Going Wide

I recently started a Patreon. It’s a bit of an experiment, but I’m hoping it will give friends and fans the chance to show their appreciation for this blog and help guide me by requesting article topics. Today’s article is the first of those requests.

Cardboard Edison is a husband and wife duo who have done great things for the game design community. They scour the internet in search of articles, podcasts, and forum threads about game design and publishing and share them with interested parties, helping content creators get exposure and making sure everyone has access to quality resources. It’s a win-win, and I highly recommend you follow them on twitter.

Nothing Sacred Games' releases are diverse. Perhaps a little too diverse...

Nothing Sacred Games’ releases are diverse. Perhaps a little too diverse…

Cardboard Edison asked me a very interesting question: “You seem to have designed games in a pretty wide range of genres. Some designers and publishers prefer to work in a narrower range to build a brand. Could you talk about the pros and cons of the different approaches, both as a designer and a publisher?”

For those of you unfamiliar, the games I have released and am working on are all over the board. The first game I released, Corporate America, is a negotiation game set in the contemporary US with a satirical bite. Shadow Throne, scheduled for release in March of 2015, is a drafting, hand management game set in a dark medieval kingdom. And Birds of a Feather, which will be on Kickstarter in a few months, is a quick, simple card game about bird watching. And this isn’t even considering digital games!

The question really got me thinking about what I’m doing and whether I’m moving in the right direction or not, so it naturally makes for a great article! Join me as I weigh the pros and cons of having a diverse portfolio of games.

Designer Perspective

I believe the designer and publisher perspectives are quite different on this question, and sometimes at odds with each other. We’ll start with the designer perspective.

Cons
Matt Leacock has built his design career by focusing on one genre.

Matt Leacock has built his game design career by focusing on one genre. Image from shin-tairiku.com.

Lack of Specialization. Whenever you work on a game, you learn a lot. If you make a worker placement game, for example, the lessons you learn can immediately be applied to your next worker placement game. By focusing on one genre, you can really hone your craft. Some designers take this approach and become masters of their corner of the gaming world. Matt Leacock, with his many co-op games, is one such designer.

…and that’s it. I honestly can’t think of another con to diversifying as a designer. I welcome dissenting opinions in the comments.

Pros

Stay Fresh. Sooner or later, we all get burned out on projects. By working on games that are very different, the fatigue from one game won’t carry over to the next. In fact, working on very different games can be refreshing! This is especially important when you’re working on multiple games at once.

Keep Learning. As a designer, your primary asset is creativity. While some designers thrive by taking other people’s ideas and optimizing them, everyone is at an advantage when they bring something new to the table, providing players with a new experience or at least a new perspective on an old favorite. By working on different types of games, you ensure that you will continue to grow and discover new insights that will keep players interested.

Synthesize. One of the most effective ways to create something new is to combine existing ideas in a novel way. This is why students are encouraged to change universities between undergrad and grad school, and it’s why you should work on different types of games. You never know when a common solution in one domain will be applicable to a seemingly unsolvable problem in another domain.

Love Your Project. My last article covered how emotions can lead to bad design decisions, but I really believe it’s vital that a designer is excited about his or her projects. If you’re inspired by real time strategy games one day and tigers stalking prey the next, explore both ideas! When you start constraining yourself, you’ll start feeling trapped, which will take a lot of the fun out of the craft. If you’re not having fun making games, do you think your games will be fun?

Publisher Perspective

For the designer, I think it’s almost always good to explore new types of games and themes. For a publisher, this is much less true.

Cons

Losing Your Audience. One of the biggest assets a publisher has is its audience. Core fans are what allow games to be made these days. They give the publisher a little security in an otherwise very volatile industry. Unfortunately, creating dramatically different games is a great way to scare off or even alienate your audience.

Shadow Throne is a medium-weight card game with dark, brooding art and a sinister streak. Birds of a Feather is a light-weight card game you could play with your grandparents or child. How many Shadow Throne Kickstarter backers do you think will help make Birds of a Feather a reality?

GMT has had years of success at least in part because their brand means war games. Image from Board Game Geek.

GMT has had years of success at least in part because their brand means war games. Image from Board Game Geek.

Diluting Your Brand. The board game industry is a small but fragmented one. Many of the most successful publishers have found a niche to fill and stayed in it. By exploring radically different types of games and themes, you can easily confuse your audience, making your brand less meaningful.

Even if someone really connected with Shadow Throne, when my next release is about birds, will that player connect with Nothing Sacred Games?

Losing Infrastructure. With every game you release, you’re building up infrastructure. You’re establishing business relationships and gaining knowledge of the process. If you change the scope of your games or their target audience, you’re making those relationships and that knowledge less useful. You know how to make a card game, but you’ll have to relearn much of the manufacturing process to make a 4X game with custom models. You can sell a game to hobby gamers, but can you reach parents who have young kids?

Pros
Some franchises can sustain a publisher all by themselves. Image from Games @ Pi.

Some franchises can sustain a publisher all by themselves. Image from Games @ Pi.

Don’t get Pigeonholed. Games in general and board games in particular are a hit driven industry. There are only a handful of games that become well known and make substantial money each year, and most either lose money or just barely make money. If you’ve released a hit, great! Go nuts leveraging that game or genre to make your business successful. But if you haven’t, even if your last release was successful in that you didn’t lose money, it’s to your advantage to continue to explore in search of that hit.

Adapt to the Market. Let’s say you’ve released a couple of successful zombie games. If you keep making zombie games, what’s going to happen to your business when the zombie bubble bursts? By releasing different types of games, you’ll have the skills to adapt to the changing preferences of the board game community and won’t immediately go under when your flagship product line hits troubled waters.

