Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mr. Watson, come here, I need you

Interesting flash game up here at the NY Times - you can play Jeopardy against a computer opponent, Watson, created by IBM. They've stacked the deck some in the human's favor - you get to go first, and play or pass on each question. I ended up winning 65-6 (yay, recall of useless trivia), although I deserved two more points (I didn't know how precisely to phrase the answer to the Before and After questions, so I mis-answered the first one).

It often seemed like the program was doing little more than a Google search on the question terms, although I'd guess there's a good bit more to it than that. A lot of the questions had some misleading or extraneous language, and that sometimes threw the computer off the scent. It has to be processing commonalities pretty well, and it's understanding the language well enough (most times) to discern the question. It did quite well at the "before and after" questions, too, and I'd think those would be the hardest, algorithmically.

Anyway, a fun diversion. It's going to be a while before we have to worry about Skynet terminating us in front of Alex Trebek, though. Something like this could be turned into an interesting one-player trivia game, though, and that's a difficult thing to make.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Slowness at TGC's move to a new physical location (WI to NY) has led to at least a 3-week delay in order processing, if my experience ordering a Yoggity prototype is any guide.

I also have a customer whose order was delayed, and who has received a bent card in his Diggity set when he finally got it.  If it were me fulfilling the orders, I'd have sent him a new card right away, but relying on TGC means that his experience, already drawn out, will now have to go through another round of back and forth to get his game into shape.  And of course this reflects on me, even though I'm not the cause of TGC's current troubles.  I hate that - when I was getting started selling Snood, I tried to be as responsive as possible to customers, and I think that's part of what helped to build word-of-mouth on the game.

Still very happy with TGC overall, and hopefully this is a one-time hiccup related to the move, but it's frustrating relying on others.

Monday, June 28, 2010

June BGDF Showdown entry in place

I finished my June BGDF Game Design Showdown entry today - I think it's a good one, but it was a tricky assignment this time out - the theme wasn't specified, but the mechanics and structure were quite closely regulated.  We'll see what the voters think; it's hard to predict how the voting will go and how the other entries will look.

I'll let y'all know which one mine is when the voting is done.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Profile of a start-up company

Dominic Crapuchettes has an autobiographical post about his game company up at BGG (link here, via  Interesting stuff - he's made the big time (carried by Target) and has $1.5 million in revenue, but still isn't breaking even.  Some different choices than I'd have made (e.g. running up all the debt on credit cards), but I might not have lasted as he has.

A very interesting read.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Inevitable Kickstarter project complete

The Inevitable guys have finished their fund-raising drive at, raising a total of $9,435.  About $2,650 of that was from people who pledged more than you needed to pledge to get a copy of the game (including four at the $500 level).  I posted previously on their efforts here.

They'd promised a print run of 100 for $3000 raised, so I imagine they're well past the costs they'll incur for 100 games.  Something like 87 of their 100 games are spoken for at the site, going to pledgers, but they'll likely be able to produce an additional couple hundred games with the funds they've raised (if that's what they decide to do with the extra money).

An unabashed success, leading to a game with a big following and positive cash flow before it is even printed.  Sounds like a great outcome - my congratulations to them.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Game production costs summary

The graph at left (click it to make it bigger) shows some results from quotes I've gotten for my card game, Diggity. I thought it might be useful to other game designers and people contemplating publishing their own games to see what I've learned.

Tuck and Setup refer to box types - tuck boxes are one-piece boxes with a flap that tucks in, like a regular playing card box, while setup boxes are usually two pieces (base and lid) with an internal platform for holding the contents in place.

These numbers are tricky to compile and to compare - even though I send the same specifications to each printing company, I don't always get the same results back. For example, some of the quotes include different kinds of boxes, or different box materials, or different card sizes, or different paper stocks and paper coating. Some of them include shipping; others do not, and I have to estimate it, which I've done here. I have only included printing and shipping charges and setup costs where appropriate; no other charges like import duties, file preparation, shipping of samples, etc.

I often got multiple quotes for different quantities from the same company; these are connected by lines. I sometimes got quotes for different products from the same company, e.g. tuck box vs. setup box (a two-piece box with a bottom and a lid). In this case, I've grouped them with a number; e.g. everything marked "China #1" comes from the same Chinese printer, while "China #2" would be a different Chinese printer.

I'm still pursuing bids, and I will not necessarily go with the lowest bidder here. There are a host of other concerns, such as product quality, the component materials, the box type, my estimates of other costs incurred when dealing with the company involved (which are higher overseas), the professionalism I perceive with the company, and others. I'd love to have a "Made in America" on the label, too, if I can afford it.

