The Agricola Interview: Joel Goodman on Playdek's biggest game yet

By Owen Faraday 22 May 2013 0
Don't be like that. It's a farm town, but don't you dare call it Farmville.

Last year was Playdek's year. After releasing a quiver full of bona fide hit games, graced with some of the most sought-after board game licenses in the business, you could argue (as I did) that the San Diego-based studio had no peers in the world of mobile core gaming.

But if you wanted to look for criticisms to level, it could be argued that Playdek was playing it safe. All of their highly-acclaimed iOS games were cousins -- deck-building card games with broadly similar mechanics. Look closely at Summoner Wars -- their highest profile departure from the deck-building genre -- and you could see the Ascension engine peeking out at you from behind the Jungle Elves. Maybe Playdek was a one-trick pony.

To prove that there's more in Playdek's arsenal than just card games, they decided to bring Agricola, Uwe Rosenberg's 2007 board game about managing a medieval family farm, to iOS. Hoping that your next big App Store hit will come from a famously complex Euro board game seems a pretty crazy bet at first -- but Agricola isn't just any Euro board game.

There are many sets of eyes watching Playdek at this moment. Firstly, the fans. Agricola is a game that is regarded with real reverence by its fans, and it's fans are legion. The Bible of Board Games, BGG, currently lists Agricola as the 3rd-best board game of all time. Besides the players, there's also the investors. This is Playdek's first release since raising $4 million in venture funding back in April, and their new partners will be eager to see that their money has been invested wisely. In my conversations with Playdek's leadership over the past months, I've gotten the sense that they are keenly aware of how important Agricola is both to the hobby gaming public and to their future. Whether 2013 turns out to also be Playdek's year will depend to a great degree on Agricola's reception.

After the jump, my conversation with Playdek CEO Joel Goodman: their philosophy for translating Agricola from cardboard to touchscreens, what they learned from Summoner Wars and Nightfall, what veterans of Ascension and other Playdek games can expect from this new title, and more.

And it actually gets here. Winter is coming.

Owen Faraday: Joel, you're the CEO. What does your role with Agricola look like from the corner office?

Joel Goodman: As the CEO, I'm responsible chiefly for the financial aspects, assuring that Playdek is a healthy and viable company so that we have the resources to get Agricola out the door. From there, I have a cultural responsibility to make sure that Playdek is healthy and happy. We have been for quite some time -- we go back for many years.

OF: Do you date back to Incinerator with Gary Weis? [See September's interview with Gary Weis and George Rothrock for more on the history of Playdek.]

JG: Indeed. Gary and I and Jeff [Garstecki, Chief Creative Officer] founded Incinerator back in 2005. Gary and I go back to about 2000 when we were at Sony and Jeff and I go back to 1998. George [Rothrock, Director Business Development] and I go back to 1996.

OF: So the core Playdek team goes way, way back.

JG: We do, we really do. A lot of the original Incinerator founders left Sony together with us back in 2005 -- a lot of designers and senior artists. We're a tight-knit group, and that's a key part of our culture and how we develop.

OF: Tell me more about that culture and how you see your role in it.

JG: I generally set a target tone for our projects. Agricola was such an important project for us -- it's so beloved around the world and we don't take that lightly. Through our history we've always tried to achieve the highest quality possible but also to incorporate and move things further into taking advantage of the platform that the games are. So I'm the one -- for better or for worse -- who's been trying to instil the idea that we make video games here. We love hobby gaming, we love board games -- but we make video games. We have to marry the two. Once those board game rulesets depart from the physical plane and enter into the digital space, we've created something different.

With Agricola in particular, when we started considering how to approach the game we knew that we would be walking a balance beam between ensuring that every serious Agricola player was going to be at home in this game, recognise this game, have everything that they could ever and and expect from this game [on iOS] -- but also to make it socially appealing to all kinds of gamers. Whether it's a Call of Duty FPS player or people who are used to more casual fare. How can we at least get them intrigued and get them to explore and crossover, so to speak? This is a great product for getting people exposed to hobby gaming.

Noobs. Newbies and those after a less "Euro" experience won't have to worry about most of the game's cards.

OF: A gateway drug.

JG: Right. Agricola has a profoundly simple nature to it. I realise that might sound a bit ridiculous--

OF: --it does a bit. [laughs]

JG: It really does, though. In order to amass a huge 50-, 60-point score in Agricola, you have to get extremely good at the strategy. But just to get from one end of the experience to another and finish with 5 points or negative 2 points, you can still get there and have the experience of plowing a field, picking up sheep. At that point they're miles away from the true depth of the game, but that shouldn't be prohibitive to that player's enjoyment of the game.

