I just returned from two weeks in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Most of the first week was spent at a leadership conference for my company. As you might expect, I cannot really discuss the specifics of the conference as it went deeply into secret projects, corporate strategy, and so forth. But, a discussion that was very inspirational for me and can be applied to board games generally are KPIs.
Let me translate the corporate speak: KPI stands for key performance Indicators. At the pitch stage of a project, your KPIs are your hypothesis for how you will know the project is successful. For example, "our KPIs for this ad campaign will be number of clicks on the ad, number of customers who sign up for the newsletter, and mentions on social media using the hashtag #thisexamplesucks." You're essentially stating "these are the ways to quantify our activities."
As with all statistics, KPIs are subjective. One group may be more interested in revenue and by that measure your initiative may be a failure. Others seek engagement and by that measure your initiative may be a success. Often times a game may launch, especially free to play games, that have a lot of excited players who aren't spending money. Marketing and the development team may say "hey, we made a good product that people like!" Finance meanwhile says "but nobody is spending money."
Make sense? Where am I going with this?
I think about a scene from Mad Men quite often. I believe it's early in Season one when the agency needs to create a campaign for cigarettes, which are starting to come under legislative scrutiny. Don Draper has the insight that, if they can't say anything about the product, nobody can. They can choose their own path and say literally anything. I believe they make up something along the lines of "Lucky Strikes are toasted."
I'm getting to my point.
With tabletop design and, for most of us, publishing, our KPIs are different. If we're really being honest, we're not in this for the money. The few thousand dollars we might make, in exchange for the time invested to make that few thousand, is honestly pathetic. A fiscal KPI is absurd for the tabletop design, much like me basing my looks on a full head of hair. While this might mean you should pursue another enterprise (and you might should), it also means that like Don Draper, we have the freedom to consider other KPIs. We can choose anything. Our success can be based on more emotional, experiential. and artistic ends.
This may sound like hippy bullshit. But, if you listen to entrepreneurs or investors, or speak to startup founders, great artists, or great musicians, amazing products and consumer experiences come from passion and a focus to deliver a great product. I think companies often forget that a great product leads to happy customers who spend money.
Before I discuss KPIs further, I want to bring up a concept I first discovered at this recent business summit. It isn't new, or unique to the summit, but it really stood out to me as both charmingly naive, but also actionable. MVP, or minimum viable product, has long been the standard for product development. The idea is to create only what you need to test and try your service or product. Put it in front of customers, get data, improve what you need to, and repeat.
But, MVP long ago became synonymous with a garbage product, an inferior experience, or paying somebody for their alpha level experience. Speaking from experience as leader in a creative industry, it's also a cancer for your team. "Hi everyone, we're doing the bare minimum to see what people will pay for." Yes, that's a cynical view, but it's what people feel and hear. People don't enter creative industries first and foremost to make money. The money helps! But, people join these industries to make things, things they themselves want. MVP is a bad outlook and one that is destructive.
The shift then is to MLP, or minimum lovable product. The idea is that your first effort needs to be good enough that someone can love it. In software you may have the cleanest website that isn't confusing at all. Your newsletter may be incredibly charming, funny, and clever. And for board games, it means your design does something with multi-use cards that'll make someone's brain tingle. It'll have a method of interaction that is just delightful. It'll let someone create a strategy that makes them feel like a genius.
The first challenge is not to design a game that will sell - that's the publisher's problem - but to design a game someone will love. You, the designer, should be that first someone. You should design a thing you're dying to play, a thing you can't yet buy on the market, something that just thrills you.
When I think of games we love (we being my social group), it's often ones that create a physical response. Laughter, shouting, standing up and pacing, swearing, and more shouting. I find when I'm playing a game I love I'm impatient to take my turn. I'm almost itchy. Games I love often have fun components - not just miniatures - that appeal to our human need for tactile sensation. And more quietly (and more for shorter games), people want to immediately play again.
My first KPI: Design a game that is loved.
Another KPI that I think is very important in this seemingly one and done market is to make a game people play multiple times. I personally design games for 100+ plays, though intellectually I know the market isn't interested in that. When I look at a design of mine like Cry Havoc that fails this KPI because so many players' first experience with the game is bad. They miss too many rules. They don't understand all the abilities. They leave the table feeling the game is imbalanced.
Another design of mine that fails this is Solstice. People leave the table confused. They just don't get it. Most of the pieces are simple, but if you don't play three games sequentially in your first sitting, you may fail to realize how all the pieces intertwine. I hope Imperius solves this...
I think there are a few keys to success here. Your game's hook needs to be immediately understood, whether that is the game's distinguishing factor or what makes it fun. I think being shorter helps. If people know it's easier to play a second, or third time, they'll be more willing to do so. Humans like predictability and guarantees. Simplicity helps, and it's really something driving my newer designs. People should struggle to find a great strategy, not to grasp the rules. If people get the game, they're more willing to play again. Getting the rules wrong, or struggling to maintain the rules in one's head makes people feel stupid. People hate feeling stupid.
Your design should have a momentum to it that's infectious. Halfway through my first play of a game I know I'm going to love, I immediately start thinking about the next game. Like a child opening their first present on Christmas Day, it isn't about what you're doing now, but the next one, and the one after that.
My second KPI: Design a game people want to replay.
This is getting a bit long-winded and has long since crested my preferred length of 1000 words. One more KPI, shall we?
The tabletop industry is experiencing a boom, bolstered by the Internet, board game cafes, better stores emerging, Kickstarter and crowdfunding, a general increase in designers, publishers, and players, and more. It's a good time, but it's also a crowded time. Thousands of games are added to the market every year. The overwhelming majority of them disappear from the radar within days or weeks. Most receive a single printing, and most of those printings are deeply discounted before the inventory is sold. It is difficult to stand out in a crowd, especially if your game resembles everything else on the shelf.
Innovation. Novelty. Gimmicks.
All of these point towards one of the most important KPIs, which is to be unique. While people may flock to a new deckbuilder that twists Dominion, it won't stay for long. Dominion has name recognition, a mountain of expansions, and is already in everyone's home. Yes, some people love trick taking, but there are so many good ones already. The one that infuriates me the most is when someone makes an inferior set collector in a world where Coloretto is:
I love listening to Jim Rome's podcast. Something he says often is "gimme an A or gimme an F." I think that holds true for being unique. Your game needs to stand out and do something special. There's a game on Kickstarter right now that uses magnets and a compass in a cooperative game. Genius! There was a social deduction game last year that used 3D glasses. Excellent. Mystic Vale uses transparent cards to mix and match statistics. Why not?
Whether you're tweaking the range of numbers on your block war game, or putting a literal hole on every card so you can see through it, or asking players to stack D4s for their healing check, you need to do something new. Something special. Every design needs a twist, or you'll never stand out.
My third KPI: Design something unique.
Lovabale. Replayable. Unique (able?).
These are my KPIs. What are yours? What drives you?