Copyright (C) 2019 Alan Emrich; all rights reserved
Alan Emrich has been a feature of the game industry since the mid-1970s and has worn more hats in it than a haberdasher’s apprentice. Go ahead, Google him, but his corpus of works extend well before the internet!
I always smile when someone in the game making pipeline says, “It’s done!” At best, they mean their part or current task in it is over, but games are never finished, only published. There is always something else you can do with them and for them, even after shipping to customers and stores (support, corrections, expansions, sequels, clones, new editions, interviews, How To videos…. the list is endless). The game industry makes a constant lie out of the phrase, “It’s done!” That will be the subject of another article, surely, but today I want to take you to where life begins in game making – the moment of conception; for although games have no ending (“It’s done!”), they certainly do have a beginning.
There is no great controversy here. Some games never gestate (the idea is rejected for whatever reason; often replaced by another game idea that, perhaps, does), some are stillborn (developed and not published – although never say never, they still might be in the future!), others are murdered quietly in their cribs (disappearing after the initial small printing reaches backers and stores, quickly to be remaindered and discounted and never to be carried again), while those we commonly recognize have a chance to grow and mature, their celebrity typically fades to the ubiquitous Cult of the New where their place on store and gamer’s shelves is usurped by the games that follow them.
Still, every published game has one thing in common: someone believed in it enough to publish it. Whether that belief was born of blind faith, hope for a new venture, the work-a-day publisher’s profit motive to keep the doors open, or greed that the game would make them rich – publishing requires belief in a game; enough at least to put your money where the bills are.
Seeking that belief in a game often goes back to the pedigree of its inception. Where did this game idea come from? How did it originate? Does this game have a destiny with success? To assess this and improve our understanding, we must look through the jaded eyes of game industry veterans and think as a publisher and grasp fully their understanding of game conception.
It takes a lot of love to make a great game, and the love shared by that game’s stakeholders to put in the extra hours and attention to detail is the result of “natural conception.” Its conception is recognizable by that lightbulb moment when an enthusiastic gamer mulling a game that interests them says “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” or perhaps some gamer considers a subject before then and remarks, “You know, that would make a good game.” Perhaps it is a gamer who, while playing, sees something more in it… wants something better from it… and not finding it available, launches their talent into creating the game they want for themselves.
This mental intercourse between gamer and game idea is how game conception should be. It is why publishers still seek outside designers who solicit the fruits of their passion projects for publication. Publishers know those designers really care about that game and will want to assist as best they’re able in the process of its development, marketing, publication, and after-market support. Just as you can hear in the voice of the radio announcer whether they’re pitching a product they truly believe in and use themselves or just reading some sponsor’s scripted ad copy and are “paying the bills,” you know when you play a game how much love went into it by its attention to detail that could only come from people who really cared to deliver something great, something special to them.
However, to a publisher, bringing games and their designers “in from the wild” is seldom a uniform process. Each is unique (both games and their designers), requiring their own special care and attention if that project is to be brought to customers. That makes it a true creative endeavor and, as such, these are a spreadsheet’s nightmare and a checkbook’s crapshoot. You soon discover that neither the quality of the game and its development, nor the company’s reputation (enhancement or loss) for publishing it, have places in a business ledger. A good designer, therefore, seeks soulmates in publishing: people who care more to nurture the passion of making it than cutting its corners for profit. Ideally, you must find a publisher whose publishing philosophy is simpatico with your love’s labor.
Games’ “cloning” occurs all the time. While some bemoan the existence of cloned game products, saying that they stifle creativity or that the publishing space for new and innovative game releases is being constrained, most respond to those claims with mere silence. The majority of enthusiasts for a given game would like to see it expanded, enhanced, or become a series of like-games – and so would its publisher. There is nothing inherently wrong with publishers cranking out expansions and sequels to games that have proven popular enough to warrant them.
The reality is that there are plenty of innovative new games released all the time. Due to the lower entry point for publishing (thanks to desktop software and all kinds of manufacturing options) and funding (with the advent of crowdfunding, where board games are currently Kickstarter’s #1 revenue source), more publishers have entered the ring and more designers have also tossed their hats in.
The ugly truth is that professional game development is expensive. If you looked at a typical “middle weight” boardgame out there and, instead of it hoovering up all the volunteer work, hobby time, and overtime donated to its completion (for free!) out of sheer passion for that game… instead of that, you plugged in $20 or $25 per hour for every hour currently volunteered to bring you that game – that publisher would be boarding up their windows if they sold it in stores for a mere $40. To pay everyone what they are worth as contributors to this typical middle weight game, if its publisher wanted “make their margins” (i.e., pay their bills, the most expensive component of which is always labor), then that publisher would have to ask for a retail price in the neighborhood $120 or $150. Would you pay three to five times as much for your new $40 game to support all of those underpaid developers, graphic artists, proofreaders, etc.?
No? I thought not (and so does everyone else publishing boardgames). People tend to buy the highest perceived value at the lowest possible cost and always will (regardless of the “moral statement” it makes to do otherwise).
