Six Unpublishable Games (and why you should design them anyways)March 4, 2016
Guest writer, Chip Beauvias explains why you should still design “unpublishable” games.
Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. This time we have board game designer, Chip Beauvias as our guest writer. Chip is the designer behind the games Smoke and Mirrors, as well as Chroma Cubes. He is also a driving force in the Board Game Community when it comes to Creator Appreciation Day, which will be during the first weekend of March. You can find more out at: https://creatorappreciationday.wordpress.com.
Six Unpublishable Games
(and why you should design them anyways)
By Chip Beauvais
If your goal is to get a game published, you should know the types of games your publisher is looking for. There are some types of games that almost no publishers are interested in, but the act of creating one of these games can still teach some valuable lessons.
Timeless Two-player Abstract
The audience for themeless games is small, and only supporting two players reduces it further. Any potential purchaser of your game has to answer the question “Who would play this with me?”. Competing with a well-entrenched two-player abstract like Chess or Go is like starting a fast-food restaurant to compete with McDonald’s. Creating a game is difficult enough as it is, most publishers don’t want to take on additional challenges.
However, you can hone your design skills without the distraction of a theme. You’re free from the requirement that actions in the game need to “make sense” in another context. Limiting the player count to exactly two removes all issues of scaling your game to different player counts. You can focus on the experience you want to create between these two players. Someday, you may be able to port a mechanism from this abstract game to another game with an appropriate theme.
If you start your pitch to a publisher with, “All you have to do is get the rights to publish a game featuring Mickey Mouse, and …”, you’re unlikely to get very far. The publisher will suspect that you don’t understand how the industry works, and that you are likely to have unrealistic expectations for your game. Any playtesting results may be suspect, as the playtesters may have been enjoying the theme, rather than the underlying game.
However, some IP (intellectual property) is too inspiring to ignore. A game based on your favorite television show will get your juices flowing, and will be easier to find engaged playtesters for. Finally, if you later get the chance to work with an existing IP, you’ll have had some practice, and you’ll know some of the potential pitfalls.
Bonus: Read about David Whitcher’s approach to testing Five Year Mission (a Star Trek IP game): “I tested the game in public gaming groups using this alternate theme so that fandom would not play a factor in the feedback I received.”
If you tell the publisher that the target audience for your game is “rock-climbers who speak Mandarin and are into train-spotting”, they might ask what other games you’ve brought. While the audience for tabletop games is growing, it is not yet a mainstream hobby, and publishers cannot afford to reduce the potential market even further.
However, such a game will give you an excuse to do some intense research in an area that interests you. Knowing your target audience so well will make it easier to optimize your game’s experience for those players. Everyone appreciates an easter egg that they feel no one else in the audience can appreciate. Finally, if you do meet just the right person, your game will delight them beyond their wildest expectations.
As an example (or, possibly, a counter-example, as this is a published game), consider Stinker, which was designed for exactly one person.
Marketing a collectible card game, while potentially profitable, is a significant risk to a publisher of any size. The list of failed CCGs is long. If the right audience doesn’t coalesce around your game at the right time, the CCG will fail.
However, designing a CCG will force you to address potential issues that only occur in this framework. Resources in many non-CCG games are represented by cards, so the mechanics you design for your CCG will come in handy. Finally, deck-building games (or games with a deck-building component) continue to be popular, and require many of the same skills to design.
No publisher is interested in hearing about your clever game that requires six live goldfish per player.
However, allowing your imagination to run wild will lead you to design games that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Technology (beyond smartphones) is always evolving – someday, everyone might have easy access to things that are currently unfathomable. If a component raises the perceived value of the game more than the production cost, it may, counter-intuitively, make the game more appealing to a publisher. Alternatively, you may discover that you can create the same experience with a much more reasonable set of components.
Most publishers will turn up their nose at a pitch that start, “It’s just like last year’s most popular game, except for a few cosmetic differences.” If an existing game already fills a particular niche, and does so well enough to be popular, players will simply play the existing game.
However, if a game is popular, it provides an experience that many players seek. You can use this information to build on another designer’s success. As you know from your experience designing games, for each decision you make, there are many paths you did not explore. All successful games contain additional design space that others haven’t found yet. You could take the game in a completely different direction. As long as you’re responsive to the experiences that the game creates, you may end up with a completely different game than where you started.
So, go ahead. Create that Star Wars Pokemon clone that only supports two players and requires two (fully functional) bowcasters. The project will excite you, and you’ll learn a lot of important things about game design while working on it. Then throw it away to create something publishable, and let me know when the kickstarter campaign begins!