Hi everyone. Flatlined Games is a one-man shop, operated and owned by Eric Hanuise, but there are many stakeholders to this indie boardgame publisher: designers, friends, volunteers, and of course gamers.
I think it’s time to issue a stakeholders report, and let everyone participating or interested in the success of Flatlined Games know the current status of the company.
7 years - The age of reason
I started working on Flatlined Games as soon as 2007 but the first game, Dragon rage was released end 2010. This means Flatlined Games is now 7 years old ─ the age of reason.
This is both very young for a company and a very long time in this industry. And the boardgames market has changed A LOT during these 7 years and is still evolving at breathtaking speeds.
I started this business as a sole proprietor, which is very flexible and easy but also very costly in Belgium, and I was finally able to incorporate as a Belgian law ‘SPRL’ in September 2017: Flatlined SPRL. This is mostly administrative stuff, but it will provide a good foundation to expand Flatlined Games in the future.
Money’s too tight to mention
I am still a very small, one-man indie publisher. This started as a side project, along with my daytime work as IT consultant (project management and business analysis). From 2013 to 2017 I have been able to make myself fully available for Flatlined Games. In 2017 I have moved again to daytime consulting, and I manage Flatlined Games during the evenings and weekends. This should be temporary, I will be able to resume working full time on Flatlined games when finances get better.
I view myself as extremely lucky to be able to switch back to a more reliable source of income in order to keep Flatlined Games going on. This allows me to invest the required time and resources before launching a new game instead of making bad decisions because of time and money pressure. It also makes things slower overall as no one can handle two concurrent full-time jobs continuously for a long period of time. I need time to sleep, play, and eat too!
Over these 7 years, I have released 8 games. Many are now sold out at the publisher level and some are still widely available. Here is a quick game-per-game summary of Flatlined Games current catalogue :
Dragon Rage (2010)
This fantasy wargame was a niche project, and a labour of love. I printed 1500 copies with the goal of selling out over 5 years, and I only have 6 units remaining in stock. I’ll call that a success as the projection was right. Of course the money is ridiculously low.
I think There’s still some interest for Dragon Rage, The author is working on an expansion, and I intend to offer it for reprinting through a crowdfunding campaign in the future. Most units sold in Europe, so there could be an untapped market in the US big enough to warrant a reprint.
Rumble in the House (2011) and Rumble in the Dungeon (2012)
Rumble in the House is our staple game. This mindlessly fun little party game is having a huge success worldwide, with translations in 10 languages including Russian and Chinese! Combined with Rumble in the Dungeon and the newer Chtulhu in the House (produced by CMON under license) we now crossed the 80.000 units threshold.
I have managed to keep this one in print the whole time, and it is my priority to keep it in print in the future.
Each publisher needs a staple game that continues to sell over time. Mine is Rumble, and I am very glad about this.
Twin Tin Bots (2013)
This Robot Programming game by Philippe Keyaerts (of Small World fame) had only one print run, and I think I should reprint in the future. As for Dragon Rage, it was mostly sold in Europe, and a crowdfunding campaign could allow me to reprint it and reach the US market.
This card game by Frederic Moyersoen (of Saboteur fame) sold out over a little more than one year, and was reprinted in Russian by Zvezda. It might see a reprint in the future, but will remain for now sold out at the publisher level.
SteamRollers limited preview release(2015)
This was a return to the roots of indie board games publishing: 200 hand-assembled numbered copies, sold at the fair during Essen Spiel 2015.
The reception was overwhelmingly good, prompting me and the author to prepare a much wider reprint. More about this later ─ SteamRollers will return on Kickstarter end August.
Otter Nonsense limited preview release(2015)
Just as SteamRollers above, this was a limited 200 copies print run, to ‘test the waters’ and get feedback. The game had good reception, and I am working on making it ready for a wider release too.
Argo should have been released in 2015, but was delayed for financial reasons. Kickstarter and a partnership with German publisher Heidelberger (now Asmodee Deutschland) eventually allowed me to release this game by renowned French authors Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget. Argo is currently available at your friendly local game store, and also direct from the Flatlined Games website www.flatlinedgames.com
I have several titles in preparation for the future, but the first order of business for the time being is to reprint SteamRollers.
I have been working on a book about the trade of board games publishing since 2013. It is now well advanced and I intend to finish that book and make it available for sale. There are plenty of books on board games design but none yet on all of the other aspects of board games publishing.
Distribution and licensing
From 2011 to 2015, I have worked exclusively with Iello for distribution of Flatlined Games. First in France, then Europe and then the rest of the world. The partnership worked well in the beginning, but over time this arrangement proved unsustainable for me. The money from sales consistently diminished over time and I had to end that relationship or close shop.
I was shocked when they offered me to buy over the licenses to my published games if I was to end Flatlined Games. It all but confirmed for me that parting ways was the right thing to do.
This brought me back to square one for distribution and led to the ‘indie minimal print runs’ of Essen 2015 as well as a one year delay in releasing Argo.
