The King hath decreed that it be so, thus so mote it be!
A great chance to get both the base game and the new expansion for a great price!
The King hath decreed that it be so, thus so mote it be!
A great chance to get both the base game and the new expansion for a great price!
Hey everyone – happy -whatever you celebrate-! Hope you have a fun time with friends and/or family – and that you get to play a lot of games!! I hope to get in some gaming this season…like some good party games with friends, like Times Up: Title Recall or Telestrations – or some strategy gaming with my gamer friends like the 6 new Carcassonne expansions I got (well 7 really because each of the 6 expansions come with 1 extra tile, and when you collect them all – that’s a totally different expansion – cool idea!).
Anyone planning on playing Train of Thought or Belfort over the holidays? Let us know your thoughts!
So, happy holidays and have a fantastic new year while you’re at it! See you next year!
So the art is done and the game has been sent to the printers, now you can sit back and let the money roll in right? Nope – not yet! In an older post we talked about how with book authors they are expected to promote their book, while in the board game world there isn’t the same expectation. That might be true, but I think it’s safe to assume you’re as interested as the publisher is in ensuring your game is a success!
There are many things you can do to help promote your game. Let’s take a look at some examples, though this list is certainly not exhaustive.
1) Designer Diaries: Many gamers love to read about how a game came to fruition. Write up your story of how it came to be published. Remember that most people probably haven’t played the game when they read your designer diaries, so don’t refer too much to rules that they won’t understand. Once you’ve completed writing them, ask your publisher if they would like to have it or if they’d prefer if you distributed it. If you’re on your own, no worries, that’s what www.boardgamegeek.com is for! Post it in the forum or ask Eric Martin if he’d be interested in sharing it in the News section. Once it’s posted then get your friends and family to head on over to read it and give it some thumbs to get it started. (thumbs are the equivalent of the ‘Like’ button of Facebook). Here’s the Designer Diary for Train of Thought and here’s the Designer Diary for Belfort. For Belfort we decided to mix it up and instead of just talk about the history of how it came to be, we interviewed all the people responsible for bringing the game to fruition: The playtesters, the developer, the artist and the printers!
2) Leaking art: work with your publisher before leaking any art as they might have a proper marketing plan on how to release it. Again, use bgg.com and get those thumbs going again. If you get enough attention then it will make it to the front page of bgg.com in the images section. We had our artist Josh make up some fun promo images using the art from the game!
3) Blog: Blog about your experiences with game design. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Many blogs are devoted to how to make your blog successful so I won’t go into that detail here. Rest assured that pretty much any press is good press! We even did a video ‘interview’ describing the history of Belfort!
4) Leaking the rules: Somewhere within the last month before your game is released to the public you should get your publisher to leak the rules online. This could either be on their website or on bgg.com. Then do whatever you can to promote that the rules are available. You know – Twitter, Facebook – the usual suspects.
5) Local PR: There are a few things you can do locally.
6) Conventions: If the publisher is going to a convention and you can afford it, then ask if you can come too (heck, first ask if they’d like to pay for your flight or hotel!). I can’t imagine a publisher turning down having a designer at their booth helping promote their game. I attended BGG.con when Train of Thought was released and spent most of my time at the Tasty Minstrel booth showing people how to play the game all week. It paid off because Train of Thought ended up being the second highest rated game at the convention!
7) Reviews: The publisher should be responsible for sending out review copies, but there’s nothing stopping you from helping in whatever way you can. I’ve sent one of my own copies to a reviewer in order to get a timely review. We’ve also sent review requests that we get (since we’re the designers, some reviewers contact us) to the publisher. Once you do get a review, assuming it’s positive, then do whatever you can to promote that review! Post it on your blog; send it to your publisher so they can post it on their site; link to it on BGG.com.
8) Awards: Again, this is up to the publisher to submit the game for various awards. You can help by listing awards for which you think you have a better chance at winning and forwarding them to your publisher. We were fortunate enough to win the Dice Hate Me Game of the Year award and now that victory is on the front of the box for the second printing!
9) Above and beyond: Sen and I will always go above and beyond expectations when trying to promote our own games. For Train of Thought we filmed a 45 second video that gives a nice overview of how the game is played. We got some actor friends, and some videographers and shot and edited the video, then Sen added the music since he’s talented that way!
For Belfort we did a different type of video and enlisted the assistance of one of our friends to help us animate it.
Also I worked with another friend of mine and we wrote a 10 page comic book set in the world of Belfort. We’ve paid an artist out of our own pocket to professionally illustrate it.
