Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design (more cautionary advice)

Getting a foot into professional (tabletop) game design
(more cautionary advice)

After “Seven Years and a Million Dollars” I want to talk about how you, as an aspiring hobby tabletop game publisher, can help yourself to be taken seriously by game publishers.  While you’re important to your self, your family, and your friends, to a game publisher you’re no different than hundreds of other people who think they have games worth publishing, most of whom are wrong.

I’m sorry that this might appear to be negative.  Dreams are OK, but you need to have goals and ways to get there, not dreams, if you want a chance to succeed.  ("A goal is a dream with a deadline." Napoleon Hill)

Don't think you're going to make a lot of money.  Very likely, you'll spend a great deal of time for little return.  Non-electronic gaming is "small potatoes", not a big source of money.  "How do you make a small fortune in the game industry?  Start with a big fortune."  “What’s the difference between a pizza and a game designer?  The pizza can feed a family of four.”  If you think you’re going to get rich then you will not be taken seriously.  (I recently read about a toy inventor who became indignant at the idea of receiving only a 5% royalty (probably of wholesale, not retail).  If you’ve learned what the typical levels of compensation are, you won’t have this happen.)

Publishers want games, not ideas.  Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen; recognize that your "great idea" is not that great, not that original, not that interesting to others.  That's reality.   (How often do we get a really extraordinary new idea?  D&D, Magic:the Gathering, maybe Mage Knight, maybe Dominion?)  Yes you need a good idea but the execution of the idea in the form of a complete game is much more important than the idea itself.

You have to DO something to give yourself some credibility, before publishers are likely to look at your game.  If you're a complete unknown, why would publishers deal with you?
•     Volunteer to man booths at cons
•     Write articles or blog posts
•     Make variants/mods and publish them on the Web
•     Have a decent Web site
•     GM at conventions
•    Be a part of the publisher’s  game communities
Sorry, folks, while you're really important to yourself and your family, you're “nobody” to any publisher.  You have to do something to change that.

Don’t patent your game (or if you do, don’t admit it to anyone!).  Game ideas cannot be protected, by law.  Until recently patents only protected specific non-obvious expressions of ideas in a product, but this has been corrupted lately by the Patent Office because they now fund themselves from the patents they approve - so they approve a lot more patents.   (No, I am Not a Lawyer.  But I Can Read.)

At $3,000-$10,000 fees per patent, not even considering the fees you’d pay lawyers to defend/enforce the patent in court, patents are a fool’s errand costing more than a tabletop game is likely to make.  That’s why so few real games (tabletop or video) are patented.  (I say real games: there are lots of ridiculous game patents approved, which appear to be the case of a lawyer convincing some poor sod to spend a lot of money unnecessarily to patent a betting method or something equally obvious.)

Be willing to talk about your game.  If you’re too worried about someone stealing your ideas, you won’t be able to communicate.  It’s most unlikely anyone will want to steal your unpublished game.  Remember, ideas are “a dime a dozen.”

There are certainly examples of parallel development, because many people get the same idea.  And there are even examples of theft.  E.g., a wrestling game was offered to one publisher and rejected; later the publisher came out with a similar game, but by that time the game had been accepted by another, large (and wealthy), publisher, and legal proceedings put the first publisher in its place.  But this is quite exceptional, and you simply cannot live in fear of theft and be a game designer.

Don’t even think about requiring the publisher to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).  This is another mark of a “clueless noob”.  They will laugh at you and tell you to go away.  Some publishers require designers who submit games to complete a release form that essentially says, “if we publish a game just like this, you can’t sue us.”  That’s to protect the publisher from lawsuits by clueless “game designers”!  If they require it, you’ll have to sign it, or they won’t deal with you.

Avoid hyperbole (excessive exaggeration, a little exaggeration might be forgiven as enthusiasm).  Here's a real example, from a designer's description of his board game on LinkedIn:

    It's a great game for fun and for the development of entrepreneurial thinking, it's great for anyone who would like to develop their mind set around business, money, creative thinking and more.

    I have taken it around the world in the last 2 years (you can check it out here : ) , and I have played it with thousands of people in 10 countries, just to get the feeling of how it goes, and people love it ! 
    . . .
    I support the game by PR, Facebook, twitter and game based workshops around the world."

Here is my response:  Exaggerated claims will put off a publisher quicker than anything else.  For example, 730 days in two years.  If he played the game with thousands, that must be at least 2,000, or about three every day for two years.  Or say he played once a week, 104 weeks, that's 20 people at each session?  Has he done anything else in the past two years?  Or is it a game that can somehow be played by very large numbers of people?  Sorry, it just isn't *believable*, even if it's somehow true.

Calling your game "great" twice in your first paragraph may be a good sign of enthusiasm, but it's likely to raise alarm bells to publishers who have encountered far too many designers who think they have a great game - but virtually never do.

I didn’t even bother to check the Web site in this case, because the hyperbole raised all those alarms.  And that’s how a publisher is likely to react.

Don’t tell a publisher you’ve spent a million dollars (or more - real examples) developing a boardgame.  Even if they believe you, it’ll mark you as absolutely clueless, because there are very few tabletop (or video) games that make a million dollars for the developers, and that would only break even!  (Exaggeration again: they were counting how much they’d pay themselves for their time, and their time was apparently very valuable.)

Don’t make super-pretty prototypes.  Publishers will suspect that you spent so much time and money on prototypes that you were unwilling to change the game as needed.  Really, a super-pretty prototype is usually the mark of a “clueless noob.”

Patience is a virtue.  Britannia existed in fully playable form in 1980.  It was first published in 1986.  In 2008, one major publisher told me, "it's a good thing you're immortal, because it's going to take a long time" to evaluate and publish one of my games.   I was offered a contract more than a year later.  It still has not been published, though it’s “in the queue.”

I know of several games that took eight or more years from acceptance to publication.  I know of a well-known published game that was rejected 10 times.  10 rejections takes quite a while.

So if you're an "instant gratification" type,  your instant gratification has to be in seeing people play and enjoy your prototype, not in the published game.

Design many games.  If you're only working on one game, or a few, you're not likely to end up with a good one, AND you identify yourself as a dilettante, an amateur.  Pros are working on many games.

Don't design games for yourself, design for others.  They’re the ones who must enjoy it, your enjoyment in playing is unimportant!  But don’t design something you dislike.

Self-publishing is practical, if you don't mind losing money.  Moreover, at some point you become a publisher/marketer, not a designer.  What do you want to do?

Or go the GameCrafter “Publish On-Demand” route, where you can have a published and professional-looking game without spending a lot of money.  Thegamecrafter.com.   There are others offering this service, but I have no experience of them.

Playtesting is sovereign.  You have to playtest your game until you're sick of looking at it, until you want to throw the damn thing away.  Then maybe you'll have something.  But you have to be willing to change the game again and again: listen to the playtesters, watch how they react, recognize your game isn’t perfect and won’t be even when (if) it’s published.

When your game is rejected, there’s a good chance the rejection had nothing to do with the game’s quality.  Be persistent.


My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is now available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon.   I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other things.)  Web: http://pulsiphergames.com/

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