Last week I came across this article about board games and Apple’s new iPad device. It was reporting comments from (amongst other) EA, whose VP of worldwide development was speculating on using the iPad as a way of playing board games. I tweeted about it, but I’ve been giving it a bit more thought and maybe it deserves a bit more than 140 characters.
He described Scrabble, and how the larger screen has the potential to be a new way to enjoy boardgames: the iPad laid down on a table with family and friends.
The idea seems to be that the iPad owner will install a number of games on the device. When you want to play, say, Trivial Pursuit, you can lay the device down flat on the table, everyone can gather around, and play around it as though it were a traditional board. And if you don’t fancy Trivial Pursuit, you can dismiss it and just push a button to play Monopoly, or Boggle, or whatever.
EA Mobile produces several traditional games on mobile devices, including Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Boggle, so it’s not unreasonable for EA to talk about one of those, but I do get the feeling that Apple have thrown this device out into the world and now everyone is trying to figure out how it applies to their own business and products. Newspaper publishers are figuring out how to get newspapers onto it, TV companies are looking at it as a TV device, and people who own board game properties working on ways of using it for board games.
The board game people are following the same logic, basically, that the music industry applied to the iPod and that book publishers applied to the Kindle: you can now carry hundreds of movies, albums, books around with you in a convenient object, and I guess the idea is that you’ll do the same with board games. One problem that I see as we move along this path (movies -> albums -> books -> board games) is that the connection between the physical object and the experience becomes more important.
- We’ve never been particularly bothered about the physical object used to deliver our films, probably because we’re just as used to seeing moving pictures on broadcast television or in a cinema as we are via a physical object like a DVD.
- We somewhat fetishise the physical CD (or vinyl album), but portable media players are gradually getting away from that.
- Some people (early adopter types, for the most part) do like consuming books through their e-readers, but for most practical purposes, paper is still preferred. The experience is just plain nicer.
And then we come to board games…
The iPad screen size is less than 8 inches by 6 inches, which makes it about half and inch wider and deeper than a DVD case. Even in purely practical terms, it’s difficult to imagine a pleasant game of Monopoly or Scrabble for two or more people on a board this small.
The experience of actually holding and moving physical objects shouldn’t be underestimated either. Monopoly players love amassing the physical cards and the physical banknotes - expanding your assets is a satisfying way of lording it over your opponents. In Trivial Pursuit, pulling the question cards out and asking the questions is as much part of the social side of the game as answering the questions. And when you start to think it through, some of the industry’s most popular properties don’t even work as iPad replacements for their traditional versions. Scrabble, for example, simply doesn’t lend itself to this format, because you can’t hide the contents of your letter rack from your opponents.
I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but most of the board games that you imagine working best on an iPad laid flat between people are the ones that don’t belong to anyone. I imagine that chess, backgammon and draughts would work very well, but no-one’s going to make a lot of money out of those…
A lot of the “owned” properties will continue to work just fine on the iPad, but only in the way that they already do on iPods and personal computers - playing against the machine or multi-player online. Replacing physical games, even as a portable option, seems like a big ask. I expect that the comments from the game industry are just very early reactions to the device, and these people are well aware of the issues that they face in terms of making use of their board games on the iPad. There’s definitely room for some bright person to come up with a way of using the device that is truly innovative, rather than just mimicking the physical games.