Have you ever been playing in a year-long Dungeons & Dragons campaign that suddenly crashed to a halt, or at the very least was disrupted, because a player, or even the Dungeon Master, moved to another city, or state even? That used to mean the end of the game, or it drastically altered the campaign. With the age of the internet role-players have found creative ways to keep the game alive, using cell phones, emails, and more recently Skype, but one group of friends decided to dedicate a entire product to keeping those long-distance RPGs alive, and they came up with Roll20.
Bring Your A-Game: Where did the idea for Roll20 originally come from? How long has it been in development?
Nolan T. Jones: We (Riley Dutton, Richard Zayas, and myself) wanted to start playing table top games again, but we were spread across the country and none of the options that currently existed were working for us. So we decided to tackle it ourselves from the mindset of keeping it simple and trying to mimic a blank table as much as possible. We started development in February of 2012, the Kickstarter in April, open beta in June, and we just went live September 17th.
BYAG: For those unfamiliar with Roll20, can you give us a capsule about what it does, who can use it, what RPGs it is compatible with, etc?
NTJ: Roll20 is a virtual tabletop, meant to help you gather your friends around a table. Our aim is to be compatible with a broad range of games– not just RPGs– that you would play on your dining room table. That said, because our approach is so open, some systems do require work to bring the various game elements together.
NTJ: Video/voice chat, dice rolling, card decks, fog-of-war, a jukebox, and more. We are constantly refining features to make the system more intuitive for users.
BYAG: Tell us about the process of going from concept, to actual design, Kickstarter, going live. What types of problems did you have to overcome?
NTJ: We’ve been very, very lucky so far. Focusing on the concept being more like a table and less like a video game has guided our design since the very beginning. Our Kickstarter, a rousing success– we had the $5,000 we asked for in two days, and reached over $39,000 before we were done just over two weeks later. Most of our problems have been the best sort of problems– requests for access during the closed beta, tons of users to respond to, etc. We did have some server hiccups in the beta (in part because our hosting service is also a beta product), but they worked really hard to stabilize the system and it’s paid off.
BYAG: Roll20 is free. How are you able to offer such an interesting product free of charge? Do you have levels of support that enhance the product that have costs attached, such as upgrades, etc?
NTJ: The Kickstarter certainly didn’t hurt. But, that said, it’s taken a lot of will to keep the project moving at this speed.
Roll20 is currently in a place where the hosting is taken care of for the immediate future, so our goal now is to help expand that future. A large part of that expansion is premium subscriptions. While the basic system is free, we have upgrades for storage space, looking for group postings, getting to try features in advance of the public, and special access to the development team in place to make supporting us something worthwhile. In order for us to keep putting in the time to better this system, we will need support in the future– which is something we’re taking seriously as we work on more and more ways to reward paying users beyond the already popular basic program.
For more information on subscribing to Roll20, please check out the supporter page: https://app.roll20.net/account/supporter If two percent of our total users each month were subscribed to the premium features of Roll20, we’d be in amazing shape to keep up our development pace and continue expanding—it’s just a matter of players seeing the value in contributing!
BYAG: Computer RPG players have been able to play together from great distances for years now, but Roll20 is the first legitimate, fully developed platform for traditional role players. How do you think Roll20 will affect table top gaming?
NTJ: So far the effect is twofold. First, we’re constantly hearing back from split parties about how Roll20 has reunited them, which is helping these hobbies live on with those who already love them. Second, we’re starting to see more and more users who are new to tabletop gaming getting their first experiences via our system, hopefully paving the way for the future.
I’d also add that we’re trying to find more ways to introduce and foster independently developed games via our Marketplace– while we love a lot of the more popular, licensed games that exist currently, we know that some of the best games have yet to find their audience.
BYAG: Some table top RPG gamers have been able to use technological tools such as email, Skype, fax machines, etc. to keep their games alive even though great distances separated the players. Roll20 seems like a natural progression from that. Have the people behind Roll20 used some of these other methods to play RPGs despite not living in the same city, or state, or country? (Editor’s note: I once played in a game of Diplomacy where we faxed our orders into a central location to be read to the entire group.)
NTJ: I don’t think any of the developers have ever faxed our initiative checks across the country, but there was a time when we were sitting in Ventrillo using various screen sharing methods trying to figure out a way to play. Within our FANTASTIC moderation group and the community at large (especially those who helped us in the beta by giving feedback via the message boards and surveys) we have heard nearly every sort of solution possible to the distance problem. I think where we’ve been fortunate is that we picked the right programming languages to make our system easier to use.
BYAG: Is there anything about Roll20, the development team, or the creative process you’d like to talk about that we didn’t ask about?
NTJ: I feel really lucky being one of the co-founders of Roll20– the experience has been loads of fun. We really only wish we had more time to actually PLAY GAMES! That said, if you’re reading this, go find a game (if you don’t already have a party, check out our “looking for group” section: http://app.roll20.net/lfg/search ) and play some for us!