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Interviews by an Optimist # 32 - Scott Alden

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  • Tom Vasel
    Interviews by an Optimist # 32 - Scott Alden Scott (Aldie) says this about himself... You could say my entire waking life is about games. I have always been
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2005
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      Interviews by an Optimist # 32 - Scott Alden

      Scott (Aldie) says this about himself...


      You could say my entire waking life is about games. I have always
      been into some form of game recreation ever since my Dad took us to
      the arcade at the local putt-putt golf course in Pompano Beach,
      Florida. My favorite game was the skeet shooting game where you got
      to hold a semi-realistic shotgun and shoot at little white balls of
      light as if they were the pucks. It continued on when Dad brought
      home one of those pong video games that you hook up to the TV and each
      player gets a paddle control. I remember having a pong tournament at
      my birthday party and everyone was amazed by the game.

      Video games continued to influence me throughout high school life and
      on into college where I got my Computer Engineering degree from the
      University of Florida. Upon graduation I interviewed with all the big
      recruiters... BNR, IBM, EDS, Harris, and a few others I can't
      remember. The only interview I had out of the state was BNR (Bell
      Northern Research), and coming to Dallas for an onsite meeting I fell
      in love with the city immediately. I really hoped that I would get a
      job offer from BNR, all the while stretching out the due-date on the
      response that Harris wanted.

      Eventually the news came from Texas that I had an offer to work in the
      mobile telecom group, and I accepted it immediately. I was headed for
      the Big D! A couple of years after working at BNR/Northern Telecom
      (now Nortel), I got a call from a college buddy. Turned out that they
      were looking for an engineer to be the Macintosh support group for
      their 3D graphics chip. When they said support, I kind of scoffed
      because I'd always considered myself to be a designer with my own
      ideas, but I went out to Silicon Valley for the interview. I was
      whisked around the company to meet all the employees and at the end of
      the day was presented with an offer and "lucrative" stock options. I
      accepted the job and so began my career in computer games.

      I worked at 3Dfx for approximately a year, and the same buddy (who had
      recently quit) called me up and said that a local computer games
      developer in Dallas was looking to add another programmer and my name
      came up. I flew back to Dallas and was really excited to join up with
      Ritual Entertainment and work on a "real" computer game. Instead of
      being support, I would be a programmer working and contributing to
      development of a new game.

      I spent 3 years at Ritual and shipped 2 games in the process (Sin and
      Heavy Metal F.A.K.K. 2). I then moved to 3D Realms where I currently
      am working on the next Duke Nukem game.

      Somewhere around 1999, I started getting heavily into German board
      games. I found a copy of Settlers of Catan on the shelf and had been
      hearing good things about it. I picked it up and played it with my
      current game group several times. We had previously been playing
      Warhammer, and Settlers became the new addiction.

      In 1999, I met up with Derk Solko (my partner and friend here at
      BoardGameGeek) and joined the Dallas Metrogamers. I wrote to Derk one
      evening after reading his session reports that were posted to R.G.B.
      (rec.games.board). Derk said that he would need to meet me before
      extending an invitation to join. I went through Derk's induction
      phase, passing with flying colors (he tells a different story), and
      proceeded to divert all my disposable income toward my board game
      collection. I think I acquired about 300 games in the first year and
      devoured every bit of information I could find about the hobby. There
      wasn't a lot to be found except for the excellent websites by Mik
      Svellov, Steffan O' Sullivan, and the Game Cabinet.

      Derk kept mentioning games that I had never heard of, and I wondered
      where he was getting his information. He eventually confessed that he
      was on an invitation-only e-mail group that was really into all the
      new German games. I immediately asked to join, and I eventually wore
      Derk down enough that he would sponsor me to get on the mailing list.

      When I was finally able to join, the feeling was bittersweet. Here
      was this great wealth of information where there were pages and pages
      of discussion on just about every game I desired, and ones that I
      hadn't even heard of, but I felt guilty about having access to private
      discussions that would only be seen by very few people in the world.

      About a year before I met Derk, I was tooling around with some PHP
      scripts that accessed a MySQL database. For fun I developed a content
      management system that supported several site administrators who could
      write up categorized news stories and publish them to a web page.
      Along with some friends, I launched 3DGameGeek.com, which would be a
      news site for computer gaming. Here's a link to the first interview
      we published: http://web.archive.org/web/20000525025152/www.3dgamegeek.com/interviews/billy/index.shtml
      The site ran for about 6 months, and then eventually died out due to
      my lack of motivation and lack of others to keep pumping in new
      content.

