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

 

Status update on all our games

Taking a little time out to give you all a status update on all of our games that are in active development.

Board games go through a few phases when they are being developed.  The most common phases you’ll hear people talking about are: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Published.  There are more if you want to sub-categorize them, but these are the main categories.

Alpha usually means that the game is mostly an idea or a concept.  There’s still a prototype, but the core rule-set is constantly changing.

Beta games have been playtested numerous times and are generally working but are being endlessly tweaked.  A game will spend most of its time in this phase.

Gamma games are generally done and are ready to be shown to a publisher.  Some small tweaks could occur – or a publisher could develop the game even further with more tweaks – but the game is working very well after a ton of playtesting.

Here are the games that Sen and I have at each of these phases along with a brief write up on each.  If you’re a publisher and are interested in learning more about any of these – just let us know.

Published

Train of Thought – a party/word game in which one player tries to get other players to say a hidden word using connected three-word phrases.  Available from Tasty Minstrel Games in January 2011.

Belfort – a resource management strategy game that has players competing to build the most buildings in each district of a new castle as well as employ the most elves, dwarves and gnomes.  Available from Tasty Minstrel Games in Q2-Q3 2011.

But Wait, There’s More! – a laugh-out-loud party game that has players pitching the most ridiculous products to each other in an effort to have their product chosen more than anyone else.  Available from Tasty Minstrel Games in Q4 2011.

Gamma

Akrotiri – a tile laying strategy game that has 2-5 players sailing their boats around the Mediterranean in an effort to make money by shipping resources so they can fund their expeditions to find hidden temples.  A unique system allows for players to have a specific map to a hidden temple – but will also be 100% different every time it’s played.  Currently being reviewed by Z-Man games.

Jam Slam – a quick reaction game in which 3-6 players listen to one player call out a specific ingredient and then try to be the first to slap a card with what was requested before the others.  A hilarious game that has ear-eye-hand coordination! Was a semi-finalist in the Great Canadian Game Design Competition.  Currently being sent to Gamewright for review.

Junkyard – Players place oddly shaped wooden blocks on their own tower of junk in an effort to score more points without knocking anything over.  A unique system that uses cards to help players strategize while keeping some randomness makes this balancing game different than any other on the market.  Currently being sent to Asmodee for review.

Lost for Words – 2-6 players try to find the longest word in a straight line by adding a tile with letters in a 3×3 grid to a growing board of other tiles.  The player to shout out the longest word in the time limit places the tile and scores points.  Currently being sent to Asmodee for review.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us – Currently a Games-on-the-Go product consisting of 25 tiles in a matchbox sized package.  This game has 2-4 players placing tiles and trying to get more of their cowboys in an enclosed town than opponents.  Currently waiting for a publisher.

Hot Property – Currently a Games-on-the-Go product consisting of 25 tiles in a matchbox sized package.  Hot Property involves 2 competing real estate agents placing tiles and creating neighbourhoods in an effort to have more of their coloured houses in as many neighbourhoods as possible.  Currently waiting for a publisher.

EI-EI-O – Currently a Games-on-the-Go product consisting of 25 tiles in a matchbox sized package.  EI-EI-O is a quick reaction game that has 2-6 players acting and sounding like animals quicker than their opponents.  Currently waiting for a publisher.

Top Shelf – 2-4 players place various candy products on a shelf in a convenience store in an effort to grab the attention of potential shoppers.  Get 4 of the same type or colour in a row to score – but make sure some of those are from your brand!  Currently waiting for a publisher.

Beta

RuneMasters – a non-collectible card combat game that uses a never before seen mechanic of placing rune-sticks in specific configurations to ‘cast’ creatures into combat.  Still in early beta but has been through about 8 iterations so far.  It has come a long way already as we’ve simplified it a lot while retaining everything that makes it unique.

