Monday, October 16

Choices and Long Term Goals

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how I was forming a Board of Advisers to help provide input on my plans and give me advice on how to be more successful. I sent the first report to them last week and got some really useful feedback, including a long email from Brett Gilbert, designer of Divinare, Elysium and Professor Evil and the Citadel of Time. I've know Brett since my Reiver Games days when he submitted one of my favourite prototypes to me. He lived fairly locally, so we met a few times to discuss it, but sadly it went no further. In the meantime, Brett has co-founded the Cambridge Playtest UK group, been recommended for a Spiel des Jahres for Divinare and nominated for a Kennerspiel des Jahres for Elysium. So he struck me as a perfect candidate for the Board, and I was delighted when he accepted. His response to that first report was great, it really made me think about why I'm doing this. I've reprinted (with his permission!) an excerpt from his email below, along with my response - since I figure you guys might be interested too!

Perhaps the biggest question that this report doesn’t answer is what your long term goals are. You have a clear focus on hand-crafted games (and that’s a noble aim!), but you also raise the threat that a crowded internet space, in which other creators are drowned out by the noise of big Kickstarter campaigns, puts on your ambitions. KS is here to stay, and it has completely changed the landscape.

The best thing about the internet, as someone once observed, is that it makes everyone a publisher; and the worst thing about the internet is... that it makes everyone a publisher.

So. I'm just going to put something out there, just to see how it sounds…

Why are you laboriously hand-crafting games if your finished product is designed to look just like something that’s mass-produced? Zombology seems to be a POD product, just with *way* more leg-work for you. There are few exemplars of artisanal game-makers; indeed the only one I can think of is Gavin Birnbaum (Cubiko, Jam Sumo) — but he literally hews his games from lumps of wood, crafting objects with the spirit of a piece of art. That’s his thing, and he does it really well (and Jam Sumo is an absolutely cracking game), but every single one of his ‘pieces’ are unique and literally unattainable by other means — and buyers know that; they *feel* it. It takes him all winter to make 30 games. Their preciousness is *why* they are sought after — but also the thing that limits his success. Do you expect — *can* you expect — your buyers to have the same reaction to a box of Zombology?

This may feel like too harsh or too profound a judgement, but if you want to become an artisan rather than just a designer or a publisher, then the soul (for want of a better word) of your product has to be the thing that sells it. But if your goal is to make games — rather than crafted objects that are *also* games — then it seems as though hand-crafting your games will only slow your ambitions down.

I appreciate that this may not be the sort of feedback you were hoping for. But I hope there is something here to inspire you!
Hiya Brett,

You’ve raised a couple of great questions and ideas there, ones that deserve a reasoned response.

I’m a maker of things. At times it’s been (bits of) computer games, game designs, painted miniatures, mini scenery, hand-crafted games, mobile apps and hand-crafted games again. I’m much happier making something that I can be proud of than reading a book or watching TV or a movie. In the words of Race for the Galaxy I would rather Produce than Consume.

I enjoy designing games, I enjoy playtesting them. I love doing the graphic design (though I’m not great at it) and will give doing the art a go too (I’m pretty bad at this though, see Border Reivers and Zombology). I also love physically making games. Yes, it’s hard work and yes it’s time consuming, but I enjoy doing it, and doing it well so that I can look at the final product and be proud of the quality I’ve achieved.

You describe three different routes: the standard publisher/Kickstarter, my halfway house with hand-crafted games that aim for almost professional quality and hand-crafting works of art like Cubiko. Why have I chosen the route I have, and where am I aiming to take this? I’ll answer the first one first!

I’ve got previous self-publishing games. One of the things I learnt during my Reiver Games days is that I’m a pretty bad judge of what makes a popular game, more so if it’s one I’ve designed myself and I don’t have the distance to be able to judge objectively.

To Kickstart a game successfully you need great art (which I can’t do, so I’d have to pay for) and to be a great marketer (which I’m definitely not). I could easily throw a few grand at trying to Kickstart Zombology and fail due to my own shortcomings as a marketer, regardless of the quality of the game. I’m also uncomfortable with the ‘money up front before the product exists’ model of Kickstarter. The effort required to fulfill a Kickstarter quanity of orders and then try hawking the remaining stock to distributors and shops is also more time than I’m prepared to invest around a young family and a busy job with a reasonable amount of work travel.

