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Board Game Publishers are Doing it Wrong

September 30, 2013
2nd prize is a set of steak knives. 3rd prize is you're fired.

Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

I’ve been getting interest from game publishers, which has lead me to study the game industry/market. Now I’ve got thoughts about what publishers are doing right and wrong in their efforts to sell games, and this essay is about one of those. Fair warning: it’s about business strategy rather than games, per se. 

Bear in mind I’ve not worked in the game publishing industry. If my thinking is naive, please correct me. I’m happy to trade embarrassment for wisdom. 

As I now understand things, there are two facts about the board games market that strongly shape its dynamics:

Fact #1 – The lifecycle of a board game which has crossed over into mass market success is often very long.

As Eric Hautemont, CEO of Days of Wonder says (in this talk):

…the big difference is how long they last. To put some things in perspective, the best selling board game today, in terms of number of units sold, if not profit, is still a game called “Monopoly,” which was the best selling title back in 1935. Now that’s kind of like if Errol Flynn was making more money this year than Brad Pitt. Or if Cole Porter was outselling Lady Gaga…

This means there’s a gold ring available for a company that can achieve mass-market success: large, self-sustaining annual sales in perpetuity, without a huge marketing layout. Settlers of Catan has achieved this, for example, as has Ticket to Ride.

But this also means only a minuscule fraction of published games reach mass market success. The reason such games have long life cycles is that the non-gamer public only has so much attention for games and most of that attention is on games they already know. Non-gamers don’t like learning rules and have emotional attachments to games they already know. They generally talk about and play these games only, which spreads them further, which is why the sales of best-sellers are self-sustaining. These same factors which encourage long life-cycles create a tall barrier to entry for new games, which keeps the total number of mass-market successes low.

Furthermore, games that don’t reach mass-market success are weak business. Board games have thin margins and you need economies of scale to make them profitable. In addition, a game without sufficient mass-market penetration is far less likely to be sustained by word of mouth, which means you have to market it, which cuts further into what little margin you have. From a profit point of view, most board games aren’t worth continued publication.

Fact #2 – The board game market is increasingly saturated.

Boardgamegeek’s database has around 100,000 games in it, and they’re not all dreck. Large and increasing numbers of published games are good, and they’re all competing for our limited attention.

So, if you’re a board game publisher, you’re competing in a saturated market that only admits a minuscule number of games into the charmed circle of mass-market success, and your business will be toil and trouble unless you get admitted to that circle. What do you do? Well, aim for mass-market success. But how?

Let’s start by trying to answer the question: what’s the difference between games that achieve mass market success and those that don’t? The answer might provide guidance.

It seems obvious that, whatever the answer, quality isn’t enough, and is probably best thought of as a prerequisite rather than a determining factor. This is true both in board games and every other saturated market. Are Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus among the best, most mind-blowing musicians you’ve ever heard? Are they even in the top 50? Are Monopoly or Connect4 the best games you’ve ever played? Yet all are massive best-sellers. Surely you need some level of quality in your core product to compete, but beyond that quality isn’t decisive.

If quality isn’t enough, what else do you need?

Consider the curious case of Bananagrams, the best-selling new word game of the millennium. Huge, perennial best-seller.

The game is a slightly tweaked version of an old public domain game called Pick Two. There’s nothing original about it, and before it was sold as Bananagrams, the game wasn’t nearly as popular.

How did it get so huge? Well, there are two differences between Pick Two and Bananagrams:

1. Bananagrams has a funny name and is packaged in a canvass banana. Bananagrams has a cool brand.

2. Bananagrams has a company behind it, who promote it and push to get it in the public eye. In fact, that company depends on the continued success of Bananagrams for it’s survival, because, though it publishes other games, Bananagrams is responsible for the lion’s share of its revenue.

I don’t think this is a fluke. I’ve come to believe Bananagrams embodies the core difference between a mass-market evergreen game and all the others, at least for recently published games (because of their long life cycle, some current bestsellers found mass market success by different means in earlier times, when the market was different). The recent mass market successes all have this in common:

1. Strong brands

2. Companies that invest heavily in promoting those brands, or have otherwise found some way to get them broadly into the public eye (such as by winning the Spiel des Jahres).

This is reflected, for example, in the large number of recent best-selling board games that rose to success while published by companies focused entirely (or almost entirely) on that game. Bananagrams, Blokus, Pentago, Set, and Wits and Wagers, to name just a few recent evergreen bestsellers, all fall into this category. When your company’s survival depends on a single game, you push it harder and more creatively than you can if it’s just one game in a line-up.

Besides one-game companies, there’s another kind of company that produces a lot of bestsellers: 800 pound Gorillas, like Hasbro. Companies with so much money they can do heavy brand investment for more than one game.

Either way, it comes down to whether you can create an awesome brand and somehow create enough awareness for it that it can rise above 10,000 competing games and get some real mass-market awareness.

This isn’t surprising. Heavy, focused brand investment is critical in every other saturated market too. Lady Gaga may not be the greatest musician in the world, but she she has a unique, attention-getting brand and she’s one of the best promoters alive.

Important Note: in the board games market, brands are attached to games, not to publishers. Mass-market consumers (i.e. non-gamers) don’t know or care who published a game. They only care about the game itself. Which brings me to my next point:

What are game publishers doing?

If you want to be Lady Gaga, you have to POUR yourself into creating a brand and doing everything you can to promote that brand. You have to create broad and lasting market awareness for yourself, because without that, you have no chance of overcoming the tough barriers to mass-market success (which, remember, is really the only place worth being if you’re a board game publisher).

I can think of a dozen game publishers off the top of my head, however, who produce lots of games and spread their resources over all of them. In a saturated market this is a bad strategy. By spreading their resources out in this way, they make it harder for any of their games to achieve the broad consumer awareness required for mass-market success. It’s like rolling a thousand-sided die and hoping a particular number will come up.

I suspect publishers do this for two (maybe three) reasons:

1. Twenty years ago (or even 10) the market was much less saturated and you could more easily succeed by publishing a bunch of different games concurrently. Companies are operating on old assumptions.

2. Publishers erroneously think of themselves as the brand, and not their games. Probably because they started out selling to gamers, who are different from mass-market consumers in that, for them, the company can be the brand.

3. Maybe they’re happy just selling to gamers? This means they’re happy scraping by. As a gamer, of course I love that so many companies cater to me, but if I were on the other side of the transaction I doubt I’d be satisfied.

Anyway here’s what all those companies should do: eliminate all but their top-selling games from their lineups, and concentrate resources into promoting the few that make the cut. Make a few products amazing and then do everything you can to make sure the whole world knows about them and thinks of them fondly, and get them into every conceivable retail outlet. That’s how you compete in a saturated market.

Three subtleties here:

1. When I say “concentrate resources”, I’m talking at least as much about time/attention (the ultimate limited resources), as I am about money. A company’s collective attention should be focused on one or a few games.

2. I’m not arguing companies should refrain from publishing new games. I’m arguing they should kill games that aren’t among their most promising, thereby keeping the total in publication small and their resources concentrated. I’m arguing for severe Darwinian selection.

3. Once a company has at least one game in the magic circle of mass-market success, then it may be ok to branch out, because, as mentioned, maintaining that success once you have it isn’t nearly hard as getting it in the first place, which frees up resources. Hasbro can do this, for example. Most companies aren’t in that position.

I believe even a company like Days of Wonder, one of the multi-game publishers that understands what to do in a saturated market (they only publish one game a year, they put a ton of resources behind each, and make excellent, in-house digital versions for each to help mass-market consumers get over their inhibitions about learning new rules – and their sales show it: a “failure” for them still sells 20,000 copies), even they could benefit by more aggressive product-killing, because a number of their games have little chance of getting to that self-sustaining point where they spread by themselves.

