Step 31: Working with a Developer

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!

A famous story is how Reiner Knizia’s game, Through the Desert started as a game about campers. The publisher liked it but wanted to change the theme to camels in a desert – and the rest is history.

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!

Playtesting Belfort

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!

-Jay Cormier

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.

The Rules:

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.

The Boundaries:

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.

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 13: To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish

We’re 12 steps into this and we now should be ready to get a game published.  We should have a game that has been playtested and tweaked dozens of times.  We should be happy with where we’re at with the game and have played it a few times in a row without anyone wanting any changes in the game.

Now comes the big question: should we self-publish or submit it to a game publisher?  There are four differences between them:

Creative Control

Creative Control Board Game DesignWith Self-Publishing you have full creative control. If you want something changed, then you can get it changed depending on how much money and time you’re willing to invest.

If a Publisher is making your game then they have full creative control.  If they like your game about camping, but think it would be better if it was about camels caravanning in the desert then you’ll have to change it (this is a true story of what happened with Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert – a great game btw!).

$$$

If you Self-Publish, be prepared to invest a lot of your own money.  Depending on how big of a print run you want to do will be a factor in how much you will need (anywhere from $5000-$50,000).  If you want to do a super small print run then you have to be prepared to either make a lot less per game or even lose money per game – as was the case in the first print run of Trivial Pursuit.  This strategy has paid off for the makers of Trivial Pursuit of course – and for others as well (Alan Moon’s Spiel de Jahres winner, Elfenland had an initial print run of about 100!) – but you just have to be prepared for that kind of cost!  If you can afford a bigger print run then a big benefit you get is ALL the profits!  Of course you might want to use a distributor who will eat into those profits, but you still get all those profits.

If a Publisher is making your game then you need to invest none of your money (except all the money you’ve spent on tools, resources, entry fees for competitions, travelling to conventions, pizza for your playtesters etc…).  They take all the risk, and as you can imagine – they take most of the profits.  As a designer you are left with anywhere from 1%-10% of Distributor Cost (Publisher sells the game to a Distributor, Distributor sells to a Retailer, Retailer sells to a customer).

An example:  If a game is sold in retail for about $40, then the retailer might have bought it from the distributor for about $20.  The Distributor might have bought it from the publisher for $10.  A designer might get 5% of this – or $0.50 for each game sold.  As you can see, it’s hard to get rich as a board game designer.  Hopefully we’re making games because we love making games though!

Expertise

Expertise Board Game DesignA Publisher is going to have contacts and relationships within the industry for artists and production.  If you decided to self-publish then you’d need to find an artist and figure out where to get it made.  This expertise can be invaluable.  For us, we lucked out with Tasty Minstrel Games as they have hired two of the best artists in the board game community with Josh Cappel and Gavan Brown.  Not only that but they have learned a lot in their short history about production companies and have formed a relationship with Panda – the best place to get a game made.  Finally they have a tight relationship with PSI – the Distributors.  Not only are our games going to be distributed by PSI, but they have already played our game, Train of Thought and mentioned that they think it would be a good game to get into Barnes and Noble.  We wouldn’t have been able to get a contact like that if we Self-Published.

Time

Time Board Game DesignIf you Self-Publish you have an advantage of spending as much time as you can to get your game to market as soon as possible.  The downside is that takes a lot of your time.  A heck of a lot.  I was talking to the designers of Redneck Life and they mentioned that by Self-Publishing they now spend up to 80% of their time marketing their game instead of spending time on designing other board games.  So if that’s something that interests you, then go for it!

The challenge with a Publisher making your game is that they take forever.  From the moment they say they’re interested to it hitting the store shelves will be at least two years.  The game has to go through their development team, where they playtest it even more and make tweaks (hopefully with the designer!).  Then they hire an artist, and send it to China (probably) to get produced.  They get it shipped back to America and get it to the distributors. Then they do the marketing, which includes going to conventions, ads and in store promos.  That’s a lot of time.

So taking all these things into consideration, Sen and I decided that we preferred to have a Publisher make our game.  We were ok with the smaller profit potential because we weren’t in it for the money, and we would rather spend more of our time on making new games!

So for your game, what are you thinking about doing?  Self-publishing or sending it to a publisher?

-Jay Cormier

The only other items I can add to Jay’s excellent post are:

Space

The other part of the continuum when paired with “TIME” (see above), space, like it’s partner, is a limitation we all have to deal with. Neither Jay nor I have the space to safely store 1000 boxes of Belfort and 1000 more of Train of Thought, in a climate controlled/hermetically sealed enviroment. When you are your own publisher, you need to store your product and make sure the mice and water don’t get at your stock. When you have a publisher, they are responsible for all the mundane, yet vitally important things like safe storage of the game.

Many, Many Hands

In the case of games that are pretty much ready to go, you may not want or need much more input. But for some of the more complex games, like Belfort, we had the assistance of a great guy named Seth Jaffee to take it from a 10 to a 10.5! Seth is the developer for Tasty Minstrel. His job is to take a game that may have some minor rough spots and buff them out. He’s like Victor – he’s a cleaner.

Having a publisher usually means more eyes on the little details, more eyes on proofing, more people helping the project move along accordingly. So while we gave up some creative control and had to come to consensus on a few items, we are more than happy with the final products of our union with Seth and Tasty Minstrel Games. Both Train of Thought and Belfort are shaping up as games we are super proud of. Without the input of the publisher, both games would have been slightly different and, in my opinion, slighty worse if we had taken the self-publishing route.

In our case, working with the publisher and developer has been a dream. We’ve heard others tell different tales regarding other publishers. In the end, it’s all about communication and making effective use of collaborative tools to get the job done.

So, from the perspective of Jay and myself, where it’s incredibly difficult to co-ordinate even ourselves due to the geographic distances we have to travel to actually meet face-to-face let alone everything that self-publishing entails, you can see why we have reservations regarding publishing one of our games ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that it’ll never happen – many times (especially after a rejection letter), Jay and I often muse about publishing a game on our own. But then we go over the laundry list of reasons why we shouldn’t and we give ourselves a big old face palm for even thinking of doing something silly like that. But I can see a time in the future where we may want to go that way if we are both in a position to be able to meet the huge demands of self-publication.

For now though, we’re more than happy with our publishers – we’re estatic!

-Sen-Foong Lim