Thinking about running a Kickstarter? Well, 19 months after I decided to self publish my game, Magnate: The First City, I am entering the final build-up of mine. This is the inside story of the challenges, joys, thrills and spills of running a Kickstarter campaign and the nerve-racking final weeks before launch…
…Today: How admin is getting me down and why publishing a game might be an especially admin hungry business.
Exactly how wrong I was
As I alluded to in Day 3’s post, I significantly underestimated the time that would be involved in publishing Magnate. I knew it would be investment of time, but I thought it would be somewhere in the same region as running my newspaper project: 1-2 days per week) for 12 or so months, from the day I started to the day manufacturing began. Given the fact that the game was already pretty good before I hit the self-publish button, that didn’t seem like a hopelessly optimistic estimate. As someone with long experience of running something as complex as the Croydon Citizen alongside a full-time job, that felt like a careful, even pessimistic assessment, premised on experience.
I was, as you now know, very wrong. But exactly how wrong?
It will actually be two years between those two points in time if everything goes to plan from this point. What’s more, the total time commitment involved has been way more than 2 days per week. When you add-up everything involved, my original estimate has to be out by a factor of 3x at the very least.
Day 3 already touched on the many reasons this is the case and why people should never, ever underestimate the time involved in making a game into a fully marketed game product. One could write an entire series exploring the many economic and practical reasons why this is, exploring the minutiae of work involved. But today – feeling a little battered, but also rather reflective – I want to write about how the work feels. If you ever want to get into this, you hopefully know it’s going to be a ton of work by now. But if you have the time and financial budget to do it, the days involved themselves don’t matter. It’s the fun (or lack thereof) you have living them.
So. much. typing.
Fundamentally, administration is what’s got me a bit down today. And so much of my job as a publisher is administration. Not game development, marketing strategy, building relationships, financial planning (even that, I legitimately enjoy – honest!), conceptualising with artists or even writing this blog, but good ol’ fashioned business admin: following-up emails, setting up meetings and events, organising materials, populating databases, assigning tasks and creating agendas.
Why is this? Because as fun and interesting as all these activities are they each generate a ton of their own, for me, characterless busywork. They’re all basically the same.
Take playtesting. The exercise itself is wonderful even when it goes horribly wrong. On a basic level, its just tremendously enjoyable to see another person engaging with your game. There’s huge joy in them finding things you couldn’t see, even when those things are gaping holes in your design. There are pleasures too: the exhilarating flashes of inspiration as you spot ways to make it better or the chuckles of shared laughter when it falls over or does something entirely unexpected. Most rewarding of all, there are the fixed, unconscious smiles and brows furrowed in deep thought as your creation clicks with your player-victims: fun has been found.
But every time we do a playtest, there’s a venue to secure, people to invite and a timeslot to find. Afterwards there’s notes to take, notes to organise and rulebooks to modify (even if your rulebook is in ugly, internal shorthand at this point). Once you have your changes and a new playest to organise, the cycle starts afresh. The event itself is as fun for me as playing a game. Excited discussions between myself and my developer aside, the work either side of it is no fun at all; at least for me.
Marketing is much the same, but arguably worse. What do you want to say? How do you want to reach people? What do you need to know about a market? All these are all questions I thoroughly enjoy. But once I’ve settled on a marketing strategy, most of those questions are done for. Now begins the busywork: collecting facts (copying pasting URLs, checking stats, googling around the world of boardgames, making lists of events, totting up the costs) and actioning them (filling forms, making more lists of the things you’ll need for a convention, emailing contacts, organising staff rotas). Those tasks account for 99% of the time actually spent on marketing. Playtesting, by percentage of fun, including its attendant admin, is an absolute laugh riot by comparison.
If only it were made of bytes… rather than cardboard
Is boardgame publishing worse than any other business in this regard? Certainly worse than some. The problem with game publishing is that you have to do so many, many jobs even when you’re starting-up. You have to manage manufacturing requirements, organise events, network, plan budgets, develop products, direct art, provide customer service, produce flyers, banners, websites and social media images, make sales calls and find every opportunity you can to promote yourself and your product without feeling like I’m my own shameless shill (…whether one actually is or is not is… another question).
If I were running a pure software start-up, there’s several items on that list that wouldn’t exist. They’d be no physical product to translate into, so all the concerns and management of manufacturing disappear in an instant. For the same reasons making changes to the product would be easier, faster and wouldn’t have to slot into a few physical prototype versions with long lead times and complicated set-up requirements. I could reasonably chose to promote my product entirely through online channels, skipping out the whole business of events altogether. After all getting people to test it would be as complicated as sending someone a link, not a meeting. And it would be a long time until art and graphic design became so critical that it would occupy much of my time. I’ve said before that the game itself is wonderfully easy to change when compared against an equivalent piece of game software. But so far, I’ve found with the publishing side of it the inverse is true.
Does that mean I’d spend less time on it overall? Probably not – I’d want to give it my awl, just as much as Magnate. But I think I’d be spending less of that time on admin. Why? Because admin isn’t really proportional to the amount of work you are doing, its proportional to the number of different things you need to do. Anything that has to be arranged that can’t be completely automated creates admin no matter how much time that thing takes up. Take events: one enormous event that lasted three weeks would be hugely less time consuming, admin wise, than ten smaller ones. That’s because each of them needs its own directions, rota, materials, timetable, booking form, accomodation plans, travel etc. The single monster event requires only one of each of those things. And remember, everything creates admin, even delegating this kind of work to other people – something which has been a necessity even to maintain this timeline.
“Err then don’t DO it?”
I always fear writing more personal posts like this for fear it might make me seem terribly entitled (maybe I am!). After all, admin is what people do everyday to support their life. Otherwise I am privileged enough that I don’t have to do too much of it in the career that currently pays the bills. A fair question emerges: Why do I do all this if I’m so bored of the so much of its many everyday responsibilities?
Two things account for that. First is my sheer bloody mindedness. I don’t care how frustrating some of this has been because its all worth it for the end goal; making a dream come true that – might – turn into life sustaining business. As long as I remain fixed on that I will happily put up with what is, when put into real world perspective, more of nuisance than anything else. Having come this far, how foolish would it be not to power on through now?
Second, because I am improving. Already, the second time round is easier. This goes for almost everything I am doing. The speed development of my other game projects are coming along an order of magnitude faster than Magnate because of everything I have learned. The databases, processes and systems I have designed, populated and configured are, right now, making doing things on Magnate itself much faster then before. And while forging connections with people in the world of games felt incredibly awkward at first – like attending a singles event on your own with a million people – I am lucky enough to have actual friends all over the world, online and off through it. It doesn’t feel awkward anymore, I’m just hanging out with lots of lovely people that I like and like me – it’s straight up just life.
Would I do it all over again? Of course! Am I going to do it all again? Not like this. Not only because I know so much or have done much of the groundwork already so I don’t need to. But because I am sure as hell going to pay people to do more of this admin for me! As much as I can possibly afford.
Maybe this blogpost just became a jobpost…