Friday, November 24, 2006

The Death of the Board Game, Part 2

My post The Death of the Board Game from last week has raised a fair bit of commentary and attention, so I thought I'd go back and flesh it out a little more.

The hypothesis I put was that:
  • (a) board games are already a highly marginalised area of the gaming world
  • (b) that a large part of the traditional market of board games has been taken over by video games
  • (c) that those who still play board games rather than video games do so because they are (i) social, (ii) tactile, (iii) less threatening than video games, and (iv) require no console or system buy-in
  • (d) that video games are likely to overcome all four of those obstacles within the next seven years.

To support point (d), I provided the following points:

  • (i) Many people currently do play video games in the physical proximity of others; this will only become more common as gaming devices become smaller, cheaper, and more portable. In any case, audio and videoconferencing hardware and software is becoming cheaper, more reliable and more effective.
  • (ii) A variety of innovations including the Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and force-feedback touchscreens are continuing to make gaming a more tactile and physical experience.
  • (iii) As videogaming moves into the mainstream, you can expect that within 7 years over 90% of people will be engaged in a game-like digital space at least once a fortnight. Whether this be a traditional videogame, an avatar-enabled multi-user desktop, or a chess game via mobile phone, gaming will be something that a majority of people are familiar with. Also, design of both software and hardware will continue to improve and lower the entry barrier to game spaces for the casual user.
  • (iv) Convergence will likely mean that you will buy a gaming device in the next seven years without meaning to. This is likely to be either a mobile phone/gaming system, a media disc player/gaming system, a portable music player/gaming system, or a pocket PC/organiser/gaming system. It's likely that within seven years the number of people who own a gaming system will be comparable to mobile phone ownership.

All this seems fairly logical to me. It's touched nerves with a lot of people, though, who (rightly) feel that all this in some way threatens their beloved hobby. I'm one of them. I'm a board gamer. I don't want to stop. But I will.

The arguments put by the naysayers amount to the following:

  • (a) No matter what market share video games gain, there will always be some people still playing board games.
  • (b) No video gaming system can replace the social and tactile elements of board games, no matter how advanced.
  • (c) Video games are just inherently less flexible than board games.

All these are true to some extent. But I think the premise is faulty. The people making these arguments are suggesting that as long as they are correct to any extent, the board game will survive. And that's just not the case. There's an extinction threshold.

The board game, as you know it, in the form of an illustrated box containing a heavy card board, printed cards, and manufactured pieces, just cannot survive. To make a game on this level takes money. It takes money to print and manufacture, to advertise, and to stock in stores. It requires stores which are willing to stock it. All of this only turns a profit in a market where there is a certain threshold of consumer interest. And from everything I understand about the market, that threshold is only barely there at the moment.

If videogames continue to advance and capture even another 25% of the board game market, it's going to make it very hard on gaming companies to keep publishing their products. And believe me, that 25% will happen, and it's a conservatie estimate. It's not a 25% that's going to come out of the Settlers of Catan end of the market, it's a 25% that's going to come out from the market of Monopoly and Connect 4 and Guess Who?. It's a 25% that represents a new generation of parents who are comfortable playing video games with their children. It's a 25% that sees traditional family activities moving into digital spaces.

And these games are the bread and butter of boardgaming. They're the games that teach children to like board games; those children then grow up and become the purchasers of Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. Digital gaming over the next seven years is going to erode that entry level platform, and that's really what's going to move the gamer threshold into the unprofitable area.

On the point of whether videogaming can replace the tactile elements of boardgaming, I honestly don't see why not, but let's revisit that point when everyone involved has had the chance to try out the Wii and maybe some force feedback technology.

There's no doubt that board gaming is a social activity. And I'm sure that everyone who board games can relate to the hassle of trying to round up four to six people for a decent game. It's hard. It's likely that in your mind you have a subset of your acquaintances marked "people who are up for a good board game". If you're lucky, you have a good six or seven people in that folder.

