Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Virtual Table Tops and the Future.

I been using Fantasy Grounds, Virtual Tabletop software for several years now. In conjunction with Skype it been the perfect tool to use for running the weekly campaign that my friends and I have. There are other VTTs like Battlegrounds, Open Grounds, MapTool, the one that Wizards has, and others each with their strengths and weaknesses.

What makes a VTT work is that it is a sophisticated whiteboard application combined with RPG utilities (Dice roller, character sheets, etc) with voice/chat. The whiteboard aspect means all you need to do something is to be able to create or scan in a image, something that many of use already do in our regular tabletop game. Some things are easier like fog of war, and secret notes. Some things are harder, opening ports, everybody needing a copy, need to scan anything you want to show. But overall it is a win for tabletop roleplaying because gamers are doing same things and using the same products as they do in a regular tabletop game.

Ryan Dancey  makes the following comment.
The problem is that VTTs exist, and they’re not successful. If you give people the choice between a VTT and an MMO, they pick the MMO. The VTT doesn’t solve the real problem that is that the MMO experience is simply better for a significant portion of the former TRPG social network. My opinion is that a successful and widely used VTT will remain an elusive mirage despite how much effort is poured into developing them.

Trying to compare VTTs with MMOs is indicative of a common problem in the industry in comparing tabletop roleplaying to other types of roleplaying games.  The issue arises from the fact that myriad children of D&D compete and supplanttabletop roleplaying for many.  Many in the industry, including Ryan Dancey look at these other forms of roleplaying and say to themselves "If we can take X feature from them, tabletop can now successfully compete." 

Also Ryan and others propose creating games that fundamentally change the mechanics of tabletop RPGs in order to compete. Like eliminating the need for a human referee, zero prep games, collaborative story telling. They may create fun games as a result, but also games that are no longer tabletop roleplaying.

If tabletop roleplaying is to compete then it needs to emphasis the elements that are unique to it alone. Namely the human referee and how easy it is to let the imagination roam free with the human referee interacting with his players. Just as important making it easy for players to find one another.

Because of this VTTs are going to be an important element of tabletop roleplaying future. The whiteboard nature of the software makes it easy for the referee and the players to throw up whatever their imagination think of. Far easier than having to construct or place 3D objects and paint them with textures. All one has to do see this in action is look at the volume of fan fiction. It is far easier to write about your favorite things than to construct a 3D world, or shoot a video.

One thing that VTTs haven't effectively addressed yet is getting gamers together to game. Many are working on this including Wizards.  What is needed is a site where hundreds or even thousands of gamers can browse to find open campaigns or create new campaigns. I personally think it will take a large preexisting network to make this happen. Either Facebook/Google+ will get a VTT app, or Paizo or Wizards throw their weight and resources behind one. Wizards has taken the first steps in this regard but not there yet.

VTTs are not the only answer. Things like an effective intro product, quality products, and game store events need to be part of the mix as well.

14 comments:

Erik Tenkar said...

I was a steady player in 2 FG campaigns, and it was as close to face to face table top gaming as one could get.

MMORPGs find older / former roleplayers because they allow one to squeeze gaming in around work / family / adult responsibilities.

I think many former gamers would prefer a VTT over an MMORPG if they could work out the schedualing aspect, which many cant

Joseph Bloch said...

Dancey has pretty much turned his back on the whole tabletop RPG hobby/industry/whatever, so his statements should be taken with a grain of salt.

He's also being more than a bit self-serving in his analysis, since he's involved with the Pathfinder MMO startup and was for the last several years involved with the Eve MMO.

His Linkedin profile lists him as a "MMO Marketing Expert", so perhaps part of that expertise revolves around trashing the competition on an industry level.

Robert Fisher said...

This brings up an issue I’ve often contemplated my whole life. Generic tools versus specific tools.

e.g. Powerpoint long seemed pointless to me because you can do 90% of the useful bits with any (object-based) graphics program. Most of the extra features are things that presentations are often better without. On the other hand, there are some lesser used features in Powerpoint that really are handy to the task. shrug

The strengths of the tabletop experience are arguably better served by generic tools than by specific tools. Because the tabletop game is really about the people interacting directly and the tools that let you do that virtually work just as well for a business meetings† or roleplaying.

(†Well, the kinds of meetings I have in my job are ones where voice, video, a virtual whiteboard, and a way to share images/documents are what we need.)

I tend to use a spreadsheet or word processing document‡ for my character records anyway. And I prefer a webcam pointing at dice to dice simulations. Like you say, the tools just need to virtualize what we’re doing anyway, not do anything special.

(‡Well, more likely an HTML document or something similar than your typical word processor...)

Not to mention the benefits of mixing and matching different tools rather than depending upon any unified solution that often does a lot of tasks poorly.

