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Subject: How Can Abstract Games Achieve Commercial Success? rss

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Nick Bentley
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Reposted from my blog



I’ve fallen asleep thinking about abstract games every night for more than a decade, and I’ve designed several hundred such games, the rules for which fill out bundles of notebooks I keep in my garage.

Having spent such a colossal portion of my waking life designing abstract games, I’ve long wished there were a way to monetize some of this work. I revisit the challenge periodically, and often end up frustrated. Most commercially successful games aren’t abstract, most abstract games remain unpublished, and most which are published struggle commercially.

Nonetheless there are exceptions. In this post I focus on two commercially successful abstract games, Blokus and Pentago, and the lessons they may offer.





I’ve been studying these two because I see both everywhere: game stores, book stores, toy stores, big box stores, novelty shops and even drug stores carry them, across the US. Both are traditional, luckless, themeless games with simple rules, and each has sold more than a million copies, making them among the best-selling board games of any kind.

Why do these games succeed so spectacularly where others fail? Research and contemplation has led me to believe the following factors are critical:

Hustle - First, as with any product, the most critical among the many critical factors is probably old-fashioned salesmanship and hustle. Generally speaking, products don’t cut through the noise of the marketplace unless they have someone behind them willing to press and press and press their appeal to all prospective buyers. Obvious though this may be, many games don’t have that kind of support. Blokus and Pentago do, or at least did.

Brand Focus – Both Blokus and Pentago, in their rise to commercial success, were published by companies that treated each game as its own brand, and published only that game. Many publishers think of themselves as the brand, publish many games, and treat those games as extensions of the brand. I don’t think this works well to maximize the success of any particular game. Focus is critical. The company should be built around the game, not the other way around. This is how it was for Blokus and Pentago. A company called Sekkoia was formed for the sole purpose of selling Blokus, and a company called Mindtwister was formed for the sole purpose of selling Pentago. Note that things later changed for both games, but only after commercial liftoff: Blokus was sold to Mattel, and Mindtwister started publishing other games/toys, though they still seem to put far more resources into Pentago than any other game.

Short Play Time - The game should be short. Pentago takes 5 minutes to play, and Blokus takes 20. Consumers apply a different standard to abstract games than they do to other kinds of games, in this respect. I’m not sure why, but here’s my best guess: abstract games are mentally taxing, and most people only enjoy mental taxation in short bursts.

Quality Threshold – A game must satisfy some minimum level of quality: it must be enjoyable to play for some sufficiently broad group of people. I emphatically don’t believe a game must be among the best of its kind to succeed commercially. I’ve no doubt you can find many other abstract games that would beat Blokus or Pentago in head-to-head “taste tests” (assuming equally appealing sets of components; more on that below). My claim is corroborated by the abstract game ratings: there are many games with higher average ratings than both Blokus and especially Pentago there. This isn’t to say abstract games don’t have to be good to succeed. Both Blokus and Pentago are, in their own ways, excellent. But they aren’t the very best. The idea that quality doesn’t matter beyond a certain point is an important one for game designers like me to bear in mind. I spend most of my time trying to create the Best Game Ever Designed. But for commercial purposes, some of this focus wasted.

Form Factor! – The most overlooked item on this list. I hereby coin Bentley’s law: the more minimal an abstract game is, the more care must be put into making its physical aesthetic absolutely drool- and coffeetable-worthy. Minimalism is hard to do well, but it can be amazing (ask any Apple product designer). Both Blokus and Pentago have excellent product design. Both have eye-catching color schemes, for example, and both have pieces which snap into place on board, which makes the games look neat and ordered in play (a feature many of the most commercially successful abstract games seem to have – see Abalone or Othello for example). Of course, one constraint here is that the amazing form factor has to be achieved at a reasonable price point.

The practical corollary to Bentley’s law is simple: don’t publish an abstract game without hiring a top-notch product designer. Few who publish abstract games do so, because it’s expensive and the cost seems too risky given the commercial record of abstract games. But if Bentley’s law is true, failure is partly the result of poor product design, so the choice to skimp on design could be self-defeating. Note Pentago has been through several design revisions (I count three wood versions and two plastic versions, not including the multiplayer versions), and widespread commercial success didn’t come until after revision. How do you know if a game has the right form factor? Answer: the Coffeeshop Test. Set the game up in a coffee shop and if people play it, unprompted, you’re good to go. Otherwise go back to the drawing board.

