Producing Fun 20: Nick Bentley - Designer & Marketer

Producing Fun 20: Nick Bentley - Designer & Marketer

Producing Fun is a podcast about making tabletop games from a product perspective.

Nick Bentley has been working in the industry for years. But recently, he took up a new role with Underdog Games: a game publisher smashing up conventional wisdom and selling 100,000s games in the process. This week we have the deepest conversation I’ve had before or heard before about *why* people buy one game rather than another. This is an absolute must-listen for aspiring game creators.

Underdog Games:


Nick’s website:


Nick’s Twitter:



James 0:00
Hi I'm James, and this is producing fun, a podcast about making games from a product perspective. Welcome to Producing fun. My guest this week is Nick Bentley, president of game studio at underdog games, formerly of North Star games, and a neuroscientist. I've been trying to get Nick on the show for absolutely ages. Nick is not only one of my favourite follows on Twitter, spitting out interesting ideas about game design, product and life in general at a furious rate. He's also a key part of a business I find fascinating. Underdog games was only founded four years ago, and has but a small product range to its name. But in that time, it has sold 450,000 games, almost all of them directly to the general public. Its most successful title the $50 a piece trekking the national parks makes up the lion's share of that total. Yet it's relatively unknown by most hobbyists. With results like that, there's always something to learn. And oh, boy did I learn a lot. I'm very lucky to have so many great guests on this podcast. But it's rare that I'm joined by one that actually makes me feel rather stupid in the best possible way. This episode gave me a radically new perspective on what makes games successful. Nick is a smart heretic, who comes from underdog with a theory of what makes games sell, that turns a lot of conventional wisdom in the board game industry completely on its head. What's more, I think he's probably right. Whether you're a designer or a publisher, I really think you can't afford to miss this one. Even if you don't end up agreeing with the kind of approach Nick is advocating here. I challenge you not to learn something from it. This one goes deeper than any conversation I've had before, or heard before, about what actually makes people buy games, and the extensive lengths a company could go to, to find that game magic that's worth any aspiring creators time. We join, just as I'm telling Nick, why I was so keen to have this conversation.

Nick Bentley 2:25
Thank you.

James 2:27
Particularly when it comes to the whole question of direct versus the con traditional model, because my experience is that a lot of people assume, okay, this is how board games are done. You do a Kickstarter, you, that's all you you make a lot of money up front, maybe you get your game made, then either you leave it there, which is increasingly the business model of quite a few companies. Or you then sell a remainder to distro, you don't want to get involved in retail that's too complicated. Maybe you've got a few retail pledges, and then maybe you hope you wonder your game goes gangbusters. And then that's it. And yet our model seems to have quite a lot of disadvantages to me.

Nick Bentley 3:06
It's got some problems. Yeah, it does. I want to caveat this conversation with a thing that's particular to our company that allows us to like behave very differently from other companies.

James 3:17

Nick Bentley 3:18
Which is that we were founded by not a board game person, we were founded by an entrepreneur who is very good at E-commerce. And his expertise has allowed us to do things which I think at other publishers would be very risky for lack of expertise. But at our publisher we can do it because we have this this incredibly smart and knowledgeable person helming the ship, you know,

James 3:49
so that immediately makes me want to know what he was doing before that so because

Nick Bentley 3:57
oh, he was okay so first of all, his name is Hassan Hasmani. And in fact, like you probably once you hear about him will wish that you had him on instead of me. He's, He's one of the most like insightful people I've ever met in my entire life. He's in his mid he's in his mid 20s he founded this company right out of college. He already made his first like million or something in college, doing boardgame arbitrage online.

James 4:28
Was he like running like an Amazon store or something like that, like, oh, yeah,

Nick Bentley 4:31
basically. Yeah. I mean, I shouldn't I probably shouldn't speak too much for him. Because, you know, it's his story to tell but so like, he's like, unbelievably good at creating, like a viable business. You know, he was like, just doing that out of doing this arbitrage out of his dorm room. And he was he's very sort of systems based person and so like he sort of like he was seeing so much data about the way board games were moving through Amazon, that he started to sort of build mental models of like, why things sell or don't, you know, and because it was arbitrage, you know, he was just like, he was making a lot of money, but he was just, you know, sort of making a little bit of money on each game on a large volume. And I think, as I recall, he was like, Well, you know, if I became a publisher, then I could have a lot more of this margin. You know, I think that was the original motivation.

James 5:25
I think that I can't think of a motivation that's sort of more different to the typical board game story, where you'd have someone who's like, Oh, I love these games, I really want to make my own game. And then, sort of once they actually got into the business, if they're smart, they realise they've got to educate themselves a bit about how things actually sell, how to sell online, all those questions. And then then they eventually get to, well, if they do really, really well at that, then they'll learn a lot of that those things. But we're saying is that Hassan is coming out of it from the point of view of this is actually how things sell. This is the patterns that seem to be emerging about what sells and why things do and don't. I'd like that. But I'd like a bigger slice of the pie.

Nick Bentley 6:08
Right, exactly. I would also say that, like, I think one obstacle that a lot of people who start boardgame companies have is that they are sort of fundamentally creatives who feel they have to get into business in order to pursue their creative dreams. But there's a actually a huge conflict between being a creative and running a business dispositionally, you need completely different things. So Hassan has the disposition to construct a beautiful business, I mean, his art is business making. And so like, like, I've seen at other publishers struggles that we just don't have, because Hassan is a unique bird in this world, you know?

James 6:48
So I mean, and maybe let's explore that a little bit more, because I think that you're talking there about such a fundamental tension. Because it's something I feel all the time, there were loads of games, I really, really want to make, and I always describe myself as someone who loves board games 50% and loves business 50%. So I have, I'm always torn between the things where I'd like to go, let's barrel off down this exciting direction, from a kind of creative point of view. And this is really cool. Let's make this a reality. And then the other half of me that's going, Yeah, but okay, but be real, will that sell, will that work? What does the component cost look like? Realistically, what other kind of margins if you include this, you're going to massively reduce that? And it's almost like I have to be a bit two brained the whole time.

Nick Bentley 7:02
Right, exactly. Exactly.

James 7:40
And I guess he can be a bit freer from that. Because I guess if he's, as you said, his art is business and working out how to make really successful businesses, then then that is that yeah, that that's very interesting. It immensely prompts me really makes me or prompts me to ask all the about how internally, therefore product development works at underdog, because yeah, he's thinking, Well, I'm I was arbitraging board games anyway, now I want a bigger slice of the pie. And I think it's an exciting opportunity in selling direct to customer, something that you've published. But obviously, then I guess the element that he wouldn't be able to bring to the table there would be the creative element about designing compelling games.

Nick Bentley 8:17
Exactly. So he actually originally, when he founded it, he partnered with an industry person, a game designer named Charlie bank, who has been sort of the driving creative force of our company. For a long time. He's the designer of our best selling game called Treking the National Parks. And his design sensibilities have sort of set the tone for what we do. And we've come to understand what we're trying to do through the reactions we see in customers to Charlie's games. And so like our our whole creative mandate sort of emerges from the partnership between Charlie's creativity and Hassan's business acumen.

James 8:55
So then, is it the case that it's a pretty classic kind of vaguely Hollywood model where Charlie is proposing concepts and then Hassan is vetting them? Or what does the development process look like?

Nick Bentley 9:08
Oh, yeah, it's not. It's not that it's. So before we, I think I sent to you a document that sort of contained, like, our internal guidance about how we make games.

James 9:22
Yes, it's a kind of like, yeah, it's really interesting. It's like a kind of this is so interesting, because I haven't not seen many anyone else do this. Yeah, not just like transparent from the point of view of something like what Jamey Stegmaier does, where he's very transparent about his financials, and broadly about his business in general. But what you're actually doing is saying, here's our kind of vision and set of beliefs about like, how we how we work, actually. So stuff that might be regarded, to be honest, really as sort of secret sauce, trade secrets kind of stuff. Certainly coming from looking using that business part of my brain and looking at that. So yeah, that would be great. If you could expand a little bit more, a little bit more on that.

