Brad Talton(Kyokai)United States
Level 99 Games became a "real" board game publisher when we produced our first boxed game: BattleCON: War of Indines, a head-to-head fighting card game. BattleCON has been favorably compared to Summoner Wars, Flash Duel, and many other games in the year since it has come out.
Even before we had finished up the first BattleCON game, War of Indines (or "War" for short), I knew we were going to be doing a sequel as there was so much energy in the project and so much potential left untapped in the game. Work on the expansion was ongoing even as we finalized the first version of the game.
That sequel – BattleCON: Devastation of Indines – will be available at retail stores in mid-2013, and I'd like to talk about the lessons we've learned between the first BattleCON game (our first foray into boardgame publishing) and the second one (our fourth). This post isn't about designing Devastation, though, a process that was largely the same as the process for designing its prequel, which was covered on BGGN in March 2011. No, this post is a publisher diary detailing how we're taking the leap from "Indie Game" to "Triple A" between two games that are, at their cores, very similar.
1. Have a Strategy for Your Art and Design
When I was making the first BattleCON game, I knew only about five different artists, and they were all difficult to contact, work with, and coordinate. (Part of this, admittedly, is my own fault, for lack of coordination.) It took any one of them a month to put together a new illustration, and I wanted to get the game out quickly. I thought that as an indie publisher, I could get away with having different art styles, much like the early CCGs did.
It turned out this was not the case.
The disparity of the art has plagued me in reviews, in comments, and in demos ever since the first game was released. Any one of the artists could have done a fine job illustrating the entire game on his own, but instead the disparate styles clashed with one another, giving the game as a whole a disjointed feel.
In Devastation, we still have five different artists, but now things are managed a bit differently. One artist does the characters, one does the chibis (caricatures), another does the close-ups, another does the arenas, and so forth. Another step we've taken is to prioritize working with artists who keep in daily direct contact with us, rather than those who keep irregular schedules and are hard to contact. Basically, we're requiring a certain degree of professionalism to put someone on a project (and paying extra for that professionalism as well).
In this way, we've managed to pull together a lot of different talents for the project without compromising the consistency of its look.
If you're working on your first game, I'd urge you to set aside a generous art budget and talk with a professional and responsive artist about the complete vision for the project. Consistency of style throughout the game is more important than quantity of art, speed of delivery, or even (to a certain degree) visual appeal. This is especially true of highly thematic games.
2. Build and Actively Support a Playtesting Community
When we first started on BattleCON, the playtest team consisted of just myself and a few interested volunteers from among my friends. As the game gained exposure as a print-and-play on BoardGameGeek, we got more people involved in playtesting, but everything was coordinated by email and a shared Dropbox folder. This was a logistical nightmare, and it took just as much work to get the game into the hands of playtesters as it did to actually produce a new version.
Another thing we realized was that our playtester pool was gradually getting smaller and smaller over time. People who had helped us and who wanted to help us again on future projects just didn't know what new things we were working on!
We tried many iterations of playtester portals, from bulletin boards to project management software. Ultimately we settled on an online forum, which players can register for by contacting us directly and asking for an invitation. The bulletin board has made testing a lot easier. We've also made subscribing to a mailing list part of the set-up for becoming a playtester so that all of our playtesters can get monthly emails regarding what's in testing. We do a very laissez-faire type of playtesting – just posting prototypes in the forum and letting people download and try whatever looks interesting. Because of this, an email each time a new project starts has helped us to pull people back to the forums whenever a new game or a new version of a game becomes available.
With the Minigame Library – a collection of six small card games – and with Devastation as well, the fruits of these lessons have been abundantly clear. Having a bigger community of playtesters and giving them the ability to coordinate with each other and work together via the forums has allowed us to put together higher quality games at a much faster rate than we could do alone or by direct correspondence.
Over the course of developing a game, you play it hundreds and hundreds of times, especially if it's a quick game with a low player count like BattleCON. Over all these plays it's easy to become desensitized to the plight of a new player who's just getting involved with the game. The new player won't be familiar with the mechanisms or set-up, won't know the characters – in fact, he may not even be familiar with board games at all!
One of my most embarrassing moments as a designer was when I was contacted by a player who couldn't figure out from reading the rules which cards were the "standard bases" in BattleCON. This was a fundamental mechanism of the gameplay and a core part of set-up, but I had glazed over it in one byline of the rulebook and expected the players to just pick it up.
In recent games, we've begun creating how-to-play videos and linking these videos directly within the product packaging (so you can snapshot a barcode to watch the game in progress before you buy it, or as an alternative to reading the rulebooks). A happy side effect of these rules videos is that our latest games have generated far fewer rules questions than previous games since the video tutorial plays out like one large example that covers many situations.
We've also gone further in making sure our basic characters are truly basic – adding reminder text, putting important notes on the cards rather than in the appendix, and making the cards more visually distinct. All of these factors will help to make Devastation a much more approachable game than its predecessor.
4. Do the Math in Advance
For the first BattleCON game, we were initially quoted $6,000 to produce the game, and we collected about $15,000 in pledges on Kickstarter. Great job, right???