If I were Days of Wonder, in addition to publishing one game a year, I’d start killing games. I’d kill a bunch up front and then one game a year thereafter, to keep the total in publication stable. Or at least I’d set some kind of sales threshold: if a game doesn’t achieve a certain sales growth number by a certain point, kill it, because it’s unlikely to get into the magic circle where it spreads itself.

This strategy isn’t new. It’s proven valuable in other saturated markets, even for large companies that already enjoyed broad brand awareness. For example, famously, it’s the strategy Steve Jobs adopted for Apple on his return to the company in the 1990s, which lead to one of greatest turnaround stories in the history of corporations. Jobs killed almost all of Apple’s product line. They went from 350 products to 10, but those 10 were a) great; b) sexy; and c) promoted everywhere.

Of course, the success of this strategy depends on how effectively you can use the resources you free up by killing products to either:

a) accelerate the market uptake of those remaining (which means creative, aggressive marketing, something at which many publishers don’t excel, and which seems difficult to do for games generally (here’s a good article about some of the difficulties) – it also means redesigning your product occasionally to improve the degree to which it sells itself – see Mindtwister, for example, which has redesigned its big hit Pentago more times than I can count); or

b) develop new games which are more likely to penetrate the mass-market than the ones you’ve killed.

…and you have to make sure the games you push are really good. If you only bet on one horse, it had better be a fast horse.

Even though this strategy isn’t new, it’s grossly underutilized in the board games industry. Maybe a few publishers will happen by this article and change things up. If you’re one, and it turns out I’m right, you’re welcome and hire me. If I’m wrong, well, that’s what happens when you listen to some random guy from the internet.

Update: I’ve written about an alternative strategy here.

Nick Bentley

From → Essays

69 Comments
  1. Todd permalink

    Didn’t this already happen once with the Avalon Hill implosion. For a time only the most profitable games were being published by Hasbro who had bought up all the IPs and the market imploded and this led to the rise of small German game publishers to fill the gaps.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Maybe so! I’m not familiar with AH’s history. But now I have another thing to study. Thx.

  2. Pretty good analysis, my one question is: are there many instances of games going unnoticed for a long time before making it big? I can agree with the benefits of killing off a huge product line to focus on your best chances of success, but once a game has launched, I can imagine its not a huge expense to “keep it in the race” (marketing aside of course) in the hopes that it makes it big.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Good point. Short answer: I don’t know of any offhand like that, but again, I’m outside the industry looking in; I can easily miss stories like that.

  3. Viktor Lindberg permalink

    To use your analogy; to say that todays game publishers is doing things wrong is like saying that less known but brilliant musicians are doing it wrong. I think that most game publishers aim to please the small market of enthusiasts because they are passionate about games, and then the economical benefit of mass-market success is pointless.

    Monopoly is a worthless game i have a friend who cliams it is the worst game ever constructed (out of a gameplay perspective) I wouldn’t perhaps go so long to say it is the worst but that is mostly because i haven’t cared to rank games in terms of how bad they are. And if you are passionate about making great games for people game enthusiasts then you’re not going to aim for mass-market success but for good gameplay.

    There are some games that have archieved some success outside the enthusiast market that is also enjoyed by enthusiast, but i think it is hard to make such a game, the enthusiasts has high demands on the game play which might make the game less appealing to the mass market. But once you have a game design that might fit in both categories, sure go ahead market it and get it out outside the enthusiast market.

    • Well said, friend. That’s exactly my point of view.

      I really hope NO ONE in the industry reads this article…

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        Haha. I sort of feel similarly.

  4. I’d like the “bet on one fast horse” idea more if there weren’t so few potential fast horses. Betting on the 20-60 slow horses isn’t quite so boom or bust. Perhaps they only scrape by, but the alternative is to either strike out all together or (much more unlikely) rise to board gaming immortality. Bad odds if you ask me. Finding that one great game that can get you there is tricky business.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I’ve been thinking about the same issue, and that’s why I emphasized at the bottom of the essay the idea of both publishing lots of games *and* killing lots of games. The idea being you test the market by publishing games, but you’re always trying to concentrate your resources on those which show the most initial promise. That way a publisher doesn’t have to rely on it’s own guesses about what will work commercially and what will not.

  5. srnichol permalink

    I spend some of my academic time with game scholars, and I commonly hear them point to the board game industry as being a good example of a thriving and innovative design space when compared to the mass market video game industry. In the AAA industry, novelty and innovation has been replaced with adding a few new features and counting up by 1. The big publishers who have the bankroll to innovate in a big way aren’t – they are following the play of “why innovate when we can just tap our existing market.”

    The problem with the mass market game approach is that it lends itself to companies focusing on sequels of brands that will have a known market. You mention Habsro, but I know I get tired of seeing one more Monopoly-branded game that has little to do with Monopoly. They put out a lot of games that you see for only one season, so there’s a lot of chaff in that model.

    If you look at the top 10 video games by sales in 2012 ( http://www.vgchartz.com/article/250865/top-10-in-sales-global-2012-edition/ ), you will see a list of games that end with 2, 3, 4, etc.. Look at how many of these games have numbers at the end – only one game out of the top 10 was an original title. We have some of that in the board game world with franchises and expansions, but nothing like what’s in the video game world.

    Your proposal can lead to richer companies, but is that really the best thing for a niche market?

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Scott,

      I agree that it might be a bad thing for the niche market. This is especially a problem because what constitutes a good game for hobbyists is often a bad game for mass-market consumers and vice-versa. What counts as “depth” for hobbyists counts as needless intimidation for mass-market consumers. To the extent that I’m advocating a pivot to the mass market, I’m advocating that the niche end up less well-served. Which is weird because I’m in that niche, so I’m arguing against my own interests as a player as a designer. I’m trying to be true to the perspective and position of a publisher, but as a number of critiques in the comments below suggest, perhaps there are ways in which I’m mistaken. I don’t know yet, but I certainly have a lot to chew on.

  6. Vlaada permalink

    Well, it depends on level of generalization… you say doing mass market games is better than doing gamers games… you can generalize more, and say doing Angry birds-like apps is even better… and selling drinks like Coca Cola is even better… Or, you can go other way and say mass market games are a bit different category than gamers games. Yes, the gamers games sell lower numbers, but (especially thank’s to internet and the sites like boardgamegeek) these numbers are good enough to keep the business running and growing. And even within this niche, there are faster and slower horses… or let’s say nicer and uglier horses, because you do not expect them to race. And the growing crowd of educated gamers can see the difference…

    Of course, if it happens some of them is actually able to race decently, it is a nice bonus, as it allows you to give better treat to the slower but beautiful ones you love… :)

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hi Vlaada,

      Thanks for this perspective. I agree emphatically that games for gamers and games for non-gamers should be considered different, separate things, in general, because the qualities that endear a game to one group are the very same qualities that often turn off the other.

      If I understand your argument, you’re saying “What’s wrong with catering to gamers if you can make enough money to satisfy yourself?” The only reasonable answer is: nothing, and therefore companies that go this route are doing nothing wrong. I agree, for those companies.

      Would you also say that there are no companies that a) publish a lot of games; and b) wish they could strengthen their bottom line? I think there are, because I’ve spoken with a couple of such companies, and these are *not* companies committed solely to gamers. I think my advice could apply to them, so long as it doesn’t turn out one of the other critiques I’ve been receiving doesn’t turn out to be too big a fly in my ointment :)

  7. Harlan Entler permalink

    What about examples like Paizo’s Pathfinder board game? It is coming out the gates with the intention of only appealing to gamers, but they don’t strike me as a company that is ok with just skirting by.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hi Harlan. I’m not familiar with their efforts. But it’s hard to know how a company is doing financially based on their expressed intentions. Many companies don’t intend to skirt by but still end up doing so, because theory is so often trumped by reality.

  8. alihv permalink

    I wasn’t quite convinced. You’re building on the assumption that initial performance is indicative of future performance. This is far from obvious. I would rather guess that every game gets an independently random score in each country, then those with high scores get a boost in other countries too. So the longer the game stays on the market the more chance of discovering the big hit there is.

