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Unpub 6 Wrapup

I’ve recovered from my trip to UNPUB 6, so it’s time to look back, talk about the fun I had, and the lessons I learned.

We got in Thursday afternoon. After a big dinner and relaxing, we went to the hotel bar, where I taught some Oh My Goods, a published by Alexander Pfister, one of my current favorite games. By the time we finished, the baseball game let out, and a big group joined us. It was mostly talking and catching up.

One Card Wonder at UNPUB 6

One Card Wonder at UNPUB 6

Friday started with the designer breakfast and panels. We decided to play some games instead, so we left the main hall and sat down to play the postcard game I’ve been working on for the Board Game of the Month Club from Buttonshy. After the first game, we stripped out a lot of the extra complications and made it much more streamlined.  I think we might keep the extra rules and only make them available online as the expert version. Sort of a director’s cut. Next I played the prototype Five Elements by Mark McGee. I missed a key rule, and once I figured it out halfway through the game. I really enjoyed it. It’s got a neat hand-management and slightly spatial element. It was late, after running out for lunch, we sat down, and I taught a quick game of Dead Man’s Chest, a bluffing game from Eagle-Gryphon. We also collected some prototype parts that didn’t arrive until after check in. We had the option of Trucks or Dudes. #TeamTruck.

I got a few minutes to try out an 18-card hand/deck building game I’m working on late in the afternoon. It kind of fell apart, so I need to figure out if it’s fixable or not. After an amazing dinner, we returned to the hall. I mostly chatted with a few other people, but got to play another postcard game prototype from Doug Levandowski. I’m pretty sure you haven’t played a game like this, so it’s fun to see postcard games pushing boundaries. We returned to the hotel a little after midnight. I got one more game in, Unpub the UnPublished Card Game (so I guess it was Doug Levandowski night).

I was splitting my table with Dan Cassar for the weekend, and I started off with a 2 1/2 hour shift Saturday morning. As usual, it was a little slow at first, but it started to pick up between 11 and 11:30. I got two games of One Card Wonder in before we swapped. I ran into friends during the off shift, and we sat down for a light lunch. But honestly, I didn’t accomplish much in the meantime. Mostly, I walked around and looked at what else was popular. I started my next shift at 3. Although the floor was busy, it felt a little slow to me. I only got 3 games of One Card Wonder in in the second shift. I think there were a few contributors to that. First, OCW was running a little long (45 minutes with rules and discussion), so I got fewer games than I expected. Also, it seemed that there were more longer games this year, so there weren’t as many people looking for games after I finish a half hour game. And swapping out makes you lose your momentum with playtesters. Both times I swapped out, I had to leave people who would have played. If you keep playing the same game, people will tend to gather, and they’ll be able to find you. And of course, One Card Wonder wasn’t as flashy or well known as New Bedford was last year, so it doesn’t immediately grab you when you see it. That’s something I definitely plan to work on for next year.

Dare or Dare: Legacy

Dare or Dare: Legacy

I made my game trades Saturday evening. I took a big bag of games and came home with an even bigger bag of games. I’m not wild about every single game (some were part of a package), but I’m overall really happy with my haul. In the evening, I got to sit and play Daniel Newman’s Station. It plays mostly like a worker placement game, although the economic balance made it play a bit differently. I think some minor tweaks to the action rewards will tighten it up. After a delicious dinner at Nando’s Puri Puri and some excellent conversation, we returned to the hall. I watched friends play a quick game of Dancing Eggs. When that was over, we wanted something loud and goofy, but didn’t have anything with us, so we made something up. Dare or Dare: Legacy. The main gist is that everyone gets some blank cards and writes down a dare (anything you’d be comfortable asking your child to do as a boundary). Then everyone gets one card at a time and either does the dare, or bluffs and makes up their own dare. (Hence Dare or Dare.) Everyone else has to guess whether they were bluffing or not. We gave out star stickers for performance, but we decided it should be more of a group judging thing. Depending on the results of the bluff and whether you get called or not, you gain a couple of points. There’s no real score or objective besides having fun, which it did extremely well. Next big convention, I’ll pull it out again, we’ll rip up a few cards and make a few new ones. Hence the Legacy aspect.

