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

Adventures in Essen, Part 3: Pitching to a Publisher

Going to Essen as a game designer can be very beneficial if you plan properly and have a modicum of sales or personal skills. In this post I’ll walk you through how I pitched to all the publishers I met with while in Essen. To catch up to where we are in the series, here are the previous posts:

Adventures in Essen, Part 1: The Fair

Adventures in Essen, Part 2: Attending as a Designer

Because we’ve been published already, I started each conversation by bringing out a copy of Train of Thought and Belfort. I did this for a couple reasons.

  1. To let the publisher know that I’m a published designer of two great looking games and,
  2. To let them know that we’re looking for international partners. If the publisher was a European publisher and showed some interest in either one, then I’d quickly review the game and then gauge their interest levels. The more interest they show then the more details I provide, going so far as to open the box and give them an example of game play.

Sales Sheet for our game, Akrotiri

Once we were finished talking about International rights (which Sen and I do not have, but I was there to gauge interest and connect them with our publisher for negotiating), I’d bring out my folder full of Sales Sheets. Prior to the meeting I’d review the emails with the publisher to see if they expressed interest in specific games of ours or not, and if they did then I’d only show them the Sales Sheets for those games. If I didn’t have any guidance from previous emails as to which games they prefer to see, then I’d start with the games that I felt fit that publisher the most.

I’d bring out the Sales Sheet and face it towards them and give them the 30-second elevator pitch, just like in Step 16. Based on how interested they were, I’d continue by explaining how the game plays while pointing to each picture on the Sales Sheet. I’d ask them if they’d like to see a sample round played out and if so, I’d grab the baggie with the prototype and quickly set up enough components to play a round. Depending on the game I would explain a certain percentage of the rules since not all rules would be needed to play a round or two. Basically I’d follow what we detailed in Step 25. Whenever it made sense I’d point out key strategy aspects but I always let the publisher make up their own mind as to how to play.

A small room where I just finished pitching Swashbucklers to a publisher (the publisher left for a moment so I snapped this image with my iPad!)

During a pitch session the time for humility is at the end of the session if the publisher has feedback, but at the beginning and during your pitch, throw humility out. I mean, don’t be an egotistical ass, but this is the time that you really have to highlight what’s unique and special about your game. As we play I’d point out how unique a movement mechanic was or how clever or novel a specific aspect of the game was. I’d say things like, “What I like most about this game is that everyone is playing at all times” or “The hook to this game is that you’re giving many tiny clues which, by themselves mean little, but when put together they make more sense.” You have to remember that this publisher is possibly spending their entire time at Essen seeing new designs every 30 minutes from different designers. How are you going to stand out and be remembered?

After playing a round or two I am usually pretty forward and like to ask their opinion about the game from what little they know of it. This is key if you have many games you’d like to present. Each of the meetings I had were specific slots of time – usually 30 minutes (though one was an hour), so I wouldn’t want to ‘waste’ my entire time on pitching just the one game. When the publisher gives you feedback, remember to follow what we reviewed in Step 26. Now IS the time for humility. Don’t be defensive and just accept whatever they say. There’s no argument that you can provide that would convince the publisher that their opinion should be different.

Whatever their opinion is, start packing up the prototype if it’s out, while the publisher is contemplating or sharing their thoughts. Keep eye contact with the publisher and don’t appear rushed, but I knew I had a few more games I had to get out and I was just trying to be as efficient as possible. None of the publishers seemed to mind this at all.

At the end of the session I’d always review the key take-aways. I’d summarize which games they were interested in and then, as detailed in Step 27, I’d ask them if it was ok to come back with the prototype at the end of the Fair, and all the publishers were cool with that. I’d shake their hand and thank them for their time and ensure I got a business card and be on my way.

It’s key during these pitches to really try and be yourself. You can’t be super salesman-y the entire time as that comes across as cheesy and forced. Show them that you’re a good person and that you’d be fun and professional to work with if they chose your game to be published. I never found it necessary to comment or flatter them with praise about any of their existing games as I felt like that would come across as pandering and fake. I think they appreciated that I was good humoured but also got right down to business.

I need to underline the importance of Sales Sheets again. I’ve talked about them in previous posts for sure, but I actually asked a few publishers their thoughts about Sales Sheets and every one of them said it was a great idea. One specifically liked that it helped him remember which game was which since they had pictures, while another preferred them during the pitch sessions as it was quicker to explain games instead of hauling out tons of bits and pieces. In the future I think we’ll be tweaking our Sales Sheets a bit to make them even a better aid when explaining how the game is played.

