Searching for Blue Oceans – 10 Digitop Ideas

Devise plans to escape encircled ground” – Sun Tzu

Blue ocean strategy is the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand.” – Blue Ocean Strategy (Mauborgne & Kim)

However you phrase it, success in business and battle is often found in being where your competition is not; finding the ‘Blue Oceans’ proposed by Mauborgne & Kim (opposed to ‘Red Oceans’ where companies compete for a limited market/territory). Usually I try to find Blue Oceans in wild new territory, such as game ideas for brand-new devices or technology, but for this post I’m going to suggest creating a Blue Ocean at the intersection of two well known concepts.

The new XCom board/digital game just came out, and by all accounts it seems pretty fun ( It’s a good example of a ‘Blue Ocean’ product being created at the intersection at digital and physical. Let’s consider removing the distinction between ‘video’ and ‘tabletop’ and leverage the tools to create new & improved experiences. To get it started, I’ve thought up 10 more ‘digitop’ ideas. (FYI – I’m waiving any claim to these ideas right now; I don’t plan to build any of these in the near future, so feel free to use them as you please!)

10. Point Tracker – Lots of tabletop games require the players to keep track of points via pencil/paper or markers on a track. Make it simple with the point tracker app (could be a generic app, or branded for a specific game).

9. Virtual Shuffler – lots of tabletop games use a deck, or multiple decks of cards. They can be a pain to shuffle. Virtual Shuffler is an app that creates virtual decks for a game that can be displayed on a digital device – one deck for smaller screens, multiple decks for bigger ones – and shuffling becomes as easy as pressing a button. When a player draws a card from the virtual deck, they take the corresponding physical card.

9. Virtual Joker – Add variety to a game with a dynamic joker card. Insert a blank placeholder card or designate a specific card as the Joker. Then the app assigns a new random card to the Joker. Leave the device in the middle of the table so all players know what the card does. New cards can downloaded/purchased to add more variety.

8. House Rules – Create your own rules to fix shortcomings in games or improve them. House rules saves your new rules and allows anyone with a mobile device to review them. House rules is location specific, can remember rules for different games, and can even suggest popular rules for you.

6. Personal Leaderboard – simple app that tracks winners of games and optionally points, over time. Use it to see who is the reigning champ at any game! Could include graphs/time slices to track trends over time.

5. Handicap Randomizer – app to provide randomized handicaps for players. Great when playing with new or younger players. Handicaps level can be customized and are randomized so advanced players don’t get bored.

4. Bot-Buddy – Randomized AI buddy for games. Can be used when you’re short a player. Won’t necessarily work with every game and won’t necessarily be a great replacement for players, but can fill in for a pinch.

3. Grandmas Little Helper – a quick helper for people that seem to always be losing. Might take some inputs from the game (e.g. What character/race are you playing?) then suggest strategies (e.g. try building the longest road) with guidance on how to achieve it. Could also have a FAQ section (I’m always out of gold! How do I fix this?).

2. Blitz – an app to help speed up slow games (e.g. Risk). First, set the time you would like to play for. Based on the time, Blitz will set a turn timer to keep play moving, and also adds rules to accelerate play as time runs out (e.g. kill 2 armies per battle, everyone loses 50 armies this turn). When time runs out, Blitz provides rules to declare a winner even if the final game state has not been reached.

1. Campaign Tracker – for those who play a lot of games w/a group of friends, campaign tracker lets you run a meta-game outside the games. Lots of ways to implement this – could be configured for tournament format or seasons/playoff format. Could provide additional rulesets based on the point in the campaign (e.g. it’s now winter, you start with half food). Could even be built to support multiple games (Your money in Monopoly funds your initial armies in Risk).

Hope you found some value in my brainstorming and hope these ideas provided you inspiration for your own digitop ideas. Finally, in closing: whenever you feel encircled by your competitors, I encourage you to step back and find your own Blue Oceans in unconventional places.

