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How Novice Game Designers can Be Taken Seriously by Publishers and Funders (cautionary advice)

Here's the kind of really sad story you hear sometimes from novice designers, who spent "seven years and a million dollars" developing a game that couldn't possibly bring in that much money, or be worth that time. How to be taken seriously by publishers.

“Seven Years and a Million Dollars”
How Novice Game Designers can Be Taken Seriously
by Publishers and Funders
(cautionary advice)

The blog posts that I've combined and modified here were originally written for aspiring tabletop game designers.  I was taken aback at how many people appreciated the advice in the original blogs.  So I've revised the material to try to take video game designers into account as well. There is a fundamental difference, because it's relatively easy to self-publish a game in a digital format, compared with a game with physical components.  The major problem for video game designers is getting the software made, which often means, how do you fund the work of the people doing the programming, art, design, etc.  The problem for tabletop game designers is arranging for production (mainly, printing) of the physical product.

"Seven years and a million dollars"

Here's the kind of really sad story you can hear sometimes from novice designers.  At one of the game design/game publishing seminars at GenCon 2012 (the major tabletop game convention in the USA), right at the end, someone raised his hand and said he and a group of friends had been working on a game for seven years, and it was a great game, and they had spent over seven years and a million dollars developing it including paying Marvel comic artists to do the prototype art; and how could he get to talk to Fantasy Flight Games about it?   (FFG is the largest hobby (as opposed to mass-market) board game publisher.)  The three panelists were taken aback – if I wrote in contemporary style I would say they were "stunned" – and said nothing for a moment.  Because there's really nothing to say.  These “designers” were in cloud-cuckoo land to spend so much time and money, and their game very likely wasn't particularly good, either.

Finally James Ernest said "when you talk to Fantasy Flight I wouldn't mention the million dollars".  (Because it would mark them as clueless noobs.)  And it turned out that much of the million dollars was a calculation of how much the developers would have paid themselves if they had paid themselves at a pretty high hourly rate.  But those Marvel artists must've cost a lot of money.  Yet anyone who knows anything about the tabletop publishing business knows that the manufacturer provides the art and the designer should use clipart for the prototypes, even if it's copyrighted, rather than spend money on art (fair use).  And that virtually no tabletop game is so good as to earn a million dollars for the developers, so you shouldn't be spending a million dollars.  Yet they had done so little research that they had no idea how to approach Fantasy Flight, and while that is very far from easy to achieve, the basic steps are well-known.

The session then ended and no more was said publicly.  But this is the kind of sad story one hears occasionally from stars-in-their-eyes "game designers".  They've done little or no research, they think their game's great because it's their game (and they probably designed it for themselves, not for other people), and they evidently think there's a lot of money in tabletop (or independent video) game design.  One can only shake one's head.  (And yes, I realize that it's just barely possible that they do have a great game but the odds are astronomically against it.)

How to be taken seriously

So at that moment I started to write down "most important cautions for novice game designers".  While you’re important to your self, your family, and your friends, to a game publisher or funder you’re no different than thousands of other people who think they have games or game concepts worth publishing, most of whom are wrong.

I’m sorry that this might appear to be negative.  Dreams are OK, but you need to have goals and ways to get there, not dreams, if you want a chance to succeed.  ("A goal is a dream with a deadline." Napoleon Hill)

You won't be very good to start with.  (Good) practice makes perfect.  When someone begins a creative endeavor they are very rarely good at it to begin with.  Nowadays so much that's involved in so many professions is hidden away or occurs in someone's mind that young people get the notion that it's easy simply because they don't see it happening.  No, there is no Easy Button.  So be prepared to throw way or give away much of your early work.

Believing in reusability, I'm going to quote from my recently-published game design book (which doesn't actually address the topic of being taken seriously, because that's not part of designing games):

    "Furthermore, there's no reason to expect beginners to come up with excellent game designs when they're starting out, any more than writers or artists or composers start out with excellent ideas or results.  Science fiction novelist (and former Byte magazine computer pundit) Jerry Pournelle says you must be willing to throw away your first million words (10-11 novels) if you want to become a successful novelist.  Why would game design be any different?"