For a look at how this plays out in terms of actually making the economics work, see this post and this post.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alien Frontiers - another Kickstarter success

Back at the end of April, I posted on another Kickstarter donation campaign, this one for a game called Alien Frontiers.  Well, they're over $11,000 with just under a couple weeks to go, marking yet another successful use of Kickstarter for pre-sales.  About $7500 of their pledges are at their basic, $50 level, which gets you a copy of the game.  They report here at BGG  that their print costs are going to be probably in the neighborhood of $15,000 (my guess is that after shipping and other costs this bleeds up toward $20,000) for 1,000 copies, so a $50 sale price per game with $15-20 production costs is probably a good target for them, although a bit steep for the retail market.  I haven't seen much on the game yet, but it does seem to have a ton of bits.

I'd be interested if they manage to sell out the 800+ copies that aren't yet spoken for.  I'd also be interested what ratio of their funding comes from anonymous donors.  I asked a couple folks about this for earlier Kickstarter projects (see here and here), and it seems to be actually about a third to a half of the buyers in these things are unknown to the organizers - a far higher ratio than I'd have guessed.

It looks like Kickstarter is a great way to leverage game production.  My earlier misgivings seem nearly entirely unwarranted in the light of these three projects.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June BGDF Challenge

I guess I was going to run into Dominion sooner or later.  The June BGDF game design showdown is up, and it relies on Dominion's deck-building mechanic pretty heavily.  I haven't played Dominion, but my impression is that you've got a limited number of resources which you spend to buy cards; some cards give you more resources or moves or abilities, other cards give you points.  So, it's a tradeoff between stuff that will help you play and stuff that will help you win.  Sounds interesting.

The other part of the challenge is that they want a slippery slope feel.  This is where getting ahead gets you further ahead, and getting behind gets you further behind, or, in other words, a positive feedback loop.  This kind of thing has a tendency to end games fast and/or make them pointless to finish, but part of the challenge is to have a slippery slope tendency but not to have it ruin the game.

This is going to be hard to do, and hard to judge, since the rules submitted for these things are usually incomplete, making it hard to imagine the final game.  Since game balance is key here, and since that usually comes from iterative playtesting and tweaking rather than from rules, it's going to be tricky.

I'll see what I can do.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Yoggity Art revealed!

I mentioned in this post that I'd gotten some new art created for my unpublished game Yoggity.  The artist is Jason Greeno of Greeno Design (  You can see some samples of the art at the Yoggity page here - I'm really happy with it.  I'm getting a mock-up made by TGC, and I'll post actual snapshots when I receive it.

I've entered Yoggity in the Rio Grande Game Design Competition, and if I don't succeed in getting it picked up by Rio Grande there, I'll look to producing this as the second Plankton Games title sometime in early 2011.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Valley Games reveals some of their inner workings

Torben Sherwood is part of the new game company Valley Games, which is publishing a number of new titles, some English-language versions of German games, and some classics (e.g. Titan, which I first played in 1987).  He's got a couple of posts (here and here) up at

These are interesting, but there's not a lot to go on here; there are few details, and a lot of skimming over the challenges they faced.  The second article is more focused on what game designers do wrong when presenting their games to a publisher, and (more relevant to me here) some of the procedures and challenges they go through during production.

It sounds like they've had some good response at various conventions (e.g. Essen, BGG Con, GAMA) - that may be something I'll have to invest in once I get up and running, but I'm nowhere near the size they are now (17 published titles listed on their site).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another Yoggity test

I played Yoggity with my parents today, and they seemed to enjoy it.  They've played most of my game designs going way back to my still-talked-about-and-mocked Roy Rogers game, which I made in about 1981 at the age of 12 or so. It nearly always ended in a near-infinite loop of being sent back to the ranch (start) - you had to roll a six and then a three or something to get through one part of the board.

So, I think they liked it - my mom won, 44-40-40, although my dad had a chance to get 2nd place outright at the end. There was a lot of trading and cooperation, and one vicious cancellation of a Bland Corporate Logo order that might have won me the game.  Good fun.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Production costs and financial returns

Seo at BGDF has a good very brief run-down of the economics of publishing.  He's left out shipping and marketing costs, which can easily eat up the meager 1/8 of the final sales price that the publisher eventually sees, not to mention the difficulties of getting distribution, the very real risk of not selling out your print run, which leaves you deep into negative territory, and paying yourself something for the effort and investment you're putting in.

How the later commenter sees this as a very good opportunity for self-publishers is beyond me...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Two tech tools

Both from

Not cool:  Yoyn - There is nothing in this demo that shows me how a game can be played better on this platform than with cardboard pieces.  Rolling the die to roll a virtual die is strangely cool, but also pointless.  There has to be a better way to use all this technology.  And the background music for the video is maddening.

