23 May 2010|
Board games are going digital at a rate never seen before. Previously, board game publishers and designers either turned a blind eye or freely gave away the use of their intellectual properties. However due to the recent influx of very portable gaming devices like iPods and Droids, and online gaming (Xbox Live and Sony's Online offerings), more and more board games are being converted to digital mediums by the publisher.
This is causing tensions between fanware developers and game publishers, who up until now have been expected to allow software development to happen at no charge. Many angry fans are crying "injustice" at places like the boardgamegeek forums.
Matthew Marquand is one such fanware devloper, but his story has gone a little differently. At a time where developers are losing the right to host online games, Matthew is not only able to continue, but is doing so for the most prolific game designer in history, Reiner Knizia.
Here at TGC, we thought that Matthew's story was fascinating, and we wanted a bit more insight into the road he's managed to travel where so many others have not succeeded. We sent our top-rated writer and journalist, Tricia Sichko, to contact Mr. Marquand and find out what makes him tick:
[TS] How did you first get involved in developing fanware?
[MM] I first became involved in programming games in high school back in 1982. The games were extremely rudimentary dungeon crawls, written in BASIC, and ran on the TRS-80. I went on to college studying computer science and implementing more games never crossed my mind until some time in the late '90s when I'd taken up a new hobby, board games, after playing Acquire numerous times on a multi-family vacation.
In 1999 I wrote a stand-alone Java Swing-based version of Acquire that was relatively successful with a small group of fellow board gamers. A colleague of mine played against the bots every day at lunch for several years. I attempted a semi-online version of Carcassonne a few years later that you could connect to other players directly over the internet. The software was also Java Swing-based and required the players to know a bit of network connectivity to get everything connected. If memory serves me right, I played only a few games with friends before the program faded into obscurity.
After Clans, the itch to implement games continued with my implementations of Coloretto, Ingenious, and most recently Lexio.
[TS] What sparked your interest in developing fanware for Ingenious? What was your first thought when you approached its development?
I'd had a taste of writing game "AI" (the logic implementing the computer opponents) with Acquire and with Clans but the implementation of Ingenious forced me to step up the complexity quite a few notches. It took numerous sleepless nights before I arrived at an approach that made the opponents play even a remotely interesting game. Few would claim that my AI is good but I do believe it fits an interesting niche of casual gamers that make it fun rather than a heavy cerebral experience.
[TS] In July of last year you were contacted by Sophisticated Games to make your implementation of Ingenious the official "try before you buy" version. Why do you think your particular implementation of Ingenious fanware appealed to Sophisticated Games?
[MM] I think the primary reason is that my AI was just hard enough to beat that it appealed to the casual gamer which represents a larger market and closer aligns with their demographic. A true gamer can beat the Ingenious AI rather handily, especially with less players, but this lighter version of play works very well in an "advertising" venue. Last I checked, Ingenious has been played some 950,000 times across both Marquand.net and Sophisticated Games' site. It apparently is well liked by those that continue to play.
[TS] There seems to be a crackdown on sites hosting Knizia games, why do you think you are allowed to continue hosting the games while other sites are shut down? What sets you apart from other fanware hosts?
[MM] After implementing Coloretto and Ingenious, both very popular games, I knew I was beginning to ride the line of acceptability. After exchanging a few emails with Michael Schacht, I felt relatively comfortable with leaving up my implementation of Coloretto but I'd gotten wind of numerous sites having to take down their versions of Ingenious. When the email from Sophisticated Games arrived, I must admit that I sweated a bit when opening it expecting a cease and desist directive.
In my defense I'd towed a hard line on both the implementation and presentation of the games on Marquand.net. I placed no ads next to the games, I always attributed the games to their respective designers, and playing was strictly free. The two most important aspects, though, was that I strongly felt that playing my versions were strictly to get a feel for the game. I promoted the purchase of the physical game and directed players to play online when they just needed to scratch that itch in the absence of human opponents. I purposefully did not implement the ability to play against other human opponents because I felt that the implementation could act as a substitute for the real game; something I felt was truly crossing the line and would attract negative attention.
I exchanged numerous emails with Sophisticated Games and arrived at an agreement that allowed me to leave up my version on Marquand.net and to act as the host for the software pulled through on their site as the official "try before you buy" version an event I'm particularly proud of.
[TS] Sophisticated games commissioned you to implement another Knizia game for commercial release - how do you negotiate these deals?
[MM] After the success of Ingenious, I was again contacted by Sophisticated Games but this time, I was commissioned to implement Callisto, a Knizia design, as another "try before you buy". I was ecstatic that I could get paid to implement something this time and that it would be a Knizia but, I must admit, implementing another abstract wasn't high on my list of desires.
There's not a lot new technically in the Callisto implementation and I've now moved into the playtesting phase with some good feedback from my Sophisticated Games partners. The arrangements for running the game will be much like that for Ingenious. I'll be running the game locally on Marquand.net and they'll be running it on their site.
I'll not go into the details of the arrangement or negotiation practices but I found the experience a relatively simple process including the normal level of give and take that one would expect.
[TS] Do you have any advice for emerging fanware developers?
[MM] If you're going to implement something, contact the owners of the license. You'll save yourself headaches later. Expect to do whatever you're going to do solely for the fun or challenge of the endeavor. I was lucky to find a partner at Sophisticated Games but with the number of hours it takes to implement such a game, the money is relatively insignificant. You've got to love the process more than the end result.
[TS] What tools are important in the business?
[MM] That's a difficult question given that fanware can be implemented using lots of different technologies. All of the tools I use are free with the exception of Paint Shop Pro which I use for creating and modifying graphic assets.
[TS] What do you think of work out there today?
[MM] Electronic forms of physical games are on the rise. I'm trying to stay engaged and track where we're heading with the limited time that I have. With my day job, a family, and trying to learn to play violin, I do what I can. Right now, there's not a lot of money in it for the fanboys but that could change in the coming years.
[TS] Where do you think the industry is headed? Is that where you want to go?
[MM] I think the biggest change we'll witness in the next couple of years is the expansion into the mobile platform. Part of me will be sad to see that. I greatly enjoy my stacks of games on the shelf, the smell of cardboard, and the wooden bits but another part of me understands the convenience of being able to play numerous games by just plopping down an iPad.
That said though, I am a bit of hypocrite. I'm currently working with a couple of other software developers on an iPhone/iTouch/iPad implementation of a lesser known card game of a well-known designer. We've recently inked the licensing agreement and I'm plowing headlong into development in parallel with Callisto.
[TS] What inspires you?
[MM] Challenging creativity. I get grumpy and very antsy if I'm not doing something creative. Most nights you'll find me either making furniture in my basement woodshop, practicing my violin, or writing code. Well, this time of year I'm usually watching my kids play softball and baseball but when everyone goes to bed, out comes the Mac.
Tricia Sichko is a reborn games lover, and a tremendous writer. Her blog can be found here. Happy reading!