Monday, October 19, 2015

ACE talks about Tabletop Simulator on Steam

Editor's Note: When asked on Facebook to provide tips, tricks, and a general explanation of the benefits and drawbacks of Tabletop Simulator, Andrew Christopher Enriquez (ACE) provided this response. I think it's great, and worth posting for the world to see. I've made only minor edits. Enjoy! - JR 

Tips, tricks and best practices, this is going to be a long response so bear with me. In order for me to talk about tips and tricks I think it's important to first talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

I should probably start with the bad. There are only a few downfalls of the system but they're important. First and probably most debilitating is the lack of user base. The system requirements and cost are currently prohibitively expensive for any sort of real mass play-testing. This could and probably should be fixed by allowing for a 'Developer' tier where we, the module creators, pay a higher cost, but anyone can use that specific module for free without having to buy TTS, this would have to have some real limitations but I'd use the crap out of it!

Second, online play is never preferred to actual in-person game playing, and some people just can't get over that. It's like pulling teeth with some of my best friends to get them to play online with me. Even though they own TTS and a PC more than capable of handling the system. Granted, we have a huge network of local gamers that are ALWAYS up for playing in pulp. I even know a few people who get dizzy playing in TTS since it's so first-person.

Third, some people cant seem to grasp the physical space and tools. I have no idea why, for me it's SOOOOOOO intuitive, and compared to Vassal where I came from it's amazing, but still there is a barrier to entry having to learn their way around in TTS, and this can reflect poorly on a playtest. There are two ways to sort of mitigate this. You can try to automate things as much as possible to make things easy. Sometimes this means making things a little larger then they are in real life, or out of scale for ease of grasping/reading, sometimes this means snapping to grid so the board space stays clean, sometimes this means using extra components that you wouldn't necessarily use in the real world like coins instead of point trackers, or bags to help organize your tableau. But again this may or may not affect your playtest results or at the very least skew them either way. I actually think this is one of TTS's greatest strengths as a prototyping tool, but I'll get to that later. The second way you can help mitigate the initial awkwardness is to do the exact opposite and don't automate anything. Make it exactly as you would play it in pulp and just make sure people watch the tutorial videos. There are 6 or 7 of them I think each only 7 or 8 mins long and they'd only really need the first few to be fluent in playing. Even still, I like to lock out all the functionality that isn't required to play.

That actually brings me to my final downside of playing in TTS. When you're playing online people often lose all table etiquette. This is one of the most frustrating things and can wildly skew a playtest result. What I mean is things like people paying more attention to other windows when it's not their turn prolonging the game since they need to be reminded to play. Things like playing with each other's pieces. in the real world I'd never randomly pick up your meeples or shuffle your deck, but in TTS its easy to forget you're not alone in the world and just fidget with other people's crap. The funny thing is that it's super annoying to new users but it's sort of accepted in groups of people who play in TTS regularly. Also if you enable writing on the table there WILL be people who find it hilarious to draw *body parts*. It's ridiculous. Same goes with flicking, hidden areas, and table flipping, it's just to easy to lose focus when you can do anything you want. Just turn it all off unless needed and the play sessions will go much more smoothly.

Now lets get to the strengths as I see them. Ironically they all sort of mirror the weaknesses, but from a different perspective.

First, it is SOOOO much cheaper for me to make, and iterate and re-iterate and re-iterate in TTS than in pulp, so much cheaper in fact that it's worth it for me to buy several licenses for friends I think might be interested in trying out TTS. I'd still be saving money. Of course it's really cheap to start off a design on sticky notes and sharpies, but I personally like to get some sort of crappy placeholder art in as soon as a have something I think is worth exploring further. It makes for a more enjoyable play experience for me, but can become expensive in early development when you might slough off half of a game and then change the rest all in the matter of a day or two. It's also fster for me to iterate in TTS than in pulp. It takes me less time adding/changing a card in TTS than it does to print. But most importantly here is to remember that if you team isn't local your changes locally get automatically pushed to the rest of the team upon restarting TTS. So it's not only cheaper and easier for you, everyone on the team reaps those rewards/you can guarantee everyone who is playing has the latest version.

Second, remote design teams have nearly zero barrier to co-design/develop now. I have a blast with this. Also being able to show your old buddies from school or that old game group from back home or pitching online across the world is all possible online with ease. This is also a great thing working with graphic designers and artists in later development since you can easily show them why something doesn't quite work, or why it should be this way or that way, they can throw you ideas and show you on the table. Words in an email can't always do this justice and more often than not (in my limited experience) artists aren't part of the local publishing team. Oh and dont even get me started on miniatures. If you have miniatures in your game, seeing them on the table as they are being done is simply not feasible for most people, even if you had access to a high def 3d printer, it wouldn't compare to the speed and ease of importing to TTS. This is true both for digital sculptors AND traditional ones with simple and free software that allows you to 3d scan using your cellphone camera. You can get them in game for testing and sizing right away, saving tons of time.
Third, having access to the already-existing assets in TTS to help simplify/clean up player experiences is invaluable in finding new ideas to solve problems. What I'm talking about here goes back to that 3rd weakness. Organizing things in a way or adding/changing components that you had in mind originally to make it easier to play online, can often time lead you to actual changes in the design for the better. What would happen if we added this bit or that bit or changed this color or rearranged this to here on the board, BOOM done look that's better then it was before. There are already so many components in TTS and the stuff users have created and uploaded are insane, from customizable dice and tokens to bits and meeples that you change grow/shrink/change color with a click of a button. Iterating with such little constraints is a breath of fresh air. The sky is the limit, there is quite literally an infinitely large table mod someone loaded to the workshop if that's a thing you need.

Some of the things I'd like to see added that I think would lead to a more robust user base are getting Berserk and Panda or whoever working together. Imagine a world where you can get the die templates from your printer, upload your actual art layouts, then export that right into TTS to test of fit. You could essentially work together virtually to make the pulp versions even better. Plus these game manufacturers could show off the possibilities virtually.

Seeing as this is already going on a 1500 word response on Facebook, I'll leave it here. I have a LOT more to say on the subject, and have spend hundreds of hours “perfecting” a work flow on importing/building modules to TTS if you're interest at all in specific tools I use to get all those dang cards built painlessly.

View the Tabletop Simulator Kickstarter campaign, funded in 2014.

Andrew Christopher Enriquez is the producer and co-host of The Nerd Nighters, co-founder of DFW Nerd Night, and a game developer. Learn more about his work here