Game Designing and Publishing: The Game Industry

I know a few of ya’ll have done some game design and several more have expressed interest in it. So, I figured I’d chat a bit about how the game industry works, and how a game gets published. This’ll be a light summary, so the more experienced designers are likely already familiar with the content, and comments providing additional info are certainly welcome. ¬†Most board/card/rpg games share production and distribution channels to an extent, though of course, some companies only focus on a subset of the hobby game market.

First up is the designing and creating of the game itself. This can be quite lengthy, as generally rounds of playtesting and revising are required. It’s generally considered to be a good idea to get in at least one “blind playtest”, in which others play the game without you explaining it to them or answering rules questions. At this stage, fairly rough prototypes are acceptable, as you’ll be swapping out components to test new rules pretty frequently anyway. Many traps exist within the design process, and while I can’t cover them all in this summary, it’s best to play a wide variety of games to get a better feel for what’s a solid idea and what might lead to problems.

Once the designer has the rules down solidly, and playtesters are generally satisfied with the experience, the designer typically makes a decently presentable prototype. Not necessarily professional grade, but at least filler art and such. Brief descriptions or summary sheets are written, and the game is shopped around to publishers, either by mail or at a convention, usually. This process is somewhat akin to getting a novel published, and rejections and delays are quite common, even for quite good games. Most hobby game companies only put out a handful of new games a year, and the bigger ones(Hasbro, etc) are very difficult for a new designer to get in touch with, so this stage presents many difficulties. A designer should ensure that a smooth, quick pitch is available to describe the game, and that the prototype allows for a quick demonstration of the games strengths.

If accepted by a publisher, there will typically be some changes to the game. Perhaps the theme will be changed to better fit the publishers needs. Unique, professional art is usually commissioned, and tweaks to rules and other information may be requested. Typically, designer and publisher work together to adapt the game to fit the current market. If the resulting work looks good and the market hasn’t changed, the next step is publishing.

The actual production of a game is often outsourced. Wizards doesn’t actually have a pile of printers in the back office making magic cards, they outsource massive runs at a factory that produces huge quantities of all kinds of cards. Board, etc games do smaller runs. Making the tooling is a fairly large flat cost for game production, so generally, large runs result in a more affordable game. This is one of the biggest reasons why the generic games found in Walmart tend to cost less than more specialized, hobby games. Many niche hobby games are done in fairly modest print runs of 1,500 to 3,000 copies. Manufacturing happens in many companies, but both China and Germany are quite common. There’s an excellent youtube video from Ludofact¬†showing how games get made.

After creation, board games are shipped, either back to the publisher, and from there, to the distributors, or direct to distribution channels. Publishers don’t normally ship games to the consumer or local game store, as they work on the pallet/cargo container level, so the distributor handles storage of the games, and breaks them into more manageable volumes. Alliance has a warehouse here in Baltimore, and it’s quite the sight, with games in vast piles in every hall, and a steady stream of games leaving to game stores everywhere. To get an idea of the quantity, a pallet of games is roughly 300-600, usually, depending on box size, so an order of 3,000 board games could easily be ten pallets….roughly a third of a cargo container.

The local game shop orders also order games in quantity, but usually in a wide variety, as the hobby game market is quite large. In a typical month, I review over 3,000 games to determine what I’m going to stock in the shop. Most game stores will have a good selection of the more popular hobby games, but many also branch out to offer more unusual selection, and cycle new games in to offer a broader choice, as well as offering special orders for anything not currently stocked. A few games are also sold online, either direct from the publisher or from online retailers, and a few are also sold at conventions(releases are often timed to coincide with Gencon), but the local store is where the bulk of the games go through.

Lastly, they get to the gamer, who determines popularity of the game. This can be incredibly variable, as when a hit gets discovered, gamers are quick to tell their friends, and thus, a surprise hit can go from discovery to sold out almost overnight. Some of the most popular hobby games will go back to the designer for variant games or expansions…expansions seem to have become more popular in recent years, with a wide variety of them appearing for many popular board and card games. Some games enjoy only limited success and vanish after a few years, but some drift into the mainstream market(Apples to Apples, Catan), and some become staples of the hobby game store, being reprinted over and over again.

Cheers to all, and if you wish to get a game published, I wish you the best of luck!

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