It also led to a re-evaluation of my business model for foreign language releases. Until 2015, my standard operating procedure was to make a first release in 4 languages, release at Essen and then look for partners to make localized versions in other languages. I would get their translation, arrange the reprint myself, and sell them the localized copies. This is a very cash-intensive way to do things.
With my finances at an all-time low, I had to pivot to a licensing system. I will make a first edition, multilingual, and then look for foreign partners that will manufacture their own version of the game under license. With this model I get a per-copy royalty but I do not have to cover the cost of an industrial print run myself. As a print run cost several tens of thousands of euros this makes a huge difference in what I can do and avoids delaying the printing of localized versions because of me being cash-strapped.
A market evolving at light-speed
The board games market is bearing a full-blown revolution as we speak. Overall, more and more people play and buy games and this evolution has been continuing steadily for several years now. As the market expands we also see dozens of new publishers appear, and thousands of new games are now published each year. So bigger pie ─ but lots of more slices being cut.
We also see consolidation, with behemoths like Asmodee buying out smaller distributors and publishers worldwide. There has never been so much small and large companies in the boardgames market, which brings a lot of changes and growing pains. But I am certain overall that this growth is a good thing and a trove of opportunities.
Distributors that were previously focused about exclusively on local gaming retail stored are courting larger shops and chains, as the market growth opens opportunities there. You can now buy some of the more mainstream board games like Ticket to Ride, Catan or Seven Wonders at Barnes and Nobles, Sears, and other similar chains. Some of these sales are to new gamers, but part of it are sales lost by the FLGS putting extra pressure on them to adapt or die.
Then there’s the evolution of retail itself. Amazon and online vendors are the main way to acquire new games for many gamers, and brick and mortar retailers must adapt to that new landscape or die. This is in fact not specific to the board games industry! look at any retail category, from high-tech to groceries, from clothing to tools and you will see that online shopping is now everywhere, for better or worse.
The last horseman of that retail-pocalypse is of course Kickstarter which revives the age-old subscription model in a modern way that is very well suited to the needs of boardgames publishers. Kickstarter allows direct sales to the gamers, without any distribution hassles. Again, for better or worse.
I have no pretension of shaping the market or resisting to these changes. As a business owner it is my job to identify the changes in the market, and to adapt to them. I like to say I am not a salmon, and I will not spend my life swimming upstream. Which bring me to...
New business model
A new business model is required for me to stay in operation in this changing market. Manufacturing games, placing them at a distributor warehouse and relying on them to do sales and solicitations requires a sizeable amount of cash on hand to start with, and is a very risky proposition. It also requires marketing and promotion efforts at a scale well beyond my reach. With the current quantity of new releases each week, no distributor can effectively promote each of my games to their retailer clients. Even them must make choices to face this flood of releases. But then what with the games that are not picked for the spotlight? Is the publisher expected to just write them off and have them destroyed? This is of course unsustainable, and more like playing the lottery than actually managing a business.
Distributors will of course be happy to carry titles that are in demand by their clients, so it’s now my job as publisher to make sure this demand exists and to build up a game’s reputation before it reached distribution ─ if it ever does.
The explosive growth of the market and of Kickstarter and online sales offers new sales channels. I view them as complementary to the ‘main’ distributor-retailer sale channel more than concurrent, and I will start to aggressively make use of these newer channels.
So my new model would be fund through Kickstarter, sell to gamers and interested retailers, sell direct and through some online channels, and then if the game reaches a high enough threshold move it through ‘classic’ distribution.
It means offering incentives to the players and stores that support us for launching new products. I have some ideas about this and I look forward to experimenting the opportunities that the new channels such as Kickstarter or direct sales offer.
I also have some ideas to support retailers in the process with models that are compatible with the way a FLGS is run: paying hundreds of euros up to a year in advance of receiving the product doesn’t work for a shop, so alternative models are required.
I will also aggressively pursue licensing with foreign partners, as a local publisher is better suited than I ever would be to release and promote localized versions of my games in their country.
The future of Flatlined Games
Here is what you can expect from Flatlined Games in the near future:
SteamRollers will return on Kickstarter. This should be around August 20-25. The game will exclusively be available through Kickstarter for a 12 month period before it becomes available in distribution. Yes, a ONE YEAR exclusive period.
After the KS campaign and until the end of the 12 month period, the only way to get the game will be through retailers that have registered with us during the KS campaign, directly from the Flatlined Games store, and on our booth during fairs and conventions.
This should make SteamRollers a sought-after game, while avoiding some of the darker effects of current exclusive propositions such as overpriced resales. The one year period should allow us to establish SteamRollers as a game worthy of a wider audience for distributors or foreign language partners.
I want to finish my book on boardgames publishing and release it, so this will be the next project after SteamRollers.
There are many other boardgames that I am working on, but that will be for the future. First comes SteamRollers!
Brussels, 15 July 2017
Eric Hanuise, Founder of Flatlined Games