Thursday, November 26

Boardgame Publishing: Not for the Risk Averse

I get lots of emails from people who are interested in publishing a game of their own design. Some want to start small, like I did with Border Reivers and the limited edition of It's Alive!, others want to jump in at the deep end and get their games manufactured professionally and try to sell to shops.

To do the latter you've got to be prepared to risk a large chunk of money and hence the possibility of failure and the loss of that large chunk (or a proportion of it). I thought I'd give an example here with some numbers, so you can see what I mean. These aren't accurate figures from one of my games, but they are indicative, so not miles out either.

Let's say you're a small publisher (like the now legendary Reiver Games), who want to aim at the smaller, lighter, cheaper end of the market. You've designed a game, and you think it's a winner. You think it would sell well at around £20-25. So the first thing to do is to price up getting it made. The more copies you make the cheaper it will be per copy, but the bigger the risk involved as you will have to invest more money, and sell more copies to break even/make a profit.

To sell to shops and distributors you need to be able to make a profit when selling the games at 40% of retail: i.e. £8-£10. Out of this you need to be able to pay your overheads, wages and marketing, so you really need to be getting the games make for around 20% of retail: £4-5.

You approach a manufacturer and get some manufacturing quotes. Your quotes come back as: £9,000 for 1,000 copies (£9 per copy), £12,000 for 2,000 copies (£6 per copy) or £15,000 for 3,000 copies (£5 per copy).

If you want to only make 1,000 copies you need to either sell it at £45, sell it at £25 with almost no margin, or do something in between. Remember to make a profit you need to sell at least the break even number (if you are selling at £10 to distributors and they cost you £9, you won't break even until you've sold 90%, i.e. 900 copies, and even if you achieve a sell out, you'll only make £1,000 profit, which is probably not enough to cover your overheads, wages and marketing budget). If the market for your game at £25 is only 900 people will buy it then you will at least cover the cost of manufacturing, but you will lose money on overheads, etc.

Making 2,000 copies you need to either sell it at £30, sell it at £25 with a 66% margin, or do something in between. Now the break even number at £25 RRP is a smaller percentage of the print run (60%), but with the bigger print run this means more copies (1,200). If you manage to sell 1,200 you've covered the cost of manufacturing, but not your overheads. If you sell out, you've made £8,000 (minus overheads, wages and marketing budget), but can you sell 2,000 copies? It doesn't sound that many when you consider there are 300 million people in the US and more in Europe, but with your marketing budget what proportion of those people will hear about your games? And what proportion of those who hear about them will be interested? If the market is 900 people you will lose £7,500.

If you go for 3,000 copies then selling at £25 RRP (i.e. £10 to distributors) then you will break even at 1,500 and if you sell out you will make £15,000! Of course, that means selling even more copies. If the market for you game is only 900, then you will lose £10,500.

The million dollar question is how many copies of a game can you sell? It depends on a lot of factors. The quality of the game. The effectiveness of your marketing. The price point you've pitched at (you'll sell more games at £5 than at £50 all other things being equal). When you start out in this business you don't really know what you can achieve, that information comes from experience. If you've never made a game in your life you've no idea how many copies you can sell. If you've sold 20 games, with sales of between 1,200 and 12,000 copies you've got a much better idea of how many copies you can sell of a given game at a given price.

A further spanner in the works comes from the time to sell out. Say you make 2,000 copies and you will sell them all. Great. That's £8,000 in the bank. Minus overheads. Let's say your overheads are £1,500 a month (which includes a modest wage, warehousing and a few other things). If you sell out in a month you've made £20,000, minus the manufacturing cost: £12,000 and one month's overheads: £1,500. So £6,500 of profit. Nice work. But one month seems a little unlikely. Let's say it takes you six months to sell out. Now the overheads are £9,000 and you've lost £1,000. If it takes two years, then you'll lose £28,000!

How on earth can I still be in business I hear you ask? My overheads are extremely low (I'm still not taking a salary), and having multiple games means I've spread the risk. Also the overheads only apply once. My overheads are the same whether I have one game or several, so getting income from multiple games all offset the overheads.

For the record, It's Alive! has been out nearly 15 months and I'm still a good distance away from selling out of it.

Tuesday, November 17

Playtesters Chosen

A big thank you to everyone who volunteered to help me test the storytelling card game. In addition to those of my current playtesters who have expressed an interest, I would like to send copies to:

  • Skiznills
  • FatherPhoenix
  • jafrank

Please could you guys email me with your street addresses so I can get copies in the post to you.

Friday, November 13

The Experience

I've been enjoying the words of wisdom of Brett J. Gilbert recently. One of the things he said recently made me think, and it is the starting point for this blog post. At first I thought it was something he had said in one of his two recent blog posts, but on re-reading them I think it must of come from an email he sent me and a few other UK games designers.

What Brett said was:

... when game players (hopefully) say “I want to play that game again!” what they mean is that they want to repeat the *experience* of playing the game, something that is more than simply the sum of the game’s mechanics.

