The Curse of Everything is Awful

This is a follow up to my previous blog post, The Curse of Good Enough in which I spoke about how Tabletop Simulator is good enough to make it useful but using it sucks out all of the effort that could be spent on improving other tools that could supplant it.

As a result of that, or as a result of the conditions that made me write it, I thought I’d give some of it’s competitors a try.

Everything is bad and we are in (digital board game prototyping) hell.

Board Game Arena is a website devoted to playing board games online. In order to supply a game to them to be played it has to have a port written in their PHP and Javascript framework and then they have to approve it. I did not find any documentation on their framework, and you have to apply to get access.

Needless to say I didn’t look much further.

Tabletopia is the main competitor to Tabletop Simulator. Both are 3D environments although Tabletopia is far more oriented towards end users than Tabletop Simulator is. It has a wide range of games available both free and paid and if you pay enough, only one person needs to have a paid account. It is however a monthly subscription.

Their game authoring tools are available for free for a single game to anyone who signs up, albeit with some restrictions such as not being available on mobile and no 3D assets. The ability to have more than one game uploaded at once, premium monetisation options and access to all of their authoring tools are available again for a monthly fee capping out at $20 a month. Services like this cost money to run, and assuming you’re doing this as part of a revenue generating exercise then $20 isn’t a huge ask.

The main issue though is that their actual authoring tools make two fatal mistakes in my mind: they suffer from a terminal case of developer UI and they expect me to already know all of the system’s requirements before I start.

As an experiment I tried to convert my current tile laying prototype into Tabletopia. It’s got 30+ tiles and tokens that are already formatted for Tabletop Simulator (in that each component is split into a different texture). There was no bulk upload so I had to go through one by one, giving each one a name (although it didn’t say what the name was for) and setting it’s parameters. Each one took eleven clicks and even on my blisteringly fast internet connection still took about 30-45 second to complete.

Eventually I get enough uploaded to want to start putting tiles on the board. But I’ve uploaded almost everything to the wrong folder. No problem, just move them to the right folder, but why was that a thing to begin with? Go into the editor, and it all looks a bit rough around the edges. No matter, I just want to start laying out some tiles to get a feel for it. I drag one of my hex tiles onto the board and….

It’s a square. Their hex tile doesn’t actually make your token a hexagon. There’s bugger all documentation I could see except a couple of youtube videos. Please repeat after me: A video is not documentation. A VIDEO IS NOT DOCUMENTATION. A VIDEO IS NOT DOCUMENTATION. A͜ ͞͏V̷Í̶̵D̵̷́E̶O̶͟ ̷I̷͜Ş̷̢ ̶͟N̶͟OT̡ ̴Ḑ͞OC̀Ú̶̧M̨E͝Ǹ̀T̀́À҉̷TI̶O̵͢N͘.


I did play around a little more after this but it’ was clear that somehow I’d fallen through several cracks and it never really got back on it’s feet. Maybe with some extra time it could have regained my trust but in that one moment it made me question if this software was worth my time, let alone essentially a copy of Tabletop Simulator every single month.

The entire authorial experience was clunky, as if I were dealing with someone’s database schema instead of putting together parts of a game. And I get why, that’s how developers treat user experiences. Goodness knows I’ve built (and continue to build, and will likely build in the future) interfaces just like it until a UX specialist grabs me by the shoulders and screams “but what does the user actually want to do” until I fix it.

And for my primary use case (rapid prototyping) the authoring experience really needs to be front and centre. Tabletopia gets some pretty decent reviews from players and I’ll admit that if I wanted the audience then it’s probably where I’d go. But I’m also privileged in the sense that I am a software developer with Unity experience and I can just build my own applications to solve my own needs and most board game designers don’t have that.

This is a real problem. Last time I talked about the curse of “Good Enough” where it sucks all the effort that could be spent improving things to just get what needs to be done done with the tool you’ve got. All of these tools suffer because they’re all bad, and it means that good enough stays just good enough because the alternatives are just as bad or worse and the cost of doing something different is higher than just dealing with everything being bad.

As a result of my experiences I’ve got about 10-15 pages of notes about what I’d want out of the theoretical ideal board game prototyping and remote playtesting tool. I don’t know 100% what I’m going to do with them yet though.

Watch this space I guess.