Cool: Lego Robot Chess - ironically, still mostly pointless, but makes up for it in style points.  The pathfinding algorithms must have been a bear to write.  My favorite parts:  1) The pieces going diagonal and backing out of the way to allow a piece to move diagonally through them; 2) the reveal, midway through, of the scale of the board, and 3) the animated parts of the mega-pieces, like the knight's rearing horse with animated forelegs, and the queen thumping her checkmate challenge at the end.

Both of these have an insanely low effort-to-utility ratio, but the lego chess is cool on a number of levels, maybe even for this low ratio.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

More manufacturer options

David MacKenzie of Clever Mojo Games (the ones doing Alien Frontiers on recommends Panda Games Manufacturing (an American company which works with Chinese manufacturers) and Xinghui (a Chinese company) in this BGDF post.  There, is that enough links? :-)

I've gotten a quote from Xinghui which was very reasonable for my project - probably the best overall pricing, although it didn't include shipping, prep, and other expenses which (thanks to Dan Tibbles' excellent talk) I now know to expect from China.  However, Tasty Minstrel Games had some production issues which Michael Mindes describes at his blog (and which are confirmed by seo/Seth at BGDF).  Not to say Xinghui should be judged by this one experience, but it's a data point, at least.

Nine links - I think that's a record, especially for a two paragraph post.  Har.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Grid Game

Eric Martin at Boardgame News links to a flash game called "Grid Game" (located here).  It's a fairly hypnotic thing to try once or twice, and it's interesting how it creates order out of randomness based on only a few simple rules.  Very elegant.

I don't think it has a lot of game value, though.  Like Bejeweled and a variety of other recent games, you make a single play that triggers others, and your eventual score depends on how all the triggering events stack up.  I suppose if you were some kind of Rain Man you could look at the board and see how your move would cascade through the playfield, but I doubt most folks can do that.

In Bejeweled, a whole bunch of your score comes directly from the random number generator - what jewels get created and fall onto your board.  That's always frustrated me with Bejeweled and similar games. This Grid Game is more deterministic than that - you have all of the information you need to predict what will happen, but the complexity of how it plays out is beyond the scope of what people can reasonably imagine.  Your score just happens to you - you don't earn it.

Assuming I wanted to turn this into a game, rather than a toy, how would I improve it?  If you reduced the board to a much smaller size, say 5x5, then it would become more reasonably predictable, and there could be some skill to playing it.  Designing some pre-set scenarios with specified maximum scores would be fun, too - you'd need to puzzle out what move gives you the best score.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Story Arc

Jonathan Degann has an interesting post here from 2003 at the now defunct Games Journal about the concept of a story arc in a game.  He makes some interesting points - games that have you constantly doing the same thing over and over are harder to like, while games that have some kind of story built in have an advantage.  I don't know that I'd agree that it's always better to have a story arc, but it can help.

Some very popular games have this kind of thing - chess, for example, plays out as an extended drama, with characters leaving (and later entering) the mix.  The game always goes through this story, with progressive limitation as pieces are removed, while the ones that are left gain expanded power because the crowding goes away.  Monopoly has a structural story built in - at first, nobody has any properties, and there's a race to gather them.  Later on, the game moves to a trading phase, as players try to collect sets.  Then, there's an end game, where it becomes kind of like an extended version of Russian roulette, seeing who's going to land on the hotels first.

However, even games without this structurally demanded story arc can be really fun, and they often create their own plotlines as they go.  As a kid, I heard my relatives discuss their bridge games endlessly, and that game doesn't have a built-in plot - you bid, you play the tricks, you score; repeat.  Same thing with nearly any game with dominos.  Basketball is 40 minutes of doing the same thing over and over, but games are really exciting to watch, and the score (and the fouls) become the story as leads grow and shrink.  Many pub games - darts, pool, foosball, etc. - all are very fun but are by nature completely repetitive.  Plenty of card games don't have a plot, either - see casino, poker, cribbage, Uno.  You would be hard-pressed to find any kind of plot here other than the changes in scores, but they're still fun.

Diggity, as a card game, is less about story than most games, but I think it still has one.  The basic plays are repetitive (every turn you add a mine card to the table), but there's an overarching story there - the tools come and go from turn to turn, people have to decide to use them or not as the gold comes out, tools get stolen, the lead changes, people sometimes gang up on the leader.  Shakespeare it aint, but there's still some drama there.  I'll need to think about my other designs and see if I can add some to them, too.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kickstarter as pre-ordering framework

I've been toying with the idea of using to fund part of my first print run - not so much to ask for donations for a commercial enterprise, but merely to give friends and family a way to pre-purchase the game.  I think I may do it, although it feels a little hitting up your friends for something they don't really want, like when your kids go around selling candy bars or coupon books.