Sunday was a little more hectic, trying to pack up and leave. Since Dan was leaving early, I let him take the whole morning shift. He had a very successful weekend with at least 40 tests by my count, and he handed out about 10 playtest kit. In the afternoon, I got 3 more tests of One Card Wonder in. The latest round of mechanic changes seems to be very positive, and accomplished everything I hoped. I just need to re-balance the new parts now, but it’s a much stronger game, so I’m looking forward to wrapping that up.

Overall, I spent a lot less time playing games than I expected to. Last year was too much, this year swung the other direction, so I’m hoping to find the right balance next year. I think one challenge may have been the timing of my shifts. First thing in the morning is always slow. And it seems like mid afternoon is a good time for people to go get lunch after they’ve been playing games all morning. Sunday is always slower, but it also starts to really slow after 3, as people pack up and leave. I think there’s still a challenge there to balance the table schedules across Unpub. One thing I’m really disappointed in is that I didn’t play any Role Selection. I made some improvements since the Meta game contest, and really wanted to see how they pull the game together. There’s always the next event, and hopefully I can put One Card Wonder to bed now.

Finally, here are my main takeaways from this year’s UNPUB.

  • Chap Stick. I’ve talked about water and drinks before, but one thing I’m now noticing is that even when I drink enough, I’m talking all day, and my lips get chapped. It’s a problem that is easy and cheap to solve.
  • Saturday is for heavier games, Sunday is for shorter games. From my unscientific survey, everyone (both designers and players) was pretty exhausted by Sunday. So get those heavier games out Saturday when people are fresher. Pick something shorter and lighter for Sunday. People will be more likely to jump into something that doesn’t require as much energy. And, it makes it easier because people leave on Sunday, if you have that one last game they can play for 20 minutes.
  • Table presence is so important. There are lots of games in various stages of completion, and Table Presence can mean different things to different games. Size, color, artwork, polish of components goes a long way. But it goes beyond that, too. A tablecloth can make your game look even nicer. have good signage, including Sell Sheets, previous games (if you have them) to attract attention.
  • Bring something new. Yes, sometimes you have that game you’ve been working on for a long time, and you really just need to put in front of a bunch of people and see a lot of playtests. But a lot of people (especially the other designers) go to these events again and again, and if you show the same game, you’re competing with lots of new things.
  • And as a corollary, bring something to talk to publishers about. UNPUB isn’t really a pitching event, but if you have a chance, take it. If nothing else, you build your relationship with them, and that’s great professional development.
  • Know *specifically* what you’re looking for. Players asked me what kind of feedback I wanted, and I didn’t have a good answer. I’m working on balance, but I didn’t think about how exactly to find out about balance.
  • Talk to people. Walk around. Be your own advocate. I’ve got a, shall we say, “subtle” style. Don’t be subtle. People want to play games. Like pizza toppings or ice cream, people don’t want to make the decision. So if you go up and talk to people, that gives them a reason to say yes.
What happens at UNPUB is usually posted on Twitter

What happens at UNPUB is usually posted on Twitter

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Sell, Sell, Sell!

Unpub 6 is coming up, and it’s time for me to gather the games I want to take. Besides the games, there’s something really important I need to take, and that’s Sell Sheets for each of the games I’m taking with me. I’m taking sell sheets for all of the games I’m going to play, even though I’m not planning on trying to pitch them all to publishers. There are several reasons behind that, and I want to share why I think they’re important, and how I create my sell sheets. Read the rest of this entry »

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Organizing my Designs

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on a new system for organizing my game designs. I was digging through some folders and realized that there were games I had largely forgotten about after I set them aside. And my folder system was becoming clogged, making it hard to know where anything was. But perhaps more importantly, I realized that if I was going to focus on getting games published, I needed to be able to track more high-level information about these games. And my mind wasn’t quite up to that task. So I took some time, geeked out, and created a spreadsheet to track progress on all of my designs. It has been very helpful to me so far, and I thought it might be useful to share both the method and the madness. Read the rest of this entry »