Of course, we got permission to do all of this from the publisher first! As you can see there are many ways in which you can help promote your game, and why wouldn’t you?! It might not be a strength of yours (heck, you’re a game designer not a marketing major, right?), but it can only help you to learn about some of the things you can do to increase the potential of your game becoming a hit!
So that brings us to the last step in this blog! That doesn’t mean we’re done though. We’ll be adding more stories and lessons we learn along the way, which will probably mean tweaking or adding some steps here and there. We haven’t even talked about Kickstarter yet, and with a new game of ours hitting Kickstarter soon – I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from that! And who knows, maybe we’ll actually self-publish a game or two in the future! Thanks for reading so far!
If you don’t self-publish then you often don’t get much of a say in the art for your game. Remember, it’s the publisher taking the risk in publishing it so it’s fully within their rights to make all decisions on the art. That said, if you have a good relationship with the publisher then you still have a voice during this stage. Once we submitted the game to be published, then it’s the publisher’s job to seek out an artist. It is possible to recommend an artist of course. I know that Matt Tolman really wanted Gavan Brown to do the art for his game, Undermining, for example, and that is actually what happened!
For Train of Thought, Tasty Minstrel Games also chose Mr. Gavan Brown! Our first exposure to his art was when we were shown the box art. Immediately we both loved it. At the time, the train had the dragon from the Tasty Minstrel logo as a conductor riding the train. It was the only thing that wasn’t perfect and even though we had no ‘right’ to asking for art changes, we expressed our opinion. Fortunately Tasty Minstrel felt similarly and we all agreed to tweak it a bit. We were fortunate to work with a publisher that allowed us to express our thoughts on the art. Well, we say fortunate, but we’re not really sure what it’s like working with other publishers…yet!
The rulebook was another story altogether. Sen and I wrote the rules a long time ago and when Gavan took our words and put them into his art style – there was a clash. Our words were too stuffy and lawyer-y compared to the fun style that Gavan brought to the game. We did a quick re-write and that got incorporated into the rules as well.
Belfort was even more of a collaboration between us and the artist. When we first heard that Josh Cappel was doing the art, we were ecstatic! I remember buying the game Endeavor because of the awesome art that game has. Tasty Minstrel set up a page on Basecamp so we could see Josh’s art as he made it, and so we could all comment on it.
90% of time we were over the moon with what Josh Cappel provided for the art. There were a few examples where we requested some changes. Sometimes the publisher agreed with us and sometimes they didn’t. For example, there was one issue with the guilds on the board. Initially they didn’t have a spot for worker placement, which was fine as it was going to be on the Guild card, but when the art for the Guild cards came out, they too didn’t have a spot for a worker to be placed. Once this was brought up, Josh found a solution that made everyone happy. He re-jigged the board art so that there was room for a worker placement spot. This is the main reason why it’s great when the designer has input on the art process. I can see why a publisher wouldn’t want to give veto rights to a designer – but at least allow them input as they are (hopefully) the people who’ve played the game the most and would catch things that don’t fit with the game.
The only time I had an issue with the art was the back of the box. Josh put a lot of humour in Belfort and so he had a very funny letter covering most of the back of the box. It was really fun, but my opinion about the back of board game boxes is that it should show as many pieces of the board game as possible. Fortunately everyone was in agreement and new art was made and it was perfect! Now it’s the most perfect-est box back ever!
We were lucky to be paired up with not only excellent artists so far, but with artists that are very collaborative. May you be so lucky in your game designs! The take away for us on this is that you should try to ensure you are allowed some sort of input on the art process. While this probably won’t be put in the contract (but maybe it should be somehow), hopefully you’ll be working with a publisher that wants to collaborate with you as much as possible. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to express your concerns, though you need to know which battles are worth fighting. We might have had other issues here or there (though I don’t think we did!), but only really expressed our concern if we thought it would impact the game play or the game’s sell-ability.
To me, this was probably the most exciting stage of the whole process of bringing a game to market. While its fun to work on the initial design and it’s awesome to finally get the finished product in hand, there’s something about watching a skilled artist take something that’s just a dream in your head or some chicken scratching on paper and make it 200 times better than you could even imagine!
Gavan had the difficult task of working with a party game that was really just words. Oh, our original prototype had train car on the backs of the cards that you could connect to see who made the longest train, but that was about it for real graphics. What Gavan did with the game, however, was give it a “face”. He created the conductor from scratch, giving the game a human mascot – a talking head – that we could use for expository purposes. Gavan also implemented a ton of design elements on the box that make it that much more effective packaging using elements that Jay and I would never have thought of – things like the ISBN number and the vertical spine – to make it shelf-friendly in a potential mass-market situation.
