Step 27: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Leaving the game with a publisher

Here are the three best case scenarios that could happen to you when you’re at a convention:

1)     There’s a ‘bidding war’ between multiple publishers over the rights to publish your game.  This would be amazing but usually only happens to designers with a reputation.

2)     A publisher agrees to publish your game at the convention.  There’s no contract because it’s so impromptu – but it’s usually a verbal agreement that will restrict you from showing the game to any other publisher.

3)     A publisher is interested enough to take the game back to their offices to playtest with their playtest groups.

Number 3 is the one that will happen most often as a publisher wants to see the ins and outs of the game on their own time.  After showing a game to a publisher at a convention and they say they would like to take it back with them, the acceptable thing to say is that since you only have one prototype that you’d like to keep it until the end of the convention.  Every publisher I’ve said this to immediately understands this and is 100% fine with it.  Who knows, maybe there’s another publisher at the convention who’s willing to agree to publish the game right there at the convention!

Hot Property Game Design

Hot Property: One of our Games on the Go games

Max from Out of the Box liked our Games on the Go line of games enough to want to take them back with him.  Before I could reply he said that if they were my only copies of the prototype then I could come back at the end of the show to give them to him.  Nice.

 

When you do hand off your games, make sure your games are properly labeled.  A properly labeled prototype has your name and contact information on as many things as possible: on the outside of the box, on the inside of the box, on the rules and even on any other smaller boxes or baggies.  If you have business cards made up, then just glue or tape your business cards to the box.  Label the outside of the box with the name of your game.  Make it in colour and use an appropriate font.  You don’t have to be a graphic designer to come up with an acceptable logo for your game.  The publisher fully understands that this is a prototype – but all these extra touches shows how serious you are about it.  For Akrotiri we just searched online for a Greek font and came up with dozens to choose from.  We made it blue and added a drop shadow behind it – and voila, we’ve got a logo!

You have to think about where this box is going.  It’s going back to their offices with however many more games they agreed to take a look at – and added to the pile of boxes that they already have there.  You need to ensure that your game will stand out from the others.  Something that will make one of the playtesters say, “Hey let’s play that one with the leopard print box.”  If you just pack it in a boring brown cardboard box and tape it shut – then you’re not doing yourself any favours.

So by the end of the convention, it’s time to hand off as many of your games as possible.  If you got offers from more than one publisher for the same game then you’re going to have to make some tough decisions.  At my first convention we got an offer to look at Jam Slam (back when it was called Jungle Jam) from R&R games as well as Face to Face Games.  Since Jungle Jam at the time needed electronic components we decided to show the game to R&R Games since they had experience making games with electronic pieces.  In discussing this with Face to Face Games at the end, they understood and weren’t disappointed as they got to take another one of our games back with them at the time.

So that’s it for conventions.  As you can see they are very important for game designers as is evident in the quantity of posts we devoted to the subject:

Step 19) Picking the right convention

Step 20) Preparing for the convention

Step 21) Packing!

Step 22) Now you’re at the convention

Step 23) Approaching the publisher

Step 24) Showcasing your game to a publisher

Step 25) Playing your game with a publisher

Step 26) Getting feedback from a publisher

Step 27) Leaving the game with a publisher

The next few steps will be about working with a publisher who’s agreed to publish your game.

-Jay Cormier

 

Step 26: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Taking Feedback from a publisher

You’ve just played some or all of your game with a publisher, and now comes the moment where the publisher expresses how much he loves your game and wants to give you a ton of money to publish it.  Er…no…

If you’re lucky, you’ll at least get feedback from the publisher at the end of the game (and of course, sometimes throughout the game too).  Now here comes an absolutely critical point – LISTEN!  It doesn’t matter that you already thought of the idea that he just suggested – publishers want to know if you are going to be easy to work with on the further development of the game.  This isn’t to say that you have to roll over and accept all their feedback 100%.  Listen to their entire feedback and then formulate your response appropriately.

