07 Game Development - from prototype to product
In this chapter I will cover the game development aspect, from a publisher’s point of view.
Once again, I will stay clear from game design related aspects as this is outside the scope of this book.
Play-testing and prototypes
During the course of a game development, the designer will at some point pass the ball to the publisher. There is no strict rule as to when the designer’s work stops and the publisher’s starts.
Some designers want to be the only source of game design and development in their games, other come up with what is only a rough draft and expect the publisher to shape it into the finished game. Some publishers expect a finished game ready to be illustrated and published, others want to play a part in the game’s evolution and development and have an in-house developer or team of developers.
The designer will of course make the first prototypes and lead the playtesting until the core mechanics and gameplay have been settled. At this stage, graphics don’t matter much as long as the prototypes are clear and easily playable : many famous boardgame designers just use scribbled white index cards in the early stages of design. The designer will first test alone until all mechanics run smoothly, and then play-test using his closed groups of trusted playtesters. After the game has matured somewhat, he will start to test it in wider circles, possibly at gaming weekends or fairs, and the game will start to get some reputation of its own.
It is usually at this stage that publishers start to learn about the game, and talk about it with the designer. They will assess the current status of the game together, as well as the remaining development required, and and if the publisher is interested he will tell the designer and they will start to talk about contracts. They will also at that stage decide the part each will play in the development of the game from its current state to a finished product.
If the publisher expects a finished game ready to illustrate and publish he will give guidelines to the designer for the development. If the publisher does in-house development, they will either ask the designer to let them take over from that point on, or invite him in participating in their in house development. Really, there is no standard scenario and each publisher and designer has its own expectations about this.
At Flatlined Games, and at the Belgian publishers I am close to (Repos Prod, Pearl Games, Sit Down), we like to take an active part in the game development. I think a publisher has more to bring to the table than illustration, production and sales : game design is never ‘done’, there is always room for improvement, for streamlining, for ergonomy, for simplification, for playtesting, and of course for spotting any bugs in the game.
It is also very important to conduct play-tests in different groups and environments, something not all designers can easily do.
Ideally that development should be done hand in hand in close collaboration with the designer, and he should have a say in any alterations made to the core of the game. On the other hand, areas such as the game theme, art, and marketing (name, target market, etc.) are the publisher’s responsibility. When the designer and publisher do not agree on one aspect of the development, this makes a good guideline on who should prevail : if it’s game design related the author, if it’s market and packaging related, the publisher.
It may seem a bit weird to the uninitiated that the game designer is not the only voice in the game design and development. However, it does stand to reason when you take the time to think about it. The game designer’s main task is to come up with an idea and to translate that idea in a playable prototype, test it over and again, and focus on the game engine. The publisher’s main goal is to turn that finished prototype into a saleable product.
When it comes to game design and development, the publisher brings his resources and experience to the table to further the work done by the designer. If he has in-house developers, they will help the designer take his game to the next level, and make sure the game integrates cleanly in the game collection of the publisher. I regard this as a form of empowerment, allowing the designer to focus on the core of the game without needless distractions.
When it comes to target audience, theme , illustrations, box design and other marketing aspects, the publisher brings his experience to the table, and most of the time risks his money as well. (crowdfunding may help validate these decisions, and take the edge off the financial risk).
So the designer’s voice is heard all the way along, but in the end it’s not the only one.
No, I will not sign your NDA
Nothing singles out a first-time designer as much as a request to a publisher to sign a non disclosure agreement before they show him their prototype. Fear of being plagiarized is understandable, but shows a lack of understanding of the board games business.
First, the liability incurred by the publisher that signs an NDA is huge, so none of them will accept that. Many games can seem similar while they are in fact quite different.
Let’s say a designer with a bad game about seashell collection has a publisher sign an NDA, and then the publisher turns his game down because it is unoriginal and doesn’t work well with 3 or 5 players. Later on, some other designer comes to the publisher with a great game that has the same theme, but totally different mechanics and works very well. Now if the publisher chooses to publish it, he risks being sued by the first designer. Not only will proving the court that the games are different be a huge waste of time and energy, there is a risk that the court decides the second game actually plagiarizes the first one : judges are not boardgames experts so they might stop at the theme similarity.