Josh had the potentially staggering task of creating what amounts to a whole game world from scratch. And not one that he had dreamed up, but one that two other dudes had knocking around in their noggins! Belfort gets many compliments on the great artwork Josh provided and if there was an award for best game artwork, Belfort would be a strong contender – the in-game humour, references to other games, and hidden gems are just a few of the reasons why the Belfort artwork is tops in my (biased) book. Speaking of books, if there was an award for best game rulebook, I would also humbly submit that Belfort might be *the* best game rulebook this year. And a huge part of the credit for the layout, flow, and humour inherent in the Belfort rules comes from Josh. He took our ruleset and reformatted and rephrased things in a way that better suited the witty, anachronistic fantasy world that he had drawn for Belfort and it all took shape from there.
The synergy generated between us (the designers), the developer and publisher, and the artists we’ve worked with on our games has been nothing short of eye-opening and pudding-eaten proof that a well thought out product and a game that is literally *designed* for maximum impact in all aspects can deliver much more than the sum of it’s parts. I look forward to working with Josh and/or Gavan again and would recommend them without question to any publisher looking for more than just an illustrator, but a game-specific graphic designer who can not only draw and design, but oversee other artists when more content is needed (see Gavan’s work on Eminent Domain for an example of this).
The contract has been signed, so now it’s time to sit back and wait until it hits the shelves right? Not quite. There’s still some work to do. Most publishers will spend some time developing the game even further. This is common and could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The publisher might have a team of people that are responsible for developing the game or there might be just one person in charge of it.
So what happens during this stage? Well, the developer plays your game over and over again, trying to see if it’s fully balanced and retains what it had when they first agreed to publish it. The most common thing that will happen here is small tweaks. The cost of one card could be made more expensive as it proves to be too powerful in their tests; the quantity of resources given out might be changed for balance reasons. It could be bigger changes that range from adding or removing certain aspects or even changing the theme of the game!
We were fortunate for this stage so far as we were involved in all suggested changes. Most of them were fine by us, but once in a while we would share our thoughts on why we would disagree. Sometimes it was because we had tried that in an earlier prototype and found that it didn’t work in the long run for various reasons. Most, if not all of the time, the developer listened to what we had to say and took action because of what we said.
For example, at one point we suggested starting players with some resources, and while at first it was thought not necessary by the developer, we eventually playtested it and found that it sped the game up considerably. Alternatively, we always had a rule in there that you could sell your buildings for a certain amount of gold. Eventually the developer realized that hardly anyone ever did that, so it was better to just remove it which removes 1 option players have – which is fine in this game as there are plenty of other choices to be made!
For us, the developer process was lengthy for Belfort and almost non-existent for Train of Thought. Train of Thought is a party game and it didn’t require any changes at all. The only development for that game came with the rules editing. Belfort is a deep strategy game and the developer playtested the game numerous times over the 6 months. Every few weeks we’d get some new reports on how the latest playtests were going. We communicated using an online forum since we were all located in various parts of North America.
It’s key in this stage to maintain a positive attitude and a humble demeanour. You don’t want to get on the publisher’s bad side at this stage. If you want a reputation, then get one that is about how easy it was to work with you as a designer. That isn’t to say that you should just lay down and accept everything they suggest. We chose our battles wisely and only really stuck to our guns if it negatively impacted gameplay. This should be one of the most fun times for you as a designer, so don’t spoil it!
When not creating games by night, I’m a mild-mannered pediatric Occupational Therapist by day. In my line of work, I constantly tell parents that a huge percentage of the problems they or their children are experiencing could benefit from improved communication. And the same goes for working with a developer – fostering an open and understanding dialog is key to ending up with a result that everyone can be happy with and proud of.
Because Jay and I work as a team though, painfully separated by huge tracts of land, we have become somewhat experts in communicating with each other. For the most part, we are able to get our points across without ripping each other’s throats out. Having access to modern technology like Skype and our forum has really enabled Jay and I to be able to do our work despite the 3-hour time difference. We have become fairly adept at putting our ideas into writing, making physical prototypes and working things out from a distance. Giving and receiving feedback with our colleagues from the Game Artisans of Canada and our playtest teams has been hugely beneficial as well. All of these skills have been definite assets when it came to working with Seth Jaffee, our Developer on both Train of Thought and Belfort.
So, working with a developer is no different than working with anyone else – communication is a game. Everyone playing just needs to know the rules, the boundaries, and share a common lingo.
