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Why Virtual Tabletop Conventions Fail, and How Organizers Can Fix It

Nine months into the pandemic, major tabletop convention organizers — the Gen Cons and PAXes of the world — have failed to bring their events online in a way that approximates their real-world magnificence.

The challenge is monumental, and there’s only so much point in criticizing the moon for being far away. But in scrambling to make their events happen, organizers haven’t taken enough time to think through what’s critical about the experience they provide. The result is that they’ve mostly rushed to adapt each individual event to the online environment, and conducted this process en masse. But in tackling virtual adaptations individually, they haven’t taken into account the key factors that unite those events and spaces into a convention. And so they’ve left behind what it is about those assemblages that almost compels people to love them.

Conventions are Control

A key service — maybe the key service — a convention provides is to isolate you from your regular daily obligations. Not only that, but to make it socially appropriate for you to set those obligations aside for the duration of the con. A convention’s programming is secondary to the freeing permission it bestows.

Why would we value this so highly? Because the most devilish conundrum of most gamers in their working lives is not their work itself, but how to organize and prioritize it. Most folks are trained for, talented at, and interested in the substance of their work. Conversely, almost no one is formally taught to mindfully structure their tasks, to set and revise their priorities, and to actively burn down the distractions that are everywhere and always all around us. Most days, it would be better to make progress on the right thing than to entirely finish the wrong thing. And yet most days, many of us get this calculus wrong.

The fact that we all burn so many brain-cycles trying to simply figure out what to do with each moment of our days helps explain the subconscious attraction of conventions. The spaces and times within the boundaries of the con experience — the airplane, the hotel room, the convention center, the events, the games, the meetings — are spaces and times where not only are your priorities exceedingly clear, it seems irresponsible not to give in wholly to their demands. You spent $500 on a plane ticket. What fool would answer emails, draft marketing copy, or re-write a rulebook instead of networking, taking meetings, playing prototypes, or standing in the exhibit hall booth or hotel bar awaiting the next serendipitous meeting? Not to mention that so many distractions become flat impossible the moment you close the door to home behind you. You can’t very well mow the lawn or put the kids to bed when you’re not even at home. And it feels good to have the sense that you’re doing the right thing, and to have your immediate physical tabletop game convention world support the idea everywhere you look.

General-interst virtual conventions can’t provide this visceral detachment from your thrice-accursed to-do list, and they can’t give you meaningful cover from your other obligations. Or, at least none seem to have figured it out yet, although some more focused events — pervasive online LARPs, particularly — seem to be making progress.

Can virtual events do something, anything, to address this issue? Probably! For one thing, they could be extremely clear in defining the blocks of time they’re laying claim to. Gen Con is the best four days in gaming, but simply listing the days on which a virtual convention takes place is suddenly and surprisingly insufficient, because car trips and airplane tickets aren’t there to do the physical work they’ve been quietly doing all these years to concretely mark the beginning and ending of the convention experience.

The conventions that have charged for event tickets have also made progress on this front. When one spends money, one blocks the time to defend the investment.

Virtual events could also aim to be very circumspect about the blocks of time they ask for. It’s easier to ask a con-at-homer to set aside five hours than five days.

Virtual conventions should take mindful pains to help guide people through the logistics of blocking off and defending their con time. This could be as modest as simply asking people to think ahead about it. Vrbo emailed me a ten-item list of things I should do before I leave home this coming Sunday; a convention could do something similar. (“We see you’re planning to attend our worldbuilding panel at 5:00p Central tomorrow! Did you mark yourself busy on your work calendar? Is your Zoom install up to date? Are your earbuds charged? What will your kids be up to?”)

Conventions could, with thought and resources, go further. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to generate calendar invites for convention events, as just one very low-hanging example.

In a conversation where I proposed this theory about how conventions mostly serve to block time, a number of folks mentioned that their number-one convention love is the serendipitous opportunities that cons provide to meet people. And yes! Conventions are like slot machines of social interaction. Bored? Head to the hotel lobby and spin the reels again! You can meet tons of new folks and run into old friends and acquaintances in a constant cycle.

This is also blocking time. The con has cleared everyone’s schedule and made it appropriate to spend 20 minutes chatting with the folks that run the game store in Cambridge (instead of shoveling the driveway), or an hour having dinner on three minutes’ notice with friends-of-friends you just met (instead of working out). These things tend not to happen in our everyday lives because our everyday lives are packed.

Less Impossible, Still Difficult

It may simply be impossible for online conventions to effectively command their attendees’ time. But two other key features of traditional conventions are also crucial to their success. (And neither one of these is programming, either.) While these qualities are also difficult to bring online, they are less flat-out impossible. Even so, they won’t appear by accident, so tackling them proactively is the challenge for tabletop con organizers.

The Power of Moments is an insightful and useful book by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s devoted to explaining why certain experiences have outsized impact in our lives.

The book offers four reasons that certain experiences are impactful. The two that I think are relevant here are elevation and connection.

  • Elevation. Impactful events transcend our everyday lives in ways that are concrete and obvious. Super Bowls, job promotions, moving to a new apartment, going to Essen.
  • Connection. Impactful events are social, accumulating importance because they’re shared with others. High school and college graduations, wedding receptions, family vacations, years-long D&D campaigns.

