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We all love to play games, talk about games, and play them some more. But I think that in most of us lurks at least a smidgen of an idea of designing our own games. We have the perfect idea for a game, or want to see our name on the box, or simply like creating things. Yet, only a few ever see their games published - with their dreams becoming an actual reality.
I think that it's important to learn from the examples and advice of others, so during the course of my "Interviews by an Optimist" series, I asked successful designers, publishers, and others familiar with the game business what their advise would be to an aspiring game designer. The following are their answers - which I hope will be a help to you.
Bruno Faidutti, designer of Citadels:
My first advice is - don't be paranoid. I've noticed many aspiring designers are afraid that some publisher will steal their ideas and are concerned with legal protection, patents, copyrights and the like. Don't bother with all these time and money consuming things; just make games. Almost everybody in the game business is honest, and the internet has become the best protection, if someone makes something dishonest, it will be told in all games mailing lists and forums at once, so no one has an interest in it. Also, many aspiring designers are afraid that it's difficult to get published when you are not already well known in the game circuit. Of course, contacts are a bit easier for "established" people, but the game publishing world is much more open than, say, the book publishing one. If your game is really good, it will find a publisher. If it's always rejected, it's not good enough or needs some reworking. Also, don't hope to make a living from it, unless you can live very modestly; or your wife has a very stable and well- paid job.
Andrea Angiolino, designer - Wings of War:
Quite obvious things, actually, but some novices don't think about them...
First of all, play as much as you can. Keep yourself updated, and you'll reduce the risk of working on a project that matches some existing product. If it happens, bad luck - but bad luck can be justified, keeping eyes closed cannot.
If you design games for yourself everything is ok, but if you want to publish them try to aim to specific companies. Some of them like 2-player games, some not. Some make only, or mostly, language-independent games (especially in little nations), some not. Have a look to sizes and quantities of materials of their games, age target, level of difficulty, preferred settings and so on. You'll save time, and they'll do the same; so your chances of getting their interest on a likely product grow bigger.
Always make a good playtesting yourself, with gaming groups of different sizes if you want the game to scale well. Then do a wide blind play testing, giving the game with no explanation to groups of players and, if you are there while they play, without giving any hint or reaction until they finish the game. You'll learn a lot about clarity, completeness, easiness, spoiling tactics of your game, and you can quickly make it better.
Don't waste too much time on graphics and illustrations for your prototype. About this the opinion varies, since the prototype is after all a kind of visiting card for you; but a serious publisher is not influenced by aesthetics, as long as the game is not particularly ugly nor unclear. Anyway, the final publisher will maybe not be the one you intend, it will have its own style for graphics and illustrations, it may change format and even the setting and chrome of your game. Your artwork will almost never be used. When you submit a game, be patient. It takes a lot for a publisher to examine your game properly; don't harass the people you sent the prototype to, it's only irritating for them. A polite check every few months if they don't answer themselves is more than enough.
Never send unsolicited prototypes. Go in shows, meet publishers and ask them if they want to have a look to your proposals: if yes, show the prototype and explain your game being quick and direct. If they are interested, they'll ask you to send a copy (usually not to live it on the spot - luggage on the way to fairs and on the way back would become too heavy for everybody involved!). If you prefer to contact publishers by mail, ok; but just send a couple of lines of description and wait for a reply. Maybe they are working on something similar, or they are not just interested in that kind of stuff; so they'll ask you not to send anything, and you'll save time and money on the spot, besides avoiding a bad feeling of having been copied afterward if you see a similar product by them.
I personally avoid patents, registrations, protections of the games in general when I submit them to publishers. They are not useful in the Italian law system, after all, and they tend to be irritating. If there are publishers that I do not trust, well... I don't send anything to them.
Take game designing more as an artisan's craft than an artist's one. A game first of all has to work smoothly and be fun. If you want to sell it around it also has to be somehow unusual and "nice". But don't try to be original just for the sake of it; and if a publisher asks you to change something in your project, don't just refuse but seriously consider if it's worth it to do it.
Said that, everybody has his style. I prefer simple games, with rules that are very coherent with the setting. If I want to enrich a simple system, I prefer to go for optional rules. But this is more a matter of tastes, so do what you better feel.
If you want to self-produce your game, it's ok; but decide if you prefer to be a designer or a manager. Some great Italian publishing houses were born thanks to game designers that in the end stopped designing to manage their society: be ready to take this risk. If not, better to find a publisher that seriously believes in your project and frees you from all the production, financial, distribution, promotional problems for your game. You'll have more experienced people than you doing that, and you'll be fee to go on designing. After all Charles Darrow self-produced Monopoly only after Parker refused it, and it worked fine to convince them that they were wrong; but after the first Christmas of sales, he has been more than happy to sell the rights to them and become a millionaire (you can correctly point out that he was not the designer after all, but that's another matter).
By the way, avoid paying anything to a publisher to see your game published. No serious publisher would ask for that - it sometimes happens with books, I personally never saw it happen with games. We were saying that you need a publisher that seriously believes in your project: if he wants money to reduce his enterprise risks, he does not believe so deeply in your proposal after all.
Above everything, don't think that you'll become rich thanks to your games. Some designers managed to do it - I personally know a few, but I could name plenty of more rewarding ways to be sure that I was making more money for the same amount of work and time - from a part time job as a cashier in the grocery at the corner onward. It can be a honest and well paid job, but it seldom become a source of real richness - and even to become a job it takes time, effort and some luck. Begin a game designer career to gather a huge heap of banknotes is like starting to play a guitar with the idea that you'll become a billionaire rockstar, or to write stories thinking that you'll be the next J.K. Rowling, or to boil an egg for the first time convincing yourself that you'll soon be appointed the chef of the best restaurant in town. This way of thinking could somehow make your start a bit confusing and make you loose some more concrete, intermediate goals to reach between the start of your hopefully joyful career and filthy richness, worldwide popularity, and immortal fame. So grasp any serious occasion you can have to publish your ideas: magazines, promotional games, and small but competent publishers. This does not mean that you have to accept to be exploited by anybody: the first American publisher interested in publishing "Wings of War" offered us a forfeit of $500 of worldwide rights for the whole collection for 2 years, and we somehow felt that we could earn that just in our hometown with the first set in the first few months - we refused and FFG made a far more fair proposal afterward. But if you do not find a major publishing house don't be too sad to accept an honest percentage on sales from a smaller one, with a little advance on that just to have it involved from the very start. After all, if I am not wrong, Richard Garfield started that way with his "Magic - The Gathering". As most of us do with most of our games.