Up Next: A review of the publishers I pitched

– Jay Cormier

Step 30: Board Game Contract Negotiating, Part 3 of 3: Rights

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.

-Jay Cormier

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!

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 29: The Big Wait (for Board Game Publishers to Respond!)

This is one of the most frustrating steps of game design: waiting for a publisher to playtest your game. Getting a publisher to agree to take a look at your game is a big step, and now you have to wait…and wait…and wait, until you hear back from them.

So what can a designer do to lessen the wait period?

The number one thing you can do is to set the expectations at the beginning. As designers we get very excited when a publisher shows interest in our game and we often let some things slide. When you’re handing over your prototype over to a publisher, ask them how long they’d like to have it to review. A 2-3 month window should be ample time for a publisher to playtest your game. A great way to bring this up is to ask them how long they’d like to have exclusivity rights to the prototype. This means that you won’t show your game to any other publisher for this period. Some publishers will let you know immediately that they don’t care if you show it to other publishers – which is great for you as you can start showing other publishers right away. Make sure you let the new publisher that your game is already being reviewed by another publisher. It’s very important to be transparent here as your reputation is on the line. If a publisher spends a couple weeks playtesting your game, only to find out that another publisher wants to make it, then they’re not going to like you too much and they won’t want to see any more of your games in the future.

Unfortunately sometimes we aren’t this adamant in our initial discussion with a publisher and now they have the game and you’re left wondering when they’re going to play it. Eventually you’re going to get to a point when you’re going to have to contact them again, but watch out – there’s a fine line between following up and becoming a nuisance!

A very-friendly email that has no feeling like it’s being demanding is a good start:

Hi , I’m just following up on , the game that I designed and sent to you . We met at and after showing you a sample round, you expressed some interest in playtesting it with your game group. Have you had a chance to give the game a try yet? I’m confident that would be a great fit for because .

Sometimes you’ll get a response and sometimes you won’t. When you do, they usually will say that they haven’t had time and will give you an idea about when they’re getting together with their playtest group again. If they don’t respond, well – that can be frustrating. My recommendation is to wait another couple weeks and send another email. It’s very possible that they meant to respond but it slipped off their to-do list. For this second email, it might be a good time to start setting an end date if one wasn’t agreed upon up front.

Hi , I’m following up again to see if you have had a chance to playtest yet. I am confident that my game would be a perfect fit for your company, but if you’re not interested, please let me know so I can continue to shop it around.

If you still don’t get a response then the third email would usually have a specific end date mentioned. Then at the time specified, let the publisher know you would like the prototype shipped back to you. Don’t make it sound mean – just keep it all business-like.

But the one thing you should be doing while you’re waiting to hear back from a publisher: create more games! If you’re serious about board game design, then you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket! Start working on your next design. The ultimate goal is to have a game in many different stages, so you’re always working on something at each stage.

-Jay Cormier

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 22: Getting your Game in front of a Publisher at a Convention: Now you’re at the convention

We’ve picked the best convention, we’ve set up some meetings with publishers beforehand and we’re packed properly – now we’re at the convention!

The first thing to do is to understand the schedule.  As Sen alluded to in Step 20, you might want to take in a few seminars (if there are any) or even – heaven forbid – play some games!  Sometimes the schedule is available before attending, so you could have this done before attending – but it’s always worth re-checking as schedules often change at the last minute. Try to attend as many seminars or workshops that are about game design or game manufacturing as possible.  Even if you never want to self-publish, it’s extremely important for a designer to understand the ins and outs of the entire business.

When you’ve determined it’s time to hit the trade show floor, make sure you have everything you need.  What do you need?  Come on, haven’t you been reading this blog from the beginning? Just kidding.  OK, you should be carrying around your sales sheets (Step 14)  in an easily accessible folder.  I get my sales sheets printed in colour on nice glossy or thicker matte paper.  I then put one sales sheet for each game in a folder.  The folder is one of those that open up, but the sales sheets are not bound or attached to the folder in any way.  This allows me to easily find the one I want and show somebody.

