Battlegrounds RPG Mini Interview 2011-04-02

How long has your VT been around, do you feel its keeping to it's original "design"?

Battlegrounds v1.0 was released on November 1, 2006, although development started a couple of years before that. The program has been under constant development ever since that initial release, and there have now been around 66 free updates released (on average, there tend to be 1 or 2 updates a month). BRPG, as it exists now, is a far more capable and versatile a program than I ever imagined v1.x would be, and that is mostly thanks to great user feedback. Battlegrounds should really be considered to be a 2.x version, if not more, because it has had the time to grow, to become very feature-rich, and to mature into a stable gaming environment.

Although the program has evolved significantly (it's now useable not just for RPGs, but also for boardgames, card games, and dice games), I feel that, for the most part, it has remained true to the original vision for the program, which was to have a hidden-until-you-need-it interface and a full-screen map, and to support any RPG system and any game genre.

The exception to my general design philosophy is the addition of the Commands panel. A number of people were unsure how to use a program where everything worked via contextual popup menus and/or hotkeys. They wanted buttons on the screen that they could push, and the Commands panel was my solution to this user request, but it is my hope that people use it only while initially learning the program and its hotkeys, and that they then disable the Commands panel and use the program the way it was meant to be used; without always-on-screen interface elements that break the immersion factor. Battlegrounds' goal is to put your game front and center, and I think it succeeds quite well in this regard. You're playing games, after all; the interface shouldn't look and feel like you're using Microsoft Office, or something.

How many people contribute to developing your VT?

I am the sole programmer behind Battlegrounds. I have used some code from the now-defunct V-FORT VT (this code adds the ability to draw reveals and conceals on the manual Fog of War layer). Everything else is my own. Over the years, I have partnered with a number of third-party content developers to bring professional-quality artpack content to Battlegrounds users, but these artists are not employees of Battlegrounds Games.

That said, the truth is that a humongous number of people have contributed to Battlegrounds' development, by providing feedback and feature requests. Battlegrounds is very much a user-feedback-driven program.

Do you target a specific RPG system, if so why? Is this likely to change.

Absolutely not. Battlegrounds has always been intended to be system-agnostic. On several occasions, I have come across forum posts where people claim that Battlegrounds is d20-based, and I have no idea where they are getting this idea.

What system do you feel is the most popular on your VT, do you feel your user base would be affected by an official VT for that system?

It should come as no surprise that most people who play RPGs play some edition of D&D or d20-based systems, and this carries over directly into what BRPG is used for. I would guess that about half of BRPG users play other RPG systems, such as GURPS, Hero System, Rolemaster, WoD/nWoD, Savage Worlds, Exalted, etc.

Now that Wizards of the Coast is coming out with their own VT, I imagine that some D&D players will turn to it, since it's the "official" D&D VT. The fact is, their VT won't adjudicate game rules, so what difference does it make? If it did adjudicate and automate D&D's rules, I'd be very worried about losing BRPG users who primarily play D&D, but it doesn't, so I'm not worried.

It would be nice if RPG publishers would allow VT developers to more directly support their systems and official adventure modules. You would think that it would be a big win for everyone if the games could be played online more easily and effectively (by including RPG-specific IP, and having pre-made adventures with all creature stats, combat charts, etc. included). Instead, the publishers are more concerned about protecting their IP, and don't seem to care about supporting gaming groups that have become geographically dispersed. Aren't they concerned that these people will eventually stop purchasing their products if they don't have the means to continue playing them? The RPG industry should be doing everything it can to avoid player attrition.

How do you decide which RPG systems to adapt for your VT?

I think you mean to ask how do I decide which RPG systems to support. Users, or potential users, come to me with feature requests that would allow them to play their RPG system of choice, and I try to implement their requests until the system is supported. To give just one example, some users wanted to play Savage Worlds, which uses standard playing cards to determine the turn sequence (initiative). At the time, BRPG didn't support cards at all, so I added support for cards and card decks. Then I added a means of using card values to automatically determine a character's acting order in the turn sequence.

If one were to peruse old threads/posts on the Battlegrounds forums, I think you would find literally hundreds of instances where a user requests a feature, and in fairly short order, the feature gets implemented.

Do you offer accessories for your VT, do you think there is a market for this?

I offer quite a few add-on products for BRPG. They generally break down into two types of add-ons: (1) artpacks, and (2) digital game conversions. Some of these add-ons are for sale, but most of them are free (I try to make a point of ensuring that BRPG users get more than they paid for).