Andreas Seyfarth, designer - Puerto Rico:
First of all: be patient. If one of your ideas does not work actually, put it aside and let it grow without thinking about it.
second: Play your own prototypes again, again and again. And then play them again, again and again without changing the rules every playing time. If your game is working without changing the rules constantly, and you still have fun playing it, maybe time has come to show it to some publisher.
third: Try to design a game with a theme in mind. The feeling of the game will be much better when everything is put together.
fourth: Never give up, if you feel you like the designing process. What you are doing is enjoying your life.
fifth: Put some effort in the physical creation of your prototypes, especially if you show them to publishers. You and they are worth playing with nice components.
Andrew Parks, designer - Parthenon:
The first rule is to never give up. This is not an easy industry to break into, especially if you don't have the means to self-publish your own games. You have to design games because you love to design them, and if your first several designs don't get published, take satisfaction in the artistic achievement itself. It will be the only thing that carries you through to the next design.
The second rule is to find playtesters who are mean, ruthless, and willing to say anything. If your playtesters only find trivial things wrong with your game the first few times it's played, then go find some more playtesters to help out. Most games need major work after their first few sessions, and you need people who are willing to help you break the game apart to find its major flaws.
The third rule is to take criticism well. You have the final say on your game, so be willing to entertain any suggestion that is thrown out at you. Sometimes a playtester will say the same thing repeatedly and you will disagree each time... and then you will finally make the change after experiencing for yourself what they were experiencing! Even the most crazy suggestions can break your game out of a tough problem.
The fourth rule is to spend a lot of time making a nice looking prototype. No matter how great your game is; if you want a publisher to take a serious look at it, it's got to look great too. Invest money on good software (Photoshop and Quark XPress are my favorites) and a good color laser printer (hp color LaserJets have really come down in price), and be willing to print at high end output places too, especially for larger components.
The fifth rule is to be willing to do grunt work. Playtest for other designers and other publishers whenever you can. If a publisher takes an interest in your game design, be willing to help out in every capacity you can to get the game to the printer. Help out with graphic design, talking to artists, coming up with promotions, whatever you can. Your game stands a much better chance of hitting shelves if you're willing to do the hardest work yourself.
Andy Lewis, GMT Games:
First and foremost, don't design a game because you think you're going to make big money and do game design as a primary job. Very few people do. Your reward should be in the design process.
Second, playtest the game a lot before ever thinking about submitting it. By this I mean that the finished version you want to submit should be tested dozens of times with a wide range of groups. Don't just use one group of players and think the game is finished. Those players will play the game, as they have become conditioned to play it. New people/groups will play it totally different and may find other problems. In addition, just because you've tested the previous iterations hundreds of times doesn't mean you can make a final change and test it a few times and call it good.
Third, write a good and complete set of rules that you have other people edit for you. Rule sets with lots of holes are an indication that the game hasn't been tested enough for the submission reviewer to have confidence that all the major flaws have been caught.
I think the following points are more specific to wargames. Fourth, if you want to design a wargame, pick a subject that you love versus what you think will make a best seller. The passion and quality of work will show through if you're working on a subject you have a great interest in. In addition, I think a lot of gamers really are looking for games on subjects that they haven't gamed before.
Fifth, pick the right systems/mechanics to properly portray the key elements of battle/campaign/situation you've selected. Don't just choose a mechanic because it's the hot seller - for example, Card Driven Games are very popular now. Not all situations should use this mechanic. Be creative. Who knows maybe you'll design the new hot mechanic which replaces Card Driven.
Finally, contact me when you have a wargame you're proud of and think is ready for the world. I'd love to review it for publication by GMT. The first step in my submission process is an introductory email including a short summary of the game, a component list, and what things you think make the game so cool.
Ben Crenshaw, designer - Scallywaggs:
Advice, I have a lot of that to give on many levels. But rather than get to all of it, I will limit myself to what I feel is most important to would be designers. Realize first that all creative pursuits are personal journeys. You are challenging yourself to create the best game you can, plain and simple. A part of you, and most of the world around you are going to try and tell you that your odds of making money or getting published are a bazillion to one. These external pressures have nothing to do with designing a game or being a good game designer. Next never be afraid to fail. Know right now that you are going to fail on one level or another more times, then you are going to succeed. The trick is to learn from your failures and try again.
Chad Ellis, publisher - Your Move Games:
Most importantly, be modest in your expectations. It's easy to get carried away and set yourself up for some real problems. You've designed a game, you've built a nice-looking mockup and you've tested it with friends, taking their suggestions into account. Now you've got a game that all of you agree is great fun to play and naturally you can't wait to share it.
Then you start talking to printers and they talk about print runs in the thousands, perhaps several thousand. Anything less doesn't give you a low enough unit cost to make any sense at all. At this point it's pretty easy to start thinking that you'll actually sell a few thousand copies, so you go for it. That's a recipe for disaster.
A lot of game designers work in much smaller quantities, often buying generic components and assembling their games themselves. They don't have quite the same component quality as a professionally printed game, but there's an appeal to owning a game you know only a few hundred people own.
If a game is truly great, even such a modest start can fuel word of mouth and when you know the demand is there you can consider producing on a larger scale.
A lot of people who self-publish on a budget can be found at The Board Game Designer's Forum http://www.bgdf.com/index.php. They can help aspiring designers refine their games, find supplies, think about marketing and otherwise improve the chances of a happy ending.
As with all things, the most important question is why. Why do you want to design games? Is it to see your creation played? Is it to make money? Is it to see if you can pull it off? Is it to build a resume so you can work for a larger game company? Once you understand why you want to be a game designer you'll have a much better chance of success.
Chad Jenson, designer - Combat Commander:
Design what you like, not what you think the market may want. Designing a game that *you* will love to play makes the process enjoyable and, odds are, if you like it, then others will too.
Christian Petersen, designer - Twilight Imperium 3:
It's always hard to give advice, and taking advice should always be done with care. Let me take two approaches to this, one as a designer, and one as a publisher.
As a publisher, I think that new designers need to know that "ideas" do not sell, but that the execution of those ideas do. Many designers think that a publisher will buy just an idea, or fund an idea. We get many letters and calls asking us to buy concepts or ideas, and that just doesn't fly with any publisher that I know.
In order for a publisher -- speaking from FFG's perspective -- to consider a game, the design needs to be completely done and presented in an attractive proto-type with clear rules. Also, designers typically need to fill out some important legal paper work before the game is submitted, otherwise we (publishers) simply cannot look at the prototype, and it will be returned without being looked at.