Nick Bentley 9:57
Yeah. So I mean, one of the things that we believe really deeply is that themes like themes matter a lot, right? More, I think than maybe other publishers think. And but finding and constructing an elite theme is as hard as constructing elite gameplay. And so an enormous amount of work goes in upfront to thinking about, ideating, and debating about themes. So for late, you know, every game we publish, we've gone through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of concepts that we vetted and rejected. Yeah. And when we're vetting them and rejecting them, we're not thinking in terms of do we like this, we're not thinking hey, I mean, it is important that like, especially that whoever the designer is, can like, draw inspiration from it. But the starting point is, like, what will resonate with some very large identity group? And those those things are very hard to find. And, you know, when when people do find them, like amazing things happen. And you know, the classic example that we're all living under right now is Wingspan, you know, I certainly didn't appreciate how pervasive birding was as, as an as an enthusiasm as a hobby as an identity, as it actually is, you know, but Elizabeth knew, you know,

James 11:23
yeah, I mean, that's really fascinating isn't it, as I remember many years ago, reading about how it was like something like the second or third most popular hobby or the second most popular hobby in the UK, I'm thinking, and this was long before wingspan came out. I'm thinking nah, come on. That's not real. And then actually, yeah, it is. Opie that. See, I find that also really, really fascinating. Because immediately, the thing about wingspan's success that I think a lot about on this front is it's a bit of a pet theory at the moment, but it's something John and I talk about a lot, which is that part of the problem with the Pareto distributions of game success. So for example, something like you know, wingspan is 54% of all of Stonemaier's revenue, lifetime revenue as well, like not just in any given year since 2019, since it was released, which is a staggering, staggering, Pareto distribution of success. The problem can kind of become and I wonder how much, the way that marketing momentum works, that once something is sort of 10% ahead of something else? It can through sheer force of the Rolling Rock force of momentum, create outsized gains that are way beyond that,

Nick Bentley 12:39
For sure. I mean, it doesn't I mean, a power law distribution essentially means that must be true as I understand it.

James 12:47
Yeah. Because otherwise, unless, unless you think that in the underlying system, there are some fundamental reasons why something is, is just genuinely that much better than something else. But But I think that becomes then a really interesting, interesting question. Because the extent to which that is true, becomes a really interesting thing about your entire theory of success. Because if it's like, well, wingspan is so dominant, because it was a theme that was say, I mean, we're gonna I'm gonna deliberately using crazy model numbers here, because they, it's impossible to quantify this kind of thing. But let's say that it was it was, it was three times more relevant than the next theme, then then you think that like, that's a pretty big part, probably of its success, and then the momentum carries it the rest of the way. If you think it was only like 30% more relevant than the next theme, or 10%. More than the next theme, you've got a very different theory about like, what like is, is the distribution more about picking themes? Or is it more about it? Or the does the distribution suggest that is more about that, or it's more about how you enable marketing momentum? And so that's what I just really assume you said that about, like, the role of theme first, I think that's fascinating, because that's going right in the face of I would say, what most people in games in the hobby game world think. Because Absolutely, it's opposite logic, because they'd be saying, Oh, no, no, no, the mechanics are what matters. It's the gameplay is everything.

Nick Bentley 14:14

James 14:14
And actually, you also hold up a second there. Actually, maybe, maybe not.

Nick Bentley 14:19
Well, I would say I would say this. It's not like we think theme is the only important thing.

James 14:23
Oh, of course, yeah,

Nick Bentley 14:24
It's that there are a number of things which are necessary, but none of which are sufficient. And one of those things is gameplay. You can have an amazing game. But if there are other critical dimensions aren't excellent as well, it doesn't matter. And one of those dimensions is theme. That's an important one because the first experience the very first point of contact that customer will have of the game their very first impression formed will have nothing to do with the mechanics and it will be everything to do with the theme, and the way that thing looks, the way like the box cover looks right?

James 15:03
Yeah, totally.

Nick Bentley 15:04
If you think of the game itself as marketing for itself, and this is how I think, that first impression is the top of the funnel, the top of the marketing funnel. And so anybody who doesn't get through the top of that funnel doesn't get anywhere else. It's a gate you have to go through. And so keeping that gate big and open is vital.

James 15:23
Completely Well, and put it that way, it sort of seems almost stunningly obvious, doesn't it? Because you can't perceive the gameplay directly. You either have to get it through a secondary source, like, Oh, there's this review I trust, who says, This is a good game, you have to trust a friend. Or the only other way to get it is to actually play it.

Nick Bentley 15:46
Yeah, there's something else I want to say here, which is incredibly important that I think a lot of people miss, which is that when a person goes and buys a game, they are not buying it just for themselves. They have a crowd of people, friends, family loved ones, other gamers that they are thinking of and about when they buy the game, and they're thinking to themselves, will this game be appealing to them? And if and if the answer comes up, no, it doesn't matter how much they like it, they won't buy it. And so if a game punches you in the face with what it's about, and it's about something that a lot of people like, you have a much better chance of passing that gate. And if you don't, so wingspan is another amazing example of this, right? Not only is it about birds, but it's called wingspan and it has a picture of a big bird on the cover and nothing else. And so it punches you in the face, like you know exactly what it's about. If you know somebody who likes birds, like it's really obvious, like it could be a gift or like we could play this together. If it was called like dreams of ornithology and it had a picture of a you know, a jungle with birds peeking out, it would be less, there's a moment of uncertainty that that would create. And in when you can't, and when you sell things, moments of uncertainty are poison for sales. Right?

James 17:04
They're a complete disaster. Because this is a problem is that? Well, I mean, again, this is this issue about everything. I mean, it's not because it's not just that there are so many games competing for people's wallets, even. It's that the total aggregate amount of attention that everything is competing for on your eyeballs all of the time. Like what regardless of what products they are services, media, etc.

Nick Bentley 17:28

James 17:28
the more instantaneous that you can say, here's this, it's this, it's birds. That's the moment you can do that. It's it's actually very, very, it's very, very impactful. And as you said, I liked your title of dreams of ornithology because that sounds like exactly the kind of slightly more erudite, but obscureist game title, that I can just see being way less successful. You literally repackaged the same product. I mean, and then with wingspan, you can probably actually measure that actually, you could do empirical experiments or something like that.

Nick Bentley 18:03
Yeah, I'd also say like this, this way of thinking can filter down into all kinds of, like more specific production questions like, if you think about the way that people make first contact with games out in the wild, it's very often online, right? When a lot of publishers are like, putting their boxes together, they are sort of thinking of them thinking of the experience that you get, like maybe in a bricks and mortar store, you know, but in fact, like a huge fraction of your first contact with the game is online. And when you do that, you're looking at a thumbnail. And so much of like the detail that you think is awesome, when you're putting the game together, is lost. And in fact, counterproductive, because it makes the game look like mud. This is something we've struggled with a lot because we have a couple of games with themes that cannot or we have not figured out how to represent them with single iconic images. And so like things like that we think about a lot.

James 19:01
So even to the extent where I guess, in your development process, when you're kind of sifting through this vast number of possible thematic concepts, and you're looking for the kind of the few little diamonds kind of in the rough to work with this, would this be another one of those filters that you're kind of applying to that would be like, can, can we turn it into something that's clearly iconographic?

Nick Bentley 19:24
It's something we talk about. However, it is so hard. It's so hard or it has been so hard for us to find like true large identity group games that are underserved that like when we find one of those at least so far, we have been like, Alright, we're gonna make a game about this. And we'll worry about the box cover representation later. But we also recognise this is causing us a problem. And this is a problem that we don't know how to fully address.

James 19:50
Well, I mean, that's very hard to predict upfront, isn't it? Because if you're already going for the goal of find the largest Identity Group, and then you're like, Well, okay, because partly because actually, you You're quite limited by your imagination as well, because it could be that you will find them iconographic solution to to something or it could be that you won't. That's really hard to know when it's just a concept.

Nick Bentley 20:11
You can't know upfront, right? Yeah, exactly. Although you can get it like it, you can get a better or worse idea. For sure. I mean, there are some things where it is, you can take comfort in the fact that it's obvious upfront what it's going to be like. So we are going to publish a game this year called her story, H E. R. s. T o ry, which is about like, remarkable women of history. So you can guess what's on the box, you know,

James 20:34
Well, well completely Absolutely. And I can see how that one goes straight to exactly what you're saying about large identity groups. You know, they'll think about women who want to see other historically prominent women who feel very strongly that there are underrepresented, generally underrepresented in history, tapping into them, particularly, it's an aspirational thing as well. Like it's that's I can see instantly, how that fits what you're saying perfectly.

Nick Bentley 21:07
A lot of people want to give their daughters role models.