Hand-crafting takes time

The route I’ve chosen is also quite a lot of work, but I know exactly how much (it’s going to take 150 hours to make the print run) and it’s something I’m good at and enjoy. Sure, the fact that I’m only making a few games a week is slowing me down, I could sell the games faster if they were in boxes filling my garage (like the good old days!). But this is a halfway house and I’m reasonably confident I can sell 200 games (I’ve sold 300 hand-made games in a year before, though admittedly before Kickstarter).

The true artist’s route would require a different type of game, maybe I’ll design one of those in the future, but the only way I could do that with Zombology is to hand-paint the cards and I don’t have the skills for that.

To answer your second question (what are my long term goals), I want to continue sharing my games with gamers and hopefully bringing some fun to their lives through my games. I've invested £1,000 in the company. That's a chunk of money: not so much that I'd cripple myself if I lost it all but nor is it enough to do much in the games business. I've a plan I think I can deliver in 2017/18 to turn that into a slightly larger pot of money. If Zombology does well, I'll have more money to invest in my next game and so on. The hand-made print run is small enough that I believe I can sell it all, but large enough that the economies of scale mean I can do it at a reasonable price and still make a profit. Over time maybe I can build up enough reputation, brand awareness, customer loyalty and cash on hand that I can do a larger, professional print run, but unlike last time I do not want to rush it and end up losing money. If Zombology is hugely popular then I'm happy for someone else to publish it via Kickstarter or whatever, but that's not what I'm good at or nor what I want to spend my evenings doing.

I've got a day job that pays a decent salary and a family that I have a responsibility to help support. I'm not looking to quit my day job and start a publishing company again. Last time I invested a huge chunk of my life insurance payout and lived off another chunk for a couple of years. I didn't earn a salary for two years and managed to recoup only a third of what I'd invested in the company. Two years without any earnings, pension contributions, etc. I'll not be doing that again. I want to create a company that lets me fund my games design hobby, slowing growing over time while allowing me to share my designs with gamers so that those games can live outside of my games room and hopefully bring some fun to gamers I don't know and will likely never meet.

Monday, October 9

Quarterly Update

Eurydice Games is just over two months old and has completed its first calendar quarter. It's been a busy one, with most of my focus (unsurprisingly) on Zombology.

Zombologys ready to ship

At the very end of July I officially formed the company and requested a bank account. During a busy August I spent a week in the US for work, then ordered and collected the Zombology artwork from the printers and then went to The Netherlands for a week's holiday. When I got back I could finally crack on.

The website went live, I shipped the proof copy to Derek (who didn't get either of the versions I had previously sent him due to the vagaries of the South African postal service) and I began making copies in earnest.

September was all go. I had intended to make 23 copies (which I did with 1.5 hours to spare!) and ship the first 20 pre-orders. With a busy first couple of weeks (four evenings written off by work travel, friends visiting for a weekend and preparing for Daughter the First's birthday party), I got off to a slow start, but things soon picked up.

It turns out the 4.5 hours I need to make six copies equates to three or four post-bedtime evenings (by the time we've got the kids to bed, eaten and tidied up there's not a lot of time before I need to go to bed, seeing as I can be up very early with Daughter the Second). So the second half of September felt like I hardly saw The Wife, but I got it done. I think that now I've nearly fulfilled all the pre-orders I'm going to slow my construction down to six copies (the number of boxes I can make from a single sheet of SRA2 greyboard, and hence my batch size) every ten days, rather 6 copies every seven days - that way I should be able to cram in some time with the family too.

I didn't quite hit the target of 20 sales (I had enough games and enough pre-orders but a couple of the pre-orders have gone dark and probably won't actually buy and I was trying to only email people when their copy was ready to post, so it moved quite slowly from my end).

Things are looking pretty good for October, I've already sold five of my target of 12 and have another six pre-orders I'm confident that I can sell to and deliver this month. By the 20th I hope to have built up stock for the first time, at which point I can make it for sale on my website and the BGG marketplace.

