With the release of their first game a month back in the rear-view mirror, the makers of Stone Age aren’t stopping to rest anytime soon.
I spoke with Campfire Creations co-founders John Meindersee and Chris Schwass over the holidays about their recently released iPhone port of Stone Age. Many of the questions followed up on Owen’s earlier interview, including user reaction to their departure from the artistic assets of the original boardgame and the task of shrinking a big game to a small screen. They also offer some pointers on getting the most out of the game.
How Stone Age did on the sales charts, if you can expect a universal update and more – the interview is after the jump.
Kelsey Rinella: Prior to the interview, you alluded to how much has changed since the release of Stone Age. What did you have in mind?
John Meindersee: I think, for me it’s just been a personal change having the game out there. It’s not an idea anymore, it’s not a dream or a goal, it’s reality. And where things have changed is now Chris and I are working hard on building a company with Stone Age as a foundation, and building something where we can crank out multiple games in 2013 and really build a name for ourselves.
KR: Were you holding off on any of your discussions with other board game intellectual property owners until this was out, and have you had any of those negotiations yet?
Chris Schwass: Right now we have different titles in every phase of negotiation, from early discussions and questions to reviewing terms back and forth and other games that we actually have the licenses to.
JM: Yeah, the success of Stone Age has helped us has helped us to leverage additional titles, but we had titles fully locked in even before Stone Age. We’ll talk about those once we’ve locked in our roadmap for 2013, and that’s going to make more sense to do then.
KR: Are you at liberty to divulge sales numbers or trends?
CS: Apple doesn’t like people talking about exact sales numbers, but what I can say is that the nature of the market that we’re in isn’t flash-in-the-pan, you know, number one for five days and then never to be seen again. Stone Age certainly had a lot of sales the first couple days and now we’re settled down where people are buying the game every day, and that’s a nice place to be for us where people continue to enjoy the game and it’s kind of leveled off, which is nice. So now we have our foundation built and we can move on to the next game.
JM: This was all public information, but not everyone caught it–we were in the top five board games when we released. We were in the top 100 paid apps and the top 50 games overall.
KR: I understand you’re working on some new features for Stone Age.
CS: Next, we are going to have some streamlining of asynchronous play, and speed that up so you can get through a game a little faster, as well as iPhone 5 support and then the big one that people are most asking for is – I don’t want to give a timeframe yet, because it’s not ready – the iPad universal update, which’ll be free for all the people that have bought Stone Age at the beginning. They’ll be able to update and play the game on the iPad, not in 2X mode or anything like that, but with retina-level graphics for the iPad, and the design will change, as well, because people play it differently on the iPad than they do on the iPhone.
KR: Do you have any plans to go cross-platform to Android?
JM: We want to go to Android, it’s just a matter of prioritizing. We feel like we need to commit to iPhone 5 and iPad first, but we definitely hear a lot of people asking for Android and we’d love to bring that, it’s just a matter of allocating the development resources for that. We need to spec it out and see how long it would take, and then we’ll start promising that if we can make it happen.
KR: Have you been thinking very specifically about trying to target games that are going to be good for small screens in your license acquisition, or are you pretty confident that you can take any fantastic game, and make a good game out of it for the iPhone or iPad?
CS: Yeah, I would say we loved the challenge of bringing Stone Age to an iPhone screen, and we felt like we knew that we could bring it down to an iPad fairly easily, but that, if we brought it down to iPhone, it would force us to re-imagine it, and that’s what we really tried to do. I think we could do that with just about any title that we take on, given enough time and thought put into it to do it well. That said, we’re going to do what makes the most sense. If we take a license that we’re going to be working on that seems like it’s going to be mostly iPad users, then that game would probably come out on iPad first, or would come out Universal first. If it seems like we’re going to get a lot of iPhone users out of it, we’ll target iPhone first. It’s not going to be an issue of just, “Let’s see how small we can make this game be,” but also, “Where is it going to be best used?”
KR: What information would help guide your decision about whether you’d be targeting the iPad or the iPhone? How do you determine which games are going to appeal to iPad users more than iPhone users?
