Wednesday, April 19, 2006

If I Were King of the Forest

By Ward Batty

Since I closed my game store in early 2005 and have been doing freelance writing, I've received some interesting job offers. One of the more interesting occurred recently. It was from a game company we'll call the Acme Game Co. A third party passed on the offer in the form of "How would you like to be Mr. Acme Game Co.?" I have a job co-publishing Comic Shop News, but thanks to the timesaving computer and internet it doesn't take as many days each week as it used to, which is why I've had time to do the writing and, prior to that, my store. But it was, as presented, such an intriguing idea that I had to at least entertain it.

I received the offer at Essen and it was a week before I finally was able to speak with Acme, so I made a bunch of notes of ideas, which I presented to them at first opportunity. This is probably not the best way to get hired, "Hi, thanks for considering me for the position, here's everything you are doing wrong." But I wanted them to know what they were getting if they hired me. Turns out, as they so tactfully put it, they were really in need of "someone to handle the daily nuts and bolts of the business rather than the strategic needs" which has less appeal to me, so I passed. I ended up with all these notes and nothing to do with them, so I decided to share them with you and at least I'll get a column out of the experience. Plus it is always nice to be asked.

Many of the notes dealt with specifics of how they are currently running things at Acme as well as properties that might be worth looking at, so I'll omit all that. For our purposes, I'll just include my more general ideas about how I would have run things. The advantage of these ideas is they won't be put to the cruel test of reality, so they will always be pure. That's why we have columnists, BTW.

I advised Acme to stop selling direct. This was always an issue with me as a retailer, the publisher as a competitor. They have what's called a three-tier system, (publisher/distributor/retailer) which I think works for a reason. Also, I don't think it is the best use of the publisher's time and efforts at conventions. This is a complex issue I can't address in detail in this space or forum, but that's what I would do of I had become Mr. Acme Games.

One advantage of not selling direct is it greatly simplifies what is needed to have a presence at more conventions, since if you aren't trying to be a retailer, you can use a mostly volunteer workforce at these events. Looney Labs has a volunteer force called "Bunnies" that is something to behold. Not a week went by when I had a store that I wasn't contacted by a Bunny about doing an in-store demo for one of their games. I'm not sure how they accomplish such a devoted group of volunteers, but it is an invaluable asset to them and I wanted to see how to replicate it.

Another idea worth stealing is the promotion Days of Wonder did with the Sir Bedivere figure for Shadows Over Camelot. When you have a game where it would be relatively cheap to create a bonus card, tile or piece that would be a great thing that can be distributed through retailers, conventions and magazines. They do this more with CCGs, and while obviously a gimmick, I think it adds a lot of value and enhances the customer's experience.

There was a great promotional video that one of the CCG companies did a couple of years back. It was an attractive girl doing a demo of this card game. It was maybe five minutes. You could download it as a movie file and I believe they also made it available on a DVD to shops. With digital technology these promotional films are much cheaper to do and edit and distribute than in the past, and I think that would be worth doing. This leads me to the next thing I wanted to explore, a rule-set that would be included on a DVD with every game. A combination of flash animation and digital shots of the game would be very doable at this point. People dread having to learn the game from the rules and, as we all know, having someone who can show and explain the rules is preferable than having to plum the rulebook.

The educational supply and toy stores are a much bigger market in the US than the game stores. Parents will also spend more for an item they believe is educational or mentally stimulating. There are hurdles in terms of distribution, but that market is always worth pursuing.

I've had a dream of selling small box and card games from vending machines at airports. You can buy an ipod from a vending machine, why not a game?

I don't believe that the Rio Grande Games model of gang printing in Germany to create an English version of the game will work at this point for anyone other than RGG and Mayfair. Acme probably isn't getting first or even second dibs on new games published in Germany, so they are stuck releasing lesser titles, which is no way to establish a reputation. With the dollar still weak against the euro you end up with very pricey games, which are harder to sell. Most US publishers have responded by trying to get the rights to produce the English-language version, which is then generally produced in China so it can be list priced at $35 and not $50. $40 is sort of a magic number for boardgames in this market. If you have something that costs more than $40, there needs to be something spectacular about it. There are a lot of games in the marketplace and I think that the Days of Wonder approach of releasing fewer games and making sure each is really good makes more sense than a more scattershot approach of releasing a game a month or more. If you can make the numbers work, I'd say between 2 and 4 releases a year would be ideal. Gives you a chance to focus your marketing.

Which brings me to the next thing I'd do if I was Mr. Acme Games Co. and that's get some mainstream press coverage! I maintain a site that links to mainstream media stories about board games. Maybe 5% of these stories are about "our" kind of games. I don't understand why publishers get so little free press but I am certain I could change that. In the two years I had my store, we had around a half-dozen stories on local (and in one case national) media and we are just a store. I am certain I could get Acme much more press than anyone currently receives. Very few game publishers send out press releases, so it won't be that hard to do better. I'd also develop better relationships with what we'll call the fan press.

I have a theory that comics and science fiction people (the other two fandoms I'm familiar with) tend to include the liberal arts majors while gamers tend to be more the engineering and math types. The results of this can be seen in how we write about our hobby. With comics and SF you get reviews, of course, but also a lot of writing about the hobby and a strong emphasis on the history of the hobby and the creators involved. You get things like faan fiction. Our closest version of that might be variants, open game systems and the fact that every gamer is also a closet designer. But most writing about games is reviews that include detailed descriptions of the game mechanics. Almost like something you'd find in a user's manual or scientific review. Of course, I'm making generalizations here and, of course, all generalizations are wrong. I'm digressing, but the net effect is that game publishers send out press releases much less than comics publishers. Comics also get a ton more mass-media coverage than boardgames and the level of the mass media's understanding of the medium is much more sophisticated than it is for board games. But educating the public is a process and it takes time.

I would have Acme sponsor a design competition modeled after the Hippodice. I suspect the officiating is a bit of a nightmare. Since it is such a close-knit community, maybe make the designer identity a secret during the competition and only announce the winners' names. Acme could promise to publish the winning design as the big prize.

That's it. Obviously, I'm not re-inventing the wheel here. Most of these ideas aren't original, but hardly anybody is following this particular course either. It would have been interesting being Mr. Acme Games, but I would've had to give up all my writing, and I already have another project I'm pursuing. I may never be Mr. Acme Games, but I'll always be Mr. Entrepreneur.

Ward Batty is a long-time game-player who has been with the same weekly game group for over twenty years. "I understood there was a pension." is his excuse. He writes a monthly column on the business of board games for Comics & Game Retailer magazine and has written articles and reviews for The Games Journal, Scrye, Knucklebones and Games International.

The Game Table
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