Many designers refuse to sign typical publisher "release forms", as they are afraid that their game, or ideas from such, could be "stolen" by the publisher. In fact, many designers want *publishers* to sign release forms, which is completely unacceptable. This is a common, but unhealthy paranoia among inventors. Good publishers need good designers, and are not in the business of stealing ideas. Publishers, however, need to protect themselves and their established designers. A publisher's worst nightmare is to be working and applying resources on a new title, but then receive an unsolicited submission which is similar to what is currently being worked on. This creates a situation where the publisher may suddenly be faced with litigation because the submitting designer thinks that his idea was "stolen", when if fact the similar idea was developed independently by another designer and/or the company.
If a designer is really concerned about an idea being stolen, then that designer should go ahead and self-publish the game (this involves financial risk on the designer, of course). Self-published games are a good way to promote publication to the next level and be picked up by a larger company. You did, after all, place a serious financial commitment on the game yourself, and that is a sign that you really believe in the game and its financial prospects. Self publishing is a double-edged sword, however. If you are successful in selling too many of your own games into the market -- then a degree of market saturation will already have happened for that game, and the larger publisher will not be able to receive those important "new product" sales (which usually make or break the profitability for a product). In this scenario, the designer is suddenly stuck in the business of being a publisher of a successful game (for all the good and the bad that may bring).
At the moment, FFG will not even look at outside game submissions from anyone but our established designers. This is mainly because our publication schedule is full for the next two years going forward.
Anyway, the lesson here is that too much paranoia in trying to protect your game idea is a sure recipe for publication failure. It is good to be prudent, but in order to get a game published, you need to get it out there and shown to people. Don't be too afraid of anyone stealing your idea. It could happen of course, but remember that execution is the most valuable step of the equation.
If you are concerned about the integrity and honesty of a publisher, then ask around -- especially among designers that are already published by the company to whom you wish to submit your game.
As a designer, my only advice would be to "simplify and integrate" your design, I have been mostly successful over the last few years when keeping these principles in mind. This is the case whether you design big heavy "fusion-style" games like me, or whether you try to design "German Style" or "Anglo Style" games (British/American). Simplify as much as possible, and you will be surprised at how much theme and game depth a correct simplicity can achieve.
By "integrate" I mean to try and interlace your ideas and processes as much as possible -- so that the "engines" of your game seems an interlocked and organic whole.
This is high level advice, of course, and different games will require different approaches to these concepts. I consider the fundamental engines of TWILIGHT IMPERIUM 3rd edition to be simplified and organic, but it is still a monster game with a 40+ page rules booklet. A game like INGENIOUS is also a simple game, and with only 2 pages of rules. The word "simple" applies to both games, but in completely different and relative categories of games.
Craig Besinque, designer - Eastfront:
Do something new and different, and don't quit your day job. One good thing to keep in mind is "less is more." There is always a temptation to add more detail and complexity, but in general, simpler is better, at least for the kind of games I like. The market seems to be going that way also.
David Coutts, designer - 6 Billion:
I designed 6 Billion because it relates to things I'm passionate about. I find many budding game designers are similar. I say - follow your heart and accept the consequences if success is elusive, or else live with the regret of not trying. However, most budding game designers that email me don't even seem to know anything beyond games like Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly or Dungeons and Dragons. They're convinced they're on to something big, something unique. I recommend designers learn their trade, try some playtesting, and study the market carefully as it has changed dramatically in the last decade. Many have overblown self-assessments of their own game. My personal '10' rating for 6 Billion is based on the fact that I am always willing to play the game, and always enjoy playing it. That doesn't mean I think it's a perfect game, couldn't be improved, or appeals to everyone. Nor did I ever expect to get rich selling 6 Billion. At best, I hoped to break even, which I did. Some unpublished designers believe they'll publish, get rich, and be famous. It's a beautiful dream, to be realised by just a few rare individuals worldwide. My dream was much more modest, but at least I lived it. Remember - it's a tough environment in which to be successful. As game geeks, we forget that most games are played by fellow game geeks who are firmly in the minority. To sell 2,000 copies is success, unless you get signed by a Hasbro. So, by all means try to design "the next big thing", but balance your hope and creativity with realism. And be careful of any expectations you place on friends and family. It's your game, not theirs, so don't expect too much.
Emanuele Ornella, designer - Oltremare:
First of all, to play test the games very well they are trying to design. The play testing phase is so important, because it lets you know if the game can work or not. My experience says that it is very important to build a prototype while you are developing a game. This can give you more ideas as soon as you can physically move pieces, play cards while looking at the board. I read that Knizia puts a lot of thought into a game before building a proto, so he can reduce the time of building prototypes for a game that will not work. I think this is a good approach for a professional designer as he is, but I rather find the way of building a prototype easier for designing a game. The key in my designs is the several hours I play by myself before trying the new game with one of my gaming group. It’s important that the first proto you play is working; otherwise, the experience for the testers is frustrating. Playing with real players is so important to see if the game is fun; if it only works but with no fun, the game is not a good game. One of indicators of this is the degree of choice each player has during the turn. More possibilities are open to a player: the more interesting the game is the; more challenging are the actions he can perform. This is a way to measure the goodness of a game, but there are several others: the fun factor, the theme, the receptiveness and so on… When you finally think a game is quite good, play with different types of players, maybe also with players that are not keen players.
Erwin Broens, game reviewer:
I think the magic word is play testing. An aspiring game designer should test his game as much as possible. Not only with family and friends, but also with other gamers. He should also pay enough attention to the rules. Many game designers and/or small publishers seem to think that their rules are clear and complete. Sadly, most of the time they are not. And finally some advice for people who want to design the next Monopoly clone: “go to Jail and do not collect your $200 salary”.
Evelyn Brunner, publisher - Fun Factory Games:
Playtest, playtest, playtest. And when you think you're done playtesting your game, playtest it some more.
It's so important to playtest your games with as many people as you possibly can. Playtesting will not only help you weed out any possible problems in the game mechanics and rules, it will also give you a fresh perspective on the game.
You have to playtest your game with people that you know will give you honest feedback and constructive criticism. Personally, I also find it useful to playtest one's games with a diverse demographic pool - young and older people, male and female, gamers and non-gamers, etc. Doing so will help you assess the potential "reach" of your game as well as its commercial viability.
When playtesting, game designers must be very open to any suggestions and possible criticism offered by playtesters. There is no point playtesting if you've already made up your mind that your game is a flawless gem!