Since I am writing reality checks, here is another you can take to the bank: our type of “show business” (e.g., books, movies, plays, games, etc.) is “hit driven.” That means a lot of speculative stuff is created in hopes that a hit will be found. Out of every 10 movies, books, plays, or games released to the public, I would venture that half lose money (although not much with careful management), a couple will about break even, another couple will be successful and make a little money before their time with the public expires – but that tenth one; that metaphorical tenth release is a hit! And a hit makes such a disproportionate amount of money that it pays for all of the previous nine and then some! The hit funds the business into next year; the hit allows for business upgrades, raises, and bonuses; the hit creates resources for further speculation and innovation. Everything depends on that hit!
Once a company has a hit, they are not wrong to milk it for all it’s worth. That is just good business. The public is hungry for it and wants more; business supplies the demand, and a virtuous cycle of contented fans and business profits marches on. However, like a beautiful flower, a child’s innocence, or a peace treaty, it lasts while it lasts. Fortunately, like snack foods, “no one can eat just one” of their favorite entertainment. Thus, the public remains ever-hungry for excellent new entertainment products of their preference. Welcome to the business of show business!
My point is that everyone loves a hit. Woe is the penny wise and pound foolish game publisher who does not consider the costs of all ten of those releases in aggregate, because the true cost of making a hit includes the costs for all those dry wells dug before striking oil. Many past publishers lacked the wisdom and patience to accept the hit-driven nature of the show business career they chose; these are publishers who cut and slash talent and budgets after every flop rather than bracing their talent for the long haul. They are not playing to win the long game. Caring more about short-term numbers than the people and aggregate requirements for producing a hit is the show business ticket to extinction (and I can attest from long experience that the cemeteries are filled with dead game companies who did exactly that).
This idea looks great “on paper,” but is often the absolute worst idea for the morale of a creative team. Publishers who do not care about their creative team members’ happiness, who are ready to chew them up and spit them out, will often try to start projects through artificial insemination. What does artificial insemination mean for a game concept?
Typically, this is a tragic byproduct of bad show business practices brought on by decisions centered on greed (“We’re doing this because I smell money”), obligations such as nepotism (“I have to do something with this, so you’re going to work on it”), or even things more base. Whether a vanity diktat from the owner or a delusion from marketing (“We got this [usually crappy but affordable] license and now you have to make it into something we can sell!”), the talent feels violated to the tune of Dueling Banjos by such concept artificial insemination. In an industry such as game making that is populated by craftspeople and artists, violated talent will seek shelter under friendlier skies than work, miserably, on project after project for which they have no interest or passion. Low pay, long hours, and the misery of disrespect is, usually, one drawback too many for them.
Today’s Latin lesson is “Vox populi, vox Dei” – the voice of the people IS the voice of God. This principle of game conception occurs as rarely as virgin birth. It occurs when a publisher actually queries their market to determine exactly what (these gamers think) they want. That is, they aggressively seek player feedback to organize and analyze and then believe that the answers to their game concept problems must be there. In its raw state, just asking gamers “What are you looking for in a game’s theme, mechanics, components, etc.?” you will receive highly useless information. Their aggregate response tells you only to “create more of the same of exactly what is already popular.” Hello? Why are you soliciting the masses in hopes of finding some truly inspired concept creativity?
Instead, a hybrid approach to divine intervention has successfully worked for decades (but you are probably not aware of it). Strategy & Tactics magazine (published by Decision Games) has a long history of surveying their readers to find out what sort of games they want included in future issues (or, perhaps, sold separately as boxed game releases). The secret sauce which makes this work is asking players rate actual (usually “natural conception”) game proposals rather than asking those surveyed to think up game ideas on the fly. Thus, when a designer wants their game published, they submit a paragraph or two describing it and the readers of Strategy & Tactics rate it via feedback on a 0 to 9 scale (0= no opinion; 1= it’s terrible; 9= “Gimmie now!”). So, after crunching the numbers, a game that might garner an average rating of 6.24 (thus rating higher than another game surveyed, which garnered only a 5.81) will be put into production while the other designer is merely thanked for making their best pitch to the readers.
The one thing to beware of course, are “click bait” game offerings where an artificially inseminated game proposal makes it onto the list. Should it get approved (and it will be written like catnip for that audience assuring that) and raise hopes of one day seeing that game published, who will design and develop it? Many high-rated ideas never emerges because they are simply great ideas that proved too daunting to design, develop, and publish – and that is the ultimate reality check for game publishers.
If you are going to shop your great idea for a game among game publishers, this article will help you see the world through their eyes. You should appreciate what is important to them and where they might be looking for great game ideas. Your best bet is a brilliant “natural conception” game that fits the publisher’s product line and established market; a game so robust that it can survive cloning for a long time to come (if it proves to be a hit). So, always talk beyond the game you are proffering to mention what a long and prosperous future it could have when, together, you bring it to its ultimate success.
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