Producing Fun #3: Paul Brook and Liam Kirkman – Startup Publishers

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

Paul and Liam run East Street Games –  A UK tabletop game publishing startup. In this episode we discuss the financial costs of game complexity, the personal costs of game development, developing and marketing games under pandemic restrictions and accidentally offending eurogamers. Lastly, they reveal their three most important pieces of advice for anyone looking to publish games. 

Listen on podcasting platforms: https://anchor.fm/naylorgames

Listen on Youtube:

Their links:

Website/Store: https://www.eaststreetgames.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EastStreetGames

Twitter: https://twitter.com/GamesEastStreet

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/eaststreetgames/

What do developers do?

The Magnate Kickstarter is still in full swing and is very close to raising $50,000 with about 5 days to go. In this post, Jaya Baldwin takes over the reins and writes about what Developers do – one of the most poorly understood roles in the game world. 

Wherever you see the game Magnate, you inevitably see the name James Naylor. He’s the game’s designer (and an all round great guy[James didn’t edit this bit in*]) so it makes sense. The name you’re less likely to see is mine, Jaya Baldwin, the game’s lead developer. There are obvious reasons for that, that’s the case with most media really, you can probably name the main actor in your favourite films; maybe even the director. But try to name the editor or the director of photography and you may struggle. It’s not too hard to imagine a game designer and the work they might do but try the same thing with a developer and it gets a bit blurrier. Hopefully this article will shine a bit of light on the enigmatic role of a developer by exploring some of my own experience working on Magnate with James.

If a game designer is responsible for the overall vision, design goals and fundamental mechanics of a game, the developer is there help refine and polish that vision. Where a designer might think in broad strokes, a developer will be looking more closely at some of the little details. That description is at least a rough overview of the role. In reality though there is a lot more overlap between the two. The following is a list of some of the core ways in which a developer can help a designer:

A developer can act as a sounding board and a trusted source of immediate feedback

Sometimes a design process can be greatly accelerated just by simply having someone to speak ideas aloud to. It’s an opportunity for the designer to hear their own thoughts and think them through. But of course a developer can do more than just listen, they can respond too. Ideas can be explored and discussed at twice the speed, which means the bad ones are filtered out and the good ones get found faster and then built upon. A designer working alone wouldn’t be able to necessarily verify if something definitely worked or not until someone else tested it. It is very common for James and I to get too carried away here and go down a rabbit hole of fascinating game design ideas until we realise we’ve become completely distracted from the more specific task we had set out to do!

A developer can be a player

This point is as simple as it sounds. For a designer, having someone around that can actually playtest the game with them at any time speeds things up significantly. There are always little hidden problems to ideas that you can’t necessarily see when you’re discussing them academically. Yet playing even just a few turns with a new rule or mechanic can often reveal said problems allowing the team to iterate and move forward. It is also the best opportunity to put oneself in the shoes of the customer. For example, I once lost an early game of Magnate because of a long series of statistically unlucky ‘attract tenant’ rolls. There was an advertising option in the game that could help me manipulate the odds to some degree but it wasn’t very efficient and even then could have still failed. I felt frustrated and like it made some of my decisions irrelevant. Obviously Magnate was not designed to make people feel bad, the dice element of the game is supposed to introduce risk calculation and playing the odds, not blind luck. So we revised the mechanic so that each payer started the game with advertising tokens that could rig your dice rolls completely if spent in advance. This kept all the joys that came with calculating risk assessment and chance while removing the emotional sting brought on by bad luck. The players were now choosing which of their rolls they were willing to take more of a risk on and which ones they wanted more assurance on. This meant when plans went awry, it was more a consequence of their choice, rather than just bad luck. Without being James and I being able to play the game as readily and as often as we have, we wouldn’t have had anywhere near as good an insight into the play experience and Magnate is much stronger for it.

A developer can kill your darlings

Sometimes a fresh set of eyes or even just an outside perspective can help a designer to question elements of their project that they had previously deemed completely finished or immovable. A good example of this in Magnate is that during setup, industry tenants were placed on the neighbourhood tiles rather than the city centre. James had done this because thematically and aesthetically, it makes more sense to have a town’s industry further out. There were some problems that came up as a result of that decision though, it made the setup slightly longer, limited the number of different layouts the neighbourhoods could take and very occasionally created situations where it became impossible to attract tenants. The aesthetic and thematic gain were in line with the design goals, but baggier setup and decisions that could leave players trapped were not. Shortly after I joined the project I asked why the industry wasn’t in the centre with all the other starting tenants for the reasons stated above: It turns out James had designed it that way originally because he liked the theme much more and hadn’t questioned it since. At that point, after some mutual wincing and sadness at the slight hit to aesthetics, we both decided that this wasn’t a good enough reason to keep it that way. Thanks to my question, James realised however much of a wrench it was, it was absolutely the right decision. We made the change and the player experience was  improved as a result.

A developer can design too

Some of the earlier examples already hint at this but sometimes if a mechanic or game element just isn’t quite working, a developer can propose a new mechanic or idea that could work instead. They still adhere to the overall effect desired by the designer but they use their own design skills in the creation of an alternative. For example with Magnate, the design for the crash system used to be determined via dice that were generated and lost each round. This generally worked well but could occasionally cause the game to end either too predictably or too unexpectedly. I proposed an alternative involving a deck of cards that involved shuffling steeper crashes in as time went by. We workshopped it for a bit, tested it and it had some of its own problems. James then proposed we split it into 2 decks and remove the shuffling element… the process went on through many iterations until we eventually landed on the crash system we use today. James came up with the very first idea, but after that our roles were very similar, bouncing off each other’s ideas and designing or developing as required till the mechanic served the purpose of the design goal we wanted.