James 21:11
Yes, yes. Completely, completely. And that's like very powerful for that. Right. So that's fascinating. I love this. This is so completely opposite. It really is like, the more you go into it. way of looking at it.

Nick Bentley 21:26
Yeah, I mean, it especially the thing about her story, that identity group is half the world.

James 21:31

Nick Bentley 21:32
That's like as big an identity group as exists anywhere. And it's a passionate one right, especially now.

James 21:40
What, Yeah, but what I think is fascinating about it, there's immediately racist questions for me, right? Which is that what defines the identity group? Because one of the things in some ways, the wingspan example, is quite nice, nice, because it's quite, it's pretty simple, I think, as an example, whereas what's interesting about this one straightaway, is that I can see how, although theoretically, the audience is 50% of the of the world. And on some level it is, but actually probably the the group that will respond exceptionally positively to that.

Nick Bentley 22:15

James 22:16
Is itself actually a probably a

Nick Bentley 22:19

James 22:20
A much smaller group. And by the way, still not a small group, by the way, but a much smaller group in terms of it because of because obviously, that not so much, 4 billion people, but very much, but a smaller group than that, because it will be it will be much, much more appealing to people who have a certain set of socio political assumptions.

Nick Bentley 22:40
For sure, yeah, I would want to say you pointed to something a minute ago, that I think is really important. Understanding identity groups is hard. So I'm sitting here, I'm sitting here talking, like I understand what I'm doing, you know. But it's true that every time we make a game, and especially with that one, we're making a bet, you know, it's more akin to like stepping up to the plate, and a baseball game, and maybe you connect, and maybe you don't. And your goal is to raise the frequency with which you connect, or the probability with which you connect with the ball. But in terms of like, knowing you, you can't prospectively know if you've really tied what you've done into the identity well enough to make it work.

James 23:21
Oh, completely. Well, because necessarily, which is we are, in reality, a kind of multiplex of many overlapping identities. That makes this really fascinating. Also, to some extent, the identities are I mean, this is great, right? We're getting into really philosophical territory here, I love this. Sort of both exist and don't exist, in the sense that they are, what we're really talking about is something like a construct about a group of people. The real world corollary of which is like a vast amount of different thoughts and feelings that kind of tend to occur together, and tend to be somewhat clustered and associated in individual human minds. And the hope is, is that that particular clustering and set of thoughts and feelings and associations is is shared enough over a wide population group. And we kind of call that an identity.

Nick Bentley 24:18
Yeah. And not only that, I would say it's also not just, it's like the tenor of some of those thoughts and feelings may matter as well. So there's, if I can refer back to her story, so like, a lot of people play games. Like if I if I'm sort of pre doing a pre mortem on her story, let's assume her story fails. And right now I'm gonna do a pre mortem, and I'm going to try to like predict why it fails if it fails. It seems to me a lot of people buy games as a kind of, there's a there's an element of escapism in it. And this ties into the aspirational nature of board games as well. So our best selling game is trekking the national parks. It's pleasurable to play because the idea of going to the parks is a very pleasurable idea in itself to people right? Her story is about a topic, which is at this moment in some way contentious or at least adjacent to it. I mean, our our game is a straight history game. It's just about like remarkable women who've done remarkable things. But the halo of associations around like all women's issues right now seem very tense. You know? And it could be that you so even though there's a large identity group, the particular tenor of the feelings, maybe aren't right for a board game? I don't know.

James 25:33
So yes, because of course, that's the issue is that there's there are there are lots of identity. Yes, there's funny one, isn't it? It's both there might be identity groups that because we've assumed obviously that, that we could, the first that I guess that or the basic, the very basic model, rather, that's a better way to put it, would be that there are infinite number identity groups, you can make a game that will sell to any identity group. And the problem is really that on the commercial side, is a problem of Have you got a big enough identity group. That actually what's really interesting is that, even if you can find that identity group, can you present to something an experience they want to indulge in? That a game can deliver on that has the correct positive associations?

Nick Bentley 26:14
Yes. And that's a whole other thing that we shouldn't lose sight of like, none of this matters if the game isn't fun to a ton of people.

James 26:20
Oh, yeah. Yeah,

Nick Bentley 26:21
You know? so that's another thing where like, we think in terms of necessity, but not sufficiency. And I think it's actually really easy for a company like ours to get to think that if you nail all like the identity stuff, you're going to be fine. But that's not true at all, right? Like, there are so many games in the world, you have to create something exceptionally fun to get traction. And then the magic is in like the unification of all the all these different factors that go into making the product.

James 26:51
Well, I mean, yeah, I mean that well, that absolutely, of course, every time it's that unification of all those factors. What's really interesting, though, is that what I kind of find really fascinating is, it seems like almost your company has like a, which I guess we've kind of talked about already, but just to kind of really, like, zoom in on it specifically, like the theory is something like, look, the real business is about identifying the themes that resonate with identity groups, on the kind of assumption that, to some extent, the gameplay problem, kind of will always get solved. Because obviously, if you if you viewed things, the opposite in opposite world the other way around, you'd say, well, look, the really tough thing is, and the really critical thing is nailing the game mechanics, and you can always solve the theme problem.

Nick Bentley 27:36
Yeah, let's talk about that I struggle with this myself. So in choosing the theme, first, there's like a good side and a bad side, as I understand it. The good side is, once you understand the theme a little bit, and the way that people relate to the theme. And like the things they the experiences they like, and wish they had around that theme. We know all these things, we interview customers like extensively, and do a lot of like customer analysis, before we even make a game

James 28:07
When you say extensive, what, how much were you guys talking about here?

Nick Bentley 28:11
So I probably do for each game. Before we make it, we will do. I'll do like 14 interviews, but they're in depth interviews about and then also, we also typically do a thing where we, we had let's say we have after we know, we winnow all of our hundreds of concepts down to like, you know, five or something like that. We'll send those to big customer lists, we've really big list because we're ecommerce, and then we, we say like, okay, you know, if you're gonna pick one of these games that you want us to make, which one do you pick? And more importantly, why? And then, and then we will get 1000s of comments back for the winner. And then, like, we read those comments, like they're the Talmud, you know, like, trying to get at the meaning behind the words, right?

James 28:57
Yeah, yeah.

Nick Bentley 28:59
And so by the time we get to making a game, like, we actually understand quite a bit about the way that like, large groups of people relate to the idea. And that gets turned into a set of constraints on game design. And as you know, constraints on game design are great, because then you don't have a blank sheet of paper, then you have like something to hinge off of. So that that's the good side. The bad side, and I think we experienced this with this game, her story that I'm telling you about is some themes just seem more conducive to making a game of them than others. So like, when I tell you we're going to make a game called her story about remarkable women of history that does not by itself, immediately suggest to you mechanisms or any mechanistic framing about what you as the player are doing in the game?

James 29:54

Nick Bentley 29:55
You know, and so, like, one problem we had was we spent so The amount of amount of resources that we put into making this game is so obscene I, like, I'm too embarrassed to even like say, say numbers, so I won't. But one of the reasons for that is like, figuring out what like how to connect it to game mechanics is brutally difficult. You know?

James 30:15
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Like, it's really interesting. You say that, because as you were, you were kind of leading up to that point. I was thinking, yeah, like, well, I don't have any immediate ideas. Now, if I compare that to say, for example, with Magnate one of the interesting things about that was like the moment the game concept came together, like almost instantaneously, several key mechanical ideas just instantly came to being because they were like, Well, okay, it's property. That means it's all about how things physical space interacts. And different kinds of businesses and occupiers near each other, have to interact. So it's spatial, great. It's financial. So there's gonna be a market crash, because that's what everyone thinks about that property is like, when is the bubble gonna burst? Done? Right? Actually, that turns out to be a much harder problem, but at least where you would take it was kind of fairly instantly obvious, because the theme suggested certain mechanical approaches straight away. Like, it's not like you would normally think of a city builder, it's going to have some spatial elements. Right? Probably. Whereas this one, I had that ended in the moment, I thought that was interesting, as I thought, Well, part of the issue is that it's, it's, you're taking something saying, here's something that says, here's, here's some stories of some incredible women. But the stories have already been written.