Frank Nestel, designer - Primordial Soup:
Well, I've got some experience with those people trying to sell you their top secret, ingenious idea which makes them rich immediately. So first of all, do not expect commercial success easy or soon. Only a few award winning games per year really contribute significantly to their authors budget. This is a lottery. Money comes from having a number of good games which do get published and republished. Build up a reputation. But for more hints on commercially successful game design, you might want to talk to someone commercially successful, not me.
Having said that, for yourself as an author, lets look at your game. Try to make the game designing process a fun experience, the game will be better. Test carefully and often. Collect test players which do not hesitate to point out all the problems they see. Good playtesting sometimes hurts. You yourself have the delicate duty to love your design and to be its first criticist. If you start with too immature designs, you just spoil test players. You have to love your design and in the next moment be ready to approach the game very differently. Don't be shy to show your designs. In my experience ideas do not get stolen very often, and showing your work is the only way to get feedback, to improve.
When you present your games to companies, clearly explain what you think is the most important part of the design. The people who judge your game have to look at very many (think 1,000 a year) ideas; give them a fast start. They sometimes overlook great games and sometimes buy poor ones; therefore you need to be sure yourself, how good your design actually is. And if you are sure you have a great game, be patient, don't give up until the players all over the world have a chance to play it.
Gary Christiansen, game reviewer:
I've known a fair number of successful ones in the last 30 years, give or take a few years. All I know is the ones who make it to market keep at it. They have perseverance much greater than my own. I can wing a few ideas out there....
I suspect it's a bit like becoming a published author. First, you have to produce a product publisher will believe can sell. No product, nothing to present, no interest, no sale, no publisher. Ideas are easy, putting them into practice so they work, that's the hard part.
A big one authors are told they need to learn is to get their big fat ego out of their writing, and I suspect that applies to game design too. By that I mean you're going to go through a stage in which your game is going to be criticized and someone is going to suggest changes you may think takes away from you. And if you don't accept the suggestions, you get to take a walk and the design sees only the inside of your closet. Well consider what's more important, being published or being self-righteous? Remember, it's a business, even if it's your hobby too.
Swallow the ego, talk it through with your editor, er, developer or publisher, work it through with your testers and listen to them, look at the results and don't ignore the outcomes they get. Some of them will do things using your rules you never would dream they'd pull. Really. The mantra is, this is a business even when it's a hobby, so you have to make ends meet, or it's not worth producing the product.
Get used to the fact you're going to be rejected a lot before someone publishes your game, or if it does get printed, it may not succeed. It's said that the average successful author collects literally hundreds of rejection letters before he's published. I have no clue what it's like for a game designer. Once again, the mantra...repeat after me, it's a business, not just a hobby.
Don't get the idea one success means any other games you design is going to be a success. All that means is you've been published and the publisher will look a wee bit more seriously at what you offer. Now your name is part of the marketing, as any well-known designer's name is. That's good, yet no guarantee. Remember the mantra, it's still a business regardless of whether it's your hobby or not.
I've no suggestions for where to find ideas, but keep notes when you have them. Sometimes two ideas from vastly different times can turn into meaningful ideas. It will be work. It can become very hard. But it pays off. Repeat the Mantra, wash, rinse, repeat.
Networking helps too, like any other business. John, who knows Larry, who knows Peter, who knows Alfred... who is a publisher... so being personable and friendly pays off (though there is a point where some designers can become so well known it doesn't matter if you are friendly or not).
Lastly, if you have a design in you for your own purposes, it doesn't have to be published if you don't want to. You could just do a game for you and your buds to enjoy. A lot of stuff out there is like that. Then of course if it gets popular enough maybe it's worth seeing if it can be published. Who knows...
Dan Gelber used to run a RPG where most of the players (known as 'Plaukers' by the non-player characters, you know, the guys who could have entire conversations and devise complex plans in the fractions of a second it takes between drawing your sword and swinging it...) tended to backstab each other left and right. It was distressing to see the players always undercutting each other so much, so regularly. A huge group of control freaks all trying to upstage each other, so to speak.
Well what if the game design demanded that, what if everyone had to do something to turn each other in to the authorities if they did something officially wrong... and what if every character was required to be part of some five or six 'something wrongs'.... how would you run a campaign? That notion led to Paranoia.
Who knows what other clever little ideas are hiding in some gaming enclave out there right now?
Geoff Bottone, publisher - Slugfest Games:
1) Enjoy the game you're working on. If you don't like the game, deep six it or put it aside. If *you* don't like the game, what makes you think anyone else will.
2) Playtest, playtest, playtest. Play the game as much as you can. Once you have a solid prototype from playtesting it with your co-conspirators (if you have them), run playtests for your friends or for complete strangers at conventions. Stress test your game as
much as you can.
3) Be open to suggestions, so that you can improve your game. That being said, don't let anyone badger you into changing your game if you don't think the change is valid. There's "I think this game would be more fun if..." versus, "I can't believe that I can't
do this in your game..." Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
4) Don't worry about getting glossy cards and stupendous art right off the bat. It's amazing what you can do with card stock, a laser printer, and a paper cutter these days. Make sure your game works before you sink money into more high-end design. I've found that people love good games, no matter what they look like.
5) Find a wealthy benefactor. That always helps.
Gordon Lamont, designer - Shear Panic:
Playtest, playtest and playtest. Make sure you play the game with a wide variety of people - not just your family and gaming group. Then listen! I have spoken to a few designers who simply gloss over things they do not want to hear. If you are going to go down the self-publishing route, then start out small. You will not get economies of scale, but if the game is a hit, it will be easy to expand. If you do large production run, then you are running the risk of being seriously out of pocket and having a large number of games
in your garage.
The Board Games Designers Forum at www.bgdf.com can be a very useful resource and the internet as a whole has a lot of useful information on it. New designers should think about their target market and why this group should buy their game. Finally, if you are submitting games to companies, then do not give up hope just because you are rejected. Listen and deal with any constructive criticism that they provide. However, your game may not be published simply because it does not fit in with the way in which a games company wishes to operate at that time.
One story which makes me laugh at least....! I once had someone write to me saying that they had designed a game which was a cross between Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. I responded politely as always confirming that it took us all our time to publish our own games, directing the person to the board games designer forum and wishing them all the best for the future. I actually thought it might have been somebody writing to me as a joke because of the wording of the e-mail. I then received an e-mail back suggesting that this would be a game that all gamers would love. I responded honestly saying that that a cross between Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit sounded to me like my idea of purgatory and that he should test it with people he did not know to see what the response was. I received a snooty reply back saying that the designer had never played my game called "purgatory" and had certainly not copied any thing from it!
