by Ben Downton
This article originally appeared on Prometheus Game Labs in August 2023
On August 10, 2023, Micro Dojo officially launched on Board Game Arena, racking up one thousand games played in just a few days. The process of bringing Micro Dojo from the physical to the digital world in this way was a long (and at times frustrating) process, and I learned a lot along the way that I’ll share with you here.
If you’re not already familiar with Board Game Arena, BGA is an online platform for playing digital implementations of hundreds of board games that was acquired by Asmodee in 2021. BGA has a matchmaking system, different play modes (real-time or asynchronous turn-based), tournament support, and achievements. You can play most games on BGA for free, with Premium subscription options available for dedicated users, and it has enticed a huge player base numbering in the millions.
BGA has built a wide community of not just gamers, but of passionate volunteer developers, translators, and moderators. I mention this now as, even with the incredible size of the player base, I think it’s important to view BGA in the context of a very successful fan-led project rather than as a professional commercial entity (though this may change over time).
First Things First
For Board Game Arena to host an implementation of a game, it needs to be assigned a license from the publisher to be able to do so.
The publisher for the game needs to complete the short form here, and the main requirement is that the game needs to have a BoardGameGeek listing in order for BGA to pull its information.
The license terms are fairly unimposing, essentially granting BGA non-exclusive rights to publish the game on the platform and use the games assets to do so.
Fans and developers can request licenses for games that they really want to see on BGA, so if your game is popular enough, you might hear directly from a developer who wants to develop your game. (More on that below.)
If you are comfortable with coding, you could start to develop the game yourself — more on that below — but in my case I needed to find a developer who wanted to implement Micro Dojo on BGA.
BGA Development Ecosystem
A note here first on BGA’s development ecosystem as there appear to be a few different models:
• Freelance developer, commissioned by publisher: In this article, I’m primarily covering this approach, which is a volunteer developer working on a game at the request of the publisher. The terms of this agreement are negotiated between the publisher and the developer.
• Volunteer developer, revenue share (Premium Game): Games that are developed as Premium games require players to have a BGA Premium subscription so that they generate revenue for BGA. This revenue is shared either with the publisher or with the publisher and the developer, and the revenue is based on the number of hours played by Premium users (as a percentage of total hours on the platform). For this reason, it can be worthwhile for a developer to pursue a license and develop games that are already popular.
• Volunteer developer, non-Premium game: In this scenario, a developer has volunteered to bring a game to BGA for their own personal interest, typically because they are a fan of the game. This approach differs from the freelance-publisher model above because the developer is the one who initiates the request for work. This means contacting the publisher to request permission (i.e. the license being granted to BGA), or by reviewing the list of available licenses granted to BGA. (You need to create a BGA Studio developer account to access this link.)
Finding a Developer
You can find a developer a few ways:
• Submit a support ticket on the “Propose a Game” page.
• Email firstname.lastname@example.org with details of the opportunity.
• Post about a paid development opportunity on the BGA Developers forum.
• Post in the #lookingfordeveloper channel of the BGA Developers Discord.
• Contact a developer directly by reviewing their profile for other, similar games.
The first three options in my experience were unsuccessful. I never got a response to the submitted form, and email responses to the mailing address are extremely delayed (or non-existent). The forums are utilized but are not particularly lively, and a lot of requests for development work (including for Micro Dojo) go unanswered.
I had much better success posting in the BGA Developers Discord channel. The existence of this channel isn’t obviously documented on BGA Studio or BGA Developers forums, and I was fortunate enough to find it existed from another publisher that had their game developed on BGA.
Within a few days of posting on the channel, I had quotes from 5-6 developers for Micro Dojo ranging from $800-2000 and largely based on the developer’s estimated time needed to implement the game. The quotes typically included time to develop the initial game, then time spent bug fixing and progressing the game to production, with about half the time to develop the game and half the time spent on bug fixing. Some contracts offered a warranty for bugs rated major and critical up to a certain time after the full release on BGA. It’s worth noting here that Micro Dojo is a relatively simple game, yet still required a decent number of hours to develop and release. I expect more complex games to have significantly higher costs.