When playing Belfort for the first time with Tasty Minstrel Games, they gave a couple of suggestions at the end.  One was about determining player order.  They had a different idea for how players could change player order throughout the game.  I thought it was an interesting idea and then actually wrote a note down while in front of them.  This helped to show that I took their feedback seriously. I was fortunate enough that they wanted to play again the following night and I said it would be easy to incorporate their idea in that playtest.  We did, and the game played better.  I think the ease of working with me made their decision to publish Belfort a bit easier that night.

If a publisher is not forthcoming on their feedback, then start them off by asking them the things that they liked the most about the game, then what they liked the least.  Even if they never publish the game, this feedback is like gold to you as you now have feedback from a publisher on how to make your game better (at least in their eyes).  While you don’t have to change the game based on every piece of feedback you get from a publisher, it’s still wise to listen and keep track of what feedback you’ve received in case you start to see a pattern developing.

Remember that they are giving feedback to change the game into something that they would want to publish.  Maybe this publisher makes a lot of games for younger kids so they keep trying to simplify the concepts and strategies.  Of course, if you did your research beforehand you’d know what a publisher wanted and would show them appropriate games.  That said, sometimes it’s getting near the end of the convention and you haven’t had a bite on a couple of your games, so you start branching out to some not-so-perfect fits!

Sometimes the feedback you get will be that they’re not interested.  If possible, without sounding too much like a doofus, try to find a reason why not.  Humility will be very important here.  Try not to be defensive!  Most likely you’ll get a response that they’re not publishing games with pirates, or card games, or games with high production costs, or games with language on it, or games for that demographic.  Whatever their response – it’s great information for the future.  One day you might invent a game that does fit with this publisher’s needs.

When showing Up in the Air to R&R Games they said that they thought the game was going to be a lot goofier based on the theme of juggling.  When they saw it was more of a serious card game, they lost interest.  Fair enough.  When showing Hog the Remote to Out of the Box Games, Max said that he wasn’t looking to get into any more pop culture games based on the sales of a recent game not performing well. No problem.

Bottom line – listen, listen, listen.  It’s so easy to become defensive about your baby that you’ve been working on for years.  Instead, keep your emotions in check and listen.  You might be surprised how it turns out.

Next up we talk about the last phase of a convention – leaving your game with a publisher.

-Jay Cormier

As much as designers want a game to be played, they tend to design games that they themselves would want to play – sometimes subconsciously. More often than not, the end result is a game that, while good, may not have the mass appeal necessary to take the game to market. Taking feedback is a critical skill as it is the best ways to transform a game from something you like into something more people will like.

Unfortunately, the designers are usually too close to the project after working on it for so long to be completely objective Being detached about their “baby” becomes difficult and accepting criticism is very difficult, but is, in my opinion, the real definition of being professional. It’s not whether you can design a game, or sell 100,000 copies – it’s whether or not you can receive feedback gracefully and implement suggestions in a constructive and positive manner.

So – how do you take feedback in a professional manner? As a therapist, I have studied how to give and receive feedback in depth. Here are some pointers, specific to meeting with a publisher:

Be Attentive

There’s a line in a movie or TV show that’s always stuck with me that goes something like “To be interesting, you’ve gotta be interested.” See the difference? I think it had something to do with picking up the ladies in the movie, but what this means in terms for feedback is that you need to show the person giving you the constructive criticism that you are actively involved in the feedback process.

When feedback is being given to you live, it is not a passive process and it is not one-sided. Your role as the receiver is to first ask for feedback. And from there, your job is to appear interested in order for the person giving feedback to feel like they are being valued, that they are being listened to. Non-verbal cues such as leaning forward attentively, making good eye contact, and writing down what they’re saying are sometimes more powerful than the verbal cues. Make the person giving the feedback feel like they are the only person in the room and that you are hanging on their every word. Add this to verbal cues like saying “That’s great, please go on!”, “Excellent feedback – let me jot that down!” and you’ve got a recipe for helping people open up to you.

