There was no weekly blog post last week because I was in Essen, Germany, at the Spiel convention. Hence this blog post is not specifically related to the Cardiff Playtest group, but is a more personal coverage of my own adventures in Germany!
Essen Spiel is almost certainly the largest annual board-game convention in the world (rivalled only by Gen-con in the United States). It attracts hundreds of publishers from all around the world, and thousands of visitors. The convention is really a trade-fair which is open to the public (as opposed to a gathering for game-playing) and as such it is the ideal place to meet publishers, pitch designs, network with other designers, and formulate new ideas. I managed to arrange meetings with 16 publishers in advance if the convention by emailing them with an overview of the games I had to offer. I had many more informal conversations with publishers simply by approaching them at their stands. There were a number of other Playtest UK members following a similar path, and a few things became apparent about this approach from my conversations with publishers.
1. They are fully aware and comfortable regarding designers showing their games to multiple companies. They will ask for exclusivity if they require it.
2. Several companies remarked on the abundance of UK designers approaching them this year, and they had fond words to say about many of these designers. It is evident that this Playtest UK community is seen in a hugely positive light. I remarked that all the UK designers tend to know each other and support each other; one publisher regretfully said, "...that was what it was like in Germany in the old days".
3. Almost all publishers are extremely friendly, sometimes blunt with their feedback, and genuinely want to find a game that will sell. Many provided coffee, soft-drinks, sweets and biscuits. Even the colder individuals were professional and polite.
4. Publishers often speak in hyperbole and absolutes:
"This game will never be published in its current form." The very next publisher you meet will tell you that your game is innovative, marketable, and interesting.
"This is the most interesting prototype I've seen at the convention so far." The next publisher will tell you they can see nothing innovative, marketable, or interesting about it.
"There are FAR too many dice games (or trick-taking games, or sci-fi games) at the moment and there is not room in the market for more." The next publisher will tell you that your games are in vogue and that you have produced the perfect product at the right time.
You have to smile, take the feedback on board, learn from it, and ultimately form an opinion based on the overall consensus of many people rather than one individual!
5. One publisher told me "I know we always say that the appearance of a prototype doesn't matter, but it does really help." I have always suspected this to be the case. I play many prototypes myself and I can always get more enthusiastic with some serviceable graphics, if not lavish artwork!
6. Publishers like to use their existing "universe" or "branding" to create more games with an immediate audience. Two publishers looked at my games and immediately talked about them as having potential as the dice-game version of their existing popular card-game; or the board-game version of their existing popular card-game.
7. It is definitely helpful to provide a prototype whenever you are able. This is expensive, time consuming to produce, and takes up space in your luggage, but I believe publishers are far more likely to play a physical copy which is handed to them on the day, than one sent to them later. Several publishers expressed a willingness to construct and play a print-and-play copy (when the game was not component heavy). I appreciated their offer, but I have a suspicion that this will reduce the likelihood of them ever playing the game or, at the very least, delay it.
8. Publishers are willing to return your prototypes to you by post. Several returned copies to me last year, and one remarked this year, "Please don't hesitate to contact me if you want your prototype returned by post". One publisher even offered to pay me for the prototype components rather than post the game back. Of course, I declined! Indeed, I offered to pay the postage cost myself if that was his concern. Generally, I consider these prototypes to be gifts. I do not expect them returned, but it is a bonus if they are.
9. I was recognised twice at the convention from my video-reviews on the boardgamegeek website. This minor profile has proven to be a mixed blessing. It means that several publishers already know who I am when I approach them. I am not completely anonymous. One publisher engaged me in conversation about a rare German game that I had reviewed, and commented on how much he had enjoyed my videos. But I am very aware and self-conscious about some negative reviews that I have done and the impact that could have on future relationships with the publishers of those games. I do not make video reviews any longer as a result, and have not done so for some time.
10. Most meetings take place in a sort of "cardboard-hut" - the base for each of the bigger companies alongside their products. Other meetings take place in a corporate area, with tables and hospitality. Some take place on a table amongst customers, with very little room and many interruptions. Some take place in a dark corridor on some marble steps. You have to be adaptable!
THE BIGGEST LESSON OF ALL...
Fundamentally, there is one big lesson I have learned from pitching games at Essen. The worst scenario the pitching method I have described can create is that you have two publishers interested in the same game: One is a major publisher with massive distribution. These guys move slowly and will not give you an answer for several months. The other publisher is a small up-and-coming company with moderate distribution. These guys will give you an answer quickly.
The dilemma comes when the smaller company offers to publish your game.
Do you accept the offer, thereby losing your opportunity at massive distribution with the other company? Smaller companies may well invest more time and energy into your game as their catalogue of games is less full. But the sales figures may be very small in comparison to the potential sales from a major publisher.
Do you turn down the offer from the smaller company, potentially alienating them for the future? Although this is a business transaction we're all human and feelings can be hurt. The major publisher may still turn down your game, and you could end up with no publisher at all.
I think the answer to this dilemma is to see the approach as a three-year exercise:
Year One: Pitch only to the publishers you would be most happy to produce your game. This may only be 5-10 publishers. It could be a single company. Accept the first offer that you receive (assuming the contractual details look sound) since you would be happy with any of these companies.
Interim: Adapt and modify your game based on feedback. Create more games. Build your portfolio.
Year Two: Pitch to companies that you would be happy to publish the game, although they are not your first choice. Accept the first offer that you receive, assuming you are happy with the contractual details.
Interim: as above.
Year Three: Pitch to up-and-coming companies, new start-ups, and crowd-funding companies. These guys are looking to make a splash, and may be more willing to take a risk on your game, where bigger publishers stick with what they know to sell well.
So how did I get on? I don't want to give details of specific companies and games they were interested in on a public forum, but I will give a brief overview:
I pitched five games:
Make It Snappy - a small speed-matching card game for families.
Ruffling Feathers - a trick taking card game.
Thrown - a medieval dice game.
City Rollers - a city-building dice game
Sunburn - a sci-fi tile-laying game
Each game was taken for testing by multiple companies, and turned down by others. I have very positive feelings about three of the games achieving eventual publication. But now it's a waiting game. I will keep you informed (confidentiality clauses allowing...)
Follow me on Twitter. @BoardgameWales This is a blog about a regular Cardiff Playtest group (Game Designers Meetup Cardiff - on Facebook). We meet once per week, 7pm on a Wednesday evening, in a Cardiff pub (Y Mochyn Du). Get in touch if you want to join us! We are also part of a wider network of game-design groups around the country: Playtest UK also has groups in London, Cambridge, Newcastle, Brighton, Leeds and Enfield. www.playtest.co.uk
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