      During one of the Metrogamers game sessions, I mentioned to Derk that
      I was running this website and with a little modification and hacking
      I could get it working for board games. . . . wouldn't that be cool!?
      He was interested, because he was also coming up with game
      categorization and a rating scheme for board games. We decided to
      merge forces where I would program the site, and Derk would pump in
      content. We initially used Derk's Metrogamer session reports and some
      reviews written by Metrogamer Neil Carr and himself. Initially we had
      about 100 articles and enough content to launch BoardGameGeek (guess
      where I got the name?) in January 2000.

      I could go on, but I will give you some room for questions :-)

      Tom: Do you have an ultimate goal with BoardGameGeek? It's certainly
      an evolving site!

      Aldie: The ultimate goal is to be the definitive web site on board
      games. I think it's getting there. . . but we have a long way to go
      in designing a system to best organize the voluminous amounts of data
      that are pumped daily into the site. A new user coming to the site is
      overwhelmed by the amount of information and data in there.

      Another interesting development is the community that has formed
      around the website. When we initially designed the site, the user
      system wasn't even a consideration. It was just going to be a
      database of information. But when user-driven content was added, the
      site exploded with activity.

      Tom: Now that BGG has exploded into a huge community, you must be
      quite busy running the site. How much time each day do you spend
      maintaining the site, and what's the average amount of e-mail you
      receive each day?

      Aldie: These days, it seems like I am spending at least 2 to 3 hours a
      night programming new features or fixing bugs. I also surf the site a
      bit during the day when I have a few spare minutes during my software
      build times at work.

      We have some excellent behind-the-scenes administrators who work on
      approving content. There would be no way I would have enough time to
      maintain the site all by myself.

      As far as e-mails, I get a lot... at least 30 a day related to BGG in
      some way. Some people are looking for games, while others are
      reporting bugs/problems. Unfortunately, quite a few of the e-mails go
      unanswered - I just don't have the time to answer them all.

      Tom: The big excitement at BGG these days is BGG.CON. Can you tell
      us a bit about the reasons you decided to start this convention, and
      any unique characteristics of it?

      Aldie: Derk and I talked about doing a game convention for years after
      starting up BGG. This is finally the year where we are actually doing
      it. We're shooting for a feeling of a laid-back, open gaming
      convention--but intermingled with publishers and developers--all in
      one room. An American "Essen Spiele" with lots of open gaming is the
      ultimate goal.

      We're hoping for an "invitational feel" without the invitation. We'll
      have open gaming, a few tournaments, and we're getting some top tier
      vendors and publishers to hawk their wares. It should be a blast...
      plus it's in Dallas... which is a cool place in itself. If you don't
      feel like being at the hotel then there are tons of options just out
      the door for you to explore.

      Also, Derk and I want to meet the faces behind the people in the
      community. A lot of our users don't get to attend the Gathering of
      Friends or some of the other big game conventions so we're looking
      forward to meeting them. . . and I'm sure they are looking forward to
      meeting each other to put faces behind the names.

      Tom: Change after change has been made to the BGG website over the
      years. What are, in your opinion, the two most significant changes?

      Aldie: Hmmm. . . It's hard to pick just two. I love them all :-)

      First, I guess the user system is the biggest one. There would be no
      way that BGG would be anything without the users. Their contributions
      make the site what it is.

      Second, GeekLists, which were inspired by ListMania on Amazon.com, and
      I love reading what people come up with. It's hard to make a new list
      these days that doesn't overlap with an old list, but I see them
      evolving as time goes by. They are the most fun part of the website
      for me.

      Tom: Have you ever made any changes that you later on regretted?

      Aldie: Sure. I have regretted implementing the numerical game
      ratings. It's an arbitrary number that everyone interprets
      differently, and it's caused too many arguments to count.
      It's amazing the amount of grief a 1 or a 10 can cause. We've had
      problems with shill raters and shill busters rating games either a 1
      or a 10 drastically affecting the average.

      Although I regret adding it in, the amount of other data outweighs the
      numerical rating and gives a good feel for whether or not they are
      going to like it.

      Tom: Personally, I really like the numerical game ratings - to lose
      them would be to lose an incredible amount of data. Do you think that
      the "shillers" and the "shill busters" cause as much as a problem as a
      very vocal few like to say?

