We asked Paul Dean of splendid boardgaming website Shut Up & Sit Down to investigate the future of the enormously successful boardgame software, Tabletop Simulator [official site]. He spoke to the creators, as well as boardgame designers, to discover their feelings towards copyright-infringing mods that replicate their games, plus the possible benefits of paid mods and licensed DLC.
The first time I saw anyone playing Tabletop Simulator, I was pointed toward a jury-rigged version of the hidden identity game Mascarade, cobbled together using Dota 2 art for the cards. My immediate response was, “Well, this definitely isn’t going to last.” What I saw in this new software wasn’t just an explosion of interest in board games, but also the potential for so many copyrights to be infringed.
I gave it a week or two before the first complaint would be raised, yet the response from much of the community was surprisingly positive and, instead, Tabletop Simulator went from strength to strength, gaining tremendous popularity and receiving rave reviews. Not only has this made it a huge success for developers Berserk, it’s also brought more board games to more people, many still blinking as they stumble into the bright new light of a hobby they thought was all about Cluedo and Monopoly.
Can this last? While Tabletop Simulator may well be a fine ambassador for board gaming, these mods aren’t making their original designers or publishers any money. Surely, surely there’s some resentment around this? Is it only a matter of time before Tabletop Simulator or one of its modders is held to account? What if Steam went ahead and re-introduced paid-for mods that allowed the original creators to sell versions of their work? I reached out to some board game designers to ask them what they thought and was surprised by many of their responses. The lawyers may not be rolling out just yet.
Tabletop Simulator was one of those unexpected successes. In a world of multimillion dollar crowdfunding campaigns, developer Berserk Games asked for just $3,000 to help finish a framework for simulating board and card games, but they received more than ten times that, pushing through stretch goals with the same ease you’d punch out cardboard tokens. In an email jointly representing its two developers, Jason Henry & Kimiko, the team say they’ve “received a great response” from players but certainly did not anticipate the scale of that response. Though Tabletop Simulator is still growing, forming itself in the larval tubes of Early Access, the mods have been flooding in.
“The support from the community has been fantastic,” they continue. “They create tons of great original content that we love playing. And surprisingly, we’ve been able to manage it just fine with just the two of us, excluding some great contract work. It’s definitely a 24/7 job, but we make sure to take some time off on the weekends to keep things sane.”
It’s also beyond Berserk to monitor the mods, something that would be a job in itself as “Tons” is an understatement. The Steam Workshop page for Tabletop Simulator is overflowing with well over 3,000 add-ons, from single playing pieces to full-fledged adaptations of games like Lords of Waterdeep and Settlers of Catan. Many are very capable adaptations of real-world board games and have clearly appropriated their mechanics, concepts and art, but none are official. Does an adaptation of the X-Wing miniatures game infringe on the rights of its designers, its publisher Fantasy Flight, and even Disney, the owner of Star Wars?
I have to admit, I’m surprised, even stunned at just how popular Tabletop Simulator has become. That’s a colossal body of mods representing countless of hours of work by modders to make digital representations of so many board games. Yet, for me, part of the appeal of board games is the personal and social aspects, elements that are sometimes even critical to the rules when players need to bluff, deceive or misdirect one another. Then there was that expectation that I mentioned, that certainty that the cease and desist orders were on their way. Surely so many toes have already been stepped on. What did board game designers themselves think?
At first, Colby Dauch, founder of Plaid Hat Games, gave me the kind of response I would very much expect. He hasn’t tried Tabletop Simulator yet because he “Appreciate[s] the physical component and meat-space aspect of board games. While running a board game company, I get plenty of opportunity to get my board game fix.” Board games are, of course, designed with this in mind and the purist within me gives a firm nod of agreement. However, while he also has some concern about people replicating his company’s hard work, it’s not quite for the reasons I’d expect.
“I’m concerned that knowing a game of ours is up there gives me some legal obligation to protect our copyright,” he continues. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the jerk that ruins people’s fun and I think that digital versions of our games likely sell more physical copies than they deny sales.”
This sort of tolerance isn’t what I expected, but the board games industry works rather differently to that of video games. Dauch is correct that digital incarnations can have a positive impact on a game’s exposure and this is not only because they may reach different people, but also because that may be the only way they reach those people. Board games are physical objects that, as well as requiring shipping and distribution, exist in very limited print runs. Some are even manufactured in quantities of only a few thousand and they run out. A reprint or new edition can be a very big deal, particularly for a smaller team.
Profit margins aren’t anything to write home about. While a box of artistically-embellished cardboard and finely-rendered plastic pieces is a lovely thing to behold, that stuff doesn’t just cost money to make, it’s also heavy, which means it costs more money to distribute. The app form of Plaid Hat’s popular Summoner Wars certainly doesn’t seem to have harmed that game’s popularity, likely because it was so readily available, though also because it was so well executed.
In fact, it’s the possibility of capable execution of a mods which has artist and designer Daniel Solis rather interested. Tabletop Simulator, he says, may provide a fine framework for a lot of adaptations, especially after encountering a few setbacks in that area.
“I’ve seen so many disappointing digital versions of tabletop games that I really think there has to be a way for dedicated enthusiasts to at least give an alternative a shot,” he says. “If an enthusiast takes the initiative to make a good digital version of one of my games, I want them to get in touch with me so we can collaborate. I wouldn’t want them to be scared off by the risk of a lawsuit or something.”
If he found one of his own, self-published designs online for free, Solis says “I’d be cool with it. I’d ideally want a custom UI optimized for my games, but a Tabletop Simulator mod is not a bad place to start. If it’s a game published by another company, then I would have to defer to their legal advice.” Similarly, he doesn’t sound particularly angry about the idea of discovering a hypothetical paid-for mod of one of his games online. That could also be promising.
“In that case I’d want to reach out to them and come to some agreement where they can keep their mod up and available while I get compensated,” he says. “I’ve been approached many times by startup studios who wanted to turn my games into apps, but then disappeared the next week for various reasons, [so] someone who actually has the follow-through to make a digital version of my game already sets themselves apart from those other groups.”