Thursday, January 17, 2013

Board games: designer vs. publisher

There is a clear distinction between how do board game designers and board game publishers think and what are their expectations.

When I first started as a game designer, back in 2010, my goals and aspirations were crystal clear. I wanted to make good games, if possible brilliant, for people to enjoy and play every day. From the very beginning I knew that I will design gamers' games, the kind that won't be on everyone's table every evening and I went for no compromise.

One year later, I made the decision to go also into publishing. I must take a short detour here... As a freelance game designer, the competition is fierce and there are probably 100 times more designers that are still waiting for their big break than published designers. Even those who innovate and create very good board games can wait for years until a publishing house takes their games and for most designers this never happens. Now, coming back to the main story line, my decision to go into publishing was backed by a few friends that offered to help and get involved and I was going to quit my job anyway and this looked like a great opportunity to do what I really like and have the freedom to publish my own designs, thus circumventing all the constraints that bind other designers.

I am going to take a big step forward through time to the end of 2011. This is when the conflict between the designer and the publisher really started. What I had not realized before is that game designing is light years away from publishing in terms of thinking, effort and understanding the industry.

As a designer I always started from an idea I liked. I would then create the theme, the game mechanics, take it to my friends to play-test, improve it, test again, without ever worrying about the market value of the game. As long as the game was interesting and enjoyable, I had no concerns about how the game would sell. As a designer I was oblivious to the demands of the board games market and I assumed that if game is good, it will sell.

The perspective of a publisher is completely different, or, at least, it should be. The main focus is understanding the industry and the market trends. Based on these, there is a decision making process which could take months or even years regarding what kind of gamed have a chance on a very competitive market.

When I really started to understand the market, NSKN was already one year old. Back then I understood that there will always be a conflict between the publisher and my alter ego, the designer. And there's no easy way to find common ground.

Last spring I attended a designers convention in Gottingen. Inside the huge hall there were may tables with designers on one side, presenting their creations and publishers on the other side, moving from table to table, listening to hundreds of different ideas and choosing two or three to evaluate for publishing. I acted as both, I took some time to see what people have created and I also stood face-to-face with the representative of a major publisher in my attempt to better understand the market. It was then when I realized that there was a big gap between the two.

Each publisher comes with his homework complete - a market analysis which tell what kind of games will sell in the upcoming year - and this is exactly what they're looking for. Anything that does not follow all the requirements is immediately rejected. It's all about business.

Designers have a different approach. Maybe I am taking this a bit too far, but making board games is somehow like art (or maybe it is art) and an artist cannot or will not easily accept constraints. To end up with a good game one must have the freedom to experiment and innovation is usually killed by the limitations imposed by the market.

I believed that by doing both design and publishing it would be easy to find the golden middle. As long as I use my business knowledge to guide guide my creative side, the results should be amazing. Reality showed me that this is not the case. Most of the time, knowing what won't sell stopped me from venturing into dead-end projects which would consume a lot of time and be a money black hole, but more often than that thinking about the business side impaired by ability to let ideas fly and work freely on a project that could have had potential. So, I tried to separate them. I did not want to stop designing games - that what I loved in the first place, but I did not want to give up publishing either. 

If the designer's work is not a continuous flow, there's no break from the business side. I can rarely find a day without some email to answer or some request to fulfill. However, this puts me in the 'publisher mood' which tends to be a big punch in the face for creativity. So, I started separating my weeks and even my days in design time and business time. As long as there are issues to take care of on the business side, they take priority and I am trying to fill the whole day only with that. This way I should be able to free up the next day or the day after that to work on design only. If that's not possible, I am trying to at least keep the afternoon or the next morning completely free from all money related issues.

I know it's a long shot, but this is the only way I can do both with a decent chance of success. In the early stages of designing a game, I try to never think how much would a component cost or if it's realistic to even consider a complex plastic miniature. I let myself dream and create, without worrying about the consequences. 

Complaining aside, there a certain advantages in doing both design and publishing. Once a game has undergone some testing and it shows potential, the publisher mentality kicks in and I focus on the ergonomics of the game, removing useless components, adjusting sizes to fit in a box, rewriting rules so the reader will not get bored or angry and so on. It the latest stages, the business side takes over and I evaluate the production costs, the market value and see if the whole game represents a sound business concept.

However, there is always this conflict between how a publisher think and how a designer does. The risk of doing both is big. On one hand, you can be blinded by a game concept you like so much that you fail to see that the other might not or it might be too complicated/boring/expensive. On the other hand, there's always the risk of boxing an amazing idea which could be the next big hit on the market because the evaluated production costs are too high or the game is too language dependent.

From my short experience of game designer and even shorter one as a game publisher, my advise to all those who do both is ... not to do both if possible. If that's not possible, try to think like a third party who is always right - the gamer. 

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