Novel Components – a game must feature some physical components which feel novel to the average consumer. Consumers must feel like they’re getting something new, and that they’re getting some kind of toy in addition to a game. Novelty is key for getting attention (says this Neurobiologist). Blokus has clear acrylic polyominoes which snap into place, and Pentago has that neat twisting board. The average consumer has seen neither of these things in any other game, and both have a pinch of “wow” factor when you first behold them.

I believe commercial success is only possible when an abstract game has every one of the above factors working in its favor. If any one is missing, the game will never be among the best-selling board games. There may be one exception: it may be that an extraordinary form factor can overcome the need for novel components, because a beautiful form can itself act as a kind of novelty. But we should take care not to fool ourselves when our games aren’t physically novel enough.

There’s one other factor which, while not as critical as the above, probably also helps:

Familiar References – a game can be described as related to something else with which buyers are already familiar. For example, you can tell a person that Blokus is “like Tetris”, and she’ll instantly know it’s about fitting polyominoes together. Or you can tell her that Pentago is “like tic-tac-toe, except the board twists”, and she’ll know she’s in for an n-in-a-row game.

This kind of reference-to-the familiar is probably important in successfully pitching product pickers at retail chains. Most retail gatekeepers don’t know or care about games per se; they care about whether they can sell widgets. For that reason, familiar references can help them feel comfortable with a product. This is my speculation anyway.

Where does this leave me?

Only one of my games has proven the right kind of appeal: Ketchup. It’s the only one non-gamers eagerly request. It also passes the shortness test, clocking in at 15-20 minutes.

However, it’s weak on two points: the physical components aren’t novel enough, and it’s hard to describe it as related to something else with which the consumer is already familiar. I think the only circumstance under which I would consider publication is if I could create a physical form that passes the Coffeeshop Test with flying colors. I have some ideas about how to do it, but it’s a pretty stiff challenge.

Are there published games which could do better if they were promoted differently?

If my analysis above is correct, then yes. I think there are a bunch of games with commercial potential but in the interest of brevity I’ll focus on just a couple: the games of Kris Burm, from the GIPF project. His games are already commercially successful relative to most abstracts, but they haven’t reached the rarefied air of Blokus or Pentago, and I think at least one of them could. His games are short, one or two of them do very well on the Coffeeshop Test, and I they handily beat Blokus or Pentago in head-to-head “taste tests”.

I think this games have fallen short in the Hustle and Brand Focus categories. Kris Burm is a better game designer than a salesman, and no one has yet built a company focused solely on one game of his.

The game I would choose to build a company around is YINSH. Even in its current incarnation it does well on the Coffeeshop Test (though I think it could do even better with the help of more product design – I would keep the pieces as they are but redesign the board), its rings have a novel, toy-like feel, and it can be described in terms of familiar references: “Othello crossed with Tic-Tac-Toe”.

Questions for readers

What have I gotten wrong in my analysis? What have I missed?

What abstract games, published or unpublished, have the potential to be (more) commercially successful, and why?
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Hunga Dunga
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Would you say that Hive is a successful abstract?
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Rey Alicea
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Nick you are nearly spot on your analysis except you forgot the most important point, your game needs to be family oriented. Blockus, Qwirkle, Hive all have this in common.
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Dave Dyer
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Your list is excellent, especially the point that focus and evangelism is key. My observation is that most game publishers and most designers immediately move on to the next project, leaving the newly minted game to sink or swim on it's own. Almost all sink.

One thing I would add is that the game itself has to be easy to teach and learn, and there has to be a payoff in terms of learning to play better over relatively small number of plays. The game has to have a low barrier to get started, and a visible payoff after a small number of plays.
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Nick Bentley
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Hungadunga wrote:
Would you say that Hive is a successful abstract?


I don't know the sales numbers for Hive, but my impression is that it's pretty successful. Maybe not at the level of Blokus and Pentago, but probably not too far off.
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Nick Bentley
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Quote:
One thing I would add is that the game itself has to be easy to teach and learn, and there has to be a payoff in terms of learning to play better over relatively small number of plays. The game has to have a low barrier to get started, and a visible payoff after a small number of plays.