Final thoughts

So that’s just a few ways in which my role as a developer has bolstered Magnate and, indeed, just an outline of the many things a developer can add to a designer’s creation process. There’s plenty more to be said than can possibly fit into one article. However, if you’re left with more burning questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Just let me know in the comments!

My Kickstarter Diary – Day 13: ARRGGGH SO. MUCH. ADMIN. Why does my game generate so much of it?!

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…

Image: paperwork by Camilo Rueda López

My Kickstarter Diary – Day 3: How much time is this going to cost me?

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… read on if you dare. 

Am I burying the lede? I’ll leave it up to you to decide!

For the last couple of days I’ve been spending lots of time and effort preparing for and attending critical meetings for the job that actually pays the bills: my work as a contractor consulting on the product & engineering strategy of software businesses. The company I’m working with today is pretty interesting: it uses distributed ledger technology, to promote transparency and trust in advertising. Working for them is really interesting and if they succeed, they will actually make online advertising a better place! So for me, there’s actually a great mission there too.

But as good as that all is (not just because it gives me the resources that I need to, you know – continue to live), it doesn’t come at the best possible time for Magnate. There’s still so much to do. So very many things I want to do to make the project as successful as it can be, even in this last month when the game itself is substantively done. As I said before, this is 19 months after I decided to self publish. I really didn’t plan to still be doing things with this degree of intensity at this point, but – lo and behold, here we are.

Why so loooooooong James?

I will say now, I don’t think its because I am absolutely terrible at this publishing thing. It is true to say that I am doing many things for the first time, which means I am learning a lot and taking 3x longer to do those things as a result. But it is also true to say that I started this journey with a few advantages: I know a lot about product management, I’ve run a couple of businesses before and I’ve played a lot of games (though this is likely the least important of those three!).

It’s because boardgames are expensive to make in a different way than you might think – and certainly different to what I expected.

In pure financial expenditure terms, boardgames have an incredibly low barrier to entry. It’s very possible to run a Kickstarter campaign for a few hundred pounds. If you use only free social media to market your game, attend only the most affordable conventions in the most affordable way and do your own art, there aren’t really any other substantial costs you absolutely need to pay for. Successful indie publishers like Bez have proven that it’s not only 100% possible to make a game on a very small budget but that much bigger things can follow. This is great because it puts publishing games within the financial reach of most people.

I knew before I started that launching a game would be way less expensive than a typical software product. But I was still very surprised just how cheap it could be talking to other creators.

But in time terms, boardgames are normally mammoth commitments. The minimum time involved in even relatively simple games is substantial. And, as you would expect to be, the less money you spend, the worse that generally gets because you can’t afford to just pay people to solve problems for you.

To take even a simple project from initial idea to finished project being shipped to backers or sold to customers requires considerable investment of labour and intellectual capital. The initial design process alone can easily take a first time game creator years of creative pondering, note-taking, informal playtesting with friends and colleagues. And this is before a game is ready to be “tested to destruction” by an army of punters and publisher appointed developers, themselves each sometimes playing entire long games several times. The publishing process (any development time aside) requires even more time, as art is carefully briefed, developed and the impact of changes to gameplay subtly interplay with graphic design. There’s financial planning, working closely with manufacturers to create a finely tuned budget. There is marketing to be done – the publisher’s biggest responsibility of all. For a small company, that means lots of attending conventions, events, building relationships and repping your game to the point people are almost sick of you. Lastly, all of this has to be project managed. And I can tell you now there are a million more tiny tasks that grow-up around these major responsibilities that will need to be seen to. Things you cannot even begin to imagine before you start.

I speculate that if the upfront investment of all of this time to all be priced even at minimum wage, it would blow the other line items in a low-cost project’s budget out of the water. Use some kind of potential earnings as your pricing method instead and… many people will not want to know what number actually is.

The implications of this invisible unpaid work for the whole games industry are way too complex to unpick in this post. But I will speculate that it really represents a hidden barrier to entry that monetary cost is not. If you have a very simple card game to take to market, you might be able to find time to launch it around all of life’s other commitments without major sacrifices if you’re really organised. But if you plan to take a mechanically innovative heavy euro to market, I can’t see how it could be done without taking a lot of hits, access to absolutely mad stacks of capital or having a lever like mine: The fact I don’t want work a regular job and can control my hours. Maybe Jamey Stegmaier can do it. But the man is a living legend.

To be fair, this is exactly why publishers exist. I think this is why many people sensibly and rationally choose this route to getting their game made, even if it means a lot of meetings, disappointments and pounding the pavement. Even with all of that to put up with, its a fraction of the work.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try self-publish your mechanically innovative, physically ambitious, down-right ‘offputtingly’ themed heavy euro? No! If you choose this reckless path, I will positively welcome you to the club of unhinged self publishers with wide open arms. Just be hinged enough to think seriously about how you’re going to find the time to do it justice.

Header image: “Time is Money” by Tax Credits