[FIELD NOTES] IGDATC May | NES and App-Integrated Board Game Development


The members of the International Game Developers Association Twin Cities gathered once again in May to learn from local experts and game makers. The topics of the evening were NES development and an in-depth look at Mansions of Madness, an app-integrated game published by Roseville-based game titan Fantasy Flight Game.

Scott Lembcke and Andy Korth of Howling Moon Software took the podium first to detail the lessons they learned from Global Game Jam 2018 in January. Their goal during the 48-hour game creation session was to build a fully functioning game for the 1983 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

They were drawn to the platform not only for the sheer nostalgia of it, but because they were curious about developing with such a small toolset. The limitations of the system precluded the team from using bitmaps, a 256 x 240 pixel display (compared to the 3840×2160 of a 4K TV) and a maximum of four color palettes with three colors each. They created a game called Interglactic Transmissing!, drawing on the unintentional humor of so many bad translations of classic Japanese video games.

The game incorporated the jam’s 2018 theme of transmission, tasking the player with sending satellite transmissions through a crowded field while dodging enemy spacecraft. They followed up their discussion of the hardware’s limitations with tips for developers interested in creating NES games today. The big takeaways: stay under 2KB of RAM, don’t try to make a platformer and don’t be afraid of stupid workarounds. Interglactic Transmissing! had additional programming help from Ben Gartner, art by Bill Nagel, and audio by me — Troy Strand.

After a brief intermission, Andrew Fischer of Fantasy Flight Games shared his insights from the development of Mansions of Madness, an app-integrated board game with a Lovecraftian horror theme. Beginning with an explanation of the term “app-integrated board game,” Fischer explained that it is not a digital game, nor is it a board game with a supplemental app. Mansions of Madness is a traditional (albeit complex) board game that requires an app-enabled device to play. Working together to solve mysteries in a creepy 1920s mansion, the game takes about two hours to play. Fischer summarized the role of the app in handling enemies and AI, acting as a game master and helping to tell the story of the game as the branching narrative unfolds.

The development team at Fantasy Flight Games had learned much with their work on XCOM, the company’s first app-integrated board game. They wanted to combine the joys of tabletop games (flexible timing, tactical interface, social interaction) with the advantages of digital games (hidden information, back-end complexity). Their tabletop and digital teams initially experienced workflow challenges–the former preferred waterfall project management while the latter preferred agile–and found difficulty scaling work up as the complexity of the project grew.

But they discovered a visual scripting plugin for the game engine Unity that allowed the non-developers to contribute meaningfully to the code. The guiding question throughout the whole process was, “is an app worth the hassle?” They didn’t want looking at a device to detract from the social experience, so they ensured that every interaction advanced the story of the game. Fischer’s key takeaways from this process: prototype early and often, be careful of scope, divide mechanics between mediums and make interfacing worth the hassle.

The International Game Developers Association Twin Cities chapter meets on the second Wednesday of every month at the Nerdery.