Has it really been a year since I left school to pursue an uncertain life as an independent game designer? My first blog post, where I discuss my thoughts on games as art, was posted a whole year ago, so I guess so!
It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year. I have to admit I thought there was little chance of still being around blogging about my progress a year later when I started. It’s a difficult and very competitive industry, and there is way more going against me than going for me. There have been ups and downs, and I really believe it’s been a combination of luck and support from all of my awesome friends and family that has gotten me this far.
Today I’m going to take a moment to look back at the last year. I’ll discuss the many things I’ve learned, reflect on some of my mistakes, and celebrate my many fortunate accomplishments.
Growing on Our Own
I left grad school to pursue my dream of becoming an independent game designer. The funny thing is, I’m learning at least as much out of school as I was in school! While I had a pretty solid background in game design and programming before venturing off on my own, I was totally clueless when it comes to many areas so I had to learn on my feet. It’s a good thing I love learning so much!
Probably the biggest area I’ve explored a lot is business. I’m going to be honest: I don’t really care about money. I do care about eating and having a place to sleep and being able to travel to see friends and beautiful places, but money itself isn’t terribly appealing to me. It’s just a means to an end, definitely not an end in itself.
When it comes to being independent, though, you really have to care about money, because if you don’t, no one else will. You have to care about doing things by the books, or else you could get yourself in trouble. You have to care about selling something, which means you have to care about letting other people know about the cool things they might want to buy. You have to establish relationships with other people and businesses offering services you need, like printing and fundraising and distribution. You have to be ok about spending money, something I’m still getting used to.
I’ll list some of my businessy successes below, but suffice it to say I’ve learned a ton about business this year, and still have a ton more to learn!
Another area I’ve made big strides in this year is graphic design. I had a little experience with it before for some of my older games like Arachnophilia and As I Lay Dying! but no formal training and still a very amateurish eye. Thankfully, a number of friends, most noticeably and generously Simon Beard of the Enchanted Beard Press, stepped up to offer me advice and many lessons about both aesthetics and functionality. Corporate America may not have the most flashy graphic design in the world, but I’m quite proud of it, and most of it was created with both love and lessons I learned over the course of this year.
Dealing with physical stuff is actually surprisingly new to me as well. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise… back in high school I was in the robotics club, but I was so nerdy I didn’t even work on the physical robot. I worked on the animated movie featuring the robot and helped the team strategize during the actual event. I’ve been mostly in the realm of ideas my whole live, and all of my previously released games have been digital. I’m still more interested in the ideas behind a game and the experiences it creates than its physical components, but at the end of the day a board game is a physical artifact, and producing my own means I have to deal with it as such.
This year, I learned how to coordinate the production of more than a thousand copies of a game in China, ship them across the world by boat, and store and distribute them. Admittedly, I’m getting help with all of these things. I’m lucky to be getting into the board game scene just as the industry is really taking off. There are ever more systems in place to support the production and distribution of board games, but still lots of possibility for little guys to join in the fun. Still, learning about all of these systems was completely new to me.
A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible
(Why do I keep titling subsections that? Oh, no reason.)
You don’t learn a ton without making some mistakes, and some of the many lessons I learned this year came from unfortunate decisions. I don’t want to dwell too much on these hard lessons, but if I’m looking back honestly, it’s only fair that I discuss the lows as well as the highs.
While I’ve already discussed some of the mistakes I made with the Corporate America Kickstarter, one thing I want to emphasize is that I’m a bit disappointed that I caved to pressure and changed some of the more racy business names in the game. It’s understandable, I think, since the most vocal complainers didn’t like the mild swearing, but ultimately I think it made many of the business names less good and compromised the vision of the game slightly. Thankfully, a lot of good did come from the change, like opening up lots of new and popular pledge levels for Kickstarter supporters. But I still wish I’d held my ground a little more–I doubt toning the game down slightly made anyone buy it.
Another area that I still have lots of room to grow is in dealing with other people. I’ve recently made an effort to reach more people through conventions and the like, but there’s another type of relationship I’ve been developing: working relationships. I’ve always worked with other people when making games in the past, but for Corporate America I ended up hiring artists to help me, something I’ve never done before. Unfortunately, there is one relationship in particular I think I spoiled during crunch time on Corporate America. This sort of thing makes me feel extremely bad, and I’ll be trying to salvage the relationship the best I can when Corporate America is finally released.
Alright, enough of the dreary stuff. This year had its lows, but it had way more highs, and now is a good time to celebrate them!
