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6 - Convincing an incredulous crowd that the nightmare has begun ...
Ah , the (in)famous quest for a publisher! Let 's face it, this is not the moment I prefer in the course of bringing a game to life, from its initial design spark to reaching a shop’s shelves. I have to swap my game designer hat for a salesman one. If during the first phase, I am free of my choices, and the rhythm with which I proceed, during the search for a publisher, I must necessarily defer to the decision of others, at a pace of their own choosing.
But first, an important question ... Who am I going to show this game to?
Usually, I work as follows: when a prototype is ready, I present it in parallel to several publishers, all chosen based on the adequacy between the nature of my game and the editorial focus of the publisher. And the quality of their editorial work. I attach great importance to the aesthetic quality of the final game object. As I know I won’t have more than an advisory role in what the final illustrations will be (something which I find normal: to each its own prerogatives and field) , I try to steer away from those publishers whose visual style I don’t share (this is not a value judgment, just a matter of personal taste).
In short, I offer my prototype to a wide range of potential publishers, and then, clearly, I sign with the first of them offering me a suitable publishing contract. Not because I want to put pressure on publishers along the lines of "answer me quickly; otherwise if you snooze, you’ll lose", but simply out of respect for everyone, and so that I don’t end up telling a "small" publisher "Thank you, it's nice of you to offer to publish my game, but before I give you my final answer, I'll still wait to see if Ravensburger or Hasbro might not be interested!".
But for this game, it turns out I will opt for a different approach: The game components I have put together to get a playable prototype are substantial, to say the least. This means that in order to produce a game with such a plethora of components, I need to focus on a publisher with the means to print a sizeable first run. Not 3000 copies, which would guarantee a suggested retail price of $90 or worse. And since I really believe in this project, I also need to make sure this publisher will have sufficiently deep pockets to be able to immediately reprint the game should it take off and encounter commercial success right from the start.
By then, I’ve come to an evidence: I should try my luck with Days of Wonder. I know the team well (we have already worked together on several games), I have great confidence in their artistic direction led by Cyrille Daujean , they publish very few games and, thanks to locomotives like Ticket to Ride, Memoir '44 and Smallworld, they seem to have the wherewithal required to produce this game; and, as a nice additional bonus, again thanks to the locomotives already mentioned above, they have access to an impressive worldwide distribution network, guaranteed to give my game some visibility should they decide to publish it.
On the other hand, and for the same reasons, I know the obstacles that I face well, in trying to convince them:
➢ Although I know them well, I have no special access and this is no guarantee. In recent years, I presented several projects to them, that they did not hesitate to turn down. Normal. This is the rule of the game.
➢ They generally publish about one game per year. And are constantly solicited. The competition will be tough. Very tough.
➢ And worst of all ... my project does not easily fit their editorial policy: DOW is well known for publishing family games, clever ones that might appeal to gamers, but family games nonetheless. And generally-speaking, even one could certainly try and play Heliopolis lightly, I know this is definitively more of a gamers’ game; At least one or two notches above their usual fare.
But a race is never lost before it even starts. So I decide to try my luck and present my game, at first, to Days of Wonder exclusively. Before approaching them frontally, I want to see if I can manage to arouse their interest with an advanced pitch only. So, I (shamefully) borrow the technical resources of one of my play-testers, François (matinciel), who runs the blog lerepairedesjeux.fr. On his blog, François offers explanations of various game rules in short video stories that help convey the fun of a game via the web. As a result, in his garage, he’s assembled a makeshift video studio that allows one to shoot quality videos on a green background. All this in Annecy, a few minutes from my home. Thanks to his equipment and know-how I record two mini-videos of my prototype, one describing the general material, the other one explaining the rules. François helps me produce a few video overlays to better explain the ins and outs of the game. This allows, me a few days later, to send links with passwords to the appropriate members of the DOW team in Paris to test the waters…
Very quickly thereafter, I get Adrien (Mr. DOW France) on the phone. He tells me that à priori this game system looks very interesting, but he remains very careful at this stage. Anyway, I would be highly suspect of any publisher who’d tell me they want to publish this game just based on an explanation of the rules. The good news is that my video presentation has made him want to play the game. We make an appointment and I take advantage of a planned trip to Paris to visit their office and play a first test game with the team.
We're in mid-February 2013 when I show up at the Paris offices of Dow. We play two games back to back. This is a good sign but it does not guarantee anything. I sense that much of the team in Paris would be excited to work on this project. But I also know that the final decision rests with the parent company in the United States.
A few days later I get a phone call from the big boss in San Francisco, Eric. He just wants to say Adrien gave him a favorable report of my visit in Paris, of the games they played, and the rather favorable impression he left them with. He tells me he wants to play the game for himself to get a first-hand opinion, and they will do so in several weeks, in May, when their two teams meet. Personally, it suits me well. We had discussed this a bit with Adrien already. There were two options: either send the proto quickly to the U.S. and let the team there discover and play the game on their own; or be patient and wait for their upcoming company gathering, allowing the players in Paris who have already digested the game system to present it to their US colleagues in person. The second solution diminishing the risk of completely missing out on the game for whatever reasons, it suits me perfectly. I take Eric’s call as an opportunity to discuss. I said my "concern" among the target audience of the game and the usual range of Dow the issue of this game’s complexity in complete transparency. And there, good news, I hear Eric tell me: "Right now, I’m thinking we might be at the right juncture in time to publish one truly great gamer’s game, as opposed to one more family game" ... which gives me hope things might come together!