    This is just an uneducated guess; one needs to look at actual per-country stats to make a proper guess.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hey alihv. You’re right in pointing out the assumption I’m making. I suspect the assumption to be true but I don’t have numbers to back it up! It seems you have a different intuition. I wonder where we could actually find data to put the question to rest.

  9. These views are interesting, but I yhink you forget two critical points.

    Games are perceived, at least by gamers and most game publishers, as cultural items. The game publishing world is, in this way, very similar with the book publishing one. Most publishing companies are owned and managed by people who mostly want to publish the games they think deserve to be published. They are not looking for the highest profit, they just want to stay in the black and have fun doing the games they want to do. I’ve heard several times game publishers telling me “we publish this game because we know it will sell, and will make the money with which we will publish this other one, which we like but we know won’t sell”. This is certainly not true of Hasbro, but it’s true of most smaller publishers – and even, up to a point, of Days of Wonders.

    The second point is there is always an aversion to risk which makes rational for a publisher not to put all his eggs in one basket, even when this results in a lower profit expectancy. A small company – and most publishers are small companies – has to balance two goals, maximize profit expectancy and minimize the odds of failure. Even when the first goal might be achieved with concentrating on one game and putting everything behind it, hoping to break into mass market, the second can be best achieved with publishing a dozen ones for a safe niche market.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Bruno! I’ve been reading your blog for years. What a pleasant surprise. Thanks for stopping by. I certainly can’t argue with the idea that companies should do what gives them joy. That’s a pretty good way to live! I have the sense, however, that not all companies feel quite so in control. Or at least in talking with companies, I’ve found a couple that don’t feel good about their finances, and they’re not wedded to selling to gamers. Perhaps my advice has some value in that case?

      Re Aversion to risk: yes, I think there’s a good argument to be made for diversification as a way to hedge risk. However, note that toward the end of the essay I say:

      “I’m not arguing companies should refrain from publishing new games. I’m arguing they should kill games that aren’t among their most promising, thereby keeping the total in publication small and their resources concentrated. I’m arguing for severe Darwinian selection.”

      What I was trying to say here is that a company can still test the market with many games, and follow the strategy I’m recommending here. The hope is that by following this procedure you can verify that a game has the potential to reach mass market success before committing the (large) resources needed to give it its best chance of getting there.

      Another way of saying this is that it’s a way of putting your eggs in successively better baskets, rather than putting them in one basket. Of course, once you find a basket that’s safe enough, then you can put your eggs there, as many companies have done with their big hits.

      It’s a tough issue though. I wrote my essay in a kind of confident voice, because I knew it would raise discussion, but of course I have no idea if I understand anything.

  10. I’ve often discussed this question with CyberKev – “why are there so many crap games / movies . books / TV shows / whatever?” It’s because someone makes money out of making them. Rio Grande will never be Berkshire Hathaway, but its wide range of games pays for its staff, and really, that’s all that’s required. The 78th Carcassonne expansion might only sell $2000 worth of copies, but if it cost $1800 to produce, it was worth it. For the same reason, microbes live in lava and plants live in deserts – they just need enough to get by, and things will flourish when the conditions are adequate.

    What does happen in the board game market is pretty much what you say – many games are published, the bad ones die… but the good enough ones survive. Games like Gemblo are kinda meh, but good enough to be republished by someone via Kickstarter; Big City may be republished, Vikings may be republished – there’s at least some money to be made doing that and someone like Valley Games may do it. I think the bar for bothering to publish a game is much lower than you’re suggesting.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I like the “getting by” argument. It echoes other critiques of my essay. I can’t argue that anybody is wrong for doing what they want to do. As I’ve mentioned in response to a couple of similar critiques here, I’m not sure that all companies are so sanguine about their position in the marketplace.

      You also point out that Darwinian selection already happens. No argument there, either. I just think a company that wanted to could find ways of speeding it up within their own product line.

  11. Someone shared this link on Facebook. I wrote my thoughts out there, but I’ll put them here as well.

    I think what you’re missing is that in order to properly promote a single title to a mass market, a company must put down an enormous amount of time and money – more resources than if they were to publish several new games, as most hobby publishers do. Look at North Star Games. The reason they don’t have many games isn’t because of laziness; they are focusing on promoting the living hell out of their two (very good) core titles, which they are aiming to become mass-market hits. Same thing with Days of Wonder.

    If every company tried this strategy, then you’d have a whole lot of bankrupt publishers. Instead, they are doing a much more reasonable approach: publishing several games they like, waiting for their own Ticket to Ride or Pandemic. When one of their titles starts selling out, they slowly start scaling up. That’s a much more sustainable approach, and one that is much better at long-term survival.

    One more thing: I understand the need to compare the board game industry to other entertainment industries, but there’s a necessary caveat. Big players in the music biz are single-mindedly focused on maximizing revenue. They don’t care about how much they personally enjoy those artists, but they do care deeply about how much money those artists can bring in. The music business, until recently, was a business where a record company could make a ludicrous amount of money off an artist, so it attracted those kinds of sharks.

    The board game industry has a much lower ceiling. Even a game like Pandemic or Ticket to Ride won’t bring as much money in as an A-list musician or film, and there are fewer hit board games on that level than hit movies or songs. So the people in the board game industry aren’t there to maximize their profits. If they were, they’d be in a more lucrative industry! Most board game publishers genuinely love games, and their games especially, more so than an equivalent music or film exec.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hey Gil, thanks for the thoughtful criticism. PROLIX ROCKS! I’ll reply to your points one by one.

      “I think what you’re missing is that in order to properly promote a single title to a mass market, a company must put down an enormous amount of time and money – more resources than if they were to publish several new games, as most hobby publishers do. Look at North Star Games. The reason they don’t have many games isn’t because of laziness; they are focusing on promoting the living hell out of their two (very good) core titles, which they are aiming to become mass-market hits. Same thing with Days of Wonder.”

      Right! I think both companies embody the strategy I’m recommending in my essay!

      “If every company tried this strategy, then you’d have a whole lot of bankrupt publishers. Instead, they are doing a much more reasonable approach: publishing several games they like, waiting for their own Ticket to Ride or Pandemic. ”

      If I’m right, and North Star Games and Days of Wonder have both adopted the strategy I’m recommending, and they aren’t bankrupt, then it seems to me that the strategy must be good for at least *some* companies.

      The way your phrased something here I think sort of embodies a problem with the “publish a bunch of stuff and see what sticks” strategy. You say it’s reasonable to publish “several games they like, waiting for their own Ticket to Ride or Pandemic”

      I’m arguing that as the board games market gets more saturated, it will increasingly be the case that you can’t just publish a bunch of stuff and hope for a hit, because in a saturated market, products don’t break through, no matter how good they are, without very creative, very committed marketing. The wait and see strategy may have been reasonable in the past, maybe even the recent past, but I think it’s getting weaker and weaker over time. Does that make sense?

      “So the people in the board game industry aren’t there to maximize their profits. If they were, they’d be in a more lucrative industry!”

      I agree this is true of many companies. However, not all companies. There are companies that are struggling and wish they could do better and aren’t committed to selling just to gamers to do it. My advice might be valuable for them, yes?

      • First off, thanks for your kind words about Prolix!

        The truth is, we’re both outsiders to the actual mechanisms of publishing. I know enough publishers personally, and I’ve had enough late-night convention conversations with them, to know that I would never want to be a publisher myself. So I will ask any people out there with Real Publishing Experience to set me straight if I have anything wrong here.

        I can see your point that publishers are going to be facing a more saturated market every year. I don’t have numbers to support or refute that point, but from my experience, it doesn’t smell bad. But I’m not sure if we’re at that critical saturation point yet, or if we are going to hit it anytime soon (by “hit it”, I mean seeing several publishers go out of business because of dramatically dropping sales).

        Your suggestion that publishers throw all their support behind one title, though, strikes me as a dicey proposition for a few reasons.