Heinrich Glumpler, designer - Techno Witches:
Well, I can only give some very personal advice:
*** Decide what you want!
* Do you want to quit your job and make a lot of money designing games?
* Do you want to start you own company selling your games yourself?
* Do you want to design games for "big" publishers getting famous?
* Do you want to design games simply because it is fun?
* Do you want to design "your" (one) game, find a publisher and forget about it again?
Decide it and go for it, although I want to caution you about the first and even the second option! There aren't a lot of people making money with game design.
*** If you are serious about it, find a partner.
If you try to make money building your own company, there is one piece of advice you should take to heart: find a partner doing the money/storage/marketing business!
This is especially true if you want to work on designing games exclusively. Then you will be interested in wasting your time with marketing or filling out tax forms.
This might even be a good advice if you only plan to work as a "freelance" designer, there is always a lot of paperwork to do.
*** Get in contact with people.
You need to get in contact with publishers, press people, whomever. Or else you will be only one of a thousand wanna-be-game-designers who must rely on snail mail packages sending their prototypes around.
Make yourself a name - for example by self-publishing a good game, or writing articles on the internet. Use the internet - but do not "shill" ratings or the like.
*** Design games.
This is trivial isn't it?
No, in fact, the process of designing a game may change substantially.
Ok, you will start with this:
Design a game, write the rules, build a prototype, test it, send it to a publisher, get a "yes" or a "no" - next game.
Good - but imagine you *are* successful! Then you will get "orders" like "Hey, you are a good game designer; design a game for us, please."
And this is a completely different business. There is a deadline. There are special requests. Forget all your cool ideas, suddenly you will have to design a game that consists of a board with printed rules on it and nothing else! No material, no pawns, no cards, no dice - just a board. What will you do now? Oh, and you have to do it in two days ... please. (I did it - will you?)
Just be aware that the kind of work you are doing might change and stop if it is going in the wrong direction - remember my first advice: Know what you want!
Let me say that I have not been in the business long enough to make these pieces of "advice" really helpful in my opinion; but hopefully they will give some starting points to think about.
Jason Little, designer - SportClix:
My best advice? Stock up on Patience and Gumption. You'll need near limitless amounts of both.
Most of my experience has been in the RPG industry, although over the years I have managed to expand my boardgaming contacts as well, in the hopes of delving further into this part of the gaming industry. I've been happy shopping my ideas around to different game companies, attending numerous conventions, asking lots of questions and keeping my chin up. While I don't have much advice to offer for folks wishing to go solo and self-publish, I can offer a bit of advice for those wishing to contact established publishers.
1) Don't take rejection personally. If you do, you're sunk. It's that simple. Your submission or email is likely one of dozens received, and the filtering process can be quite arbitrary.
2) Keep preliminary communications professional, courteous and objective. The gaming community is fairly small, despite the geographic separation. Don't bad mouth people, overly rely on slang or swear in jest. People talk, word travels and you'd be amazed how many people know each other.
3) Keep a detailed contact journal. I have a diary dating back to 2001 when I first started sending out game submission requests, filling out NDAs or otherwise trying to integrate myself into the industry. Keeping meticulous notes helps you track your contacts, quickly catch up on who knows what, and see which people, places and things have had the best
4) Know the companies and products. Spend time at their websites, reviewing their games, reading their submission guidelines. Make sure you have the right person you need to contact (no quicker way to get dismissed than to send something to the wrong person). And you have no idea how embarrassing it can be to say "Oh yeah, I love your games, especially GAME TITLE X" ... to which they say "We don't publish GAME
TITLE X... That's PUBLISHER Y's game."
5) Allow for adequate time. I don't have a rule of thumb by any means, but several designers I've contacted insist on needing at least 3-4 months to review a proposal once they've received it. You have to keep in mind that they have their own game projects and likely a dozen or more other game ideas in the playtest queue from prospective designers
5B) Tied to the timeframe, in your discussions, plainly ask when a good time to follow up is. If they do not provide a time, indicate when you will follow up so you've got it written down for your diary. For example, "Thanks for taking the time to review GAME TITLE X. From our previous discussion, I know it may be a month or more until you can give
it your full attention. With that in mind, if I haven't heard from you by the middle of April, I'll touch base with you then."
6) Keep your commitments. If you say you'll send something out by the weekend, do it. If you say you're going to respond by a certain time, make sure you do. Failing to make a deadline is a sure way to distance yourself from a potential publisher.
7) The devil's in the details. Remember, you're potentially 'competing' with hundreds of other prospective designers that you don't even know. Every positive may not stick out -- but better than a negative that sticks out like a sore thumb. That means check your grammar and spelling, doublecheck the spelling of your contact's name if it's
unusual, print things out (like letters or prototypes) neatly and as professionally as possible, and always put your best foot forward.
8) Never give up, never surrender. Tim Allen's character from Galaxy Quest was right about this, at least. It may take a long time to get a response, several meetings at conventions to get remembered, or numerous emails to set up a telephone call to discuss your ideas. As long as you're courteous, determined and respectful, you'll eventually
make some progress.
Jay Tummelson, publisher - Rio Grande:
Be willing to give up your ego when you offer a game to a publisher. This is especially important after the publisher has agreed to publish your game. When a publisher agrees to do one of your games, he really wants it to be successful and is not trying to "ruin" it when he makes changes. Therefore, if you want someone else to take all the costs and risks associated with publishing your game, you have to accept that they will make changes to make the game successful; and you have to be willing to accept their changes.; If you feel your game is "perfect" as it is and needs no changes, you are better off to take the costs and risks for yourself and self-publish.
Jim Doherty, designer - Monkeys on the Moon:
Try to be motivated by the desire to make good games and have fun. If your goal is to get published, or be famous, or make money, or win awards, you'll have a much tougher road and enjoy yourself a lot less.
This way, you're more likely to be cranking games out all the time, and refining your skills, and networking. Try to learn about the various game companies and the types of games they put out. If something you've done truly looks like a match with a company, ask if they'd like to see it.
If they want to see it, make the most beautiful prototype you possibly can. It should be nice enough that people would gladly shell out money for it.
As companies look at your stuff, you're likely to learn a couple things: the difference between a "good" game and a "marketable" game being the most important. For instance, the market for games that contain 700 pieces, or four pounds of lead, or a live eel, is on the small side -- no matter how good it is. Likewise if it takes three hours to play or requires a minimum of seven players. You can incorporate marketing-based feedback into your designs, if doing so does not detract from your game-designing amusement.