Nick Bentley 31:31

James 31:31
And so anything that's like past facing rather than future facing? And I mean, that in terms of not necessarily past in terms of historical but I mean, like, in the Ludo narrative position of the player? Are you kind of looking back at the past? Or are you looking towards the future, because if you're a merchant, in 17th, century, Germany, let's say, because that would be a good old fashioned Euro game theme, something like that. You are at least, like, my own future ahead of me as the merchant is I'm trying to make as much money as possible. So there's like a kind of like a simulation and a set of experiences that suggest themselves, whereas whereas this, I can see straightaway, it's like, oh, this, there's not really a set of things that suggest themselves, you're going to have to come at this a little bit more brute force, probably

Nick Bentley 31:31
Yeah. It caused a lot of pain to get at it. Like, we actually worked with some outside designers who I idolised like, my heroes. We frustrated them. Because it was just like, oh, make another this isn't working, make another version that's totally different. Make another version that's totally different. And you know, so no, probably made 35, 40 different, unique, conceptual games until we like hit on something that we felt was right.

James 32:39
Wow. Okay.

Nick Bentley 32:41
We wouldn't have had to do that. If it was a game that suggested mechanics more readily, you know.

James 32:46
So what's fascinating, it's so realistic, as you said, this, I had this do just forget your model, I suddenly gave me a slight weird sense of embarrassment. Because I was thinking like, Oh, my God, what we tend to do is, we do see loads of ideas, we do iterate through quite a lot of ideas. I don't think we're especially structured about it. But we get to a point where something feels like, oh, hang on, this is this is a hot one, this sounds good. And then we spend enough time with it. And we think, yeah, actually, let's explore this further and then play it. But we have no kind of real framework or something like that for it. I think we would definitely take a more old fashioned in some sense, quite organic approach to trying to determine that. But I can also see that it that the one advantage that that very organic approach has is it is very lean, from a product development investment point of view. And the thing you're saying straight away is like, and like and theoretically, right, it would be the better approach if you were some kind of magic thermometer, who could always go, I feel like this is the one and then pick the correct theme. Having one person who could just do that would always be much more cheap and the whole point of coming up with a framework is that you want to build a real like, this is the critical thing that makes it business rather than just art, isn't it? Is the the problem is the soul of art is often about unique individual creations where the Creator has a personal relationship to them. And the art of business is can you make this reproducible and scalable? And so these whenever in any entertainment business, these things are always like smashing into each other. And so you've got a fascinating thing here of like, well, we've got this process that's like, actually, so far, you seem to have proven can reliably produce games. But my God, is it expensive sometimes, because you're talking about getting through 30 or 40 of those, as you said that those those individual games was, you know, typical process would be would be the complete about face. I know lots of people who basically commissioned designers to say, right, we will go to a famous and I go right, we won't want to go and buy you because we never we slap your name in the box, it will sell at least some units.

Nick Bentley 34:45

James 34:46
and then that designer generally sells them a game, and it's maybe not one of their most favourite concepts. It's like one they've gotten a draw. And it won't even cost them that much actually to buy that concept off that designer. It will be sometimes very cheap to do that and it Really amazed me when I start having private conversations. And I won't say any numbers. I know because they're commercially sensitive information people have told me, but I will say they are surprisingly cheap.

Nick Bentley 35:07

James 35:08
And and then they just go right push the button, where's you're saying, well, actually, the gamble is on, funnily enough, the machine is aiming to become a non gamble, because you've got this reliable way to produce produce things. But I guess the problem is the gamble is that actually itself on this concept of this process, is that you can develop things really, is that the cost don't escalate beyond all imagination, by by the fact that you have to go through 40 different, like, if it's just like just a lot of hours of designer time you're paying for

Nick Bentley 35:38
Right. now. I mean, her story taught us a lot in that regard. Like, I don't think we can ever again spend as much money and labour on making a game as we did for her story. So like, we have to change if we, if we don't want to take too much risk. So we're going to be weighing more heavily that sort of that sort of thing, going into the future. And the things we're working on now are much more the connection between concept and gameplay is like way, way, way, way easier. But all of this is to say like, okay, so, you know, we think in these Pareto terms, right, so the question is, like, what is the best way to get to the top of that Pareto curve. And, you know, you can think there's two ways you can think about it, take a whole bunch of cheap shots on goal and hope one goes in, or you can like try to think really deeply, to try to take a few really great shots on goal and then like market the EverLiving shit out of them. And so we've obviously taken the latter approach, but I don't know that it's the right approach. I do know that it does inspire people in our company. So there's a, there's a big difference in the psychology of a group. When if you say to the group, we have to do the best work of our lives to survive, we have to rally around the idea that we're going to be the best we've ever been right now. That's a lot more exciting, then we're going to pump out a bunch of shit and see what happened.

James 37:08
Yeah, oh, 100%. Well, one of those is imbued with mission. Right? It's, it's, it's something where and it's inspiring because actually, you're going to work hard to see an amazing payoff. And the other one says, It's okay. It's hard to have much pride in the one, because you're saying the other one is like, it's okay, if we pump out some crap. Because what matters is constantly taking that taking the shot on goal. And I actually think that the issue but this one, and I think the reason why I feel like the industry is to my mind, from what I'm seeing is tending towards, actually not anything like by the way that the specifics of what you're talking about in terms of identity groups and that strategy, because I think that's, that's still very, very alien to a lot of way, the way that people think at the moment about this. But the idea of look, let's just broadly speaking, a smaller number of of better things that are more likely to be successful, because the other strategy is like, it's too expensive, actually. Because because the problem with the other strategy is that it's because actually, you have a cheaper version of it already, which is your cheaper version is let's iterate through 100, 400, 500 theme concepts, probably 40 Games was too much, but maybe 10, I don't know, five to 10 distinct game concepts.

Nick Bentley 38:18

James 38:18
And all of those are way cheaper at that stage to develop than than actually 40 different games. Because 40 complete games isn't just labour. And it isn't just brainstorming time. It's like all of the project management, the manufacturing real materials.

Nick Bentley 38:39

James 38:39
Being purchased all of those things. So it's like a question of like, well, to some extent, every one strategy is actually

Nick Bentley 38:46
Costly in different ways. Yeah,

James 38:48
Yes. And everyone's but everyone's strategy is to some extent, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks because, because no one is like a perfect thermometer for game success. They can't just be like, right, well, I know this one's a winner, and then develop that one game, then bam, make a million dollars with it, means that actually every one is, to some extent, having to take, somewhere in the funnel is deciding, well, do we produce lots of things or a few number of things. And the difference is that the companies who are saying you probably have a theory, that there's kind of no way to be successful, and that it's all luck. So in fact, we're going back to earlier talking about earlier, but their theory would be that wingspan is no better than ever than anything else. It's like 1% better maybe. And then that just happened to spiral. And that happened to spiral could have been on any other set of reasons. It might have been because of the way that the weather that day, it could have been, you know what was recently in the newspapers or on the TV, it has very little to do with wingspan's fundamental quality as a product in any sense. would say, Oh, well given that then the only you might as well make complete games and you keep and you keep going. You keep buying the scratch cards right over and over and over again.

Nick Bentley 39:51
Yeah, that may be true. I don't know. I will say I will say that for me personally, I have I used to be a scientist and I'm driven by a desire to learn. So, like, I don't think I could do this, if I felt like there was no hope of learning and improving. And so the just emotionally the, the idea of just throwing stuff out until something happens is like a big turnoff for me. You know, I'd rather like die on the hill of trying to learn and failing, then then not trying to learn,

James 40:21
Oh, completely, like I've had conversations with some publishers, who definitely buy into the kind of random theory. And and ultimately, all of these are theories, because there is no there is no laws of physics that are applicable at this scale to this problem. Like, there's no way for us to go to carry out the, you know, the perfect experiment where we create multiple, complete copies of Earth. And then we can simulate all of the different things, the different game releases until we get to the one that the very the underlying laws about why games succeed or that or don't succeed. So to some extent, we will, we're all we all have different interpretations of the same Messy, messy universe of games. What I would say about the problem with the random theorists, is that a, it's maybe not viable on a simple level that it's so expensive, as an approach to take. And I think that because a lot of the companies, and that let's be honest, okay, I'm gonna talk about one company that I will specifically name here, because I feel it because it's one that's already gone bust. And that's tasty minstrel games, they owned to my mind, maybe one actual blockbuster, something like Orleans, I think. And then basically, they owned a couple other quite famous games. And when I said this, someone they got upset because it's a tasty minstrel like loads of good stuff. But actually, to be honest, when I looked at their back catalogue, I was like, they don't have that many really good games here. And it seemed like their theory probably was, and I can't speak for them too much, but just based on their output seemed like their theory was, well, we just have to keep publishing stuff. And then if we have enough hits, then that pays for the losses, and then we're okay. And I thought, it's fascinating, because years ago, I remember kind of tweeting about this and talking about how that was kind of, for example, used to be like Hollywood's business model. And they moved past that, because they fundamentally have the same pressures, which is that it's so expensive to write with kind of create, produce, film, edit, released and distribute, and then market, that doing it, every idea is not going to be viable. And it only would make any kind of sense if you truly believe that all success is utterly random.

