Understanding the Tabletop Game Industry
by Brian Tinsman, Wizards of the Coast
In the board and card game industry—aka the tabletop game industry—game designers are called inventors. Brian Tinsman is a professional game inventor with over 35 published tabletop game products. As lead concept acquisitions representative for Wizards of the Coast, Brian has reviewed hundreds of games submitted for publication and helped many beginning inventors get their first games published.
The following is excerpted from his excellent book, The Game Inventor’s Guidebook. It is used here with permission. More information on this subject can be found at www.briantinsman.com.
How New Games Happen
Most tabletop game companies don’t have a staff of inventors creating new games. It’s usually more cost effective for them to buy or license game designs from independent inventors. Inventors drive the whole creative process. They take the germ of an idea and play around with it until it’s a working game. They create a prototype and test it out with lots of players, collect feedback, and make numerous revisions until it’s ready to pitch.
The designer’s next step is to convince a publisher to risk his money getting the game manufactured. Just like movies, books, and music, the game industry is full of people who overestimate their own talent. For that reason publishers have to screen out the hacks. You need to demonstrate you’re a legitimate prospect and have some talent before your game reaches the reviewer’s desk. Do this by focusing on the company’s needs, instead of your needs, when you contact them. For example, instead of saying “I want to work with you because you have the best distribution for my game,” try saying “I have several designs that I think might fit your upcoming product line. What kinds of games are you most interested in reviewing right now?”
When a publisher gives the go-ahead to publish a new game, he hands it off to his art department. When the art and graphic design are finished, the rules are edited, and all the final touch-ups are complete, the game goes to production. The production people select what kind of paper and plastic are going to be used for each component and convert the artwork from computer files to films, which are fed into the printing machines at the factory. The presses churn out boxes, boards, and cards, the molds spit out the pieces, and a worker puts them all together and shrink-wraps it. When the entire print run is complete, it goes into a shipping container. Most North American publishers have their manufacturing done in China these days.
When the game is on a truck, it needs to get to stores. The very largest publishers can call up the large chain retailers like Toys “R” Us and ask how many copies they want, but what about all the small publishers and small retailers? There are about 4000 game and hobby stores in North America that aren’t part of any chain. This is where the distributors come in. Distributors buy games from publishers, store them in a warehouse, mark them up about 50%, and send retailers a catalog from which to order.
Tabletop game retailers fall into two major categories: mass market retailers and specialty/hobby shops. Mass market retailers are mostly composed of big department stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, Toys “R” Us. Toys “R” Us alone accounts for 19% of all tabletop game sales in the United States. Hobby shops, on the other hand, are usually small stores privately owned and run by dedicated people who love games (and/or comic books). Online stores are starting to emerge as a third category of game retailers, especially with hobby games, although online volumes don’t match the bigger two categories.
Markets for Games
From an inventor’s perspective, there are basically four markets (categories) in which to sell games to publishers. They’re defined by the type of consumer who buys the games in that market, methods of distribution, and product expectations of the publishers. The categories are mass market, hobby games, American specialty games, and European games.
Mass market games are the most recognizable of all games to most Americans. They’re the ones you see on the shelves of Wal-Mart, Toys “R: Us, and Kay-B. They are mostly made up of family and party games like Pictionary, Taboo, Boggle, and Cranium. Alongside these newcomers are the venerable classics that many of us grew up with, such as Monopoly, Clue, Life, and Scrabble. Most young children’s games fall into this category too. Any game on these shelves has some big names to compete with, but new ones do it each year, and the most successful ones become modern classics.
Hobby games are mostly the domain of males in their teens and 20s who play religiously every week or more. In general these games are extremely complex, and it’s not unusual for fans to spend hundreds of dollars a year buying supplements, cards, figurines, or new rulebooks for a single game. Hobby games fall into three major categories: role-playing games, miniatures games, and trading card games.
This is sort of a catchall category for American games that aren’t mass market or hobby games. It includes products targeted at a certain segment, such as abstract strategy board games, war games, games with physical game play, and so forth. Generally you should expect small print runs from small publishers, but it’s definitely the easiest category to get started in. There are also a number of games in this category that would be appropriate for the mass market, but for one reason or another haven’t gone through that distribution channel.
When someone talks about the European game market, they’re mostly talking about games published by German companies. The German game market is a big one. In Germany, games are quite a bit more popular as a mainstream entertainment choice when compared to North American tastes. German companies put out dozens and dozens of new games each year, only a small fraction of which ever get translated and make it over to the States. German games in general tend to be much more complex, abstract, and strategic than American games. They also rely more on their gameplay as a selling point, and less on their themes, than American games.
These four markets are by no means the only places you can sell games. If you have a football game and you can get sporting goods stores to carry it, or if you can find some other way to skip traditional game retail outlets, that can work in your favor. Some companies sell directly to the consumer by mail order. Others sell on eBay or via a Web site. There’s also a modest amount of sales to educational distributors and schools. There are innumerable other options for getting your game into the consumers’ hands. However, as of yet, none of them have been able to generate sales figures that come close to those of the four traditional markets.