It also seems to me that playing tabletop RPGs online is—for most people—something to be done when you can’t face-to-face. (Or when you want to play more often than you can face-to-face.) Sure, when people choose to sit in front of a computer, they’ll choose a computer game rather than a living/dining room game. When they sit with friends in the living room, they’ll choose a living/dining room game rather than a computer game. Online play of tabletop games is a corner case that simplistic research isn’t going to tell you much about.

You can’t just ask them if they prefer the MMO or the VTT because the context is important. Indeed, with the VTT, the software itself is almost nothing. It’s the context and content of the game being played through it that matters.

(BTW, most of my virtual tabletop experience is actually mixed-mode. Most of the players are together in the same place with one or two participating virtually.)

Lee Reynoldson said...

I agree with Robert Fisher. Programs like Fantasy Grounds are overkill for me. I never use grids or mini's I scrawl maps on paper, don't feel like I need elaborate graphics or handouts.

I literally just want an actually virtual table where I can see and hear the players, rather than an elaborate software interface. I don't want tools that think they're competing with Skyrim or WoW I just want to play Tabletop RPG's online.


http://osrandom.blogspot.com/

temujin9 said...

Have you seen ConstantCon? Online gaming enabled by Google+ Hangouts.

arcadayn said...

So far, Google+ hangouts and the free whiteboard Twidla (which has a built in die roller) scratch my itch very well. The learning curve is almost flat, and it's completely free.

@Lee Reynoldson - If you haven't checked out G+ and Twidla, I highly recommend that you do. They seem to do exactly what you're looking for.

Wild Bill said...

I have been using Fantasy Grounds for quite a while. Only recently have I begun to use it with the Labyrinth Lord module/ruleset. I just posted a pic I took of Dyson's Delve Deluxe I have imported into Fantasy Grounds on Google+.

Which ruleset have you been using Rob? Or have you just been utilizing the drawing and dice features only?

Northy said...

I run a virtual game using "Game Table" and a repurposed ventrilo server (coincidentally, perhaps, one that was originally set up for MMO gaming). It's been going, on and off, for almost a year now and I'd like to think it's continuing to grow and provide a good venue for my players to meet and play at times that are convenient for them.

We have international players, and has been mentioned already we have to play around the work schedules and commitments of most of our players. We're all 'oldies' and we play what I consider an old-school game in, what I consider, an old-school 'style'. Most of all, we have a hell of a lot more fun than we've ever had in an MMO.

A tabletop is only as good as how it's used, and an MMO will never, never, never be able to compete on any kind of parity with a "D&D" game. The biggest progression to make, in my mind, is to adopt a solid, common set of protocols that aids the setup and spread of knowledge about VTT games and makes play quicker and easier to get into.

Crose87420 said...

IMHO, I think VTT's will find a substabtial and growing number of users.

Of course MMORPG's are great, no doubt, but I and some people, find that after awhile the AI is redundant.

So, back to RPG's and a GM who can create unpredicatble play for these players. (On an aside I think many of these players will be older, those who have experience with actual play around a table of friends). But, all-in-all I think VTT's will find their own groove. It hasn't taken off like I thought it would but older gamers may not be as used to this new-fangled tech as younger people are. So, I guess it will take time?

I, myself, have used Fantasy Grounds, Maptool, ScreenMonkey and MyRPG and have liked them all. It's the closest I've come to having a bunch of people around an actual table playing an RPG and joking with each other, RP'ing all kinds of fun, and experiencing epic and unpredictable adventure!

Justin Aquino said...

"The problem is that VTTs exist, and they’re not successful. " RyanD.

I think this is an over-generalization, purely anecdotal, and with no supporting facts.

VTTs are good for some, but not for all, but it doesn't mean they can't be better or they cannot evolve to something much better than we can imagine.

Its not like anyone has serious put money to develop, measure, or optimize the gaming process to create a better VTT experience.

I think as application building tools get more effective, as the economy becomes more global, barriers that prevent VTTs from improving will shrink and the processing power at the hands of an amateur like a GM will increase. used wisely it will make for much more enjoyable remote games.

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Neil Ford said...

For one attempt at trying to get gamers together to game virtually, check out http://www.infrno.net/

It has some way to go, but it's a valiant attempt.

- Neil.

Rusty said...

I have enjoyed using FG as a player but it takes a bit of work as a DM. For simple dungeon- based gaming, I prefer Gametable.

matt jackson said...

I used FG for about two years before I switched over to MapTool and used it again for a few years. This last week I rana game using Google Hangouts (with extras) and I was highly impressed. If you are looking for that around the table feel without having to get too deep in the woods on prepping the table, a google Hangouts is the way to go.