I'm also hoping to get a couple of reviews in the next few weeks, which might lead to some sales if I'm lucky!

Monday, October 2

Board of Advisers

One of the advantages of running a larger company is that you have people around the office to bounce ideas off and a corporate board to whom you are accountable. As a sole trader, I have neither of those things.

So I've decided to form a board of advisers instead. I've invited a group of friends whose opinions I respect, plus designers and publishers I know and a couple of people with business experience. Unlike a corporate board these people have no legal responsibility and will not get vast wealth through share allocation - they are just doing this as a favour to me, for which I am extremely grateful.

Bristol Ruinart Boardroom Meeting by Hotel du Vin Bistro
Bristol Ruinart Boardroom Meeting by Hotel du Vin Bistro on Flickr

Obviously I don't want to take the mick, so I'll just be sending them a quarterly report of my progress, successes, failures and challenges and hopefully I'll get some other perspectives and great advice as a result.

The first report goes out this week, I'm excited to see how their different viewpoints can help me be more successful.

Monday, September 25

Working in the Cloud

Back when I started Reiver Games in 2006 there wasn't a lot of cloud functionality (I had GMail, that was about it). I didn't own a smartphone or a tablet. My bookkeeping was done on paper (in a physical ledger book), all the spreadsheets I had of game manufacturing details, orders, sales tracking, etc. were OpenOffice (it's free!) spreadsheets on my laptop.

As someone who traveled a lot for work it made running the business quite awkward. I would only be able to update things properly at home. Doing my books turned into a weekly, then monthly and then yearly nightmare. I could only respond to emails when sat at a computer with a physical internet connection. It made things harder and less productive.

This time round I'm approaching things differently. I've a smartphone with a decent data plan that I can use in the UK, Europe and the US. So I can check and respond to emails at home, on the move, at lunch or even while travelling abroad.

Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr
Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr

I've made a concious decision to host as much of my Eurydice Games stuff as possible in the cloud. My books are online, so I can update them as soon as I receive an order or incur an expense, keeping them up to date like this removes the horror of the 'my taxes are due. Quick! Let's catch up the months of bookkeeping I've been putting off!'. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my task list is in Trello which I can access from my laptop, from my iPad and my phone. If I think of a cool idea I can just write it down.

I use Evernote to record information about the game ideas I have in flight - so I've got notes, rules, ideas all written down and accessible from all my devices.

I even use the CC (Creative Cloud) version of InDesign and Illustrator for the graphic design of my games, so I can work on them while travelling too.

Having all this data and information available while out of the house, on a trip to the US for work, on the train to Manchester or at lunchtime means I can be more productive and have to keep less stuff in my head. It's a great way to work and I really appreciate the improvement over the first time round.

Monday, September 18

I Need Data!

This time round I want to do a better job than I did with Reiver Games. Reiver Games was actually pretty successful during the first couple of years when I was hand-crafting Border Reivers and first edition of Its Alive! It wasn't until I tried to make the jump to professional publisher that it all went wrong.

There are a large number of reasons why it went wrong, but one of the most egregious was my inefficient use of my time in the professional phase of Reiver Games. To compound matters, I kept very little data on the things I was doing and how well they worked, so it was difficult to determine what was the best thing to be doing anyway.

This time round I'm trying to keep better information so that I can use that to inform decisions, especially around how best to use my limited time. I'm keeping track of what sources lead to Zombology orders, web traffic to my blog and website and twitter analytics. I'm even trying to get very accurate information about how long it takes to make each part of the games too (a set of cards take 21 minutes to cut out and then another 4 minutes to round the corners and pack them in the box!).

I'm not making much use of this data yet, but once I've collected a decent amount of it I can start using it to drive some of my decision making - hopefully leading to higher productivity or better marketing efforts.

In other news, I've started shipping Zombology to my pre-orders. Only three so far, but I've now got a stock of games so I can start working through the list. I'm hoping to make at least twenty copies this month, so hopefully a decent chunk of my pre-ordering customers will get their games soon!

Monday, September 11

Habitual Game Designer

Daniel Pink (author of Drive) sent me to the Farnham Street blog this week and I ended up reading this blog post about Habits vs. Goals. It got me thinking about my approach to running Eurydice Games.

