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Director Diary: The Game Designers

Eric Rayl
United States
North Carolina
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The Game Designers is a new feature-length documentary film about board game designers. My name is Eric Rayl, and I am the director of the film. In this diary, I go behind-the-scenes to describe some of the events that helped shape this project.

This film has been three years in the making and has been, as clichéd as it may sound, a "labor of love". From the outset, I knew that I wanted to show the world how difficult it is to make these tabletop games, and I hope that this film highlights some of the specific and nuanced challenges that perhaps the everyday tabletop gamer who is playing these games may not even realize. A lot of hard work and dedication goes into making these tabletop games, and only through the "blood, sweat, and tears" of the talented game designers out there do these games come into existence.

Thanks for your interest in the project, and I hope you enjoy the journey I went through to get this film made!

Initial Inspiration

The initial inspiration for The Game Designers documentary came in 2007 after I watched another documentary called The King of Kong. This movie blew me away, and I just loved the quick and dirty filming style that Seth Gordon, the director of that documentary, employed. He just grabbed a camera and started filming everything he could about the race for the best Donkey Kong player in the world. That documentary was incredible; I had never seen anything else like it before, and it inspired me to create my own documentary.

Fast forward to a few years later, after I graduated from college and all that, and now I am just starting to get into tabletop gaming. I quickly devour a number of games and get to playing some of the mid-heavy "Eurogames" out there since that is what my game group tends to favor. I love them all, and after a year or so, I decided that I want to make my very own board game. Naturally, I set out to create a rather meaty Eurogame for my first game.

Let's just say that game didn't turn out so well! After developing this game for a period of about nine months, I ran into so many design issues and problems that I thought I was never going to get it finished. I playtested it with my game group about six or seven times, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get it balanced. A little tweak here and an adjustment there would throw off the entire symmetry of the game and render it unplayable. One particular playtester exploited the same broken mechanism three different ways on three different playtest nights to win the game outright each time, and I could not seem to fix this broken mechanism no matter what I did.

It was from this experience that I began to appreciate what game designers actually do. I had spent so much time holed up in my apartment trying to make this game of mine, constantly tweaking, reworking, and retesting it to make it just right. Some days I would spend from the time I got up to the time I went to bed working on this game. Trying to get this game made became an obsession — my private obsession that no one knew about, or even cared about, as I toiled relentlessly night and day to complete this game in my own home.

It was from here that the idea for The Game Designers documentary came to life. How could someone spend so much time and hard work on something and no one even know about it, I wondered. Are all games this difficult to make? Is it always a Herculean struggle to make these games? Does anyone who plays board games even know what it's like for these game designers who make these games? I thought about it a little and decided, no, probably not. Playing games is relatively easy, and I think people who play games automatically think that designing a board game is equally as easy because it's fun, right! It must be fun to design a game!

I thought back to the time I wanted to make a feature-length documentary and decided that this was as good a time as any to dip in and try my hand at doing so. By that time I had made a number of short documentaries (typically 3-5 minutes in length), so I thought I should give the longer format a shot.

Early Stages

When I first started this project, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a rather active board game design group — The Game Designers of North Carolina — met (and still meets) every other week. Attendance is rather healthy, with 8-12 designers showing up every meeting. It was with this game design group that I started filming the first sequences for this film.




The early stages of filming this documentary were a bit of a mess, mostly because I didn't know what I was doing. I figured that I would just start bringing my camera to this design group and filming anything and everything that looked like it could potentially be a good story. I figured that this was how Seth Gordon did it with The King of Kong and that turned out all right, so what could go wrong?

Well, it wasn't entirely a bad decision, but I did end up filming a lot of stuff that didn't end up in the final film. I did, however, get to meet and whittle down the main characters that I wanted to follow in the documentary. From the group, I met Chris Faulkenberry and Doug Schepers — two of the five main people who are in the final version of the documentary. I also filmed two other designers extensively who are now almost absent from the documentary entirely. (Just a couple of shots of them still remain in the rough cut.)




Long story short, this period of filming lasted about six months and was a huge learning lesson. The main thing that I learned was that I needed a storyline for each designer in the film — or, at least, an idea of what each character brought to the table in terms of traditional storytelling.

Enlarging the Scope

After filming The Game Designers of North Carolina for those months, it occurred to me that my sights for the documentary were too limited in scope. In 2016, I traveled to Unpub with the group and filmed them there, but the story still didn't have enough punch to be interesting, so I decided to expand the scope of the project beyond the local game design group, reaching out to tell the story of all the tabletop game designers out there!

Where would I start with such a monumental task? Who would I ask to be in the film? I punched up a list of some of the most well-known or otherwise noteworthy designers that I could find or think of, then I started reaching out to each designer to ask whether they would be interested in participating in the film. Luckily for me, I had a healthy response rate and the majority of the designers that I contacted said that they were willing to meet for an interview.

