Raising My Bar

This is a long, very personal, and in parts, difficult post that's taken me a few days to write and edit. Bear with me!

I noted the other morning on Twitter that one of the more difficult skills I've learned as a designer is when to recognize good isn't good enough. Throughout your design career, you have to recognize when something isn't working. That's one of the first lessons. But, knowing when a good thing isn't a great thing? And it SHOULD be? That's a bit more difficult and it requires a large scraping of honesty and inward reflection.

Honestly, it doesn't take much experience to recognize something broken, and if you're like 99% of us, that's the majority of every game's life span. We joke at work (making games) that games suck until they don't. I stand by this wholeheartedly. When your game is broken, it's obvious because the tuning is ridiculous, or mechanics just don't make sense, or people aren't having fun. This is a skill to develop, of course, but really it requires paying attention.

But, recognizing that good isn't good enough? That takes a different skill set. That takes a level of honesty, an understanding of your market, both in terms of competition and consumer, and in terms of your own personal goals.

This will be an honest and personal post about my design and entrepreneurial ambitions. I realize these posts are useless if they are solely about me and cannot be applied generally, so I'll do my best to write it in a way that it's meaningful for others.

Let's get to answering that question. How do you know when good is good enough?

One element that has really driven this change in my perspective is working with publishing partners on my games. Publishers have great stakes in your product once they have signed it. They need to publish 2500-5000 (or more) copies, which requires significant capital investment. For that, they need to spend thousands of dollars on art and graphic design. Above all, they need to earn a profit and make enough to fund additional copies or other projects. It needs to sell and it needs to represent their brand favorably. Your publisher not only has a desire for your game to be great, but a fundamental need.

In a few cases I've had publishers say "this, this, and this are nice. We need to throw the rest of this away and make it way better." The good news is, they were right! The important part was that they recognized what worked and what was special. They saw the foundation and knew where to start building. The wheels start spinning and I begin to ask myself if I can begin to apply these critiques myself.

Really, I think knowing when something is good enough is about recognizing missed opportunities. If those opportunities exist, and they haven't been explored, you may not know it's good enough. If you find yourself thinking about them, then there may be something lacking in your core experience.

I find this happens not when my game is busted or falling apart, but when it reaches long periods of stability. You need to fundamentally understand your game, both over the span of its life, but in its current iteration. If you're changing your game every test, this is difficult to observe. It isn't that you notice imbalance, or even dominant strategies (which you shouldn't have), but your mind starts wandering. This is difficult to nail down, but walk with me. In a way, it's a static romantic relationship. You aren't fighting. You like each other. But, where's the spark?

To look at some of my personal examples, York had a good card mechanic, solid pacing, a nice action system, a good point structure for 4 players, a nice battle system, and good tactics content. It also had a neat idea involving a fort structure. But, it lacked breadth, theme, variance (for replays), and enough strategic depth. These were missed opportunities that needed to be explored. Its individual elements were almost a bit too trimmed and smoothed. It wasn't the most elegant game -- that's not what I'm saying. But every part was meticulously tested and refined and before too long, I had this little, lock-step Prussian experience. It needed some spark to it.

Sol Rising (then Blockade) had a solid movement and combined arms mechanic, did neat things combining several ships as a single control group (i.e. squadron), and used a fun circular board. But, it entirely lacked scenarios and breadth, the dice needed to be simplified, it lacked opportunities for player customization, and made expansions difficult due to its costly components. Without changing it to its card based format, it would never have a chance at being a great game.

Here are some quick signs you may have missed opportunities in your design:

  1. You find yourself constantly designing expansions or variants. You're restless.
  2. You find that you don't have GOOD answers to questions posed by testers. You're uncertain.
  3. You find that you have too many darlings you're willing to kill. You're reckless. Every design needs a thing or two that's worth fighting for. You need an Alamo.
  4. You find yourself holding frequent what-if thought experiments. You're introspective.

The soul of a designer when a game is pitched, self-published, or on a shelf, should be at peace. Rejection should come from customers who don't enjoy this type of game, or publishers for whom the game isn't the right fit. But, you should not be restless, uncertain, reckless, or overly introspective.

AND NOW, a detour to provide more context for this post. I'm going to talk about my goals as an entrepreneur and publisher.

While steadily testing Hocus Poker the last few months, I also finally took the plunge to form my LLC. The purpose of the LLC is to self-publish smaller card games as a means for me to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. I won't divert all of my designs to this, merely smaller ones that fit my brand and can be produced without using my home as collateral.

