What developers can learn from tabletop games designers

What developers can learn from tabletop games designers
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

April 20th 2016 at 11:44AM

Following the translation of its retro-inspired card game Boss Monster into the world of VR, co-founder of tabletop publisher Brotherwise Games Chris O'Neal explains what the increasing collision between virtual and physical titles means for both gaming worlds

How did the decision to bring Boss Monster to VR arise?

We're always on the lookout for opportunities that push the assumed boundaries of tabletop gaming. Sometimes that means looking at our audience differently. Sometimes it means breaking rules about what supposedly makes a game good.

In this case, we saw an opportunity with VR to literally push the boundaries of what ‘tabletop’ could mean. We were familiar with AltspaceVR’s Dungeons and Dragons playroom, and the idea of having a virtual space where players from across the word could gather to play our game was a very attractive one. 

What was it like working with AltspaceVR?

It was ridiculously easy. They were passionate about the process of bringing Boss Monster to life in virtual reality, and they really took the ball and ran with it. 

We were shocked at how quickly they pulled everything together. Really it was a matter of weeks from our initial conversations to the presentation of a playable game.

We spent a lot of time with them at the beginning brainstorming about how best to take advantage of the VR playspace, and then we spent a fair bit of time playtesting with them, but to be honest, we were pretty thrilled with our first take, so our feedback was minimal. 

Why should more games developers considering working with tabletop game creators?

There are already a number of tabletop games with apps or desktop video game adaptations; Boss Monster itself has a video game version.

I actually don't see Boss Monster VR as a video game version of Boss Monster – it's something entirely different. The emphasis in most video games is on the game itself, the rules, the mechanics, the graphics, the execution. With Boss Monster in VR the emphasis is entirely on the players. It's the social aspect of the experience that makes it stand out.

Should every tabletop publisher run to sign up with a VR company? Probably not, but all of us should be thinking about where the industry is headed, and thinking about the opportunities this sort of technology affords us.

"It may not be too long before we're no longer talking about video games versus tabletop games, and instead just using ‘gaming’ in a way that means much more than it does currently."

Chris O'Neal, Brotherwise Games

For those developers that choose to work with tabletop creators, what are the key considerations to keep in mind?

The main thing to keep in mind is that not all tabletop games are the same. A non-gamer might look at what's happening in a hobby game shop and think that all those ‘nerd games’ aren't for them. But it's important to remember the incredible diversity of games out there.

We like to talk about Boss Monster as a non-gamer's game; it brings people into gaming who haven't gamed before, but are hooked by the nostalgic look of the retro-style graphics.

Developers need to think the same way. What niche of gaming are they trying to target? Who will most value the play experience they intend to provide? Can they replicate the draw to sociality that is helping to fuel the current boom in tabletop?

Boss Monster is clearly inspired by classic ‘retro’ games. How has the relationship between video games and tabletop titles evolved in recent years?

There are a few other titles out there that have tried to tap into the ‘retro’ part of that equation, reviving properties and imagery from the ‘80s and ‘90s – see the very successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles board game Kickstarter for one example.

There are perhaps less that are actively trying to make a connection between video games and tabletop. But ‘transmedia’ crossover – this idea that a property can exist in multiple media at once – is clearly taking hold.

I think we'll see that line blur more and more as virtual reality and enhanced reality take further hold in the world of video games.

It may not be too long before we're no longer talking about video games versus tabletop games, and instead just using ‘gaming’ in a way that means much more than it does currently.

What can video games developers learn from tabletop designers – especially with relation to VR?

Tabletop gaming as a sector has seen double-digit growth year-over-year for the past seven years.

Part of this is because a game is a relatively cheap investment that returns hours of fun. Boss Monster retails for less than $25, compare that to the price tag on your typical console game – and that's before you start adding in the DLC.

But we think that a big part of it is that after decades of somewhat enforced solitude, gamers are eager to be social again. Spaces like VR give gamers the option to see and hear someone who they can't be physically close to, but want to be.

The story of the gamer who moved away to college and left her favorite gaming group behind is a very, very common one. Developers who can offer that person a way to meaningfully stay connected to their gaming group are going to be offering a service that people want.

What are the biggest trends currently affecting the tabletop market?

The primary trend in tabletop is ‘growth’. It's as simple as that.

The sector is doing very well and, while the sort of growth we're seeing can't sustain itself forever, we've reached a point where gaming, and even the geeky side that comes with it, have gained mass-market appeal. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the gaming shelves in your local supermarket.

Mainstream gaming left its focus on Monopoly behind a while ago, and the banquet of gaming available to everyone now is sumptuous.

This growth has really come from one place, and that's a broadening audience. The stereotype of the gaming nerd doesn't hold up anymore. Gamer girlfriends are at the table. So are gamer boyfriends, husbands, kids, wives, and friends.

Gaming spreads like a virus. You invite some non-gaming friends over to play Cards Against Humanity, and even if only one of those friends gets hooked, they go on to buy the game and then hold their own game night.

As publishers and game designers, the most magical words you can hear are: "I don't really play, but a friend showed me your game, and now I'm hooked."

What’s next for Boss Monster and Brotherwise?

More games, more expansions to our flagship title, Boss Monster, and more pecking at the edges of what gaming means.

Our experience with VR has been incredibly positive and really demonstrated the need to push at the boundaries of what tabletop is.

There are lots and lots of games on the market right now. We are always in danger of saturating players' appetites for new games. Our industry vitally needs to keep itself fresh and evolving, and finding new ways to keep things fun.

You can read a separate interview with AltspaceVR on bringing Boss Monster to VR here

Develop is currently running a month-long VR Special. Check out more virtual reality content here.