One of the world’s most beloved board games is coming to virtual reality — and a group of designers who want to make the worlds we find inside our Oculus Rifts and Samsung Gears the next place for us to gather and play on magical tables.
On Friday at the PAX game and culture fan convention, Asmodee Digital and Experiment 7 announced they were working together on Catan VR, the virtual reality adaption of Settlers of Catan. That 1995 board game created a phenomenon, going on to sell more than 20 million copies in 30 languages worldwide and alongside 1992’s Magic: The Gathering helped ignite the growth of a market that kicked Monopoly and Risk off tables in favor for the likes of Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride. Catan VR is coming this holiday season for Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear.
Last week, I interviewed Experiment 7 creative director Geoffrey Zatkin and managing director Demetri Detsaridis along with Asmodee chief marketing officer Phillippe Dao. Experiment 7 is establishing its Magic Table platform with chess, and its first partnership was with Wizards of the Coast on Dungeon Chess, a D&D-flavor of the centuries-old game. Asmodee continues to release its hits on mobile and Steam, with its popular card game Spot It hitting iOS and Android in July.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Is it the base game of Settlers of Catan, or something different?
Geoffrey Zatkin: We’re looking, for the initial implementation, to do the core game that everybody knows and loves, and then use that as a foundation, as we see how everybody responds and what everybody likes, to look at what other pieces we can add on to it.
Demetri Detsaridis: Even in just doing the base game rules, there are of course things about Catan VR that are going to be different to not only the experience of playing the game in physical space, but also the experience of playing it in any other digital realm as well.
Zatkin: This is our third VR game we’ll have put out. One of the nice things is we’ve spent a lot of time exploring the space — how do you put together a game on a table? Board game-style runs — it does really well, bringing in your friends in VR and making it work together in ways that you can’t do in other mediums. We’re really excited about this one.
GamesBeat: How does Catan adapt to VR? Why is this the game you want to do in VR, going beyond the fact that millions of people have bought and played it?
Detsaridis: One of the big reasons, of course, that you would want to play any tabletop game on anything other than a tabletop is in order to get together with folks that may not be anywhere near you. I don’t know about you, but my gaming group from college has scattered to the four winds as people have had kids or moved for jobs and things like that. The capacity to get those back together around a table and spend some time hanging out and shooting the bull and taunting each other over a game of Catan is going to bring back some good memories and help make some new ones.
On top of that, one of the key things we’ve found so far, and that we think will be important, is that it’s actually much easier to introduce people to the game when the game itself can help you explain what’s going on.
Zatkin: Let me pick up on that one. I actually was chatting with somebody two days ago who said he’d tried to play Catan once, and he and his son were having a hard time reading through and figuring it out. And I said, almost nobody learns a board game like that. You sit with somebody who knows it and you play it together. If you tried to learn Monopoly by yourself, just reading the rules, it’s almost incomprehensible.
But sitting around with your friends—that’s one of the things VR does. It provides the social presence of other people. We can visualize the cause and effect in a way that’s almost possible in anything except physical reality, but we can even do it a little better. Rolling a 6 and watching the wheat tile and the stone tile both glow, because those are the 6 numbers, and watching resources float up off that to each player that games them—in VR we can really show things, take away some of the mystery of why that happens, and do it in a way that would seem cluttered in other media, but feels really cool in VR. It’s one of the things—we can explain the game better, even, than in real life, while still letting you play. You can learn by playing, as opposed to learning by reading or learning by tutorial. And it’s pretty.
Detsaridis: Another nice thing about that that’s a benefit of playing in VR versus playing on an iPad or even playing on a laptop is that the game actually looks and operates the same way that it does in physical space. It’s more like you’re learning the game as you see it on the board, and less like you’re learning an interface that may only exist in one digital adaptation, and that may change from one to the next.
GamesBeat: Does it help that PC gamers have been playing games such as The Guild for decades, and know a lot of the same mechanics?
Detsaridis: Finding a hardcore gamer who’s never played Catan is not a job that I would want to have. [Laughs] But I think that folks who — there are probably plenty of folks out there who have always heard about it, and maybe the idea of, “Hey, cool, this is VR, it’s something new, it’s a good way to get with friends that I haven’t seen in a while” — maybe you’re just attracted by the coolness factor of being able to toss sheep at each other, so that appeals in a way that might get to some hardcore players.
Zatkin: At the end of the day it’s getting away with your friends to play a cool game in a pretty environment with easy to understand rules. It’s a good game.
GamesBeat: What makes Catan the first that’s ready for VR, of all Asmodee’s properties?
Dao: One of our objectives at Asmodee Digital is to position ourselves on a platform like VR. In order to make an impact, we have decided to go for our biggest brands, if you look at brands in games. Catan was a natural choice for us. After having some discussions with Catan Studio and the creators, they were also looking for a broader new vision for Catan.