I’m going to go over the year listing accomplishments. While I might be bragging a little here, I like to think of it as more of a way to step back and see some of the big strides I made. It’s interesting to me, but I’d guess it’s probably at least somewhat interesting to you, too. I could never have done everything I did this year without a ton of support from a bunch of awesome friends (and of course a lot of good luck), and I’d be willing to bet that if you’re reading this post, you probably had something to do with these accomplishments! So let’s dive right in…
A year ago this month, I was getting the business set up. I registered my business, I started setting up my home office (most noticeably picking up a new printer), and I started working on this very website! I was laying the foundation for the work I’d be doing for the rest of the year.
By April of last year, Corporate America had already come along way in terms of game design and development, but I started taking testing more seriously by running blind playtests (recruiting people I don’t know to read the rules and try the game without my help). I also started toying with the idea of publishing it myself, both to learn more about the board game industry and to keep things moving quickly (getting a publisher when you have no reputation is a long, drawn out process). To get my toes wet, I started researching and contacting printers to get a feel for how much the game would cost to produce. I also started looking for an artist for the game, which ended up taking forever.
May and June were more of the same, as I continued to refine the game based on feedback from new playtesters, search for an artist, establish relationships with printers, and develop my web presence through social media as well as on forums like Board Game Geek. My friend Karen was in full force helping me with the cover for the game, and I was having regular meetings with my friend Simon, getting lots of valuable lessons about graphic design.
By July, Corporate America was on the march toward completion as I continued to search for an artist to help me with the cards in the game. By this point, I had decided to go with Panda GM for printing and was beginning to plan the Kickstarter campaign.
In August, Chrissy had joined the Corporate America team as the game artist. The game was beginning to take its final form! I also started the early rough draft of the Kickstarter project by this point.
When September rolled around, it was time to start publicizing the game harder in preparation for the Kickstarter campaign. I got the game up to snuff on The Game Crafter and sent a couple of copies to reviewers. I was also getting ready to film the Kickstarter video, which ended up being way more ambitious than it should have been!
October came around, and it was time to film the video and launch the Kickstarter campaign! It ended up starting about a week later than I hoped (I wanted it to end right after the presidential election in November), but how exciting! And after the initial excitement… the initial crash! When the Kickstarter slowed down, I was dumbfounded, but then got serious about getting things back on track. I bought advertising as well as doing guerrilla marketing whenever I could. I recruited some friends to film actual gameplay footage. I also started experimenting with customized art and business names for Kickstarter supporters, which would take my work in a whole new collaborative direction. This all led me to…
An unexpected Kickstarter success in November! I was completely blown away by the generosity and support I received from so many people from many different stages of my life. It was both a humbling and thrilling experience, and meant that the first major obstacle of my indie career was overcome! But I had put off quite a bit of work with the attitude of “I’ll take care of that if I need to”, and now I needed to. As quickly as I could, I hammered out a print and play version of the game for supporters.
Throughout December, I spent as much free time as I could finalizing the art of the game, incorporating Kickstarter backers in some of the cards and cleaning up some game components I wasn’t happy with. I also took care of some of the Kickstarter rewards like the special Corporate America hats.
Due to some bad timing on my part, I really had to crunch to get the game in tip top shape by early January to get to the printer. Thankfully, everything ended up coming together, and it was then time to start taking care of other Kickstarter rewards, like making custom prototypes. By this point, I also realized it was time to figure out what I was going to do with all of these 1,500 games, and I started seriously looking for a distributor that could help me store, sell, and ship copies of the game.
And in February, I finally found a distributor! Honestly, the whole distributor thing almost falls into the Lessons Learned section. I really should have looked for a distributor before the Kickstarter campaign, and when I found a distributor, it was close to too late. Thankfully, things worked out.
Oh yeah, and I also set up a web store and went to my first convention, too!
Which brings us to today. If you read my blog post about exploring my options, you know that at the moment I’m trying to figure out what I should be focusing on next. One or two of those lucky games will get made… stay tuned this year to find out which ones!
Mad Hatter’s First Year
One of the things I love about games is that they incorporate so many different skills and ways of thinking. You always have to stay on your toes. This year has been a big learning experience for me. I’m extremely fortunate to have so many people rooting for me and to have had so many things go right. As far as first years go, you can’t ask for much more than what I got!
What will my second year as an indie hold? I’m not sure, but starting to make money is a pretty big priority! Now that I have a distributor for Corporate America, I should have a lot of time to focus on what I love, developing new games, and I hope to release at least one digital game and make major progress on a non-digital game over the course of the year. And I’ll be hitting up those conventions like there’s no tomorrow!
So… ready to playtest a cool new game?