Ira Glass of National Public Radio is focused on art rather than entertainment:

    "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

Don't think you're going to make a lot of money.  Very likely, you'll spend a great deal of time for little return.  Tabletop gaming is "small potatoes", not a big source of money, and most video game developers earn little because so few games make a lot of money. 

    How do you make a small fortune in the game industry? 
    Start with a big fortune.

    What’s the difference between a pizza and a game designer? 
    The pizza can feed a family of four. 

If you think you’re going to get rich then you will not be taken seriously.  I recently read about a toy inventor who became indignant at the idea of receiving “only” a 5% royalty (probably of wholesale, not retail).  If you’ve learned what the typical levels of compensation are, you won’t have this happen.

You need to design and complete games.  Publishers don't want to buy ideas, they want to buy complete games.  That's true even for video game publishers and funders, but the funders are accustomed to having to evaluate ideas and demos because it costs so much to actually make the software.

Publishers want games, not ideas.  Ideas are cheap, a dime a dozen; recognize that your "great idea" is not that great, not that original, not that interesting to others.  That's reality.   How often do we get a really extraordinary new idea in tabletop games?  D&D, Magic: the Gathering, maybe Mage Knight, maybe Dominion?  How many video games are great ideas?  More, but often the original game based on the idea isn’t nearly as successful as later games.  Take for example Little Computer People and The Sims.  Yes you need a good idea but the execution of the idea in the form of a complete game is much more important than the idea itself.

It is extraordinarily rare for someone to have an original idea, that is, one that no one else has had.  An idea may be original to you but most likely a lot of other people have also thought of it.  And may well have used it in a game years ago.  As a result, ideas are seen as mostly worthless by publishers.  This is why there's such an emphasis on the video game track record of people asking for funds.  If they've successfully made one in the past, they're much more likely to successfully make one in the future, compared with those who have no previous successes.

Do not worry about someone “stealing” your game idea!  Your “great idea” likely isn’t great at all, and game designers have their own ideas.  Moreover, video or tabletop, it’s a small industry, the word gets around rapidly.  If you don’t want to tell anyone about your great idea for fear of theft, how can anyone (especially publishers/funders) begin to evaluate it? 

There are certainly examples of parallel development, because many people get the same idea.  And there are even examples of theft.  E.g., a wrestling card game was offered to one publisher and rejected; later the publisher came out with a similar game, but by that time the game had been accepted by another, large (and wealthy), publisher, and legal proceedings put the first publisher in its place.  But this is quite exceptional, and you simply cannot live in fear of theft and be a game designer.

In video games there is a problem with "cloning" if games that have been or are about to be published.  But that's long after the stage when you find funding, or a publisher.

Design a game, not a story.  Stories can be important in some kinds of games, but people play a game because of the gameplay, not because of the story.  If you want to write stories, why not pursue a medium where you can control all of the story, such as novels, plays, even film?  In a game, the gameplay is more important than the story in almost all cases, so whatever story the writer creates, it won’t end up much like he or she had in mind.

Publishers and funders know story is important insofar as it sells games.  But there has to be a game, not just a story, and it’s the game that will (or won’t) keep people playing.

Don’t patent your game (or if you do, don’t admit it to anyone!).  Game ideas cannot be protected, by law.   (No, I am Not a Lawyer.  But I Can Read.)  At $3,000-$10,000 or more  per patent, not even considering the immense fees you’d pay lawyers to defend/enforce the patent in court, patents are a fool’s errand costing more than a tabletop game is likely to make, and more than most video games will make.  That’s why so few real games (tabletop or video) are patented.  (I say real games: there are lots of ridiculous game patents approved, which appear to be the case of a lawyer convincing some poor sod to spend a lot of money unnecessarily to patent a betting method or something equally obvious.)

Copyright is as much protection as you can expect, and copyright is free and immediate, though if you want to sue someone about copyright - the only way to recover large damages - you’ll have had to register it, which does cost money ($35).