This time round I'm far more organised than I was during my Reiver Games days - I've written a business plan and I've a Trello board with all my tasks in. I set myself deadlines that are aggressive (I hit most of them in July, but missed a lot in August due to work travel and holidays).

What I need to do to be successful is to maximise the impact I get from the very limited amount of time I have to work on this around my day job and my family life. I need to build a set of habits that enable me to get loads done without stressing me out. Making them habits means they just become a natural part of my week rather than something I'm straining to achieve and stressing about.

I've already got habits in place for social media (twitter, BGG and Google+) plus blogging, hopefully these will allow me to raise enough awareness for me to find the 197 customers I need to sell out of Zombology. The next most obvious thing to add is actually crafting the games I'm trying to sell. If I habitually make five games each week I will finish building the print run for Zombology in nine months - i.e. the end of May next year. That would be great.

As part of my approach of continuous improvement I'll be reviewing my achievements each month and I can adjust my habits accordingly.

Monday, September 4

Small Print Runs are Liberating

Most people designing and self-publishing board games are turning to Kickstarter to share them with the world. There are a lot of advantages to this (not least getting a good idea of the market size and not having to front the all of the production costs yourself), but I've chosen a different route. I've mentioned before why I don't like Kickstarter (see here, here and here).

But there are distinct advantages to the opposite approach too:
  • Knowing what you're getting into up front
  • Personal connection with your customers
  • Personal connection with the games
  • Freedom to do the unusual

Knowing what what you're getting into up front

I've not done a Kickstarter and I've only backed two, but reading Brandon the Game Dev, you need to have art ready to go before you start your Kickstarter. So unless you are or you know really well, an artist you're already a few thousand pounds out of pocket before you start. Then, with pledges and stretch goals you don't really know what you're getting into until the day the campaign finishes, when you have hundreds or thousands of people out of pocket awaiting you to deliver on your promises. That's stress I could do without.

I knew before I spent any money that I was risking £785 of my own money on Zombology. No more, no less. I've spent that £785 and now I'm just waiting to see how much of it I can recoup/will I make a profit to invest in my next game. 80 odd orders and I break even, 100 odd and I fund the other things like website costs and other game development costs. All 200 and I make a small profit to reinvest in my next game.

Because I've funded it myself there's no-one out of pocket but me, I'm not taking money from my customers until I have their games ready to ship, so it's no risk for them, which eases the pressure a bit, seeing as I'm not sitting on a pile of other people's money with obligations to deliver.

Personal connection to the customers

Lots of the pre-orders I've received so far are from people who bought games from Reiver Games. They are people who've supported my games designing and publishing over the last thirteen years. I've never met many of them (they are worldwide), but I feel like we have a connection and I hugely value their support.

Selling hand-crafted games direct lets you form a bond with the customer in a way that selling to distributors who sell to shops who sell to customers really doesn't. Plus, hand-crafting the games lets you personalise them a bit too - with signed and numbered copies each of which can have a personalised message inside.

Personal connection to the games

As awesome as it is to walk down the aisle of a dusty warehouse surveying the pallets on which your games are piled, it's not the same as making the game yourself. Personally cutting the box net, folding it, taping it and then applying the label. Folding the rules sheet and the individually cutting out each card and then rounding their corners gives you a close bond to each and every copy. Time is money. Doubly so when you have a busy job and a young family. That I've devoted 45 minutes to the construction of each and every copy makes them more valuable to me and hopefully to you.
Zombology before I start crafting it

Freedom to do the unusual

I've got 200 copies of Zombology to sell, probably 195 after review copies and a copy for myself. Of the 7.4 billion people in the world I need to find only 195 that are willing to part with a tenner for my game. In that position, I can afford to make a quirky game that appeals to a niche within the strategy gaming niche market. If you're kickstarting a game it needs to appeal to as many people as possible to increase its chance of funding. Glorious art, loads of minis, popular mechanics. I can afford to try something a little more off the beaten track (e.g. semi-cooperative) and do the art myself (with crowd-sourced art direction!).

It's liberating doing small print runs and now I've started making the games I'm really appreciating the route I've taken once again.