JM: Is the board an abstraction or is it an actual field that needs to be played upon? If you look at wargames, that’s an actual–it’s a boardgame, but to shrink that down to shrink that down to the iPhone screen you have to have a really simple map, you can’t have a lot of different terrain types or a lot of different troop types with different modifiers and whatnot. So, you can play Outwitters, which is a wargame on the iPhone, but I don’t know if Battle of the Bulge would really work on the iPhone. It’s as abstracted as it can be. But a lot of board games–the traditional Eurogames, Ameritrash games, card games, deckbuilding games, all these–the whole environment is abstracted, so you can bring it down as small as you want, like we did with Stone Age. I mean, people are saying, “Wow, they did such a good job, I can’t believe they brought it down so small,” but we knew we could do it, it just took time, because ultimately that board is just an abstraction. So the first thing we’re going to do is look at how much complexity needs to be shown on the screen. A complex wargame may not work on the iPhone.
Strategy gamers are going to play these games no matter what, the biggest concern is, “Are they going to play this casually? Are they going to take it out of their pocket and play one move and be done, or do they want to sit down and have a thirty-, forty-five-minute, an hour-long experience on the iPad? What’s a better play experience?”
KR: One of the things I wanted to refer to in your earlier interview was the distinction between the literality of a board game conversion and its faithfulness. Has the reaction to your app given you some sense for how users feel about superficial literality vs. faithfulness to mechanics?
JM: The overwhelming response has been positive, that people appreciate that. The interesting thing is the purists in the group, the ones that say on, for example, BoardGameGeek, “Why couldn’t you have used the original art? The original art’s beautiful.” And it is, of course, in Stone Age and all the games we’re working with, all the original art’s great, but the bottom line is those purists are getting the game anyway and they’re enjoying it. Maybe it’s not their first choice, but they still get Stone Age. So I think it’s been a success.
KR: Generally, when I’m playing a boardgame conversion on the iPhone or iPad, if there’s something about the interface that I really don’t like, it’s almost always something that is too much like the boardgame, rather than that it’s not enough like the boardgame. Is that generally true?
JM: I think it’s something that Chris and I both agree on when we play games. I would agree with that if there’s something that I’m not enjoying in an interface it’s usually because it’s a literal translation, but it’s a preference of taste. This is not an objective world we live in, this is pretty subjective stuff, but I think that’s why Chris and I are a good team, because we do have a similar vision.
CS: One thing that we’ll continue to see develop is just people’s understanding of user experience and user interface design within these games. If there’s one thing that frustrates me, it’s typically less about the gameplay, and it’s such a minor quibble, but the menus. Being able to navigate around the game, and get into other areas of the game, like leaderboards and settings and things like that. Usually I think that that falls second in priority behind making sure that the game is really intuitive, and so I think as we see game companies produce more and more of these games, we’ll see a higher attention to detail on those peripheral elements, too.
KR: What sorts of things do you know about your users? I don’t have a good sense for what information you can collect about what features they use or how many games are going or anything like that.
JM: Yeah, we haven’t done our full analysis yet, but we do have some data. People really play these games, at least on the iPhone, mostly a solo game or just a pass-and-play game, not using Game Center. That was personally an interesting find, just because I love playing multiplayer so much, although Chris is the guy that always just plays solo. So, not that I was shocked or anything, but that was just a really interesting thing, that, as important as multiplayer is, and you do have games like Summoner Wars that aren’t on the radar but for multiplayer, that the vast majority of people continue to play Stone Age (and I’ve seen from other interviews with other companies) that the vast majority of Apple users play solo.
KR: Is there anything you’d like to suggest to readers that maybe they should try within Stone Age?
JM: To have a good handful of games of Stone Age going on at once. Then, every time you open up your phone, you will be able to have one game waiting for you, at least that’s my experience. The other thing would be two-player Stone Age. I think a lot of people that grew up on Stone Age in the physical board game are used to three- and four-player games, and there’s a lot of strategic depth there, but I love two-player Stone Age. I mean, that’s all I really play in our version of Stone Age, and that’s what I love. I think what that does is speed up the play, so if it’s just you and me playing, I’m going to be playing a lot more often than if it’s a four-player game. So I think two-player Stone Age is awesome and I think it can speed up league play, as well.