You'll probably also learn just how small the "game industry" is. Companies can't print very many games per year. Therefore they will be slow to look at your game, and they may not want to print it for two years, and they won't give you a lot of cash for it. This is why it's critical to enjoy the designing/playtesting/prototyping process, rather than pinning your hopes on some kind of ideal end-result.
Joan Wendland, publisher - Blood & Cardstock Games:
Don't unless you've got a lot of money you don't mind losing? ;-) Actually my biggest advice would be playtest, playtest, playtest. Most especially, playtest where you just hand people who have never played the written rules and sit back without interfering to see how it goes.
John Blaine, publisher - Goldbrick Games:
I think it's very important to first determine if it's a hobby or a business, then manage your investment and your expectations accordingly. If it's a hobby, the objective might be to publish a great game, and sell enough to fund the next project. If it's a business, the objectives are likely much different. If you are in business, sales and marketing are paramount to design and production (having a great product is merely the ticket to admission). It's critical to have a sense of what really needs to be done, then decide if it's something you are able and willing to do yourself or can afford to have others do for you.
Assuming it's a business:
Recognize that demand creation is always going to be your job. Getting your product into the channels is not the end objective. As much work as it is to get product on the shelves of retailers, it's much more important to be doing things that move product off the shelves.
Be patient and be willing to commit yourself for the long haul. Starting a business is like fixing an old house: It will take twice as long (and cost twice as much) as the best estimate. If you speak with seasoned building contractors, most of them will tell you that they come up with an estimate, then add 50-100% depending on the job, age of the house, etc. This is my second start-up, and the pattern is pretty consistent, regardless of the industry. Think in terms of a 5-10 year commitment.
Don't give up.
John Kovalic, publisher - Out of the Box Publishing:
For anyone sending designs to Out of the Box, I'd just say "try something new." We tend to see a lot of submissions based on other games already out there. The ones that tend to wow us are fresh games that bring something new to their designs: these are a joy to come across.
I've been very lucky to work with some great game designers, and to know some others as friends. It's really given me a profound appreciation of the art, craft and skill or great game design, and to really look at the good game designers with an awful lot of respect.
I'll still look at a game like "Ticket to Ride" and wonder how someone can create something like that, that works so smoothly and so well.
Keith Blume, publicist - Eagle Games:
Since I am not a designer, I can only answer this as an avid fan of games.
1. Know the type of game you want to make (and as an expansion, know your audience).
2. Seek feedback and incorporate as needed.
3. When looking for a publisher, create a five minute pitch that includes a simple example of gameplay.
Most people know what type of game they want to make. My advice would be to know your target audience as well and also how big it is. Typically audience size goes down as complexity goes up. Complexity is by no means a bad thing (think ASL) but recognize who and how many people will be playing the game. Once that is determined, make sure you follow through with the rules. If you are trying to keep rules streamlined, stick to it. If you are going for a highly detailed game that accurately models WWII combat, then do that thoroughly. You will lose your audience if you take one approach and then mid game take another.
Playtest, playtest, playtest. Playing with your friends is a good start but find players outside of your group to give the game a try. This will do two things; it gets you unbiased feedback, and it gets you a fresh set of eyes on your rules (as we at Eagle Games can appreciate with the feedback from BGG). We have been gradually expanding our pool of playtesters, and it is not hard. The most difficult part is creating multiple prototypes so that others can play when you (the designer) are not present. At a minimum, create a simplified prototype (maybe a smaller part of the map) to get people familiar with the mechanics and the rules, so they can provide at least some feedback.
When pitching a game remember that publishers see several designs, and they often have to say no to high profile designers. As with a job interview, it is important to articulate the merits of the game quickly and clearly. Highlight the points above (this is the game, here is the target audience, here is the size of the target audience, it has been playtested by x number of people, this number of people outside of my gaming group without me, here is the feedback, here is what I did with the feedback, here is a brief example of gameplay...boom, boom, boom. The goal is to get the publisher interested quickly, and then they will ask more questions and follow up. Don’t ask for two hours (or more) to try and take them through a whole game. It is not realistic, especially at game conventions or events. In addition, try and get in touch with who you will try and contact at a show or event. Scheduling a meeting is ideal, but shows are so fluid that it can be tough to stay on schedule. At a minimum, if you make contact ahead of time, it implies that you are doing your homework and planning ahead for the presentation.
Larry Harris, designer - Axis and Allies:
First I'd get a box of crayons. The big box with the sharpener built in. I'd make 100 perfectly round circles and color each circle a different color. These will be the "oh's" for your tic-tac-toe game that you will play with yourself. Now make the "X's". Again 100 and each a different color. As soon as you have played 100 games, set all these documents on fire and begin again. Do this everyday for 5 to 8 years. Oh yeah, I almost forgot... Write a different set of rules for each of your 100 tic-tac-toe games. Or, you can of course take the less artistic and more physical approach. Find a wall, the harder the better, and continue banging your head against it until your dead or cured from your affliction of wanting to be a game designer.
On the other hand you could start your own game company and design all the games you can afford to make. My point... This is a tough business to be in. Success is far from assured. I do think you need natural talents that can't be taught. You either have them or you don't. If you do have these talents - you know it. You feel it. In that case just design and don't let any thing or person get in your way. Make it happen. Pay attention to the details. Be original. Remember you are creating something that should be intended to entertain. Good luck... you'll need it.
You could always become a computer game designer... anybody can do that.
Larry Whalen, publisher - Face 2 Face Games:
Playtest your game with groups other then your friends and family! We often get proposals for this great game; everybody who has tried it loves it. Then we find out their family and friends were the only playtesters. Usually such biased opinions are not enough feedback on a game. It very well might be good; but generally it is not, and the potential designer is disappointed. I would also tell them to play other successful designers' games. See what works, and what doesn't work. This may give them some new ideas and provide them a little direction.
Mark Johnson, podcaster - Board Games to Go:
Don't quit your day job, of course. Playtest like crazy, including blindtesting. But heck, I don't have any special insight here. I feel like the best games have some sort of "spark" that brings them to life, making them more than a collection of mechanics, bits, and theme . . . only I can't usually identify what that spark is!