Nick Bentley 42:21
You know, that I think there's a historical reason that companies do this. So I think, I think this is just my belief, I believe that the make a bunch of things and see what happens model worked a lot better, like 10, 15 years ago. So I mean, Z Man games, right? They became huge by doing that, until they until Pandemic happened. The problem now is, the number of games published each year is much higher. And the ambitions of the people who make them at least some of them is higher, there's more like sharks in the water. I think that means that the probability of throwing something out and having it work has shrunk so much that it's not as it's not nearly as viable way of thinking as it used to be.

James 43:06
So I think I think you're right, I think that's a really important point is that this is this is it, the reason why that strategy is now looking like it's really creaking, is because of the way the market has matured. And that strategy was actually perfectly viable before, in a world of much less choice.

Nick Bentley 43:23
Exactly. And the second thing related to that, the world of communicating about everything has got become busier. And part of the Pareto curve is visibility, right? So if I make a million games then, so if I make 10 games, and I have a marketing budget, I can only put 1/10 of my marketing budget into each game. Like there's there's a Pareto law of visibility as well. The most visible things get more visible and everything else falls away.

James 43:48
So what we end up with is a kind of product development funnel, in which that gets much bigger at the top, probably, because you need to iterate through more concepts to be really sure that the bets you're making are good bets.

Nick Bentley 44:02
Yeah, me and you can never be sure. So this is like it, like the specific math of it, which we don't really know, matters, right? So it depends on how much are you raising the probability for all that work you put into the one thing? You know, we don't know, I will say that our company has been very successful so far doing this. So until, until we fall apart in some kind of way, which, you know, may happen, we're probably going to keep going.

James 44:24
So yeah, it's like every well, effectively every time again, talking from a scientific or using a scientific analogy, at least, every time you're effectively you're re performing the experiment and you're you're hopefully increasing the number of data points and you're getting to the issue where you're getting more well, okay, this this model looks hopefully more stable. So the first the first game you do it with it really is just a theory.

Nick Bentley 44:46
Okay, yeah, actually, I have to interrupt here too, as well. Because that is does not characterise the way that we think about what we're doing internally.

James 44:53
Oh, interesting.

Nick Bentley 44:54
Our number one value in our company is constant improvement. So every time every time we make a game, according to our model, regardless of the results, the most important thing is to iterate on the model. So like, if you were talking to me a year from now about the theory that we have under which we publish games, it'll look different. And if it doesn't look different, we have definitely failed.

James 45:20
So okay, so now you raise something really interesting, right? Because I mean, we're barely getting to some really more obscureist philosophy at this point. But but screw it, let's try it anyway, the issue is, I guess, if you if you could perform your experiment much more rapidly, you could iterate this whole experiment on the game model, you'd want to do like a 1000s of 1000s and 1000s of times or whatever, whatever number you could pluck out there, but a very large sample size number. And then you would know that this model was a model that was correct. But the funny problem is that you have the same problem that everyone else has actually, which is you don't actually have time to spend 20 years working out whether or not the model works,

Nick Bentley 46:00
Because the world changed in the meantime.

James 46:02
The world changed in the meantime. And this is the fascinating problem, again, of why it's so funny, isn't it, that one of the big problems about and it was why I will just mentioned very offhand way, which we can't afford to discuss, because we're already going on a few tangents here. But why I have quite a lot of cynicism about quite a lot of the social sciences, because I have this problem of like, Yeah, but the whole global cultural context and economic context is shifting so much, that the problem is that coming to stable findings about anything like this is so challenging, because and this is where ironically, why I think people often underrate the power of guts, because they're not seeing that actually the kind of scientific approach in domains like this, you know, unlike when you're studying the fundamental of the universe and the galaxy, oh, great, you've got a lot of stable data. But when you're talking about this is so unstable, it's actually quite hard to make these kind of predictions. So actually, anyway, regardless, you apply these principles in order to be a bit more robust in thinking that actually you're updating the model of darkness.

Nick Bentley 47:06
Exactly. Yeah. So the to the point about gut, I may push back on that a little bit.

James 47:12
Oh, okay. Go for it.

Nick Bentley 47:13
I mean, I do think that there are people whose guts work great, right? Because, because their guts are so aligned with the zeitgeist that they can follow their instincts, and it works. But you, but you have to be one of those people in order for that to work. And there are very few of us like, the chances are that any given one of us is that is vanishingly small. You know, I'm very jealous of them. I know. Like, I know, people who work at Exploding Kittens, and I know that like, the two guys who run Exploding Kittens. Like they just say like, yeah, this, our gut says that this is the product. And there's like, way less vetting that we do, but their gut seem to be so aligned with the zeitgeist that it works quite well. And it's hyper efficient, right?

James 47:58
Yeah, that's, that's really interesting, isn't it? It's like, and I guess in terms of what we mean by gut here, right? Because if you're talking presumably at the level of like, whole game concepts and proposition, rather than so much like gut, I guess I'm thinking a slightly more broadly there. And in terms of its applicability to lots and lots of small individual business decisions that you don't actually have time to experiment on. But I think, what what I think if we go, if we talk in more practical, immediate terms, it seems like what you're doing is really, really interesting, because it's taking like a really core problem to which the answer really, really matters, right? Like, you need to know if this, you really want to have the best possible shots you can add to that game resonated with identity groups. And unless you happen to know that you had, as you said, that kind of hyper aligned to Zeitgeist guts, you just couldn't afford to make that gamble. So this is a critical domain, right? So to really be a lot more certain and not trust gut on its own.

Nick Bentley 48:56
Yeah, one thing you can do, so I mentioned interviews, right? It's not like I just do we just do interviews every once in a while, like we're trying to do interviews all the time. But the consequence of that, is that if the way our customers talk starts to change, we'll hear it. And you know, we'll hear it from from them. And our model will change as a result.

James 49:18
I'm really interested to know I mean, yeah, exactly. you're updating that. But what I'm interested to know, and then more practically, and more specifically, then what these design constraints for designers look like, because it almost sounds like that the constraints you're giving them are like, give me this kind of relationship to concepts. And they're very much sounding like experiential. Rather than say classic ones, when people think about constraints as like, I'm gonna give myself a mechanical constraint or something like that, or a component constraint.

Nick Bentley 49:47
That is exactly right. Like experiential constraints are much more important than the more nuts and bolts constraints because the experiential constraints that's the customer, the customer's experience, right?

James 50:01

Nick Bentley 50:01
That's the thing that matters for sales. The other stuff is, you know, means to ends.

James 50:06
Well, the thing is, it even matters, doesn't it to, on a fundamental level, to how much fun they have, you know, even if you weren't interested, if you if you see this purely, which is completely just about my perspective, if you see as purely as art, rather than business, that kind of still feels like that would be where you were at. And it's interesting how it seems like, people today have more of an idea that that is important. But I don't think even when I started a few years ago, like I felt like, oh, yeah, the experiential constraints would be the critical constraints is something that people maybe were thinking about a lot. And even maybe today, not as much as they could,

Nick Bentley 50:48
I think part of that comes from the fact that like, we're talking about the tension between like creatives and business, like, when you are a creative, one of the reasons you become a creative is so that you can like, sort of follow your internal visions, you know, which are very seductive to you. And they're, so you have to like, it's hard to, it's hard to take yourself out of that as a creative and then try to live inside the mind of another person who's in who's lived experience is very alien to you. That can be I mean, I think that's a struggle that we have a little bit which is, you know, like, we try to, like, be become our customers, like, understand them so deeply that we can think like them, but it's uncomfortable for your creative to go through that process.

James 51:31
Well, yeah, because you're going so completely into inhabiting someone else, and you're putting your own. I think, particularly, when it comes to the self expression aspects of art, you are putting that aside specifically. Because I think to some extent, it's a process to me that seems to fits quite well, with the empathic dimension. I mean, that's something that I find really interesting. It's like, one of the reasons I love creating games is because I like to kind of create something that helps someone feel a certain way. That to me, actually, that's more important than creating than executing my ideas. Increasingly, I'm actually less and less bothered by those, I am finding myself, you know, there are game concerts I've had, which I really like, but I have noticed maybe increasing or maybe I've always been some extent, the way, I am very happy to shoot my own ideas without really a moment of remorse. So and I find that creative aspects of kind of creating experience for people just fundamentally more interesting.

