Playdek Ascendant: An hour with George Rothrock and Gary Weis

Ascension, Playdek's iOS debut.

Ascension, Playdek’s iOS debut.

The promise of the iPad to transform strategy games has flowered in the last year, thanks in no small part to San Diego-based Playdek. The board game conversion specialists entered the mobile game scene in dramatic fashion in 2011 with Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. As a deck-building card game more akin to Magic: The Gathering than Angry Birds, Ascension bucked the conventional wisdom that iOS was the exclusive domain of casual games. The fantasy card game won rave reviews and cracked the App Store’s top five games in ten different countries, and reached as high as number 9 on the US games chart. Playdek’s most recent outing, the even more niche Summoner Wars, has reached the US iPad top 50.

There’s much more to Playdek’s success than pure sales figures – the brand has captured the loyalty of the board gaming universe. This enthusiastic embrace is nowhere in better evidence than in Goko’s disastrous Dominion Online debut from September. As Goko’s HTML 5-based platform crashed and burned on launch day – taking with it a cherished game license – board gamers asked one wistful question in forum posts and tweets: why didn’t Playdek develop this instead?

It hasn’t been all honeymoon and no spats for Playdek: the outpouring of frustration around the problematic launch of their much-anticipated Summoner Wars (despite the fault lying with Apple, not Playdek) has taught them that the affection of the masses carries with it the burden of high expectations.

Playdek might be the first name on the lips of strategy gamers, but it’s not the only one. Smaller mobile-focused outfits like Big Daddy’s Creations and Coding Monkeys have consistently punched above their weight, and larger PC gaming outfits like Slitherine/Matrix have started to move aggressively into the tablet space. Staying ahead with such fierce competition in their wake will be no small feat.

My conversation with Playdek’s Director of Business Development George Rothrock and Chief Technology Officer Gary Weis is after the jump.

NFL Gameday, the football game series that Playdek's core personnel developed at Sony.

NFL Gameday, the football game series that Playdek’s core personnel developed at Sony.

Owen Faraday: Tell me a little bit about the history of Playdek.

Gary Weis: Most of us originally met at Sony working on sports titles for Playstation. Playdek is a community of people that have mostly all worked together for a long time. When Sony lost the football license1 they shut down the studio we were all working for.

OF: Which football series was that?

Gary: NFL Gameday, the Sony in-house product.

George Rothrock: And NCAA Gamebreaker, the college football franchise.

Gary: We talked to a lot of the different publishers about starting a new studio in the San Diego area – just as Sony was shutting down the studio we had already made our plans to exit. It worked out pretty well for us. We started a studio called Incinerator for THQ that worked on the Disney/Pixar Cars license and the MX vs ATV series. When THQ got into financial trouble and were looking for ways to cut costs, we offered to take ourselves off their payroll and go off and make it on our own.

OF: Did THQ retain any interest in Playdek?

Gary: No, we’re totally independent. We worked on a couple of projects for them in the transition period, and while that was going on we had our opportunity to strike out on our own.

OF: Board games are a pretty serious shift from MX vs ATV. What prompted that?

Incinerator, Playdek's incarnation from 2006 to 2008.

Incinerator, Playdek’s incarnation from 2006 to 2008.

Gary: We shifted towards board games for iOS because I had met with John Fiorello and Justin Gary from Gary Games when they were at Upper Deck designing the WoW Minis game. I had playtested that for them and I actually implemented most of the characters in the first two sets of that for the digital version. So we had a history there. When I knew they were doing Ascension we jumped on that.

George: Our CEO Joel [Goodman] looked around at that point and saw that there was obviously an interest in digital tabletop gaming. With the advent of the iPad and the popularization of touch interfaces, we saw a fantastic opportunity there. There were already a number of board game conversions on the App Store – particularly Renier Knizia games – usually by software developers who’d decided to do a game and had acquired a license to one of these titles, rather than by dedicated game developers who wanted to make the space their home.

Gary’s expertise with the engine and being a lifelong board gamer really lined up with that goal. I mean, he was playtesting Justin Gary’s games on his own time. I’ve been a board gamer and RPG player forever and ever. So it looked like a really good opportunity for somebody to get into the digital board game space and make it their own.

OF: It was serendipitous that you fell in with the Gary Games guys right at that moment, then. Because despite having a successful board game franchise they hadn’t ventured into digital themselves yet.

Gary: No, when we first talked to them, they knew they wanted to be in digital board games but they didn’t know how to get there. That proved true for many of the other [board game] publishers we approached. A lot of these guys were individuals or small teams that didn’t have the infrastructure to pull the trigger. They couldn’t find anyone they could trust with their property. We presented a pedigree that was attractive right out of the gate that impressed almost everybody we approached. Once you’ve worked with John Lasseter at Pixar – it’s hard to find somebody with higher standards than that for his IP. It gave us a leg up to find the licenses that we wanted to work on. To some degree, [iOS] Ascension catapulted both Playdek and Gary Games forward.

OF: With their new digital project, SolForge, Gary Games have decided to move development in-house.

George: I don’t think you need to read anything into that. We’ve got more than ten partners, a very deep catalog. It’s always been our plan to become the preeminent publisher in this space – if we aren’t already. But we can’t do everything. We wish Gary Games all the best. At this stage in the industry, all the successes really help everybody. The awareness of digital tabletop gaming moving out beyond the core audience is good for everybody.

OF: Gary Games have announced the next expansion for the physical version of Ascension – is that in the works for the iOS version at Playdek?

Gary: Well, we haven’t announced anything yet. We’ve said in the past that as long as there’s work to be done we’re interested in doing it, but as far as the next Ascension expansion – keep your eyes open for that.

