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Opinion: Publishers Are Treating Games Like a Commodity, and It's Going Badly

Nick Bentley
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I work in the board game publishing industry for North Star Games. Until recently, business has been good for publishers, due to years of rapid market growth.

Now, everyone's nervous. Sales are softening. Companies that seemed invincible are buckling. CMON Limited, one of the strongest of the young gun companies, are down $4.1 million in the last nine months. Somewhere, in a brightly lit office, Asmodee's negotiators are drawing up paperwork.

What's happening?

Oversupply, with a dose of self-reinforcing feedback.

In response to years of market growth, a bunch of new companies entered the market and old companies decided to release more games each year. It's not hard to publish a new game, so we all did it. Something like 5,000 board games will have been released in 2018.

But the more rapidly we publish new games, the more each game depends on its launch for sales, and the more quickly each fades away after as new games pour in on its heels.

That has made us publishers think: We need to publish even more games, market the crap out of them at launch, and then move on to the next, to stay in the spotlight! So we did, and now we're in a self-reinforcing cycle of our own making.


What happens when you make a metric shit ton of games you weren't making before, and spend a huge amount of time on wild-eyed launch marketing? Quality suffers.

And because publishers are focused on more at the expense of better, consumers have been conditioned to think in a similar way: to pay attention to whatever the new thing is, try it, maybe kind of enjoy it, and then never play it again because the NEXT new thing is dropping and we need to try that. For hobbyists, game nights aren't game nights anymore; they're rules-learning nights.

It will end with a correction, now apparently underway, through which companies fold, folks lose jobs, and consolidators (like Asmodee) buy distressed assets at bargain prices.

There's nothing surprising about this. It's the way of things. It's happened in other industries in the past and will happen to other industries in the future.

However, I think it makes for a good moment to remind ourselves of some eternal lessons:

1. Make great things. If it's not better than what already exists, consider not making it. Good isn't good enough.

2. Don't do things because other people do them. Find your own way.

For what it's worth...

•••


[Editor's note: Designer Nick Bentley published this article on his blog on Nov. 21, 2018, and it's hit a nerve among many, so I invited him to repost it here. I have two semi-related pieces scheduled for publication this Tuesday and Wednesday [update: soon?], and I'm working on a response to Nick's article, but I'll add these three notes for now:

1. The figures stated for CMON aren't accurate. Here's the relevant section from CMON's Q3 2018 report (PDF): "The Group recorded loss attributable to equity holders of US$4.1 million, compared with a profit of US$823,763 for the corresponding period in 2017, which was mainly due to the decrease in revenue and gross profit margin as well as the recognition of the professional service fees in respect of the application regarding transfer of listing of the shares of the Company from GEM to main board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited during the Reporting Period."

2. I think Nick's overstating the number of new board games released in 2018. In a comment related to this article, he wrote "1200 games debuted in Essen alone", but that's not the case. Yes, BGG's SPIEL '18 Preview contains more than 1,200 listings, but many of those listings are for expansions and promo items, and most of the listed titles did not debut at SPIEL '18.

3. The first weekly game nights that I attended in 2003 were already rule-learning nights, so that's nothing new. —WEM]
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