What to expect in designing your first card game
Michael C Konas and Mike Cameron
September 22nd, 2013
We published our first game in 2013, a full year after the game idea was created. In this article we will examine some of the problems that we encountered in the process and what we did to overcome them.
So you're thinking about making a game?
Games are awesome. As kids we designed our own games with dice, paperclips, and cardboard. As adults we took our obsession a step further by creating a funded, marketed, and manufactured game, that came in it's own glorious box. Bridging the gap between a game idea and a tangible product can be daunting. For us, this process centered on constantly learning and correcting our mistakes. Each section below touches on something we learned the hard way and suggestions we can offer about not making the same mistake in your project.
What we learned: find out what your game does well.
What does your game idea do well? Your answer might include things like: smooth gameplay, a unique mechanic, fun player confrontation, surprising depth, or great artwork. These are good answers that will serve you well when promoting your game and talking to people, but during the design process it is helpful to have a higher level theme. Think about a few words that embody your idea as a whole. As an example, our central themes were approachability and humor. Once we refined our idea and decided on the core themes, more granular decisions became much easier to make. For example, 'will simplifying these complex card effects improve approachability? Yes!' Framing your process around the core themes will make your ideas more cohesive and will allow your game's strength to take center stage. Keep these central themes in mind at all stages of development including playtesting and product promotion.
What we learned: crowdfunding is not free money.
Crowdfunding is great. There is nothing better than having a community of people who believe in your idea and will help you get it off the ground. Crowdfunding can provide very helpful momentum and support for your project. It also is an incredible amount of work for an unknown outcome. There are a plethora of factors you need to consider before getting involved in crowdfunding so do your homework. Arm yourself with as much data as you can find and ensure your project is looking it's best before entering the crowdfunding arena. Aside from the obvious challenge of setting an appropriate funding goal, one must also consider hidden costs, preparation, time, stress, and ownership of the project.
Crowdfunding warrants considerable research and attention. We've written an entire article around our crowdfunding experience with Kickstarter. 'Kickstarter: Succeeding the First Time Around'.
Underestimating the work
What we learned: publishing a game is a gargantuan amount of work.
Designing a game is a complex task. There is an array of factors that have to work in harmony to make a good game. Creating a game that plays well is just the beginning of the process. Once the game core is completed, the peripheral work involved in bringing your project to life begins to become more important. Let's take a look at some of the tasks that will require an investment of your time.
You are going to be taking orders, dealing with customers, handling the books, running the day to day operations of a company, and paying taxes. If you haven't set up a business already, there will be some time and cost involved in getting everything established with your state government. You will need to get appropriate business licenses, buy some bookkeeping software, and possibly hire an accountant. Setting up a business is a learning process and is pleasantly empowering. Ensure you set aside some time to handle this.
Your game needs to have a web presence. There are many viable technical options to make this happen. If you have some technical savvy you may even want to create and design the website yourself. Consider hosting costs, domain name purchase, technical assistance, and website design costs. You may also want to think about some extras for your website, like gameplay videos, which may require additional software or costs. The most profitable way to sell your game is directly to the customer via your website. You need to have a payment solution in place and some form of fulfillment process. You may have different income channels (Amazon Payment, Paypal, Checks, Bitcoins, etc.) and you may need a central place to process and handle these orders. Your website does not have to be the best of the best, but it needs to be solid. This takes time and money.
Social channels like Facebook, Twitter, online forums, and gaming website are excellent ways to promote your game for free. These channels should be a central focus of your promotional and marketing efforts from day one. There is the potential to reach out to an interested audience throughout the development of your game, it's funding period, and once it goes to market. Unless you already have 5000 friends waiting to buy your game the moment it is ready, social channels will require quite a bit of attention. Each channel needs to be treated as if it were a separate, self contained entity. They need to be updated constantly to keep your game on the minds of your viewers and to generate some buzz about your project. There needs to be consistency across these channels in message, content, and marketing. Consider targeting one or two channels at first, then expanding once you have the time to do so.
All of the messages you send out about your game, regardless of media, need to be well thought out, cohesive, and consistent. Generating all of this material from scratch requires high level thinking and is very time consuming. You will need to revise your message many times in order to find the most concise and effective format. This exercise may seem daunting, but there is a bright side: the more practised you become at marketing the easier it gets. Keep in mind that you will also be building and refining materials that will span the life of the project. Further down the road, this hard work will become a simple formatting of material you have already written.
Balance and Time
Your project will suck the spare time out of your regular life. Whether or not this is good or bad for you, be prepared. Sacrifice is a central part of creating a product and you must take a long term outlook on all of the time you are investing. Patience is not only a virtue, but an essential asset to your success. Be prepared to invest long hours into your project including evenings and weekends. You will have to field customers promptly whether you want to or not. You friends and family will eventually get tired of hearing about your game and may become irritable when you bring it up. On top of all of this you will not be making any money from you labor in the near future. Consider your current work / life situation and try to imagine what it would be like investing an additional 20 hours a week into developing a game. You must also make time to step away from your creation. This serves to maintain your objectivity and gives you some breathing space to avoid burnout. Do you really need to be in front of the keyboard revising the game rules at 2am on a Tuesday?