So rule #1 – always, always, always have your sales sheets on you.  Always.  If you go to dinner at a convention – bring your sales sheets.  If you’re playing someone else’s games – bring your sales sheets.  You just never know when you’re going to need to show them.

Case in point: I was at the GAMA trade show a few years ago and saw a couple people setting up a prototype of a game.  Seeing that I wasn’t too busy, I asked if they would like another playtester for the game.  They agreed and we started playing and chatting.  While chatting, the purpose of my visit to this convention came up and I showed them my sales sheets.  They expressed interest in a game called Belfort and wanted to play it after.  Sure, why not – I thought.

About ¾ of the way through playtesting this game, I realized I wasn’t playing with other game designers – but I was playing with a publisher.  Tasty Minstrel, in fact.  Astute readers will see where this is going.  After playing their prototype – called Homesteaders (now published by Tasty Minstrel Games), they played Belfort and enjoyed it.  So much so that they wanted to play it again the following day.  After that second playtest they offered to publish the game.

So you really never know when you’ll need your sales sheets – so have them handy at all times!

Second ‘rule’ for conventions – have all your prototypes with you when you are walking the convention floor.  I try to have my prototypes with me almost all the time when I’m at a convention – but for sure you need to have them when you’re walking the floor.  The best case scenario when approaching a publisher at a convention is that they will want to take a look at your game – right now – so you better have an easily accessible prototype at the ready.

When I first get into a convention floor – where there are dozens of booths, I like to do a walk around before talking to anyone about publishing my games.  I like to see what they are showcasing and how they’re doing it.  I like to see if I can tell who the person is that I should speak to when I return.  I also like seeing all the new games that they have out!  Once I get a good lay of the land, I refer to my preparations and see which publishers I wanted to speak with first.

Now timing is key at a convention.  You never want to approach a publisher right at the beginning of a convention because they are really focused on the purpose of why they’re there (see Step 19).  If you’re not a potential customer, then you could rub them the wrong way right off the bat.  Also you want to time your approach to when their booth is empty – or at least one person at the booth is not occupied.  If the publisher is there to talk to customers or retailers, then you are preventing them from doing that – so respect their purpose!  The best timing is, of course by setting up a meeting in advance (Step 20).

In the next post we’ll get into details about approaching a publisher and what happens next!

-Jay Cormier

Again, my comments are pretty short and sweet on this section as Jay’s the point man for our two-man strike team when it comes to conventions.

When you consider that out of all the prototypes a publisher sees in a given year, only a very small percentage get published, you might attribute some of our success to luck. But if you think of the equation:

Luck = Opportunity + Planning

then you might be more apt to see how Jay and I work. Nothing came to us by luck. Did we go to GAMA 2009 knowing that we’d get signed or that we’d even have a meeting with Tasty Minstrel Games? No. We didn’t have the benefit of a nifty blog like this one telling us to get an appointment first!

But Jay’s willingness to help playtest (Opportunity) plus us having prepared well laid-out and thoughtful sell sheets at the ready (Planning) ended up in Tasty Minstrel Games being interested in our product and reciprocate by playtesting our prototype.

Even more than that, sometimes, is this often overlooked fact – we are not trying to sell the publisher on just a single game. We view the designer/developer/publisher relationship as one that needs to be developed and nurtured. We want to make sure that the publishers are a good fit for us and vice versa. We want to let prospective publishers know that we are a good team to work with – we are selling ourselves as designers as much (if not more) than we are selling our designs.

And this is how you turn one bit of “luck” into even more good fortune.

-Sen-Foong Lim

 

Step 21: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Packing!

Now packing your luggage might seem like such a trivial step to getting your game published, but there are a few important considerations to keep in mind.

1)     If you’re flying to the convention then you need to do whatever you can to ensure your prototypes are in your carry-on!  The first convention I went to – guess what happened?  They lost my luggage.  Fortunately I had most of my prototypes in my carry-on.  The luggage came the next day but it could have been a lot worse!

2)     Since you’re going to want to have your prototypes with you as you walk the floor, you’ll have to think about how you want to carry them around.  A wheeled carry-on works well, while a backpack makes you look unprofessional.  It’s also possible that you  could just carry a box around – but you’ll find that to be too cumbersome when trying to show your sales sheets and not drop your box.