What I mean by this is not necessarily the rules of the game itself (though you should know those like the back of your hand, I hope!) but the “rules of engagement”, as it were. Questions you need to answer may include: Who’s in charge of what? Who’s tasked to what? Who’s the final decision maker? What is the purpose of this iteration cycle? Arming yourself with this knowledge can help you avoid some of the common misadventures that happen with groupwork – Going It Alone, Reinventing the Wheel, Passing the Buck, and the ever-dreaded Stepping On Toes.
Fact 1: You are designer of the game. So it’s your baby.
Fact 2: You have signed away your rights to the game. So it’s basically been “adopted”.
This means that you need to understand a few things, like it’s the publisher’s call whether or not the game needs to be rethemed. It’s the publisher’s call whether or not there are too many cards in Deck A, B *and* C. And, thus, by proxy, it’s the developer’s call as he/she has been employed by the publisher to take the game and make it better suit the publisher. You need to be aware going into this relationship that the developer is not there to work for you. He has a different agenda. It’s more than likely 99.9% parallel to yours, but you’ll note that I used the word “parallel” as opposed to “same”. He may have the task of ensuring that there is the least amount of language on the cards, for example, which requires you to review how the rules work with only icons. Your agendas need not clash – in the end, all parties just want to make a good game. But it takes an understanding on all sides of the die that everyone knows what’s up.
Speaking of which, one boundary that you, as the designer, may wish to discuss with the publisher and developer is your overall vision for the game – what were you trying to accomplish when you made the game? What are some of the high priority “no sale”, make-or-break items for you? If the developer holds these in mind while he is doing his thang, everything will flow from those overarching elements. It’s important to look at the game from the macro viewpoint every now and then to ensure that the wholistic nature of the game is still intact after all of the micro changes that are made. But without talking about that kind of stuff, how is the developer supposed to know? He’s not a mind-reader anymore than you are.
Share a Common Lingo
This, simply put, means that everyone is on the same page language and terminology-wise. You will save yourself a lot of confusion and arguments if everyone knows that when you say SP you’re referring to Skill Points, not Spell Points. Having very clear rules with well-layed out phases of play and a glossary of terms can really help everyone understand each other. When everyone speaks the same language, the flow of ideas is much more seamless. It helps streamline conversations when people can refer to the same points of reference instead of having to call something the “the-part-of-the-game-where-we-roll-dice-and-move-things-but-we-don’t-pick-up-any-cards-because-that-comes-at-the-end phase” (er…you mean “The Movement Phase”).
So keep the lines open between you, the developer, and the publisher. In the end, change is generally for the positive – i.e. to make the game better (in terms of playability, saleability, etc.). Be open and accepting to feedback, because if the agendas are parallel, everyone is hoping to get to the same place. So embrace change instead of fighting it, just ask for clarification/explanation from the developer if needed.
In short, communicate.
<caveat – this probably should be somewhere near Step 12, and will be ret-conned in later!>
As a game designer, I have found it extremely helpful to surround myself not only with great playtesters, but also other game designers. Initially many people think that you might not want to talk to other game designers about your unpublished games because they could steal your ideas. I have never thought this was an issue, mostly because everyone and their brother has a dozen ideas for their own board games. The ideas aren’t what’s lacking. What’s lacking is the ability, and often the experience and knowledge of how to get a game to market. This is where fellow game designers can be a big boon to you.
I belong to a group called the Game Artisans of Canada. This group was founded in 2008 by a few game designers with an interest in sharing stories and experiences in an effort to help each other get their games to the market. Many of the GAC members have games published already, including Rob Bartel with Two by Two, Sean Ross with Haggis and Matt Tolman with Undermining – to name but a few. There are different chapters across Canada which each meet up on a regular basis for play testing. In addition to this, they have an online forum which everyone across Canada can ask questions, share playtest sessions or debate game design philosophies. There’s a whole process to become a Game Artisan, which involves a trial period as a Journeyman and a lot of mentorship from your local chapter.
In addition to our chapter meet ups and the online forum, GAC has an annual get together called Cardstock. This is heaven for game designers. 20 or so designers meet up and playtest each other’s’ prototypes over a long weekend! This year it was in Calgary and many of us flew in to take part in this experience. I was flabbergasted at all the creativity and brainpower that was at Cardstock. Every game that Sen and I brought to Cardstock left a much better game. Talk about invigorating!
The Game Artisans even have their own newsletter called Meeple Syrup that is dedicated to celebrating the organization’s successes. Issue 3 was just released and is available here.
Sen and I joined them in 2010 and have had numerous examples of how they have helped us become better designers and probably published more often.