A couple of the earlier versions I commented on (Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands and Inevitable) approached their pitch less as mere pre-ordering and more as artistic patronage, where you were getting a chance to support the hopes and dreams part beyond just buying a game.  I was wondering if a simple pre-order thing would work.  Via Trask at, It looks like we've got a test case - GamingPaper (site here) is looking for funds to print up an 8.5x11 version of their product in what is essentially a plain pre-order scheme.  They do have other rewards for various donation levels, but those rewards are already available as products they sell - the 8.5x11 version is the only new product.

In this case, there's no artistic vision to support (although the Kickstarter video playfully suggests there could be), since you're basically buying 250 sheets of graph paper.  I'll be interested to see how they do.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

TheGameCrafter moving to newer, better facilities

Print-on-demand publisher has announced (see here) that they're moving from Wisconsin to New York, where they hope to add items they don't currently provide, like tuck boxes, game boxes, thicker game boards, and other unspecified cool stuff.

That sounds great; with the move, it also sounds like a sale of the company, although they have not announced that and I have nothing to base that on.  But it seems like it would be very hard on the owners and employees to pick up and move, and they'd have no real reason to move to some place where labor and real estate are potentially more expensive just to expand their range.  I've been really happy with their management, customer service, and employees - I'd hate to see any of that change with the relocation.

But if they can add more custom items (like the boxes and better boards, but also maybe some printed chits and/or tokens), that would really provide a terrific way to produce print-on-demand games that aren't limited by their current range of customizable products (only cards, boards, and stickers for disk tokens).  A real printed game box (rather than the current featureless white corrugated carton) would be the biggest step towards making this a real option for marketing professional-seeming games.  I hope that happens soon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Another Diggity sale

Somebody unknown to me bought Diggity off, bringing my total not-directly-to-me sales there to five.  Not flying off the shelves, but not nothing either.  It's a little frustrating that they keep the customers secret from the sellers - I have no way to do a newsletter or deliver rules updates or expansions or anything like that, stuff I could do if I had better control over the customer information.

Regardless, I thank you, mystery customer, and I hope you enjoy the game.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Yoggity art!

I've gotten some artwork back from my artist, Jason Greeno of for Yoggity.  We're working out the last bits, and then I hope to get it up on my site and get a couple of copies printed by It's really exciting to see the game look better than I could ever get it to.

This is the game I'm entering in the Rio Grande Game Design contest, so I won't be able to release it until that's over this fall (it's for unpublished works only).  It's been fun every time I've played, with any number of folks, so I think it will be a good one for the contest.  It's not too heavy, but it does involve some interesting dynamics, especially with multiple players.

I think that's my next candidate for a serious rules edit - using what I've been learning from redoing Diggity and reading other rules documents.  Now that I've got some art, I'm really excited about it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Playtest reports

I played Diggity and Yoggity with a game-enthusiast friend last week.  Both were completely new to him.  It went pretty well; in Diggity, I got some good cards at the start and built a lead he couldn't ever come back from, which isn't an ideal first-time experience, but should be somewhat rare.  The gameplay was better; it continues to surprise me that I've actually gotten a lot better at Diggity - I wouldn't have thought of it as having very deep strategy; you have a relatively small number of decisions to make, and there's usually one that seems like an optimal one - but every time I've played recently, I've noted some more subtle strategic decisions creeping in, and I tend to do consistently better (having played it more than anyone in the universe) than my opposition, which suggest there's some kind of skill (or at least an enhanced understanding of the rules) at work.

Yoggity, which I've entered in the Memphis regional of the Rio Grande competition, was much more balanced; I ended up slightly ahead, but the outcome was in question for most of it, and there was a definite impact from drawing cards.  The major strategy in the two player game there is when to collect and use your coins; the 3-4 player game, with item trading, requires much more shrewd deal-making.  The 2-player game is still a lot of fun, but it's just very different from the multi-player version.

The three-cards-before-miner rule that I added in the last rules revision continues to work well, although it is still hard to explain.  Not hard to understand; just hard to explain, which is weird.  I'll have to work more on the phrasing.

Anyway, an interesting (and thought-provoking) couple of games.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Early "video" games

Here's a neat image from the excellent Shorpy photo blog site, showing a visual display system from 1924 to show baseball games being played.  If I'm understanding it right, they'd have people sit in the theater, and then they could update the system to reflect actual gameplay, perhaps from radio broadcasts or telegraph - an early version of an abstract graphical representation of reality.