Hocus Poker is meant to be the first game to be released in 2015. I previously used phrases like "I'm doing this [business] just for fun" and "I just need to break even," but I've stricken those from my vocabulary. Those can't be my goals or operating motives, because I'll then act according to them. When the goal becomes self-sufficiency driven by profits, it really ups the stakes. My goal had to change to success by the standard definition, not a lame one. There's no room for cowards.

Some of the things I'm expecting of my LLC and its titles include:

  • I need to sell 2500 copies in 2 years. That's over 100 copies per month.
  • I need to get the games into distribution. Without the FLGS, I'm sunk.
  • I need to attend minor, cost-effective cons initially to build an audience from face to face interaction. This means hustle and logistics.
  • I need to pay off the cost of doing business in CA every year. This isn't cheap. I now know why people form in Delaware.
  • I need to make games with potential to be picked up by foreign partners.
  • I need to make games with expansion possibilities. I intend to support successful titles both to support fans, but also drive revenue.
  • I need to release 1 game per year. Assuming the occasional one is successful, there need to be enough products in the pipe to keep the lights on.

Not all of these have equal weight. By that, I mean these are all part of a multi-year plan and some are more important than others.

I recently heard a Ludology episode in which North Star Games owner Dominic Crapuchettes was interviewed. Something he said really struck me for its boldness and clarity of vision. Dominic noted that they designed Evolution such that it could win the Spiel des Jahres. As Tiger Woods was groomed for golf, Evolution was groomed for the Spiel des Jahres.

Think about that! He publicly stated, with utter confidence, "we seek to win the Spiel des Jahres with our strategy games."

Obviously, that isn't my goal. Goals are useful if they are achievable and jokes if otherwise. I probably already have people snickering with some of the notes above. But, I need to target goals within reach that are similarly ambitious. I need to find my relative Spiel des Jahres.

Let's swing this back around to product development. I've returned to my previous hyper price-conscious state. I've always been obsessed with price and am convinced it's a massive component to Farmageddon's success. Therefore, a $20 MSRP for Hocus Poker won't cut it. It needs to be $15, tops. Why? It's an easier purchase for people on the fence, which is pretty much everyone as I'm an unknown entity. It's also a great value for the game we're delivering, which is fundamental to drive word of mouth.

Amusingly enough, the COO of Steve Jackson Games also thinks this is a good idea, so maybe I'm onto something! Stop and read his post here. It's really excellent, not just for publishers, but designers seeking to be published.

If I'm examining Good Enough through the lens of price, I can easily see missed opportunities for Hocus. As we noted in a previous post, we're essentially paying for 108 cards, but are only using 80 currently. We're also using punch board components, which make the game a bit more fiddly (components always do!), more costly, less portable (ex: it is more difficult to play at a picnic table in the park), and I would argue that they don't add enough fun to justify their existence. Plus, if I'm being honest, they're going to increase the cost to the consumer in two ways: more expensive box and more expensive components, not to mention initial setup costs in molds for the tokens!

That, then, is another way by which to judge Good Enough. Does the cost, product-wise or cost-wise, of a feature or component, justify its existence with positive, fun driving benefits? After some thoughts, I can say with some certainty that the tokens in Hocus Poker do not.

Cost is a big factor and something I'm painfully aware of even as a designer (i.e. when I'm not wearing my publisher pantalones). In addition to the cost per unit, I have to consider the cost per run. The investment in making the game exist at all.

I was always struck by Jamey Stegmaier putting a guarantee on his games. You can return them within the first month, full refund, no questions asked. Am I willing to put a guarantee on the game? I should be. And, whether I use crowdfunding or not, would I be willing to put the full value behind the game to publish it myself? Again, I should be.

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

An insight I've gained working in a highly structured, professional game development environment is that different management groups have different priorities and responsibilities. I'm going to toss out an observation that I think is apt in regards to the board game space. The designer's primary responsibility is the game and the vision. The publisher's primary responsibility is to the customer. Now, this doesn't mean the designer doesn't care about the customer. Nor does it mean the publisher doesn't care about the game. But, they each have their role and highest priority.

In applied language, this mean's the designer's role is to make the game great and find a home for it. The publisher's role is to find great games and in some ways, act as the gate keeper and make the game successful in the market. This isn't good enough, we pass. This is going to be good enough, but it needs more work.