I agree. I left out a bunch of stuff about what I mean by "quality" in the context of commercial viability, and what you've said are some of the core determining factors. There are some others: the win condition should feel very "natural", whatever that means. Players should feel that matches sometimes involve reversals of fortune, unexpected turns of events, sudden wins/losses, definitively strong and weak moves, and a few other things. That's a whole other essay.
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Nick Bentley
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reyalicea wrote:
Nick you are nearly spot on on your analysis except you forgot the most important point, your game needs to be family oriented. Blockus, Qwirkle, Hive all have this in common.


How do you define a family game? I don't know exactly what that means, but it seems one can point to more concrete qualities that make games not just amenable to families but to anyone: short rules which are trivially easy to understand and short playtimes are foremost on that list.
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Brad McKenzie
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reyalicea wrote:
Nick you are nearly spot on your analysis except you forgot the most important point, your game needs to be family oriented. Blockus, Qwirkle, Hive all have this in common.


Don't forget that it also needs to be fun. I don't care how pretty it sits on my coffee table. If it isn't a fun game, it isn't coming home with me to begin with.
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Rey Alicea
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milomilo122 wrote:
reyalicea wrote:
Nick you are nearly spot on on your analysis except you forgot the most important point, your game needs to be family oriented. Blockus, Qwirkle, Hive all have this in common.


How do you define a family game? I don't know exactly what that means, but it seems one can point to more concrete qualities that make games not just amenable to families but to anyone: short rules which are trivially easy to understand and short playtimes are foremost on that list.


These are a few comments on Qwirkle on Amazons, you can read the the rest on Amazons.

************************************

As a mom with 6 kids of different ages, I look for games that my younger ones can play but that don't make me crazy with boredom (ie CandyLand, Chutes and Ladders) My 4 year old can only make it through 1/2 a game, the end gets too complex for him, but my 7, 10, and 12 year old boys love it, as do my in-laws and everyone else who has played it with us. I like games that only take minute to explain and start playing but that have enough strategy to keep the mind occupied. Also at 30-45 minutes a round, it's enough of a distraction but doesn't take hours to play. The game consists of wooden tiles with 6 different shapes and colors and that's it. Very durable, my 4 year old loves to build Qwirkle castles. I recommend this game. My other favorites are Blokus, Othello and Rummikube, all the same genre, fun, easy to explain and play and yet a challenge.

*************************************

I was trying to find a game to play with a client who has dementia and ran across this in an article. After I bought it I tested it out with my kids (25, 24, 19 and 11) and myself (47). We had so much fun!! It is one of those games that can be played at different levels. We started getting quite inventive on where and when to play to maximize our points and block our opponents.

I then played with my client. She and I did not keep score. We just made the chains with either shapes or colors and added wherever she first recognized a play. No trying to strategize where to build for future etc. We also played with both of our tiles up so we could talk about the best places to play. She likes this game and actually remembers having played before and wants to play again. The 'rules' have to be re-learned but the fun remains.

For one more note, we had a group of my daughters friends over and four of us played Quirkle. They were all 19 - 22. That got pretty cutthroat They all want to play again.

I HIGHLY recommend this game. I think I'm going to buy a 2nd one so more than 4 can play together (We played with 5 first night and it does work too).

****************************************************

I purchased this for a six year old nephew, and the whole family joined in to break in this game. It was easy to understand, but challenging. My nephew really enjoyed the game, but it was hard for the adults not to be competitive when playing. The game is fun, and it makes you want to out-think the opponents.

From what I hear, my brother's family has been playing the game almost daily since my nephew received it. What better reception could there be for a game?

This game is money well spent. I believe that it will help my nephew develop logical thinking skills and strategy development. The fact that he is smiling all the while, is icing on the cake.

This Nick is what I'm talking about, you know your game has made it when you get comments like these.

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Nick Bentley
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Rey,

No disagreement there! I'm just curious about what kind of concrete qualities to bake into games to maximize the chances that people will feel that way. I don't know how bake "familiness" into a game, but I can ensure short playtimes and simple, trivial-to-understand rules.

Your quotes also point to how essential it is to test games with non-gamers, something that many designers fail to do. I personally subject my games to the "mom test" and the "girlfriend test" to start. Heartbreakingly few games pass.
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Rey Alicea
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milomilo122 wrote:
I don't know how bake "familiness" into a game, but I can ensure short playtimes and simple, trivial-to-understand rules.
.