Click for the front view (shown also at left), showing how it would look to the audience.  Here's the back view, showing the strapping young men operating the machine and all the different projector bulbs that had to be coordinated and controlled somehow.  Amazing complexity.  Click on the "full size" link at Shorpy if you want to see all the details of the artwork and rigging.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Print On Demand - a blessing or a curse?

Within the demitasse teacup of boardgame company designer hobbyists, there is a tiny tempest.  A recent edition of the Dice Tower podcast included a half-hearted rant against the new availability of print-on-demand for games (listen at about 1:14 or so into the podcast if you're interested).  The argument was that now that people can essentially self-publish any game on the cheap at places like, there will be a flood of horrible, crappy games available, that haven't been properly tested or refined, as traditionally published game products are.

I guess the downside of this is supposed to be that:

  • The average quality of games will go down
  • People will ask you to pay good money for crappy half-baked games
  • People might be duped by these self-publishers into buying something that's really not ready to be published
  • Reviewers asked to review games on places like TGC will have no idea whether to waste their time looking at something that's published there
I've been on TGC for about six months now (I reviewed my experience here and here).  As a service for printing near-professional-quality game components, they're excellent.  As a framework for organizing a game into customizable cards, boards, and components, they're super.  As a tool for creating test copies of games you're developing, they're great.  As a marketing and selling service... eh.  Hasn't worked too well for me, but I haven't hit it too hard, either.

I follow their forums, and I've looked at every new game announced on the site in that six months.  I can confirm what the Dice Tower guys are saying; the vast majority of the games listed there are crap - bad games, bad art, ill-conceived and ill-described rules, sometimes all of these things combined.  I can think of maybe eight to ten games there that would actually be worth spending money on, that represent a real final package, thoughtfully assembled and thoroughly tested.  I like to think mine are in that category, but if I'm being honest, I don't think my art on Cult is up to commercial grade, although the game rocks.

Frankly, I'm not really sure this matters to most folks.  For one thing, hardly anybody is buying anything made at TGC unless they get a personal recommendation or request from the publisher, so there's really no crisis.  For the few sales that there are, the vast majority are to the authors themselves, or to friends of the author, not to random customer victims.  I suppose if I weren't a careful consumer, I might rush out and drop some money assuming a TGC game was good, but then maybe I deserve what I get.  Most of them have image previews and full-text rules (mine do), and I wouldn't buy anything from the site that didn't.

For reviewers, who are asked to review these games, well, that comes with the territory.  Write a scathing review if you want to, or ignore all TGC games if you must, but it's not that big a deal.  Having more games available to the public with high quality easily-customizable components is only going to help get more good games to the market eventually, good games that would heretofore have stayed in the backs of notebooks or as hand-made components sitting forgotten in a desk drawer.  Even if there's a bunch of horrible stuff to wade through, I think that's worth it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summing up the GTS 09 talks

So, what are the main points I've learned listening to these couple of talks? There's a ton of good stuff in these, but I think I can distill it down to a few major points that will be most useful to me.
  • You can save a goodly amount of money printing in China vs. domestically (they say between 30% and 70%), but it's a big hassle. I'm not sure it will be worth it for me if it's at the 30% end.
  • The savings in China will be bigger for bigger print runs, for bigger games (i.e. larger boxes, more pieces), and for games with plastic parts. None of these potential savings likely apply to me.
  • Don't start with a print run bigger than about 3,000 - that seems to be the sweet spot they recommend between getting a low enough cost-per-game balanced with any hope of ever selling them all. 5,000 is too ambitious, and 10,000 is insane.
  • Design is very easy; refining a design into publishable form takes some serious effort, and printing is harder still, but none of these hold a candle to the challenge of actually marketing and selling your game.
The talks didn't give a lot of help with that last part - the marketing and selling - other than to establish a relationship with distributors and go to the trade shows.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Estimating the reduction in cost-per-game in production runs

Listening to the GTS lectures over the past couple of days, I've learned that part of the reason prices drop so precipitously with increased numbers of games printed is that the presses churn out a bunch of games before the colors and print quality are set correctly.  The number referenced by Dan Tibbles in the lectures is 1,000 games printed and discarded before they can start the actual print run.  That seems like a fantastically high number, but I know very little about commercial printing, so I'll certainly accept it until I learn otherwise.

I thought I'd compare the production prices for one of my printing bids to this model, where 1,000 games are wasted.  What that means is if you're ordering 1,000 games, you're actually paying for 2,000, so your cost of production should be double what it actually is per game.  If you order 2,000 games, you're paying for 3,000 copies, so your costs are 150% of the actual cost.  The more you order, the more your cost drops, because the wasted games become less and less of the total produced, and their costs are pro-rated over the whole print run.