1. Game Designers make the best playtesters. Game designers understand the need for balance and how a suggestion can lead to other issues. They understand that sometimes a playtest session needs to stop in order to tweak the rules before starting again. The feedback we get from playtesting with other game designers is always fantastic and leaves us excited to take another crack at it.
2. Game Designers have a ton of various experiences that each of us alone don’t have yet. Have a question about how a contract should be worded? Ask GAC. Not sure how to contact a publisher? Ask GAC. Trying to figure out how to solve a game design problem you’re having? Ask GAC. There’s a ton of knowledge amongst all the members of GAC.
3. Game Designers have contacts. We have already experienced a few examples where one GAC member has helped another get a game to a publisher and get published!
4. Blind Playtesting! With different chapters across Canada this gives everyone that’s part of GAC the ability to get their game blind playtested. This means sending the game to another chapter with the rules, and letting them figure it out on their own. This is so valuable as this is the experience that a publisher would get when we would send a game to them – so the feedback from these sessions are extremely helpful.
5. Improved Quality. While this goes hand in hand with some of the other points in this list, it deserves its own callout because I’m referring also to the perceived quality of all games by members of GAC by publishers. Publishers are already starting to recognize the abilities of GAC. They know that if they receive a game from a member of GAC, that it has been playtested by other designers and most likely, even blind playtested. The goal would be to get to a point where a publisher comes to our group to ask for game submissions.
So while you may or may not be able to be a part of something like the Game Artisans of Canada, you should definitely surround yourself with other game designers. Try online places like Meetup.com or Craigslist, or even by asking your local game store if they can host a game designer night once a month – and see who shows up! You’ll become a better designer because of it.
~ Jay Cormier
Online, there’s the Boardgame Design Forum –
– where like-minded people post about their designs. You could also use
and post in your local forum to try to find a design group or start up your own. An online group is a great place to bounce ideas off of people and a local group is excellent for playtesting.
Another thing that a group gives us access to is a huge collective boardgaming experience. Jay and I have played a ton of games, but there’s only so many hours in a day! With the difference in tastes and personal collections, we can draw on the gaming knowledge of many instead of just the two of us. So when we propose an idea, we’ll often get the reply of “Have you played yet? It sounds pretty similar.” While you might think this is discouraging, it isn’t – either we take a look at Game X and decide that it’s similar and we’ve saved ourselves the time of re-inventing the wheel and potential embarassment of pitching it to a publisher; or we find out that our game is different and, hopefully, better!
The group can also help bolster confidence in your designs – there have been a few times when people in the GAC were thinking of abandoning a project, but other members helped the game stay on the rails and move closer towards a final versions.
We also help promote each others’ games through things like newletters and Rob Bartel’s “Canadian Heritage Collection” catalog – a catalogue of games designed or published by Canadians that is sent to Canadian game retailers. Jay will be bringing one of Al Leduc’s prototypes to Essen to give to an interested publisher, Jolly Thinkers. We help with suggesting publishers, using our links and contacts when possible, to get our colleagues’ games in front of the decision makers. Jay will be pitching Matt Musselman’s “Bordeaux” to Queen and Alea at Essen later this month. Fingers crossed!
Help can be as simple as amking a suggestion. Why, even tonight, I suggested that a new designer take a theme that Jay and I had been toying around with and run with it, because his game fit better than any we’ve been able to think of so far! Hopefully, something becomes of it. We just want to make good games and help good games to be made.
In fact, both Jay and I are even working in collaboration with other GAC designers on separate games. Jay is working with Graeme Jahns, Ryley Tolman, and Gavan Brown on a party game tentatively called “Like It” while I’m involved in co-designing Yves Tourigny’s brainchild “Midnight Men” with him.
“Like It” was sparked at a late-night session at Cardstock 2011 after the group had played “Clunatics” and Gavan seeded an idea. The next morning, Jay, Ryley and Graeme were eagerly discussing it and a quick prototype was mocked up in short order. There’s some really great mechanics in this game that have been great to watch develop over time on the GAC forums. That’s the beauty of the internet – connecting people in Vancouver, Calgary, and Lethbridge in order to create something new.
My involvement with “Midnight Men” comes much later in the development of it; Yves had already done much of the work, including the all-important part of getting the game signed to Canadian game publisher Filosophia for a 2012 release. I became enamoured with the project as soon as Yves began discussing it, due to my love affair with comics from a young age, and was eager to try it out. I finally got to play it at Cardstock 2011 and it was apparent that the potential was there, but that there were kinks to work out. I was determined to help with that. After re-creating my own prototype version and tabling it with my local playtest group in London, I provided even more feedback to Yves. So much so that I think I was driving him to drink! I suggested that Yves discuss the possibility of me being part of the development team with Filosophia, but Yves did one better and offered me a role in the actual design of the game. I accepted immediately as I’ve always wanted to make a superhero game myself. Yves has created a richly detailed world and I am honoured to be part of bringing it to life. The progress that Yves and I have made on the game since we began the partnership has been a real testament to the power of teamwork.
