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Just about anyone who has gotten into the board games scene in the past few years is sure to have encountered Days of Wonder. Ticket to Ride is probably their best-known line of games, with several different maps, online play, and most recently apps for the iPad and iPhone. Small World is a fantastic territorial dominance game; Memoir ’44 recreates World War II battles; Shadows Over Camelot puts you in the world of King Arthur’s Round Table. Days of Wonder has several of its games online, and has amassed a worldwide following.
I spoke to Eric Hautemont, co-founder and CEO of Days of Wonder, about how the company got its start, what it’s like moving into the world of board game apps, and what sorts of games he likes to play himself. Hautemont, who speaks with a French accent, is incredibly enthusiastic about board games and his company, and I found myself barely keeping up, taking pages of notes after each question. He shared some great insights into what makes Days of Wonder tick, why they don’t publish piles of new games each year, and even why Ticket to Ride Pocket doesn’t have online multiplayer.
GeekDad: Could you share a little bit about yourself, how you got started with Days of Wonder?
Eric Hautemont: I was born in France, came to the US in 1988. I was in the computer graphics industry, and formed Ray Dream. In 1996, I sold Ray Dream to Fractal Design and decided to become a venture capitalist. I wanted to help other small companies get off the ground the way I had gotten help. But I soon discovered that being a VC was a lucrative, but very boring job. Some companies, you’d go to and they’re so smart that you feel you’re bringing down the average IQ by being there, others need so much help you won’t make much of a difference. Either way, most of the time you write a check and then that’s about all you can do — the rest won’t make much of a difference to your fund’s return.
So I wanted to do something else. By this time I had two young kids, and I wasn’t really interested in getting back into the tech-world rat race, working so many hours every week. I wanted something where the pace would be more reasonable. I was thinking about traditional board games. About this time, at Hasbro, the CEO was Alan Hassenfeld, who was the grandson of the founder Henry Hassenfeld. [Hasbro was originally Hassenfeld Brothers and became Hasbro Industries in 1968.] And that was so different from the way things worked in Silicon Valley and the high-tech industry, where things rise and fall and change. I liked the idea of forming something that would last that would still be around in generations. If you look at Monopoly, it was published in the 1930s and is still the highest-selling game. How many other consumer goods can you think of that were at the top of the market over 70 years ago and still are? So at this point I really wanted to think about creating a board game company, and I went back to running a product company, like I had done at Ray Dream. I went to some of the people from Ray Dream — Mark Kaufmann, who was Director of Product Marketing, and Yann Corno, another co-founder of Ray Dream whom I knew from high school — and we started Days of Wonder.
Board games have a long life cycle. Most people aren’t against board games. If you pull random people off the street and show them a board game like Ticket to Ride, I think 9 out of 10 of them would play it, and say they enjoyed it, had a fun evening playing it. You hand those same people the same game in a box, and chances are most of them won’t even open the shrink wrap. Why is that? Well, I think part of the reason Monopoly does well is that everyone thinks they already know how to play. They’ve lowered the barrier to entry. In reality, many people aren’t playing it correctly, but since you think you know already, you don’t feel you have to go learn something new to play it.
So when we started with board games, we really wanted to figure out how to get large numbers of people to learn the game quickly. And we turned to the Internet for that, and we made online versions of our games. There are two things that make the internet really great for this: first, that it’s cheap to distribute a game to many, many people; secondly, that you can make sure the computer is enforcing the rules. So that way, you know people are learning to play the game correctly, not missing rules or doing things that are illegal because the computer won’t let them.
GD: What games did you start with?
EH: We started with Gang of Four, a card game, and we had a few others. Ticket to Ride came out in 2004 and it won the Spiel des Jahres, which is like the Oscar of board games. We were the youngest publisher to have won the award, and that really gave us attention. In late 2004 we also made the first browser-based version of Ticket to Ride, and you could play it for free. We were able to see how people played, and it struck us how much time people spent playing Ticket to Ride online. Within the first few weeks we had thousands of people playing, and they played over and over.