This is something I've considered in the past when discussing Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game. BSG:TBG is a fairly simple game when you get down to the mechanisms involved, but the experience (when played with the right group of people) is much better than the sum of the mechanics. It's a game of paranoia, suspicion and table talk. Everyone is trying to uncover the hidden traitor, except the hidden traitor who is trying to frame someone else without being too obvious. It's a game where a lot of the fun comes from accusing everyone around you of being a "frakking toaster" (the TV show's TV-friendly swear word, and epithet for the TV show's robotic bad guys who are all chromed up - like a toaster). It's a huge amount of fun.

Why bring this up now? I've been sent a submission fairly recently that's tickled my fancy. In the two months since I received it I've played it with a bunch of people, who have all been entertained by it. Those of you who stalk me on the internet will probably know I've been enquiring about artists for it, and looking for North American playtesters for it.

It's different from the other games I've done. It's a pure card game (no components other than cards) and it's a very simple game, strategically very simple. But the experience makes it something more than the mechanisms would have you believe. It's a story-telling game, driven by your handful of cards. There's no deep, overarching strategy: you play the cards you've got. What makes it so entertaining is the cards themselves. Some of them are sensible, some of them are funny by themselves, but when you combine them in one of the 260,000 possible combinations even the straight ones often end up in hilarious stories.

Is this game going to wow fans of deep strategic eurogames? Probably not. But I think it might sell very well, especially in America (where most of my business is), if I can just get the marketing right. It's a silly, funny game, that could potentially appeal to the legions of Munchkin fans in addition to anyone else with a sense of humour.

It's still early days - I've been constructing playtesting copies to send to my playtesters. I need more feedback. Is it really funny? Could it be funnier? Is it too simple? Too complex? More information will help inform my publishing decision. But at the moment I think I'm onto a winner...

Tuesday, November 10

Looking for More Playtesters

It's that time again. I've received a submission that I need to get playtested more widely. In particular I want to find playtesters from North America (the best market for this game, I believe).

The game is a fun, silly, card game for 2-6 players than plays in less than 30 minutes. It's very language dependent (hence I'm not looking for European playtesters, I can't see I'll sell many copies there), since it's a fantasy-themed storytelling game.

If you're up for some light-hearted, simple fun, please post a comment explaining why you'd make an awesome playtester for Reiver Games. I'll pick some people (using my arcane selection criteria) and send them a copy of the game.

All I'm asking from you is that you play the game several times, keeping records of game length, scores, number of players, what everyone thought of the game and any ideas you might have for tweaks to the rules or cards.


Wednesday, November 4

You Never Stop Learning

Technically I've been in the business of making and selling games for over three years. That makes me an old hand now, right? Not really. I've only been 'professional' (not just in the sense that this is now my full-time job, but I'm also getting the games manufactured for me, and selling primarily to distributors and shops rather than direct to customers) for eighteen months and I've only had stock for the last thirteen months. I'm still doing a lot of stuff for the first time. And, as with Essen, when I'm doing stuff for the second time it's often under such different circumstances that it's hard to draw any conclusions from the past experience.

The reason I bring this up is that I've started graphing my sales over time, and it's teaching me new stuff all the time. At the beginning I assumed that sales for a new game would peak when it was released and then decline steadily over time. To some degree this statement has been true, but there have been some interesting deviations from what I expected. It's Alive! didn't sell many copies in its first quarter (but it came out in September near the end of the July - September quarter). In its second quarter (the run-up to Christmas) it did exceptionally well, helped by Essen and a few big stocking orders. Carpe Astra did much better than It's Alive! in its first quarter (the run-up to Christmas) and both did well in the first quarter of this year - when I signed the two biggest US distributors. Sumeria got off to a great start (best first quarter sales of any of my games) but then did less well in its second quarter (which for Sumeria corresponded to the Summer: July - September).

If I look at graphs plotting the sales of each game by quarter, with the x-axis corresponding to quarters since release it's hard to draw any conclusions: they are all over the place with dips and peaks that don't correspond at all (note that the last data point in each case is for this quarter which is less than halfway through):

So length of time since release is clearly not the driving factor behind how many games I'll sell in any given quarter. So what is I wonder? People say that the Summer months are often quiet, with the best sales being in the run-up to Christmas. This seems reasonable, so I've drawn the same data on a different x-axis. This time its still in sales per quarter, but the quarters relate to a single instance in time: 1 is last Summer (July - September when It's Alive! was re-released), 2 is last Autumn (October to December, including Essen, the run-up to Christmas and the release of Carpe Astra) and so on. Suddenly things become clearer:

Despite the fact that this quarter (Autumn) is only half done, all three games are showing a clear boost over the preceding Summer months. There's a noticeable decline from Autumn through Winter and Spring into Summer, before a sharp jump into Autumn again. Sumeria, which came out at a fairly quiet time, shows the same pattern, but with higher sales due to the initial stocking orders. I'm expecting a few more re-stocks before Christmas too, so hopefully the climb for this Autumn will become steeper across the board in the next couple of months.

With so little experience to base my decisions on, it's hard to see whether a game is doing well or badly. Are low sales due to the time of release, or something else? As the years go on I'll have more hard data to base my assumptions on, and can make more informed decisions as a result. The important thing is that rather than just waving a finger in the air and using gut feelings I'm collecting the data I've got so I'm more informed for next time.