If you're self-publishing, as I'm seeking to do with some of my titles, like Hocus Poker, I suddenly have to fill both roles. I must do so viciously and with clarity. With Sol Rising, I get to wait for my publisher to say "it's good, let's ship it." With Hocus, I have to carry that entire burden myself. Do you see the difference?

I have to bounce between devout belief and idealism in my design, then flip entirely to the side of stern, nigh-villainous publisher. It reminds me of the standard parenting tip that you can't be both a parent and best friend and also shines light on why so many publishers don't double as designers. Sure, they design stuff occasionally, but many people who are serious in the hobby focus on one or the other.

Great. Now I need to have long, detailed conversations with myself about my strengths and failings.

Peer Pressure

As a final parting note, good enough is defined by one's peers. Nobody joins the NBA and says they aspire to be that second string dude who never gets to breakaway his breakaway pants. Note: That's a John Mulaney joke I'm stealing. No, you point out the biggest, baddest dude (or dudette) and set that as your goal.

My adult life has been spent in PC games, so I look to Valve and Blizzard as standard setters. Firaxis too. You know, the guys who made Half Life 2, Portal, World of Warcraft, and X-Com.

In board games, I look to those who fill my shelf with great games. Gamewright, Academy, Plaid Hat, Portal, and GMT. They set the bar in my eyes, which may be the most ridiculous  thing I've stated yet. Selling 2500 copies pales in comparison, right?

It's a long term haul, but it's worth it. Look at how Blizzard could sell 10 million copies of a ham sandwich to their legion of fans. Look at how Plaid Hat redefines what one should expect to sell in pre-orders. Look at how Imperial Settlers sits comfortably on top of the Hotness the last few days, even with the Kennerspiel announcement (I realize this isn't scientific AT ALL). In this excellent story about how Sid Sackson developed Acquire, I took note of how the author devoted a paragraph to praise Hans im Glück for their push to develop greatness. An excerpt:

"There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück.  They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted."

That's the reputation I seek, potentially foolishly. I seek it with the knowledge it may be 10 years and a half dozen games out. I also realize my little LLC might not survive that long.

Concluding Thoughts

I've gone over quite a few of the tools I use to gauge whether something is good enough. These included:

  • Among other things, if my mind is restless with the design, it might not be good enough.
  • Does the price per copy provide enough fun for my customers?
  • Is the game good enough to sell through in a marketplace full of excellent games?
  • Can I proudly put the game next to those of my favorites on my shelf?
  • Would I give it a guarantee?
  • Would I self-finance it?
  • Can I sign off on it both as a designer AND a publisher?

Is this good enough may then be a very easy question to answer with so many tools and data points. The hard part might not be answering it, but instead recognizing the answer and using it to inform your next steps.

Thoughts?

Comments

Great - and helpful - insights - thanks :)

I have a problem with just one point you're making: sounds like you're saying that as a designer you aren't complete until you aren't restless, introspective, uncertain. Although I am new at game design (going into my second year for our game), I am a designer of many other type of things: in my personal life and in my career.

As a designer I have found that I am never 100% at peace with something I've designed -- that if by chance I reach that point it's because I've overworked it or it's no longer relevant.

A special sweet spot exists when I feel confident the essence is captured and I know there are details I could improve upon but I've reached the point of 'diminishing marginal rate of return or utility' (for each time period spent on the design, the improvement is smaller and smaller and not worth getting in the overall scheme of things).

Knowing you're in the sweet spot is the tricky part -- and that is what your thinking helps me clarify for myself in regards to designing a game. The objective is the sweet spot and not falling short or going beyond...being a little bit antsy about the design but knowing you've captured the most important elements.

Thanks for the post -- it definitely helps! -Kathryn

Great article. Many thanks. I really resonate with the angst created by constantly having to switch between Designer and Publisher. Also with the restless suspicion that previous iterations of my design have been more fun!

Another wonderful article. Thank you Grant.

Well-written piece, as has become your norm, Grant.

Very introspective, clearly laying out the different roles that you will need to perform in your newly launched venture. These are the things I've thought about quite a bit myself over the past 6-9 months and only rather recently obtained a grip on what I expect to be doing. I still wouldn't be able to articulate about it like this -- so that impresses me.

Things that are not an issue for you: focus and drive. Things to make sure you continue to include: humor, flexibility, and understanding the network of support that surrounds you.

-Matt

Great Article! I am going to link it on my blog, if you don't mind. It's cool to see some of my own thoughts and feelings reflected here, and I really identify with it.