This year has been a banner year for Jay and I as designers and it’s in no small part to our links to the Game Artisans of Canada. 2012 will be even better, if all goes as planned. So, If you’re serious about game design, do yourself a favour and seek out like-minded people. It makes the job that much easier – as the old saying goes, “Many hands make light work.”
~ Sen-Foong Lim
We’ve discussed the money side of negotiating a board game contract, but there is more than just money that has to be negotiated. Let’s take a closer look at how to negotiate the rights to your game.
Game Changes: Ensure that the contract specifies who has final say over any changes made with your game. If it’s the publisher then ensure you have a exit clause that allows you to cancel the contract if they have changed your game so much that you don’t want your name on it anymore. If you’re a new designer then you probably won’t be able to negotiate this, but at least ask about how much input you’ll be allowed to give on any changes. Most of the time the publishers will keep you in the loop on any changes and often even ask for your thoughts or feedback on them.
Return of Rights: You’re going to need to ensure that there is a clause in the contract about how you can get the rights back to your game. When you sign the contract you’re signing over the rights to the game which means you don’t own it any more. A common practice is that if there are no more print runs after a 2-3 year period of time, then you get the rights back. This means you can pitch it to another company. While that might seem silly because that means it wasn’t selling that well, there are many cases of games that just didn’t have the right marketing to raise awareness and have failed, only to be picked up by another publisher and succeed. Every year there are many examples of games that are reprints of games that have previously been published.
One designer stipulated on his contract that if his annual revenue from this game falls below $X then he regains the rights to the game. This is interesting as it encourages the publisher to advertise the game and work a bit harder to ensure it’s bringing in the required revenue.
Foreign rights: Do you want the publisher to have worldwide rights to your game? That depends. Have they distributed games to the rest of the world before? If not, then maybe it’s best if you kept those rights. That way you can pitch the game to foreign publishers even while it’s selling on the shelves of your local store. Ask the publisher what their plans are with worldwide rights. If they don’t know or won’t commit then try to retain those rights.
If they do retain foreign rights then there should be a separate rate. What happens is that a foreign publisher will express interest in publishing the game in a different country (and often a different language). They will make a deal with the publisher if you’ve given them foreign rights. Your original publisher might get 10% of the game’s sales (distributor cost again – not retail price!) which means if you don’t negotiate correctly then you could end up getting 7% of that 10% – which is peanuts. It’s not uncommon to state that if a foreign publisher publishes the game then as the designer you get 25-50% of what your original publisher gets.
Of course if you retain foreign rights then you get 100% – but it means you have to do more of the legwork and put your salesperson hat back on.
Digital rights: More and more games are turning into apps and online versions. Has your publisher published anything digitally yet? Do they know that aspect of the business? If they do, then it’s still wise to ask what their plans would entail if the board game were deemed to be successful. If they aren’t experienced in that realm, then it’s possible that you should ask to retain those rights. It might be tougher nowadays to retain these rights as app-based gaming can be quite profitable and publishers are wary to waive those rights, even if they are inexperienced in that field.
As with any contract, be careful to read it in full and get clarification on anything that you don’t understand. If you need to get a lawyer to look it over, that may be a good idea – just remember that not all lawyers know all the ins and outs of intellectual property law. And neither do we, so take all of our advice with a grain of salt!
One other thing that exists in the boardgame world is the right to have first crack at making an expansion to a game. You should strongly consider having a clause written to protect you from being cut out of the loop on your own game should it be a hit and the fans are clamoring for more. It only makes sense from a designer’s point of view, but just because it’s common sense doesn’t mean it will be in your contract and you want to ensure that the publisher is contractually obligated to seek your design services first should they ever want to publish an expansion or supplemental goods for the game.
You can also have your rights return to you at different times for different reasons. For example, a designer we know has a contract that gives his publishers rights to the intellectual property in Europe for a set period of time. During that time, they have exclusive rights to publish his game in Europe. They also have the rights to publish or co-publish outside of Europe, but each area is treated separately and each has it’s own timeline. So, it may be that the rights for Europe and North America are set at 5 years but Asia and Africa have to be acted upon within 1 year of signing the contract. Once that year is up, if the publisher hasn’t found a co-publisher in Asia, then the rights to the game return to the designer, but only for Asia and Africa and he is free to seek out publishing opportunities in those areas of the world.
