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.