Monday, June 30, 2008

General Gaming Rant - Biting the Hand That Feeds Me

I have a theory that I like to call the 80% rule. The theory is, 80% of everything is crap. Pick any sample group, and 80% is worthless. It's not a hard and fast rule - I would say that more than 80% of humans are worthless, but less than 80% of workers in overseas relief charities are time-sucking wastes of space. But the general rule applies - for any random sampling of anything, most of it sucks.

That rule applies to board games, too. Specifically, it applies to publishers. I have many complaints about the people who make games, and while not every complaint applies to every publisher, I tend to think there are more companies that suck than don't.

My first general complaint is probably the most obvious - crappy games. Seriously, why don't these people run these games through some testing? Ask some gamers, for crying out loud. You know, some easy questionnaires, with questions like:

Should we make a game with really boring art and practically no rules?
Should we make this game that is all luck and has no real purpose?
Should we make the figures for this miniatures game twice the size of every other miniature you could buy?

They could ask me. I would tell them. Where are the testers for these things? It's like on American Idol, where the worst singers in the world audition and then leave crying, saying how the three industry professionals who have been in music for decades don't know anything about music. Someone, somewhere should have said, 'no, Emma Jean, don't go on American Idol. You suck. Stick with macramé.' But even if someone had been honest enough to tell poor Emma Jean that she sounds like a dying meerkat, she would have gone on the show anyway. Which is great for me - I love to laugh at the freak show. But it's not so great for publishers, who end up making crap because their mothers told them they were handsome games.

Of course, part of the reason these publishers make crappy games is that the market is so small. New games make most of their money in the first few months, so every month or so, a game company is going to need a new game to sell. If you look at some of the really big companies, they publish, on average, one new game a month. Without a lot of foresight and some really rigorous testing, that means some crap is going to get squeezed out (yeah, that slightly gross bit of wordplay was intentional).

But I'm not particularly sympathetic to the rush-to-publish problem. You don't have to release a game before it's ready, and it's not like the FBI will raid your office if you decide that a game sucks and pull the plug on it. There are some really obvious examples out there of games that were destined to fail before they ever printed up a copy of the rules, and just slowing down might do a world of good. Focus on quality over quantity, and make gamers trust you. If you get bad reviews and sales in the toilet, you've got nobody to blame but yourself.

Another problem I see in publishers is small minds. Everyone plays games, and if game companies would admit that they have a market beyond the cave-nerd who dresses up as Gandalf for GenCon, they could sell their games in Target and make millions. It's nearly impossible to find someone who hasn't played Monopoly, or who doesn't know the rules to at least three different card games. Gamers are out there, and assuming that the public at large is not a viable target audience is a good way to make sure you never get any bigger.

Not every company suffers from this problem, of course. Hasbro and Out of the Box are two that spring to mind - their games are on the shelves at Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, making them far more successful and frankly, the giants in the industry (well, not Out of the Box, but they are pretty damned huge). I'm not saying I don't want to see hobby games at specialty stores - you can't really sell AT-43 at K-Mart (you don't want to scare Martha Stewart, or she'll shiv you) - but most Euro games could draw consumers like flies on turds if they were on the shelves at your local megamart.

And speaking of small minds, allow me to lodge a personal complaint - failure to take advantage of media outlets. By which I mean 'not enough review copies', which is obviously a self-serving complaint, but I maintain it is still accurate. There are big companies out there who never, ever send games to online reviewers. Well, let me tell you something - when Wolf Blitzer has a blog, the Internet is a big player. Not to ruin your world scheme, Mister Small-Time Publisher, but if people don't read about your games on the ol' Interweb, they may not read about them at all. I'm not suggesting you send free games to every yahoo who ever started a gaming blog, but it's not hard to tell which reviewers are going to be worth the postage. I think when a reviewer has more than 50 reviews under his belt, he may just know what he's doing.