Last summer, George and I had a summit in Germany with [Agricola designer] Uwe Rosenberg and Hanno Girke to discuss this approach. We brought it up with Uwe and he couldn't agree more. He travels around Germany to middle schools teaching Agricola, and within 20 minutes these schoolchildren get the experience, and they're enjoying the game. You can grow into the depth.

OF: One of the things that -- I think it was Gary -- said to me a couple of weeks ago was that you wanted to grab that midcore or casual gamer who wanted to just pick up Agricola and make a farm. I think -- somewhat controversially on some forums -- he said that you could have a sort of Farmville experience with the game.

JG: Um, yeah -- it's an interesting point. I actually haven't played Farmville, myself.

OF: You know what? Confession time. I haven't either.

JG: I get the concept -- at least from a business sense. Who wouldn't want their game being played by 200 million people? However, I think we can all agree that Agricola has nothing to do with Farmville. That's not what we've made.

OF: I think we can agree. Insofar as neither of us have played Farmville.

JG: Part of that balance beam I was referring to before: we do not want Agricola to be unappealing to someone who's never played a hobby game before, or ever seen a board game before in their lives. We want people to be intrigued. 'This art looks friendly. This game looks appealing.' You look at our screenshots and you'll see that we've accomplished that using the original art. So we haven't made gratuitous changes, but we have concentrated on making it accessible to so-called casuals. For the casual player there's the family game that you can score in solo play -- no cards. Then there's a random play mode and a draft mode for more advanced players.

We can call those guys casuals, but it could still be somebody who literally plays Assassin's Creed or Devil May Cry every day -- but he's just never done board games.

OF: Right. That's a highly parochial definition of 'casual'.

JG: We want that guy as well.

OF: So you're opening the doors to 'non-hobby gamers' -- that's a more appropriate term than 'casual' gamer for who you're trying to reach. Fair to say?

JG: Absolutely.

Or Emergency Puppy, I'm told. The universal appeal of baby animals -- it's the Buzzfeed of board games.

OF: So how does striking that balance come across in the game itself? What liberties have you taken with Agricola the board game that make it more 'video-gamey' but that won't alienate the core hobby gamer?

JG: First off: our Agricola has to be completely, 100% literally true to the rules of the board game. Uwe wouldn't allow us to change a rule or how anything was played. So at the very least, this game is Agricola. Somebody who's been playing this every week for the last umpteen years at their game night will instantly recognise this as Agricola.

It's great to have this core audience, this super passionate audience. There's no bad advice really -- you can always take something away from what people say and it's wonderful to have somebody who's passionate enough to be worried that if you don't literally transplant the exact board over onto digital. To those guys I say: I respect your passion. I appreciate it. Thank you. But from a Playdek perspective though, we'll never do that again. We're forging forward to create incredible experiences in hobby gaming but we'll also take advantage of the platform. We make video games.

OF: Just for clarity's sake: you're saying that in the future we shouldn't expect perfectly literal, Ascension-style interpretations from Playdek.

JG: No -- though keep in mind with Ascension, we're talking about a deck-building game that's a very different animal from Agricola. With a deck-builder, there's really no other way to interpret besides putting the deck of cards in the middle, etc. The key with Ascension was that it was accessible to people who'd never seen a deck-building game in their lives.

But with Agricola, we could have scanned the board in, so to speak, laid down the rules in a PDF and I'm sure we'd have quite a few players who would be very content and even some who will be upset that that's not what we've done. But as Playdek, we're trying to advance the medium.

That said, when you open up [the Agricola app] you're going to recognise it if you're a hardcore fan. That's the board there. Going back to our discussions with Uwe and Hanno, they were ecstatic. They said to us, 'please free the game from the cardboard.' The cardboard is just a constraint that doesn't exist in the digital world and there's no reason to stay slaved to those constraints when you're making a video game.

OF: Tell me about the asynchronous multiplayer. One thing that you rightfully get praised for is how well your games handle online multiplayer. There's sort of a Playdek multiplayer vernacular that transcends individual titles: the Penny Arcade game and Ascension and Summoner Wars all had that Playdek's multiplayer cues, with signposts that told you when you had a turn available and chess timers. Is that something we should expect to see big changes to with Agricola?

