March 11, 2012

Expanding the Farm: Learning about Expansion Design

The Kickstarter campaign to raise money to manufacture Farmageddon went insanely well. It went so well, in fact, that our backers began clamoring for a fantastic stretch goal. our solution was a full expansion to the game. By full expansion I don't mean the 2-3 promo cards that folks might throw into a game, but something that significantly adds to the game.

I found, and still find, this prospect a bit terrifying. I'm worried it's a tinge cart before the horse and I'd vastly prefer to design without the pressure of over 1200 excited people. But, this is a good problem to have.

Expansion design is quite different from creating a new game. You have an existing structure you must work within or expand very carefully. You need to take what was balanced, add a few layers, then polish it again. But, unlike a digital game, you cannot just patch or overwrite the base experience. Oh boy.

The purpose of this post is to share some general lessons I've found as well as discuss some aspects of the expansion, which is currently titled Livestocked and Loaded. 

March 9, 2012

In All Fairness: Treating Designers Correctly

I'm a new designer. I have a single published title that isn't even manufactured yet and a pile of prototypes that weren't worth finishing. And there are so many others just like me. We have a few good ideas, a game worth looking at, and no record to point to.

Similarly, especially in this new environment of Kickstarter, The Game Crafter, and the Internet, there are new publishers. Publishers who have only one (or no) titles available for purchase. Titles that were designed and published by the same person (and so we're clear, there's nothing wrong with that). There are many of them and new ones cropping up every day.

For those of us designers who seek the traditional path of publication (i.e. we design, YOU publish), this presents new opportunities and challenges. For one, there are more people who might publish my game. More avenues. But, just like there are dozens of designers who are unworthy of your time because they are too green or too immature, I'm going to argue that same problem exists with publishers.

I submitted Farmageddon to many publishers before I found a great fit with 5th Street Games. Many of my experiences with publishers were greatly unfavorable, not just in rejection, which is expected and a part of the process, but in how they conducted business. I will not name names, but I'd like to call out a few things I think are fair to ask of publishers when dealing with designers.

Why is this valuable? I think the best publishers attract the best talent. If you are a good publisher to treats designers fairly, you'll attract Donald X, Stefan Feld, Knizia, and more. If  you develop a reputation for being a jerk, and believe me, you will, none of these people will work with you. Take a look at the digital space. Not long ago, Activision royally screwed over Infinity Ward. Guess what? Activision's not having a lot of fun signing new developers right now. Who would work with them?

THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE CONVERSATION. Merely the beginning. Designers: what have I missed? Publishers: what have I missed? Post your comments below. If you know me, send me an email or ping me on Twitter. I'll post an opposing view gladly.

As a publisher, you need to play a submission multiple times before offering feedback.
Publishers who play a game a single time and offer feedback are careless and lazy. A good board game has a mechanic that changes based on the cards dealt, or the players involved, or different strategies employed. By playing the game a single time, you are going to miss a key aspect of a game.

For example, Farmageddon is a game where a player's choices are determined by drawing cards. I took great pains, especially as I gathered feedback, to ensure a player wouldn't have a terrible experience in the majority of cases due to cards drawn. I say the majority because one can never fully control probability. And yet, it was always incredibly apparent when a publisher had only played once because they would give feedback that someone who played even twice wouldn't have given.

Play the game. Learn the rules. Learn the flow. See the variety.

The counter, of course, is that some games aren't worth a second play. This judgement will vary greatly from publisher to publisher. After all, preference is and should be a part of what makes us interesting creatures. If the game is sloppy, or broken, then sure, put it aside after a single play. But if the game mostly works and you just don't get it yet, or something seemed awry, play it a second time. You may find clarification. Furthermore, you'll have more to discuss with the designer when you send him or her feedback.

As a publisher, you owe it to the designer to maintain a reasonable level of correspondence.
This is a tricky one. The immediate response is "I got busy" or "unexpected things popped up." Life is tricky and we all get that. And if we don't, we're jerks.

But here's the thing. As a publisher, you're running a business. Designers are business partners. I've heard many of the new small, indie publishers thump their chests and boldly proclaim that they will be better than the Z-Mans and Rio Grandes because they'll be responsive. And yet months can go by without a single thought or reply to an email.

Writing a single email isn't that hard. Sometimes you're too busy to write the full email, or make the decision, but you can absolutely write an email that says "Hey, we're swamped. Sorry this is taking so long, but we'll need a few more days. Stay tuned." That's not too hard to do and if it is, you greatly need to re-examine your justification for calling yourself a publisher.

How are you going to be responsive to manufactures and distributors? What about customer complaints? If you want to make this your day job, how are you going to simultaneously launch several products with several designers, artists, and graphic designers?

Don't put us in the void and ignore us. We need you, but you also need us. It's about being reasonable and showing respect to others.

As a publisher, if you request a prototype from a designer, you owe it to them to play it in a reasonable time frame.
If a designer submits a game to you unsolicited, then you don't need to rush to play it. Get to it when your priorities allow and only if you accept submissions (of course). But, if you approach a designer and say "We are interested in your product. We would like you to send us a prototype." things immediately change.

I spent a lot of money sending prototypes to publishers who approached me with an interest in Farmageddon only to see my game sit idly for months. If you approach a designer and tell them you're interested, their game needs to become a priority.

If that's not possible, then you need to be up front about the conditions. Be clear on the rough timeline. Go over the process. Your time is valuable, but guess what? So is mine. And so is my money.

This also ties in greatly to the point just above regarding reasonable correspondence.

As a publisher, you need to be willing to hold a discussion about the feedback.
Design is a series of compromises and conversations. The publisher may ask for modifications to streamline the game, adjust it for a different audience or theme, or reduce components to mitigate costs. All of this is awesome and most often leads to a better game.

But, it needs to be a conversation. It is infuriating when the feedback conversation is one-sided. If a publisher expresses concerns, it is my responsibility to address them or add clarification if I desire to be published by the publisher. But, the publisher needs to listen in turn and not approach it as "my way or the highway." This is doubly infuriating when it's clear the publisher has only played the game once.

Here's an example. One publisher was convinced Farmageddon was inherently unbalanced and flawed by the first player's actions. I took this feedback into account and addressed it in several ways. After the second prototype, the publisher came back again with this feedback. I wrote 3 pages of analysis explaining why I believed the problem was addressed. Keep in mind I wasn't standing up shouting and saying "no no no!" I approached it as a point of discussion and tried to provide evidence to back up my point. Evidence backed by a great deal of playtesting. The publisher responded almost immediately with "Well, thanks. Maybe next time."

Both sides need to engage in reasonable discourse. If you're working with a child of a designer who cannot take feedback, then cut them off. But if the designer embraces the feedback and tries to initiate a conversation, then hold the conversation. You may find a better game emerges that neither of you could envision alone.

As a publisher, you owe it to a designer to give them a "No" when you've made a decision.
This is yet another byproduct of the reasonable correspondence note, but I think it deserves its own mention.

If you decide you don't want to publish the game or don't feel your feedback is being addressed, awesome. Take a minute and send the designer the official rejection. Your email can be as simple as the following:

Dear (designer name),

We appreciate your submission and unfortunately do not feel it's a good fit for (publisher name)  at this time. Thank you and best of luck.

(publisher representative)

You can use that template. On the house.

BONUS ROUND: If you want to guide novice designers to help them become good designers and therefore potential business partners, give them feedback. This is why we didn't publish your game: Points 1, 2, 3, and 4. Here are some suggestions on how to do this in the future.

I see this as a conversation. Designers and publishers should join. Have a good weekend!