There's definitely a market for VT add-ons, and I think the add-ons that are available for BRPG are an important factor to consider when someone is deciding on which VT they will use, especially for time-strapped GMs.

Are you seeing an increase in the number of people that use your software, are VT's becoming more popular?

Well, the Battlegrounds userbase is always growing, year after year, but my perception is that the rate of growth/adoption is slowing down a bit. Perhaps it's the poor economy. Perhaps it's the availability of free VTs. Or perhaps it's a reflection of the hobby's decline in general, with pen-and-paper RPGs losing ground badly to computer games like World of Warcraft. I think VT's in general are becoming more popular and have been receiving more exposure (especially since the announcement of WotC's VT), but this is a niche market, and the ever-increasing number of VTs means that any given VT gets a smaller portion of the market.

It's impossible to tell how many users each VT has based on how many people register on their forums. For starters, some VT forums have a staggering number of spam-bot-generated accounts (i.e., not real people). And not everyone who registers is an actual user, nor do all users bother to register on the forums. There's also no way to tell if someone who registered somewhere later switched to another VT. Frankly, unless you're planning on doing a lot of pick-up games where you are recruiting players from the VT's userbase, the size of the userbase shouldn't really matter. And it certainly shouldn't be used as an indicator of the VT's relative merit.

How have the tight financial times affected your product?

As I said before, sales have slowed somewhat lately, despite the fact that the software is now far more capable, more stable, and better-documented than ever before. I have personally been going through hard economic times, but I don't want to give up on what I believe is a market that has not truly peaked yet, so I keep trying to find ways to support further development (e.g., sales of artpacks and digital game conversions). Unfortunately, these additional revenue streams have not performed to my expectations.

I would imagine that the global economic crisis has probably affected all the commercial VTs, and has been a boon for the free VTs.

What do you think the strengths and weaknesses of your VT are?

BRPG's strength is ease of use, in that you don't have to be a computer geek to figure out how to use the program. The software is designed to be easy to use and has extensive documentation (arguably the most thorough User Manual of any VT). By contrast, most other VT developers have been sorely lacking when it comes to documenting their software, relying on user-created video tutorials and unofficial wikis.

Another strength is how incredibly flexible and customizable the program is; it can handle just about any RPG system or boardgame. The fact that BRPG can serve as a general gaming VT and isn't limited to RPGs should be a major consideration for many gamers looking for a VT.

As for weaknesses, I'd have to say the lack of interactive shared character sheets (though this is planned for v2), and a lack of tutorial videos (which I hope to address).

What do you have on the cards next, what should we look forward to?

My next major product will be Battlegrounds Gaming Engine (BGE). It will basically be a version of Battlegrounds that is specifically tailored for playing boardgames, wargames, card games, and dice games. Ideally, everything except RPGs, to include tabletop miniature games like Warhammer, WH40K, and Warmachine). BGE will only cost a fraction of the price of BRPG. My hope is that, by lowering the price of entry, the userbase can grow far larger than BRPG's. The general gaming market will be a tough one, because Vassal (my primary competitor in this market) is free and is already deeply entrenched. But I hope to provide greater quality and ease of use, and I think many gamers are willing to pay for those things (as long as it's not too expensive).

For current users of Battlegrounds, I hope to create more digital game conversions and more artpacks. And then it will be time to decide on the future of Battlegrounds. 2011 will probably be the year that I decide whether or not Battlegrounds v2 is worth developing. There's so much more that can be done and added, but a number of new features will require a ground-up rewrite in order to implement them properly, so I've been putting those features off until v2.

Where do you think RPGs and / or VTs will go next?

I see traditional RPGs in decline, and the fate of VTs is inextricably tied to that decline. That's not to say I think they are dying off completely, though. I'm sure RPGs will always be around in one form or another, but it will remain a niche market, and I don't see pen-and-paper RPGs becoming significantly more mainstream.

In one sentence tell me why I should use your VT, over the competition?

I can't do that. I don't know your specific needs in a VT, so it's entirely possible that my offering is not the one best-suited for you. I can only say that if your needs are along the lines of "easy-to-use, cross-platform, with audio support, visual dice rolls, no scripting or XML editing, and a visually appealing and immersive environment", Battlegrounds is what you're looking for. Conversely, if your needs are along the lines of "I want to spend hours doing data entry and have the VT auto-calculate the entire game for me at the push of a button, and I want to have to learn scripting and/or XML editing in order to achieve that", then I suggest you take a look at some of my competitor's VT offerings.

Thanks to heruca at the Battlegrounds Games for taking the time to answer the questions.