In the first part of our series on players using technology at the game table, we will look at online storage and note-taking applications.
In the days of yore (read: last weekend at the Thirdwalling hosue) our notes, character sheets and various other character paraphernalia were stored in folders in designated backpacks set aside for gaming. The goal with this experiment was to take all of that various analog data and move it into digital format to see how it affected play at the table.
Via a very complex polling method we selected three pieces of popular software to test; Evernote, Dropbox and Google Drive – and in all cases we used the free version of the software. After all, if we’re going to spend money – we might as well spend it on paper!
There were three criteria we used to evaluate each piece of software; Compatibility, Playability and Flexibility. Each category will have a total of 5 possible points.
Compatibility – We used a HTC Inspire and an older Nook Tablet PC as well as The Ginger’s Lenovo Laptop for all of this testing. This score was based on how easily it installed on the machine, and how well it was adapted to the various platforms. This isn’t a technical review by any stretch – but an observational assessment of how it performed on the technology we had at the table.
Playability – An assessment of how easily the data we need is accessed from a player’s perspective. All three devices tested were taken into account when coming up with this fast-and-loose scoring. It ultimately came down to the question “Did this actually make my life easier?”
Flexibility – Paper is a pretty rigid media. It’s either there or it isn’t. But does moving to a digitial means of storage really provide the player with more flexibility at the game table?
Evernote – 10/15 Points
Evernote was really visually impressive. It made us feel hip just installing it and navigating around it – and the web interface was really impressive. By far the most visually like-able of the products. But it really lacked flexibility and that hurt the playability pretty significantly. I’ve actually adopted Evernote at work for taking notes in meetings – and even for taking notes for Thirdwalling! I really liked the web clipper feature – which reminded me of a similar functionality in Microsoft’s OneNote that I used to love – as it makes taking notes around the web pretty easy. You can grab pictures for your gear, notes on the rules or prospective builds from websites.
Compatibility – 5
Surprisingly, all 3 devices were able to load Evernote pretty flawlessly. There were great apps for both the phone and the older table and the web interface was perfect for the laptop. The interface was actually really easy to navigate and made taking notes a breeze.
Playability – 3
For note-taking Evernote was pretty seamless. It was easy to navigate and – if you’re reasonably fast on the on-screen keyboard very fluid for taking notes. On a device with handwriting recognition it would be even better, I think. Recovering notes was pretty easy and organizing them (which a bit clunky on the phone interface) was easily done later on the web interface via computer. But it lost points because taking notes is all it does. There’s nowhere to store additional files or and not really a viable spreadsheet option for tracking inventory. If I’m going to freehand my inventory, I might as well do it on paper.
Flexibility – 2
As noted under Playability, there was no file storage – only notes and clips from the web. So I couldn’t upload spreadsheets or (and this was a biggie) store my character sheet anywhere in Evernote. I had to upload it to the device and open it separately and that bothered The Ginger and I. If they added a way to upload a .pdf or (even more importantly) .xls it would have scored much, much higher.
Dropbox – 12.5/15 points
Drop-box was an old stand-by for us for a lot of things. We used to use it to store our .pdf rules documents and it is still where I house many of my game notes and images. But using it from a player perspective was something new to us. Most of this research was done for a Pathfinder game that I (Thirdwaller) attended for over a year. Originally we were going to test a similar product called “Box” but it was so similar as to make us think it didn’t warrant its own review.
Compatibility – 4.5
As with Evernote, all three devices ran Dropbox without any issue. It lost half a point for the older tablet because there was no app in the Nook marketplace for Dropbox – we had to use the web interface. This was not a big deal because the web interface was very mobile friendly, but it cost them half a point for the annoyance factor. Overall, easily navigated if a bit overwhelming.
We didn’t take points away from it, but there’s no “native” drop-box note taking format. So to take notes, I had to create a text document and upload it in, then take my notes there. That was a bit cumbersome but not enough to really take away from compatibility.
Playability – 3
As I said above, it was a bit cumbersome to take notes. That being said, displaying my .pdf character sheet and navigating through it was seamless – and I was using Pathfinder Character Builders so it was really nice to be able to set the destination folder for the builders to my Dropbox folder on my PC and they’d be there on my tablet and my phone automatically without having to upload anything additional.
I did deduct a point from Playability because I think that it would be difficult to transpose hand-written notes even with handwriting-recognition technology. Also, organizing notes wasn’t as seamless as it was with Evernote. It required creating subfolders that were a bit cumbersome to navigate on the mobile interfaces. But if you’re ok taking notes in one big folder then organizing them from your PC at home it wasn’t that big a deal.
I really felt like I spent a lot of time LOOKING for stuff I needed to play. It felt clunky trying to find things and without stock forms I had to put a Open Office viewer on my phone to see everything.
Flexibility – 5
Every file format we could think of is easily uploaded. It’s not picky. Obviously we were limited in what would open on the phone but that’s going to be the case regardless. The ability to set the destination folder of my character builder to Dropbox and have it just show up cannot be understated in its impressiveness. There were a few games that I did not arrive prepared for – I’d forgotten to level or neglected to add equipment to my character. I was able to call The Ginger (who wasn’t participating in the Pathfinder game) and have her make the changes – and they were instantly available on my tablet. Easy peasy.
Google Drive –
We’ve recently started using Google Drive to store all of our documentation that was once on Dropbox. It’s easier because we all use it, and most of us use Gmail with syncs with it pretty seamlessly. So it was a no brainer that we try to adopt it for game as well. We will all miss the ability to save directly from an application (like character builders) directly into a folder like we had with Dropbox, but the addition of stock forms just cannot be understated.
Compatibility – 4.5
Lack of an app for the Nook tablet (which I realize is old, but still) cost it half a point. Otherwise, everything worked well across all the devices we tested it on. The forms all displayed well – though they were a bit clunky on my phone it really wasn’t that off-putting. Navigating a spreadsheet in a 3-inch screen is my problem, not the app’s. Everything we needed to store in it was easily uploaded – I don’t think it restricts file type that I could tell. Overall, great compatibility.
Playability – 5
We felt pretty strongly that it improved overall playability at the table. It was no more distracting to have my table with Google Drive loaded up sitting in front of me than it would have been having a folder full of paper. The system that we used here was to load a character sheet up on one device (usually the phone) while we took notes and had our gear loaded up on the other (usually the tablet). If there was a “perfect” setup, it would be to have the character sheet and inventory in Google Drive on one device and Evernote on the other for notes.
Flexibility – 4
Like with Dropbox, installing to your computer gives you a folder that uploads directly to your Google Drive. There were some formatting issues going from both Word, Excel and Open Office Writer into Google Drive that were frustrating enough to cost them a point here. But overall, it was great. The addition of stock forms just cannot be understated.
Final Thoughts: Close Angry Birds and PLAY!
Since doing the research on this test, I’ve adopted these tools – all three of them – into my gaming routine. Google Drive was the clear winner – and the one that houses most of my player information – but evernote and Drop Box will always have a place at the game table for me.
I’d caution you, though, to use tablets or phones for these programs. Having an open laptop screen in front of you – as either a player or a game master – is a barrier that separates you and makes you less approachable. It can also be a distraction if you don’t manage your time. Remember to play the game – not the device!