Developing games, and then bringing them to market

I’ve been spending most of my working/creative time for the last year on thinking about and developing tabletop games. (I actually started working on it fairly seriously over 18 months ago, but I definitely spent several months of the first half of 2013 working on Virtual Danger.) I’ve developed at least three fun, playable games in the last six months or so. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Getting the ideas, developing the themes, working out the gameplay, designing the cards, crafting the prototypes, and then playing, improving, and refining the games is generally quite satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding. It’s intrinsically good, for me. Throughout those parts of the process, I frequently get so caught up in the joy of the work that I lose hours, days, even weeks just totally consumed by the work. It’s actually really interesting to be almost-consciously-able to trigger something like a manic episode just by setting myself to work on a project I care about.

Then there’s the other side of these projects: Everything about bringing them to market. It’s a bit like poison.

On the first big project I put together last year, everything seemed to go smoothly until I got past a few good play-tests and began seriously considering what would be needed to take it to market—namely, coming up with art for all the cards. For my private-use prototype, I’d been using a bunch of images grabbed from around the web. A lot of fun and funny pop culture references and visual puns, but not a one which could lawfully be used in a commercial release or even a free distribution. The whole subject of modern Copyright law and how it applies to protect giant corporations from individuals is an injustice which upsets me greatly, and one which has shaped my entire life in ways I frequently despise. Correspondingly, attempting to approach the task of drawing (for the first time in many years, and after having never really put much time into illustration) several dozen pieces of card art for no other reason than that it was painfully expensive for me to pay for the photographs which better-suited the tone of the game (even just using stock photography would have been easier & better than the sort of art I’ve been able to imagine for the project, but would have cost many thousands of dollars in licensing fees—and forget about paying for custom photography!) made the whole process feel terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it made me question whether I were even an artist at all, as I wrote about.

But it turns out it wasn’t the art that was the problem, necessarily, but the reason for having to create the art. It was feeling forced by the laws, by the corporations, by the requirements of the market to create the art which poisoned the process for me. I wasn’t making the art for the cards because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. That game will never see the light of day, now. The handful of people who got to play it are unique in the universe for their experience of it. I disassembled it and recycled it and moved on. It wasn’t worth doing things I didn’t want to do –several hundred hours of things– to try to take the game from a fun experience I shared with my close friends to a fun experience I shared with “the world”.

Ah, “the world”. What a thing. What an idea. The concept that by simply making something available on the open market (or even for free on the Internet), it’s been shared with “the world”. I’ve been publishing books for over a decade, now, I’ve got 19 discrete books out (not counting multiple editions, or eBook-only short stories), and I can tell you with certainty that sometimes “the world” can be counted on your fingers and toes. I can tell you that if there’s a cost for a thing (even just the cost of having to put in an email address), most of “the world” won’t share in what you have to offer. That game I was working on and quit would have retailed for $60 or more, and probably cost almost as much to print, as a print-and-play version—there were a lot of cards. It took me over a year to sell out of 50 copies of the Never Let the Right One Go hardcover, and it was a mere $35 (and relatively easy to market); to think I could sell my strange card game for almost twice as much is silly. The world can’t be bothered to show up. You have to take your idea to their door, not just open yours.

I’m barely comfortable opening my door for close friends; I’m certainly not one for going out into the world, trying to extoll strangers of the virtues of my creations. Did I mention I’m not going to be exhibiting at Phoenix Comicon, this year?

Anyway, I began steering my creative thought more in the direction of smaller games which would be more affordable to produce, cheaper to price, and more reasonable for people to simply download and print for themselves, and away from projects so large they would be infeasible to produce in smaller quantities. A lot of board game manufacturing relies on economies of scale, with minimum orders in the thousands. A few components (cards especially) can be produced on demand (just like all my physical books) in smaller quantities (usually as low as one, or sometimes as few as 18 cards, so they don’t waste the sheet), but for any truly unique components or, say, if you wanted your box to have one of those nice custom plastic inserts for keeping everything in order, one needs a good chunk of capital to even get off the ground. Around ten or fifteen thousand dollars for a board game without too many custom components is the typical floor. I don’t have that kind of money. I have no faith in my ability to drum up that sort of response to a Kickstarter; when I went so far as to ask for $1000 for Never Let the Right One Go, I managed to get $361 in pledges from 14 backers. Finding enough customers, ever, for a thousand copies of a game is beyond the scope of my capabilities. Coping with the realities of dealing with a distributor, even if I were making enough money thereby to pay their fees, currently feels like it would be beyond the scope of my capabilities, but that might just be my anxiety and insecurity talking. The bottom line here being: If I want my games to be played by anyone at all outside my own home/presence, I need to be able to manufacture them affordably in extremely low quantities.