Remember though, being a good listener means that they’re doing most of the talking – it’s very difficult to use your ears when your mouth is constantly in motion!

“Please, Sir, may I have some more?”

Will every piece of feedback be useful? Will every piece of feedback even be constructive? No – some of it is not helpful at all and some of it will just be offhand comments with little to no bearing. But there is an art to drawing out the kind of feedback you need from your audience. Once you have a publisher engaged in an active feedback session, you want to get every last bit you can from them.

Again, there are both verbal and non-verbal cues you can give to elicit more feedback. Simple things like nodding and saying “go on” can help make a person feel like you are willing to continue listening. Asking a person to clarify or expand upon their initial feedback is a great way to keep them talking and to get to what they really mean – more often than not, their initial statement is just scratching the surface of what they want to say. So following up their comment with something like, “That’s interesting – tell me more about how you see that working” can help them help you.

The longer you can keep them interested in talking to you, the more memorable you and your game will be to them and the more they will likely feel that they had a hand in helping the game come to fruition. They may even talk themselves into liking the game enough to take the prototype for further consideration.

So, much like a hostage negotiator – keep ‘em talking!

One question I find very useful is called a “scaling question” – you ask the person to rank some aspect of the game (or the overall game, even) on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being poor and 10 being great. Then you ask them how you could make the game even just half a point better (so a 6.5 instead of a 6, for example). This type of solution focused questioning leads to some amazing insights and really helps to involve the publisher in helping you find solutions to their issues with your game.

Be Open and Accepting

The #1 way to kill a feedback session before it has really started is to be defensive. You want to project a sense of collaboration rather than confrontation. So you need to be objective. You need to separate yourself from the project at this moment and recognize your purpose in asking questions. It’s to gain the knowledge you need to get your game published, first and foremost.

Taking feedback sometimes means taking the bad along with the good. You may not particularly agree with what the publisher is telling you. Sometimes, you may have already heard that. But by shutting them down by saying, “Yeah, we’ve heard that before…” or “No, I disagree with what you’re saying” you are effectively closing the door on your own future.

And rolling your eyes when a publisher says something like “Hey, have you considered adding a spinner?” is always a bad idea.

Be open and willing to accept any and all feedback. This doesn’t mean you have to act on all of it. In fact, a high percentage of it you might have already heard or its the kind of feedback you can disregard as it doesn’t fit your artistic vision. Your goal isn’t to get in an argument with the CEO of Company X over whether your game has any merit or not. Your goal isn’t to defend the current incarnation of your game. Your goal is to find out what the next incarnation of your game would have to look like for Company X to consider publishing it.

You may not realize it at first, but the publishers are giving away a gold mine of information when they give you feedback. They are, in effect, telling you what changes would need to be made in order for your game to become more publishable. So, be open and accepting of the feedback you’re given. Some of it may just help you out in the long run.

So that’s just a few hints about feedback.

One of the fringe benefits of working as a team is that Jay and I are constantly giving each other feedback, and while most of it is positive, sometimes we’re telling each other that we really don’t like where a project is headed or that we’re really not interested in a specific game at this time. That’s sometimes difficult, as we usually champion projects separately and in a duo, there’s no such thing as consensus!

Giving and receiving feedback is a difficult thing – it is a skill that takes time to master. But if you can, you will be further ahead for it. As I wrote above, it is the mark of a true professional to be able to take difficult constructive criticism and act on it accordingly. Remember – yes, you are selling your game but you are also selling yourself as someone who can work with a publisher in a rational manner. And being able to give and receive feedback and make positive changes to your game because of it is the best way to show a publisher that you’re in this game to win it.

-Sen-Foong Lim

 

Step 18: Approaching a Publisher via e-mail

The most common and easily accessible option for designers to contact a publisher is through the Internet.  If you’ve narrowed down which publishers you think might be interested in your design (see previous step) then the first step is to go to the website for each of them.

