Tuesday, August 9, 2011

GenCon and Back Again

I took two games to GenCon with the intention of finding a publisher for them, or at the very least starting to build a presence in the hobby game industry to enable future endeavors. I'll tell you more about these games at another time (hopefully when they're scheduled for publication) because today I want to focus on some learnings about the game industry and community.

Gamers are amazing people. I know you're all gamers, most of your friends are probably gamers, and you're already pretty fond of each other, but I'm here to suggest that it's not just you and your friends. We're all incredible. I mean that word in every sense. Not all gamers are geniuses, but the vast majority are highly intelligent—probably moreso than any other social group apart from Mensa. Gamers are very adventurous, seeking not just new and different experiences, but bigger and harder challenges. Gamers are rather creative, preferring to interact than to watch and often asking the question "How could this be different? Could I make it better?" More than a few gamers are perfectionists, always seeking to better themselves and the things they produce. Above all of this, though, gamers are passionate. We don't like this hobby, we live it. We have opinions about everything, strong opinions. We get genuinely excited when we see or do something really awesome.

In my hometown, I spend about as much time around other gamers as I can. A group of gamers is a guaranteed good time, one that you can't often predict and that will likely challenge and grow you. GenCon is three orders of magnitude larger and so is the result. Seeing a small town's population completely comprised of gamers in one sprawling building is nothing short of inspiring. Every hall, every room, every corner holds proof of another incredible gamer feat. Something that took a lot of effort (and probably cash), from a smart and dedicated person, looking to make the world a bit more fun or amazing. When I imagine people like this working together toward a common goal, it's exciting. Can you imagine if gamers took on real world issues? We could solve government, world hunger, gang violence or anything we wanted to. Y'know, if they weren't so boring.

The game industry is like no other. I've heard it described as one big family. It's an extended family to be sure, but I really think the analogy is fitting. It comes down to this: Everyone in hobby gaming is there for the love of the game. Yes, making a living is vital and making a fortune would be great, but if that's your goal there are vastly better paths to follow. Because the industry is so small (relative to other national entertainment industries), a success for one designer or publisher is a success for everyone because it brings more people into the community. But also because it gives us one more top-tier game to play with our friends. Remember, basically everyone in the game industry is a gamer and they love to play great new games just as much as you and I.

This isn't to say there isn't competition—remember gamers love to compete by nature—but there is a sort of honor code that doesn't exist elsewhere. A movie studio will sue an indy firm into the ground whenever it can and a video game giant will make a hostile takeover of a threatening upstart without blinking an eye. Presidents and CEOs of hobby game companies don't cheat because all gamers hate cheaters. Sometimes you'll see one guy skirt the line (rules-lawyering, in game turns), but inevitably he gets shut out by the rest of the industry. No one wants to do business with someone they can't trust or that will do the Grand Cause of Gaming more harm than good.

Now, how hard is it to get into the industry? There are a lot of paths and I've only tried the hardest one so far. I can only guess that it's actually pretty easy to get in on the ground floor as an assistant, a warehouse guy or a janitor. I'm sure there's room for the occasional accountant, marketer, graphic designer and business liaison. For a designer attempting the cold pitch, it's hard—but perhaps not in the way you would think. Just like most of your gamer friends are nice folks, so are the publishers. Honestly, I didn't talk to a single rude person all day. Some were pretty dismissive, but you have to understand that game conventions are exceptionally busy and considerably stressful for these folks.

All the more credit, then, is due to those who are still helpful and friendly. I got to talk to the CEO of a very well-established, medium-sized publisher and while he did give me the all-too-common response that they have 3+ years of games already planned out and no room for more, he also gave me earnest and helpful advice about self-publishing, going so far as to offer me recommendations for good printers to work with.

I had the good fortune to attend a seminar by Mike Gray, the guy who decides which games Hasbro will consider and which they will not, and it was really refreshing. Even in the corporate game world, we've got serious hobby gamers and nice guys pulling (at least some of) the strings. The seminar was all about making games for the mass market, but so many of the lessons were applicable to the hobby market. My favorite is ensuring that your game box can sell itself by giving each customer an immediate impression of what it's about, what it would be like to play, and what makes it unique.

Okay, I've kept you waiting long enough to let you know if my trip was a success or not. I talked to just over a dozen publishers and one of them not only let me give him the elevator pitch but sat down with me to look through the game box, get some serious details and ask questions. I've only just sent my follow-up email, so I don't expect to know for some time whether they'll move forward with my games or not, but at the very least I've got a foot in the door. I'll have a bit more credibility pitching future ideas to that publisher. And if I keep showing up to cons and meeting the same publishers, eventually they'll come to know me and even a casual relationship can open some doors (provided I don't become 'that pushy guy' or 'that whiny guy' or something).

If you're planning to go next year, bring some friends, run into old ones and make a few new ones. Meeting, reconnecting and sharing are vital to a full con experience. I didn't bring any friends this time so I was very fortunate to run into some from back home, who in turn introduced me to some very cool folks and we all had a blast together. Good times. The best.

Oh, and be sure to talk like a pirate for at least a couple hours.


  1. I like the cameo by our Magic National Champion around 0:24.

  2. I'm not in suspense about IF your game is getting published, I'm in suspense about WHAT YOUR GAME IS!

  3. Er, thanks?
    I believe it is professional courtesy not to discuss a game that a publisher is currently considering.
    I promise I'll go into detail eventually.

  4. Sigh, fair enough. Still, I wish there existed the kind of feedback on independent game designs as there is on, say, card designs. I'd love to get the feedback on some of my designs from other readers of this blog, for example. Unfortunately, that's just not possible.

  5. Duncan, I imagine there has to be some venue for criticism and collaboration on general game design, and if there isn't...

    But I mean, you got the BoardGameGeek forums and, uh, some other stuff I'm not familiar with.

  6. There are a couple linkedIn groups, and forums on the larger publisher sites (and GameCrafter), but I think the BoardGameGeek forums are the biggest.

    That said, it's much harder to get useful feedback for a full game than a single card (or set) for a game everybody already knows. It's quite hard to judge a full game without playing it once at a very bare minimum.

    That's why it's important to find as many local gaming groups or stores to play with in person.

    Failing that, or in addition, there are a growing number of small conventions meant for designers to play test each others games, like ProtoSpiel.

  7. There should be a site for test playing board games online.

    Maybe you could upload PDFs or GIFs of game boards and cards, player tokens, dice sides, etc, and just move them around by dragging them on the screen to play the game.

    (I understand there's sites, applications, and programming frameworks like that for TCGs, but it could be expanded to board games.)