Kind Fortress: Playful Thoughts - The Hit List
Nick Bentley is one of the brightest minds in gaming, and I’ve often turned to his blog, or approached him personally, for his insights into game design, product marketing, and the tabletop games industry. From his perch at North Star Games, Nick sees a lot, and understands more, about how to be successful in gaming.
Immediately following Gen Con 2019, Bentley release a provocatively-titled post on his blog, Board game designers are bad at pitching games to publishers. I can help. In the post, Bentley makes two related points: first, that games have become incredibly competitive, so your game has to be a great product in addition to being a great game. Second, Bentley explains that the industry is hit-driven, and that the only way to stay in business in the long term is to make hits. Thus, game designers should seek to pitch only games which can be hits. Based on these two points, he concludes that designers should pitch games by talking about why their unique, rather than why they’re great (which should be assumed, and will emerge in playtesting anyway), and then talk about why the game can be a hit.
While Bentley is ostensibly talking about improving the pitch, the quality of the pitch isn’t his real issue. It’s the quality of the game. Bentley isn’t saying “designers have amazing games, but they’re bad at pitching, and here’s a way to pitch better.” He’s saying “designers think they have amazing games, but in fact, these are the elements on which games are judged, and if you try to pitch your game on the basis of these elements, you’ll discover that your games aren’t good enough.”
Bentley is being enormously reductive. Hits are great. Everyone wants to make hits. Publishers, designers and gamers all want hits. A hit like Root can sustain a company for years. A hit like Spirit Island can support a dozen employees. A designer like Vlaada Chvátil can make top-rated games for years, and then a single mass-market hit like Codenames will eclipse them all. A true hit game will sell six figures in its first year and seven figures over its lifetime (and perhaps more, as the market continues to grow). A good release that is not a hit will sell in the low five figures. In other words, there is a difference of at least one and perhaps two orders of magnitude between a hit and a successful game. That’s why publishers chase hits. A successful game keeps the company afloat for another year. A hit sets a company up for a decade.
But you can’t make hits just by wanting to, and spotting hits is easiest in hindsight. In today’s market, designers are encourages to experiment with new materials, to use expensive or difficult-to-manufacture components, and to create reams of additional content, all to try and create the magical mix of attention-grabbing, immersive and fun gameplay. Yet, many of today’s premium hits would have been rejected out-of-hand a few years ago as impossible to make. Hits from yesteryear, like Pandemic or Love Letter were similarly impossible to predict.
A few years ago I sold a dexterity game to a publisher with the hook that people love to play dexterity games, but they don’t love to buy them because they are expensive and heavy and large. This game had all the fun, but none of the cost, since it was made of cardboard. I was chasing the Tiny Epic game, the microgame trend, and the idea that affordability was hot. The rights to that game reverted to me recently, and I showed it to a publisher at Gen Con, who explained that the game was simply too cheap to stand out in this market. And he’s right. There are more games like Ice Cool, Men at Work and Megacity Oceania than Flipships. Last year’s hook is this year’s blah. Look at roll-and-writes! Out with the paper pads and golf pencils, in with the laminate boards and color markers!
Industry changes, and changing tastes among games, means that designers need to think about product development earlier on, and to be better observers of the industry. There’s also a lot of room for publishers to be more effective in communicating what they’re looking for, conforming to their brands, and building relationships with designers.
All these arrows point in the same direction, though, and it’s a direction that will leave some designers, and some gamers, disappointed. It’s the direction of increasing professionalization. All of the ingredients that go into making hits, and making hits more consistently, add up to designers and publishers spending more time doing the work.
Designers need to spend more time brainstorming, experimenting with different materials, crafting and learning new skills. They also need to spend more time talking to publishers, maintaining contacts, and reading industry news and trends. Getting out of the workshop and into the world, scanning the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart, attending conventions, and enriching their perspectives will feed back into better designs.
Publishers, similarly, need to spend more time, and they need to gather more capital. Bringing on investors, consolidating to improve scale, managing credit lines and leveraging better, while continuing to improve in marketing, branding, and relationship management all demands more time, more skills, more partners and more staff.
There are legitimate concerns about whether chasing hits will lead to formulaic products and license-based look-alike games, with little of the spark and creativity of independent design. Yet, from my vantage point, the hits have come from all over. The Op (nee USAopoly) and FFG have driven innovations in design, product, manufacturing and components, alongside Jordan Draper, Stonemaier Games, Eagle-Gryphon Games and Pandasaurus.
What might change in this new world? I think we’ll see lots of “good game, great product” games. These are professionally designed games with strong, but ultimately unexceptional gameplay, that are packaged well, with some kind of great hook. I think it’s fair to describe some of the recent games like Bob Ross: Art of Chill this way. I think we’ll lose many games that have great gameplay, but fail to stick out in any other way. There’s just not a market for another beige Euro that’s anything short of world-beating. We’ve seen games like Heaven & Ale, Merlin, and Nusfjord appear and fade away despite excellent pedigrees, strong art, and major companies behind them. They games were not failures, bur they also weren’t hits.
I’ll end with this ray of hope for lovers of the odd and obscure, the unusual and the independent. In every industry, there’s always the dark corners, the strange niches, and the just plain weird. And in our industry, there’s more room for it than most. I don’t think those creators and their edgy offspring will get drowned out. Those bells will still ring, and through their cracks, the light will get in.