The next step was to film these designers, and the most logical place to do this was at game conventions. Every convention has a certain draw, and the real big ones tend to get a good, if not great, cross-section of well-known designers attending them. In 2017, I went to CMON Expo (local to me in Atlanta), Origins, Gen Con, and the SPIEL convention in Essen, Germany. It was at those conventions that year that I filmed the majority of the interviews for the film.




In 2108 I attended the Festival International des Jeux (in Cannes, France), CMON Expo again, Origins again, Gen Con again, then finally Lucca Comics & Games (in Italy). At these conventions I filmed extra B-roll content, followed the main characters now in the film, and also did a few pick-up interviews.

Setting the Tone

The initial vision for the film was to have it be a "fly-on-the-wall" experience in which I observed with the camera in a cinéma vérité kind of way. I had this vivid image of filming Uwe Rosenberg by hanging out at his house/office in rural Germany, while he doodled on his game and tweaked it here and there and talked to me about making games and such. This was the tone that I initially wanted to have in the film.

However, I soon realized after doing a bit of editing that I needed to employ a more traditional type of storytelling. I needed to make the film engaging, interesting, and exciting. The characters in the film needed to have certain goals for their respective projects, and they needed to try to reach those goals. The film would be there to follow them as they strived to develop their game, playtest their game, find a publisher for their game, Kickstart their game, etc. The film would document and illustrate the real and personal struggles that each designer went through to accomplish their goals. This was the engaging way to tell a story, so I set out to find the people who could deliver this type of traditional narrative storytelling arch.

I should note, however, that I did try to remain true to my original vision of the film: the "fly-on-the-wall" experience. I do have that element in there, but that wasn't enough for a feature-length project, so I also incorporated the latter part (the traditional storytelling aspect) by finding and selecting the main "characters" in the film.

Selecting the Main Designers

The first two designers who I decided to follow were Chris Faulkenberry and Doug Schepers (from The Game Designers of NC design group). Chris was in the process of Kickstarting his second game, and Doug was starting out with the design of his first game. I wanted to follow these two specifically because I felt that they represented a good frame of reference for the audience who wasn't super familiar with board game design. In this regard, Doug may be one of the most relatable characters in the film for the general public audience.

The next designers to come on board with the project were Antoine Bauza and Matt Leacock, both of whom I met and pitched at Gen Con 2017. I like the easy-go-luckiness of Antoine, and Matt seemed like a super smart dude (and reminded me of John Carmack, the video game pioneer, by the way he looks and talks). Both of these designers were selected because they were part of my "expanding the scope" campaign. I wanted to show the perspective of designers who had been doing it professionally for a number of years to give balance to the local designers that I was following at home.






We also wanted to add another storyline to the main line-up, so after Gen Con I set off to find a female designer who would be a good fit and complement to the other four main designers in the film. After a bit of research and talking with a few female designers over the phone, we found and decided to work with Kelly North Adams.

Kelly was a great choice because her personality really showed through in our telephone conversation. Not only that, she complemented the other designers in a nice way because she was the only one who was actively looking for a publisher at the time when we were going to be filming. That was an important aspect to highlight in the film as well. She also had made several fun and engaging games by that point, so everything seemed to come together after getting her on board for the project. She was the glue that made everything work (especially in the edit as the movie seemed to now flow a lot better than it ever did before).




Production

Creating this documentary was a challenge. Not only was I directing the film, but I was also doing just about every other task on the production side short of acting in it. Finding the designers to work with, selling them on the project, scheduling all of the interviews, purchasing flights and airbnbs, coordinating logistics, doing the filming entirely by myself, then finally building the story and editing all of the hours and hours of footage was a huge undertaking! Not only that, but the entire project was a rollercoaster ride with many ups and downs. At one moment, I would think that I had someone on board with doing a certain scene (such as a playtest), but then they would postpone it indefinitely. Or another time I thought that I was going to film one designer, but then they moved to the other side of the world (literally) and I had to rethink an entire storyline. Things like this happened constantly throughout the entire project.

Filmmaking is a challenging endeavor, but all of the designers were great to work with. Despite the numerous logistical issues, the film prevailed in the end due to all of the designers being so open and willing to lend their time and energy towards helping to create it. When I reached out to designers, I had nothing to show them as far as relevant work that I had done (since this is my first feature film), but the vast majority of them were still interested and extremely helpful in participating in this project. For that, I am eternally grateful. The whole project was worth it because of that (and because it was great to meet so many awesome people and see so many cool places). I wouldn't change any of the experience I had looking back on it now!