Idea to Store Shelf in Seven Steps
A quick overview of how the whole thing works is as follows:
1. Invent your game. Start with a certain type of consumer in mind. Refine it by getting people who don’t know you to play it. They’ll discover problems you didn’t expect. Solve them.
2. Research publishers. If you already figured out what kind of consumer will play your game, find a publisher with other games aimed at that consumer. These publishers already have good distribution in those markets and will be most receptive to a game like yours. Find out what’s missing from their product line by visiting their Web site.
3. Contact your targeted publishers. Ask if they’re interested in seeing your game. If not, find out what they’d rather see instead. There are four recommended methods of contact.
- Cold call: Call up and ask the best way to submit a game. Be professional. This works best with smaller game companies.
- E-mail inquiry: E-mail their customer service department with a query letter asking if they would be interested in seeing your game.
- Inquire in person at an event: If you have the chance to attend a game convention or trade show, companies will often have booths with development staff in attendance. Ask how you can submit a game concept. Some of the larger conventions include Gen Con (Indianapolis), Penny Arcade Expo (Seattle), and San Diego ComiCon.
- Broker or agent: You will only need an agent to reach the largest mass market companies, but good agents can often give you valuable, objective feedback on your game. Stay away from the ones that advertise on TV or that don’t specialize in games.
- Not recommended: Sending a game to the publisher without being asked, showing up in person at the company office, or trying to make an impression with wacky demos or puzzles.
4. If the company is interested in your game, send them a prototype, video demo, or meet with the concept acquisitions representative to give a demonstration.
5. Wait to hear the company’s decision (usually about six weeks maximum).
6. If they decline your game, get feedback, continue development, and keep trying until you make a sale. It helps to have multiple games ready to show.
7. If they accept your game, negotiate a contract and help the publisher with development until it’s ready to go to print.
Ten Reasons Games Get Rejected
1. Poor gameplay. Lots of submissions aren’t fun to play.
2. Unoriginal mechanics. Poor inventors base their game directly on a traditional game or a competitor’s game, whether intentionally or unintentionally. While it’s fine to use minor elements from other games, it shouldn’t feel like something we’ve all played before.
3. Game is not appropriate for that company. Reviewers see games all the time for categories they just don’t publish. Either people don’t do their research or are hoping a war game company will change their minds and publish a preschool game.
4. Too focused on theme, not gameplay. Many inventors like the idea of using a certain intellectual property or theme but don’t have the time or talent to put together a compelling game. Instead, they take a traditional game like Go Fish, introduce a board, and put pictures of Barbie on it. If a publisher wanted to do a product like that, they wouldn’t need an inventor to show them how.
5. Game submitted without required legal forms or with inventor’s own legal forms. If the company asks you to sign a disclosure form and you don’t, your submission goes right in the trash. Asking them to sign a confidentiality agreement usually has the same effect. It’s like stamping “I don’t understand the procedure” on the front of your submission.
6. Poor marketing potential. Some games are aimed at a consumer segment that’s too narrow. How many people are going to be interested in your subject?
7. Not feasible to produce. New inventors tend to over design games with too many rules and too many extraneous components. If your game has lots of pieces or anything that would be complicated to manufacture, ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary.
8. Game depends on an unobtainable license. Sure it would be nice to do a Star Wars-themed board game, but Hasbro has the license locked up for the foreseeable future, and even if it were available, very few publishers could afford the licensing fees. If your game depends on a license, you need to make sure the license is available and affordable before you pitch.
9. Rules unclear or too hard. It’s a little-known fact that rules are incredibly tricky to write. If you want to see for yourself, watch someone try to play your game for the first time from your rules while you say absolutely nothing. If a publisher has that much trouble, he’s just going to quit. Many games also suffer from having too many rules. What’s the most fun part of your game? If a rule doesn’t contribute directly to that fun part, consider cutting it.
10. Competes directly with another product in the company. Some people assume that if a company has a hit product, they’ll want another one just like it. In fact, the opposite is true if it’s aimed at the same consumer segment. A new product is just as likely to pull customers away from their current hit as it is to bring in new players. This is called cannibalization risk.
Three Reasons Games Get Accepted
1. It has a certain magic. Publishers look for games with a “hook”—something about them that just compels you to pick them up. Games like Jenga and Bop It have fascinating parts that just beg you to touch them. Heroscape comes with 30 painted miniature figures and buildable terrain. Pass the Pigs has bouncy little rubber pigs instead of dice. In a bad game, it’s called a gimmick. In a good game, it’s called magic.
2. It has crossover potential. This means it could get new kinds of players to become interested in the product line. This is one reason why you see so many licensed products. For example, Blizzard and Upper Deck partnered to create the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game. Blizzard hoped that card gamers would cross over to become online gamers, and Upper Deck hoped the product could bring online gamers into card games.
3. The gameplay is extremely good. If the product development staff plays your game and immediately wants to play again, they’ll probably find a way to get it on their production schedule.
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- Indie Game Jam
- Interview with a Game Agent
- Selling Ideas to the Game Industry
- The Core Mechanic
- The Two Great Myths of Interactive Storytelling
- Understanding the Tabletop Game Industry
- Where to Game Ideas Come From?