What we learned: capitalize on your existing skills and find a partner
What do you need to turn your game idea into a reality? The list might look something like this: a brilliant game designer; an experienced illustrator; a business that is up and running; a marketing department; a fat bankroll; and a leader to keep everything moving. This sounds like a tall order because it is. If you are on a shoestring budget like us, your team will have to be able to do most of these things themselves. You must find out what you are good at and which of these roles you can fill. Can you design the game and illustrate the cards? Awesome. If you are here reading this, I'll bet that you are an ambitious and adaptable individual. Capitalize on these abilities and begin to grow into some of the other roles. This process is not only about bringing your game idea to life, it is about your personal growth as well.
Finding a Partner
It's unlikely that you will be able to do everything by yourself. There is always the option of contracting work out, but this is typically expensive. It is far more reasonable to find a partner that can fill in the gaps. Skill synergy is a key asset that is especially relevant to small teams. Forming a partnership is not a task to be taken lightly. It is often said that one should enter a business partnership like a marriage - you will be sharing risk, reward, and will be tied to each other's dedication and ethics directly. Having a good partner is one of the most valuable assets a business can have. A strong partnership will not only give you complimentary skill sets, but will give you perspective, balance, and can help you push through emotionally challenging periods.
What we learned: manufacturing overseas takes a long time
Manufacturing locally is fast and expensive. Manufacturing overseas is cheap and slow. You may find that overseas manufacturing is your only option to turn a profit, but keep local manufacturing in mind for quick turnaround if you experience high demand and are out of product. In our case, overseas manufacturing took three months from start to product in hand. This can be a challenging period to wait for your game, especially after investing so much labor and effort in getting it completed. The manufacturing period also impacts a number of other aspects of your process. At some point you will have to coordinate a release date that is dependent on having your product in hand. Your backers, social channels, and ability to generate buzz are all time sensitive. If you are taking preorders for you game be very careful about promising delivery dates. Be sensitive to publishing any dates in your outward facing materials and be vague if possible. If you are on a shoestring budget and need to be conservative a good strategy is to always underpromise and overdeliver. The production period of your game will tie up some of your capital. The longer the manufacturing period is, the longer your return on investment will be.
The most obvious item here is the manufacturing cost of making your game. The cost per unit will fluctuate dramatically by volume. You need to research multiple manufactures and request quotes for different volumes of product. Manufacturing overseas is far cheaper than manufacturing locally, however the turnaround times are much greater. Using a third party as a go between to the manufacturer is more expensive, but is a very viable alternative to learning about international shipping, and negotiating with a company in a different country.
Your suggested retail price will be directly influenced by your unit cost. In general, retailers will buy your product at 50% off of MSRP, and wholesalers 60% off of MSRP. You should be moving your product at a minimum of double the unit manufacturing cost. For example, if your game costs $5 to manufacture, MSRP should be somewhere around $20. The product sells to retailers for $10 and you pocket $5. The product sells to wholesalers for $8 and you pocket $3. These are very general guidelines and setting an MSRP warrants an entire article unto itself. Is is crucial that you do some research and properly evaluate the market before setting your MSRP.
Selling direct is very profitable. Using resellers gives you more volume with better reach. Dealing with resellers requires some expert advice. You need to know your profit margins inside and out, be willing to negotiate, spec out volume discounts, and handle shipping options. You need to draw up contracts, consider online volume ordering, show a reseller that your product can turn a profit, while being sensitive to undercutting them. At the same time you have to turn a profit for yourself. Reselling is beyond the scope of this article, so be prepared to learn on your feet.
What we learned: be open to change.
Our process involved wasting a considerable amount of time. We shot a Kickstarter video three times, developed two gameplay videos for our website and then reshot those. We redesigned the website twice. We constantly modified the gameplay and rules with total disregard for the other materials. Near the end of development we drastically changed the game mechanics thereby making all of our other materials defunct. However ugly this may sound, these iterations were necessary and gave rise to the game in it's final form. In designing your game you must consider your steps carefully and be smart about making decisions, but you must also be prepared to rework anything that you've done. Changing established rules will generate more work, but is necessary to move your project forward. When designing and playtesting be objective - getting overly attached to a particular aspect of your game may cause you to lose sight of what can make it better.
Playtesting is essential to your game and has the potential to improve it greatly. Be smart about playtesting and do not exhaust your pool of playtesters too early. If possible, maintain a broad list of playtesters who have different ranges of experience with your game. Beginners will see things much differently than experienced players. Ideally, you should try to expose your game to a variety of experience levels every time you playtest. In our case, we had great success with providing snacks and beer every time we playtested. Our test groups eventually expected us to show up with an open cooler. Everyone wins.
What we learned: producing a game is awesome
Producing a game is challenging and very rewarding. Be sure you are armed with enough knowledge before you start out on your journey. The obstacles are many, some purely business, some more emotional, but most of them are things that you can't foresee. Being adaptable is a key ingredient in overcoming these obstacles and bringing your creation to life. Be ready for a wild roller coaster ride, but put your arms into the air and enjoy it, because it's awesome.
About the Lakebilly Card Game
Lakebilly is designed for 2 to 6 players who have an hour to spare and a few beers to drink - no boat required. The game is available for purchase online at www.lakebillycardgame.com