Clunatics – a party game that has one person trying to get the others to say a specific phrase out loud – but they only can give the smallest of clues.  There are 15 different ways a person can give a clue and they only get to use 5 of them on their turn.  Lots of hilarity with this one – and it’s almost in Gamma.

Lion’s Share – a card game for 2-5 (maybe 6?) players in which they play animal cards on one of the two tables at a restaurant.  Players have to follow colour, number or animal type.  One animal is deemed to be the Alpha animal and if it’s played on a table – that player collects all the cards into their score pile – but before they do, they must share 1 card with an opponent.  This one is almost Gamma.

Scene of the Crime – One of the players is guilty of the crime and the other players try to determine who did it by placing small tiles that contain different evidence types on the board.  The evidence is played in sets on the board – and looks like Scrabble except instead of letters, there are various evidence tiles on the board.  If a player can find evidence of an opponent in an area on the board that matches a clue – then it leads players to believe they are guilty.  This one used to be Gamma, but we brought it back to Beta to figure out some issues.

Hog the Remote – a party game that has one player using a set of picture cards to get other players to guess the name of a TV show.  It’s kind of like charades but using pictures instead of acting.  This one was coming along great and then we saw that ??? came out with a game that shared some similarities.  This one has been shelved indefinitely for now.

Collectibles – a card game in which players trade rare collectibles in an effort to score the most points with the best collection at the end.  This one seemed to play well, and has been in Gamma, but we’re both kind of dis-enchanted with this one right now.  We like the mechanics and might use them in another game down the road.

Up in the Air – a 4 player partner card game that has players juggling various objects in an effort to keep everything … up in the air the longest.  This was in Gamma and after some feedback we changed the game until it turned into an entirely different game called Junkyard.  We still like the mechanics of this one and might revisit it.

Alpha

Bermuda Triangle – a re-themed version of our Gamma game Night of the Dragon.  While Night of the Dragon was a fun game for families, it never got picked up by a publisher.  Recently we were motivated to re-theme it to the Bermuda Triangle and it’s really working – though it’s making it almost an entirely different game that uses the same core mechanic.  I’m looking forward to making this one work as it involves time travel!

Dice Fu – a game that uses dice in a new way as players assign dice to combos on their various fighters in an effort to defeat their opponents.  Needs a lot of work – but it’s very interesting so far.

Box Office – A game about scheduling when your movies should be released in an effort to make the most money.  I really like the concept but we need to work a lot on the mechanics to make it more fun and less simulation.

Time Management – Players play managers of a store and they try to attract more customers than opponents by hiring the right staff, training them and delegating tasks.  This one was way too simulation – so we thought we might turn it into a game for the office crowd to be used to teach various skills.

City Planning – this one’s so much an Alpha game that we haven’t bothered coming up with a better name for it at all!  This started as a party game and then it seemed like it would fit better as a strategy game.

-Jay Cormier

We have a few other games have been sitting on the back burner after we tinkered with them in Alpha / Beta. For interest’s sake, here’s a look at some of our shelved ones and the reason for stopping the specific project:

Xtaxatax (pronounced “Stacks Attacks”) – was a 2-player game where there were stacks of discs that had stickers on either side of the disc, depicting unit type/strength/etc. The cool idea was that the stacks could be flipped over in the midst of battle to really change up the game and that as you stacked units on top/on bottom, the complexion of that battalion changed. We stopped this one mainly because we couldn’t figure out how to make a good proto for the discs such that they’d stay linked. I was thinking magnets, but didn’t know how to do it. Also, Jay’s not the biggest fan of games that involve ranged combat or too much in the way of math or memory. I am a fan of ranged combat, math and memory games, so just writing this makes me want to pull out the prototype to see if there’s something salvagable in this game.

