Here's a brief look at some "news and needs" for our electronic project line.
Our Approach - Pros and Cons
As most of you know, we decided when we began this electronic version side of the company to work with mostly smaller, independent companies (often comprised of our customers and some co-workers) and get a LOT of our games to market rather than to pitch our games to the bigger companies and them cherry pick only our best selling games, so most never would become electronic versions. So the big advantages here are we can get versions made of a lot of our games, and we get to work with a lot of talented people who we like!
There are certainly downsides to this approach, but unfortunately, just ponying up the money to hire amazing programmers and do everything in house is just not possible for us. My biggest mandate for the electronic games is to create them and fund them in such a way that they never have a negative impact (even if the whole division failed) on the board game side of the house. So we had to choose an approach that involved revenue-sharing with program teams, and (because they are smaller, with real lives and real jobs, and not in-house so we don't have as much control over mandating schedules) give up some control over project management and timing to market. And, something I knew could happen but hadn't really expected to the degree we've seen it so far, sometimes programmers get to a certain point with the project, run into problems, and just drop it. Ugh, but it happens....
So I have to confess I rarely know what "Nearing Release", below, means in terms of weeks or months. But we ARE making progress, both in terms of the talents and teams and coordination we now have onboard, as well as getting smarter in setting expectations and milestones with new programming teams, and I'm thankful for that.
We've just added a couple new teams over the past weeks, and are still looking for more good programmers/program teams to work with on other projects. If you are interested, please contact me at [email protected]. And we ARE still interested in working with larger companies as well (as with Playdek), if you see a product or series that's of interest. Basically anything that is not listed below is available.
Our first and so far only released product is
Dominant Species for iPad. Luc has just finished a major rewriting of the base code in order to allow us to more efficiently add some requested features (Undo, for example) and Multi-player internet play. We're testing this now, but waiting to release it until we have finished our update to the game's AI. Our feeling is that there has been a lot more requests for "better AI" than anything else to date, and if we release an update that doesn't address the AI issue, player feedback would not be good. So it's taking longer, but are going to do our best to make sure the next update includes a significantly upgraded AI.
Games Being Tested and Nearing Release
The program team for Twilight Struggle for Windows has just finished a new update/build, and Kai is bringing in some fresh testers now to go along with the alpha test team, so we make sure we continue to get unjaded perspectives. If you would like to help out with testing, please contact Kai at [email protected].
Games in Various Stages of Design
Manoeuvre for iOS - We just got some internal screenshots of the UI a few weeks ago. Still quite a lot to do here, but slowly making progress.
Empire of the Sun for iPad - To my knowledge we haven't had an update on this for a couple months, so I am unsure on exact current status. The last version I saw had the map and piece movement working, but not anything beyond that.
NightFighter for Windows - I haven't seen an update recently on this one either, but last I heard from Kai we were expected an alpha version of this soon. I hope we'll have screenshots to show you guys this spring.
Pacific Typhoon for Android - At last update, this one is making decent progress. We hope to have a playable version ready for testing shortly.
Winds of Plunder for iOS - This one's still in pretty early stages. More as we know it.
Commands & Colors (Playdek) - I had a conference call with the Playdek folks last week. I can't say much (NDA) but can tell you that we understand that this is absolutely on their schedule, but not for 2013. More as we know it.
Games Just Starting
Dominant Species The Card Game for iOS - That mass code rewrite Luc did for the new version of Dominant Species for iPad was a prerequisite to starting real work on DS The Card Game. So now he is in the beginning stages on his 2nd project for us, while still focusing on updates for the first project so we can keep making that one better.
Fields of Fire - Just agreed to a few weeks ago. As you might guess from my notes on Fields of Fire Volume II above, I can't WAIT to play this one!
A Big Need
Every year, I try to identify at least one big problem/issue and address it. Last Year, it was coordination of communications with all the various program teams (as I was trying to wear too many hats). So we hired Kai Jensen to handle communications with program teams and testing coordination for the various electronic projects. So far that's going well for us, and Kai continues to get a good number of volunteers to help us with testing and also to help us identify where our weaknesses are across the entire division and work to address those.
So in terms of what I want to "fix" this year, as several of our projects have graduated to where they are beginning to contemplate and implement AI, it's becoming clear to me that helping programmers with AI - specifically getting our community's knowledge of what constitutes good game play into the programmers heads - is a, if not THE big issue that we need to address.
Here again, due to where we are with revenue stream from our electronic games (very early in our growth), we can't just go out and hire AI experts to throw at the problem, and I'm not sure that would be a great approach anyway, as detailed knowledge of specific games is important here. So it looks to me like this is a place where we need to build another volunteer (compensation in games, at least until we get good revenue streams going) team pool.
So what I'm wanting to do is build a pool of people with skill sets that include at least one of the below:
- Understands winning strategies in one or more of the games for which we are working on electronic versions.
- Has experience creating AI in electronic games
- Can create detailed logical flow charts that help the program teams understand the logic flow behind good game strategies
- Can play well with others
What I envision here is getting a team of 1-4 volunteers to work together on a given project (given that not everyone will have ALL the skillsets above) to create logical flow charts for the programmers that they can use as templates when they are ready to begin creating the AI. So a team might have one member who knows how to play and win consistently at, say, Empire of the Sun. Another member might know little about Empire of the Sun but be very good at helping to elicit logic flow as they work with the one who knows the game so well. And maybe a third is someone who can help put that into a flowchart and communicate with the programmers. The reason the "play well with others" trait is in there is because, as with all teams, communication skills, mutual respect, and flexibility are going to be important.
This should help us address the problem of getting knowledge of good play from the game community to the programming teams. It may not be the best solution, but it's what I'm thinking - and what we can afford - right now. But if there are some of you out there who are crackerjack AI programmers who'd like to volunteer to straighten me out and tell me how to REALLY do this better, well, I'm all ears, and I'll thank you in advance for the help! :-)
If you'd like to be part of one of these AI Teams, please drop an e-mail to Kai Jensen at [email protected], and she'll get you added to the pool. And if there are any of you who'd like to help with our AI update on Dominant Species, we'd be happy to have the help there, too. Thanks!
Well, that's a pretty long update for this time. Hopefully in the next update I'll have another project to announce, one that could open the door to getting several more of our most-popular games onto the iPad. It's looking good at this point, but we don't yet have a final agreement, so I don't want to announce anything yet.
Thanks for all your support, your help, and your patience as we build a line of electronic games to complement our boardgames and allow those boardgames we love to bring us even more enjoyment over many years.
Enjoy the games!