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The other day I sat down with a friend of mine who is working on a game design to talk about design in general and the tabletop gaming industry as a whole. He was wondering about the next steps to take toward publication once his design is in the place where he’s ready to show it off. He was interested in my journey, successes and failures. My first game was Fleet, co-designed with Matt Riddle. We design all our games together if you’re unfamiliar with our work. Dan Patriss from the Geek Allstars started calling us the Fleeples at some point and that’s kinda stuck, so that’s us. Fleet was pitched and signed the old fashioned way by submitting it online through publishers’ websites using the “submit game ideas here” button. I suppose the real old fashioned way was a game agent or something / someone who would champion your game and walk it physically into Hasbro or one of those bigger companies. That was back in the old, discolored family photo days though, when people went to chain Americana restaurants and watched live TV, and shaved, and scored fantasy football from the paper. My brother had one of those leagues in high school. Our old fashioned way will start with the internet. Good old sitting at home eating pretzels half clothed, surfing websites and sending emails around in between watching drumming instructional videos on YouTube. I don’t drum btw. Where were we? Ya, right, so Eagle-Gryphon was the first to get back to us, and Fleet was born. Thanks internet. But that led me to thinking about our other success paths too and what advice would I give someone new who certainly has limited time and probably limited travel budget, cause who doesn’t?
First off, a public service announcement: Make a great game. That’s the most important thing. Make a super great game. Test it. Work on it. Test it more. Etc. Do that until it’s the best possible game you can make. The market is heavily crowded right now, so figure out what’s special about your game and make that stand out. Your game needs a hook or else it’s gonna get lost in the noise. Matt and I have done our best over the years here, and some of you will no doubt take exception to the notion that our games are all great. But we thought they were. And the publishers and playtesters did too, so we did do the work. (Some of them aren’t great as it turns out. I didn’t say this was easy right?)
Ok, you have a great game. It’s special and worth publishing. Let’s get to it. Let’s maximize your time and other resources and get this baby sold. Where have others found success? I’m glad you asked. Here are the paths we’ve used:
The Internet – This is gonna be any form of sitting at home networking without pants on. Or in public on your phone. Hopefully with pants on. Emails, Twitter, Facebook, publisher website submissions, BGG, Slack, Instagram, God forbid Reddit, etc. Our preferred self-marketing platform is Twitter (@pinchback21 @mdriddlen). Gamers, publishers, artists, and designers are all over Twitter. And they’re nice. It’s a fun community over there, and for some reason it’s slower to spiral downward into the depths of despair like Facebook groups can. I love the tweets. I have a problem most likely. But so does everyone else. So use it.
Shockingly enough, the rest of the options past the internet require you to actually leave your house and talk to people. This might be uncomfortable, but it’s super important. Having great games is probably only 60% of the job. Being someone publishers want to work with is HUGE. So you have to get out there. That means conventions big and small. The reality is, the more you do the in-person work, the more effective your online work becomes. It’s a positive feedback loop. Oh hey, I met that woman in person, she was cool. Follow on Twitter, follow back, networking ensues.
Unfortunately, I’m only going to be able to rate the conventions we’ve attended, but from talking to many designers, I will be able to at least comment on the other big ones and slot them into where they probably fall as far as bang for the buck time and money spent once we’re all done. Also, I’m from North America, so that’s my paradigm.
So here we go, the Fleeples spend 6 years going to conventions. Here’s the basic breakdown:
Origins - Where gaming begins! – This one is easy. Go to Origins. You’ll see once I crunch the data. It’s the perfect blend of big convention that still feels small enough to be manageable. And publishers have time for you. See below. And then go to Origins.
Unpub (Prime) – The big Unpub in Maryland, formerly some cafeteria in Delaware. The little Unpub minis across the world are worth it as well, but please do go to the big one in Maryland. Trust me. This is the convention where a thousand or more random strangers willingly show up to play all our prototypes. You did not read that incorrectly. This actually happens. I can’t believe it either. It’s a miracle, and it’s beautiful.
Protospiel - Similar to Unpub in that it’s meant for designer testing, but in my experience it’s more designer on designer vs the general public. The Michigan one has good attendance from Mayfair usually because it’s in their backyard. And we met Matt Loomis at Protospiel who's now one of our best designer friends, so that was worth it. If you haven't bought Seikatsu yet, take a break and go pick it up. And we're back. So ya, we’ve been to the least amount of these in all honesty. Not because we didn’t enjoy it, but because of limited time and resources.
Gen Con – Gen Con is a beast. As a gamer it’s absolutely my favorite convention of the year because I love the massive crowds and the spectacle. But what about as a designer? Wait and see.
Grandcon – Slash insert your own local 1-3 thousand person convention. Prezcon, Salt Con, Dice Tower Con, whatever you have. Ours, Grandcon is pretty well represented by smaller publishers and some other medium sized ones too. These are fun as gamers and can be super good for designers. You can catch a publisher and hang out all night at one of these. Don’t sleep on smaller local cons. Also, cool story, a couple years ago Tom Vassel was just wandering around the Grandcon game room and randomly stopped to show our buddy and his wife how to play a game they were setting up. I thought that was really cool. Smaller cons are awesome.