Sounds reasonable, right?  Well, I thought I'd test it out to see what's going on.  Here's an actual bid on my game from Imagigrafx.  If you're interested, I discussed this in more detail in an earlier post here.

You can clearly see the drop in cost per game with increasing production runs.

I thought I'd try to model this statistically.  The bid above tapers off to something near $2 per game.  So, here's a hypothetical print run, for a game that costs $2 per game to print, but with 1,000 wasted games that also cost $2 per game.  So, if you print 1000 and waste 1000, it will end up costing you 2,000 * $2 = $4,000.  But, you only get 1,000 games, so that comes out to an apparent cost per game of $4.
This graph has the same shape as the real offer above, which makes sense.  However, the values don't line up quite right - the drop off is steeper here, and you approach the $2 more quickly than in my real data.  

So, this model doesn't quite work.  I tried it out with 2,000 wasted games, and it was much closer (green line below):

So, is that's what's happening? 2,000 wasted games?  Probably not, in reality.  I'd guess there are a bunch of actual sunk costs to setting up a print run, and those are going to have to be paid regardless of the size of the run.  So rather than wasting 2,000 games, it might be much fewer, and instead, the sunk costs (one-time setup costs) are making up the rest of the elevated apparent cost per game.

But as far as the statistics go, 2,000 wasted games seems to model the real bid I was getting pretty well, even if it's not exactly what's happening.  Maybe this is a good rule of thumb in estimating the drop-off in printing costs for extended print runs?  Seems like an easy enough model to use.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

More GTS09 talk notes - Self Publishing

Here are my notes from listening to another talk from GTS 2009 - this one called Publishing Your Game Yourself (mp3 link here)

The speakers are from Bucephalus Games:
- Anthony Gallela
- Dan Tibbles

Here are my notes:

Opening comments
  • Very difficult to sell your own game
  • Design, production, manufacturing are easy
  • Selling is far harder than all of these
  • Important to figure out who target audience is - there's a risk that the game is unsellable
  • 75% of new games are essentially unsellable, or they don't sell through their print run
Designing a marketable product
  • What's the key to your game?
  • Theme?  If so, then the game must pursue the theme at the expense of all other parts
  • Mechanics?  If so, then nothing else can get in the way
  • Listen to testers - be willing to change the game - don't be too invested
  • 1st 3,000 copies are sold based on appearance and artwork - NOT on theme or gameplay
  • Shelf appeal is therefore key
  • The box should reveal what the game is like - no surprises, no hidden stuff
  • Refining a game is key - it often involves removal of features and rules, boiling it down to the central, pure elements
  • Blind playtesting - very important; creates a much better rulebook
    • Should you be in the room?
      • Anthony says yes; your observations will let you see what assumptions they made when there were rules gaps or problems
      • Some say no; reasons cited are that the players won't be honest
  • Consult retailers and distributors - they are your initial direct customers
  • GAMA has free focus groups at the conferences
  • Talking to others is key
Selling to a publisher
  • Very unlikely to happen
  • Game design is easy; everybody has one, so they're cheap and readily available - it's the marketing and selling that's harder and much more expensive
  • Game companies don't want to work with you
  • They'll often prefer to work with in-house designs, or they're small, and are actually publishing the owner/operator's design
  • The numbers for this happening are a fraction of a percent chance - a few games are printed out of thousands of submissions
  • To do this, you'll need to do all the development ahead of time - the testing, the rules, the layout, the winnowing out of rules
  • Might be worth doing, but expect rejection
  • If you're going to do it, look hard for submission guidelines, and then follow them
  • Show them a good prototype - they can imagine it better, but you need to make it look good, and make it look how you want it to
  • Royalties - no advance, probably 3-10%, average of 5%
  • Make sure you retain rights, and you get the rights back after 18-24 months out of print
  • 3,000 to 5,000 copies is a good run in the hobby market
  • Don't publish with money you can't lose all of
  • Don't start with a big print run - go with 3,000 max
    • You'll always find flaws
    • You're probably blowing your money
  • Maybe 30% of games can sell 3000 copies
  • Maybe 2% of games can sell 5000 copies
  • Nearly nobody sells more than that on a first game
  • There are 1,000 new games published every year - most of them don't get much distribution, don't get sold
  • Companies are usually willing to share their sources for production in Asia
  • Designers are often blind to flaws - missing words, missing typos, etc.
[Dan Echoed a bunch of the China sourcing talk here]