In the end, I chose to work with the developer n_e_s_s_u_n_o, who liked the look of Micro Dojo and was keen to develop it.
Starting the Project
The first step is to populate the project page, and to do that you need to prepare images:
• Box image – 280×280
• Game icon – 50×50
• Banner – 1386×400
• Publisher image – 280×280
• Display images – 400-760 height, with width up to 1.5 x height
• Title images – 2000×2000
Your developer will also need access to all of the artwork for the game in order to start creating the components, which might include other assets like fonts. To do all of this, I created a shared folder on Google Drive, which also meant I could update assets later if they needed changing to be more web (rather than print) friendly, but other file-sharing solutions would also be suitable.
The developer (and the publisher, if granted access) will then have access to the control panel for the project. This handles the versioning and deployment for the game in BGA Studio.
Once the project was set up, the time to get to a playable first version of the game was about two weeks. In that time there was lots of contact with the developer to clarify rules questions and decide which features of the game to start with to get a minimal playable version. Micro Dojo has a fairly simple ruleset and limited components, which meant the time to get a working version was accelerated compared to much larger and more complex games.
One particular challenge in translating game logic to computer logic is that you might find actions in your game which players can easily intuit and shortcut in physical play, but which are fairly complex when it comes to digital implementation. For example, in Micro Dojo the Stables building allows a player to move a meeple two spaces instead of one. While players often start a move with their intent (“I want to move to this space”), then commit the operation to do it (“I will move to this space by using the Stables”), the game has to provide the player with all of the potential options up front. This turned a fairly simple (in the game world) ability into a complex flowchart in which players select each move one space at a time.
Once the game was in a playable state, it was possible to run test games on BGA Studio. Registering for a BGA Studio account gives you multiple “player” accounts for testing, which will let you fill a table and play multiple seats. This was particularly useful to rapidly test features and particular game situations.
The goal at this stage was to try to find any game-breaking bugs or implemented features that weren’t working as intended (which is common early on). Bugs can be reported against particular games on the Bugs & suggestions page. This can be useful for tracking issues during this development stage. Though you may report bugs to the developer more directly, it is extremely useful as the project develops since other players can also report bugs in the game during Alpha and Beta releases.
Once the game is in an Alpha state, it can be played on the public BGA site, with some limitations. The game remains unlisted, and it is restricted to only BGA reviewer accounts and those who have been manually added to the game’s group by the developer.
BGA Reviewers are extremely experienced members of the community that have volunteered to become a reviewer and gain access to Alpha games. As you can see, the requirements are quite strict:
Getting the support of BGA Reviewers is critical because to progress from Alpha to Beta stage, the game needs to receive ten approvals from reviewer accounts.
How do you get reviewers for your game? Officially, the Alpha games forum is the place to discuss the games at this stage, and posting about the game’s progression to Alpha is a good start. I didn’t get many responses to this post, and once again found asking for reviewers in the BGA Developers Discord channel to be more successful. The developer, as an active member of the community, can also likely help with this as they will be keen to move the project along.
Once you have ten approvals, the project is ready to go to Beta. The development process written by BGA states that a project moves to Beta “When the BGA reviewers and the publisher/designer think it’s ready!” — but that’s not quite right. In addition, the publisher must give approval to the BGA Studio dev team, which means sending a request to email@example.com and waiting for it to be actioned.
Once the game progresses to Beta, it is now publicly available for everyone on the platform to play. The usual functions you would expect on a game page are there, with a banner to remind players that the game is in a Beta stage.
As before, there are restrictions. The game isn’t listed on the main play page of BGA or suggested games, so it isn’t easily discoverable. It’s also not possible to run tournaments for the game until it’s progressed to a full release.
At this stage it’s quite likely that a lot more bugs will get reported as the game is getting exposed to a wider audience, but players will also provide suggestions to make the game experience better. This is great feedback from the community and an opportunity to introduce nice quality-of-life features to the game.