JG: We have evolved that. With Agricola there's changes that we'd wanted to make in previous products that we hadn't had time to. We've also gotten tremendous feedback from the community and Agricola incorporates some of those changes. Menus are better, getting into games is easier and quicker.

There's been some refinement to how games are picked up. We've added a match-making feature, for instance. It's not a massive overhaul, but it's a lot of little improvements.

OF: What's the business relationship with Uwe Rosenberg? Do you have other Agricola expansions or other games from the Harvest Trilogy lined up?

JG: We do have other things to work on with Uwe, including continuing to extend Agricola. We're lucky to be working with Uwe and Lookout Games -- they're really the upper echelon of hobby gaming.

OF: So is there already an agreement in place to develop the expansions for Agricola.

JG: Yes. We'll absolutely be bringing out the other decks.

Did they pull it off? The all-important tutorial.

OF: What do you see as Playdek's vision then -- for lack of a less bullshit corporate-speak term? For the first year or two of Playdek's existence it was very much a card game company. With the exception of Can't Stop, I suppose. You built this amazing card game engine and you iterated with all of these beautiful games -- but I don't think it would have been unfair to say, 'Playdek's a card game company'. You've announced a lot of things over the past few months but now with Agricola we're seeing something really different for the first time -- a board game, not a card game. More different even than Summoner Wars was from your other stuff.

JG: What you're starting to see with Agricola is something that steps away from the card game experiences. From our original vision and plan, we want to encompass hobby gaming and board gaming in total. Trading card games, deck-building games, board games, miniatures games. For us, that entire breadth is what we wanted to execute on, and move those things into the video game space.

OF: The hallmark of Playdek is that your polish and quality are second-to-none -- you're the Blizzard of this universe. But part of that has to be down to your laser focus on making card games up until now. Can you continue to deliver that kind of quality while still expanding into all of those very different genres?

JG: That's a good question. I guess the simple answer is: we have to. Otherwise we're just shooting ourselves in the foot. My role is to manage that process. We have no desire to have massive growth spurts. We've always -- even when we were Incinerator -- been very careful about hiring and how we bring on resources. We'd rather take a few months to bring on a couple of key people and then extend the runway on our project than try to add 8 or 10 people over the course of the month and have half of them not really fit.

OF: You've also gotten quieter. We don't hear from Playdek as often as we used to.

JG: In our early history we announced games early, and rightfully enough we'd get skewered by fans for not delivering quickly. We've gotten smarter about managing expectations over the past year.

Part of that is that we're confident in this. Even as enormous as Agricola is, we're a team that has delivered massive sports titles and racing titles for consoles with hundreds of people. Gary was in Japan as a core member of the PS3 team years before anybody even knew it existed. We've got incredible experience here. I don't want to have too much bravura, but we know we can deliver. We just want to be careful at the same time about over-promising. We would rather -- sadly in some cases -- and leave fans hungering for news than over-promise.

We're still listening, though. We see people saying that Summoner Wars has been out for almost a year now and we haven't brought out new content or updated the game. And they're right. That's a profound shame -- but we're going to put it to rest in July of this year with new content for Summoner Wars, and we will continue to support that great game.

Nightfall, for example was a case where we've learned a lot from the community. There were so many comments about the tutorial, how it could have been better. I read all of those comments and I honed in on a few of those that were incredibly constructive, and we overhauled the Nightfall tutorial based on those. Some of those guys were just dead on.

OF: Is that what informed your decision to segregate some of your Agricola beta testers until later, so they could have the fresh eyes for the game that you didn't have anymore? To help you catch things like the shortcomings in the Nightfall tutorial?

JG: Oh absolutely. I have to be able to walk down to the office down the street and hand the iPad to a stranger and if they don't get what's happening after the tutorial for Agricola then we've failed.

OF: What's one aspect of the product that surprises you now? Given the length of development, there must be some aspects of the game that are wildly different from what you thought they'd be six months ago or a year ago.

JG: Hmm. Well most definitely the construct of the living town -- the board becoming a living town. I open it up now and I'm just incredibly proud of this team. It's a board game, but it has this level of immersion with the ambient sounds and the baroque guitar and your farm is a real living experience. That's miles away from where I thought it would be [last year].

OF: What does Uwe think of the finished product?

JG: He loves it.

Playdek isn't saying exactly when Agricola will be out ("Apple prefers you to not comment on release dates while games are in the approval process," Goodman told me) but its release is "imminent".
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