How to Understand the Tabletop Gaming News Cycle

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Over the last couple of weeks of Behind the Scenes: Lessons from a Kickstarter Board Game Publisher, I’ve talked about some of the strange goings-on I’ve noticed in the board game industry. I’ve talked about why People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games and Why Board Game Publishers Like Some Games and Don’t Like Others.

There’s nothing conspiratorial here. There’s no grand machination orchestrated by shadowy figures. There are, however, definitely weirdo group dynamics that are exacerbated by the technological advances of our era, namely search engines, social media, and an unending deluge of data. Nowhere are these weird group dynamics more obvious than in the tabletop gaming news cycle.

 

Photo of Azul by Mikko Saari on Flickr. Under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. I’m using this photo to get more clicks from social media, which is both effective and goofy for reasons I’ll explain below.

 

In People are Weird, I stated that “gamers are becoming ever more sophisticated in ways to narrow down what they’d like to buy. No human being, let alone a busy one with a family or work or friends, could analyze every game to see what looks like ‘the best idea.’ Gamers do what any rational person would do in this situation – take mental shortcuts to make snap decisions.”

Turns out, people do the same thing with news, too. Left to our own devices, we gravitate toward news sources that act as comfort food for our mind. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and every Silicon Valley website out there that uses algorithms and automation to curate your experience only further serves to make you dangerously comfortable. Your Facebook feed shows you political news that enforces your current beliefs. Amazon suggests you buy items that resemble what you’ve bought before. Google tweaks your results based on what you click.

Now in board games, thankfully, this effect is more innocuous. Curators of board game news, no matter who they are, have a vested interest in getting more views. They either want to display ads, sell merch, push their games, or take donations. This is true even for people who just want to pay the web maintenance bills. However, to get traffic, you have to talk about things that people are already reading about. You have to go through Google, social media, and Board Game Geek to find out where the hype is. The most successful websites create valuable content, yes, but they also by necessity have to be masters at the web traffic game. They know how to use the right keywords and buzzwords to follow the trends.

Websites need clicks, search engines need to work effectively, and gamers want to stay informed. At every level of the tabletop gaming news cycle, from the news-makers to the curators (search engines) to the readers, the incentive structure forces articles into saying the same thing repeatedly. That’s why there are a billion reviews of Azul online. That’s why gaming news has the general malaise of sameness after a while.

“Okay, so I’ll just turn to social media and forums instead,” you might say. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest,  Reddit, and Board Game Geek can all provide alternative viewpoints to published websites. It is, after all, user-generated content. You would think that this would counterbalance the sameness of the larger tabletop gaming news cycle, but this is not the case either.

Every social media site and every forum worth its salt has some way of sorting. Social media sorts popular posts and prioritizes their position in the feed so more people see them. Reddit uses upvotes and downvotes, which – whether you admit it to yourself or not – colors the way you perceive the comment that follows. Board Game Geek has more complicated version of that which effectively does the same thing, involving Geek Gold, badges, a points system, and probably twenty other features that I still haven’t learned about after a few years of using the site. The incentive structure still exists.

Imagine, for a moment, a truly egalitarian website where there was no sorting, except for purely chronological and there were no upvotes or downvotes. Even in a place like that, there would still be “right” and “wrong” answers based on what people are expected to say. People are expected to conform to certain patterns, to like certain games, and say certain things. You follow the pattern, people praise you. You don’t follow the pattern, people think you’re weird. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is.

At every level of news sourcing for any industry, including board games, there are incentives to say the same thing over and over. There are incentives to praise specific games and specific types of games. I don’t see a way around this or a way to change it. In fact, I even covered this a long time ago in The Board Game Industry: Powers That Be & The Hype Machine.

I’m loath to leave you on such a sour note, so I will conclude with five recommendations for new creators who want to make board games:

  1. Figure out what kind of games people like to play, then make that but with your own spin.
  2. Work in a team with other talented people.
  3. While working in a team, work on more than one game at once.
  4. Accept the weirdness of people, markets, and news cycles.
  5. Reach out to players directly.