Being the Best Unsuccessful Indie

If you want to go only by the numbers, stop reading this post. My company, Iterative Games, ran a $5,000 Kickstarter that was barely funded (thank you again backers) and then sold only 3 copies of that Kickstarted title ‘Contract Work’. Mistakes were made. I had to go back to a day job in the cubes and took a 6 month hiatus to recover from burnout. You’d be better off reading about the one guy who made a bunch of money, right? As it turns out, maybe not – allow me a couple paragraphs to explain why:

I recently discovered this article on Survivorship Bias (thanks Jay Margalus), examining logical errors we make when we focus only on successes. The famous example goes like this – during WW2, allied brass wanted to know where to add armor on bombers to improve survivability. They examined bombers that survived combat and decided to add armor where those bombers had been shot. Logical, right? It took brilliant statistician Abraham Wald to point out their error; they were examining survivors, not victims. The areas not shot in the surviving bombers should be armored. A simple yet important example of the danger of survivorship bias.

I’ve also been considering “The Myth of Lone Genius”, as explained Austin Kleon in his book “Show Your Work”. The myth is that a few individuals appear with superhuman talents and without any outside influences, create masterpieces released with great fanfare. “The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements”. The problem? The ‘Lone Genius’ teaches us nothing – you either have it or you don’t. Kleon supports instead the concept of ‘scenius’, a model where great ideas are birthed by a group of creative individuals who develop an ecology of talent.

Thanks for sticking around. Now you’re familiar with survivorship bias and scenius, here’s why I think it’s important for unsuccessful indies like myself to share our experiences: by contributing information about our failures, we can increase the chances of others in our scenius succeeding. With todays tech, it’s never been easier or faster to share & collaborate. And those of us yet to succeed have the best perspective on how to help our peers; the fellow student can be a better teacher than the professor because they relate to our situation.

Don’t underestimate the power of sharing your experience. Consider the 4 minute mile, a feat once considered physically impossible. For 9 years, the record stands at 4:01.4. On May 6, 1954 Roger Bannister finally breaks it with a time of 3:59.4…and within 2 months his record is broken, at 3:58! Within 5 years, two other runners will break that mark. The task did not become easier, but once it was done, it became easier to repeat. “Once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly” (Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman). By simply telling the story of overcoming your obstacles, you increase the chance for others to do the same, and vice versa. If you’re willing to be honest, you don’t have to sell a million copies of your game before you can contribute. You’re not a genius, exactly like the rest of us.

And while we’re being honest – openly sharing and receiving is HARD to do. It can be scary to tell everyone that you spent over $1,500 in marketing to sell 3 copies. But sharing that information helps everyone else, a little ‘Demon’s Souls’ type marker that warns other developers ‘Here, there be dragons’. I know the indie game scene can feel like a zero sum game where you ‘lose’ sales to your fellow indies. But when we view it as a co-operative ecology, successes increase the pie for everyone. The latin root of Competition (competere) means to strive together. We compete to bring the best out in all of us.

So let’s help ourselves out. Don’t let the numbers discourage you from sharing – we’re right there with you, and we’re all striving together to build better games and better lives in our scenius. Let’s all be the best ‘unsuccessful’ indies we can be.

To wrap it up, here’s a few small things that have been working for me:

  • Personal A/B/C testing – when I’m not happy with a feature, I’ll build multiple quick versions instead of iterating, then pick the one I like the most. It frees me mentally from the fear of ‘losing’ a version I like and opens up crazier experiments.
  • Curating Facebook content – I’ve been selecting games and ideas I like and sharing them on the Contract Work Facebook page with a few thoughts of my own. Engagement on these posts has been 2-3x times better than just regular development updates.
  • Friends help friends – My friend Rob Lockhart introduced me to his artist Pui Che who helped me finish an art piece as part of my Kickstarter rewards (personal recommendations always feel best). It’s been a very productive collaboration – the final piece is amazing and it’s inspired my development and provided new ideas for the Contract Work Universe.

Contract Work Art Book Cover by Pui Che