I recently heard the most unlikely game announcement, so odd in fact my first thought was "Is it April already?".
Yup, from that image alone you can hear the geek bafflement and outrage echoing across internetlandia. Not only has the beloved game that is ever-so-cool-to-dis getting attention, it's doing so by joining mass market games like Monopoly by releasing a crossover so unlikely it almost has to be a poorly thought out money grab.
Or is it so poorly thought out after all? I understand the outrage, and taken on its own, Star Trek: Catan could be considered a bad thing. However, when looked at from a larger ecosystem point of view this is not necessarily a bad thing. Please bear with me a second before clicking away to froth about war-crimes being committed against a once-favored game.
Think about CATAN, as it exists. As a game concept Catan has popularized trading, modular board for variable play areas, and continuous player involvement in games like none of it's predecessors. It's broad appeal and wide ranging success has allowed the brand to offer large stable of card, dice, and board games, ranging from historical to deep space.
While many veteran gamers dismiss Catan as a game they "used to like" it remains an excellent introductory experience for many non gamers. All that it needs is a way to find new audiences. Licensing properties can allow Catan to appeal to a larger more people, even if some games based on licensing decisions don't really make any sense. My brother won't try Settlers of Catan, but if I brought a Star Trek version of the game next holiday season, I could leverage his interest in Trek into playing a Catan game.
Something to consider - what if every Monopoly game, on every store shelf, was replaced by a Catan game? (Yes, even with the same stupid themes of the Monopoly games. Sooner Catan, Simpsons Catan, Lord of the Rings Catan, Vegas Catan, the possibilities are endless.) It might not mean a massive rush of new gamers, but it would mean lots of people would be playing a significantly better game.
Exposing the wider public to the Catan system would certainly mean more people in your neighborhood would be open to these games of ours. This means you would be more likely to find gamers who you'd enjoy playing games with, even if they were lighter fare like Settlers. It might even add one or two more regulars for your local game group.
In other words I consider it well worthwhile to have Catan sell out as often as possible.
Q: What's the best way to get a small fortune in the game industry?
A: Start with a large one.
Many game designers and publishers have gone out of their way to tell would be designers that they shouldn't go into game design if they are just trying to cash in. That seems awfully selfish from a hobby that has supported cash cows like Magic, Pokemon, and anything Warhammer related. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Lately, thanks to Kickstarter, the game publishing story has gotten even more confused.
But even given all of that, how can the "no money" claim hold any water? As a hobby we don't really have that many full-time game designers, let alone any who make all of their income from designing games. I suppose Richard Garfield may have retired based on Magic sales, but designers who became wealthy off of their creations are pretty slim. When I worked at ICE we frequently received unreasonable demands from potential designers who thought they could get far more for their game idea than their game would earn in it's lifetime.
Traditional model self-stater game companies don't have good have a huge success rate. When I regularly attended Origins & GenCon I'd see a crop of new companies pop up, and they might make it to one more show the following year and then disappear. Usually those guys not only failed to make a living, but also lost a lot of money; for publishing expenses like printing, warehousing, marketing, hardware, and whatnot.
So no, with the relatively low sell through and high production expenses, there isn't usually a lot of money made from publishing games.
But where does the money go? Shouldn't the people doing all the hard work get the biggest reward?
None of it is all that easy, if it were everyone would be doing it... oh wait. Thanks to kickstarter everyone is doing. Right now it seems most kicker's have at least a similar ethic as traditional publishing companies, but as the barrier to get started lowers quality will drop.
It's not just that big companies mean better games, however all companies add a little of their company identity for games where they control the production. Some companies, like Fantasy Flight, add a lot of value unavailable elsewhere. That's not normal in the industry.
The fact remains that the hardest part is, without a doubt, creating a truly unique game that is ready to put into production. Sure, great post production helps. However our hobby has a wealth of reasonably well produced products that won't ever sell more than 15,000 copies because the game is lacking.
However it is rare that a game arrives at a publisher "ready to go". Instead they need a lot of work. At the very least they will need a rules edit, but most games need a lot of playtesting and rules massaging to actually make it acceptable to a larger audience. Publishers take up a lot of that burden.
The other thing a good publisher does is - make sure viable games are kept in print and in-stock at both the distributor and store-front level. They are also supposed to be strong marketing forces, but most publishers are weak at that.
It's possible that companies discouraging other participants in their niche are doing so for a selfish reason. Quite possible, more noise in the marketplace would detract from any marketing message. And since most game companies truly suck at marketing the buzz around kick-starter projects could move quite a bit of purchasing dollars. But really, most industry veterans know how rare it is for a new designer or company to succeed that malevolent forethought unlikely.
Besides, the publisher you are talking to will still want to publish your game if it matches their core audience.