  • Game stores nearly always buy from distributors - there are only a few of these
  • Toy stores don't use distributors - instead, they'll order directly or from sales reps
  • GAMA is a good way to meet up with distributors
  • Reps might also be an option if you can interest them
  • Market is multi-level
    • Distributor
    • Retailer
    • Customer
  • You should talk to each of these folks to gauge marketability
  • Alliance would be a good source to talk to; building a relationship with them (and listening to their feedback) is very useful, since they're so big
Post-Talk Q&A Session
  • Majority of new game companies fail - 90% of them fail
  • Breaking even is success
  • Art costs - can be a couple thousand dollars even for simple games
    • Might be worth it, but only if you're definitely self-publishing, and even then probably not
    • Art schools, commissions are ways around the costs
  • Why do game companies fail? 
    • It takes lots of work, and you may not be able or willing to put in that effort
    • Unreasonable expectations
    • Very limited return, and gets frustrating on all the work
    • Lack of preparation - getting the design, production, or marketing wrong
  • Patents are silly
  • Game designs are very difficult to steal, and also very difficult to protect
    • Stealing isn't worth it
    • Ideas are duplicated

This was also good stuff - not quite as new to me or as insider-y as the Chinese manufacturing talk, but good to hear lots of my suspicions and intuitions confirmed.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Manufacturing in China - Dan Tribbles GTS09 talk

At the recommendation of reader Hulken, I'm listening to this show: GTS 09: Getting the most out of your Chinese manufacturer. This is great stuff.

The speaker is Dan Tibbles, CEO, designer, and producer from Bucephalus Games (BGG profile here).

Some interesting points (I'm taking notes as I go):

Initial contact
  • He suggests requesting domestic game publishers for recommendations for factories
  • There are hundreds of thousands of printing companies in China, but very few of them are able to make quality cards and boards
  • Try for three different factories, and send each of them a sample game as close to production quality as you can
  • Boardgames are a somewhat alien concept for the Chinese; they need help understanding what you want
  • You need to be extremely specific about components - e.g. paper weights, coatings, etc. - this is where examples work better
  • You should ask for a quote and a sample; they'll make free samples, but you need to pay for shipping
Choosing a company and working with them
  • Quality is extremely variable, and prices reflect this quality for the most part
  • Get the pricing broken down by component, not for the whole thing
  • Cross-cultural communication is very difficult; use examples (actual samples) instead of words
  • UPS to China and back is $100-$200
  • They're willing to go through several iterations back and forth
  • New publishing companies - pay half of production run up front, plus set-up charges (tools, molds, plates, etc.)
    • Card sheet setup charge = $300
    • Game board setup charge = $400
    • Plastic figure from mold = $3000-4000 minimum, can get very large; each figure is very cheap
    • Metal figure mold = $800, but each figure is expensive
  • Part-time, hobbyist publisher (like me) should aim for 2000-2500 games starting print run
  • Big push, with marketing money, no more than 5000 copies
  • Minimum would be 1000-2000 for Chinese printing
  • The reason there's the big drop in price is that there's a bunch of waste - maybe 1,000 copies are printed and thrown away before the colors are right, the press is ready, etc. So, your costs reflect these extra wasted materials.
  • Blind rules testing is important - get readers to check your rules out for clarity
  • Files need to be in great shape before sending - these turn into print proofs, which can cost several hundred dollars; they get sent back and forth
  • Colors are never going to be perfect - often close, but not perfect; three iterations of back and forth sending is about the limit for this being useful
  • It takes 30-60 days to get everything right before production, and then there's production and shipping; four months is a reasonable smooth timeline with few problems.
  • Files should be totally flattened (i.e., no separate layers); no fonts, no stuff that can be moved or edited; everything should be graphical rather than text or font-based
  • Make all changes yourself; don't request that they make edits, since the words and grammar can be messed up
  • Factories should have Illustrator, Quark, Photoshop; file format isn't super-important, but make sure it's flattened.
Payment and production
  • Payment - send purchase order over to factory; shouldn't be more than 50% up front; 30% up front is also good. They'll expect the balance when the product ships - not when it arrives.
  • You will send payment by wire transfer to their bank account
  • With lots of pieces, some may be outsourced; more complex means more time in production
  • Tip - you should request to see and approve the first few units of the production run - "top of production" samples - as a final proof
  • As a small, new customer, you will have very low status; the factory will prioritize other people and other projects; this can take lots of time
  • Don't be in a hurry; be willing to use slow shipping for proofs and 
  • Quality control for whole run is hard to do; you can do it in person, or you can hire somebody to do it, but it's difficult for small new companies
  • Big wood pieces (e.g. gameboards, large parts) have the most variation, so they're the biggest concern - not little pieces, which are generally OK.
  • He's worked with maybe 60 companies over there, but would only work with about 10 of them again.
Shipping and Customs
  • Factories don't arrange for shipping - it's up to you
    • Air shipping - very expensive; maybe $6 per game; 4-7 days
    • Ocean shipping - two options
      • LCL - Limited container load - you get a little piece of a container, shared with others
      • FCL - Full container load - you rent the whole container - but it doesn't matter how full it is - not charged by weight, just volume
      • 20' container is 1/2 as much by LCL
      • 40' container is 1/2 as much per game as 20' (does this make sense?)
      • Might still be cheaper to get a 20' container than go LCL
      • Damage rate might be 2%, but more if fragile, and more if they are susceptible to water damage - e.g. wood parts expanding, warping from humidity
  • Every single game should be shrink-wrapped individually
  • Open at least 5% of the run to see if there are problems; more if there look to be issues
  • It can be worth shopping around to get a good rate on a container - the rates will be extremely variable; individual discounts can be big, and you can play the companies off of each other
  • Examples:
    • 20' container from China to the West Coast of US - $1800-2200
    • 40' container from China - $3000
    • Depends on fuel
    • Extra charges - taxes, paperwork, government fees, fuel surcharge
    • They can probably give you an estimate for the whole shipment except for import duties
    • Shipping company can handle transport within the US too - can go on trains or trucks
  • Shipping - China to the U.S. West Coast - 2-3 weeks, plus another week of factory to ship, plus time to go through customs in U.S.
  • Customs can be nearly nothing, not even inspected, or it can be a detailed search, but you have no real control. If you do get inspected, it will cost you a few hundred dollars a day for storage, and it may take several days.
  • Good paperwork will help - everything from the factory should have a value included; shipping company can help with this.
  • Wood products can include formaldehyde, so wood components (especially plywood) can give you problems
  • Customs bond - required to go through customs - this is either $500/year, or $200-300 per container shipped
  • Timing is tricky - you can't pay until it clears customs, but you don't know when that will be, and you pay for every day of storage, so you want to pay as fast as possible so you don't pay for needless storage
Final tips:
  • Tip #1: Low prices mean low quality; there aren't many companies that rip people off now, but quality will vary
  • Tip #2: Proofs won't look like production run, since they're done on different machines. Things will be wrong; you need to point these out, and check again in the top-of-production sample. This can be pretty major stuff; e.g. game board, cards not printed correctly or cut correctly as they will be on final production run.
  • Tip #3: English won't always be good - keep asking until you understand; you won't offend them as long as you're talking business.
  • Tip #4: They are 9-10 hours from us; their e-mails will come in the evening U.S. time.
  • Tip #5: You should be able to save 30-70% even with shipping; more on stuff that requires lots of manpower
Wow, that was one of the most useful things I've listened to. Very good stuff, lots of questions answered. I'd recommend it to anybody.