Dialing In

In one of the interviews that I had with Bruno Faidutti, he said, "It is difficult to start simple when designing a game. You have an idea and then you add and add and add to it until it becomes this overwhelming thing and then you have to trim it down until you can arrive at the place where the idea works nicely again. Keeping things simple is the most difficult thing to do." I'm paraphrasing here, but this was the general idea he portrayed to me in the interview.

This comment has stuck with me over the last year-and-a-half as I have been editing this film. It stuck with me because, looking back on it now, I feel that I fell into that same trap. I started off with a simple vision for the film, then collected way too much footage without a clear path for the film, so the project just grew and grew. I had too many potential storylines, and it wasn't until I started thinking about which storylines would be the most compelling (and why) that I started to make headway with the project.




There is a reason why a traditional storytelling arch exists and is the same for all mediums. It exists because it works. Through the process of editing the film, I had to take a lot of footage and cut it right out of the movie. This included cutting several storylines (designers) and many minutes of nicely edited content. I had to focus on finding the core of each designer's story to make sure that I was telling the most compelling story that I could. If I had been aware of Bruno's advice — and perhaps if I had had more experience — I would have started by concentrating on the storylines that I wanted to have in the first place, then built the film from there.

A Wealth of Knowledge

Bruno Faidutti was just one of many designers who shared great knowledge with me, and one of the unexpected byproducts of making this film was that I got to learn so many great things from interviewing so many great individuals.

All of the designers who I interviewed provided what I call "gold nuggets" — tidbits of information that are invaluable when developing a creative endeavor. Since a good bit of my questioning revolved around game design itself, I learned many things that relate not only to making games, but also to any type of creative project. These are the little things that I hold on to and will try to remember and apply to my work in the coming years.

Reaching the Audience

Finding the audience for this project was pretty straightforward and obvious. Trying to reach this audience, however, was a bit more challenging. I always knew that the main audience for this film lay in three categories (in no particular order of importance): 1) board game designers, 2) people who play board games, and 3) friends and family of board game designers and board game players. So this audience essentially reached anyone who has ever played a board game or is aware of board games (which is a very wide section of the public).

Now, the challenging (and dare I say even frustrating) thing about this was that I was attending conventions and seeing a large portion of my core audience before my eyes, but somehow I had to reach them and connect with them. Well, I thought, I'll make a website talking about the project, then print off business cards and hand them out to everyone at the conventions — simple enough. Once they see what the project is all about, they'll sign up and that will be that.

I got the website up, got the cards together, went to a local convention (CMON Expo 2018), and started telling people about the project. I probably told 150+ people about the project that weekend, and they all seemed interested, so I figured I'd have a great portion of those people sign up for the mailing list. I checked Mailchimp a few days later to discover that a total of two people had signed up. Two! Apparently this wasn't the way to go about it, so I reconsidered my strategy.




I have a buddy who is very good at social media, brand development, and film production, and I had been watching his Facebook page, Legend of Micah, grow from 0 to about 35,000+ followers over the last year. I figured that he may be on to something, so I talked with him, then concluded that I needed to emulate his strategy, the basics of which involve the creation of short, square-shaped videos about interesting and offbeat topics. His primary focus is Facebook, and he uses it to help share his videos. The core concept behind the videos is that they are "shareable" and that people will want to share them after they see them.

I came up with some ideas about what would be good, fun, shareable topics in the board game world and made a series of nine short videos for Facebook. These videos were typically about a minute-and-a-half in length and some of the topics included Eurogames, miniature gaming, Gen Con, SPIEL, the huge number of games being released, and elaborate games. On each of the video descriptions, I had a link to the website where viewers could learn more about the documentary itself.

These videos all did pretty well and got shared a good bit, so this strategy turned out to be a lot more effective for reaching the audience that I needed. Instead of going to conventions and trying to tell people about the project on an individual basis, I created these videos and let them spread the message organically. You can find these videos on the Zoom Out Media page on Facebook, "Zoom Out Media" being the name of my production company.

Kickstarter and Beyond

I hope that this has been an interesting and insightful look into the production of this film. Like I said before, it's been a wild ride to make this film almost entirely by myself, but again, it's been worth every minute of it. There were countless obstacles to get this film made (just like any film), but I think it goes to show that if you stick with something long enough, you'll eventually get to where you want to be.




Scott Alden (the executive producer of the film) and I are now launching a Kickstarter for the project, which goes live on February 5, 2019 and runs until March 7. We are hoping to get the remaining funds necessary to complete the film and get physical copies of it into everyone's hands.

Thanks so much for your interest in the production of this project, and I hope that everyone enjoys the film. It was made as a "labor of love" for the board game world, and I think that comes across in the documentary. Thanks again for your time.

Eric Rayl

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