On the website you might learn more about their product line, or if you’re lucky, the publisher might even have some sort of guidelines for the games that they publish.  Out of the Box, for example, has a great page on their site that details the kind of games that they produce.  What this means to us designers is that we should ensure the games we’re submitting to a publisher matches up with the kind of games they like to make!  So for Out of the Box, your game better be able to be learned in minutes, played in less than an hour and feature dynamic player interaction.

Submission Guidelines for Out of the Box Games

Each publisher should have somewhere on their website some sort of rules for how, and if, they accept submissions.  If you can’t find any link or information anywhere on submissions, then use the Contact link to send an email asking about submission guidelines.  In this instance, do not disclose anything about your game at all.

Some publishers just won’t accept unsolicited designs.  This means you cannot send them anything.  This is how the big boys like Hasbro and Mattel like to play.  For now, you should just cross them off your list.  In an upcoming post we’ll talk about when you should use an agent.

After you have researched all the publishers on your short list, it’s time to prioritize them. You need to prioritize them because you want to send your game to the publisher you think would best fit, and would be most interested in your game.  Publishers can take their time when reviewing new game ideas (as some get 100’s a week!).  So pick your number one publisher – your best shot!

The most important thing to know here is that you can only send your design to one publisher at a time.  You will not make a good name for yourself if you send your game out to many publishers and then have to contact some of them later on to tell them that another publisher will be publishing it.  These publishers can take a long time, but they might be spending a great deal of effort by having numerous groups of people playtesting your game.  If they put all this energy into it only to learn that someone else is publishing it, then you can expect not to make too many friends in the business.

Each publisher will have different rules on what the first step will be.  Some will want a description of the game while others might ask for the full rules.  I’ve never seen a publisher request the full prototype without having any knowledge of the game yet.  Some will require you to sign some sort of form to protect them from being sued in the future.  Sign it. In an upcoming post we’ll talk about non-disclosures and copyright protection.

When describing your game, be careful not to do too many comparisons to existing games: “It’s like Dominion – but with dice!” as that makes your game sound unoriginal.  Instead, review your elevator pitch that we talked about in a previous post and work that into your description.  Don’t be too hasty with this step.  Show some people what you’re thinking of writing to get their input – does it grab them and make them want to know more?

Once you’ve sent off what they have requested, then it’s time to play the waiting game.  The waiting game sucks – let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos.  Here’s another instance where Persistence is important – but also as important is knowing where the line between persistence and annoying is!  I’d give them 2-3 weeks before any further contact.  If you have an email, then a friendly follow up with no expectations is fine.

This is where Versatility comes in handy, because while you’re waiting to hear back from the publisher, you should be working on your other designs.  Remember that it’s not just rare to get a game published – it’s rare to get your first game you’ve ever designed published!  Sen and I designed about 10 games or so before Train of Thought and Belfort got picked up.  We still have those 10 designs and hope to tweak them and get them out there eventually – though some of them we know will never be marketable in its current state.

So that’s one way to get your game in front of a publisher.  You might have noticed that I didn’t share too many stories about what Sen and I have done in this regard – and that’s because we haven’t had any success with this method.  That’s not to say it’s impossible of course, but as you’ll see in the next post, we have a much better way to get our game in front of publishers: go to a convention.

-Jay Cormier

Think of the e-mail submission as sending your resume to a prospective employer – putting out the feelers, as it were, to see if they are at all interested in your game. In this step, you are not selling the game – but the idea of the game. And there’s a lot more “meta” to that than you’d think…

You need to tell the publisher why your game will sell – what makes it worth their while to invest time and money in? If a company only publishes one game a year, why should they publish yours?

Here’s some more rules of thumb to follow in respect to putting an e-mail submission together.