 


 

Remember you’re a part of a bigger picture. Creative work can be very difficult and it can seem unbelievably difficult to get attention online. Stay strong, keep creating good work, work with talented people, and keep trying! You’ve got one supporter already 🙂

Why Board Game Publishers Like Some Games and Don’t Like Others

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It’s no secret that board game publishers like to reduce risks. Most publishers have a system in place to help them filter marketable game ideas from unmarketable game ideas. Explained this way, it sounds innocuous. It looks like a true meritocracy where the best ideas are the ones taken to the market. Yet the process, so heavy on rejection, has left many game designers heartbroken.

 

 

Most designers understand, at least on some level, the need to separate good ideas from bad ones. Companies have limited resources and can only spend their time developing the best of the best. The heartbreak comes from the seemingly arbitrary nature of what is accepted and what is not.

“Why wasn’t my [insert original idea] run with? There are mechanics in there that nobody’s ever seen!”

“Why did they retheme my [insert original theme] game into a generic fantasy world?”

“Why did they cut out half the parts and sell it for $19.99?”

“Did they really have to add miniatures?”

Last week I wrote People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games, in which I do my best to explain – without seeming like a total madman – why markets follow seemingly arbitrary trends. I explain why people don’t like to take risks in a world with so many choices. The central idea of that piece is product-market fit – the idea of a product tailor-made for an existing market of people.

Product-market fit is the law of the land. If your game doesn’t meet people’s specific desires, the overwhelming amount of games coming out will quickly bury it. Your game must be perfectly suited to meet the tastes of a sizable niche of people. This is the First Law of Small Business. Any business that wishes to survive has to play by these rules, at least until they’re a truly massive business (like Comcast, Verizon, Exxon, etc.)

All board game businesses are at least sort of small. Even the “hulking behemoth” of Asmodee has about 750 employees. You probably work for an employer that has more people than that, let’s be real. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a corporation that small, aside from my own Pangea Games. This is all to say that even if Asmodee were to produce games that didn’t have product-market fit, they wouldn’t be able to survive long.

Publishers are keenly aware of this, so they are very careful how much financial risk they expose themselves to. I bet you that 95% of publishers are three duds away from closing up shop. The profit margins on games can be enormous, but they usually are not.

Building on the above point, many publishers like to create a portfolio of different kinds of games to reduce risks. They may specialize in multiple different themes or games of different weights. They may say “we make this very specific type of game, this very specific type of game, and this very specific type of game…nothing else!” Each publisher’s niche is set by a variety of internal and external factors that are unknowable except to the people involved. Sadly, this leaves many game designers who submit their game ideas in the dark.

What could some of these hidden internal and external factors be? The first one that comes to my mind is manufacturing costs. The price of the different pieces that go into board games along with the cost of shipping (which is a function of weight and size) drives what is profitable and what is unprofitable. Some games that are dependent upon very large boxes, very heavy components, or hard-to-make pieces cannot be made profitable at a price that consumers are willing to pay. So they get the axe.

Most publishers have friends in the business. They could be manufacturers, retailers, designers, or playtesters. Relationships provide intangible benefits to the publishers who have them, meaning that some games are easier to make as a result. Likewise, if a publisher is dependent upon a retailer such as Target for success, they might find that their business is dictated by the purchasing manager of an entirely different company! The fact is: these things are unknowable to the designer who submits a game. All they can do is submit the game.

Lastly, publishers may be working toward branding or market positioning that is different from what you can see online. Most savvy business owners plan a couple of years in advance. They are often in the middle of executing long-term changes that haven’t begun to bear fruit yet. They could be transitioning into heavy games or small box games, or changes exclusively into a sci-fi games company. It’s impossible to know until the branding changes are made public.

 


 

There are so many factors that drive what board game publishers are willing to spend time on. They include market interest, existing contacts, manufacturing costs, future corporate strategy, and more. When you, as a game designer, submit games to publishers with your fingers crossed, don’t feel bad if you wind up rejected. You’re the captain of a boat on a bigger sea 🙂

People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games

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For the last several years, wildly successfully Kickstarter campaigns have redefined the rules of success in the board game industry. You no longer had to submit your game to publishers or raise a bunch of money to bankroll your own print run. People like Jamey Stegmaier, creator of Scythe and the Kickstarter Lessons blog, were able to create multi-million dollar businesses with less investment than those who came before.