So I focused more on smaller, card-based games. The next game idea I went anywhere with has gone much farther than the one before it, in part because the art direction was something I was excited by from the first day I was working on the idea. I already had notes on what the cards would look like, what the art would depict, for every single card (triple or more than what I ended up with in the current prototype) in the entire game—again, from day one. The art, the theme, the gameplay, it was all developed as one from the start. I think I posted about that, too. About how rewarding and amazing it’s been to work on the art for this new game. I’ve already been working on it for three and a half months, and I’ve only recently been reaching the parts of the project which are poisoning me.

The parts about bringing it to market. The parts which make me want to give up on the thing and throw it all away, or at best just toss it up as a POD/PnP offering without much more thought and move on. Even if I only wanted to sell the game to a publisher and let them take care of the rest (potentially gutting the game, since normally publishers handle all the artwork), I’d still have to do almost everything I’m currently faced with, because it would have to be marketed to the publishers and they want the how-to-market-to-the-market part as part of the pitch, of course. Of course! Why not? *sigh*

It’s stupid stuff, too. Stuff which shouldn’t kill me, but does. Stuff like trying to guess how to categorize the game. I hate categories. I just had an argument with my wife over genre categories for fiction, because it’s such a complicated and ridiculous subject, for which it is very difficult for any two people to agree upon the definitions of words. In my recent weeks of research, I’ve learned several different “main ways games are categorized”, few of which I’d ever heard before and almost none of which particularly fit the game I’ve developed. Which may mean it’s simply unmarketable. …Or stuff like writing the descriptions and blurbs of the game. You probably know I have the same problem trying to write blurbs for my books, or even to explain what they’re about. I don’t know. I don’t think about them that way. I certainly don’t want to feel forced to go into the design process with a specific categorization and blurb in mind. Yech. To try to design a game based on how easily it could be described on the back of a tuck-box is a painful and ridiculous (to me) idea. But thinking about what the tuck-box should look like has been giving me stomach-aches.

So I’ll go a couple of weeks working on the game, working on the art, the card designs, working with manufacturers and examining samples, trying to get the game to be just right, and it’s great. It’s a high. I’m having a good time.

And then I’ll get back to having to figure out the marketing side. How to sell it. How many copies I need to figure out how to sell to hit various manufacturing thresholds, so I can offer various stretch goals on a Kickstarter, for example, without costing myself meaningful amounts of money. And it’s torture again. Working out a spreadsheet with the numbers is actually pretty fun. Contextualizing those numbers and thinking about what it would cost me, both financially as well as emotionally, to reach 150 or 500 or 1,000 people twists me up inside. Even just going through the following calculation is fairly upsetting:

In order to potentially reach even a couple hundred backers, I’ll probably have to reach out to at least a dozen or more of the major game reviewers (I don’t currently know them or follow them, and even if I start now it still feels slimy/gross to contact them directly, to ask them to look at my games, it’s Marketing, and it makes me sick, sending unsolicited messages to strangers about me and my work) and send them prototypes of the game, which will cost me at least a couple hundred dollars, which increases my costs-needed-to-cover by an order of magnitude, which means my plans to start with a totally-feasible goal (such as 5 copies sold, or about $75—I’d be glad to go to the trouble to assemble and ship out copies of the game if at least 5 people were interested, even though I wouldn’t even make enough to cover what I’ve already spent developing the game) go out the window and I’d need to start with a $1000 goal just to cover the costs of the prototypes for the reviewers, and I already know from history that I can only raise $300-$500 for my projects, so betting hundreds of dollars ahead of time that I’ll easily double or triple that sure feels like throwing good money after bad, while making myself feel bad by doing it.