Between that day in mid-February and Dow’s future response in May, I have two important events awaiting me:
➢ the now-incontournable Cannes Game Festival first: The off-festival will be a comfortable place to play a few games with experienced players (a friendly wink to Francois Descamps of Descartes Bordeaux, the Paris East game team, and Martin Vidberg who all volunteered to be my guinea pigs). I know the DoW team members present at the show are looking at the players' reactions from the corner of their eyes, even asking some for their first impressions. Again, the reactions are uniformly positive.
➢ Bruno Faidutti’s famous Ludopathic Days: imagine 60 or so players, most of them veterans, half of them either authors themselves or game publishers, meeting in the middle of nowhere for 48 hours of non-stop gaming. Heliopolis gets played without interruption. And the best sign is that when I am not available, busy playing or explaining another game, the players who have already played with my prototype all volunteer to explain it themselves to their new partners.
Another surprise — the following week, I get an email from a foreign publisher that has played the game in Etourvy, giving me a firm publishing proposal, even though I wasn’t actively looking for a publisher during this week-end! A publisher with whom I also love to work with, but given the progress already made with Dow, they have the priority.
In early May, the long-awaited phone call arrives. It’s a YES. I know I'm going to have to wait a good year before the game gets on some store shelves. But I'm in heaven. And what makes me most happy is that I have the impression they are as excited as I am!
But first I need to revisit the theme. Indeed, the big boss at DoW has told me that given how few games DoW publishes, it would make no sense for them to release two titles with a similar theme. And they have already released "Cleopatra and the Society of Architects". A game I designed, to top it off! So we need to find something else….
And this other thing is… the 1001 Nights! Quite honestly, today I can’t remember if this idea came from me or them, but it doesn’t matter, because I really like it! The adaptation is obvious: Merchants, High Dignitaries, Architects and Assassins can remain what they are. Priests can become Fakirs. And the Gods be replaced by formidable Djinns... And then the mysteries and flavors of the Orient, the 1001 nights, all this lends itself perfectly to a warm and colorful graphic atmosphere.
7 - And now what?
Here we are... the story ends.
Here's how a small prototype first played on a wintery Friday night has grown and matured into something much more substantial.
The story ends, or rather, it’s just about to begin.... Because the game is now entering another phase: the edition of the game itself. Choosing an illustrator, doing the graphics, etc etc ... and above all, soon, the game will begin living its own life, in the hands of players worldwide. By then, it will largely be out of my hands…
A bit like your children grow and begin to leave the cocoon (I write these lines the day of the 20th birthday of my son... the parallel is only louder) .
I confess that I await this confrontation between the game and its public with as much impatience as anxiety. What if the game is misunderstood? If it doesn’t find its public, or if the first review it receives is a devastating one that nips this game’s potential in the bud? Or if the year it’s published, there also comes out the absolute must-play game of world famous author Antoine Felzia?
I really love this project; I poured so much of myself in it, I cannot help but be anguished at the thought that it might become forgotten only a few months after its release...
I find myself somewhat in the position of the guy who bet 12 to be first... but who can’t help think there might still be someone who bets on 18!
Waiting for the game to come out, I’m going to spend this year touring game festivals. Well, a lot of festivals at a minimum (my family is tolerant but I can’t be gone all the time): Cannes, St Herblain, Ludinord, Toulouse, Etourvy, Gencon, Roanne (yes, Roanne !) . I’ll take the prototype with me, for sure. So don’t hesitate to come out and play (yes I say play, because the tests are completed now) so that you can make an opinion for yourself.
If you like it, talk about it around you and once it comes out, go buy it for yourself and your friends! And if you don’t like it, go and buy it for your enemies!
Mid-February, after completing the bulk of Heliopolis, I looked back on my very first little prototype. Because if I carried over the system of seeding moves à la Awele, I have not used its vicious system of final scoring. Suddenly, with that same small initial prototype, I see how I can keep the scoring system which I loved, while dropping the “seeding moves” system that is now part and parcel of Heliopolis. Leaving me with an idea of a game for two, and introducing a system of mutual constraints between the two opponents, I will come up with… Longhorn! But that’s for another story...
I don't think you need to worry about Five Tribes being quickly forgotten, Bruno. Your prototype at the Gathering of Friends was superb - a classic design that should remain entertaining for years. I can't wait to have a copy of my own.
What a wonderful journey through the design process! Thank you for sharing. You are a talented writer, along with game designer! I look forward to playing this game someday soon.
- Last edited Tue Jun 3, 2014 9:06 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Jun 3, 2014 9:06 pm
What a great read! The only designer diary I've read that goes from inception to a publishing deal. Five Tribes looks gorgeous and I'm excited to give it a play.
That was an awesome story!! I was biting my nails reading this fifth part. Thanks for sharing this little diary. I have ordered my copy of 'Heliopolis' now and it's arriving next week here to Mexico. I'm pretty excited, I know I will enjoy it!!