Cons we haven’t been to yet but should be attending IMO:
More thoughts below after the ratings.
So here is the portion of our program where because I think it’ll be fun for me to write, and hopefully informative for you to read, I’m going to go through our game signings and assign credit to the method of how we signed them. Then we’ll total them up, rate the options, and you can plan your strategy accordingly. Away we go!
Fleet– Old school internet as mentioned above.
Eggs and Empires – Internet was telling us over and over that no-one wanted another blind bidding game cause they all had Raj and that was plenty. Libertalia wasn’t out yet either mind you. We heard about that one after E&E was in production. So nobody wanted more blind bidding, but I packed this proto in my backpack as we headed to Origins. Eagle-Gryphon said, “I love Raj, sure send me a proto!” Later that night we played at the bar with DiceHateMe and they loved it too. Now two people wanted it! Eagle-Gryphon was technically first, so we went with them. Point, Origins. This is going to become a pattern.
Floating Market / Morocco – Emails with Eagle-Gryphon and meetups at Unpub for both of these. That is a nice rhythm btw. “Ya that sounds interesting, see you at Unpub!” has worked a lot for us. So half point internet and half point Unpub times 2 games.
Fleet Wharfside – Point Internet. The easiest game we ever sold. We got an email from Eagle-Gryphon. “Hey you should do a Fleet world game for our new small box card game line.” Well we just so happen to have one ready. Done and done. This is our most under-rated game btw. Go play it. It’s legit fun.
Monster Truck Mayhem – Yes this failed twice on Kickstarter and is most likely dead forever. BUT, it’s my favorite game we’ve ever done, I got paid an advance, and it RULES. So take that. Point Unpub. I think it was signed before the first 5 minute race was over. You know why? Cause it brought the house down. Just like it does every time. Poor MTM. We need time travel so we can figure out where we went wrong here and fix it. Shoulda been a hit. But point Unpub. (I think it was the price…..)
Goonies – One of our friends in the industry introduced us to another friend who is Albino Dragon who needed a card game for Goonies. Initial friend was an Origins / Gen Con friend, then Albino was all internet. So probably third points due, but I’m not doing thirds, so half internet and half Gen Con cause it needs it. Origins will be fine, trust me.
Back To The Future – Pandasaurus introduces us to IDW over the internet. We meet and finalize at Gen Con. Half point for both. I like the game btw. I feel bad that it’s 30% tougher to “do” stuff than everyone else wanted. It’s hard to know how difficult to make a game. Us and the testers loved it. You probably don’t. Sorry.
Cow Tiger Santa Claus – A ridiculously fun little travel game that I love Jason Tagmire forever for publishing and making beautiful. Half point internet. Half point Unpub.
Wasteland Express Delivery Service – My favorite story ever. Pandasaurus sees us Tweeting about it, then travels to Unpub that very weekend just to play it with us. Insert Minis and Game Trayz. Everyone wins. Half point to internet and Unpub.
Ladder 29 – Played it at Origins with Jason Kotarski of Green Couch Games. He wanted it. It’s a beautiful thing. I wasn’t technically pitching btw. It was, “Hey you want to play this game we’re working on?” The lesson here is to get out of the house. Go network. Become friends with publishers in person. That’s the key. I hid the million dollar secret right here if you’re still reading. Become friends with publishers in person. That’s what you need to do to sell games. Other than make great games. Do that first. (Also, that secret isn't really worth a million dollars. Probably low thousands if you're really lucky)
Legends of Sleepy Hollow – Point Grandcon! I was just hanging out and talking about this cool idea we had with DiceHateMe, and Chris emails us the next week. “Let’s do this together!” This project has been super fun. Nice job Grandcon / your local con.
Beta Colony – Coming late 2017 or early 2018 from Rio Grande. This is the result of relentlessly pitching them games every Origins and Gen Con for years on end. Half point to each.
The Way Of Kings – Coming 2018 from Mayday. Point Unpub. Get out and become friends with publishers! They just might ask you to make a game based on The Way Of Kings. Wonderful things happen when you make good friends. We were even joking the night before about how I had no game to pitch them so I wasn’t pitching them! Then they asked us to do this. And it’s a super fun game too. You want to play this one. Trust me.
Songbirds – Coming 2018 from German company. Who is affiliated with the American company we pitched at Origins. Have you bought Origins tickets and hotel yet?
Trollstigen – Our partner design with Scott Almes, tentatively planned for 2018. Deal done. Not announced yet, but shocker, Origins!
Fleet Dice – Half point internet and Unpub. Coming 2018.
New blind bidding system game – Coming 2018. Point internet. Can’t wait to share more.