Nick Bentley 52:29
Yeah, I mean, for me, personally, the act of having to get really close to people to understand them. So I've had to practice my listening a lot. And there are moments in interviews that have like made me like, like, almost, it filled me with something that I never really felt thinking more internally, creatively. So like, for example, there's one interview I did with a dad who had set up a tent in his living room to play trekking the national parks with his kid. And in the middle of him describing the setup that they had, and like how it was like, what a sacred space, it was inside this tent, he started to like choke up and cry. And like, that made me choke up and cry. And it made me think, like, wow, my company has played a role in this, like, you know, the relationship between, I'm getting choked up now, the relationship between a father and child is is is so sacred, you know. So like, it's not just products, like, if you can get to that, you can be a part of that. That's as profound as it gets, you know?

James 53:35
Yeah. 100% 100%. I mean, that's, to me, I'm with you that that seems like the real dream. Right? Where you where you're able to, to help people create those kinds of moments. Wow. Like it's gone well, beyond just that was a fun game. Right?

Nick Bentley 53:53
Yeah. Right. Yeah. So once it hits you that there are people out there, who have you you've helped in that way, then it gets a lot easier to leave your own, like internal creative visions. And think, how do I do that again?

James 54:04
Yeah. Because, well, that seems like such a concrete achievement creatively, right. Like, there's not just like, well, I, I talked about something. It's like, oh, I made people feel that and they loved that. Right. That's, that's so real. And I think that's, yeah, I feel like that's the bit that one is really chasing. I mean, that's and I think we, you know, just, for example, in our product development meeting that I was in earlier today, that is very much what we were trying to do we have a kind of feeling that I guess we're trying to recreate, which is that this game is like sitting around a table playing like an action RPG with your friends. Right? And it's, it's creating a particular kind of frenzied flow states that you're kind of all part of. And that's really interesting, because I think like that's not something that I've seen almost any game quite do. And that's very much what we're trying to do with this one is like get that create that moment where it's all there in this incredible moment where they're having that kind of same feeling, they have it like that, of like a beautiful turn in a card game, where everything has just all the effects synergizing at once together. But you're, but you're doing that collectively. And you are doing it all in this moment of like with this time pressure that is on to you, so that you get those kind of like, you know, it's like a like a like a like a moment in almost like a moment in a video game, where you pull off some incredible thing or you jump off a platform, you shoot a guy you somersault, you land on something, and you'll just have this sense of rush, like, like, that is kind of very much what we're trying to create there.

Nick Bentley 55:43
That sounds like a hard thing to do.

James 55:45
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It definitely fits into our kind of ambitious about games mantra, like this is, this is my thing. And again, I think it's not necessarily perfectly aligned to what would be the most commercial thing to do. But it's like, I guess it's like a strong internal value for us is like everything we do, has to be in some sense, ambitious. And I think this one is very strongly like that. It's like, okay, this is quite difficult to pull off like a heavy real time experience.

Nick Bentley 56:14
Have you studied the game Pendulum?

James 56:16
It's one of the ones on my list of things to look out a little bit more closely while in the development process. It's not one I've looked at so far. But I understand it tries to do something a bit like that.

Nick Bentley 56:26
It, I would say it to me, it's interesting, because it tried and then appears from the outside to have totally not met expectation. So I remember, you know, I follow Jamie, like everybody else does. And I remember when he first started talking about it, he mentioned that, at the little mini convention in St. Louis, that he runs pendulum had like the best play tester score of any game they've ever had there. And then, but when it went to market, it's like, it might be the worst selling game. It's not doing great compared to the other Stegmaier games, as I understand it. I mean, maybe if Jamie listens to this, he'll call me up and say that I'm an idiot, because I'm wrong. But that's what it looks like from the outside.

James 57:12
It's it's not tremendously well selling. I think it might be the worst, actually, I think I think it is actually because I remember looking at his numbers, because I was really interested in like crunching them and, and looking at his data to see what you're doing. I think it is, I think I'm an obviously it's worst selling for a Stonemaier product, so it's still things shifted like 17,000 units or something. But But for him, that is a pretty low number.

Nick Bentley 57:30
Yeah, I have I have some con... I was thinking about pendulum. And I like, I wonder if the real time nature of the game itself is the problem. I bring this up, because this would be a concern for you, too. So just for example, okay, so like the first year, your first play experience is a very important signpost to determining whether or not you're going to go online and like say you love the game or not. Right?

James 57:59
Oh, increasingly, dare I say? Critical?

Nick Bentley 58:02
Right? Okay. So one of the biggest problems with board games is you have to learn rules before you play them. Right. So, so the the analogy that I give is like, imagine, if before you watched a movie, you had to read 10 pages of instructions about how to watch it. Like the movie industry would be 1/10 the size that it is

James 58:24
100% Yeah.

Nick Bentley 58:25
Yeah. So by far, the biggest obstacle to board game adoption is learning rules. Now. You sit somebody down and you say, not only do you have to experience the normal intimidation and disgruntlement that you feel with having to like learn all these rules, but now you have to do it under time pressure. That seems to me like a recipe for a bad first player experience for a lot of people.

James 58:50
Oh, my God 100%. It, it's really interesting. So one of the things that we've sort of already designed into the game, is we have a sort of tutorial, mini adventure that the characters go on. And the first part of that is not timed. And I think a critical thing was to to get players to do all of the game mechanics, where there's like a different constraint. That's just for this scenario. That's quite simple and very much like the constraints you get in the real game. That doesn't constrain the time initially when you're playing the learning scenario. Because I think that is I think also right, and I think there's just this general question of tutorials is to me fascinating, so obviously, I am a huge believer that we have to keep trying to crack the rulebook problem.

Nick Bentley 59:36
Yep. Oh my god. Wow. Yeah, we agree we're very aligned on this.

James 59:40
Yeah, absolutely. Because it is a huge problem. Like it's you said it no other space and my talk right now before you watch this movie. You must mandatorily read a document about the making of the production a bit about how to view it about so and things you've got to understand this element of it. You've got to oh my god, as you said that eventually will be nowhere like near the size right?

Nick Bentley 1:00:00
And oh, by the way, when you watch the movie for the first time, you're gonna be cross referencing with the rules the whole time. So you're gonna have to watch it a second time if you really want to, like, get at the fun of it.

James 1:00:09
Oh, god, yeah, a nightmare, right. And I think the interesting thing about this is that is that we and the only reason that we accept this now is because very simply, no one has yet come up with a single consistent approach, and maybe no single consistent approach will ever be found. That solves this problem. And, and all the attempts to do it are all like, let's be honest, I'm going to be completely brutal here, I think a bit inadequate. So for example, the generic solution of learn to play videos, some people talk about those, as if that just solves the problem. Ha, no way does that solve the problem.

Nick Bentley 1:00:18
It does not. Yeah, not at all.

James 1:00:43
I personally hate them. I actually, some of them, by the way, sometimes they're really useful resources. And we had one for Magnate, for example, done by girls game shelf, and Monique was exceptional. She did an amazing job, she got the all of the mechanics across, the core mechanics across in 10 minutes. Brilliant, really great. However, that still wouldn't be my preference, my preference would still be actually always somewhat a friend of mine teaches me to game, that would always be my preference and not a video. And actually, there are times where if the video is going to like 25 minutes teach video, I'm sorry, I'll just bite the rulebook off instead, actually, at that at that point, and even though I hate, I loathe reading rule books, they really annoy me because I still find, However, my brain works despite number of games I played, I find it very hard to imagine how it plays out from the rulebook. And when, and when does when reviewers tell me Oh, I just read the rulebook to get a sense of if I'll like it. I'm like, but it's up to me, that seems like a really poor signal to noise ratio. Anyway, so you have to go through this learning process. And I feel like if there was a way that you didn't have to touch the rulebook, you could just open the box, play the game straightaway, that just has to be superior.

Nick Bentley 1:01:53
Yep, I would say that. So the solution, therefore is not will never be found in making a game and then writing the rulebook after the fact. It's more that you are designing the game so that you can start playing it before you know all the rules comfortably.