For some game publishers, there is likely no way you will get your name on the cover. Most small boutique companies want to entice gamers with the notoriety and reputation of the game’s designer as their brand may not be big enough to garner attention yet. Others, like Hasbro or Mattel, won’t allow the designer to have their name grace the cover. This should be something you put into your contract if it is important to you.
Most of the rest of the issues can be negotiated outside of a contract (e.g. can you put the names of your playtesters in the rules, etc.) but the majority of the most important rights to consider are above. If you can think of any more, let us know!
Advance: Some bigger publishers might give you advance at the time of signing. This could be a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars. If it’s an advance this means that it comes out of your royalties until it’s been fully recouped. So if you get a $2000 advance then you will forego the first $2000 of your royalties. Sometimes it might not be an advance but an actual signing bonus which doesn’t come out of your royalties. Obviously you should be clear in the contract which it is before you sign! One of the reasons why a publisher would give you an advance is because it motivates you to help in the marketing of your game since you won’t make any more money until the advance has been paid off.
Percentage: This is what you will get paid for each game that is sold. Most publishers will pay you a percentage based on their selling price – not retail price! If the game retails for $25 then the retailer probably buys it from the distributor for $13 or so and the distributor probably buys it from the publisher for about $7. So your percentage is based on that $7 not the $25. What kind of percentage is fair? There are many variables here. If it’s with a big company that plans a big print run and will support it with advertising then your percentage could be small, like 3-5%. If it’s a tie-in to a big franchise like Harry Potter or Spiderman then it could be even less. If it’s a smaller publisher with a smaller print run then you could get anywhere from 7-15%. If it’s your first game published then expect it to be on the lower side since they are taking the risk with an unknown designer.
There’s more than just a flat percentage to negotiate though. You could negotiate a rate that increases over time. You could suggest that on the first 1000 games you’ll take a 7% rate, then the next 2000 games it goes up to 8%, and so on until a cap is reached. Publishers like this idea because if the game is a flop then they’ve paid out less to the designer, and designers like this because if the game is a hit then they take some short term pains to get some longer term gains. We tried this with one of our games and the publisher liked the idea. We recommended the sliding scale that we thought was fair (OK, we’re not dumb – negotiating tactic #1 – always ask for more than you would settle for!), and the publisher came back with a revised scale that worked for us.
Copies of the game: This is the easiest thing to negotiate. It’s a lot easier to ask for more copies of the game than a higher percentage. But there’s more to this than just how many copies you get when it’s published.
You should have a clause in the contract that states that you can buy the game directly from the publisher at any time at distributor cost. The publisher still makes a profit, but you get to buy the game at $7 instead of buying it at a store for $25. Even though you’ll be getting your own copies, they run out fast and if you’re planning on doing a bit of your own marketing (which you definitely should and a future post will be dedicated to it), then you’re going to want access to more copies of your game for cheap.
Also you’ll want to put in your contract that you’d like at least 1 new copy from each successive print run. As the game gets reprinted, sometimes there are art or rule revisions and you’ll be thankful to have the most up to date copy in your collection.
If you agree upon an advance, be careful to read the wording in the clause – do you have to pay back the difference if the game does not make that much in royalties, ever? Do you have to pay it back if the company does not go to market with the game or if the company folds prior to the game being released? It pays (literally) to be sure of these things up front! For a well-established publisher, an advance against royalties should not be a major issue at a low dollar amount (depending on various things such as estimated print run and percentages). But for a start up company, paying out anything up front, even though it may be “worked off” over time, may make or break the deal. If, like Jay says, you can convince them that the advance is an investment in you being an active marketer, that may swing things in your favour. In my mind, the advance is what lets Jay and I work on new games while the other ones are being developed and produced. An advance gives designers recognition up front and some breathing room while they’re waiting for the game to be completed. It’s standard fare in other creative fields such as music and literature, so why not game design? Signing bonuses are really only for the true “superstars” of our field so don’t expect to see those on your first time around!