When some time has passed without any new bugs being reported and the outstanding bugs have been resolved, the game can be moved to a full release.
Full release is obviously the ultimate goal for a development project, and an official release adds a few final features like tournament support and a public game listing. There are two approaches to game release:
• Release announcement by BGA
• Silent release
While the silent release simply nudges the game into release mode — listing the game, allowing tournaments, and removing the beta banner — an official release by BGA will feature it as part of their launch calendar. This means that BGA will announce the launch of a game, alerting the large BGA player base to try something new. A reader of an earlier version of this article pointed out to me that it’s possible to find a list of new games (and even Beta and Alpha games) in the BGA Games panel.
From Beta to Release
The progression of the game to a scheduled release obviously requires some co-ordination by BGA, and unfortunately, this is where the process really began to get frustrating.
This launch calendar schedule isn’t shared, and I tried a number of different ways to get the game progressed from Beta to Release. Sending multiple emails and follow-ups to firstname.lastname@example.org over several months requesting a release of the game all received no response. I tried reaching out to some of the team via BGA messaging system with no response. I sent private messages to the administrator of the Developers Discord channel with no response. Eventually the only way to reach them was tagging the account in a public chat channel of the Discord and requesting a response. Even then, the ongoing communication was haphazard, requiring constant follow-ups, and it took four more months to confirm a release date. All in all, the game was complete and ready for release on December 13, 2022, and was finally released on August 10, 2023 — nine months later.
In the case of Micro Dojo, it was launched as part of the Summer of Games event in which BGA releases a project from the backlog every day in August. A couple of games released in this way were accompanied by a launch article, but most were simply linked in an edit to the main Summer of Games launch post with no other accompanying fanfare.
I have been told that BGA has a new marketing manager who is responsible for communications, so this may well improve in future. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to contact them and didn’t receive any communication about Micro Dojo’s launch other than a proposed date.
Following the release, there are a number of activities you might want to do to maintain the game. I mentioned BGA’s community a few times in this article, and the community ecosystem continues to thrive post-launch; fans of your game (or just BGA) are a huge asset in developing and maintaining an inviting game page.
• How to Play & Tutorials
• Schedule a tournament
Each game has a wiki page that, when completed, will be displayed on the game page itself describing how to play the game. Players can also create tutorials for games that walk players through how to play, click by click.
Players can set their preferred language within their BGA profile, allowing them to access games in their preferred language and, wonderfully, play games with other players across language barriers. Volunteers can suggest translations for your game for each “string” (in-game text) that the game has, and BGA makes the submission and approval process very simple.
Tournaments are a good way of engaging the community to keep interest in the game high post-launch. Creating a tournament is simple, and I believe any BGA Premium member can do it. Click the “Create a Tournament” button, and choose from a variety of options for timing, matchmaking, points attribution, and so on.
Overall, it took about one year to go from the first development to release, with about three months of that being development time. The full release of Micro Dojo has exposed it to a much larger audience, and I’ve received quite a few messages from people who have just discovered the game and loved it enough to reach out to me to say so. Thousands of games played in a few days is huge for a small independent publisher, and it’s delightful to see people discovering, playing, and enjoying my game.
Though online tabletop games can be implemented on platforms like Tabletop Simulator (which I use for a lot of prototyping and playtesting) or Tabletopia, I believe Board Game Arena’s clean implementation and large audience make it the best choice for a public digital release.
Despite the benefits that this brings, though, I can’t recommend that publishers invest in bringing their games to BGA unless the game is already extremely popular and has been consistently requested by BGA’s fans or developers.
There is a great volunteer community of developers, many of which are willing to be engaged for (paid) development opportunities. As a publisher, it is difficult to justify this expense without some control over the release status and format.
I really appreciated working with n_e_s_s_u_n_o, not just for the end result, but for communication and responsiveness throughout, and would happily recommend you get in touch for other projects if you choose to bring your game to BGA.