Don't spend much money on making a playable tabletop prototype. This is especially true for tabletop prototypes.  And remember to use paper prototyping whenever possible to save money as you develop a video game concept.  In particular, don't pay anybody for art, don't pay a lot for high-quality printing or fancy boxes, don't pay an "agent", don't pay an "evaluator".  Many prototypes don't even have a box, they are in some kind of pouch or wallet (especially considering that it's pretty hard to reduce a large board to box size, the board is often separate).  Really slick prototypes tend to put tabletop publishers off because they're afraid the designer has put so much time into the prettiness of the prototype that they've been reluctant to change it!

With modern computer software and printers you can produce a nice-looking tabletop prototype quite cheaply.  I discuss software and other points about making prototypes in my game design book if you need more information.

You have to spend money for a video game prototype/demo, but the less you can spend before you show it to money-men, the better off you’ll be.  Give funders credit for some imagination, the prototype/demo doesn’t need to be immensely pretty, it needs to show how the game will actually work.

The 4 P's.  When you deal with publishers and funders be professional, polite, punctual, and persistent.  And be friendly.  But remember that publishers/funders are busy people who have hundreds of designers wanting to show them prototypes.  If you stand out because you're a butthead you're not going to get anywhere.

You have to DO something to give yourself some credibility, before publishers/funders are likely to look at your game or game concept.  If you're a complete unknown, why would they deal with you?
•     Volunteer to man booths at cons
•     Write articles or blog posts
•     Make variants/mods and publish them on the Web
•     Have a decent Web site
•     GM at conventions
•     Be a part of the publisher’s  game communities
Sorry, folks, while you're really important to yourself and your family, you're “nobody” to any publisher or other funding organization.  You have to do something to change that.

Don’t even think about requiring the publisher to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).  This is another mark of a “clueless noob”.  They will laugh at you and tell you to go away.  Some publishers require designers who submit games to complete a release form that essentially says, “if we publish a game just like this, you can’t sue us.”  That’s to protect the publisher from lawsuits by clueless “game designers”!  If they require it, you’ll have to sign it, or they won’t deal with you.

Avoid hyperbole (excessive exaggeration, a little exaggeration might be forgiven as enthusiasm).  Here's a real example, from a designer's description of his board game on LinkedIn:

    It's a great game for fun and for the development of entrepreneurial thinking, it's great for anyone who would like to develop their mind set around business, money, creative thinking and more.

    I have taken it around the world in the last 2 years (you can check it out here : [URL] ) , and I have played it with thousands of people in 10 countries, just to get the feeling of how it goes, and people love it ! . . .
    I support the game by PR, Facebook, twitter and game based workshops around the world."

Here is my response:  Exaggerated claims will put off a publisher quicker than anything else.  For example, 730 days in two years.  If he played the game with thousands, that must be at least 2,000, or about three every day for two years.  Or say he played once a week, 104 weeks, that's 20 people at each session?  Has he done anything else in the past two years?  Or is it a game that can somehow be played by very large numbers of people?  Sorry, it just isn't *believable*, even if it's somehow true.

Calling your game "great" twice in your first paragraph may be a good sign of enthusiasm, but it's likely to raise alarm bells to publishers/funders who have encountered far too many designers who think they have a great game - but virtually never do.

I didn’t even bother to check the Web site in this case, because the hyperbole raised all those alarms.  And that’s how a publisher/funder is likely to react.

You will never be finished with a game.  For video games, you might hit a publication deadline imposed by the publisher, and might not even feel like you’re done.  Otherwise, you'll reach the point of diminishing marginal returns where the time it takes to make an improvement is just not worth the value of the improvement.  Even if your game is published, there will be things you may want to do in a second edition should that ever occur.

Real designers work on many games at the same time - at least, until they have a contract.  If you're only working on one game, or a few, you're not likely to end up with a good one, AND you identify yourself as a dilettante, an amateur.  Yes, when someone gets a contract/funding to make a video game, he’s going to focus on that game.  The rest of the time, he should be thinking about many games.  Yes, there are cases where someone designed one game that proved to be so good that they are independently wealthy (for example the boardgame Blokus).  If you're working on just one game however, it probably won't be published: good luck.   Pros are working on many games.

