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The sales in any given creative field are hit-list driven. Music, movies, and board games. However, the board game industry is also driven by another kind of list, the front-list. That is to say that it is driven by new titles.
As alpha gamers, we might complain that there are too many games coming out which are too under developed. However, we unfortunately bring this onto ourselves. Even if we love a new game, do we play it more than a dozen times? Do we regularly play it months or years after the initial release?
And make no mistake, in the medium to heavy euro game market where most of TMG’s titles are, sales are driven by the alpha gamer. With the proper amount of buzz and positive 3rd party reviews, alpha gamers and the retailers that serve them can buy up several thousand copies of a game.
But, when the reprint comes… It sits, it doesn’t sell. People have moved on. Which, as a publisher kills cash flow, which in turn can quickly kill the company.
Kickstarter contributes to this by allowing for more games to be released, but also by having peak excitement about a game be 6-12 months before it is finally released. By then, the excitement of many backers could have waned and they might not even open and play the game when it arrives.
I know I have several unopened and unplayed games on my shelf, and I buy much fewer games now that I am publishing them.
What Does A Front-List Driven Industry Mean For Publishers?
It is almost 4 full years since TMG came into being. And I just had this epiphany in the last couple of days. How should I embrace a front-list driven industry? I could:
- Release games on a 1-print run schedule. Revisiting the title 12-18 months later.
- Release expansions on a regular (annually?) basis with base game reprints.
- Only continually reprint if TMG hit something extremely hot. Not all games can be a “Cards Against Humanity”, “Eclipse”, “7 Wonder”, or “Village”.
- Embrace the branding driven nature of the business.
I don’t necessarily like the idea of printing a game once and moving on for awhile, but that might be what needs to be done.
A major goal for this year is for TMG to be able to have enough profitable cash flow to support the 3-4 people that it probably needs to run properly. Turning cash into inventory which doesn’t move or moves slowly is not supporting that goal.
Advantages Of A Disney-Like “Put It In The Vault”
I see all of the advantages of this as only pertaining to the publisher, and not to the gamer. It will have the following effects:
- Increase the spike on sales spikes. This could even become a 2-spike sales process. One for Kickstarter and one for initial distribution orders. Then have it be sold out.
- Reduce time available on market. This will force gamers to make a decision about buying a game or not. From the publisher point of view, if you are decided to buy or not, you still have not made the purchase.
- Increase front-end volume and excitement as a result of more people deciding early.
If the game then performs well in the mind of gamers, then the re-releasing or taking of the game out of the vault will be exciting again. How many people are excited for Goa to come back out or any other game in a similar situation?
Are you upset that you missed out on Trajan? If it came out again, would you buy it right now for sure?
Consequences For Game Designers
How will game designers feel about this? Their game not being available, generating sales, and royalties? Will it feel like their game is not getting the proper treatment?
That could be the case, but at this point in time, with this kind of methodology and constantly keeping to our quality standards, TMG could probably move 3,000-5,000 copies almost immediately between Kickstarter and the initial release.
It looks like Ground Floor and Skyline will both be oversold into distribution. That means we moved a little over 4,000 copies of both of those games.
In the euro game space, moving that many copies is a big hit. Many titles get printed with 2,000 copies and take a couple of years to sell through…
The Branding Can Be So Critical
The branding is where those copies move. The vault works for Disney, because lets face it, they are Disney. If customers trust your judgement and taste, then they will buy your product.
The new nature of any other aspect of the product become irrelevant. Because those customers know that you will not waste their money in an effort to improve the bottom line.
Just Thinking Out Loud…
I do not want to ever have a gamer be in the situation where they feel that they made a mistake buying on of our games. I have been in this position. It sucks.
So, TMG is committed forever to high quality games on design, art, and production. This commitment also applies to any game which we decide to import.
Which means that one of the best ways to keep from turning cash into inventory which doesn’t turn back into cash and sinks the company it to utilize a Disney-esque “Put It In The Vault” methodology.
I would love to hear your feedback, so please comment.
My recent further explanation of microgames spurred some internal discussion at TMG. Resulting mainly from:
"But, with the price point on a microgame, customers and fans will not be hurt or feel cheated if the game is not good enough." -Michael Mindes
This certainly can provide the impression that I don’t care if the game is good enough. Which is not correct, I care a lot. It is just a way to hedge against myself falling in love with a garbage game because I designed it.
I have no intention of wasting the time or money of TMG customers and fans. That extends to low cost and print and play games too.