WerkQwerks – A party game concept we came up with that never really came to fruition. It revolves around one player being the project manager and the rest of their team having to perform some mundane tasks, but with some limitations (i.e. their quirks). I think we put this on the shelf due to lack of interest – not that it’s a bad idea, but that we were focused on making a more “gamer game”. Again, just writing this makes me think – FUN! Of course, I also thought The Dig would pan out…

Sexxxy Game – HA! This couples game was a social, real-time, kind of game where players would have trigger words and responses based on double entendres and sexual innuendos. Reason for shelfing – we could never find girls to playtest with us. And I’m married! Honestly, though, it was the prototyping that was difficult as the game was supposed to be played in the real world while on a date, not around a table. Still a cool concept. It’s a bit too niche, though. A game for couples? Would that sell?

FlickWars – Jay and I both get a kick (or maybe that’s a flick) out of skillful dexterity games. We wanted to make a crazy flicking game where you’d use carroms to break down castle walls, etc. We started to prototype, but it just got difficult as neither he nor I are woodworkers. We’d have to borrow tools, ask a lot of people to help, etc. In the end, we shelved it because of the difficulty in making the physical game and now that we’ve got our dexterity fill through Junkyard, I don’t think this will see the light of day anytime soon. Besides, companies likehttp://www.uncleskunkletoys.com do a much better job at this type of game than we could ever really hope for! Seriously – take a look at that site. Those games look AWESOME!

Castle of Dr. Knizia – Another game that we actually playtested with real human beings other than ourselves or significant others (poor dears). It involved exploring a castle and going through doorways, always worried about what was on the other side – did you sneak through like a mouse, or burst through, sword drawn and ready for combat? The niftiest mechanic was how the monsters got placed in the castle. I even made these card holder things out of balsa wood to indicate which monster was represented by which chip on the board. It was one of our earliest attempts at a “gamer game” so it was clunky at best – so it got abandoned in favour of other games that we could build from the ground up, instead of having to try to strip things away and see if it still worked out. We were focused mostly on Scene of the Crime in an effort to get that in front of a publisher, so adieu, Dr. Knizia. Maybe some of your cool mechanics will be used in other games.

Contract Game – Based on the theory of lowballing to get awarded contract and then trying to fulfill it under budget, this was set in a fantasy realm where there were Giants used as cranes, Mermaids used as plumbers, etc. I still love this concept and it may be revived for an expansion to Belfort or a game set in the same world.

MMA Card Game – As a martial artist and BJJ competitor, I love mixed martial arts (MMA). As a game designer, I love card games. So I figured, I could combine the two together! It never really came of anything, because Jay wasn’t interested much, so it kind of just sat there. We generally focus our energy on games that we’re both keen on. I am currently talking to my training partner and video game designer, Tim Fields, about doing an online Brazilian Jiu Jitsu game that’s turn-based, so concepts from here could get used in that game.

Pants on Fire – A case of a title coming before a game. Honestly, that’s happened a fair bit with us! We get enthralled by a title that is evokative. And quicker than you can say “Train of Thought!”, a new game is born. Not so with Pants on Fire, however. We just never figured this one out – we wanted to make a trick taking game, but this didn’t flow. And now that there is another game with the same title, this one will probably never be completed.

Heroes – This one has kind of gone through a few conceptual changes between spies and superheroes and organized crime and zombies and other things. We have a really, really interesting concept of how to do a map-based game with no real movement. We have a “patrol zone” concept that we really like. Jay was leery of doing a superhero-based game without having access to existing licensed characters and we were investing more time into Belfort at the time. There are definitely concepts and mechanics from this game that will get another look.

And last, and definitely least…

The Dig – Ah, our albatross. This one just didn’t work. Too mathematical/procedural. It just didn’t play like it did in our heads. We wanted a game that rewarded co-operation and sharing and pooling of resources, that still had a single winner in the end. Let’s just say that this isn’t that game. This isn’t even a game – it is an exercise in frustration. We still like the theme of digging for treasures, but this will take a lot of work to get a game out of it.

Wow.