        1) It’s really, really risky. If you’re going to push one of your products right out the stable, you’re going to need to do a *ton* of market research to make sure it’s the right product. That means spending money and time *before the game is even released*. Once the game comes out, forget about releasing another game; you will be 100% focused on advertising this game and trying to get it to the big-name distributors.

        Unless your company has an extraordinary amount of capital, you will have one shot at mainstream success. If the product flops, you are out of business.

        2) I wish I had numbers here to back up my point, but everything I’ve seen shows me that this approach is considerably more expensive than the current “hobby market” approach of publishing a bunch of products and working off a thin margin. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s astronomically more expensive. Mass-market advertising costs an enormous amount of money and time. It’s at least two full-time jobs, and you must drop a lot of coin in order for companies like Target or Toys-R-Us (to say nothing of Wal-Mart) to see you on their radar. I would expect that these are resources that many game publishers simply do not have.

        3) The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Z-Man did not get to selling Pandemic in major chains overnight. They had a large crop of games, and Pandemic sold the best. I’m sure the Filosofia sale has a lot to do with this new direction, but if Z-Man had started with only one game, they may not have chosen Pandemic, and even if they did, they may have run out of capital before ever reaching this spot.

        Mayfair hit gold with Catan, but that was anything but an overnight success. They are currently reaping the rewards of decades – literally, *decades* – of work. This work has been supported by plenty of other Mayfair releases: other games in the Catan line, their Empire Builder series, and other well-regarded games, like Hey That’s My Fish and Nuns on the Run.

        I maintain that for the time being, it’s most practical for a company to keep the “hobby market” approach for awhile, until they see that they have an actual hit on their hands. Then they can start assuming the risk of promoting the heck out of that game; it will likely mean fewer releases of other games as they divert their resources, or it would mean an even riskier expansion as they increase head count.

        4) Finally, to my point about the difference between the music industry and the board game industry: maybe a publisher simply doesn’t *want* to go through the hassle of a mass-market. It is a hard road you are proposing. We’re talking at least a couple of years of nose-to-the-grindstone work, and/or the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe a publisher likes releasing small-market strategy games. Maybe they want to be a big fish in a small pond. Financial success doesn’t always lead to happiness; you know what they say about mo’ money.

        These publishers will be the hardest-hit if and when the saturation does happen. I personally hope it never does. I’d love to find some data on that subject!

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        Hey Gil,

        Sorry for such a slow reply. I’d been replying to comments on the article all over the wondertubes and I finally had to stop and you know, work. In any case. Let’s see: I accept your point #4. A company should do what it wants to do. My essay was written too provocatively, in retrospect. I do think, though, there are plenty of companies who want to make more money but don’t know how.

        I’m not sure, however, that my strategy is more risky. Note in the essay, I say: “I want to make a distinction here. I’m not arguing companies should refrain from publishing new games. I’m arguing they should kill games that aren’t among their most promising, thereby keeping the total in publication small and their resources concentrated. I’m arguing for severe Darwinian selection.”

        So I think it’s possible to hedge risk pretty well with my strategy. And in light of the fact that seeing-what-sticks is rife with it’s own risks, my intuition is that my strategy is the better bet.

        And while I agree that it takes a lot of resources to drive a game into mass public consciousness, it’s not a fixed thing, especially. One viral video can reach millions of people. But to learn how to make viral videos, etc, it requires a change of focus – companies have to spend a greater share of their effort than most do becoming good marketers.

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        But generally speaking, I agree on the need for data. A lot of what I’ve said in the essay is not backed by numbers and some data could go a long way in helping to understand the extent to which my essay is full of sh*t.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      btw, what FB page did you come from? I’m getting waves of traffic from whatever that page was, and I’d like to go participate in discussion if it’s coming from a public page, but my analytics won’t tell me the exact url.

      • Lots of good stuff here to read and discuss. I’m a publisher (Minion Games) and have had just the problems and trails you express. Finally we got our “Ever Green” project (The Manhattan Project) and now while we continue to make more games I see we do need to focus a lot of energy on continuing to promote that game as THE GAME for us. As for the Facebook page, I assume it’s our Game Design group I run that Gil is a member of:

        https://www.facebook.com/groups/320445024722916/

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        Cool. Thanks. It looks like it was a combination of your page and Eric Martin’s that sent all the traffic. Congrats on the Manhattan Project, and it’s encouraging to know that someone who actually, you know, publishes doesn’t find this entirely off base!

  12. Scott permalink

    I feel the need to clarify a distinction here. But first, I wanted to say that you are 100% correct in your assessment of how to sustain the mass market publishing model. Your article is well written, and enlightening.

    The distinction though comes from the fact that for the game industry to continue to thrive and grow, the smaller game designers must continue to innovate and make new games. They need to make new games so that the select few that are lucky (quality, appealing, best marketed, most awarded, fun, whatever) enough to rise above the rest can keep stimulating new thought and progression in design.

    So while most people look at the long tail of game saturation as a problem that needs to be killed, I feel it’s a perspective problem that just needs to be treated correctly. There is still a market for small intense complex games. There’s still a market for folks that like variety. So to focus on the mass market solely would be as shortsighted as trying to do it all.

    Indie labels in music fill this need. Fox Searchlight fills this need in movies. Desura is attempting to become this for video games. The perspective of what you can expect before rising above 100000 other games is what needs to change. Not the number of games in the market. Because attempting to kill off games in a Dawinian fashion only creates disgruntled game designers, the lifeblood of the industry. By Darwin’s own account, new options will open up to help the smaller guys survive by avoiding the mass market publishers.

    So my point? Your information is useful and nice to put into my belt to help make decisions. But all it’s done for me is help me realize how difficult it is to publish a game… it gives no practical advice on how to succeed in my passion for making games. It contains no Apple style innovation that could help small games survive long enough to prove themselves in a crowded (not OVERsaturated) market.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hey Scott,

      “So my point? Your information is useful and nice to put into my belt to help make decisions. But all it’s done for me is help me realize how difficult it is to publish a game… it gives no practical advice on how to succeed in my passion for making games. It contains no Apple style innovation that could help small games survive long enough to prove themselves in a crowded (not OVERsaturated) market.”

      Yes, my essay is directed at publishers who are trying to understand how to distribute and use their resources, and has nothing to do with game design itself. As a game designer myself, I actually spend most of my time thinking about game design, as you probably do, and not even from a commercial perspective, but more from a “what I think is cool” perspective.

      I do have lots of thoughts about how game designers should nurture their games, but that’s a subject for a different day.

  13. Nice post !
    Have you give your advices to Asmodee which will release Hotel once again and Iello Intrigues à Venise (i am lazy enough not to look for the english name) ? :-)

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Heh. I don’t think I’m about to go contact a company and tell them that they should do something different. Every company is different and the advice will only apply to some (maybe none if it turns out my arguments have flaws!)

  14. Eric Jome permalink

    An interesting perspective, but largely flawed I think. Suppose I own a tool and die factory, making parts for others machines. I sell well enough in one size and type of screw… I should give up all other screws? All other parts? Or I should perhaps keep my options open and make other sales too? This kind of business – a specialty provider to a focused market – is much more like games than games are like entertainment industries….

    But let’s investigate entertainment for a moment. What is the consumer’s investment in a song, movie, app, or game? This is not an eternal investment. It wears out. I don’t listen to the same song constantly – I want a new song. Maybe a new one in a new genre. Maybe I want that every hour. The life of a song is short, not eternal. All entertainment is like that. Including games. It’s a fantasy to think you’ll make one game and it will remain eternally in the heart and mind of consumers – they move on. You’ll need to find other things to sell them; they’re tired of the old stuff.

