2018 Design Resolution
I'm not huge on New Year's Resolutions, mostly. The thing is, I'm always trying to lose weight, I'm cool with the amount of alcohol I consume, and I'm doing my best to be more positive. The issue with resolutions is the lack of clear goals and the way to do it. How will you accomplish the thing? What's the upside?
I do want to create design resolutions, though. I think I have a clear goal, a clear way to accomplish it, and a clear upside. Before I dive into it, a few short quotes or notes that I think illustrate this well.
I love The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As with The Colbert Report, I don't miss a single episode. But, as they come out five days per week, I'm usually watching them weeks after they initially air on the weekends. I was recently watching Colbert's interview with guest Jordan Peele, famous for Key and Peele as well as Get Out. After asking "was this the movie you intended from the beginning?", Peele answered "It was my favorite movie that I had never seen." You can see the full interview here, with this specific exchange happening at the very end. This is powerful, and it's important. Back in 2012, I was still only a few years into tabletop design. I didn't really know how to use BGG (Ha, I'm kidding, I still can't figure it out). When searching for war games, I couldn't find the thing I was looking for. I didn't know about Cyclades yet (2009), and though Kemet would release later that year, I wouldn't play it until 2014. Inis wasn't out yet (2016). One of the biggest drivers behind York was that I wanted to play a relatively quick war game for multiple players that wasn't just a dice fest. Ultimately, I made the game I wanted that the market wasn't providing. I'm still tickled pink when I get to play York, which is rare, because it is exactly the game I want to play.
One more note. Listening to Pod Save America's year end episode, the guys answer a series of mail bag questions. One of the questions asks for the best advice given by a mentor. Jon Lovett, who was a Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama speechwriter, and briefly a comedy writer in Hollywood, recalled a question posed to him by a mentor when he was in between gigs. It's two simple, but important questions: "What is the thing you have to write? And what is the thing only you can write?" You can hear the episode here.
In the my experience as a tabletop designer I've never struggled to make games with limited appeal. Solstice and Five Ravens have a legion of eights of fans, and Druids was literally sold to 250 people. And, if I'm being honest, and a bit of a prick, I'd rather do this than design yet another gateway worker placement game, or light set collection game that doesn't remotely stand up to Coloretto. While those things are always appreciated by publishers, I don't find them interesting, nor do I think them necessary. If I'm going to work for no money (unless I create Pandemic), why be the 400th designer to pursue the same path?
I've conducted three of my "pop up" Kickstarter campaigns (Druids, Solstice, Five Ravens) and I really like how they've gone. They're quick, they're simple, and they're fun. Their ephemeral nature is different. But, and this is my resolution, I want them to be better. I have a few clear goals I want to reach.
- 500 backers of the game. Solstice approached this, though a significant portion were backers of the PNP.
- Profitability. I've lost money on all of them.
- Truly special. I think Druids did this, but Five Ravens and Solstice felt more like cheaper production runs.
- Played. This may not be something I can solve. Like people who just buy Steam games they never play, I think a big part of the Kickstarter ecosystem is that people just buy stuff they never play. I want people to play what I make!
I'm trying to make things that I need to design, that only I can design, but I want to do them in a way that more people appreciate and cherish. This is difficult, but I think there are a few tactical changes I can make to better achieve my goals.
Firstly, I need to get costs down. Printing via POD is expensive, but I need to explore more options for the boxes and rules. I'm pretty satisfied with the cards from DriveThruCards.com. Their quality is excellent and consistent, and with bulk pricing (which I always hit), the cards are $.06 apiece. It's flexible for my numbers. But, boxes are quite expensive and I don't love the quality from options I've pursued recently. I'm also interested in more personalized orders. If I'm using POD, a strength of which I can take advantage is customizing orders for people. For example, if people mostly play with two players, could I let them buy a smaller, lower cost version? Maybe silly, maybe viable. Another way to look at things is making costs feel appropriate. People accepted the $50 price tag for Druids, which included all wooden components, nice art, and shipping. But, $18 for Solstice and $23 for Five Ravens was a little less appealing. Ultimately, I need to do a combination of trimming the fat while also finding ways to enhance the value of the product to find a happier medium.
Secondly, all of my games need to be more accessible. Five Ravens was the last game where I let myself be so indulgent. There are 2-3 decisions I made on that game that just made it harder to learn. Since then, I've tried to carefully limit complexity to make the games easier to learn and play. There are a few things I can do with Shapely to get it closer, but I've already done quite a bit to shave out things that would cause folks to scratch their heads. In fact, 90% of the cards require no text, just simple icons, and that's a big step forward!
Thirdly, all of the games need to have stronger table presence. I think this is true of a lot of my designs. Ultimately, I think consumers only get so excited about cards. This is a lesson we're taking to heart with Imperius, which is the follow up to Solstice being published by Kolossal Games in 2018. Instead of a deck of cards, you'll see a more beautiful game. I think the difference will be striking. Therefore, this is something I'm doing with Shapely. It's going to have resource components, tokens for the structures you buid, point tokens, and more. This will also help improve the game's perceived value: tokens, not just cards, which addresses multiple points.
Fourthly, I need to figure out new methods to market my pop ups. Many of the typical methods don't work. I have a newsletter with over 2000 subscribers, but very few purchase things I make. BGG ads are out of my price range and also lead to mixed results. Folks don't read, so blogs are out (and oh, how I wish people read). Reviews are a challenging proposition, because my games aren't available for purchase after the campaign. I think better videos are one method available to me. I think if they're better written, compelling, and better produced, that can go a long way. Ultimately, I need to experiment here to reach more people.
Finally, I want to find a way to personalize experiences. A long time ago Josh and I had a project called Landfall. It was meant to be a project where folks would pay up front, then receive parts of it in the mail for some amount of time. Every part received would add to, expand, or change the game, all telling one central story. It was a cool idea that didn't quite work with 2015 Hyperbole Games, you know, the one that was trying to be successful. Now that I'm passed that, we should resurrect it. But, nonetheless, in addition to this cool experience, we were hoping to give players personalized cards and components. Something that made it truly unique and special. This is something I can do more easily than someone creating 5000 units in China. But, how to do this in a way that's meaningful? How do do this in a way that's cost effective?
I have difficult challenges before me. I have some inklings of solutions. I'm excited and ready to sell slightly more copies to slightly more people. Oh, but how? We'll see. I'm going to focus 2018 on making special, unique games with my stamp on them for folks who enjoy the stuff I do.
What are you doing in 2018 that gets your creative juices flowing? How will you excite your fans? Get busy!