiring a lot of consideration for how it is sorted and laid out. For me to play this game on a table long term, it would require two poster frames and either dedicated space or two of the three precious slots in my "long term game" art trays.

In other words, this is not a game I'm going to play in it's physical version, at least other than the smaller scenarios. It's just too unmanageable.

This isn't to say that Wolves isn't a good game, although it might be more correct to call it a statistical simulation, sort of like Strat-0-Matic games are. You play for the tension of seeing how your fleet does over time and how your decisions affect that result in the face of constant distractions and plain bad luck (damn you, Diligent Escorts!) I loved it's predecessor, Silent War, which has the US Pacific sub fleet taking on Japanese shipping and naval forces, but that was a *smaller* game. And after my sixth resorting of the War Mix cups, of which there are a grand total of *four* (compared to around *ten* in Wolves), I moved the game over to VASSAL and never looked back.

Wolves has been out for a couple of months, but few have pulled it out and started playing, mostly because they are waiting for a VASSAL module. I didn't, and after spending quite a bit of time figuring out how to best manage the really incredible amount of work involved in just getting the game set up, not to mention "fixing" the War Mix cups for about an hour only to remember that since I'd played two game-months I should really have completely resorted them, I have come to the conclusion that I too am going to wait for the VASSAL module. Even the task of setting up a Large Convoy is incredibly tedious - you have to draw 12 counters from three different cups to put in six different areas of the display, every one of them needing to be placed face down without looking at them.

This is a game that only an obsessive-compulsive could love, at least in it's physical form. Good thing I have a little of that going on...

If this is a game that people are willing to buy and then leave in the box while they play on the computer, my question is very simple.

Why put it in a box to start with? Why not distribute this thing solely as a VASSAL module?

There are obvious reasons why this is the sort of thing a company looks at as being risky. For one thing, they don't control VASSAL, which is freeware and not under their control. Of course, neither are the computer OSes that VASSAL runs on, or the hardware that the OSes run on. That doesn't stop other software companies from doing the same thing, of course, but remember that for a while in the 90's, Aide de Camp was the app you did this sort of thing on, and it is dead dead dead. Maintaining software is often a bigger job than creating software over the long term. And, of course, if the software isn't maintained, then you no longer have a game when the newest version of the host app breaks your module. I have a *lot* of computer software that no longer runs on my computer and is less than worthless as it will take up landfill space.

At the same time, the market for Wolves, were it only the people who were willing to actually set it up and play in a physical space, would be so small as to prohibit publication, especially given the large retail price of $130. In other words, if there wasn't going to be a computer-aided option, there wouldn't be a game. And this is in a hobby where, if my experience is any indication, more than 60% of the games purchased never get played at all, and 40% never even get set up. With Wolves, I would guess that perhaps 75% of the people who buy it will never punch their copy and only play on VASSAL.

What if there was no copy to punch? What if the game simply came out as a VASSAL module, admitting that there are some issues involved?

First off, the price of the game would be incredibly low. The game has taken several years to design and develop, and that's using a system that was already in place, and there's no question that the people involved should be compensated for their efforts. However, if you assume that the retail price has been doubled repeatedly as it goes through the distribution chain to your FLGS, assuming your FLGS even carries paper wargames, and that a very large percentage of that cost involves the physical components and transportation of those components from point to point, you can see that the cost of the IP is relatively low. How low? Best to ask the designer and developer, but let's pretend that for every copy of the game that is sold they get $10. I think that's probably a little on the high side, and the number is probably closer to $5 per game.

From a software perspective, the AI is relatively simple and largely managed by the player, so we'll assume that this continues to be the case. No question that the toughest design problem in software is an effective complex AI, as evidenced by so many computer games winning by methods other than competent play (collusion by AIs, cheating on knowledge of what would be secret information in an ftf game, etc). In fact, most VASSAL modules are created for free by the user base, although more are being created under the auspices of the publisher (for a fee, I suspect and hope). My point isn't that the module should be created without compensation, my point is that in the world of software, creating a VASSAL module requires a level of coding competence that is more along the lines of scripting than of complex coding. As such, creation and maintenance have considerably lower costs than for, say, your average PC wargame.