    How does Monopoly do it? Rarely, for reasons completely out of the producer’s control, something transitions from “product” to “cultural icon”… why we listen to White Christmas year after year, but Gangnam Style won’t live out the year. The entertainment industry most certainly does not find one product and push it exclusively. That is not why Monopoly stays in print; Monopoly is not an icon because of the hard branding work and outreach and product focus of the publisher. It is an icon because it goes directly to basic common human experience and taste (real estate, getting rich) in a highly accessible, simplistic form. And it comes through time… you think Monopoly is a big seller? You need to open your eyes! Monopoly at it’s best is a tiny fraction of playing cards, Chess boards, and such. Shall we then happily march off with a plan to make a new Chess, Go, Backgammon, or Poker? These things are what they are not because of branding and publishing, but because of the arc of human culture and history. There’s no business model for that.

    Hasbro makes many other products every year; no one believes the right strategy is to put all your eggs in one basket, especially in the fickle business of entertainment. Could a lot of hobby game publishers improve their lot by focusing on better games instead of spamming the market with substandard fare? Sure. But they aren’t fools. They operate to stay in business; I contend their business models are richer and more diverse than the limited pattern you suggest.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      “But let’s investigate entertainment for a moment. What is the consumer’s investment in a song, movie, app, or game? This is not an eternal investment. It wears out. I don’t listen to the same song constantly – I want a new song. Maybe a new one in a new genre. Maybe I want that every hour. The life of a song is short, not eternal. All entertainment is like that. Including games. It’s a fantasy to think you’ll make one game and it will remain eternally in the heart and mind of consumers – they move on. You’ll need to find other things to sell them; they’re tired of the old stuff.”

      Hmmm. the crux of my argument is that games *are not* like songs. mass-market consumers often *don’t* move on, even if gamers do. Whether it’s because a game becomes a cultural icon, or due to forces I’ve described in the article, it’s hard to refute that it happens with regularity.

      • Eric Jome permalink

        Every year, the makers of culturally significant games like Monopoly or Yahtzee make new titles. Even old standards are completely re-invented, keeping only the branding. No one of any real success hangs their hat on a single property forever. No one.

        Entertainment is not about selling the same thing over and over. It’s about selling the consumers something fresh they’ll recognize. You should think about this more in terms of branding than single products.

        No one is going to make it on the model of running a single product. If you spent time with the industry, you’d know that history is littered with failed efforts to do that while all the companies that have stayed in business do it by being fresh, making new things.

        Hasbro doesn’t see Battleship or Monopoly as even a game. It’s a toy. A disposable, forgettable product for parents to buy children at holidays. It has nothing in common with Tikal, Twilight Imperium, or Dungeons & Dragons. There’s so little in common between hobby games and mass market games that they don’t even belong in the same sentence – models and approaches for one are completely opposite one another.

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        To clarify, I totally agree when you say:

        “Hasbro doesn’t see Battleship or Monopoly as even a game. It’s a toy. A disposable, forgettable product for parents to buy children at holidays. It has nothing in common with Tikal, Twilight Imperium, or Dungeons & Dragons. There’s so little in common between hobby games and mass market games that they don’t even belong in the same sentence – models and approaches for one are completely opposite one another.”

        But my argument is, in part, a case that one business is better than the other and some companies could benefit by pivoting from one to the other.

  15. I have to chime into this great discussion!

    Some time ago, I read an article about the consumer/product matrix, where consumers were ranked from most profitable (1) to least profitable (4). Products were ranked by revenue from A (highest revenue) to D (lowest revenue). In essence, the article suggested what Nick does: draw a diagonal from D to 4 and kill off anything to the bottom right of that matrix as they are not worth the invested resources.

    The problem with gaming are the top two customers. Customer 1 is the mass-market while Customer 2 is the hobbyist market. (Say Customer 3 is the academic market and so on.). First, as pointed out by one of the Scotts, publishers have to go through the hobbyist market to get to the mass market. It doesn’t happen overnight and I am guessing that mass retailers want proof that games they purchase for resale have high popularity (vis a vis) units sold elsewhere. Games have to be popular with the hobbyist market first (Cust. 2) before they reach the mass market (Cust. 1). AEG’s Trains and Love Letter must be hits at conventions or FLGS’s before they will reach Target (if they even do.)

    That doesn’t mean that publishers shouldn’t try for mass market “out of the gate.” But that route takes lots of promoting. It’s a lot easier to promote games with fewer resources and lots of “word of mouth marketing” via the hobbyist market.

    Second, the hobbyist market is growing. Conventions like Origins and GenCon are bringing in record numbers of hobbyists and curious onlookers alike. The hobbyist niche may never overtake the mass market in revenue share but Cust. 2 is growing, allowing more sales, more games, more publishers and more saturation into the market.

    So, I agree in the severe Darwinism suggestion but disagree with promoting a single game or two per year. If three of the five games released by a publisher in a year are hits, there is a greater probability that one of those games will hit the mass market retailer shelves than promoting heavily for only one game As mentioned by another, it reduces risk, satisfies the growing numbers of hobbyist gamers and has a chance of scoring utopia: a self-sustaining status.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I agree with much of what you say, except that I disagree a game must go through the hobby market before being hit. I can think of many, many games that became giant hits with little help from hobbyists (the aforementioned Bananagrams, or Rummikub, for example)

  16. R. Eric Reuss permalink

    There’s a lot of interesting food for thought here. However:

    “This is reflected, for example, in the large number of recent best-selling board games that rose to success while published by companies focused entirely (or almost entirely) on that game. Bananagrams, Blokus, Pentago, Set, and Wits and Wagers, to name just a few recent evergreen bestsellers, all fall into this category. When your company’s survival depends on a single game, you push it harder and more creatively than you can if it’s just one game in a line-up.”

    …but how many games / single-game companies have been pushed hard and failed? Looking only at the success stories doesn’t give you the whole picture. (There’s a term for this, but I can’t recall what it is offhand. Selection Bias?)

    By analogy, look at the world of VC-backed startup companies: all of those which succeed big tend to share certain characteristics. However, that doesn’t mean that all startups which have those characteristics will succeed big! (Or, for that matter, that every company ought to be a VC-backed startup.)

    Personally, I’d love to see some companies start pursuing the strategy you suggest, for two reasons:

    1. In the short run, it would mean less saturation in the hobby market, which is good for me as a designer; and

    2. In the medium run, it’d have the potential to enlarge the size of the hobby market (eg: Catan) or perhaps even bring the casual and hobby markets a little closer together (eg: Germany).

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      thanks for your reply. You say:

      “…but how many games / single-game companies have been pushed hard and failed? Looking only at the success stories doesn’t give you the whole picture. (There’s a term for this, but I can’t recall what it is offhand. Selection Bias?)

      By analogy, look at the world of VC-backed startup companies: all of those which succeed big tend to share certain characteristics. However, that doesn’t mean that all startups which have those characteristics will succeed big! (Or, for that matter, that every company ought to be a VC-backed startup.)”

      I certainly don’t mean to suggest that publishing a single game is some kind of recipe for success. Succeeding as a game publisher is maniacally difficult no matter what you do. But I do believe the strategy I suggest could improve the business of many companies. I’ll also note that companies that only publish one game *are not* doing what I’m suggesting. Note where I say:

      “I want to make a distinction here. I’m not arguing companies should refrain from publishing new games. I’m arguing they should kill games that aren’t among their most promising, thereby keeping the total in publication small and their resources concentrated. I’m arguing for severe Darwinian selection.”

  17. chris shorb permalink

    It seems to me that Rio Grande, Mayfair, and Z-man (as well as other pubs) are all competing to snag the license of any Euro game they can. The fear of course is if they don’t publish it, another one on the list will. And maybe that one they miss is the game that was a hit.

    And of course, there are plenty of companies publishing games strictly for the hobby market that I think are doing pretty well – I’m thinking of Steve Jackson with Munchkin specifically, since he’s pretty open with his annual state of SJG blog posts.

    I agree, massive culling is needed. Trader Joe’s is ruthless in the trimming of it’s inventory SKUs – legendary in fact. It’s part of their mystique.

    BTW, best result ever for a small game company is to sell the rights to your game for a gazillion dollars to Hasbro (see Apples to Apples, et al).