The Nothing Sacred Games Perspective

Wherever you find advice, it’s important to ask yourself if that advice is applicable to your particular circumstances.

Take, for example, Jamey Stegmaier’s blog. Jamey has done extremely well with Stonemaier Games and has been extremely generous sharing many insights into Kickstarter along the way. But whenever I read one of his articles, I have to remind myself: Jamey started doing Kickstarters earlier, and his fanbase is at least an order of magnitude larger than mine; Jamey’s games are much heavier than mine; Jamey has a very different skillset. What works for him will not necessarily work for me. His advice is great, but it would be foolish to blindly follow it.

This is a long way of asking: why aren’t I following my own advice? I use Nothing Sacred Games as an example for many of the above cons–why don’t I change the trajectory of the company?

The main reason is that Nothing Sacred Games is still young. It barely has an audience to lose at this point. The brand is still being built, so it can’t really get diluted. It’s more important for the company to continue learning and exploring before it establishes roots and becomes less flexible. In a year or two, after a few more releases, I will need to revisit this, but for the time being the company’s strength lies more in flexibility than an established infrastructure.

But there is another reason. While Nothing Sacred Games is a publisher, it’s mostly a means to allow me to pursue my real dream: designing games. Publishing is important, because it makes designing games sustainable, and it will probably become a bigger part of my life in the next few years. But ultimately Nothing Sacred Games is a design studio, and I want to make sure that I’m not ignoring what’s best for design to pursue what’s best for publishing.

Staying Open

And those are my thoughts on focusing your releases versus having a diverse library as a designer and as a publisher. It has been interesting to explicitly consider a little more closely what I’m doing with Nothing Sacred Games. In business, as in everything in life, there are no sure things, just risks, so I hope I’m taking good risks!

I want to again thank Suzanne and Chris of Cardboard Edison for the great question. With a solid first article inspired by a patron, I’m excited to see what the future of the Nothing Sacred Games Patreon brings!

Leave a comment

9 Comments

  1. Great article! Thanks for writing it.

    I remember talking with one designer who was reluctant to continue working on a design that was quite different from his other, soon-to-be-published games for two of the reasons you note as cons for publishers: He was concerned about potentially “losing his audience” and “diluting his brand.”

    Reply
    • My pleasure, thanks for suggesting the topic!

      The more I think about it, the more I think it’s to a designer’s advantage to design a wide variety of games. Few designers build up a serious reputation, so it’s better to show off the many things you can do rather than only show you can design one type of game. If your friend wasn’t interested in pursuing his design any longer (there are many good reasons for this, like burning out or realizing the design isn’t as good as you hoped), I think that’s reasonable, but I would not drop a design simply because it isn’t directly connected to your other games.

      Reply
  2. I think specialization risks limiting your audience just as much going wide. On the PC think of a series like SimCity – super popular, but with each iteration came more and more complexity, targeting a smaller and smaller subset of “hardcore” fans, until you get SimCity 4, which was so far down the rabbit hole that it scared away new customers. Or think of Call of Duty – rehash after rehash, targeting the same customers over and over.

    Same thing with expansions – take Zombies!!! or Settlers of Catan – each had tons of expansions, and each new expansion only appealed to a smaller and smaller slice of the original customer pie. I knew gamers who wouldn’t even deign to play Catan unless it had all the expansions – which was a big turn-off for new players, or those who were happy with just the base set.

    I look at that wall of Munchkin and I don’t even know where to start, and so I don’t even bother.

    Also, I think it’s great to offer a variety of game types – I’ve only been to one game party in my life that was dedicated to just one “serious” game, and that was a playtest. Every other party I’ve been to has a mix of light and heavy games – you need light ones to keep people engaged while people are arriving, or when you’re “out”, and if your “brand” only does one thing, and someone doesn’t like it, you’ll never get them if you just keep making the same thing they’re not interested in.

    Reply
    • I think you bring up some great points Jon. And in fact, you made me realize I missed an important reason to diversify as a publisher–if your games are too close, you will steal sales from yourself. If you have a very tight product line, you might find some hyper fans (just like Zombies!!! and Settlers), but many gamers will only want one game of a given type. If you’re flooding the market with games of one type, you’re only going to get one sale from that customer, where you might get more sales if you had games that didn’t overlap so much.

      Reply
  3. Great post, Mr. Fristoe! I’ve actually been pondering this topic quite a bit lately. Episode 70 of the Plaid Hat Games Podcast had a great discussion on this topic. It featured, of course, Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat and Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games. It was so neat because they both came out of Hasbro, both started indie publishing companies with little background or help, and approached it with VERY different goals. Mr. Dauch, like Mr. Stegmaier is building a brand around a certain kind of recognizable gaming experience. Whereas, Mr. Buonocore is trying to diversify with a wide (high variety), far reaching, stable company.
    Sorry I’m rambling long. . . it is a fascinating discussion which I recommend giving at least a quick listen.

    Regardless, I agree completely with your reasoning for not concerning yourself with NSG’s current status, and find myself swimming in the same thoughts for my portfolio / company 🙂

    Reply
    • I’m glad to be able to further contribute to the discussion! I’m actually very curious about other publishers’ perspectives on this issue. I feel a lot more confident in my designer answer than publisher answer. But all that said, I really do think there is no one right cookie-cutter answer, and each designer/publisher has to look at his or her own circumstances to determine the right approach.

      Reply
  4. I just discovered your blog and can only say it is amazing. The best mix of publishing and design knowledge for a small publisher I have ever seen. All very clearly written and well organized. Your publishing neighbor in Sacramento, Revolution Games.

    Reply
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