Play Games?  You need to know games well enough that a publisher or funder won’t think you’ve been in an ivory tower somewhere.  But I disagree with the typical advice “play lots of games”.  First, playing a game isn’t, for everyone, the best way to understand it, and I’ve known lots of people who played a game once but didn’t really understand it.  Some people learn more from talking with people who’ve played a game a lot, from reading rules, reading reviews, reading community comments, and so forth.  Second but more important, if you spend too much time playing games, you won’t have time to design games, which is quite a different endeavor.  Game design is not about playing games.

Designing a game is a form of work, not play.  Game playing is essentially unproductive; game creation is productive.  Being a good game player is largely irrelevant to being a good game designer, different attitudes and thought processes are required.  My favorite game is the game of designing games, but there are still times when I really wish I could just think of the prototype I wanted and it would appear before me, or when I get tired of tweaking rules the umpteenth time.  Shoving cards in the card sleeves, painstakingly drawing boards or pieces, is rarely enjoyable but it is necessary.  In the video game industry, creating the prototype is far more work, so unless you love programming or have a teammate who does, it’s going to be tedious.

It's even tougher in the video game industry because you almost never get to make the game you want to make, you have to make someone else's game or work with someone else's idea.  On the other hand there are many more people making a living as game designers in the video game industry than in the tabletop game industry.

Patience really *is* a virtue.  My tabletop game Britannia existed in fully playable form in 1980.  It was first published in 1986.  In 2008, one major publisher told me, "it's a good thing you're immortal, because it's going to take a long time" to evaluate and publish one of my games.   I was offered a contract more than a year later.  It still has not been published, though it’s “in the queue.”

I know of several tabletop games that took eight or more years from acceptance to publication.  I know of a well-known published game that was rejected 10 times.  10 rejections takes quite a while.

These very long lead-times are less common in video games, because games can become “outdated” in appearance.  It can still take years.

So if you're an "instant gratification" type,  your instant gratification has to be in seeing people play and enjoy your prototype, not in the published game.

Don't design games for yourself, design for others.  They’re the ones who must enjoy it, your enjoyment in playing is unimportant, especially to a publisher!   Yes, some people design games for themselves and are fortunate enough that a lot of other people like the same thing.  (The Doom creators, for example.)  But you can’t depend on that.  Furthermore, designing for yourself is self-indulgent, and self-indulgent game design is often poor game design.  When you become a big-time designer, then you can design whatever you like - well, until you have a failure.

On the other hand, if you’re designing a game for personal satisfaction rather than for professional purposes you can be self-indulgent to your heart's content.

Playtest, playtest, playtest.  Be sure to playtest your game with a wide variety of players.  Don't rely on your family to tell you whether it's a good game or not.  You have to playtest your game until you're sick of looking at it, until you want to throw the damn thing away.  Then maybe you'll have something.  If a publisher gets the impression that you haven’t playtested much, he’ll not take you seriously. You have to be willing to change the game again and again: listen to the playtesters, watch how they react, recognize your game isn’t perfect and won’t be even when (if) it’s published.  Game design is not a job for perfectionists.

Don't assume Kickstarter will help (or save) you.  Most KS projects fail to be funded.  Projects from people who don’t have a track record of success are much less likely to be funded.   If you have a good project and make a good presentation, you may get funded, but that’s only the start of making and publishing the game.

Self-publishing is practical even for tabletoppers, if you don't mind losing money.  Moreover, at some point you become a publisher/marketer, not a designer.  What do you want to do?  Video game self-publishing is less demanding and expensive, but may still make you a marketer rather than designer.

Or for the tabletop go the GameCrafter “Publish On-Demand” route, where you can have a published and professional-looking game without spending a lot of money.   There are others offering this service, but I have no experience of them.

When your game/funding request is rejected, there’s a good chance the rejection had nothing to do with the game’s quality.  If I heard correctly at GenCon, the fairly well-known tabletop game Quarriors was rejected 10 times before being published.  Be persistent.

