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Small Publishers and Some Pitfalls they Don’t See Coming

February 21, 2012

Something you’ll find at most any game convention in juxtaposition to the super massive brand name companies is the tiny, sometimes single person operations that are just trying to get going. Small publishers really run the gambit in terms of games and in terms of quality. Trivial Pursuit got its start from a guy who knew he had a hit idea, and went out and made it happen himself. The problem of course becomes that everyone thinks they have that next big idea, and, statistically, they can’t all be right. I love to support small companies and indie developers in the best ways I can, but so many fall into the same traps again and again. Poor game play, bad presentation, lack of understanding of the market, and trying to package games that don’t need components, boards, or rulesets. Let me run through some major categories of problems with small developers. This isn’t because I think their games aren’t worth buying, a lot of them are very good, but with a little more effort and knowledge they could certainly be improved.

Poor Gameplay: A lot of these games can’t be saved, but they can be prevented. Play testing is an all important aspect of game design, and a lot of small publishers don’t get enough of it, if they get any at all. I’ve seen groups play test an indie game again and again, but the game never leaves the inner circle. One never knows how a stranger will react to a game, until you let a stranger play. A designer can’t see their own game clearly because so much of the game is inside their head. In my own personal experience, I created a ton of games that were junk, but I never knew until after I play tested it again and again.

Bad Presentation: While there was an era and is a culture for ziplock bag, mail away games, I think many gamers expect a certain quality from the games they buy., especially if the price is still high. No one wants to pay twenty dollars for a game that looks like it’s print and play. A lot of new publishers try and cut production costs wherever possible in an attempt to undercut big publishers. In my personal experience, most gamers believe that they get what they pay for, so if you put your $20 box next to the $50 box, it makes it look like the crappy version. Overpricing is certainly a concern, but there is an existing price structure that small publishers need to take into account when figuring into the presentation of their game. Price it well, and make sure the game delivers on that price point, from the game play to the artwork to the quality of the cardboard pieces.

Lack of Understanding: There are quite a few games marketed to the board game geek demographic that simply don’t follow the guidelines for a game that gamers would buy. I’ve seen games that don’t have win conditions, because the designer is trying to teach a specific lesson that whatever the theme is can’t be “won”. There are games that can only be played with exactly 5 people, and games that implement a wide variety of interesting features that simply can’t function in a normal human environment. Many small developers don’t make the primary goal for themselves “make a great game”, some people want to teach things, some people want to make something popular, but the primary goal should always be “make a great game”. There is a place for unique and unusual games, but its not the mass market and its not the board game geek demographic. You can do a lot within the space of a great game and any other separate goals can follow that.

Selling Tag: Finally, a major problem that I’ve seen is people trying to sell already established games by adding some small element to it. There is a lot of that, and some have been mildly successful, but it’s only ever going to occupy a space between failure and barely successful. If you’re going to try and sell poker, craps, tag, spoons, or any other game that you just need a good bicycle deck for, you’re not going to sell many. These sorts of games, can be pretty awesome if you create incredibly solid and innovative new rules, but again these games don’t really belong on store shelves. Before you consider publishing a game like that, take a look at Daniel Solis’ blog. The level of innovation in some of his games is incredible, and he maintains minimum levels of components to create some very high level play. If your game isn’t more fun than something on the internet that a person could print out and play with a deck of cards, and you’re not offering an interesting board or components, you may want to rethink your strategy.

Again, I love small publishers, and I think it’s great to get some of these ideas out into the market, but there are some serious pitfalls to developer newcomers that could be fixed with a little extra time, knowledge, and effort. A great place to get the right knowledge is at Discover Games, a website devoted to helping small publishers put the best polish on their games. Small publishers have a lot going for them, I expect to see improvements in the years to come.

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One Comment
  1. Good post. Askin’ for more! 🙂

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