To further show this, I would like to layout my plan for developing microgames:
- A thematic setting is determined.
- Game is designed / inspired. Due to the constraint on components, the speed to come up with an initial design is quite fast. This includes writing the first rulebook.
- The game is tested to see if it is fun. If it is not fun and unsalvageable, then scrap the game.
- Refine away anything that is bad or needs obvious improvement.
- Test again. Is it fun? Are there any players that don’t have fun? Repeat step 4 & 5 as needed, until is is fun for all.
- Create print and play artwork. This will be mostly black and white, but final game quality.
- Release as version 1.0 print and play. Gather data from those playing the game.
- Further develop based on the larger game result data sets allowed by the print and play.
- Finish artwork.
- Kickstart the game.
At step 3 and 5, there is plenty of opportunity to scrap a game and move on. I fully expect to end up scrapping many microgames because they just don’t end up working.
By the time, step 7 is reached, the game will be known to be good, and have very attractive artwork. Depending on how things go with the print and play, it could be a very long time before proceeding to steps 9 & 10, if ever.
Publishing Top Quality Games Is Too Important
It is too important to me to have top quality games published at every level of TMG to allow even a print and play microgame through that is of low quality. Due to the economics of the methodology I am utilizing, much of the testing work will be distributed among those printing and playing.
The economics of a microgame make it difficult to pursue under TMG’s normal publishing methods. That does not mean that such games cannot provide enjoyment to lots of gamers. That does not mean that the game (or art) is not worth creating and distributing.
And since I am a gamer looking to provide gamers with the games that they will love, I will work toward releasing several good microgames. It is too fascinating to not do it.
I feel compelled, but that doesn’t mean that I will waste your time.
Other than the news that TMG is picking up Rialto by Stefan Feld, I have seen the biggest response to my mentioning of microgames in the last TMG Newsletter which doubled as a 2013 letter to stakeholders.
Therefore, I want to explore the topic more fully in a public place. I define a micro game by the quantity of components required. Martian Dice at having 13 dice is a small game, and too huge. Even Love Letter has too many components for me to consider it to be a microgame.
Some qualities of microgames:
- A small number of components.
- Components are likely to be cards, but not necessarily.
- Ideal for print and play due to the low labor nature of the print and play.
- Hard to sell through regular channels.
- Annoying to fulfill.
- The potential for royalties for a designer are dismal. Not allowing for much design and development time to be spent, if profits concern you. As a publisher, they concern me.
- Highly sharable (assuming a good game), due to simplicity and price point.
- Easy to travel with.
This is just what I can think of right now, and would like to go further into a few of these characteristics.
Microgames Are Hard To Sell Through Regular Channels
I suspect, as I have not yet tried to sell a microgame in a regular channel. With the smaller number of components needs to come a small price point and small package.
This makes the game prone to shoplifting from game stores, problem. It also makes it hard to find in a game store, problem. The value to any individual store for demoing a microgame is extremely low as they potential profit per demo is so low thanks to the price point.
After everybody in the transaction chain takes their cut, even at $4.95 there is likely to only be about $1.80 left for the publisher before paying a royalty. This means that royalties might reach as high as $0.15 for a designer. There isn’t much here to allow for profit or time to design a game.
If, on the other hand, it was decided to sell directly and ship orders individually, then $4.95 is a lot of money, but the time and annoyance associated with shipping a handful of items here and there becomes a problem. Only at a large scale, does this become viable really, and the question still remains, do you want to bother with it?
Annoying To Fulfill
I have had plenty of experience dealing with fulfillment problems or issues, here are the ones I would anticipate.
First, there would be no tracking numbers. The expense of having tracking would destroy the limited profitability on the microgame. If you were selling these at a sufficient scale, then the customer service associated with when they were shipped and why they have not been received would be enormous.
Second, international shipments will be the least profitable (assuming no shipping premium) and the most customer service intensive. The lack of tracking and potentially long shipping time to other countries will lead to many emails to be answered. I know this from experience with sending out replacement pieces. Sometimes it takes 3-4 weeks for a package to arrive.
Third, “my micro game didn’t arrive” will happen. It is annoying and what are you going to do? I assume that all of these incidents are 100% true, but you could start suspecting, and have this weigh on your consciousness. The psychological state of the publisher or game designer is extremely important, many times I wanted to close up TMG and be done. I am glad I did not.
Fourth, if you are spending time handling fulfillment then you are not spending time doing what is most important. This goes along with the idea that, “you should work on your business, not in your business.”