Sure, I can project that if I can get this many backers I can afford this manufacturing discount, and if I can get that many backers I can afford to offer that stretch goal, and fiddle around in a spreadsheet to find the tipping points which account for shipping both ways and Kickstarter/Amazon/Wire-transfer fees and mailing supplies and a percentage of loss due to damage and so on and so forth. But it’s one thing to say “if I get at least 1,000 backers buying the base game, I can give them all the expansion for free”, and another entirely to find 1,000 people who would be interested in my game and convince them to part with $15+ on the promise that they’ll get it in a few months. (And a further thing to consider the scenario where I get 1,000 backers exactly and end up with another 1,100+ copies of the game (and its expansion) taking up space at my house (or costing me money to take up space at a warehouse).) Did you know that in the neighborhood of 85% of all new tabletop games sell through fewer than 500 copies? That’s certainly in line with book publishing where 8 or 9 out of every 10 books published never earn out their advance. With odds like that, what are the chances I’ll reach stretch goals requiring 1,000 sales? With a history like mine, with social anxiety and anti-Marketing sentiments like mine, what are the chances I’ll make the ~70 sales necessary to reach a $1,000 goal, even with positive reviews? (And who says the reviews would be positive? In my experience they’ll be middling, if they come at all. Did you see that The First Untrue Trilogy got its first Amazon review, recently? Two stars. Seven years after I first published it, thousands have read it, and it has one two-star review on the world’s biggest book store. Yay.)

Someone just messaged me on Facebook with a link to a Card & Board Game Designers group, and my first reaction was that punch-in-the-gut feeling I get when I think about heading into a crowd, or a cocktail party. They mean well, I know they do, and I may even attempt to join the group, possibly even to participate in some small way, but probably I’ll be 99% a lurker, or just never click through. Because social anxiety. Because inferiority complex, impostor syndrome, whatever. Because I don’t play well with others. My brother basically doesn’t talk to me any more, and I got kicked out of my own home, because I don’t play well with others—in this case quite literally referring to the playing of tabletop games. I’ve been trying to play-test my game with as many people as possible (which has been emotionally exhausting), but I’ve been trying my best to avoid actually joining in on most of the games, because I know that playing with me just isn’t much fun—and then I joke about it, that clearly the designer of the game has an advatage, so it wouldn’t be fair. I’d rather the game could just go out into the world on its own and report back to me about what needs to be corrected.

In fact, I’ve been working on that (creating a PnP download for remote play-testers), but a key part of that is in writing clear, concise rules. Certainly, I can teach someone the game in person. If I’m there to explain scoring during each hand, that certainly helps smooth things out. But normally people don’t have the game designer on hand to teach them the game, or to score it for them. They have the rules. I tried. It was another of those difficult parts, the parts I don’t get any joy from but instead get a lot of pain. And I kept at it until I felt I had a good, clear set of rules. And then I tested it with some people who had never played before, and the gameplay didn’t survive the translation to the written word and back again.

So not only is it painful for me to write the rules, but I’m not actually much good at it, either. Reminds me of blurb-writing, or most any other form of writing-for-Marketing; it hurts to do, and doesn’t actually give the desired results. But I certainly can’t bring the game to market without a clear set of rules. I certainly won’t succeed on Kickstarter if I can’t explain the game clearly in the project description and video. If I can’t describe the game. If I can’t do the marketing. If I don’t reach out to reviewers. Et cetera.

And the development process is an up and down. A rollercoaster. Some parts of it, most of it, in fact, is awesome, and the awesome parts can bring me 99% of the way there. Right now I have a fun game with great art I can play with my friends and anyone else I’m there to teach it to. But I’m also just about beyond the point where there’ll be any more of the ‘good parts’. From here on out, the only good that comes from the remaining effort and expense is the joy I get from seeing/knowing that people are enjoying what I’ve created. Watching people play. Hearing back from people who enjoyed playing. Knowing that my creation is out there, “in the world”. I’ve just got to hope that the joy is worth the torture.

Right now I’m on the verge of giving up on this one, too. Setting it aside—though at least as part of my own game collection, rather than as a mere memory. Possibly not even bothering to make the POD or PnP versions available, or *only* going that far, and foregoing the rest of the effort. No tuck box design. No suffering over the description. No videos. No reviews. No Kickstarter. No shopping it to publishers. No dealing with overseas manufacturers, or with distributors, or with pallets of unsold games. No more trying to find people to play-test it, no more trying to cope with having to deal with social situations every week (or twice a week) with all those people coming over. No more pressure to be “part of the community” in any of several board-game-related communities, for the sake of marketing my games.

Right now I’m on the verge of giving up on sharing, on “the world”, altogether. I’m on the edge of just keeping all my creations to myself.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.