 

 

The board game industry is beginning to mature. The massive influx of new games created by eager hopefuls with Kickstarter ambitions continues to grow. What was once a steady drip of good games has turned into nothing short of a deluge. Board gamers have repeatedly expressed to me personally on Facebook, Twitter, and Discord that they feel they can no longer keep up with all the great games that are coming out.

The barriers to entry were completely smashed once Kickstarter became a reputable way to raise money. The earliest movers, the ones who took advantage of that glorious window of time from about 2010 to about 2015 saw the biggest benefits. With more and more and more and more games launching every day, gamers started to look for different things. The game had to be completely finished instead of merely 80 or 90% done. The game had to have gorgeous art instead of what your friend could draw. The game had to be a specific genre. The game had to have a specific theme. Slowly, piece by piece, new barriers to entry were established. The board game industry is slowly turning back to its default state – a sort of homeostasis.

You need more money to Kickstart a game these days, but that’s not the big difference. Truth is, you always had to spend a good amount of money to Kickstart a game, even back in 2011 or 2012. The difference is that now gamers are becoming ever more sophisticated in ways to narrow down what they’d like to buy. No human being, let alone a busy one with a family or work or friends, could analyze every game to see what looks like “the best idea.” Gamers do what any rational person would do in this situation – take mental shortcuts to make snap decisions.

Taking mental shortcuts to make snap decisions can have some weird effects, but it’s a necessary part of life. If you don’t believe me, consider reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Noble prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of decisions they have to make when deciding which board games to back, gamers pick the familiar. This is the same effect that keeps you going to the same sorta-okay restaurant repeatedly. It’s why Top 40 songs follow the same chord progressions and have for the last fifty-something years. Turns out it affects board gamers, too, and it scales all the way up to a market level.

Damn. This probably seems awfully nihilistic to the casual reader like yourself. Should I even bother to make a game? Yes, and I’ll explain why.

While you can’t make any old game you want and make a phenomenal amount of money doing so, you can observe what’s successful already and put your own spin on it. If sci-fi and fantasy games have been successful for the last 18 months on Kickstarter, you can make your own sci-fi or fantasy game. You can copy what works from other games while still putting your own inimitable mark on your work. Stravinsky took from Schubert who took from Beethoven who took from Mozart who took from Bach…

Commercially successful products follow patterns. When you follow the patterns, you are more likely to succeed economically. This is because your product fits the existing market – product-market fit. Markets are, after all, made up of people making snap decisions based on their overwhelmed response to an overabundance of information. Look at popular media for some examples:

Blockbuster movie: Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” story structure with some explosions and some famous actors. It doesn’t hurt if one of the characters is merchandisable (like BB-8 or Groot).

Top 40 pop song: Careful song structure delivered by someone either controversial (Lady Gaga) or likable (Taylor Swift).

What does this mean for board games? It’s a little more difficult to sum it up for board games since movies and music are both older industries with a lot more content to analyze. Yet if you were to look at Kickstarter, take some polls, and watch how people spend their money (and not what they say), you start to get a clearer picture. Some themes overperform, others underperform. Some character design techniques work, and some really, really doesn’t. Patterns begin to emerge, and from successful products, you can understand the market and see how the products fit the market.

Just because a game doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t mean the game isn’t good. Sometimes games fail commercially because they don’t meet an established market pattern. That doesn’t make them qualitatively bad games, it just means they don’t fit in with larger trends. You, me, and everyone we know are all involved in big, complex trends that we cannot possibly hope to fully understand 100% of the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. It keeps life spicy.

If you want to make a successful game, your odds of success are best if you follow existing trends and put your own spin on them. This is a huge part of how modern-day board game publishers add value to the board game creation process. Publishers are much more able to discern the direction the board game industry is going in because of a mix of personal experience and careful data analysis. In my personal experience, most game designers aren’t interested in trying to figure out the larger trends. Though I am interested, I don’t blame those who aren’t!

People are weird. Markets are weirder. By acknowledging that simple fact, you’re a lot better equipped to discern commercially viable ideas from duds. 🙂