Components are likely to be cards, but not necessarily
Cards are easy, plain and simple. Custom dice are right out due to the cost of creating a mould for the creation of the dice, not to mention the minimum order quantities usually associated with good dice manufacturing.
Boards can quickly become too big for a microgame in addition to being more expensive. The size of a board will create issues when trying to ship your game. This same principle applies to wooden bits or tokens.
So, the decision to be only consisting of cards and rules is an easy one to make, and it lends itself to print and play.
Microgames Are Ideal For Print And Play
The biggest barrier to print and play is the labor involved. A card heavy game like Eminent Domain is easier to do than a board game like Ground Floor. Both saw decent print and play activity when TMG Kickstarted the games.
But a card game with 12 cards or so is even easier. It is easy on your resources like cardstock, sleeves, ink, and so forth. And it will not take long to assemble. As an added bonus, the rules probably need to be pretty simple, so that will not take long either.
How many people want to do a print and play of a game? Cards Against Humanity is available on a creative commons license and is available for print and play. I wonder how many people opt for that instead of buying the game when it is available.
Highly Sharable. If Good.
Thanks to the low barrier to entry associated with a microgame print and play, the likelihood to share increases. As the game is shared, more people play, and more people in turn share again. This can be a highly beneficial cycle, if you can pack enough interesting gameplay into such a small number of components.
If you are a game publisher like TMG, then the ancillary benefits of increased brand awareness, brand loyalty, and alpha gamer respect might make doing this worth it. In fact, I have decided that it is likely enough to be true to find out.
I have some ideas about how to increase the sharing and branding, which will be tried in the first TMG released microgame. This microgame might be complete as a game for development (a few more tests will see) and the artwork for it is being started.
Like All Game Design/Publishing “There Is No Money In It”
We have all heard the lie that there is no money in game design/publishing, I have even perpetuated it. It is true until it is no longer true. That is to say, it is difficult to become successful, and even limited success brings limited money, but once you turn a certain corner, it just starts to grow significantly.
I think TMG just turned that corner with Village.
Anyways, even if you were able to make $1 profit per sold microgame, then you would need to be selling thousands or tens of thousands of copies per year. That is a HUGE number of games! And the only way you will sell that many is if a large multiple of that is playing the game!
HELLO PRINT AND PLAY.
Making Games To Be Played
I have a rule about designing games. I don’t do it. Since I control the publishing button, I fear that I could fall in love with my own crappy creation and publish it, damaging the brand I have built in the process. So, I don’t design games, which also frees up my time to do everything else related to publishing.
But, with the price point on a microgame, customers and fans will not be hurt or feel cheated if the game is not good enough. That is my theory at least.
I publish, TMG publishes, games to be played. I know that our games have been purchased and never opened, and it makes me sad to think about it. Above all, I want the games to be played, enjoyed, and shared.
So, even an unprofitable and good microgame is attractive to me to publish if it will be played. Thankfully, I think I will be able to reach enough people to get such a game played.
I do not expect a microgame to even be a large contributor to the TMG bottom line. I know that many designers will not like the idea of their game always being free and getting paid $0.10-$0.15 per copy sold. I know that the ancillary benefits of a microgame could be huge to an existing game publisher.
I know and have committed myself to not designing games to protect TMG’s brand. I know I would like to find acceptance as a game designer. I know I want to publish games that get played. I know of a type of game which I find interesting and lends itself well to microgames.
Therefore, I have created 2 such microgames thus far and look to come up with and test more designs. I hope that you will end up finding them enjoyable, a good value, and worth sharing with your friends.
Please let me know your feelings about the potential of microgames or if you have any questions. That is why we have comments. :)
Michael Mindes, Founder
Tasty Minstrel Games
TMG is devoted to finding, creating, and publishing excellent physical games. Owned by a gamer and run by gamers, we strive to bring you exactly what we want to see in games:
- Deep strategic game play.
- Beautiful, intuitive, and usable artwork.
- Simple and elegant universal rules.
- Clear and easy to use rulebooks.
In this way, we want to accomplish our mission: “To heal the world by providing games that strengthen family unity, communication, and love”. This becomes easier as we communicate directly to our customers, fans, and evangelists. We love to interact with you, and these are the best places:
- TMG’s email newsletter - Find out about what games are coming up, some behind the scenes details, and the occasional special offer. (Link to email archive)
- Playtmg.com - Please join the discussion.
- @tastyminstrel on Twitter
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You will find our games at your favorite hobby game retailers throughout the world.