Second, paying the designer’s royalties is cheap. Designers usually get 6-12% of the price the publisher sells to the distributor. For a $60 game, that’s 6-12% of $20. The illustration and production budgets are much bigger than the royalties budget so it makes no sense to invest lots of money in developing and producing a copied game that could land you in court and cost you a lot of extra money. It’s much cheaper and easier to just pay the designer his dues. It’s not just ethical, it does makes business sense.
Third, board games is still a small market. Most publishers and designers know each other, or at least talk to each other. Rarely is there more than three degrees of separation between two persons in this business. Therefore, trust plays a very important role. If a designer gets screwed, the word will spread and very soon that publisher will get a bad rep in the whole business. Not a clever move if you ask me.
It is however perfectly OK for a designer to show a prototype to a publisher and ask him to keep it under wraps until either a deal is made or another publisher signs it. Again, trust is key, and confidentiality is well understood by most board games professionals.
Duplicate concepts / you stole my idea.
Here’s the evil twin of the NDA guy, the duplicate concept. There have been some cases of blatant plagiarism in the industry (Jungle speed being copied by Jungle jam is one of the most famous examples), but they do remain very rare.
What is however much more common than most would imagine, is that different designers come up with very similar ideas without knowing about each other.
This can lead to heated debates and disputes, and even end up in court so everyone in the industry is wary about this. There is currently (April 2013) a big controversy in Germany about who should be liable when such a situation occurs : the publisher or the designer. And it is very complex as money is at stake and legal liability as well.
My take on this is that both the designer and publisher share a responsibility to make sure a game is original. But it is clear that with the current production of several hundred new titles every year no one can keep up with every single existing game on the market. On the legal and money aspect, the publisher should bear most of the risk, unless of course it becomes clear the designer knowingly presented him with a copied game. This is however very hard to prove even when it is the case. And common sense has long been banned from the courtrooms so nothing is ever granted there.
Most publishers refuse unsolicited submissions. There are several reasons to this, although the ones that apply vary from publisher to publisher.
First is the same issue as the NDA issue : If I look at your unsolicited bad game and then publish a good game that has some commonalities with your game, you could argue that I or my designer copied parts of your game. The fact is parts of a game are not a game, but then again the legal uncertainties brought by this situation make it a better option to downright refuse unsolicited submissions.
Second is the relationship aspect. In this business, game designers are expected to build a relationship with the publisher before they send them a prototype. It can be very basic such as introducing yourself as designer and giving an elevator pitch about your game, or it can be more involved and build up over time. Sending an unsolicited prototype is perceived as rude, as would coming to the publisher’s table at a restaurant and dropping your prototype on the table, say ‘here you are, look at this’ and just leave.
Third is the waste of time unsolicited submissions can become. Established publishers get dozens of chess, checkers, monopoly and snake and ladders variants each year. All from good-minded but absolutely clueless people who expect them to read through their rules, play their prototypes and come back to them with feedback and of course a publication contract. After the first hundred such submissions the fun starts to wear off it and you become much more stern and terse in your replies. In English as in many other languages, no is a complete sentence.
Fourth is the lack of context around the submissions received. When a publisher learns about a hot prototype on a fair, during a convention or while discussing with his fellow publishers and designers, he knows what to expect and can already form a mental picture of the prototype’s interest before he actually plays it. This helps him shape a decision, and understand if the game will fit in his collection. Unsolicited submissions lack these contextual elements. Maybe the designer has no clue about my editorial line and will just waste my time with a historically accurate solo game even though I make it clear on my website that I only publish games with non historical themes, and multi-player games. Maybe he will send me a children game while I only publish complex economic simulation games, etc.
Events and fairs, contests
Year long, in the US and in Europe as well as in Asia, conventions, fairs and events are organised. Many of these are good occasions for a designer to play-test his prototypes and garner publisher attention. Events are very important in this business as board games professionals come from all over the world so they don’t see each other everyday at the office. Conventions and fair are the boardgames equivalent of the coffee corner, a place to gather with your colleagues, and catch up on the latest gossip and info. They provide a good time for meetings, and usually there is a lot of business going on. If you tour your prototype in these events and it’s any good, the word will get out, and you will end up discussing with publishers. It’s that simple.
