Thursday, July 14, 2011

The first time you design/make a game that you realistically want to commercially publish

A while ago I wrote some tips for those making a game for the very first time. ( and elsewhere.) I assumed that you were not, at that point, making a game with realistic expectation of commercial publication-because it’s most unlikely that the first game you ever make will be published.

Now I want to discuss what you might do when you design a game with reasonable intention that it be commercially published. While my personal experience of commercial publication is related only to tabletop games, and I write this for tabletop designers first, I’ll cover video games as well. There’s a lot more to consider now, so this will be much longer than the first piece.

What Kind of Game?
I’m assuming you’re doing this on a freelance basis. If you’re working for a company, you’re probably going to make the game that the company wants to make, not the game that you want to make. If you’re working for a startup, perhaps only a student group, then you have more flexibility. In every case one of the first things you may decide is whether you’re going to design a game that you think is particularly marketable, or design a game that you think will be particularly good. They often are two different things.

While what makes a game good changes over time, though the rate of change is much slower than the changes in what makes a game marketable. Marketability depends on what else is in the market and the current trends. One of the biggest mistakes designers make is to try to cherry pick all of the popular characteristics of games of the moment and design a game with all of those features. They usually end up with a soulless, herky-jerky amalgam of “stuff”. In other words, a failure.

Nonetheless, we do see lots of clones and near clones of highly successful games. When shooters moved into the modern era so successfully we saw a lot of modern era shooters follow. When the tabletop game Dominion started the deck building phase amongst Euro gamers we saw lots of deck building games follow.

I hope that by the time you embark on a game with serious intent to publish in mind you will already have a large store of ideas and concepts to choose from. While you’re learning how to design you will most likely have been writing down all of your ideas and expanding them when it seems worthwhile. Many experienced commercial designers have dozens of fleshed out concepts to refer to, though this is not likely to be true for you when you’re starting on the commercial road.

My recommendation is to design good games first and worry about marketability second. Both terms (good, marketable) are so amorphous and mean such different things to different people that you don’t need to get hung up about either. The simplest thing is probably to design a game of a type you like and make sure that your target audience likes it as well.

Recognize also that whatever you decide to do, the likelihood is that the game will never be published. One of the most successful tabletop game designers (Alan R. Moon) estimated that 60% of his games would never see the light of day. Conventional wisdom in the video game industry is that 9 out of 10 games that are initially funded are never published. And where does that leave the ones that are not even funded? Given the changes in ease of production and distribution in the games industry, those percentages may change; but the reality is still that a great many of the games (not simply ideas or concepts) that you come up with will not be thought good enough for commercial publication.

If you’re fortunate enough to become a designer at one of the most successful companies such as Blizzard or Epic then you’ll expect almost all of your games to succeed. But by then you will already have done a lot of games.

Licensing or self-publishing?
Tabletop designers have a possibility that they can find an established company to publish their game. Video game designers either must already be working for such a company, or they must find a way to publish their game themselves. It is almost impossible to find a publisher to fund development of a video game when the developers do not already have a record of successful game production. While tabletop designers can concentrate on the design, video game designers will have to spend most of their time getting the game software written and produced.

At some point you’ll have to decide how you want the finished video game to be distributed. Are you going to try to sell it to an established commercial publisher? While this is possible, with alternative means of distribution now available you’re more likely to publish a completed game yourself. In the tabletop industry it is possible for the designer no one has ever heard of to sell a game to an established publisher. It’s more common, however, that a new designer self publishes his or her tabletop game, and it’s becoming common in the video game industry that new designers self publish via the Internet.

Internet publication can be in some form of downloads, and will often be through an aggregator such as the web sites that host flash games. Console-based distribution (XboxLive etc.), Steam and other major digital distribution, iPhone and Android distribution, all may be possible.

So for tabletop you can design and test, then find an established publisher. For video, if you design and test without a publisher you’ll probably self-publish digitally.

Focus on what’s practical
Once again I’ll say, as I said last time, “reign in your ambition”. You are not going to make a AAA video game, your buddies and you are not going to make a AAA video game, your start up company and you are not going to make a AAA video game. The costs are just too high, the hundreds of man-years are far more than a small company can provide. Fortunately, with the popularity of XBox Live and its competitors, of the cell phone, the iPhone and iPad, and of other means of digital distribution of inexpensive games, it’s possible to make a commercial game with a small group of people. You have to recognize what you and your group can accomplish; if you aim at something more than you can practically do you will end up with nothing. Part of being successful in business is recognizing what is practical today and what is not; you can intend to aim for the skies in the long run but you have to learn to drive the car before you fly the plane.

In the tabletop industry it’s not unusual for someone to self-publish a game in expectation of selling thousands of copies, only (and usually inevitably) to end up with a vast quantity of unsold goods and a big debt. This again is a problem of too much ambition.

I’m not saying that bad luck can’t be involved, I’m not saying that good luck can’t be involved, I’m saying try to be realistic and you’re less likely to fall flat on your face. What matters is the long haul not the short haul. If you fail the first time or the first 10 times, if you’ve reined in your ambition you can still have the drive to try again. If you have effectively wasted a great deal of time and money because of over ambition then you’re less likely to try again.

Playtesting is what really matters
Some designers are so committed to their game, so convinced that it’s “the greatest thing ever” that they don’t listen to the playtesters. Yet even if game experts believe that your game is excellent when they play it, what really counts is what ordinary game players in your target market think. Even successful commercial studios/publishers sometimes make the mistake of ignoring playtester reaction, or of not even collecting feedback from ordinary players. The result was often a game that the developers liked but not many other people do. Remember that playtesting is your road to finding ways to improve the game, but it also helps you know whether the game is good enough to meet your requirements. When you go commercial, you’re not designing a game for yourself, you’re designing it for other people.

While it’s important to be committed to what you’re doing, your “passion” makes no difference to a publisher, and usually makes no difference to a consumer. Passion is self-centered; commercial publication is about groups and their preferences and buying habits. Playing the game is about the game, not about the designer(s)/creator(s).

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