We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary next year. All these elements combined to make the decision to go for Catan. We had the opportunity to work on this through our contact with Experiment 7. We really work well together. They’re board game players. They understand our industry and our players. They set up their company to focus on VR gaming. It’s a perfect match for us. We had some introductory meetings with the Catan creator and the Catan Studio team, and everything went perfectly well, so we said, “OK, let’s do our first VR game together and go for Catan.” That was the whole process so far.
GamesBeat: From Asmodee’s point of view, is augmented reality something that would fit Catan better than virtual reality, or is there something about VR that fits it better?
Dao: We can’t disclose everything today. A bit of patience, I would say, until we can say more.
Zatkin: Rest assured that we’re exploring all of the platform opportunities for this and the other games we’re working on.
Detsaridis: Let me throw in a little bit here. There are actually, as a designer, different properties of each medium that play to different strengths of the game. There will be aspects in VR that are better than on any other platform, in the same way that there will be aspects of AR that are better than any other platform. You need to experience the difference in the medium based on how the interpretation of it goes. Even if we gave you both right now – not saying we have both – you would find different bits about each one that will suit different people and different play styles better.
GamesBeat: Is it harder to get the Oculus Touch controller to work with small pieces from a board game than it is for chess pieces?
Zatkin: Part of it is—I’m a big fan of just looking at the best user experience. We cheat in all sorts of ways. On Magic Table Chess, one of the things we did is, for both chess and Dungeon Chess, I just ignored all unit collisions except for the base of the piece. When you reach down for a piece, you never had another piece occlude you and accidentally pick up the wrong one. I literally said, “Fuck all normal geometry rules.” When you reach down there for it and hit the base and pick it up, you never accidentally select the wrong piece. You can reach through other ones. There are all these ways we’ve learned how to cheat to make the experience feel better and more natural. We’re employing every one we’ve found for Catan.
The interesting thing about Catan is that there’s a total of one thing ever that you pick up, which is the robber. Two if you count the dice. Every other action with a Catan board is just putting something down. It’s interesting. I went through and did an entire map-out study. If you want to see some amazing flow charts, it’s every possible interaction you can do with every single thing in Catan. I tallied them up and looked at all the interactions. I’m like, “Wait, the only thing you ever did with the board is put stuff down.” So we’ve optimized the entire experience around how we can place things well and make it interesting to do that.
Detsaridis: We always know when you have a road and you’re trying to put it down. It’s not like you have to reach into a bucket full of stuff and pick out a particular item. You can cheat the interface a little.
GamesBeat: Does the game put those down for you, then, or do you get the tactile satisfaction of putting something down?
Zatkin: You still get to put them down. What we decided to do for our implementation is—there’s two parts of it. A, you have to purchase a road or a city or a settlement, and then B, once purchased, it’s placed. There’s an order to it. When you look at the interface, cool, I have enough resources, I’ll take a brick and a wood and go make a road. You select buying a road. We’re automating some of it. It’ll take those two resources out of your inventory. You don’t have to hand those cards to the bank. Having spent them, it places a road in your hand if you’re using Touch. From there, you’re in placement mode where you can put it down easily. We basically put you into the best part of it. Cool, look, you’ve got a road. Let’s make the places where it’s possible to place it glow if you have that setting on. Go ahead and place it down yourself, or use the laser pointer version of Touch if you like that. We have a couple of different paradigms, because we want to be friendly to people of all different access and mobility levels. Look at how we’ve placed that. But you get the visceral sensation of placing it yourself if you’re using Touch.
GB: One of the keys to making VR immersive are nailing the small things. Are we going see things like carts moving down the roads, the wheat waving in the wind?
Detsaridis: Yes, all of it. In fact, you’ve named things that already exist. [Laughs]
Zatkin: Our sheep are right now turbo-sheep. They move a little too fast. We’re slowing them down.
Detsaridis: Right now the sheep are in a kind of high-speed dance mode. They’re disco sheep.
Zatkin: We need to leave in espresso mode. All the sheep are Mach 3 sheep. That’s one of the cool things with Catan. We’re not doing a simulation. We definitely have an aspect of living world, which is interesting about the island of Catan. We’ve created each of the tiles, both to mesh with each other, but also to be interesting and have things going on in them, so that when taken in aggregate, you can look down on the island and think, hey, that’s cool.
Detsaridis: That’s another one of the differences between VR and other digital implementations. When looked at on a screen, especially on a tablet or a small laptop screen, while it’s certainly possible to run a bunch of animations, having all that stuff happening at once looks like visual noise, even if the animations are small. When you have the entire field of view in front of you — and Catan is on a big table – the pieces get to be larger than life. The “screen” is enormous. You can do cool things like have sheep run around or have water flow or have wheat blowing in the breeze without it looking like you’re peering into the inner workings of a wristwatch.