Update:  These are available in non-iTunes format at - the China one is here - thanks to commenter Eric Hanuise for the link.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Second place

Close but no cigar in the May BGDF Design Showdown (I tied for second).  These competitions are tough - the rules are often restrictive, and the voting is hard to do.  This month, there were a number of creative entries, but with the 800-word limit on the rules, and the absence of real components, it's tricky sometimes to imagine how the games will actually play out. Also, a lot of the design (in the form of art, decks of cards, etc.) can be left to the imagination.  When you're voting, you end up sometimes deciding between a well-specified game that seems OK or a game that could be really great if the parts and rules that are not specified are done well.

Tricky.  But a fun contest - my congrats to Simon Stump, the winner this month, and my thanks to Seth Jaffee for running it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Annals of bad programming

In my continuing pursuit of the zeitgeist, I've posted a fail at failblog:

Loving my new laptop, but Adobe is still cheesy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Manufacturing quotes

I sent around for a few more manufacturing quotes over the last couple of days.  One source in China says they can do the games for $1.32 each, FOB China.  What I've learned FOB means is that they get it onto a ship somewhere in China, and I'm responsible for the transport, tracking, customs, insurance, and additional shipping within the U.S. once the product reaches here.

My problem is that I don't have much of a way to know what that's going to cost.  Also, the rest of the quote is very limited in terms of details, so I don't even know what to ask about in terms of size, weight, number of cartons, etc.  I've asked for more information, and I've done some research, but it's pretty frustrating - the production price sounds very good there, but without the shipping and importation costs, it's hard to know how good a deal it would end up being.

Not to mention the difficulties involved in working with people and sending money halfway around the world, where our laws don't apply and recourse is nearly impossible.  But if I can save myself many thousands of dollars, I'd better look into it.

I'm also looking at a few more domestic printing options, so hopefully I can get a comparison there.  Interesting stuff, but I'm in the dark on a lot of this, working to enlighten myself.