OF: Up until this point, everything you’ve released or announced has been a digital conversion of an existing property. Is that your exclusive focus, or are there any plans to develop something from whole cloth in-house?

A card from Gary Games' forthcoming Immortal Heroes expansion to Ascension.

A card from Gary Games’ forthcoming Immortal Heroes expansion to Ascension.

George: Asking a game studio if they’re going to do original IP is like asking an actor if they want to direct. At some point you’ll see that.

Gary: It’s a possibility that we look at consistently. Many of the partners we’ve worked with have game designs that couldn’t cut it in their cardboard versions – that doesn’t mean that they’re not good games. Sometimes the production costs were too high, or the amount of math that the player had to keep track of was too frustrating. In partnering with those publishers, we look at the entire catalog, and there will be some titles that provide the opportunity to do something new that wasn’t previously available as a physical product. We constantly have game ideas of our own, too – but for the moment the slate is full.

OF: So talking about that slate: is Agricola still due out this year?

George: Agricola is underway – we’ve had a lot of contact with Lookout Games. The year is getting up there, though, so look for more news soon. Suffice to say that we’re fully engaged with Agricola currently.

OF: How about Commands and Colors?

George: Commands and Colors, look for that next year. We’re very excited to be working with GMTRichard Borg, and Gene Billingsley - they’re fantastic guys and there’s a lot of neat stuff in that game system. We’re pretty excited.

OF: We heard about Tank on Tank at GenCon. What’s the plan for that?

George: We’ll be bringing out Tank on Tank with the East Front expansion along with some custom IAP expansions that we’re going to create with [publisher] Lock n’ Load.

OF: Tank on Tank and Commands and Colors are wargames – that seems quite far afield from the deck-building games that you’ve done as Playdek and from the sports games that make up so much of your background. Are you comfortable with wargames?

Gary: In high school I played Squad Leader every weekend.

George: My first games when I was a kid were Ogre and GEV – $3 war-games. It’s a bit of a departure from what we’ve done up until this point but Tank on Tank is a great game in a great niche. We think we can do great things with it. We might find that it’s not so niche – we think it’ll be more accessible. How fanastic is a quick-to-play, easy-to-learn tank game where you get to march across Europe and try to win World War II?

OF: I can’t believe that the biggest obstacle to more popular wargames is the subject matter – it must be that they’ve always been a relative pain in the ass to play.

George: I think so. I got one of the more recent versions of Axis & Allies – try talking your game group into playing that. As soon as that rulebook hits the table, the groaning begins. We hope Tank on Tank can open up that market – the game design is great, the presentation (knock wood) we hope is just fantastic.

Gary: That’s really the key to the tablet market, I think. You don’t go straight to doing Advanced Squad Leader, you start with Tank on Tank. People got used to playing Words with Friends, having a device in their pocket and making a word once a day, taking turns going back and forth. They’re ready for the next step. What can we give them that isn’t all the way at the hardcore end of the spectrum.

OF: You’ve got such a wide array of properties that you’re working on – the really broad-church, accessible stuff like Tank on Tank and Ascension, but also more core titles like Agricola. You could easily shift to more casual games or to more hardcore games. What’s the vision? If somebody comes to you with a license deal, what’s the rubric you apply that says “yes, this is a game Playdek should be doing” or “no, not for us”?

Nightfall, Playdek's second iOS title.

Nightfall, Playdek’s second iOS title.

George: It has to capture us personally, first and foremost. Secondly, we have to be able to look at it and know that we can do something digitally with it. Not every game needs to be digital or even should be digital. The easiest examples are games that are predominantly social. The games that require the 18″ above the tabletop where you’re smack-talking to be fun. There are games that work well mechanically and have meaningful choices but don’t make sense unless you’re face-to-facing doing the smack-talking and back-stabbing that make them fun.

Look at the publishers we’re working with now. With AEG, for example, the publisher’s been around for a long time, and they’ve got an amazing depth of catalog and great folks. Plaid Hat, on the other hand, is a much newer outfit but what they’re doing excites us and we’re glad to work with them. In terms of the vision – we want to be the preeminent developer and publisher of tabletop games.

OF: I think if there’s been one universal gripe about Playdek games it’s the lack of chat in multiplayer.

Gary: Not the only gripe! [laughs]

George: Gary pays very close attention to all of that stuff. We’re trying to address a number of things at one time. We’re always being asked about going to other platforms. We need to do that in a way that brings all of our communities together. It doesn’t do us any good to release the Android version of something and then have two separate pools of players.

Gary: We want to figure out how to bridge out from Game Center and bring all of our players on all different devices into one cross-platform-capable pool. Android’s not the only device we want expand into, and we want to make sure that we do it in a way that allows all of our players to play against each other.

George: With that kind of thing in place then adding multiplayer chat across all of that makes more sense.

OF: So are we talking about a proprietary Playdek community layer? Like Xbox Live for Playdek titles?

George: That’s a big job, but it’s something that needs to be done. We want to be careful about what we promise because we hear the fans – we hear them loudly – things can get distorted and people get disappointed, we don’t want to do that.

OF: That’s a nice problem to have, though. People care about Playdek – they have faith in what you do, or else they wouldn’t complain.

George: You’re right, if you put it that way. What’s cool about that is that there’s a very different sentiment now to what it was like at Essen or at GenCon a year or two ago. When we first started with Ascension and we went to Origins last year, there was quite a bit of anti-digital feeling. ‘You slick carpet-bagger video game guys, get off my lawn!’ That’s changed. I think Gary’s work on Ascension and other good stuff out there like what Sage is doing, Days of Wonder, Coding Monkeys – it’s changed the landscape significantly. But we’ve been a big part of it.

1 EA negotiated the exclusive rights to make NFL video games in 2004, effectively shutting Sony and 2K out of the football games market.