      Aldie: Oh, I'm not saying I would get rid of it. It is overwhelmingly
      more useful than not. I guess I'm just oversensitive to it. It's
      just one of those 'picadillos' that keeps cropping back up, and
      there's no solution to it. At least I've not seen a solution that I
      agree with.

      I think the shillers and shill-busters can cause quite a stir when a
      game first comes out, but it calms down over time when the game is
      actually "played" and rated by 50 or so users.

      Tom: When surfing the 'net for board game information, do you go to
      other sites besides BGG, or is that where you spend all your time?

      Aldie: I visit Gamewire and Mik Svellov's site when the Essen and
      Nuremberg game conventions roll around. They both provide excellent
      coverage and write-ups on the new games coming out. I also read
      Chris Farrell's Blog. He provides a lot of interesting analysis that
      doesn't get posted on BGG.

      Tom: Yes, Chris is indeed an excellent writer! Now answer this -
      with all the time you spend working at your job on the
      never-coming-out game and your website, is there any time left for
      games?

      Aldie: Not as much as I used to, but I still have time for gaming on
      Saturday afternoons for about 3-5 hours depending on what's going on.
      Unless I am writing a new system, I am pretty much off the website
      during the weekends.

      Tom: What is your answer to the continual "we need moderation" vs.
      "freedom of speech" debate that occasionally rages up on the board?

      Aldie: We need moderation, there's no question about it these days.
      We're getting upwards of 10,000 people visiting the site daily, and
      some of the stuff people post just isn't appropriate. The endless
      debates and ad hominem attacks were getting out of hand, and I've been
      receiving daily complaints about various things.

      Since the website is so large right now, I can't read every single
      thing that comes through it, so I've enlisted some users who have been
      around for a long time to help shoulder the load.

      Now, having said all that, I think our community is great. Although
      some heated flame wars have erupted now and then, it's nowhere near
      the level of some of the internet based forums and newsgroups; so I
      think with just a little moderation we'll do just fine, and the site
      will be able to grow and be a place where people won't get attacked
      for speaking their mind about games.

      Tom: Of all the thousands of games on your site, which one brought
      you firmly into the "Eurogame" fold, after Settlers? And which one is
      your current favorite?

      Aldie: It was Euphrat & Tigris. This was the first game I played with
      the Dallas Metrogamers when I joined the group. I had been reading
      about the game on Steffan O'Sullivan's website back in the day and was
      so intrigued, I just *had* to play it. When I met up with Derk for
      the first time, we played it, and I loved it. That re-triggered my
      game addiction and all the things it brought with it. El Grande is a
      close second in this regard. I think these 2 games are what
      Euro/German gaming is all about.

      My current favorite is Das Zepter von Zavandor. I love the mechanic
      of upgrading your power/abilities and utilizing them to win the game.
      It's an interesting game with lots of different ways to win and subtle
      nuances to timing your plays. It doesn't have much in the way of
      player interaction, but that doesn't bother me at all with this game.

      Tom: So what's the story behind you and Derk meeting?

      Scott: When I started to get back into gaming I did a google search on
      Dallas games and found a link to Derk's original Metrogamer session
      reports. I dropped Derk an e-mail and kind of "invited" myself into
      the group. He said, "Whoah! First we gotta check you out to make sure
      yer not smelly!"

      So I went to meet Derk, Ken, and Drew over at Cheddar's restaurant in
      Irving, Texas. Derk bought dinner, and then we went back to Ken's
      apartment where we played a bunch of games. The first one being
      Euphrat & Tigris... (I won :-) I think Derk blames Ken for this. . .
      they are always fighting against each other.

      After the "meeting," Derk invited me over to play with the group on
      Saturdays, and we've been gaming together ever since.

      Tom: Coming from a Warhammer and CCG background, are you ever tempted
      to get involved in such games again?

      Aldie: Doubtful. . . the Warhammer hobby really takes a lot of time
      that I would have to split with all my other hobbies. It's a fun
      game, but I'd rather play shorter Euro type games. I don't think I
      could spare the time to paint all those minis again!

      I still casually play MTG, but only through the excellent online
      interface. I like to see the new sets and fiddle around with the new
      mechanics on each release.

      Tom: So how big is your personal game collection? Do you have any
      games you are particularly proud of?