3)     Give some thought to how you want to package each game.  The best case scenario would be to have a separate container/box for each game you have.  That way when you sit down with a publisher to showcase your game you will have everything you need in one box.  Alternatively, if you have too many games and they won’t fit in your carry-on luggage, then you’ll have to opt for a larger box.  Take all of your games out of their boxes and squeeze them into one larger box (that still has to fit in your carry-on!).

I always have to pack my games into a larger box since I’m always taking 6-10 games with me to each convention.  This does cause some frustration though as you open your large box and have to dig around to find all the baggies/cards/pieces to the game you want to show.  If you can separate the games in the large box somehow, then that will make it easier to get everything ready.

When you are pitching your game to a publisher, every second counts – quite literally.  You don’t want to waste time fiddling around with your baggies and pieces looking for the right components.  This looks very unprofessional.

4)     If you opt for the larger box scenario, then you need to consider how you would give your game to a publisher if they do want to take a closer look at it back in their offices.  The best solution for this is to pack many smaller boxes that will fit each game separately into your main luggage.  At the last convention I was at, I showed Z-Man games our Akrotiri game and when he said he’d like to take it back with him to play after the convention, I had to fumble around for a box that fit everything.  I found one – but the rules didn’t fit neatly in the box, so I gave that to him separately – which was not a good idea in hindsight as they could easily be separated and lost from each other.  I tried to rectify this by emailing him a new set of rules when I got home.

5)     If you are crossing a border to get to a convention, make sure you indicate that you are truthful about your reasons for your visit, but beware of complications if you’re ‘too’ truthful.  I decided to check off that the reason for my travel was Business and Personal.  When they asked what the business was, I told them that I was a game designer and was going down to pitch my games to publishers.  They said that I couldn’t take my prototypes into the country with me.  What?!  They said that since I’m planning on selling products in the states I would have had to go through the proper channels to get them into the country.  I had to explain to him that I wasn’t selling anything at all and that I would retain the prototypes and that I wasn’t ‘taking orders’ for products at all.  It took a while, but he eventually let me through.  Needless to say, on future trips I say that I’m going for Personal reasons only!

With your bags packed and ready to go, now it really is time to hit the convention!  In the next post we’ll talk about what to do when you’re at a convention!

-Jay Cormier

 

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

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

Step 10: Pretty up your Prototype: Stage 2 – Tools and Supplies part 2

Continuing the list of tools and supplies you’ll need to make a good looking prototype!

Cubes: If you go to a school supply store you should be able to buy a tub of 1cm multi-coloured plastic cubes.  This will cost you around $25-$30 and will be your supply of pieces for over a dozen games.  These cubes can be used as character markers, resources or money.  I also found some 2 cm wooden cubes that came in many colours at a dollar store.  Having cubes in two different sizes has helped in numerous games!

Poker Chips: Poker chips (the cheaper small ones) make for great money in a game, and they usually come in different colours too.  You could use cubes if you don’t need cubes for other things, but if we are using cubes to indicate player markers, then it would be confusing to players if cubes were also used for money – even if they were different colours.

Pawns: Pawns seem to be the hardest thing to come by.  Sure there are plenty of places online to buy them, and I really should dive in and buy a bunch in different colours, but they’re hard to find in stores.  It should be pretty obvious that pawns are needed in a lot of games.  Again you could use cubes (and sometimes we do), but if cubes are already representing something else, then pawns are needed.

Stones: Not mandatory at all, but we have found that using these pretty gem stones add some class to a prototype.  Usually we end up just using cubes, but for Rune Masters the stones seemed to make more sense for one component that we called Rune Stones (why would we use cubes for that!?).

Misc pieces: For our 5th or 6th prototype for Santorini we changed how resources were being shipped and resources had to be placed directly onto ships instead of ‘jumping’ from one island to another.  Up until then our ships were just pawns, so we had to make some ships which we did out of gluing some popsicle sticks together.  It was serendipitous that popsicle sticks are also 1cm wide as that allowed us to even create side ridges on our ships so that the 1cm resource cubes could snugly fit in the ships – very cool!

Tools we bought that we thought we needed but we don’t really:

Corner Rounder: We had a couple games where we thought the professional looking rounded edges of some of the components would take it over the top.  It did make some of the prototypes look pretty sweet, but we just didn’t end up using it that much to make it worthwhile.

Die Cutter: We had one game that we needed to make a bunch of similarly shaped tags out of plastic and cutting them by hand seemed ridiculous, so we got a die cutter.  Yeah, not so great a purchase!  It was fine for that one game, but we never used it again.