Martin Wallace, designer - Age of Steam:
Most of the advice given to me over the years has been along the lines of 'don't do it!' If you want to become a full-time game designer then the chances are that you will fail. There are very few people who make a living from designing games, and because they are so well known in the industry it is difficult to move in on their territory. I managed to become better known by publishing my own games through Warfrog. This is a good way to get yourself noticed. The downside is that it can be very expensive. When starting a games company never put in more money that you cannot easily afford to lose. If you really want to be a game designer then you have to be patient, keep at it, don't give in, get used to being rejected 99% of the time, be ready to dump designs that don't quite make the cut, not get too depressed when you feel you've 'run out of ideas', not shocked at how small a royalty cheque can be, be relaxed when the games company changes your game to make it unplayable, learn to smile when they show you the awful cover artwork, and that in the end it's not all that important, they're just games.
Max Michael, publisher - Stratmax Games:
I won't presume to be anything more than an "aspiring game designer" myself, but I'm glad to share a few observations I've made and a few tips I've gotten from other folks more experienced in the business of this hobby.
A game is something different than an idea for a game. A game has a box, rules, all the bits, boards, player's aids and cards required to play. It has an end (got that friendly piece of advice from John Bohrer) and a winner. It is stand alone playable by strangers you have never met using only what comes in the box. You nor anyone else familiar with the game are required to be present to explain it. The difference between a game idea and a game is a lot of work.
A lot of thinking. And more work after that. Designing games is not the same as playing games. Writing rules is not a good time. Especially not the fourth time after you were sure they were perfect.
A game is not a puzzle with one solution that always works.
Before you submit a game to a publisher, playtest, playtest, playtest. Then send it off for a blind beta playtest. You'll be surprised what a fresh set of eyes will see that you no longer can.
It is perfectly acceptable to create a game with the sole purpose of enjoying playing it within your group with no thought towards trying to publish it. I think the miniatures and role playing gamers are ahead of the board gamers on this one.
The traditional list of "don't do thats" when it comes to self publishing: Don't quit your day job. Don't spend more time, effort or money than you can afford to lose. Think of it as any other activity (fishing, watching cricket, etc.). If it starts to interfere with the other parts of your life (job, paying the bills, relationships etc.), stop and take a breath. The game world is full of garages full of unsold self published games. Rebs & Yanks did very well for a tiny unknown company's first stand alone game. I've still got plenty. Want one?
If you are going to self publish, write a business plan. You not only have to design the game, it has to be manufactured, marketed, sold and shipped. Do you have a plan to accomplish all of these things? As simple as StrataMax games are component wise, it is still a considerable investment in money and effort to make them, sell them and ship them. In fact none of our last five games would exist without Aaron, Doug and now Richard McGuire pitching in to help.
And it's extremely rare that anyone makes a living or gets rich off of a game. If you're in it for the money you are in the wrong place. Even if a game I design gets published and wins every award in the world, I still have to get up and go to work in the morning. Kids' braces, mortgage, college funds, etc. You have to do it for your own satisfaction. And when a company rejects your game, believe them when they say you shouldn't take it personally. It may be an ok game but the wrong time, the wrong market for them, or they already have several in the pipeline or who knows what. You have to be in for the fun of it. And if you enjoy playing the game, if you gleaned some satisfaction from creating it, and you learned something along the way then you are the better for it. At least that's my excuse for not starting an exercise regimen.
Michael Rinella, designer - Monty's Gamble:
Don't do it! OK, you meant useful advice. By "game designer" I am assuming someone who creates a new game from the ground up, not someone who writes variants or scenarios for an already existing game/game system, or someone who continually tinkers with a game after they purchase it.
First, subject matter. You'd better know your stuff. That means being up to date on the latest histories, along with any classics. Oh, and have a thick skin, because there are always going to be people who at least think they know the "real" history, and you are some wretched amateur.
Second, practice makes perfect. You may have to design several games before one is accepted for publication. It's an art like just about any other. You don't learn how to paint or sculpt, or write a novel or a screen play, overnight. Same applies to game design.
Third, persistence. Just like other arts, breaking into "the business" is quite difficult. The field is crowded, and companies prefer working with designers they've worked with before, and who have a track record. The more professionally you handle yourself (and rejection) the better your chances further on down the road. Once you get your foot in the door, things are a bit easier.
Fourth, dedication. I suppose you could design just one game, get lucky, get it published, and then rest on your laurels and collect your royalties. But players demand a lot more than that nowadays. They expect the designer to be available on line to answer questions, etc. If you have ambition to do more than one game, you'd better support your game post publication - if you don't, no one may want your next design, even if it's good. My personal quote at consim world is “No art, however minor, demands less than total dedication if you want to excel in it.” It’s true.
Fifth, don't quit your day job. The money is terrible, there are no benefits, and no retirement plan. Keep that in mind when you decide to commit yourself to the two, three, or more years it will take to get a game into print.
Michael Schacht, designer - Web of Power:
Be honest with yourself. I mean, if you only playtest with your best friends, they probably will like your game very much, although it isn’t finished or good enough.
If you take part in test playing you will influence the gameplay. It is better to have neutral people playing your game. Don’t tell them the rules; they should read them. Keep your influence as low as possible, then it is easier to see the quality of the game, things to improve and the quality of the written rules.
Mike Fitzgerald, designer - Mystery Rummy:
I guess I should start with the obvious "Don't give up your day job" advice. Ask yourself why you want to design a game. For my first game, Wyvern, the reason was to try and cash in on the trading card game craze. I also figured if I made the game so I would like to play it, I could enjoy a trading card game without having to spend money for the cards.
For my Mystery Rummy series it was simply to make a game I would enjoy playing over and over again. I was not concerned about how well it sold.
I would advise aspiring game designers to stay true to your reason for making a design whatever it is.
Never give up either. The only difference between you and a published game designer is a little luck. So many of my gaming friends have great ideas and are really good at assessing games in general, which means they are just a step away from designing one themselves. If one of your goals is to see your name on a game box, Go For It. One of the secrets of life is to live in a way that will reduce your regrets later on.
Mike Petty, designer - What's it To Ya?:
I encourage would-be designers that I meet to clarify their goals and do whatever it takes to determine if the goals are realistic.
I have one friend who just wants to make games for his family to enjoy when they get together for holidays. I think that's a great goal, and I encourage him to pursue those ideas.
Another of my friends, Don Beyer, came to me shortly after we met, and he told me he had an idea for a game. I told him it sounded interesting and he should follow through with it. Certainly not on my encouragement alone, Don teamed up with two of his friends, and he aimed sky-high. They worked hard with a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish with their games. Within a year they had turned that idea into Bootleggers which is now published by Eagle Games.