    Final comment. Most starting pubs are not capitalized to release more than one game a year, if that. How many games do you think should be in a publisher’s stable – 10? 5? 3?

    I lied, one more question/comment. Where do expansions fit into this ecosystem?

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I think the number of games a publisher should have in its stable should depend on the number of mass market hits they have! So it’s hard to give a number, and it’s harder for the fact that each company’s financial situation is different and the question should really be answered on a case-by-case basis. But, generally speaking unless you’re Hasbro, less than 10. And for most companies fewer.

      Glad you bring up expansions. I mentioned that, for mass market consumers, the brand is the game, not the company. Expansions are how you extend a brand in light of this dynamic! I suspect that’s exactly why companies like Days of Wonder rely so heavily on endless expansions and spinoffs. If I’m a non-gamer, I’m waaaay more likely to buy the latest iteration of Ticket to Ride (a brand I already trust), rather than some totally new game by Days of Wonder that I’ve never heard of before, and with whose brand I have zero familiarity.

    • “BTW, best result ever for a small game company is to sell the rights to your game for a gazillion dollars to Hasbro (see Apples to Apples, et al).”

      No, best result ever is to be *bought* by Hasbro. And I say that as somebody who worked for/with Wizards of the Coast starting two years before we published Magic: the Gathering.

  18. As an owner of one of the “small companies” let me just present a couple of insights from my perspective. The article is generally sound but I think there are a couple of key points I think it is missing the mark on:

    1. Niche Market Games have “thin margins”. This may be the case with many games, but it is certainly not necessarily the prevailing truth. No company continues to do what it is doing in the hopes of just “scrapping by”. There is a method there and the huge unspoken truth had better be that there is more profit in these games than people admit to, that or the people running the companies have no business sense and shouldn’t even be running a profit-centered company. If someone isn’t making profit on a product then why sell it?

    We have turned down lots of games where there was just not enough margin in them, and we simply won’t produce a product if there is no money in it. Since most of these “niche” companies are privately held there is not basis for knowing what they may or maynot be making in terms of profits, but to assume they are scraping by could be pretty niave. We don’t price a game without understanding the underlying costs and what our expected sales are going to be. To assume otherwise is to call those making the decisions idiots, and I just don’t think that is the case.

    2. The point of the business. Most small publishers are profitable but keep throwing very good games out there in the hopes that something will just take off and make it big. This goes back to point #1 but the reality of most of these companies is that they just put out games they honestly believe in and hope to make enough profit on their products until a real winner comes along. Rio Grande wasn’t in any way in bad shape before Dominion, but Dominion really, really helped RGG make some huge profits. It wasn’t that Puerto Rico or any of its other games were no good, just that RGG brought a huge hit to the table that really helped it. I believe the same is true of Pandemic and maybe even Agricola to a lesser extent for Zman, and certainly Apples to Apples for Out of the Box. What did OOB do that was so special to make Apples to Apples such a hit? I would argue that it was just mass interest in the game rather than focusing on an amazing marketing strategy or pumping a bunch of cash into a marketing campaign. It was its 2nd title and the only reason the company succeeded was in large part to that title so early on.

    3. “Marketing is Key”. I just don’t think this is the case, there are tons of commercial successes where the product was the key, not the marketing. Marketing can make or break a good game, but nebulous “marketing” can also sink a company. Advising small companies on tight budgets to focus and market the heck out of its flagship game may be the exact wrong strategy. A little marketing is good but a lot of marketing isn’t always better.

    4) Recommend Days of Wonder retire a bunch of games? I disagree with this 100%. There are some large inital sunk costs that go into the layout/design and manufacturing of a game and the incremental, variable costs of each unit are relatively small. Saying a company would do better if it stopped producing a product it is making money on is just wrong. You can’t assume a company is run by idiots in this case. The only reason a game stays in print is because it is selling and if DOW is making a profit on a game and it sells out and it has Purchase Orders from distributors for the game, then of course they should reprint it.

    I think the basic summary of my views could be read as: Don’t assume they are idiots. They are running these companies and making these decisions because they have made a lot of right decisions along the way and are acting rationally based on the information they have, most of which we don’t have. These are privately held companies that don’t disclose their profits and revenues so any conjecture about their profitablity is just that… conjecture.

    One final point, the game market in the USA is anything but saturated. Germans spent about 3 times per capita on board games last year as the USA, that is gross dollars to gross dollars and America has three times the population. That means the average German spent about 9 times more last year on board games than the USA. There is a TON of room in the US economy for more board game sales, we just need that next big “monopoly” success to launch awareness of the industry and bring people’s wallets to the store. I see any huge commercial success in a game as growing the overall mareket in the USA and being good for my business too, not taking away from the pie that is the static market of board games. I think most other game companies want to see more success in the market as a whole and don’t see it as over-saturated. Kickstarter is a good example of this, there are a lot more games getting a lot more cash out there in the USA than 2 years ago from Kickstarter and I don’t think that has hurt existing game companies at all. Thoughts?

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Ok, I’m *finally* replying after a good, long ponder (and doing, you know, real work). Responses:

      “Niche Market Games have “thin margins”. This may be the case with many games, but it is certainly not necessarily the prevailing truth. No company continues to do what it is doing in the hopes of just “scrapping by”. There is a method there and the huge unspoken truth had better be that there is more profit in these games than people admit to, that or the people running the companies have no business sense and shouldn’t even be running a profit-centered company. If someone isn’t making profit on a product then why sell it?”

      It seem to me that lot of people get into the business from a place of passion, and struggle to make much money, but they keep going, out of passion or because they believe they can strengthen the business over time even if it’s not supporting them at the moment. Or maybe they just never expect it to be their day job. It’s for all these reasons (and others), I think, that there are so many board game companies and so many published games.

      “I would argue that it was just mass interest in the game rather than focusing on an amazing marketing strategy or pumping a bunch of cash into a marketing campaign. It was its 2nd title and the only reason the company succeeded was in large part to that title so early on.”

      Yes, I agree that this happens, but I also believe the fraction of published games to which this happens is shrinking, and over time it’s becoming a less viable route to success, I argue, the more flooded with games the market becomes. You argue that the market isn’t increasingly saturated, and if that were true it would weaken my argument considerably. I really want your argument to be true, because I want board games to become a bigger part of our culture. But I’m not sure I see it. Once upon a time, board games were the only kind of indoor games around. But thanks to the proliferation of every variety of digital game over the past two decades, I get the sense that the overall size of the board games market is treading water, and has been for some time, at least relative to the rate at which new games are being published. As for so many things, the internet seems to have dramatically increased the ratio of producers to consumers (the latest manifestation of that being Kickstarter) I would love, love, love to be wrong about this. Where can we get numbers?

      ““Marketing is Key”. I just don’t think this is the case, there are tons of commercial successes where the product was the key, not the marketing. Marketing can make or break a good game, but nebulous “marketing” can also sink a company. Advising small companies on tight budgets to focus and market the heck out of its flagship game may be the exact wrong strategy. A little marketing is good but a lot of marketing isn’t always better.”

      Doesn’t it depend on the quality of the marketing? Part of my contention is that many board game companies could benefit from learning how to become better marketers (many are not good at this side of things), so that they don’t have to rely (exclusively) on the lottery that is waiting to find out if a game will become a hit entirely on it’s own steam. I feel this is especially true now, because, again thanks to the internet, good marketing needn’t be expensive if it’s done smartly.

      “Recommend Days of Wonder retire a bunch of games? I disagree with this 100%. There are some large inital sunk costs that go into the layout/design and manufacturing of a game and the incremental, variable costs of each unit are relatively small. Saying a company would do better if it stopped producing a product it is making money on is just wrong. You can’t assume a company is run by idiots in this case. The only reason a game stays in print is because it is selling and if DOW is making a profit on a game and it sells out and it has Purchase Orders from distributors for the game, then of course they should reprint it.”