Once the game is nearing its final stages of life and is ready to be shown to a publisher, then it’s time to make an amazing prototype!  For now it’s important to understand that you will probably still make 5-20 more prototypes of each game before sending it to a Publisher, so no need to spend too much time.

So how far is too far?  Well, I met one game designer who had a party game designed.  The prototyped looked amazing as each of the cards had a printed front and back to them – and they were all professionally laminated.  I was impressed for sure.  We played the game and gave our feedback and the next time I saw him he had his game again – but this time with a whole new prototype.  All the cards were brand new – but they looked as professional as they did before.  I saw him two more times and both times he had another brand new professionally made prototype.  He must have spent a lot of money getting these prototypes made.  I asked him why he spends so much money on getting them made and his answer was that he always thought that the next prototype was going to be the last prototype.  While we all hope that will be the case for each of us, experience tells me (and hopefully that guy by now!) that there is almost always going to be one more prototype to be made!

For our first game we ever made, Top Shelf, Sen and I spent a lot of time making an amazing looking prototype!  We made the board and affixed it to cardboard so that it folded like a real board!  Then we affixed each tile to matte board and even affixed a backing to each tile so that it had the logo for the game on the back!  Then we even ‘sanded’ down the edges of the tiles so they … hmmm…not sure why we did that!  They looked cooler though!  It was too much of course and when we had to make our next prototype of that game it was much simpler.

-Jay Cormier

(and yes, I realize how silly the title of this blog post is: Step 10, Stage 2, Part 2…!)

If anyone has links to share of part/bit suppliers, please share! I’ll look through mine and post later.

But, to respond/add to this post, here are my additions to the list:

STORAGE

I would say another essential bit of gear is a good “bit box” – something to store all your cubes, dice, etc. in an organized, sorted fashion. Jay and I both use things that were probably intended for hardware (nails and screws, etc.) Mine has a handle and 4 trays that pull out, each with customizable sections. I use them to put everything in one neat cube of game design bits.

COLOURING/DRAWING TOOLS

We use Sharpies a lot. Also wood stain markers, acrylic paints, spray primer, pencil crayons, etc. Other “must have” drawing tools include a good metal rule, erasers, pencil sharpeners. Some tools we have used on the rare occasion include number and letter stencils or stamps for use on plastic or wooden bits that we can’t print on. Not everything can be loaded in Tray 1 of the laser printer!

ADHESIVES

Stick glue and spray adhesives are used a lot to make the final prototype. I use that bluetack stuff to cobble pieces together from time to time, to hold tiles to map boards more permanently, etc.

DICE

Self-explanatory – we have a plethora of polyhedra dice at our disposal. Like any good game geeks should. Jay and I don’t use a ton of dice, by nature (Jay has diceaphobia, or maybe he’s a dicist, I’m not sure), but it helps to have some methods of randomly generating numbers around!

BAGS

Helpful for storage as well as randomizing tiles or cubes and keeping them hidden from view. Great for games like “Santorini” to keep resource cubes random or for “Scene of the Crime” to keep the clue tiles hidden from view.

OTHER CUTTING TOOLS

I have a Dremel that I use to cut, grind, and rout wood blocks, mostly – I also have a coping saw for cutting small metal rods/tubes or harder woods and plastics. Both were invaluable for creating “Junkyard”.

OTHER STUFF

Some components are very dependent on the game you’re making – like magnets, push pin flags, etc, – but, like Jay said, we will often find stuff that we think is cool and just grab them in the event that they might come in handy someday! If they come in many different colours (at least the game standards like red/blue/green/yellow), it’s a pretty sure bet, I’ll purchase enough to make a set of 10 of each.

OTHER TOOLS WE HAVE BUT RARELY USE

The only other one that comes to mind is my sticker maker.

ONE MORE THING

re: How many prototypes to make…while you will be making maaaaany versions to get to your final, sometimes, you will need to make a few of the final versions, especially if you have an agent who may wish to show your game to a prospective publisher and leave a prototype with them while the agent sets up the next meeting with another publisher. Note that some agents may not show a game to a second publisheruntil the first publisher has exercised their “right of first refusal”, but it’s always good to have an extra prototype versus having to scramble to make a whole other copy at the last minute. Not that we’ve ever had to do that ourselves…

-Sen-Foong Lim