Neolithic Revolution: Talking to Campfire Creations about Stone Age

An in-game screenshot from a development build.

Art assets have been remade from the ground up for Campfire’s iPhone Stone Age – nothing from the board game has been reused.

When I first held an iPhone in my hands, I knew board games were going to change. Using the touchscreen on your Palm Pilot or on the corner store’s ATM wasn’t fun or exciting – it was an ordeal. iPhones took a grimy, second-rate interface and made it into the Star Trek experience it was always supposed to be.

We’ve been playing with iPhones for five years now, and iOS board games are finally starting to appear. But there’s a philosophical divide that’s appearing along with it.

For some publishers, the touchscreen smartphone is a way of reproducing a like-for-like translation of their existing cardboard-and-plastic game. Sometimes that port is done with some polish and creativity, like Ravensburger’s iOS edition of Scotland Yard, but often the translation is charmlessly literal, like Clever Mojo’s competent but dry Alien Frontiers for iPad.

The real revolution – the one I felt coming when I first touched that glass screen – is happening at the hands of developers who are using the touchscreen’s potential to do more than just translate board games, but to expand them, interpret them. For these developers there is an essence to a board game that isn’t resident in the cardboard. Games like Fantasy Flight’s Elder Sign: Omens and Playdek’s Summoner Wars have shown that board games can feel native to their digital mediums, pushing outward into unique identities whilst remaining faithful to the source material. Elder Sign embodies this new approach: it is both a deeply immersive video game experience and a soundly rules-driven board game in one very neat package.

The cadre of developers who have demonstrated this new digital board games sensibility is very small: Playdek, Fantasy Flight, Coding Monkeys, Big Daddy’s Creations, perhaps a few others. They’re the future of mobile gaming, but for the moment they’re the exception, not the rule.

When I talked to John Meindersee and Chris Schwass, the duo at the core of San Francisco-based Campfire Creations, I thought that perhaps I’d found another developer to add to the list. They talk a very convincing game, but for the moment it is just talk. Their iPhone adaptation of highly-respected board game Stone Age is due out before the end of the year.

Meindersee describes himself as Campfire’s “resident board game geek”. He comes from a sales background that shows through when you speak to him: he’s calmly self-assured, quick to pick up lulls in the conversation. Schwass is a good Laurel to Meindersee’s Hardy – effusive and enthusiastic. Schwass is Campfire’s art director, and given the outfit’s plan to create all new art assets for the game and rebuild it from scratch around a touchscreen platform, his vision is going to a major factor in Stone Age’s success or failure.

After the jump, my conversation with Meindersee and Schwass: how a first-time developer convinced publisher Hans Im Glück to give them the Stone Age license, how they’ve approached reinventing one of the world’s most popular boardgames, and more.

What bit of Lascaux is this?

A development screenshot of Stone Age’s menu – singleplayer, online multiplayer, and pass-and-play will be supported.

Owen Faraday: In that broad universe of boardgame licenses, what made you pursue Stone Age? Was it a game you had wanted to make for a long time or was it an opportunity that presented itself?

John Meindersee: There’s a lot of licences out there and a lot of games available, but if you look at Board Game Geek’s top 50 games, there aren’t all that many that haven’t been claimed. Talking to Hans Im Glück last year, and realising how highly-regarded [Stone Age] was, knowing how popular it was.. It had great commercial prospects besides being a great game. It has a market already established. Once we got the lay of the land, it was obvious that Stone Age needed to be our first release and our entrypoint into the marketplace.

OF: Once you decided that Stone Age was the license you wanted to chase, what did you bring to the rightsholders that won it for you? What caused Hans im Glück to trust a brand-new studio making its first game?

John: At that time in mid-2011, the market was still very new for digital boardgames. Neuroshima Hex had come out at the beginning of the year, as had Ticket to Ride for iOS and Carcassonne, but it was a very open market. Publishers were open to talking to anybody. I’d say the market has changed now – publishers have a much higher threshold of what they expect to see [from potential licensees]. People see the potential and the value of the IPs that they hold now, where a lot of companies didn’t as much back in 2011.

There’s been a lot of hobby developers and people that love games, but they’re not doing it to create a business. What we brought to the table was that we are going to make this a business. We want to be a part of this industry which we love.

OF: But what form did your pitch take? Was it just you two and a Powerpoint deck? Or a tech demo?

John: What Hans Im Glück wanted to see more than anything else was a prototype – that was their litmus test. One bold move that we’d made was to have all original art. Not everyone’s going to like that, but it was really important to us to translate the game to a digital medium, rather than just do a photocopy of the board game. The original art is beautiful, but a big value of ours is integrity of design to the platform. They liked the style and they were really supportive of us and our vision for what the game would be.
One of our testers said ‘It doesn’t feel like I’m playing a board game, it feels like I’m playing a video game.’ And that’s what we want.