Regarding percentages, it is a good idea to not get too caught up in the percentage itself, but to consider the print run of the game and the market penetration of the publisher. Do the math. A small print run by a boutique publisher of 1000 games at 15% a game nets you $450.00 if the publisher’s selling price is $3.00 and it sells out COMPLETELY. Compare that to 3% royalties on a Hasbro-level print run of 50,000 copies with a publisher’s selling price of $2.00. That game could see sales of only 10,000 copies (1/5 of the print run) and you’d be making $600. So you’re not a millionaire yet, but, in short, increased increased revenue potential exists with higher print runs, despite lower percentages and lower selling prices. While percentages are important, you may want to take a look at other things like the company’s marketing plan, their mass market distribution (e.g. local hobby stores vs. Toys R Us and Target) and what their normal print run and sales are like on similar games. Knowing that you’re with a successful company may help you be more at peace with a seemingly low percentage royalty fee. As you get more games out there and build a strong reputation as a successful designer, you will be able to command higher royalty fees. And as you get more savvy with this end of the process, you’ll get to know who you can negotiate with and what the “Industry Standards” are.
One thing that Jay and I are considering doing when it comes to copies of our games is purchasing a whack up front and selling them online. The reason why is because we’re Canadians and our fans, friends, and family who are Canadian get royally shafted when it comes to ordering single units from the US. Also, we usually know a lot more about the US distribution sooner while our fellow Canucks are chomping at the bit for the games. So, we’d love to be able to meet their needs sooner than later. So this is another reason for us wanting to put a clause in the contract allowing us to purchase at cost. We may never do it, but we’d like the option to be there in writing should we want to.
When you’re a game designer you have to wear 3 hats. The first hat is that of the designer. This is probably where you’re the most comfortable. The second hat is that of the salesperson. You have to pitch your game to the publishers and that takes skill. The third hat is that of the business person. You can’t confuse which hat you need to wear at each step as that could have negative consequences. The biggest challenge here is to try and NOT wear the designer hat when you’re negotiating contracts. It’s time to wear the business hat and keep other aspects – like your ego and the pride of seeing your game published – out of your mind until the contract phase is complete.
There might be two phases to contracts. The first stage could be a contract with intent to publish and the second stage is actually publishing. Both stages will be represented by the same contract though. A publisher might like your game but they want some time with their team to run it through multiple playtests to ensure it meets their standards.
Our first contract gave the publisher 6 months of development time. If they could get the game to where they wanted it, then they’d publish it. This is also known as an exclusivity contract as it’s expected that you will not continue shopping your game to other publishers. Once they’re done with their developing and they’re happy with it, then the full contract kicks in. If the publisher does want to go this route then ensure that the timeline is clearly specified. It should have a specific date as to when the rights revert back to you if they can’t develop it to their liking.
Regardless if it has a development aspect to it, the first thing that will happen is you’ll get an offer. If it’s verbal or even in an informal email, then ask for a formal contract before agreeing fully to anything. It’s cool to go back and forth in the informal negotiation stage, but progress on the development of the game should not commence until you’ve got a contract.
So what are we negotiating really? Well this part can be tricky. Why? Because as designers we often undervalue our own worth and are just so darned excited that a publisher wants to publish our game that we sometimes breeze through the contract phase a little too quickly. We have to remember that we are partners with the publisher and we’re bringing half of the equation to the table. Sure the publisher is taking all the risk financially but that doesn’t mean they can rake you over the coals either. Keep that business hat on at all times during this stage!
The offer is a major high point in the life cycle of a published game. It’s when the publisher officially voices their intent to publish the game. Some games, as Jay stated, warrant further development as the publisher may be trying to fit it to a different theme, market, or even to a license they have access to. Some games are just a bit rough around the edges and the publisher wants some time to polish it up before they commit to anything in full. During this time, it behooves you as the designer who will have his or her name on the box (make sure to ask for that in your contract, by the way!), to work closely with the publisher and the development team to ensure that everything goes smoothly – we will discuss this phase of the process in further detail later on.
During this exclusivity or development phase you need to be concerned about a few things: Making sure that the process does not go on ad nauseum and making sure that you do not sign any of your rights to your intellectual property away permanently. Do no enter into any agreement with a publisher until you have something in writing saying that you will be paid for your idea in some manner and /or that the rights revert to you if no agreement has been reached after a set period of time.
Be sure not to reneg your contractual obligations by shopping a prototype to Company B if it’s already in development with Company A, even if you’re not getting a good vibe from Company A. Either wait out the development period and see how it goes or build yourself an out in the contract if need be to have the rights revert to you if either party is feeling antsy about the situation. Just don’t go behind anyone’s back. Not only would you been in breech of contract, it would seriously damage your reputation in a very small industry – one where your name carries weight. At this point of the game, it’s all business. So put that hat firmly on your head and make sound business decisions as opposed to ones that you might make as a designer or sales person.
Once you’ve negotiated the development timeline, if any, you need to sort out the good stuff. SHOW ME THE MONEY!