There are also events specially targeted at unpublished designs, such as the aptly named ‘UnPub’ gatherings. Even though all publishers might not be attending, rest assured they keep an eye on what happens there too.
There are also some yearly contests specially set up for unpublished games. Many of the prototypes winning these design contests end up published, the organisers of these contests actively work at promoting the winning games with publishers, and publishers do keep an eye on these contests as well.
Outside the hectic animation and stress of the conventions and events, many game groups hold weekly meetings. Some just play the last hot titles and have no interest in prototypes, but other actively seek and welcome unpublished games at their meetings. They blog or tweet about the games they have played, and are also a very good resource for playtesting and for building up a reputation for your design.
So the best way to get a game published is to show it around during conventions, weekends, fairs, and gatherings, tour gaming groups, build up a reputation around it, and only then request an appointment with the publisher to present him the prototype.
Changes will happen - make sure the designer understands and agrees with that
As stated above, some designers expect their finished design to be published as is, and some publishers expect to do a lot of development work on the games they publish. When both meet, sparks can fly.
It is therefore important that this aspect be discussed very early on when the designer and publisher agree on publishing the game. Each party should make the level of involvement he expects very clear from the start on.
Here again, nothing screams ‘clueless noob’ as a designer coming to a publisher with his prototype and stating up front that he will accept no changes whatsoever to his design during the publication process. Publishing a game is a team work between the designer and the publisher, and I regard it as crucial that both parties acknowledge from the start on that changes will happen. Designers that don’t should consider self-publishing.
Documenting and versioning changes
Once collaboration between the designer and the publisher starts, it is very important that communication flows well, and that the changes and evolutions are documented in a structured manner.
This might seem a useless burden, especially for small projects, but I have heard so many stories from publishers and designers about an ‘old rule’ making it through the proofreading and into the published game that I think its worth your attention.
It also is more and more common that the publisher and designer live in separate parts of the world, and develop and play-test in parallel. You need a very good and efficient organisation to make sure everyone stays on the same page no matter how long the development process takes.
The very first and most important step is to add dates and version numbers to all your files : rules, components, notes, ... if I have ‘rules.doc’, ‘rules-current.doc’, ‘rules-work.doc’ and rules-1.doc’ , which is the latest version ? It becomes much easier if I have ‘rules_001_23jan2013.doc’, ‘rules_003_04apr2013.doc’ and ‘rules_002_14feb2013.doc’.
The same goes with playtesting sessions : take the habit of stating the date, place, and name of playtesters on top of your playtesting notes, and to write the debriefing conclusions and actions to take under the play-test report. Even better, print out report forms with spaces for these informations.
Here are some of the fields that your playtest report forms should have :
Date and time
Start time and end time of the playtest (to mesure game duration)
number of players, name of the players (for the playtest credits and for your reference)
version of the rules used for the playtest
variants or changes in effect during this playtesting session
a space for your notes during play
a space for playtesters' comments after the game
a list of actions to take and changes to consider
Later on when you will browse through these notes you will be able to retrace the decisions taken along the game’s development, put them in context and maybe question them in order to further develop the game. If at all possible, take the time to transcript your notes in a computer document afterwards. Structured notes and documents are easier to share and provide excellent communication tools when working remotely on the same game.
It is also interesting to write a development/design diary during the development phase. publishing this diary when you are about to release the game makes a good communication and marketing opportunity as gamers like to read that kind of 'behind the scenes' material.
Once all is set and you have a ‘golden’ version of the game, also take the habit of creating a ‘final’ folder and placing a copy of all files there. If you further make changes to some of the files, update the ‘final’ folder accordingly. When you eventually go to print, it will make it much easier to get the right version to the printer.
Designer, playtesters and developer - whose game is it ?
Publishing a board game is a team work. The designer is the starting point, and deserves the credits - his name should pro-eminently appear on the box front. He’s also the one receiving the royalties.
However, the playtesters and developers all play an important part in turning the designer’s initial prototype into a finished, publishable product. They should also be credited, usually at the end of the rules book. They usually don't receive royalties, although this can vary from publisher to publisher.
So to me, a ‘game designer’ usually really means he is the ‘lead designer’. There is a whole team of playtesters and developers that have helped him along the way.