      Aldie: I think I have around 700 games. I lost count after I moved
      and sold off a bunch of games, so I need to go back and take
      inventory.

      I'm proud of my McMulti... I got it in shrink wrap, and it was pretty
      much pristine until Derk tried to backbend the board and ripped it! He
      gave me his board in trade. I'm also proud of my copy of Spinball. .
      . It's a one of a kind dexterity game that Aaron Weissblum produced a
      couple of years ago. He custom painted each board.

      Tom: So what's this I hear about you doing a live Geekspeak at Kublacon?

      Aldie: Ah yes, Derk and I were invited to be special guests at
      KublaCon. We're going to try and record a live GeekSpeak there. The
      details are sketchy as we are still working them out.

      Tom: What's it like being a celebrity? Do you have a lot of good
      contacts in the gaming industry, especially with game companies?

      Aldie: Hehe. . . I'm not sure I qualify as a celebrity. But it's nice
      to be known as the creator of the website. It definitely gives me a
      sense of accomplishment after putting in so many hours over the years
      creating the systems.

      I've made a lot of contacts in the industry, but I don't really bug
      them too much except when I want them to come onto GeekSpeak ;-) I
      think we're still relatively unknown outside of the U.S. In Germany
      not many have heard of us, despite me handing out hundreds of BGG
      business cards over the years at Essen.

      Tom: I would venture to say that you have a BIG impact in America,
      however. Do you think that your site can make or break small-time
      publisher's games?

      Aldie: I really don't know. Maybe we can ask some of the small-time
      publishers :-)

      I think BGG can be a fantastic opportunity for a new game publisher to
      get exposure to their game for free. They just have to go about it
      the right way and not be a shill by creating fake accounts, reviews,
      etc. to pump up their ratings. They will be found out, and the
      backlash will be harsh from the user community. But, on the other
      hand, if you do something creative (like Fragor Games did with
      Leapfrog), I think it can pay off nicely.

      Tom: There are often furors over the ratings of pictures, games,
      articles, etc. What are your thoughts on the subject?

      Aldie: Well, as with any subjective assessment of something, there are
      going to be differences of opinion. We use a fairly benign ratings
      system that was posted up years ago as a guideline on how to rate a
      game, and we've gotten a lot of grief over it, so people end up using
      their own rating system. This is why the new ratings for
      geeklists/images/etc. that go up don't really have guidelines. . .
      people will end up using whatever they wish.

      The number ratings help us trickle the good content toward the top
      when choosing what to show on a game. . . For instance, the top-rated
      images and geeklists listed on a game page show some of the best
      content we have to offer. There are ways of seeing everything if you
      wish, so nothing is lost. It just helps reduce clutter.

      I also think some people put a little too much stock in a number
      rating. I believe the game page provides an overall summary of what a
      game is like. . . all the reviews, sessions, comments, etc. can help
      someone judge if a game is worth checking out.

      Tom: What would you rather people most contribute to the site? Are
      you looking for more reviews, player aids, what?

      Aldie: It's not any particular thing that I would like contributed,
      but we like submissions that are of high quality. Sometimes we get
      one- or two-line reviews (which we turn into regular articles) and
      one- or two-line session reports. I think these are people just
      looking to cash in on GeekGold, and that's it. They don't care if
      anyone reads their stuff. Derk and I have tossed around some ideas of
      setting up a group approval process where you will get GG credit if a
      certain number of trusted users allow it.

      Tom: Tell us about Games International magazine. . .

      Aldie: BoardGameGeek is partnering up with Games International
      magazine to offer downloadable electronic PDF versions of the
      magazine. You will be able to purchase and view the magazine through
      your BoardGameGeek account.

      Tom: This brings up a point about BGG. How commercial will the site
      get? Will we ever move towards pay-only members (something other
      sites have done)?

      Aldie: Right now, the supporters of the website and the ad revenue
      cover the cost of the website plus some and hopefully that will
      continue into the future.

      The core functionality of the website will never be pay-only, but
      there will be some premium sections or features that may be only
      available for a fee, in fact the electronic magazine I mentioned above
      is one of them.

      Tom: All of this sounds interesting - we look forward to what you'll
      have for us in the future. Any final words for our readers?

      Aldie: In closing, I guess I would like to send out a big thanks to
      the community for making BGG what it is today, and I hope that
      everyone is excited about what the future holds for the board gaming
      hobby.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games..."
      May 2005
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