Be DESCRIPTIVE yet SUCCINCT

Tell the publisher what your game is about in as few words as possible, hitting the key points in a clear manner. This is where you have to sell your game. You need to have a clear vision of what your game is and be able to articulate it into words. And definitely fulfill any criteria the company asks for, like including time spans, age ranges, component lists, etc.

Jay and I spend a lot of time working on our sell sheets. We will attach these to our e-mail submissions in order to make the e-mail itself more succinct. The sell sheets also have the advantage of having photographs of the components and usually an example of game play. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. For something as abstract as a non-existing boardgame, it’s always a good idea to make the concept as concrete in the mind of the publisher so they know what to expect if a prototype is requested. The sell sheets help make our games “stick”.

Be UNIQUE

Everyone and their dog will be interested if you have something new to offer the market. Z-man, for example, states this on his website, verbatim:

“We also look for original mechanics or ones that have been used before but now offer a unique twist or a unique blend with other mechanics.”

But don’t draw comparisons to existing products – no one wants to publish a game that’s “like Monopoly, but better!”, even if it is better in truth. There’s just very little market for it.

Tell the publisher why your game is different and why it will sell. If you can identify new markets for the company, that is a good thing. For example, if you see your game being popular not only with serious gamers but also in the educational field, highlight the possibilities of the game.

Be FOCUSED and do your RESEARCH

Don’t just spam every publisher out there. If your game is a card game, but Company X doesn’t publish card games, please don’t send them a submission e-mail. Because when you *do* have a game that they might be interested, they may remember you as the designer who couldn’t read. Find the companies that do what you want to do well (e.g. Amigo for card games, Kosmos for 2 player games, Gigamic for wooden abstracts, etc.) and focus all of your attention on getting your game in front of the company that you feel your game fits the best with. 

It pays to research the company you are submitting to in other ways as well. Telling the publisher that you are interested in working with them is one thing, but telling them WHY you want your game to be published by them in particular is an excellent way of showing them you know both the business and their business. Some of the “whys” may be because they have an excellent track history or they are leaders in social party games. Or because their art and component quality is always high and your game would benefit from their skills. Or because they are a local company and you want a fully-Canadian product (if you are Canadian like we are, for example!). If you can tell the publisher why your game fits perfectly into their existing product line, you will be one step ahead. You can either fill a void in their line up (e.g. Tasty Minstrel doesn’t have a dexterity game yet) or fill their niche market (e.g. Twilight Creations is a good “first stop” for horror related games).

Be PROFESSIONAL

Make your e-mail readable. Bullet lists, white space…all important stuff to consider. Use spell check and make it look professional. You need to be serious about even something as simple as an introductory e-mail if you expect the publishers to take you seriously.

This is another place where a well thought-out and artfully done sell sheet can work in your favour. It shows that you’re committed to your own product and that you’ve invested time not only in the game’s design, but in the promotion of it.

So, now that you’ve written up a finely crafted e-mail and attached your sell sheet, hit “Send” and await a reply. Be courteous and timely in your own replies. Also, be wary of hounding a publisher to reply. If you don’t hear back from them, wait a week or two before resubmitting – they may be out of the office at a convention or in the midst of inventory / end of month. Remember: they are running a businsess. And nobody likes a pest.

Jay’s lying when he said we haven’t had any success this way. If you measure success in getting our prototypes in front of publishers, then we’ve had success via e-mail contact. But it is true that we haven’t had any of our games signed based solely on e-mail submissions. Our best chances of being signed and all of our actual signings have come out of our attendance at game-related conventions.

We feel getting face time with the publishers is uber-important. To parallel hunting for a job, if sending a sell sheet and introductory e-mail is akin to handing in a resume, meeting a publisher face-to-face is like having a job interview. It’s make or break time and it happens in real-time in real-space. You need to have your game face on, your elevator pitch smoothed out, and your prototype in readily-playable condition.

So our next segment – Going to Conventions – is one you won’t want to miss if you’re serious about getting your game signed. And if you’re reading this blog, you probably are…

-Sen-Foong Lim