Within seven years, those six or seven people will become two or three.

It's another extinction-level phenomenon. One of those people you know is going to spend less time with board games as a personal choice. One of those people will be video gaming more because that's what their partner, child, or close friend is doing. After that point, you'll lose another two because they just start getting sick of how hard it is to get people together for a game.

Gaming is about stories. You can't spend time with a gamer of any persuasion without hearing them tell a game story. If they're a roleplayer, they'll tell you about that one time when their halfling cleric was fighting a grey ooze. If they're a boardgamer, they'll tell you about that game of Diplomacy where they did this amazing thing playing as Germany. And if they're a video gamer, they'll have a story about what their night elf was up to last night.

Trust me, you're going to be hearing a lot more about that night elf. And if you want to be able to meaningfully interact, you're going to want to have a night elf too.

I'm not talking just the hardcore gamers here. Within the next two years, you're going to have a conversation at work about video games. Within three years, a digital game-like space will be a regular topic of chat at your work environment. Within four years, if you're not gaming you'll be missing pop culture references in your favourite shows.

They're going to leave you behind.

Lastly, there's the issue of whether video games are inherently less flexible than board games. And we're talking here about the ability to use house rules, to cheat, to cut the new player a break, to take a handicap, and so forth. And - well, video games are less flexible. They can only do the things the programmers thought fit to include. But they don't have to be as flexible to squeeze board games out. They only have to be close enough.

Sure, there'll probably always be a couple of tiny niche markets for board games which are either (a) Cheapass Games affairs where you make most of the pieces yourself, or (b) luxury collector's pieces at insane prices. But for board games to continue being viable as well-produced, affordable, tactile, family experiences, there needs to be a certain number of people willing to buy them. And within seven years, that number just won't be there.

You can count on it.


Chris said...

There are (I believe) more boardgame companies today than at any previous point in history, and many cities now support 2 or even 3 hobby game shops, compared to 1 in the 70's and 80's.

The trading card games gave a hit to the industry in the 90's, to be sure, but ironically this stabilised many hobby game stores who were previously marginal. Now the craze has declined, the market is considerably stronger.

The board game market was up 15-18% in 2004, and 18% in 2005.

Yes, videogames are on the rise - but strangely boardgames are coming with them. It is the whole sphere of play which seems to be going through a period of growth.

Again, I suggest that you are mistaken. :D

GregT said...

Hmm, well, I can't argue with statistics. Well, I can, but I'd have to find or make up my own statistics to counter them, and I honestly can't be bothered just yet.

I think what you're seeing in the boardgame statistics is the "toy generation" of the late 70s and early to mid 80s coming into their adulthood and gaining spending power. These are kids who were raised by Mattel and Parker Brothers working out what they want to do with their adult cash.

I think it's a bubble that will pop in seven years when the Nintendo generation comes into the same position. Successful boardgames are going start incorporating online elements in much the same way as CCGs are starting to; traditional boardgames will be competing for a shrinking marketshare.

But that's just my feeling. Let's see how it all pans out.

Anonymous said...

You know, they plotted a similar timeline nearly a decade ago for the decline and demise of the printed book. Everything was supposed to be going to e-books by now and yet we are hung up on DRM, distribution, and display technologies. Only a fraction of all books are available in digital format and there are only a couple of (very expensive) readers available worth their salt.

Will books eventually move to a wholly digital format. Of course they will. Even with the expanse of self-publishing and print-on-demand services springing up, the change over is inevitable. It will just take longer than we think. 2-4 times as long at least. So goes the board game.

And until we can create board games on computer that are both fun and intuitive, this will never fully fly. The styles of game will change, but board games (and card games, and social games) have a style that is hard to reproduce digitally.

Have you played with Sea3D (a Catan port to computer?) it is frustrating, to allow all the play variations you have to be rule keeper just as much as in the board game. It's actually more difficult to set up and play then my hard copy.

