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: www.3dgamegeek.com/interviews/billy/index.shtml" target='_blank'>http://web.archive.org/web/20000525025152/www.3dgamegeek.com...
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