Right now, we have hundreds of players who have played over 25,000 online games of Ticket to Ride; there are even some who have played more than 60,000 games. Even if you consider playing short, two-player games, that’s maybe about 10 minutes per game, so there are people who have spent over 10,000 hours playing Ticket to Ride. We thought, “Huh, there’s something there. Maybe we could charge a few dollars for the game, and people wouldn’t mind paying for this game that they’ve spent so much time on our servers playing.” So in 2008 we changed it to a paying model.
GD: I know recently you’ve been moving into putting your games onto the iPad. What has that been like, making that transition?
EH: Well, we’ve tended to publish fewer games, and we try to spend more time on each game that we publish. I like to think of ourselves more like a Pixar of the game publishing industry — instead of publishing a whole bunch of things to see what sticks, we’re happy to introduce one game in a year or none, but to really focus on the ones we do publish. That doesn’t mean that everything does as well as we hoped. But in the board games industry, selling about 10,000 copies of a game in a year is generally considered a success. For us, a “failure” might still sell about 20,000 copies.
When Steve Jobs announced the iPad early last year, Days of Wonder was ready. We’ve been publishing games online and having digital versions of them, and we knew things might move in this direction. Our philosophy is to let the device become invisible to the player, to let them get into the game and forget they’re playing on a computer or a device. When you sit down to play Small World on the iPad, you stop thinking about it as an iPad game and just think of it as Small World. In the future, the question of whether something is a “board game” or an “iPad app” or whatever it will be in the future becomes a meaningless question.
One thing about the iPad/iPhone app, like the online versions, is that it helps you learn the game, but it also may encourage you to pick up the physical board game. There’s still a different feel between playing online with somebody and playing face-to-face at a table. When you’re sitting at a table playing a board game, there’s the body language, and table talk, and all these other cues. When you play Ticket to Ride on the iPad against somebody else online, you focus on different things: the scores, the number of cards each player has, the information that the app can give you because you can’t see your opponents.
But that different focus and feel brings some interesting challenges to us, too. For example, when we took Gang of Four, which is a sort of trick-taking card game, and put it online, we got a lot of complaints from players. In the game, if you get four of a kind it’s a trump — and the players were saying that the four of a kind was happening much more often than it did in real life; they thought the game was broken. We went back in and looked at the code, looked at the probabilities and algorithms, and it was mathematically accurate. So then we compared it to playing the physical game, and we found that, yes, the four of a kind did happen more often in the computer version than when we played the physical card game. The reason for that is the way we shuffle in real life, it’s never truly random — the computer version did a true random shuffling each time. But when you play the card game, you don’t necessarily shuffle until the cards are really completely mixed; the order that they were played in last time affects how they’ll turn up after the next shuffle. So we had to reprogram so that instead of doing a true random shuffle, it replicates the experience you get when you play in real life.
Another example is with Small World. On your last conquest, you get the opportunity to roll a die. The die has three blank faces and three with dots. When you play the physical game, you hold the die in your hand and you can see that half the faces are blank, and you know the probability. But with the app, people who hadn’t played the physical game didn’t know that, and they complained that they kept rolling a blank. There are little details like that which you have to be sure it works, that people understand what’s going on.
We do Ticket to Ride championships, and the champion of the board game version isn’t necessarily the same person as the champion of the online version. It’s a little like poker — there are players who are better at playing an online version and players who are better at playing face-to-face.
GD: You’ve done all your programming in-house, right? Why is that?
EH: For us, we really want to have full control over both versions — digital and physical. Most other board game companies, when they create a digital version of their game, they hire another company to do it. And this other company is in charge of developing the app, and they understand the software side of things but neither company really knows what the user experience is like for both forms. We really want to be able to pay attention to all these little details, to make sure that the experience of playing the app or the online version is happening the way we want it to.
All of our programming is done in-house. We think these critical details, these little things, are what make the difference between an okay game and a really great game. And if you look at our founders, we have this in our DNA. We came out of the high-tech world and programming, so it makes sense for us to develop these ourselves. Also, because we have a smaller number of titles, that gives us the time to really craft our games.
GD: How much do you work with the board game designers when you’re developing the apps?