Well I would use bright colorful and or unique looking components. I would also make all of my components with age in mind. If you make them to childish the parents won't play and if you make them look boring the kids will pass them up for the Nintendo.
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Nick Bentley
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Quote:
Well I would use bright colorful and or unique looking components. I would also make all of my components with age in mind. If you make them to childish the parents won't play and if you make them look boring the kids will pass them up for the Nintendo.


Totally. Another reason to hire a good product designer, and a reason to find one with experience designing family games/toys.
 
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David Buckley
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Hi! Interesting thread. Here are some of my thoughts for what they're worth.

Play time: Not an issue specific to abstracts. Most hobby games available on the high street (Carcasonne, Settlers, etc.) play in under 1 hour.


Marketing gimmicks
: The commercially successful modern abstracts all seem to have a good marketing hook of some kind. Pentago has the "ooh that sounds interesting", Blokus the "like tetris", Ingenious and Quirkle, a well chosen game name. Hive has insects and hey that's my fish has penguins and ice.

Multiplayer option
: I believe having the option to play with the whole family affords a game a wider market.

On cheapskates
: I'm not sure how many people think this way but for me one of the great things about abstracts is the value. Buy an Othello set and you can play probably dozens of good games. Indeed there are many that can be played with no more than pen and paper.
But that's not good news for designers How many commercially successful modern abstracts have this feature? I can't think of any.

Accessability: One thing I like about Euros is that I can enjoy almost any Euro against almost any Eurogamer. OTOH I find that abstracts usually only shine when played against a (reasonably) evenly matched opponent. For this reason I think an abstract game
is more likely to be a hit if the strategies are reasonably intuitive and the tactics are not too deep. Having an element of luck, like Quirkle or Ingenious probably helps as well.

One game that has all the attributes above and all the attributes you have identified, which I am rather fond of is Ponte del Diavolo. I must try Ketchup. It looks intriguing. Best of luck if you do decide to market it
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Scott Ebent
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I know the question on Hive has been posed to you.
But I'm curious on your opinion on if Arimaa is a success commercially? Although it would be hard to argue that it isn't a successful game in its game play.

Personally. IMHO I always thought Arimaa could be more commercially successful. If given the right design.
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Richard Hutnik
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Hey Nick I said you should should go the "full condiment" with Ketchup and other things like pepper and yellow mustard to the game, and try to get it to work with more than 2 players.

Anyhow, just mt take. I find Ketchup really good, and I do refer an earlier version I had played when I say that.
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Nick Bentley
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bwolfheart wrote:
I'm curious on your opinion on if Arimaa is a success commercially? Although it would be hard to argue that it isn't a successful game in its game play.

Personally. IMHO I always thought Arimaa could be more commercially successful. If given the right design.


Arimaa is successful as a game design per se, but not as a commercial product, not at the level I'm trying to understand with this post. I want to understand how an abstract game ends up with ubiquitous distribution and a household name. Arimaa isn't even remotely close to that.

I suspect that even with eye-popping product design (which it doesn't currently have and which would be difficult to pull off because, imo, the design would have to convince people that it's not too "chessy", with the connotations of heaviness and work the association entails), it would have trouble. It's not short and it's intimidating to nongamers. It's an example a great game that's not a great product.

Which isn't to say that Arimaa couldn't be successful in the very long run by some roundabout path, nurtured along by the dedicated play community which has built up around it. But I'd bet against its appearance at mass retailers anytime soon.
 
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Nick Bentley
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docreason wrote:
Hey Nick I said you should should go the "full condiment" with Ketchup and other things like pepper and yellow mustard to the game, and try to get it to work with more than 2 players.

Anyhow, just mt take. I find Ketchup really good, and I do refer an earlier version I had played when I say that.


I don't know if you saw but I eventually settled back on version 4. And it's completely locked in now because...well I can't talk about that at present.
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Nello Cozzolino
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Arimaa has sold and still selling well -> worldwide available, i have seen copies for sale in shops in Milan, London, Okayama...etc online available in New Zealand ,australia and so on

I guess that Zev Shlasinger has managed to sell at least 4000 copies -> standard production made in china for a first run of a board game( Omar Syed the designer is happy with the success of the game -> see also limited production of the hand crafted wooden version )
--------------------------------------
Milo -> try -> a kickstarter project for ketchup -> why not ...!!???

Nello
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Nick Bentley
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Quote:
I guess that Zev Shlasinger has managed to sell at least 4000 copies -> standard production made in china for a first run of a board game( Omar Syed the designer is happy with the success of the game -> see also limited production of the hand crafted wooden version.[q/]

That's quite good compared to most abstract games for sure, but it pales in comparison to Blokus and Pentago, which have both sold more than a million copies each worldwide.