Let's assume the digital creation of this game costs double the IP for the purposes of our exercise, so this $20 IP now costs $40. Throw in digital distribution of another $10 and we're at $50 retail since there are no printing, assembly, transportation, or distribution costs. No shelf space to be justified in a brick and mortar store. And this is almost without question a price that is a good 100% over what it would actually be, seeing as the game is discounted on the Interwebs for around $85. One of the more expensive games in the hobby, costing $25 in a form that you would be using anyway while the physical copy sits on your shelf.

Aside from the printers, distributors, and store owners (and really, how many of those are stocking this game without a preorder?), this strikes me as a much better way to get a wargame into my hands.

Yeah, there are issues. Digital means "easily copyable and distributable" to a lot of people, and certainly digital media sharing sites have shown that many many people are willing to not only download but upload illegally copied materials, even if their computers are brought to their knees over and over by malware. However, wargamers are not the general public. While many of us have to be careful with our budgets when buying games, at the same time we do just that - we buy the games, even if we are planning to play them on a computer. Some companies go so far as to prohibit distribution of their games in VASSAL form because they believe no one would buy their games, but I think this is paranoia. GMT, arguably the most successful wargame publisher in the business, seems to be doing just fine and they allow the majority of their games to be available via VASSAL for free at this point.

Most importantly, I believe that wargamers have come to the same conclusion that those of us who use less popular computing platforms such as the Mac have for years - if you don't buy the software, no one writes the software. So they buy the software. And even the software people are starting to understand, as they did at the dawn of the CD age, that you are going to have people steal from you. Every commercial enterprise factors this into their budget, it's a fact of life. You can play an awful lot of GMT games without every buying the physical copy, and they're doing just fine thank you.

I am not saying that wargame publishers need to start doing this with every game. I am saying that for large games, especially *solitaire* games such as Wolves, this may be the time for wargame publishers, especially the small agile ones like Compass, to consider publishing appropriate titles as VASSAL modules, complete with PDF rulesets. Steel Wolves had to be a risk financially for them, given the cost and the relatively small subset of the hobby interested in such a game. Silent War was one thing, and in fact it did well enough that they've published an IJN expansion for it (that no one is playing because they are waiting for the VASSAL module to incorporate it!). Wolves is a couple of steps up in terms of costs, complexity, and risk. Given how unwieldy the physical game is, it seems to me that it was a perfect candidate for a digital-only release.

Yeah, there are some risks. Just like with digital distribution models for music, for video, for video games, for books. These are much larger industries, with companies that are less susceptible to risks like format wars (remember Betamax?), pirating, and developing the distribution chain. However, there's no question that it can be done. Just look at the iTunes store, love it or hate it. Apple, on the verge of collapse in the late 90's, is now one of the most successful companies on the planet, largely due to it's role as a content provider - and they produce *none* of the content. PC software is moving this way as well, and in a hurry. Because it's more profitable for them.

Wargame companies need to move more slowly and carefully, as they are in a more precarious financial position. But it can most certainly be done and done with minimal risk by taking small steps. A pilot program from a single publisher with a game that is likely to be less popular because of cost/topic/complexity, especially a solitaire game that doesn't include a social element and you're more likely to play on a computer anyway.

And here's the real incentive for wargame publishers - the hobby will have to go there eventually. It's like setting up effective mass transit in cities; you do it now at this cost, or do it later at a much larger cost. Watching light rail go up in the Portland, OR area since the early 80's is an excellent example - the first one was expensive, but the later ones even more so. By seeing how it works on a small scale now, a company that blazes this trail will have an advantage later when *all* of their games go digital once smart paper is commercially available.

I'll note that GMT is already making some moves in this direction, getting back into the software world after what was a not terribly effective attempt back in the late 90's with their GBoH line of games. However, other than having a digital distribution network, the software element is much easier to deal with since you aren't trying to build an AI outside of the game itself. It's being done now! The only thing that changes is the distribution and long-term support, as well as choosing which platforms you want to be on. VASSAL is an excellent choice in one sense, partly because it's in extensive use, but also because it's JAVA based and therefore theoretically platform independent. While I'd love to see Wolves on my iPad (I would enjoy air travel again!), I understand that until tablet devices come of age that this is probably not the best place to put your efforts - this is more of a traditional software area, although not as complex as desktop apps.

Worth considering at the very least. Regardless, the revolution is coming and the better wargame publishers can position themselves for it, the healthier the hobby will be in the long term. Pirating or no.


Chris Shaffer said...

Hey, I still have a copy of Aide de Camp on CD. I don't think I've looked at it in 4-5 years.

We should play Labyrinth soon...

Chris Shaffer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.