EH: A little bit, mostly as playtesters but not as much in the actual digital design. A board game publisher is a little different from, say, a book publisher. In the book publishing industry, you get a manuscript and you have editors, proofreaders, and somebody design the cover, but the author does the work of writing the book and has the bulk of the creative process there. For a game publisher, the designer is the one who invented the rules, the mechanics of the game, but when we get it we might give it a different theme entirely. We take the designer’s idea and write the actual rulebook, create the images, and so on, and we work with the designer on that.
When we get to the digital version, we’re trying to replicate the board game experience, but hopefully the designer’s intent and ideas have already been incorporated in the physical version. So the designer is less involved at this point.
But also, what we’ve found, is that a lot of our designers don’t really play videogames. The reverse is interesting, though: some of the best video game designers, like Sid Meier or Warren Spector, have come from the board gaming or tabletop gaming world. I think that’s what makes their games so compelling, that they have this sense of what’s important in a game.
In the 1990s, video games got into this sort of arms race: everything had to have 3D graphics, cool visuals. I know because we were guilty of that — we were the arms dealers! We made the graphics and sold it to them, and so we were part of that. But sometimes in the race to make games look so great I think we forgot what made them actually fun to play.
With a board game, you don’t have all these 3D graphics and special effects, so it has to succeed or fail based on its mechanics, on how it plays and whether or not it’s fun.
GD: Have you considered creating a game that is digital-only, or creating a game digitally first before publishing it physically?
EH: Actually, in 2008 or 2009 we did something like that. We had Alan Moon, the designer of Ticket to Ride, create a new map for the online version of the game. It’s the Switzerland map, and it was created for just two to three players. We had no plans to print a physical version of this one; it was just intended for online play. But then there were a lot of board gamers clamoring for it, saying they wanted to be able to play this as a physical board game, so we ended up printing it.
In terms of brand-new games, though, there’s a big up-front cost for developing a digital game or an app. With a physical game, you have the costs of developing a game but then you can do an initial print run and see how well it sells. If it does well, of course, you have to continue paying the printer to make more. With a digital game, once it’s done you can sell a thousand, a million copies, it doesn’t matter. The challenge with the digital game is that you have to commit all the development costs up front without knowing how well it will do.
The other thing is that we have worldwide distribution of our board games. So after a release, it’s pretty easy to tell within a few months what sort of appeal it has worldwide. We can say, oh, this game is selling really well in France but not so well in Asia. Some games, like Ticket to Ride, sell just as well anywhere, and those are the ones that are really successes. So doing the board game version first is good for us, and then we can see what we want to develop as apps later.
GD: Do you think all of your games will eventually be available both as physical and digital versions, or are there some things that are limited to one or the other?
EH: There are some things that can be done in one format that are very hard to reproduce in another. For instance, some things might require a lot of bookkeeping to keep track of by hand, but are really easy to do with a computer that would be physically tedious: you would have too many pieces or the too much to keep track of, and most people wouldn’t want to do that in real life.
But there are also things that are very hard to reproduce in an iPad app. One instance is the Asia map for Ticket to Ride. There’s a team play version, where you sit side-by-side with your partner, and there’s a lot of sharing information and table-talk that is really important to the game. You share objectives and goals and you’re working with them against the other team. We’re not likely to reproduce that online because it would be hard to create without losing that partner interaction, and that’s a crucial piece of this particular map.
Also, we try to pay a lot of attention to the platform. When we released the Ticket to Ride Pocket app this week, one of the most common requests we’ve been getting is for the online multiplayer component. But here’s the thing: we actually intentionally omitted that from the app. It wasn’t a question of whether or not we could program it in — we actually had to remove the online play from the iPad version. The reason is that we didn’t want the iPhone version of the game to ruin the experience for our iPad and online players — if somebody is playing the game and then has to drop it to go answer their phone, that breaks the gameplay experience for everyone else.
The way we use iPhones, I think, is fundamentally different from the way we use an iPad. You’ll see somebody standing in line at Starbucks, and they might pull out their phone and play a little game, and then put it away. You don’t necessarily see that with an iPad. Or everyone on the subway, they’ll hold their phone and do something with it. But then you go through a tunnel, and you drop the signal — if we had that in Ticket to Ride, then the player just left the game, and everyone else gets upset.