So, to my friend the budding, new North American game designer, how can you best spend your time and resources? Here’s the scores:
Gen Con 1.5
So this is great news for the new designers on a budget! Look at how much you can get done from the comfort of your own home! Let’s break it down further:
Gen Con - First off, Gen Con is by far the most costly and logistically challenging convention in North America for most to attend. As I said earlier, as a gamer it’s absolutely my favorite experience of the year, but from the prospective of selling game designs it’s completely a waste of time and money that could be spent better elsewhere. Go if you want fun, but don’t expect it to be your primary method of selling your game designs. The reason is simple. Publishers are too busy selling actual games and having huge meetings with partners to take real time to hang out. This is the big North American selling and showcase con. Look what we did. Buy what we did. Here’s what’s coming. Not a planning “Show me your proto” con. You might get a quick pitch here and there, but really you’ll get “Get back with me later.” At one of the better, design-selling cons you should be at.
The Internet - I love you so much, eat cold pizza and check fantasy baseball scores while sending out vague design tweets, The Internet. BUT, the reality is we made ONE blind sell on the internet. Every other internet point was based off of a previous relationship made in person or supported by a closing in person at a convention. The internet does not work large scale alone. It’s the best, but you have to support it with those hard earned real life relationships. So when you’re new, you get out and use the internet, but don’t expect a huge windfall of success there until you put in the leg work in person.
Unpub – Go to Unpub. It’s amazing. It’s my favorite people in the world. Creatives holed up in a big room for 3 days working on their passion projects and a thousand strangers ready to test those ideas. It’s such a high being in that atmosphere. AND it’s super supported by publishers. You go there to make your games better, but secretly you want to sell some games too. Don’t tell Darrell. But he knows.
Origins – The greatest little big con in North America. It’s 50% the wild spectacle fun of Gen Con and every bit as productive as Unpub. Publishers have enough time to sit down with you. They’re not yet quite losing their minds over Gen Con plans, but they will be soon. Meetings are slower and meaningful. Designers hang out playing protos until late at night. Origins has it all. Except 200 people in a random room off in the middle of nowhere playing some dead CCG at 4am, 1200 people playing Pathfinder on the second floor, and a 20 foot balloon dragon. You gotta go to Gen Con for those things.
Grandcon – Slash your own local con, would seem to be a waste of time with only one sale, but consider the fact that your local con is by far going to be the cheapest and logistically easiest con to attend. And even though sales for us haven’t been as high as Origins or Unpub, the networking at Grandcon is a huge plus. Every chance you get as a designer to bank into the positive equity of the industry is momentum toward your goals of making and selling games. Because of the low barrier to entry, it’s almost like a freebie to attend the local con, and anything you get out of it is gravy.
Protospiel – There are multiple chances to attend these throughout the country, and in similarity to local conventions, these events have a low cost, low logistical burden and produce positive networking opportunities as well as great chances to work on your games. I wouldn’t expect high sales here, but I would recommend attending as possible.
BGG Con – So here is where I talk about a couple conventions I have never attended but have talked with plenty designers who have. BGG Con from what I can tell is a major resource that we are missing out on by not attending. It’s late in the year, which accounts mostly for why we can’t attend with the holidays right around that time, but being late in the year has the tremendous advantage that publishers are ACTIVELY looking to set up their next year at this time. I have heard of a LOT of deals getting done at BGG Con and it pains me that we don’t attend. The thing that no-one can predict here though is how PAX Unplugged will affect this in the future being a competitor in the same time slot now. Publishers seem to be splitting resources in 2017 and going to both, but for how long? Which one should designers prioritize? I have no clue. My gut tells me that based on the muscle behind PAX, if I could go to only one in 2018 between the two, I’d strongly be considering PAX Unplugged pending the reviews from this year.
Essen Spiel – If you’re just starting out and live in North America, attending Essen Spiel is the furthest thing from your mind. The cost simply wouldn’t be worth it without any existing relationships to leverage once you’re there. For me and Matt, I believe at some point we need to start attending if we wish to further push our designs into the European market. Songbirds coming out in 2018 from cool German publisher is a great start, but we could get SO much more done going in person and making some friends.
UK Gaming Expo – From what I’ve heard, this one sounds a ton like Origins, big con feel, but with intimacy too. If someone wanted to chime in here, that would be helpful. If it’s anything like Origins as far as publisher accessibility, then prioritize accordingly if this one is in shooting distance of you.
There’s some other big industry events too that are most likely way past what would be profitable for a first time designer to attend. Events like NY Toy fair, The GAMA Trade Show, Nuremberg Toy fair, etc. These generally are not rookie conventions; they’re more industry business events.
So there it is, the Fleeples guide to new designers maximizing their time and resources in order to sell some game designs!
1. Work the internet like a boss. Prioritize Twitter, BGG, and maybe one other positive site of your choice.
2. Attend Unpub (Prime) – The one in Maryland
3. Attend Origins
4. Attend your local Con
5. Continue working the internet now more focused since you know some people from meeting them face to face.
6. Rinse and repeat 1-5 and mix in as many other conventions as you can afford time and money wise.
Oh, and make sure to start by making a great game. With a hook. Every publisher wants a game with a hook right now! Why would someone buy your game? Answer that question and let the publishers know the answer when you're telling them about your game.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to post your own experiences and advice below. Remember, most of all, to have fun. We're making games after all!