OF: Is this the day job for you guys?

Chris Schwass: Right now we’re using our day jobs to finance this. This is our first release and we wanted to bootstrap and self-finance. It means a lot of long nights.

John: We have a full-time engineer on this as well as some other contractors – it’s not just us working late nights. Currently there’s seven people working on it formally, plus a handful of advisors.

OF: When I talked to Playdek recently, they told me that there was real resistance in 2011 among the traditional board game publishers towards digital developers. Did you see any of that?

John: Some, definitely. There are some publishers who are waiting for us to come out with Stone Age before they take the next step with us. So we’re banking that this game is going to resonate with the public, sure, but we also want this to resonate with publishers.

We know the kinds of games we want to do as a company. We’re in contact with some great publishers with great games, and we’re excited about that.

OF: A lot of the euro boardgame conversions I see are the ones that are the most guilty of skeuomorphism and meeples and dice on the screen. Did Hans Im Glück require a lot of convincing to come around to your approach or were they on board with that?

John: They were on board with that. When we showed them that prototype they liked it. There’s some push and pull about specific decisions, but for the most part they just want quality and they give us a lot of creative freedom. Some publishers want straight reproductions of their board games and Campfire may not be the best fit for publishers like that. We want to work with people who want to grow their games into new platforms.

OF: Tell me more about the product itself. What are we going to see when it comes out at the end of the year?

Chris: Number one, every feature in Stone Age. We’re not cutting anything, we’re not changing any functionality, any game mechanics. What we are doing is trying to make those game mechanics more intuitive for the device that we’re working with.

We’ve definitely moved some things around, because it doesn’t make any sense to try and take a two-and-a-half-foot by two-foot board and shrink that to iPhone size.

But we’ve interpreted the visual aspects of the game fairly liberally. We have actual buildings instead of building tiles, or boats instead of boat cards works. That works really well on a screen, in a way that doesn’t necessarily work for a physical game. We had some disadvantages of cramming things into a smaller size, but we also had some real advantages of being able to do things you can necessarily do with a paper board game.

John: One of our testers – who isn’t familiar with the board game – said ‘It doesn’t feel like I’m playing a board game, it feels like I’m playing a video game.’ And that’s what we want.

Got your meeples.

The physical version of Stone Age. Image by Henk Rolleman.

Chris: I’m always bringing a razor to the table and saying, ‘What can we cut to make this more intuitive? How can we make this simpler?’ If that means having a player drag a card around the screen, so be it. If it means that that card is rendered as an object that represents the same thing that card represents, so be it. We want to do the work of doing that mental translation for the user, rather than forcing them to do it.

We see ourselves coming the closest to the Coding Monkeys design philosophy. I also love the care that Days of Wonder has put into their apps.

OF: Small World is beautiful.

Chris: It is. And my wife and I will play Ticket To Ride Pocket sitting in bed. As game licenses get harder to come by, games will get more polished.

OF: What if we’re ivory tower jerks and the market wants more super-literal board game translations?

John: [laughs] I guess we’ll find out.

OF: Who do you see buying this? What’s the use case?

Chris: We want to tap more of that core audience, people that have played Stone Age. But the nice thing about Stone Age is that it’s an approachable family game. Ticket to Ride Pocket took a fairly niche title and expanded the audience to people who’d never played the board game before. I think we can do the same thing. We’ve focused on building a tutorial for people who’ve never played the game. It isn’t going to be Angry Birds, but we want it to work for people who’ve never played the game without throwing up obstacles for hardcore fans. Nothing in the design will frustrate people who want to get through a game as quickly as possible.

John: There’s a certain number of Stone Age fans who, to be honest, are going to get the app no matter what. We could have done a literal board game translation, no new art, no new anything, the game would have come out three months ago and they would have bought the game. That’s great to have a dedicated audience that will support us and support the game. Who I want to go after are people who love strategy games but aren’t board gamers. The barrier to entry for board gaming is pretty high – there’s a 10-page rulebook for a simple game like Stone Age, there’s the physical size of the game itself, there’s the cost. It takes half an hour to set up. We want to remove those barriers to entry.

OF: Did you consider other platforms? Android? Or even iPad?

Chris: We did. We had a lot of conversations about that, and we do intend to support other platforms, but we want to get the iPhone version right first before we went anywhere else. I think iPad boardgames are great, but for me it’s about a break-even proposition when it comes to breaking out the physical version or just playing on iPad. But on the train to work in the morning, there’s no alternative – I can only play on iPhone.

John: I also think iPhone is a bigger challenge for a boardgame conversion compared to iPad. If we can get that right, then I think we will have proven ourselves.

 

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