Have you ever played any of the Monopoly ports for more than 5 games? Know why? Because the game is not as fun to play when you have to do extra work to make it social and fun. I had a copy that I could network, and play with my family. It was just better to get out the board.

And yet there are some things that work blindingly well in the digital space. I don't think that Board Games are one of them. Yes, there will be more people playing games socially using computer-enhanced systems. Few of those games will be recognizable as Board Games.

GregT said...

I'm not suggesting that people are going to play board games online instead of phsyically. I'm suggesting that people will stop playing board games. Of course the various ports to computers are rubbish, because they aren't making use of the medium. Plus, for a lot of the games (such as Monopoly) they really expose the fact that it's a very badly designed game to start with. (Come on, it's decided on turn 4 but it takes another three or four hours to actually finish?)

I don't think you can compare board games to books. With the exception of chess, tic tac toe, and some other very old games, board games don't have the symbolic and traditional associations.

I think board games are closer to drive-in movies. They're a societal convention with a lot of "very obvious" advantages and uniquenesses over other forms of play, that will nevertheless just die out. Or possibly they're like video arcades.

Take a look at what children want from Christmas this year and tell me that these kids are going to grow up and suddenly learn an appreciation for board games later in life. The play patterns for children at a young age are developing differently, and video games are taking a lot of the space that board games used to have. When these kids reach maturity they'll be spending their leisure money on more digital entertainment, not board games.

Anonymous said...

I still think that the style of gaming supported by board games (which is really a very broad term) is impossible to fully emulate within the technology available to us in the near future.

I agree that over time the form may be replaced entirely by interactive/video equivalents. I just think that the timeline to transition is much longer than we expect because we don't have the ability to design and write games in the digital medium that live up to the play expectations and relaxed social interaction of a small group of people playing a board game.

And while Monopoly may have been a poor example of a Port-To-Video game (being a poorly designed game in itself), it is an example of how the base rules implemented in software are never enough to play a game by. There are ways to make Monopoly fun, and most of them involve throwing out the basic rulebook and adding a couple elements to the game. Not possible for the majority of video game players.

While game mods and custom content to improve games (like, say, Oblivion) are possible, they are not the norm. They may seem to be, and are touted as the next big thing. Except that the casual player space that thrives on things like board games (which can be easily modded with no knowledge except how to decide on rules and sometimes how to write on little cards) have no knowledge or desire to change a video game. Nor can they in most cases. If the DS is a prime example of portable gaming, then that makes the games unchangeable by nature. For casual, generative play this is a broken system.

I don't think board games will remain forever. I do, however, think that they represent a style of play that fills a need and cannot be represented or replaced by a digital equivallent within the pridictable future (which I would say is 5-10 years).

Josh said...

I would almost liken the board game market with the PC market - despite all the logic that says it should get trumped, it seems to survive just fine.

Board games have a lot of things in their favor. Parents trust board games way more than video games. Board games are cheaper than video games and oddly ... people are willing to spend a whole night just to figure out how to play it.

And people rarely buy just one.

And I agree with Duncan - board games are fun to mod. I kinda want to get the new Monopoly with debit cards just to invent new rules like "identity theft" and "predatory lending".

GregT said...

"Parents trust board games way more than video games. Board games are cheaper than video games and oddly ... people are willing to spend a whole night just to figure out how to play it.".

I still think these are all just factors of those damn baby boomers who didn't grow up with Pac-Man. Once they start dying off, there's going to be a kind of flashover thing where video games are no longer the scary, difficult niche hobby, and are regarded more in the same way as we regard TV or the internet.

It's a matter of showing people why they're the sort of people who'll enjoy video games. It's what worked for the internet. People have this attitude of "they're not my thing", when really, they are, inasmuch as all people are human.

Second prediction: if porn games ever get their act together and get some decent gameplay or production values, then seven years is overly conservative for this flashover.