Read.  Read articles, read blog posts, read books, about game design.  Get the RSS feed for Gamasutra and read articles of interest.  Read books about games, which (if they’re good) will tell you a lot more than playing one or two games for the same amount of time. One objective of a “how to” book is to convey the experience of the writer to the reader so that the reader doesn't have to go through the "school of hard knocks".  And nowadays no one wants to take hard knocks.

It’s easy to waste time following links all over the Internet to read this and that.  Focus on reading about game design, if you want to be a game designer.

Intentions versus Actions

“[The road to] hell is paved with good intentions.”  Traditional saying

"You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do."  Henry Ford

One reason why so many aspiring game designers “never get anywhere” is the confusion between intention and action.  Different generations view this quite differently.  Older people recognize that it’s what you do that is most important, not what you intend or what you say you’ll do or what you wanted to do.  They're in tune with Henry Ford.  Young people tend to believe that intention is so important that it can excuse a lack of action. 

The classic, to my mind, is the student who loses his schoolwork because he lost his USB drive or otherwise lost the electronic copy and had not backed it up.  He seems to think this excuses not having the work, though the teacher isn’t likely to agree.  Another is the student who objects to the typical college policy that you cannot have drinks near computers for fear that they’ll be spilled onto the computer.  The student says “I’m not going to spill it”.  The teacher says “of course you don’t intend to spill it but we’re talking about accidents”.  If there’s sticky pop spilled all over a keyboard it hardly matters that you didn’t intend to spill it.

Young people have been trying to excuse not having homework, and excuse spilling drinks, for decades if not centuries.  The need is to recognize who's at fault, to take responsibility for your own actions.  The recent change is that, quite commonly, good intentions are now seen as absolving one from any and all responsiblity for failure of action.  As I say occasionally to people of all ages, "you *can* overcome your upbringing."  In this context, overcome the idea that right intention removes all responsibility for failed action.  In a way, equating intentions and actions puts a stamp of approval on incompetence.

In the business world - remember that if you intend to make money, game design is a business - actions count, not intentions.  If your deadline arrives and you say “my computer died and I have no backup”, you’ve Epic Failed, and your contract could be revoked, you could even be fired.  Isn’t it your responsibility to have several backups?

I can picture some young people saying “that’s not fair”.  That’s debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that Life is Not Fair.  Live with it.  And I have to say I think it’s perfectly fair that if you failed to backup your stuff, you’re at fault.

I attended some panel discussions with published novelists at GenCon 2012 in Indianapolis.  Several times they all agreed that one of the most important things in successful fiction writing is meeting deadlines.  "What does that have to do with creativity?", you might ask.  Not a lot, but it has a great deal to do with business, as businesses must work on schedules and deadlines.  Sucessful writers, just like successful game designers, are in a business.  One panelist (it may have been Matt Forbeck, who writes novels at a furious rate, often as an assigned tie-in with a game or other intellectual property) described how when he was writing RPG rulebooks and designing games, no one would give him a novel assignment until he'd actually completed a novel.  Once he could show that (unpublished) novel to people, he got an assignment to write one.

One of the major differences between “real” game designers and wannabes is that real game designers complete games while wannabes never seem to.  They intend to of course, but it just doesn’t happen, the later stages of development are too boring (and yes they are boring), life intervenes, they get distracted by another game.  Publishers don’t want incomplete games, even if they normally change the games that are submitted to them.  Nor can you sell an incomplete video game, or if you do people will probably find it’s a piece of junk and you’ll ruin your reputation.

And if you find yourself playing games so much that you have no time to design, your intention to design games doesn’t do you any good, nor will anybody in the industry care what you intend.  They care about what you actually do.

Ask any professional in creative industries such as fiction writing, art, or game design, and they’ll tell you that one of the most important things is to meet deadlines.  What your intentions may have been does not matter when you miss a deadline.  What your (in)action does is give you a bad reputation that means people will be much less likely to entrust you with projects in the future.

(See also my "Student Illusions About Being a Game Designer"  May 7, 09

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from or Amazon.   What I've written above is not covered in the book (except for that brief quote).  The book is about game design, not about how you should behave or licensing or the details of marketing games. In other words the book is about design, not about the game business.  This article is about the business.

I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)    Web:


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