James 1:02:09
See, now this is really interesting. Because if if you can, let's say you can truly design that. The issue I guess, a, that would be an amazing achievement, if so if it's a relatively complex game, because I think for some simple games that maybe already achievable. And I know you've been doing some interesting stuff on your on your own blog, where you've posted about the some of the very deliberately hyper simple, abstract games that you've been designing that that I could imagine, begin to breach that territory. But, but I can imagine on anything even slightly complex, that this this would so constrain design space. I don't know, my slight cynicism about that is that comes from I think that if I look at what's happened in video games, they're off, they still have to attack the problem from multiple sides. So they've long ditched manuals, but I've noticed that they do have they do normally got a sort of two punch strategy, where they go one in with, let's make this just as intuitive to understand as possible by using great UX principles about what people are familiar with familiar concepts, but also inevitably tutorializing using some of the content as well.

Nick Bentley 1:03:21
Yeah, you're right. I mean, it's tough. I don't know. Um, yeah, even though we make quite simple games, and even even so we still haven't managed to do this. So I don't really know. I mean, there are examples out there in the world. I remember even like fluxx was kind of like that way back in the day. I believe Friedemann Friese designed a couple of games where it's like there are there's no rulebook I think it was him I don't want to misspeak somebody maybe him designed one where like all you have a deck of cards, you turn over the first card, you do what it says. And and the rules unfold through the cards themselves.

James 1:04:02
I think there's there's definitely he's got one that's that where you the the victory objectives and the structures of the game change depending on what you drew out of the beginning that was like that. I remember talking to another guest, David Weiss over at The Daily worker placement. And he told me very much what he was telling me about one of those games and it was really interesting, as a very much in that kind of like cool experimental art piece, kind of property sector but then again, you know, that's where often you find the the ideas that eventually you can turn into something that's a little bit more applicable more broadly with enough thoughts. I mean, oh, yeah, I find this question about tutorials fascinating. Whenever I did, we did one for magnate. And what's been fascinating about it's been the response to it. So it has been the most one of the most polarising aspects of the game. So maybe the single most polarising aspect.

Nick Bentley 1:04:53
Oh, wow, this is exactly what I would have predicted. This is fascinating. So some people like it, some people don't.

James 1:04:58
So I've, the Comments range, range from on the negative side: How dare you put this in the box? It's a total waste of time. You wasted my time you wasted everyone else's time for a game that shouldn't have a tutorial because it's far too simple. And how dare you long, long criticism and a podcast that I listen to? To: this is a masterstroke, this should win some kind of board game, Nobel Prize, because it solves the problem, finally, have a middle weight game that you can just open and play. Incredible. And it's like, Whoa.

Nick Bentley 1:05:36
Yeah, what do you do with that?

James 1:05:37
So what we've actually done for the second edition, which is really interesting, it's not sorry it's not a second edition, it's the second printing, we're not changing anything other than this one feature of the game, is we put a little leaflet at the top of the box that basically gets players to choose whether they learn the tutorial or the rulebook, and encouraging them to basically pick the one that's going to suit them, depending on what learning kind of approach to learning games they like. So it basically says, on one side look, if you just want to unseal and play, you don't want to do any prep, you don't mind sitting there for for a while. And the first couple of turns are scripted. But you want to understand the game really well. If more of this tickles your fancy, then I think you should pick the tutorial. And then the other side says, Look, if you play loads of games, you quite enjoy reading rule books, you don't have any problem with it. And you don't mind if you get things wrong sometimes, then if more of these apply, I think you should pick the rulebook. And we recommend you don't use the tutorial, And I'm really interested to see. I mean, obviously, this is just our first attempt at doing some kind of like structured learning path thing where we get the players to pick one or the other. I interested to see what the effect of this is one is going to be it's with the sample size that we're going to have. It's not going to be like it's a scientific thing. But I'm hoping to get back some feedback that hopefully people will leave. Hopefully, if it works, people will say, Oh, this is pretty good, because it made sure that I picked it. And then there'll be happy with either approach because also the expectations of the approaches have been set better as well. Like the tutorial is except, the tutorial is better than me teaching magnate. Like honestly, the quality of learning people have gained superior, because it doesn't forget a single detail.

Nick Bentley 1:07:17
Yeah, I would like to see how you did it. If you, I don't know if you're willing to share files, but I would really like to see that.

James 1:07:22
Oh, yeah, totally. I will gladly, I think if it's not already up on BGG, it should be just as a free downloadable file. So I will absolutely share that with you. Because yeah, it's effectively a five player game, that you play the first like two turns of completely scripted. But it what it does is it kind of tutorializes things by getting you to play a quiz. So you you go through it says, right, based on what you know, what is that? Why, you know, how does this bit work? And then people have to decide as a group, and then they flip the next card to reveal what the answer is. So it becomes like a kind of like a because for me, it was like well, knowing I have worked a little bit in education and know making the process a more active learning process would a, be more engaging and b, would fix the knowledge much better. So it turns into a bit more of a mini game of itself, like and so people feel really good about it when you've seen them because like, oh, well, I think the correct number of dice if that we're going to roll is this based on that. And then they flip it and they see they're right. And I'm like, Oh great. Yeah, I understand the game because I predicted what was going to be the rule of how this rule applies. And I was right, and the game is giving me that feedback. And then what it does is it starts going right, well the next round, that's the fight that first round, the second round goes right, we're going to be a little bit more hands free. This time, we're going to tell you what your it's still scripted with what your actions are. But you just got one card that tells you what they are. And it does a little mock bidding round where the information is secret from each other. So you get a little bit of a simulation of a of an auction of a turn order auction.

Nick Bentley 1:08:48
Yeah. Huh. Fascinating,

James 1:08:50
Then it gets to finally right from this round onwards, you are doing it completely on your own flip the last couple of cards, when you come to the end with the bit you need to know about how the end works, that we're not gonna explain to you now and and then it does a little and then because it was running a little bit long. What it does. Now what it also does or has always done is you just basically rearrange the risk cards that trigger the crash and you change some of the board state stuffs to make sure that it speeds the game up. So you kind of catch up, again, to bring it in as little reasonable teaching game length. So that it was it was an enormous amount of work to make it work. But it was a very interesting process.

Nick Bentley 1:09:26
Okay, huh. And do you have you done a lot of blind play testing of this format to see, get a bead on how it's going to work?

James 1:09:36
Yeah, so it was very, it was so interesting over the it was actually in some ways, I think it was weirdly perfect timing for us strangely. So over the pandemic, obviously, we couldn't easily play tests in person with people. So what we did was we sent out again, and then what the people, people would do that lots of encrypted criticisms are so great and so helpful. There's different volunteers, is they would play magnate, we would have a webcam trained on them, and then we would watch them live trying to learn the tutorial from scratch.

Nick Bentley 1:10:04
Awesome. Yeah, yeah, that having that webcam. It's so important.

James 1:10:08
Yeah. Because it was like watching watching people's body language seeing who was engaged who wasn't as engaged, watching like them, like get things right. How long were they looking at some things? are they struggling with others like all of this? And we do that. So we do that loads and loads and loads of times, it was laborious as hell. But it did, it did mean that I think we ended up with something that I think is pretty good. And I do feel like the problem has primarily been about expectation setting for the tutorial, and about getting people and people doing the tutorial who shouldn't be doing the tutorial.

Nick Bentley 1:10:41

James 1:10:41
And I had underrated before we started how much it could piss people off.

Nick Bentley 1:10:46
Right? Yeah. You also, I mean, you're in a difficult spot, because your games are heavy enough that they're played by pretty seasoned and heavy gamers, you know? Yeah, I can see where there's cuz there's conflict there.

James 1:11:00
Like 100%. Like it was. It was it was challenging. And I think because, particularly because magnate is probably more medium weight than some of those gamers expect. I think that led them to choose the tutorial when they should have done because they just assumed it was going to be some super monster, that it's going to be from a complexity perspective and actually it lands somewhere in the middle.

Nick Bentley 1:11:26
That's awesome. Cool.

James 1:11:28
So is tutorialization, something that you're kind of looking at in your games?

Nick Bentley 1:11:31
Yeah, we're thinking about it, but we feel unsure about it. Because it's like, it's another sort of like pedagogical step, you have to get through until you get before you get to the point where you feel like you're really in the flow. And so our games are very light, none of our games have a weight of higher than, like, BGG. Two.

James 1:11:53
Right? Wow. So yeah, really quite light.