And while I'm nitpicking about review copies, let me just say that giving a reviewer a free game does not mean he's obligated to say nice things about it. If your game sucks and a reviewer tells you so, you should be glad he bothered to write about it at all. Lots of publishers get this, but way too many don't. Say something honest about a horrible game, and a publisher will cut you off so fast your head spins. Now THAT is small-minded.

My final complaint dovetails into the small minded complaint, and has to do with poor accessibility. Part of the reason the market is so small is because these friggin' games are hard to play. Battlelore is an awesome game, but the rules are 80 pages long! You'll never get a casual gamer to read a tome that thick! But they'll play Stratego, because the rules can be printed on the inside of the box lid. The desire to play is there, but most people don't want to wade through a dissertation to try a game.

And the themes don't help, either. Monopoly has the easiest theme ever - Wall Street. So why, when a game could have rules just as easy to follow, would you make the theme ancient Egyptian tea gardens? Again, I'm not saying I want these rules applied across the board, but it might be nice if publishers started assuming that normal people might want to give these games a shot. I can look around my office and see dozens of games that could have been marketed to a bigger crowd, if they had just done different art and a different theme. Sure, your game might appeal better to the pimply nerd if it has dragons and vampires, but you might be able to sell it at Target if you could tone it down a little.

I guess, all things considered, publishers do the best they can. I think they make bad decisions just as often as anyone else, and they tend to assume they're part of a teeny tiny market when they're the only ones who could change it, but they do make games. And without them, I would have to write about the exciting world of corrugated recycling, so I probably shouldn't complain too loudly. Not that self preservation has ever stopped me from speaking my mind.


Marion Jensen said...

Matt, I just found your blog, and love it. I thought I would add my 2 cents about the whole distribution through Target and Wal-Mart.

I'm an author, and am reminded of the time when I was talking to a lady about how it was hard to get word out about my book. She said, "Well, why don't you just get on Oprah? She can help get the word out."

I wanted to say, "Oh, yeah, maybe I should return Oprah's calls...". I would love to have my book featured on Oprah, as would every single other author on the planet.

I don't think these publishers have turned down the opportunity to be in Wal-Mart or Target. I bet they are dying to get their games distributed through the big box retail stores, but to do so is incredibly difficult. If you want your game to be successful, you have to have distribution, but these stores only have so much space, and a lot of time they are not willing to take a chance. Look at Settlers or Puerto Rico. Incredibly popular games, and you can't find them at the big box stores. If they can't get there, how can a smaller publisher hope to?

Matt Drake said...

Man, I would love to get a Drake's Flames plug on Oprah. Fantasy Flight would have to send me games then!

You're right - many publishers would love to be in K-Mart. But my point is, if Apples to Apples can get in Target, and Heroscape can get in Target, there's no reason Settlers shouldn't be in Target. I recognize that Mayfair would probably jump at the chance, but simply being willing is not enough to make it happen. You have to A) assume that you're big enough and B) make it happen. If the guys at Cranium can get in there, it's certainly possible for Rio Grande and Mayfair. They just need to rethink what they're doing now. They need to think and act bigger.

For instance, not many people know this, but Hasbro uses a PR firm. Yeah, they're the big fish, so they can afford it, but if Days of Wonder hired a PR firm, they could be in Target. Same with Mayfair or Rio Grande.

Truth said...

Preach it brother! I'm loving this whole movement in the online board game reporting media and hope whole heartedly that it spreads.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention Reiner Knizia when you started talking about churning out games just to be putting out a new game. Seems like he's a pretty spot on example.

Impact! Miniatures said...

Reading this Matt actually made me feel good.

We've so far only released rules for 2 board games in 2 1/2 years as a company and when we did release our biggest one we sat down with the folks that DIDN'T like our game and released a new version a few month later to fix those issues.

And yeah ... I'd love to sell in Wal-Mart (especially since my game is over MUCH faster than Risk and Monopoly). ;-)