[q]Milo -> try -> a kickstarter project for ketchup -> why not ...!!???


Kickstarter takes a ton of work, especially now that the platform is maturing (there's a good book called The Kickstarter Handbook full of case studies which made the scales fall from my eyes regarding just how much work). So the risk/reward isn't unlike trying to sell games through traditional channels. Sure, there are some products that are so surprising and delightful that they go viral on Kickstarter, but that's rare and I certainly wouldn't bank in it here.

Given the work, all the considerations are pretty much the same. It's not worth it, to me anyway, unless I'm confident I've got something with the right stuff, and I'm not, at least not without a physical design that demonstrably "speaks" to people.
 
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Nello Cozzolino
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Kickstarter takes a ton of work, ....................
------------------------------------------------------------------

It can be done -> collect the money -> hand over the cash to a publisher which is in charge to publish and market the final product ( a proper boxed board game).
There is no risk for them because they got the bucks upfront
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Dave Dyer
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Other considerations aside, I'm not convinced that all the various requirements listed here are either necessary or sufficient.

Lots of crap gets published by those with a big enough megaphone or a lucky charm of unknown composition, and is successful.

Lots of deserving games(as measured by the current criteria) languish despite their obvious merit.

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Nick Bentley
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ddyer wrote:
Other considerations aside, I'm not convinced that all the various requirements listed here are either necessary or sufficient.

Lots of crap gets published by those with a big enough megaphone or a lucky charm of unknown composition, and is successful.


I certainly don't think they're sufficient, in that there's usually an element of "right place, right time" in most successes.

But are they necessary? I'm hard pressed to think of wildly successful games that don't satisfy these criteria, or at least didn't relative to the competition at the time they were published. Perhaps some examples are in order?

Also, as someone who doesn't have a planetoid megaphone or a really excellent rabbit's foot, it's important to identify and pursue success factors over which I might hope to have some control.

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Andreas Krüger
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I think a very important aspect is that successful games sell to casual gamers, so the game must be casually playable. You can play Blokus casually during a conversation and still enjoy some level of competition, while the deepest abstracts seem to be played silently, hard thinking and with a strong emphasis on the competition or at least finding the best moves, even if only for respect for the opponent. And this kind of gaming appeals only to few people, who have probably already found their favorite abstract and play something which has been available since AD 1000 or earlier ;-).
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Russ Williams
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milomilo122 wrote:
But are they necessary? I'm hard pressed to think of wildly successful games that don't satisfy these criteria, or at least didn't relative to the competition at the time they were published. Perhaps some examples are in order?

Chess and Go?
They certainly violate several of the list items, yet are commercially successful. But I guess it's hard indeed to think of new/modern abstract strategy games which achieve commercial success without fulfilling those criteria.

If we're restricting ourselves to consideration of modern times, there's another meta-issue to consider: the whole changing economic paradigm, already seen and well-known in the fields of music and books, of products being distributed by wholly new channels instead of being traditionally published by traditional publishers in the first place. An awful lot of excellent abstract strategy games are playable with "ordinary equipment" which gamers already have or can easily scrounge, and they are now simply being web-published. So perhaps the "solution" is to forget the old paradigm - as we can easily see, very few abstract games achieve "commercial success" that way in any case, so why bang one's head against that wall in what is almost certainly futile wasted effort? Many people are content to give their product (music, books, software, etc) away for free, their compensation being fame, appreciation, joy that people enjoy it, etc., perhaps augmented by a tip/donation system if some monetary gain is desired.
 
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Simon Dorfman
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russ wrote:
If we're restricting ourselves to consideration of modern times, there's another meta-issue to consider: the whole changing economic paradigm, already seen and well-known in the fields of music and books, of products being distributed by wholly new channels instead of being traditionally published by traditional publishers in the first place.


Publishing mobile phone apps is a popular new way of publishing a game. All of what Nick says above still applies. Instead of physical aesthetic, digital aesthetic and usability are key. There is a success story of a (non-abstract) game that started as an app and then made its way to physical board game distribution: Words with Friends. Does anyone know other examples (particularly abstracts)? I wonder if we'll see more success stories follow this path of Mobile App(s) first, physical Board Game second.
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