      To be clear, while I don’t think highly of some company’s strategies, I think Days of Wonder is one of the smartest companies going – I was explicit on this point in my essay. But I think there’s a chance they could do even better (on the other hand, I was looking at their product line the other day and it appears they’re relying more heavily on expansions and spinoffs than ever, which is exactly what I would advocate, because every ticket-to-ride spinoff, for example, creates more awareness for its brand, something that a new game can’t do). I’m worried about the opportunity cost of maintaining a bunch of different product lines that are only kind-of making it and don’t have a real chance of becoming a hit. They may provide some profit, but nothing compared to the profit to be gained by taking a game from also-ran to hit. If maintaining product lines disperses focus away from things that could help a company put it’s best chance at a hit over the top (with better marketing or product redesign or more aggressive hunt for distribution channels or whatever), it might be a poor way to use resources. Somewhere else you argued that it takes very little work to keep a game in print, and if that’s true, then I agree my argument is wrong, because then you don’t have to worry much about the opportunity cost. But is that really true? If so, I’m happy to be wrong. My experiences are colored by my knowledge of other kinds of products that take serious effort to keep in the market.

  19. Hi Nick. In response to your comment,
    “There’s so little in common between hobby games and mass market games that they don’t even belong in the same sentence – models and approaches for one are completely opposite one another. But my argument is, in part, a case that one business is better than the other and some companies could benefit by pivoting from one to the other.”

    All I can say is damn straight on both points. Hobby and Mass are worlds apart in the types of games they offer, on how they get to market and in regard to what marks them a success in that market – and yes, the Mass market is far more lucrative. As the owner of Smirk and Dagger Games, a very firmly targeted hobby game company, I learned long ago that I would not get rich serving the hobby market, but would only satisfy the ‘artist, inventor and gamer’ in me.

    But for that reason, six years ago, I started building relationships in the mass market channel. Fueling my passion for creating games that I enjoy, for the niche, while pitching ideas to license to larger companies in the mass. I will say that it has been a giant learning curve, forcing me to unlearn many of the design principles and go to market strategies I’m accustomed to in the hobby market. And while I’ve come VERY close to licensing games to Hasbro and others (I had one of five titles slated for release with Transformers – until marketing dropped the number of games to three, for example), I’ve yet to successfully bridge the gap and license a true mass game title.

    Except that, in my efforts, I ended up pitching Crayola the idea for their 3-D Outdoor Chalk line, which they licensed from me five years ago. It saw incredible success, spurred on my Wal-Mart’s demand for TV advertising support, and ended up winning Toy of the Year the year it launched. And filled the coffers for some time to come.

    My answer, as a company, was to work both sides as a means to continue feeding my passion, but also supporting my company financially in an otherwise difficult hobby marketplace. I suppose, if my sole goal was financially driven, I would abandon the hobby market for pure business reasons and focus on where the money really is. But I won’t. I’m a gamer. And the hobby side of the business will always be like painting miniatures – work I love in support of my hobby.
    -Curt Covert, Smirk and Dagger Games

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Wow, that’s an exciting story, and making me feel a little smug because it seems consistent with my argument! I’m glad that you found a way to balance your passion with your bottom line. That’s something I still searching for in my life. Awesome and thank you.

  20. Chris Funk permalink

    From what I’ve seen, most mass-market games the likes that Hasbro puts out are made as cheap as possible to be sold very inexpensively. $10-$15 range. All cheap paper, plastic, and cardstock. And you can make a copy of Settlers like that and bring the price down considerably (actually, that version is out and on Wal-Mart shelves, but it’s still ~$25) as well as the economy of scale and printing 4,000,000 copies bring the individual price down while most euro/hobby publishers can’t invest that much to make a run of more than 10,000-15,000 copies for a good run and more like 3,000-5,000 for many. Once you have that Settlers or that TTR, then those print runs get bigger and more frequent, which makes them more profitable and help make up for the margins on the earlier print runs. This isn’t Hollywood where you make a couple crap movies to build up funds to make the summer blockbuster. Every game has to stand on its own, small print run or large.

    The problem is that the gamers the euro/hobby games are produced for will make fun of cheap components. They want good quality plastic pieces, wood components, or thick linen finished cards. They are looking for quality because these games are more than just a game, they’re an investment of their time and money and they’re willing to pay a premium to get that.

    Many non-gamers, or gamers that haven’t been introduced to euros or the board game hobby market balk at paying $45 for a board game. You have to change their perspective on board games not being just for kids and the difference a good game with quality parts is worth that $45 and more. When you point out that a game like this can be played with other people face to face countless times for less money than an Xbox game that one person can play for, what, usually 8 hours and then discarded/traded away. Games like Settler, TTR, Carc, and others are called gateway games for a very good reason. I’ve seen more than one light bulb come on after showing someone new how to play them. Once that spark is lit, they’re buying their own copies next month and the month after that, they’re shopping for something new to bring to game night. The price doesn’t become a stopping point anymore because the value of the quality of the game and the experience of playing it become important enough to be worth the cost. Thousands of people discover a new euro/hobby board game every year. They’re becoming hip and popular, more so every time a celebrity said they love playing one.

    Because of that, I don’t think the market is over-saturated at all. Euros and hobby games are not sharing the market with Monopoly and Connect Four. It’s not competing with them. The hobby market is creating it’s own market that is gradually eclipsing the mass market traditional games. It’s a new place full of wonder and exploration and as more and more people get exposed to it, it’s only going to get bigger. This is a golden age for board games, not a stagnant pool.

    However, there is one area that has become a sort of badlands for board games. Kickstarter. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve backed some great games on there and have gotten some really well produced games. I’ve also seen where some games weren’t playtested, didn’t proofread rules, or were just not that good. I can see where it can help anyone with an idea and a plan to bring their vision to life and at the same time get a lot of money for a game that would never have seen the light of day from any publisher because it was either bad or just not ready. it may be too soon to say how much positive/negative impact KS will have on the market in the long run, but currently there have been more good than bad projects on there (and one very, very bad one).

    Thanks for putting this out, though. Great read!

    • Chris Funk permalink

      And wow, I need to proofread before I hit submit… That is the biggest run-on sentence I have ever written in my life. Yikes. Apologies all around.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Hey Chris, in reply to this:

      “Because of that, I don’t think the market is over-saturated at all. Euros and hobby games are not sharing the market with Monopoly and Connect Four. It’s not competing with them.”

      I totally agree with this. But I am saying the hobby market is a much less comfortable place to be and companies could benefit by pivoting away from it, if their main priority is looking after their bottom lines. Not saying this would be good for the board game ecosystem as a whole, however, just that it would fulfill certain companies objectives.

      “The hobby market is creating it’s own market that is gradually eclipsing the mass market traditional games. It’s a new place full of wonder and exploration and as more and more people get exposed to it, it’s only going to get bigger. This is a golden age for board games, not a stagnant pool.”

      I love the idea but not sure that it’s true. Sure, the hobby market is growing, but the number of people/games trying to serve the hobby market seems (to me) to be growing a lot faster. A lot of people who in earlier times would just be consumers are becoming producers, empowered by the internet and platforms like Kickstarter. That seems like a recipe for saturation. As I mentioned in a similar comment above, I’d love to be wrong.

      • Chris Funk permalink

        “I love the idea but not sure that it’s true. Sure, the hobby market is growing, but the number of people/games trying to serve the hobby market seems (to me) to be growing a lot faster. A lot of people who in earlier times would just be consumers are becoming producers, empowered by the internet and platforms like Kickstarter. That seems like a recipe for saturation. As I mentioned in a similar comment above, I’d love to be wrong.”