Just reviewing them makes me think very fondly of a few of them in particular and makes me wonder if I shouldn’t just make some of the ones that Jay and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on to get them to Beta Stage and then involve Jay to do the refinement.

Essentially, that’s what happened with Akrotiri – though it was not through disinterest. Jay had the idea and it intrigued him so much that he started to work on it solo in BC and had a quick proto done in a day or two. In his making of the proto, it not only allowed me to play it and become more interested in it, it progressed the game faster and faster until it reached a solid Gamma format in very little time.

There are many times where one of us fail to be super-interested in a game until the prototype is made – and that is often the most difficult part of the process. To invest all that time, effort, and sometimes money into making a prototype that you’re not hyped about can be tough, especially when there’s all sorts of other cool ideas floating around in your head. But if one person on the team believes strongly that there’s a good game in there somewhere, maybe that person should go solo and make the proto. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if one makes it, the other will play! And if the other plays, he may actually like it enough for both of us to invest more time and effort into developing it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years of designing games, it’s this: when in doubt, make a proto. You will find out if there’s a game to be had quicker than you will bandying ideas about in your head or online. Making the prototype is DEFINITELY the key phase in taking a game from concept to reality.

Concepts are good because they’re fluid – nothing’s written in stone. But a prototype is more hands on, more engaging, more understandable. There are visual and tactile components that, like a rug, tie everything together. People can’t play a game that only exists in your head, even if it’s the best game ever!

So, if you’ve got an idea for a game, just get to work and make a proto. What have you got to lose?

Step 6: Does your theme match the Game?

We wanted to design a card game that had partners in it as we were big fans of the game TIchu.  We came up with some interesting mechanics that made the game feel like we were playing volleyball.  Knowing that games based on sports are hard sells (how many jock/geek combo people are out there really?!), we came up with an idea to turn it into a game about juggling.

When we made the prototype we made the pictures on the cards with higher numbers, harder things to juggle – like chainsaws, raw fish and even cats (hey have you every tried to juggle cats?  Steve Martin can tell you how challenging that can be).  We thought this added a fun element to an otherwise logical game.  We called it Up in the Air (as this was years before the George Clooney movie came out).

I had the chance to show this game to R&R Games at a convention and after playing a few rounds the gentleman to whom I was showing it said something like, “I’m sure this is a fine game, but I thought it was going to be more of a goofy game based on the fact that you’re juggling cats.”

This was an important lesson for us to learn. Does the 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ for the game match the game play and mechanics?  So we could have taken this two ways – either make Up in the Air’s theme a bit more serious or make the game play more goofy (or a third option would be to ignore the feedback and try showing it to another publisher!).  We decided to look into the mechanics as we wanted to keep the partner aspect and the goofy juggling concept – but were wondering how to make the game play goofier.

We brainstormed a bit and one wacky idea that was thrown into the mix was, “since it’s about juggling, what if there was some sort of dexterity or balancing aspect to the game?”  Now that’s a silly idea for a partner based card game, but something about that idea got us thinking about it.  We had yet to design a dexterity game and we tried to think of what it would look like.

After more brainstorming and then prototyping, we came up with an amazing idea that involved cards and balancing blocks.  However, now the theme of juggling cats didn’t fit at all with these new mechanics so we abandoned that theme altogether and renamed it Junkyard.  Not only did we abandon the theme, but even the partner aspect was abandoned as the game had changed so much and it didn’t need that any more.

So far Junkyard has been shown to 5 publishers including Hasbro and Mattel.  We’re still waiting to find a publisher that wants to publish the game.

The lesson we took out of this experience was to make sure the title and theme match the gameplay mechanics.  Does the title sound like a kid’s game but in actuality it’s a pretty challenging strategy game?  Or vice-versa?  Think about the games you’re trying to get published and if the title and theme matches well with the game play.

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For each game that you’ve designed, write down the title, theme and a one sentence pitch on how you’d explain it to someone else.  Objectively analyze if that matches the kind of game that it is when it’s being played.