When you sit down in your living room with your kids and start playing a game, you know they’re not going to just get up in the middle of it and go play football instead, or check their email. So playing over a local network, like what we have in Ticket to Ride Pocket, is fine. But in a long-distance online game, you can’t see your opponents. You don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re standing in line somewhere or sitting down and paying attention to the game. For Ticket to Ride, we want the experience of everyone sitting down and playing together, even if it’s online.
Some people ask, well, why can’t you add asynchronous play to Ticket to Ride? That would solve all of that. But have you ever played the game? Many turns you’re just collecting cards, drawing two cards. So you take your turn, and you draw two cards, and then we wait for Bob to play, and he draws two cards, and then you do this for five or six rounds, but it takes you two days and nobody has done anything but draw cards. It really doesn’t work as an asynchronous game; you have to play it live.
So that’s the sort of thing that we really pay attention to when we design our digital versions, and why we want to do it ourselves. Sure, we’ve made some mistakes in gauging what people want, and we continuously try to tweak and improve things, but everything we do has been an intentional choice and not just something we forgot or weren’t able to program.
GD: What else have you noticed in doing digital versions of your board games?
EH: We’ve found that there’s a feedback loop between the digital and physical versions of the games. The Ticket to Ride iPad went into the top 10 board game apps almost overnight — and a big part of that is because it was already a physical game that people had played and knew. We had a built-in audience of board gamers who helped that succeed. But then the iPad version is helping to sell the physical game as well: people play it on the iPad, and then go look for the board game so they can play that at home. What we’re hoping to do is to make that loop tighter, and to really tie the physical and digital games together. If somebody plays the game on the iPad, and loves it, we want to make it a seamless experience for them to play the board game as well.
GD: What are some of your own favorite games?
EH: Well, of our own games, Ticket to Ride Switzerland is my favorite Ticket to Ride map, the most fun. I also love Memoir ’44 — and I don’t say that simply because it’s one of our own. I think I’d love it even if it was by somebody else. My favorite is the Overlord Mode in Memoir ’44, which is a team play game with 8 players. It’s probably the single most fun tabletop experience I’ve ever had, and a huge part of that is the interaction between players.
As for games that aren’t by us, a lot of the ones I love are very old games that are now out of print. Civilization, for instance, is an old favorite from the ’80s. It’s hard to say how much of my love for the game is from the game itself, and how much of it is because of memories of playing with my friends. That’s the thing about board games: when you play them, you associate them with specific times in your life, with the people you played with, even with particular instances of the game that you play. You remember all of those things, and all of that builds on why you love a game.
I’ve also always loved turn-based games. I played a lot of those on the computer when I was younger, and then they were really starting to get replaced by first-person shooters, which I’ve just never gotten into. So that’s another reason I really like games like Memoir ’44 and want to publish those, because I think there’s really something about them that is harder to find now.
GD: Do you play board games on the iPhone and iPad now?
EH: I do, but it’s different. I’ve actually been playing a lot of Ticket to Ride on the iPhone, in order to get the achievements. It’s turned into something like Bejeweled for me: I get it out just to play a quick game and then stay up way too late playing it. But the physical game and the board game, they scratch two different itches. I do keep playing both, because they’re different experiences.
GD: One more question: could you tell us about the name of the company, Days of Wonder? Where did that come from?
EH: When we were discussing starting a board game company, we wanted the game to be its own sales tool. We wanted to spend money on the game and craft it so that when you saw the game, you immediately wanted to play it and you didn’t have to have a bunch of marketing to make you want it. It’s a feeling that … oh, I can think of the phrase in French but it’s not coming to me in English … What we pictured was that sense of wonder you got as a kid when you saw all the presents wrapped under the tree and your eyes just lit up — that’s the feeling we wanted people to have when they saw our games. And so we came up with the name “Days of Wonder,” because that’s what we wanted to impart to people: that feeling of being a kid again, and opening up something new and amazing and wonderful for the first time.