        It’s happening. Been happening for years, all be it slower and in private circles until recently. However, having been to Origins and GenCon for several years, you can tell it’s growing and at a much faster rate every year. GenCon had record attendance last year and the broke it again this year by about 20%. I work a booth all weekend and I can tell you that that increase isn’t all hardcore gamers. We’re seeing a lot more families and even parents and grandparents. In the last 6 years, board games have become the hip thing. Facebook has their own internal Catan tournament every year. You have Wil Wheaton hosting a YouTube channel of celebrities playing euro board games that routinely scores 300,000+ views every episode, with some over 600,000.

        Now, in response to your idea of “Why make a game if you’re not making money with it?” There is a thing called passion. Some people makes games because they love them. Sometimes it’s simply because they wanted to do it. Some of those times, the games become very popular. Others, not so much. Some people are just happy making a game that others enjoy to play. While very few rise to the popularity of a game that makes respectable returns, there are tons of games that the designers feel are successful because they were produced people enjoyed playing them. Sometimes you create because you take joy in creating and money isn’t the big focus. It’s nice when it happens, though.

  21. I think your argument boils down to this; If you’re a small and at least somewhat profitable game company, and you would like to be a bigger and more profitable game company, you have two possible strategies.

    The more common one is to publish as many good games as you can afford to, and hope that one of them catches on.

    The other alternative is to pick just one good game and pour all your spare money into it.

    I can understand why most game companies would pick the first alternative.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      It feels safer. Just not sure if it actually is. And however safe it is, I believe it’s getting less safe over time.

  22. Many of these replies appears to amount to:

    It’s too risky (for sure!).

    It’s not likely to work (because the mass market is unpredictable and much luck is involved).

    Sequels rule.

    Branding is vital (but you’ve got to get there first, and then you can sell “Battleship Galaxies” and “Sorry Sliders” on the strength of your brand.

    Further, mass-market games MUST be simple and shallow, because when people play mass-market games they rarely want to think. Many publishers don’t like that kind of game, just as many (most?) hobby game players don’t.

    So this appears to be bad advice.

  23. The absolute last thing any game company should do is behave like a pop musician. This “business strategy” crap is a good way to turn your product into meaningless pabulum…it is for people who want to “sell out” and line their pockets, not those who want to create something that makes the world a better place. I for one exhort all game companies to disregard this entire article.

  24. I needed to comment on your idea of being happy just selling to gamers as just scraping by. While yes I am a gamer and somewhat biased I think you are missing the mark a little. Board game companies should focus primarily on gamers because that is who is buying the games. They are the primary step to the slow build. Gamers who love the game introduce it to their families and friends, who love it and so on. This is a great route to becoming mainstream.

    Board game companies not focusing on gamers is like a car company not focusing on people with drivers licenses. Selling to your market isn’t “just scraping by” it’s doing business the right way.

    I also find that most mass market games are actually detrimental to the industry. When I try to introduce people to games I find that those that refuse to play often site hating board games because of their experiences with mass market games (Monopoly is the primary one they site)

    Of course newer games that have achieved mass market status achieved success in the gamer circle first. Take Settlers of Catan published in 1995. Mayfair games rep Bob Carty was quoted as saying “Settlers is three to five years away from being a household word” back in 2008. It pretty much is now. That would be like if the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out to tomorrow and said they were exited that their song Californication was going to become popular in the next three years. Comparing the board game industry to the music industry doesn’t work.

    Of course you are right in that the industry needs to grow to prosper. Dedicated board game hobbyists are a very small market indeed. There is a glut of games out there. Conventions are an ideal medium for advertising. Board gamers are members of other demographics and attend these conventions. Their traffic attracts other demographics to see what the hubbub is all about.

    You do make some very interesting points for people thinking of getting into designing their own games.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      I think you’re mostly on target with these comments. I’m not objecting to using gamers as a springboard to larger success. You’re right that it’s a key strategy (although note there are plenty of games that achieved mass market success without much help from gamers – Bananagrams is an example). I’m saying that, at least if I were a publisher, I would not be focusing on gamers to the exclusion of the broader market as so many publishers do.

      Re: the music analogy. Note that I’m only drawing a parallel as it relates to market saturation – both industries have a ton of competition for a very limited mindshare. But in fact, the strategy I propose applies far more to the board game industry than music precisely because mass market success is so much longer lived in the former.

      • I see your point but I need to point out I’m thinking Settlers of Catan and you are thinking Bananagrams here. Which is like comparing apples to oranges… or in this case bananas. This is more about knowing your product and it’s market share. Anagrams are nothing new, Banagrams is a repackaging of a repackaging of an inception of a repackaging of a successful product. It’s market share is people who like anagrams and people who go “OMG/Squee/lol it’s a game that’s a banana I have to have it!” It’s a prepackaged mass market game, not a gamer game. It’s easily understood by corporate giants, product placement on an end cap like a bunch of bananas is an easy impulse buy strategy. Whereas Settlers of Catan is a gamers game. It takes consumers researching the product prior to purchasing, it sells to consumers who are looking for a newer way to play games. The market share for each product is very different and the strategy behind selling them needs to be different. The difference is gamers I know went out and bought Settlers of Catan, I would only get Bananagrams from my mom as a stocking stuffer this Christmas. Demographics and market share are very different for each game.

        Take the fast food market. You don’t say Taco Bell is doing terrible in the fast food market based on it’s sales of pizza and burgers. That isn’t their market share their product isn’t targeted at those consumers. Would diversifying into other markets potentially be profitable? Maybe. We all know what happened when McDonalds tried selling pizza.

        Should Days of Wonder axe some slower selling gamer games in order to sell the next mass market Monopoly/Bananagrams style game? Maybe. Of course I wouldn’t be too critical and ready to change the selling strategies of a company like Days of Wonder without looking more at their profit margins on each product, growth of sales, and stock. After all there is a print run on each product. You don’t print games on an as needed basis, you do a production run. And as I pointed out the time period to become a household name for a “gamer” game is closer to 15 years. Again it’s knowing your product and knowing your market strategy for your product.

        A great way to boost sales for a game is expansions. In the gamer market it shows the company is furthering support for the product. It gives the air that the game is popular enough to warrant an expansion so more gamers buy the original game based on that assumption. Also the more shelf space a game and it’s expansions take up in store the more visible it becomes. There is also the special editions. People who bought basic Settlers of Catan also bought the 3D special edition. Two sales one customer. I know board gamers who won’t even look at a game until an expansion or special edition hits the market.

        Of course I did very much like the facts you point out in your post. You have some very interesting ideas and give much to process for those thinking of joining the market. Thanks for your post.

      • nickbentley1000 permalink

        I still don’t think we disagree! I believe, as you do, that different games benefit from different tactics. I agree that games like Settlers or Days’ of Wonder games benefit from leveraging the interest of gamers, and games like Bananagrams don’t need that kind of help and probably couldn’t get it anyway.

        Again, my argument is that companies should ultimately aim for a broader market than just gamers (even if engaging gamers is part of that effort) and that they might do it by concentrating their efforts/resources on just one or a few carefully chosen products, instead of spreading resources out over many.

        The tactics employed should vary from game to game depending on the specifics of the game and the kind of person it appeals to.

  25. Grace permalink

    Wow an interesting piece and discussion here. What about Educational board games? Any advice for how to get such board games out? Try licensing to Hasbro and/or Mattel or concentrate on the hobby-ist market?

  26. Hey Nick, do you think that publishers should invest, not only on the specific product brand, but also on the publisher’s brand itself?

    The point is creating some assurance over the upcoming projects’ success, as the publishers’ brand grows in trustiness.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      My feeling at the moment is that the brand of the game is so much more important than the brand of the publisher than all efforts toward building brand equity should be directed at the game. If a game becomes a hit, that automatically gives the publisher brand equity.

  27. One of the mysteries here is what helps persuade people to buy one game rather than another (or buy nothing at all). In general, brand is pretty strong in the USA, but does that extend to games? We could conduct a survey (which might be interesting) but I believe along with Jakob Nielsen that what people say they do is often different from what they actually do.

    • nickbentley1000 permalink

      Yep. Getting at the question empirically would be valuable, but constructing the right experiments will be hard.

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