Days of Wonder on Ticket To Ride, Small World, and digital boardgaming

'The iPad was what we were waiting for'

Days of Wonder on Ticket To Ride, Small World, and digital boardgaming

Days of Wonder spent its formative years in the boardgame industry tearing up the rulebook.

After becoming the youngest company ever to win the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2004 for Ticket To Ride, the firm has gone on to embrace video games far more readily than its older rivals - first through its dedicated DOW Online games portal, and more recently with its iOS releases.

Both Small World and Ticket to Ride on iOS have garnered critical and sales success, with the latter even managing to walk away with the Best iPhone AND Best iPad game trophies at the Pocket Gamer Readers' Choice Awards 2012.

We sat down with company co-founders Eric Hautemont and Mark Kaufmann to talk about how iOS and physical boardgames are related, and the company's plans for the future.

Pocket Gamer: It's unusual for a boardgame company to produce its own iOS projects in-house. What drove that decision?

Mark Kaufmann: The secret is: long before we did boardgames, we were all in the software business. The three founders - well over half the team that we have in the company - all came from small software startups.

Initially, when we did the first online games - available on the PC or the Mac - the idea was that we wanted to teach people how to play.

We thought that the best way to sell physical boardgames was to have more people know the rules, as that's the biggest barrier for boardgamers.

Everyone's afraid of looking foolish when he / she doesn't know how to play the game.

So, it was to get players over the learning curve?

MK: That's it. And the digital versions take you through the rules.

Many people do start playing Ticket To Ride without paying too much attention to how it's played, and the software walks them through it - they figure out what they can and can't do.

So, the original purpose of doing our online business - all the way back from 2003-4 - was to teach people the rules.

One of the strengths of Ticket to Ride on iPad is the cross-platform aspect of the multiplayer...

Eric Hautemont: Correct. So, when you play the real-time online game, you all connect into the same DOW Online servers.

We don't have that on the iPhone - the focus was a bit different. We wanted to focus on the solo experience: that's why there are achievements in the iPhone version.

The data is showing us that the vast majority of people on the iPhone version are playing solo games, despite our including asynchronous multiplayer.

When you look at the iPad version, it's quite a bit different. Only 60 per cent of the gamers are playing solo - the rest are playing some kind of online game.

Boardgames tend to do very well on the iPad. Is this down to the form factor?

EH: When we started the company back in 2002, the iPad was what we were waiting for to produce a great digital version.

When you have that device in your hands, you don't think of the device, you think of the game you're playing. When you're playing on the iPhone, you're still aware of the world around you because of its small size.

The screen is great, but it can't draw you in like the iPad can. For us, we always viewed that platform as quite unique: that's why the iPad version is the one that leads the way when we add new features.

Since the iOS release of Ticket to Ride and Small World, have you seen any noticeable increase or decrease in sales of the physical copies?

EH: Some people were concerned, especially those responsible for selling our physical boardgames, about cannibalisation, but we firmly believed all along that we are so far from market saturation in boardgames that it would be a net positive.

That was indeed the case. To give a few specific numbers: when we released Ticket To Ride iPad back in May last year, the sales of the physical boardgame went up by 30-45 per cent.

Not only did it not cannibalise it, but it [the iPad release] significantly increased sales of the physical boardgame.

Why do you think that is?

EH: There are a couple of reasons for it - a virtuous circle.

The first thing is that when we launched the iPad version we got a huge number of downloads - not because Apple featured us, but because we already had a very large installed base of physical [copy] players.

So, the day we launched the iPad version, we had around 50,000 downloads and shot right up the ranks. This helped us get visibility on the App Store.

Then, what happened is that because the game was so visible, we had people discovering the game on the App Store, and a portion of those people liked the game so much they thought, "okay, I'm also going to buy the physical boardgame."

How about the iPhone version?

EH: When we released the iPhone version in November, we also saw another bump in sales [of the physical boardgame].

The combination of the iPhone and iPad editions actually ended up increasing our sales of the boardgame by 70-75 per cent compared to the previous year.

Days of Wonder has so far not released an Android game. Is this something you're looking at doing in the future, or are you not decided?

EH: We don't view Android as a platform, because we don't look at platforms from a technical standpoint. We look at it as "who has a large customer base that we can access with a small amount of friction?" We look at platforms with a large amount of real paying customers with credit cards on file.

So, for us, Apple and Amazon are platforms, for they have hundreds of millions of real customers. Facebook is interesting with its Credits system, so it may get to the same stage, but that isn't the case yet.

We may end up making a version that runs on some versions of Android, some devices, but we're not looking at Android as a platform as a whole.

I know that Google likes to claim Android is an open platform, but I would venture to say it's become so open that it's no longer a platform - it's broken in too many different pieces.

What's interesting is that we have customers - who makes lots of requests on our forums - saying, "when are you going to make an Android version?", but they're really asking - and we asked them - is "when are you going to make a version that works on my particular Android device?" And that device can be completely different from another.

That being said, of course we'd love to sell a copy to anyone that wants a copy with no technical issues, but these are the constraints.

Does Days of Wonder have plans on bringing any further expansions to Ticket to Ride on iPad?

EH: As the Americans would say, I think I'd like to take the Fifth. *laughs* Stay tuned.

MK: No comment! *laughs* If we gave you the answer, we'd have to kill you.

Unlike Ticket to Ride, Small World has fewer features than its boardgame cousin (such as having fewer players). Why was the decision taken to leave these elements out?

EH: It was purely a constraint-based reason. We developed Small World on an iPad simulator as we started working on it when the device only existed in Steve Jobs's hands. We'd never seen an iPad until two days before we shipped the first version.

In the months that followed, we released a couple of updates [the expansion packs]. We had a single developer working on the platform, and we just couldn't get more done in that time. Then, we focused on Ticket To Ride, which was a huge undertaking.

That being said, going forward, we see no reason for not wanting to bring Small World to the same level of quality and feature completeness as Ticket To Ride.

Will we see further titles from DOW, such as Memoir '44, make their way over to the iPad?

EH: The theoretical answer is "yes". Memoir is a game that is dear to our hearts, and there's no philosophical reason why we wouldn't want it to be on the iPad.

But, then there are the practical constraints. We did a PC and Mac version of Memoir '44. We spent three years on it. We have a code base that's based in Java, and it would have to be completely re-written from the ground up.

It's something we hope to tackle at some point, but it's a very large project.

The Swiss expansion for Ticket To Ride started out as a digital game before a physical version was made. Are there any plans to create a completely new title for digital platforms?

MK: It's not out the question that we might do something that's developed first for the digital world that would then migrate across.

I don't think we'd do anything that will only be available digitally, because there is such a nice tie between the digital and cardboard world from an economic standpoint.

EH: There are lots of talented [video game] developers out there making great games on iOS, Steam, and so on. So, the question we'd have to ask ourselves if we were to make a video game from scratch is "why would we think we'd be better at it than any of these great developers?" And the short answer is we don't think we'd be better at it.

We think that where we're really good at is focusing on the boardgame business that we know and have worked in for the last ten years - that's where our strengths will shine.

If we did make something online, it'd be either at the same time or followed very quickly by a physical version.

Ticket to Ride is available on iPad [buy] and iPhone [buy], and from your local boardgame retailer.
Will Wilson
Will Wilson
Will's obsession with gaming started off with sketching Laser Squad levels on pads of paper, but recently grew into violently shouting "Tango Down!" at random strangers on the street. He now directs that positive energy into his writing (due in no small part to a binding court order).