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. 🙂