Nick Bentley 1:11:55
Very, very light. And so like that. Like, it's more like cognitive load, then it can't like justify its own cognitive load potentially. I don't know, I just don't know, I have to study it more. Also, talking, I think, also, you know, we get in the habit of talking about weight. But I think that might be like a mistake. I don't think weight is a thing, I think what is the thing is sort of the beat by beat experience that happens between opening the box and being fully into the game. And like every, every beat is its own thing and has to be considered as its own thing.

James 1:12:37
Oh, that's interesting. So you're looking at it much more from a kind of journey model, rather than a sort of like this thing is like binary, well, it's not binary. So it's not binary. But it's just this idea that it just has some kind of ineffable complexity level, that just is a certain hurdle to climb. When actually one of the things oh this is one of the fascinating things that I find is that I find actually, what we think about about how learnable something is, is so completely separate to weight in reality that that weight number can becomes meaningless, because well, there's things that magnet is currently rated something like 3.2 on BGG. And now I think number one, the problem is is that the BGG system, you can only vote it like the in the actual voting, you can only vote medium, medium, heavy, or like you can't, you're not allowed as an individual user to give it a more nuanced number, for example, which isn't, which is already not helpful for something that's not really a scale anyway, is the scale is already a poor model for the world. And then you have to put something super, super not nuanced. And that means that for example, magnate's got something like a 3.2. And yet actually that's like point one or point away from brass. And it's just not that heavy. It's it's the problem is is that in magnate, what we've noticed is it has a couple of like mechanics that are genuinely pretty unique to it. And that means that they are a little bit of a hurdle get your head around initially, it's great. This is this right? There is like some really heavy Euro games that basically have sort of 30 different mechanics that but they're all very familiar. And the way that they bisect is sometimes sometimes a bit odd. But it's broadly speaking, let's say as a worker placement game is quite fundamentally modular on some design level, because you're like, Well, I send a worker here. And then a thing happens with a card that's just like every other thing with a card game I've played. Or I go over here and I get a point on a track, but it's like a track I've seen before. Whereas magnates more like there's like two or three chunky systems that are quite unusual.

Nick Bentley 1:14:34
So no one has seen them before. And they have to familiarise themselves with them.

James 1:14:38
Yeah, and I want to get over those humps and actually the tutorial one the reasons I like the tutorial and I still think it's more of a question of refinement rather than ditching it is that it gets people over those humps pretty effectively from even if they're very casual gamers. It can take someone who isn't really, has only ever played Monopoly, and they can play the game competently and be strategizing by the end, that's what that tutorial can do. But what Once you get over the three, you understand the three chunky pieces you go oh! Okay? This is pretty straightforward. And I think that's partly the perception problem that the amongst the heavier gamers that we've had a little bit is that people go, Oh, well this is actually quite easy to do, because they're also looking back from now I've grokked these three systems, I'm looking back at it and going, this fundamentally isn't super complicated, because they're only seeing three systems, they're not seeing, like 50, different interlocking, but actually very familiar pieces. And I think that's another thing where it's like, what dimension is that? Like, that seems like a very different dimension, like how relatively complex individual, and really, actually that's about how relatively familiar individual mechanics are, versus than the amount of stuff you have to learn.

Nick Bentley 1:15:45
Right? It's not it's not just also about familiarity. It's also about, like, the visuals on the table, and how much the visuals allow you to sort of naturally infer what's going on

James 1:15:56
100%? Yeah.

Nick Bentley 1:15:58
Yeah. I talked to Phil Walker Harding once who's one of my sort of game design idols, and he's also a model at underdog for us. And so I'm in the habit of asking game designers like what are some heuristics design heuristics that are really, really important to you, you know, and, like the first one, he said, was, lay like, you should be able to set up the game on the table, and have players who don't know the rules make good educated guesses about how the game is played. So for this last game that we did her story, I was one of the designers on it. And I like I thought about that, like I tried to run with that idea so much for that game. And who is really fascinating. The game is definitely, definitely more intuitive than the other games that we've made in virtue of that constraint. May have overfit on that constraint? I don't know. But it definitely has influenced me a lot.

James 1:16:57
Oh, absolutely. Fascinating. Yeah. I mean, that's really interesting. Isn't it like? That is it's something that I feel like I've heard before. And yet I feel like it's very easy to forget. Because it what it means is that there's an instant weigh in, people are looking at that. And they're going, Oh, I kind of get how this works. And as long as it doesn't then just completely subvert their expectations. And then and then gives them like, oh, I can see what the mental model is, and oh, wait, no, this is something completely different. It doesn't do that, then then it's then that's, again, if you see, you're you're less bothered by like thinking that there's some abstract weight. And you instead say look, this is there's a learning journey here. That's like whoa actually it's probably about step three of the journey. But actually, it's because this because probably step one started when you first saw the box cover.

Nick Bentley 1:17:37
Yep. Right, there's like going back to this idea of beats, there's actually a ton of beats between opening the box, and being fully into the game. And unless you decompose that experience into those beats, you're gonna miss all kinds of critical things.

James 1:17:52
100% 100%. Nick, this has been absolutely fascinating. And I actually feel like we could talk for literal hours, and hours and hours more about this. I don't know about you. But

Nick Bentley 1:18:05

James 1:18:06
So what I would love to do at some point is definitely do a part two, and spend more time discuss these things, because there are loads of things we didn't get to. And some great listener questions this week, about distribution versus direct, which we touched on, I think a bit today. But I would love to spend more time talking to you about and really, really good.

Nick Bentley 1:18:23
Yeah, we didn't know, I know, we sort of plan to talk a lot about that. And then we didn't,

James 1:18:27
Yeah, we didn't. And we talked about your entire product delivery model instead, which was absolutely at least as fascinating as that. And then. And then also, I had some a really good questions about Board Game Arena as well, which is like an entire sphere that I've not even had a chance to talk about. And so some brilliant ones. And I want to make sure at some point, those listener questions get answered, because I think they're going to be really fascinating. So if you would certainly like to come back at that at some point. It'd be great.

Nick Bentley 1:18:54
I would love to yeah, this has been a great conversation. I, your podcast is very savvy, and I just love it.

James 1:19:01
Oh, thank you so much. That is absolutely what I wanted to hear. That's excellent. What things should we be looking out for from Underdog coming up soon? Obviously, we've talked about quite a bit about her story. Does that hit shelves quite soon. Or?

Nick Bentley 1:19:13
Actually this is a make or break year for us. This is probably the highest stakes year we've had yet. So most of our sales so far have come from just two games, trekking the national parks and trekking the world. And, you know, we've been we've been in existence for four years, and those have been our pillars. So we have two more ambitious games coming out this year. First, trekking through history, which is a game where you sort of get into a time machine and visit like remarkable events from history.

James 1:19:44
Oh, fantastic.

Nick Bentley 1:19:45
And then the next one is his her story, which is where you are, you are an acclaimed author, and you're writing a book about remarkable women of history.

James 1:19:55
Ah, so that's the framing you came up with in the end. That's really cool to hear that Yeah. Ah, amazing, fantastic. Well, I'm sure there'll be listeners will be looking out for that one. For both of those actually, they both sound really, really interesting, and I think, especially cool if they haven't learned a little bit about how they came about as well, which is really fun.

Nick Bentley 1:20:13
I do want to emphasise, though, because I'm sure a lot of your listeners are heavy gamers. These are what you would call gateway games, they're very light. You're if you're a heavy gamer, you're probably not going to take these to your, like, your gamer group to play, you know, with other heavy gamers. But you know, if you have family or friends, who aren't gamers who are intimidated by what you'd like you'd like. It's for that situation that we make these games.

James 1:20:37
Fantastic. Yeah, no, I'm sure. I think that sounds like very good advice really for that because as you said, I'm sure the audience does tend to skew quite heavy but I no doubt they'll also just be interested in sort of unpacking how they work, I guess and thinking more about your model.

Nick Bentley 1:20:49

James 1:20:50
Wonderful. Well, Nick, thank you so much.

Nick Bentley 1:20:52
Thank you.

James 1:21:02
Producing fun is produced by Naylor Games, if you enjoyed the show, follow us on Spotify, Stitcher, or other major podcasting platforms. Remember, producing fun is also a product and it thrives on feedback. So please leave a review wherever possible, or simply send me your feedback directly. You can message me on Twitter and Naylor James or write me an email James at Naylor Until next time.

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