The final cost to make the game ended up being just over $26,000. Why so much more? Well, we started out with a box the size of Summoner Wars: Phoenix Elves vs. Tundra Orcs and similar material components. By the time the campaign had ended, we had a box just a bit smaller than the Ninja Burger Deluxe Edition that contained almost 200 cards, plus a game board. All these costs drove the unit price up to nearly double what we had been initially quoted for the small box.
On top of that, we didn't realize the prices of freight shipping or fulfillment. I had expected the post office to get two hundred games out the door for about $1,000 (as the boxes were smaller when I had done the math early on). Instead, we spent about $3,000 in freight to our warehouse, and another $4,500 to send them out to backers.
It took us most of 2012 and two more projects to get out of the hole that we had dug for ourselves with the first game. Basically, we were victims of our own success, promising too many extras too quickly as things got exciting during our Kickstarter campaign.
For the Devastation Kickstarter project, we got the pricing in advance for the game and made the box a bit bigger than it needed to be so that we could expand the game as necessary. I fear that this time around, weight may become an issue with the shipping of Devastation, but time will tell. We planned out most of our stretch goals and promotional materials in advance, and got a good general idea of what potential extras would cost so that we could create new goals quickly as we needed them without waiting on feedback from our printers each time things accelerated.
In business, everyone tells you that it's the people you know that really matter. This is true. It's not because the world of industry is some giant conspiracy that you need inside help to break into, but because the nuances and caveats of each industry are different and nearly impossible to prepare for unless you have help from more experienced players.
Each company in the industry has its own way of doing business, its own fanbase, and its own style of products. By getting to know other companies, you can learn which ways of doing business will work best for your capabilities. By working with companies with lines similar to your own, you can share fans and increase exposure of your products. By having friends within these companies, you can take advantage of opportunities that benefit you both, and pool knowledge about specific subjects like printing, distribution, marketing, and more. As in all human endeavors, a business is most successful when you can work with others to mutual benefit.
After the release of BattleCON, we were able to start visiting conventions and making friends with other companies, opening a bunch of new opportunities and enabling us to tap into the experience and good advice of these new friends.
For Devastation specifically, we were able to get in touch with a bunch of fellow game companies and offer each other opportunities that would share games for both of our fans. In this Kickstarter, for example, we were able to partner with Sentinels of the Multiverse (Greater Than Games) and Malifaux (Wyrd Miniatures) to create some high-profile crossover characters. We also included promotional characters from some of our lesser-known friends (or at least, lesser-known in the board gaming world) VG Gal Iris, Big City, and Mark PTO to introduce them to a new group of fans.
When players tell me they played Sentinels of the Multiverse because we introduced it to them and they loved it, and when players tell me that they discovered BattleCON and loved it through Greater Than Games, I know we're doing something right for our companies and, more importantly, for our players.
6. Stick to Your Core Identity and Principle
When we created BattleCON, we built the game to have as much gameplay and replayability as possible. I didn't realize it when I was first making the game, but the idea of adaptability and minimalist variety would go on to become a staple of the Level 99 Games brand going forward. It's grown to become something our fans expect of us – a game that changes each time, that has nearly limitless replayability, and that allows them to play a personality rather than just a strategy.
As we expand our line with new games, we are continuing to work with the idea of large games in a small space. Games like Blades of Legend and Pixel Tactics that fit huge degrees of asymmetric play into a tiny tuckbox have been the most successful in our Minigame Library, which was itself an experiment in high-quality minimalist design. The more we embrace this central principle of strong core mechanisms and extensive gameplay variety, the more we become known for it, and the more we have attracted fans who appreciate it.
In Devastation, we've leaped into this core principle with total abandon. Doing so has allowed us to make a truly massive and modular game that still plays in twenty minutes. We've continued to explore the expansive design space that can be built on top of a simple system. We've built dungeons, massive bosses, alternate character powers, and even more into the game, while still keeping the core mechanisms streamlined and easy to pick up and learn.
In addition to our design philosophy, we have a way of doing business – moral and ethical principles. It would be easy to make more money by filling our games with scantily-clad characters or creating rare, expensive exclusives, but we want to put fans ahead of profits and take the high road to success, to make a game that you don't have to pay through the nose to play and that you can show to your family without blushing. We publish our rulebooks in advance of the games debut, and offer print-and-play "lite" editions so that gamers can try what we are making before they spend money on it.
The most important thing to us is making something cool and seeing people have a good time experiencing it. That's another part of our identity that fans have grown to know and expect, perhaps an even more important part than the games we produce. Changing our ethics would break an even deeper contract with our fans than changing our design principles.
One of the things that I realized, and I suppose am summing up here, is that when you create products, you can't be haphazard about them. Every new release affects your identity as a company and the perceptions of your fans. Releasing a new game isn't always inherently good, and making sure that each new product holds up your standards is of unparalleled importance.•••
Whether you're a publisher looking to make your first strike into the industry or a gamer interested in insight about how the business works, I appreciate you taking the time to read over the history of our biggest game yet! And if you're curious to find out more about Devastation, I invite you to try it out for yourself and see what you think!
Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!
D. Brad Talton, Jr.