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Grieving Feedback

Recently, I got feedback from a publisher I’m working with for a new game. The publisher was suggesting some pretty big changes in the design. Most of these changes were things we had previously discussed, or things I was considering, myself. It’s easy to tell designers that they need to be ready for a publisher to change their game. And–as a designer–I can tell you that advice is easy to mentally grasp, but it’s an entirely different story when you have to deal with that feedback the first time. But I learned a big lesson through this experience. It can be emotionally difficult to hear a publisher tell you to change your baby. And I’m pretty sure I went through the 5 stages of grief. I hope that sharing this experience will be valuable to other designers dealing with this for the first (or tenth) time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Taking Care of Fish-ness with Ben Pinchback

Ok, sorry about that pun in the title.

One of my early purchases when I was getting into board games was a little game called Fleet. For me and many others, this cemented the design team of Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle as designers to watch. They have been making their marks in the world of boardgames with original games that blend Euro style and American flair.

They are fantastically fun people to hang out with in person, but also very busy designers. You might think a team of two would have more time to chat, but they are always some of the busiest people I know at conventions. Fortunately, I finally got a chance to ask Ben Pinchback about how they make everything work. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lessons Learned from the New Bedford Relaunch

What a wild ride. Thanks to over 2000 backers, New Bedford‘s second campaign earned over $100, 000, making it the third most successful Dice Hate Me Games Kickstarter, behind Compounded and its expansion. Admittedly, the campaign was a bit of a Nantucket sleigh ride, where we grabbed on at the beginning and just tried to hold on for the rest of the campaign. There were a few course corrections mid-campaign, but in the end, I’m really proud of the product we will be able to bring to the backers.

I sat down earlier this week to talk to Isaac and Stephanie on the On Board Games Crowdfunding Edition, and we talked about what it was like to relaunch and what made the campaign different. That episode should be available this weekend, here. But I wanted to spend some more time going through the details of what we learned from this second time around. In no particular order:

  • Nobody knows nothing about nothing. After the first attempt, we didn’t know what to expect. We still thought there was a lot of support and that the changes would help it to fund. We were taken by surprised when we woke up to discover it had funded in less than 24 hours.
  • Don’t rely on one silver bullet to make your project successful. Because we made so many small changes, that also means that we don’t know exactly what made it work and what didn’t. But it’s important that whether it’s your first time or your 10th time, you can’t count on any single thing to get people on board. Don’t overlook any avenue that can encourage backers to support you.
  • Simplify Shipping. Last time, there were three pledge levels, depending on shipping, but Kickstarter added the ability to calculate shipping separately since the first campaign. This means we could set the base price to the retail cost (actually a little better). Hitting that $29 price point is big, and even with $9 US shipping, it’s less than the first campaign’s price.
  • No really, Simplify shipping. Shipping a single copy internationally is very expensive. But shipping costs on the New Bedford campaign were fixed no matter how many copies you pledged for. This means domestic shipping, too. There were still several comments asking to reduce the international shipping, but there was also a lot of interest in international group buys. This will be a bit of an experiment, so we’ll see how it works. I’m curious to see how many backers ordered multiple copies.
  • Art is what people see. People want to see what they get. And the art for the relaunch is so striking. The artist, Nolan Nasser, really did a great job making it stand apart from your typical bland euro, while still capturing that feel. With the art in place, we got a much bigger reaction from the community.
  • Feedback is Engagement. When we posted an early version of the cover art, some comments made us go back and reconsider the cover. We made some changes based on feedback and got an explosion of support for the updated art, sitting on top of the BGG image hotlist for a week. And we continued to listen to backers art as we go through the campaign. Many said the town board was too bland, and we added more detail to make it really outstanding. Like any feedback, you have to choose what to use, but by showing backers we were listening, they were more invested in continuing to support the project.
  • People Love Custom. This wasn’t something I didn’t know before, but the level of enthusiasm for the custom resource tokens was more than expected. Sadly, it means that the mnemonic of disks=$1 and cubes =$2 is lost, but that’s a small price to pay for awesome pieces. However, this goes both ways, because there’s also a lot of enthusiasm behind custom whaleeples (whale shaped wooden tokens instead of the cardboard bits). This was something we encountered on the first campaign, and it just doesn’t work with the design. But I don’t think anybody is dropping their pledge or refusing to back over it, either.
  • Player Count Counts. For one thing, people will ask how your game scales. Lots of people play primarily with 2, and it was important that those people knew that the two player game wasn’t a hack or tacked on; it was part of the design from the start. For another, between the first and second campaigns, I really took note of how important player count is to a Kickstarter campaign. I read about a poll that showed that something like 50% of players cite the inclusion of a 5th player or solo game as the most important factor in picking a game. Not every game can support that, but it’s worth considering. I’ll share more about how the fifth player and solo games came about in a segment of Notes from New Bedford.
  • You don’t create buzz. At least, not directly. Before the first launch, we were hitting a bunch of podcasts to spread the word, and I was doing several interviews on other designers’ blogs. I was worried we had used up all of that energy or good will, since we couldn’t do it all again. But it didn’t seem hurt the second campaign any more than it helped the first campaign. This is a bit of a surprise, since I frequently hear other designers doing the same thing on multiple podcasts ahead of a launch. I don’t know exactly what this all means, but I suspect the lesson is that a media blitz needs time to develop into a buzz. From small ripples, mighty waves grow.
  • Prepare for more than your Expectations. We had updates ready for all the listed stretch goals to 2x funding. By the time we realized we were going to hit the last stretch goal during GenCon, we were already in the middle of preparing (which was a lot more work for GTG than I realized), and it was too late. We appeared to go silent after hitting the last listed stretch goal, but there just wasn’t time at GenCon to plan for new goals. I’m sure we probably lost a few backers who were expecting updates, and we might have lost a little momentum, so it’s important to have that stuff in place, just in case.
  • Make component quality clear. DHMG always goes straight to the thick cardboard and premium component quality. Never any “upgraded card stock” stretch goals. That wasn’t clear on the page, and a lot of comments were asking for increases in quality. So if you’re already at premium component quality, make it clear.
  • People Don’t Read Updates. Even people who are enthusiastic about your project like to “Set it and Forget It” after backing. We added Nantucket as an add-on around 60k, but even many friends didn’t realize it until we mentioned it. So if it’s not automatically included in stretch goals or pledge levels from the beginning, people might miss it. We ended up talking about it in three separate updates, and there were still people who discovered they missed it after the campaign ended. Fortunately, it looks like those backers will be able to get copies, too.
  • Know when Enough is Enough. Our last stretch goal was at $80k. There were a few ideas that we could have added, but we had already made the game everything we wanted it to be. A big part of the DHMG philosophy is that you increase value by making the best game possible, not by just filling a box with stuff.

This campaign was bigger than I had expected, but was what we thought New Bedford deserved after the first campaign. I don’t think you can ever do everything perfectly, but our experience relaunching helped us get a lot right. So here’s a big THANK YOU to all of the backers, the GTG team, everyone who stopped by at GenCon, and really everyone who helped make this one of the most successful Dice Hate Me Games projects. This literally could not have happened without all of your help. My final piece of advice comes by way of Mark Twain:

“So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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Dealing with an Unsuccessful Kickstarter

As many of you readers know, last week we made the decision to cancel the Kickstarter for New Bedford.  Episode 76 of The State of Games spends several minutes discussing the reasons behind this. The brief explanation is that while there was still a chance for it to fund, the backer numbers and total pledge level were not what we expected, and not what we thought the game deserved. The bare bones version that the funding goal enabled would have been awesome, and I’d still be proud to have made it. But because Chris and I take so much pride in our work, we wanted to make sure we gave people the absolute best version of New Bedford possible. Simply meeting the funding goal would not have accomplished that. Any time you produce something you have a lot of pride in, you want to see it through to the end. The plan is for New Bedford to return next year an be wildly successful. Because I can guarantee you that Chris and I are the two people most excited for all of the extras we want to add in.

Now, to make this happen, it’s important to engage in some self-reflection to figure out what went wrong and what we could have been done better. We asked for feedback on the project and received some from backers, non-backers, and fence-sitters. This taught us some valuable lessons I’d like to share.