GamesBeat: Experiment 7’s VR games enable you to customize the room you’re playing in. Is that part of this as well?
Zatkin: Absolutely. That is part of our signature.
Detsaridis: We’re also doing something I hope Catan players have really wanted for a while, which is, the place you play the game in—can I say this? I guess I can, I’m saying it.
Zatkin: You’re talking about the view out the window? This is a sketch format, but all of our rooms are going to have a nice thing where you look out and there’s a view out the window. The view out the window will be a built-out VR version of what you see on the cover of all the boxes.
Detsaridis: That will animate as well. There’s a little sense of, oh, man, that’s Catan out there. We hope to answer a little bit of that. Where is this, actually? What would it look like if I was in a room on this island? Kind of making the theme of Catan, the flavor of it—it’s something that’s always in the background when you’re playing other versions. We’re dunking you in it and giving you the sense of, OK, these are Vikings who have settled on a Mediterranean island. It comes through a lot more when you’re in the landscape.
GamesBeat: Aside from the manipulation of pieces, what’s the most challenging thing about adapting a management board game to VR when it comes to user interface?
Detsaridis: We could talk about this for hours.
Zatkin: There’s a lot of different actions that can be done in Catan. In a lot of cases we’re trying to—it’s not like we’re ever going to remove or modify them, but it’s figuring out how we lump them together in the easiest thing to use. We want to make sure that you’re always playing against your opponents or the AI. You shouldn’t be playing against the game and the game interface. In a lot of cases, VR is so new—the interface is probably the most interesting bit. We don’t have a side of the screen to hang things on. It’s finding new placements that don’t—it’s 3D, so you can obstruct the board if you put things in the wrong area. If you put it too close to the player it feels claustrophobic. If you put it too far away you can’t read it. It’s finding the happy medium spot on a game that supports four players with information per player that you want to know, while making it feel like there’s no interface and this is just your happy spot that you can float and interact with. It’s a combination of the information density, without feeling dense, and getting all the abilities in and putting them in the right spot and making it contextual, while also making it intuitive and flowing.
Detsaridis: Another thing that we have a cool advantage on here is, having done two games already, two board games, we have a lot of user feedback on, OK, this worked from Magic Table. This worked from Dungeon Chess. Please change this. There are a lot of things that we know—for example, being able to control where some of the interface elements go. I’m left-handed. Some other players are right-handed. Some of the actions that you perform, you’re going to want to do them with the hand you naturally use to move cards around or place objects.
Zatkin: Some players hold their cards to their left side and some players hold them to the right side. Some players put them down. Giving some of that freedom, while keeping people from being dicks. In a 3D area, if I let you hold your cards and put them out over the board, we don’t want you blocking someone else’s view.
GamesBeat: What feedback have you received from people who have visual disabilities, or use their mouths or other interfaces to control board games on the PC and with VR?
Zatkin: We’re starting with some of the obvious things, like addressing color blindness. We’re looking at some of the others, like multiple controllers and input devices and the ability to look and click, all the way up to touch. We’re not requiring people to use a more expansive movement-oriented paradigm when we can also, while running that, simultaneously run gaze and click button ones, which interface a lot better with more disabled folks in our community, and just different body challenges people have. For some things that affect the hardware itself—we’re software developers. We can’t go and affect the physical hardware profiles. We rely more on our platform partners to address some of those issues, which we can then leverage to get more access into the community. But we’ve been designing the whole thing with a lot of that in mind. Wherever possible, we’re making multiple choices, even though it costs us more development time, to address as many of these as we can.
Detsaridis: As long as you have the capacity to indicate a selection, the only other thing you need to be able to do is to move the gaze. That is, on the hardware side, controlled by accelerometers and six degrees of freedom. But to the extent that anyone—we know that VR is often used by disabled persons. That’s kind of a key part of rehab as well. One of our engineers has worked on this in the past. We’re particularly aware of trying to make sure that, so long as you can fulfill the base requirements either through your own body or through additional hardware, being able to select something and move the point of view, then we’ve got you covered.
Zatkin: We’ve thought about it a lot.
GamesBeat: Every board game has a custom market. People make their own things for it. Will there be any sort of modding capabilities?
Detsaridis: You know, that is a really good idea.
Zatkin: Currently, no, but—
Detsaridis: We’ve done it ourselves, of course. In fact we have a couple of skins for the tiles that we’re going to try to launch with, if you like the classic skins or the look from the Xbox 360. But as far as allowing users to do it themselves, that’s pretty cool. We haven’t really thought about it. But we’ll put it in the backlog.
Zatkin: I haven’t seen it in a VR game yet, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done. It’s funny, because we pass those around the office all the time. Look at this cool board someone built for Catan. The latest one was a Game of Thrones one.
Detsaridis: Yeah, which we assume someone saw before making Game of Thrones Catan. …