Contrast these cases with someone who doesn't have a clear goal. I know a lot of designers, myself included, who have spent years toying around with several game ideas that all end up somewhere from 25% to 75% complete. That shows a lack of focus. Get a clear goal, go for it and see if you've got what it takes. Maybe your dreams will come true. Maybe you'll find out you don't have it and you'll never make another game. Maybe you'll just re-focus and get a more realistic goal. The thing is, you'll get to the point a lot quicker and what you learn will be worth the effort either way.
Mike Selinker, designer - Lone Shark Games:
Find some other great game designers, and make games with them. That's what I've done my whole career. I can't think of any game I've done from start to finish without some major help from at least one of my peers.
Nick Medinger, www.funagaingames.com:
Playtest. We see a lot of games that haven't been playtested enough, and the final product suffers. Having a well tested game doesn't guarantee that your game will be a hit, but it's much harder to make it successful if it isn't. Especially if you're going for the designer game crowd. People are very savvy these days about what does and does not work. I'm sure there's a lot more good advice for a new game designer, but this is crucial from the sales end of the process. Retailers can help a good game get noticed and push sales, but nobody is going to do that with a bad game.
Ray Smith, designer - War of the Ages:
Beyond going with the obvious of designing what you like to personally play, research what’s already out there, and playtest the crap out of it, two other items are essential:
1) Make contacts. Something I thought would be easy by soliciting advice from other companies, or surfing the net, became a long, hard fought, task. Finding production companies for various bits, boards, boxes, etc., is like going on a treasure hunt with no map. However, recently Tom Jolly posted a fabulous source of info with sage advice to assist all us wannabes (http://www.silcom.com/~tomjolly/design.htm).
2) Artwork. Since the “look” is the sell, well done graphics and art are essential. Along with cool bits, I’ve purchased many so-so games just for their art. Since we all won’t be able to use Franz Vohwinkel, Doris Matthaus, or Roger MacGowan, fortunately with the CCG craze, there seems to be a bazillion fabulous artists out there. But, how do you find them? My only source has been through large comic book cons I attend. There are numerous relatively unknowns usually there, more than willing to expand their artistic exposure in any way. You just need to find someone with the “look” you’re looking for.
For both of the above items, it would be great to get some feedback from other experienced folk as well, about their production contacts and recommended artists. Developing a detailed, up to date, contact database to refer to, listing specialties, style, rates, etc., would be the Lost Dutchman’s Mine for aspiring designers!
Reinhard Staupe, designer - David and Goliath:
Learn as much as you can! Play as many games as possible! Go to visit Game Designer Meetings, go to visit Essen
Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to sift through all those interviews -- this is an incredibly valuable resource with lots of great ideas. It's impressive for its variety of voices (people from all facets of the industry) and for many of the common undercurrents.
Great, great stuff!
Thanks Tom, this was really interesting to read, even though I don't really have any aspirations to design/publish my own game, I enjoyed seeing what so many different figures in the industry thought about the process.
Fantastic, Tom. Really a great read. I've missed some of those interviews and will have to go back and find them.
We miss you over at the Duel of Ages forums... any comments on the FS-40?
Tim aka Red River Roy, the Man in the Bright White Suit
Thanks a lot Tom! i ejoyed a lot reading it.
Tom, you're doing good work with all of these interviews.
Thank you, they're quite fun reads for me; and they keep me very intrigued by seeing the whole process of the gaming/game design experience blossom from their personal stories.
If I had any aspirations to design a game they are gone now!
Bummer that there is no advice from Dr. Knizia. He discusses his design process in this interview, a little:
And the marvelous http://archive.org can retrieve some of the long lost stuff from the web for further insights.
This is all great advice. I think the point that needs to be given most emphatically is to start small and early. By "small", I mean that people should begin with manageable gamespaces and simple rules, rather than trying to create the fantasy-themed game with the 90-page rulebook, and by "early", I mean as soon as possible. I started designing games at 12, and didn't produce anything publishable until 20 (Ambition). Like (for example) fiction, game design takes years of practice before a person will be publishable. That said, a bit of moderate success tends to accelerate the process; one meets more knowledgable people, finds the right sources of inspiration, etc.
A lot needs to be said about the use of the Internet for publicity, because it's important and very few people have figured out how best to use it. I haven't; in my case, I have more of a failure story (publicity-wise) than one of success. I developed a game (Ambition, entry 16043) that plays with the standard pack of cards, plus chips and a (recommended) scoresheet available over the Internet. Thus it can be played with standard materials; I saw this as being to my advantage as I wanted it to spread and become popular, not to make money off of it. Of course, the first problem here is that no publisher would take this up because there is no profit potential in it when the materials are easily assembled. While the game has a couple thousand players worldwide (many of them with no connection to me) and this counts, in my mind, as moderate success, I've come to realize that I won't get it to the level of popularity/recognition I'd like until I can create an online place for people to play it-- it's rare that a person picks a brand new game off the Internet and teaches it to new people. Once the online version exists, I know it will touch off a word-of-mouth supernova and I'll be happy, but that seems far away at this point. If not for the Internet at all, probably no one would even no about this game, since that's where I first published it. So the power of the Internet needs to be given strong statement.
I'd also advise people to consider strongly the target market, or the "niche" of the game. I think that the best games take a niche that exists but are novel enough to expand it a bit, to invigorate it and maybe even cross-fertilize from another genre. Such games can often open communication between multiple sectors of the gaming world. Hitting exactly a niche or subgenre already created is unoriginal and will lead to the suffering associated with diminishing returns; someone else has already tapped this well. On the other hand, attempting to create a brand new niche is risky. I ran into this with my game; my goal was to design a game for the 52-card deck that would play in under an hour and be successful according to the German design aesthetic; no one seemed to have done this yet in 2003. I was quite successful aside from two failings-- limited scalability (3-4 player with 4 substantially better) and wide variation of game length (30 to 120). I consider these minor flaws, so on the whole, I'd say it was successful design. However, I created a game for a niche that does not yet exist: casual gamers who play Hearts or Euchre on Yahoo! or Pogo would not take the time to learn a new, slightly more complicated game (and Yahoo!/Pogo would not carry it) even if the design is better from a "German" perspective. Euro boardgamers are generally biased against games using the 52-card deck; they tend reflexively to find them way too "light" (excluding Bridge, and only that because of its partnership bidding) to be fun. This isn't a disaster-- there's no rule that one can't create games for not-yet-carved niches-- but it explains much of why the game has failed to achieve the sort of widespread recognition that is my ultimate goal.
I think, however, that most highly creative, game-adept people who start small and early can design reasonable games, but with a lot of effort and possibly many failures along the way.