First, this is a tough time of year for Kickstarter projects. It’s not an exhaustive look, but Paul Owen pointed out on the Dice Tower News that the number of successful projects always seems to drop this time of year. There are two major factors people cited. For one, it’s the run-up to the holiday season, so people are saving their money for gifts. A lower price point seems to be helpful for that, though. For another, a lot of new games from Essen are releasing this time of year, so there is a lot of competition from games people can play immediately. All that competition makes it hard to even get noticed, as people are so intent on trying out the new games.

Lesson: Timing makes a big difference. Unforeseen events can force you to change your schedule, so give yourself a buffer.

Second, people were waiting for more art. By my own observation over the past year or so, the boardgame arena on Kickstarter has been moving more toward more complete-looking projects. Lots of games show up with almost final-looking art. Even though Dice Hate Me Games has a track record of producing phenominal art, there is no guarantee that people visiting the project page were familiar with DHMG’s previous work. Most people only saw my own prototype art. Even though it was marked as prototype, a lot of people commented that they were disappointed in it. (Hey, if people confuse my prototype art for bad DHMG art, that’s still a compliment, right?) For people skimming the page, I think getting the impression of the final game is very important, and it energizes people to share it.

Lesson: Having a good sample of final art is crucial to attracting backers. The art is often the first impression your game makes, so make it count.

Sharing was another area we could have done more in. Though I traveled to several events this year to promote New Bedford, it’s really hard to reach enough people. New Bedford is a pretty quick game, but even spending an entire day showing the game off, I may only have reached a dozen people, not all of whom are likely to back it. But I discovered something. Somebody borrowed an extra copy at BGG.Con and showed it off. Chris eventually broke his copy out. And after I returned, I met an enthusiastic local backer, Ed, who took a copy of New Bedford around to some other local game shops. Several recent games (the entire Tiny Epic series from Gamelyn for example) sent out a dozen or so review copies to random players across the country who agree to write a review on BoardGameGeek. Stonemaier has the Ambassador program, Stronghold just started Knights.  The way to reach new people is to get your current supporters excited about showing it off. It’s crowdsourcing the publicity in addition to crowdsourcing the funding.

Lesson: Help backers share the excitement directly. Sending out more prototype copies before relaunch might be a good way to do this. It’s not cheap—about $50 to assemble and ship a copy of New Bedford—but it’s definitely something I’ll consider next time.

One factor I’m not sure of is the theme. There were a few vocal detractors of the game’s use of whaling as a theme. There are undoubtedly people who read the word “whaling” and immediately rejected the game, and there are others who were concerned about a negative reaction by their family or game group. I always try to sincerely explain why we think it’s a worthwhile historic subject to make a game from. But as I just mentioned, it’s hard to reach everyone. My impression is that it’s simply not an issue for the vast majority of people, and not that there is a large but quiet group who is politely ignoring it.

Lesson? No matter what the subject, theme, or mechanic, some people are going to dislike your game. That’s ok. It doesn’t have to be everything for everyone. What’s important is how you react to them.

There are there are minor details we could have tweaked in the New Bedford campaign that we’ll want to examine before a relaunch. Kickstarter fatigue may also be playing a role in the funding. I personally expect a number of game deliveries the next few weeks. A lot of people are starting to cite Kickstarter fatigue. This has been a strong year on Kickstarter, and even the first few months of next year are already looking full. It will be very interesting to keep an eye on how they do to see if this is a big factor.

And finally, it’s important to let it be OK that you didn’t fund. Some things are out of your control, so it’s only a failure if you learn nothing from it. Running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of stress. (heck, it’s a lot of stress even if you’re not running it). And games will continue to fund regardless of these challenges, though it’s not a competition. I happily backed Red Raven Games’ Artifacts Inc. which successfully funded over the same period , but with a smaller goal and price point. Kickstarter is starting to look more like running a professional business as far as boardgames are concerned. It’s a sign that the industry is maturing, but it also makes it hard for people who are still making the transition from hobby to vocation. I’m looking forward to returning to New Bedford with a fresh start next year, and producing a game that exceeds expectations.

Lesson: It’s important to have a publisher who believes in you and your game and will stand by it, even when things don’t go as expected.

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