Of course there were balloons at Gen Con’s 40th anniversary. Photo by Christine Garrison (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

By these measures, virtual conventions are relatively sad reflections of the real deal. They don’t transcend everyday life because they happen in the exact same places, and they use the exact same tools, as everyday life. Although it might be possible to craft a socially connected virtual convention experience, I don’t feel like anyone has figured it out yet. While everyone’s copious experience with social media and playing MMORPGs demonstrates that it’s possible to create social connections virtually, those examples don’t create connection at the fast-forward, four-day speed of a con. Certainly not in a way that doesn’t boil down to a more frustrating version of the platforms that were available before the convention started, will be available the entire time it’s running, and will continue to be available after it’s over. (“Come meet people at our virtual convention! It’s like Facebook, except you start over with no friends!” Sad trombone.)

To succeed at virtual convention organizing, teams must give as much or more thought to elevating the experience and connecting attendees (quickly! In functional and meaningful ways!) as they do to adapting their programming. Virtual spaces can (must!) be crafted with intention to work well. The default installation of any given piece of software is probably not the best one for every — or any — event.

Split Off and Focus to Expand

One mistake, I fear, has been the idea of taking a whole convention’s slate of business and nonsense online, altogether, all at once. The key problem with a digital platform that invites everyone to do everything — the way Gen Con successfully invites everyone and does everything in the real world — is that that already exists in the digital world. It’s called Facebook, it never goes to bed, and it has an overwhelming advantage of money and momentum over even the mightiest conceivable virtual convention.

The answer is to stop fighting Facebook, spin 180 degrees, and tailor the virtual event so narrowly that two things happen:

  1. Only a very small number of people care about it, and
  2. Every single one of them would rather die than miss it.

Not an online game convention. Not even an online roleplaying convention. An online event for fans of Rolemaster. (And maybe not even every Rolemaster fan — maybe only fans of the third edition need apply.)

Not an online distributor open house. Not even an open house for stores that sell Magic: The Gathering. Perhaps an online event for stores that need to figure out how to right-size their CCG singles inventory by the end of December.

Dog in Gandalf cosplay.

Not an online costume contest. An online costume contest for dogs dressed up as Gandalf.

That is: The road to success may lie in cutting discrete events out of the whole, and then hyper-focusing them in order to expand their (sub)audiences. In doing that, organizers ask less of those folks while simultaneously getting them extremely excited about the things they love the most.

More focused events have additional advantages for organizers in that they are less likely to require expensive or bespoke web platforms. They can use Slack, Discord, Zoom, Eventbrite, Shopify, and a hundred other existing pieces of Internet infrastructure instead of requiring the mass adoption of some ConventionOS that’s trying to be all things to all people while it tries to run equally inside every desktop and mobile web browser in the world. (Yuck!)

Smart organizers would figure out which synergies apply best to categories of focused events. Each individual event would absolutely require its own domain-obsessed shepherd in any case, but the wider administrivia and infrastructure are probably more universal, and might work for multiple events, whether parallel in time or spread over a longer period.

A few months ago, I attended a game design speed pitching event called NonePub. It’s a perfect example of what I’m proposing here. If you’ve never been to an event like this, it’s sort of a sales festival where a dozen or so designers pitch their games to a dozen or so publishers, in a series of one-on-one meetings, each lasting five or ten minutes, over the course of about two hours. Speed dating, but for designers and publishers instead of lovers.

NonePub was such a dramatically better experience than any similar in-person event I’ve ever been to that I never need to go to an in-person pitch event ever again. In fact, the next time we have Gen Con in person — which I am really, really looking forward to — it will be a better convention if its speed pitching event takes place online instead of in person, on some weekend that is completely different from the main con’s “best four days in gaming.”

Why was NonePub better online? I’ll unpack it.

Many in-person conventions have speed pitching events. But the only reason these events need to take place at conventions is that conventions are the places where the relatively small number of people who want to attend events like this find themselves.

Other than the people all being there, conventions are not good places for these events. At in-person speed pitching events, publishers are traditionally exhausted from the get-go. Most stood in a booth all day, rushed to dinner (which might have also been a meeting), and then rushed to the pitch event. There, they were called on to focus, quickly understanding and then also commercially evaluating the intricacies of a dozen different game designs, one after the other. Conversely, at NonePub, I had a regular day, ate dinner at home, and logged onto Discord in the evening to do that stuff.

Nor are the physical settings for the in-person pitch events great. They take place in hotel ballrooms at infinite rows of rectangular tables. Everyone’s talking at once, so it’s hard to hear, and hard on your voice. Each time however-many minutes have passed, the publishers get up and move to the next table, and the designers frantically reset their prototypes for the next pitch. Conversely, at NonePub, rather than physical prototypes, designers screen-shared digital versions, mostly using Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia. They could reset presentations with a click; instantly load starting, mid-game, and endgame game-states to answer questions; and even switch to pitching completely different designs without having to clear the table and reset a different physical prototype. It was great.

Of further benefit: There were designers (and publishers) from everywhere. Not everyone can travel to an in-person event. It takes time, means, and mobility. These limits were dramatically reduced at NonePub compared to similar events embedded at Origins, GAMA Expo, and Gen Con. It’s easier to move electrons than humans.

One Thousand Possible Futures

General-intrest virtual tabletop conventions have not succeeded. At least, not by any measure I’d feel good about as an attendee, organizer, or investor.

The good news is that the online environment calls for something different. Truth be told, it calls for something simpler. Or, rather, a thousand somethings simpler. Or ten thousand.

In this environment, it won’t be as easy for the existing players to rake in the pots of cash they’re accustomed to making. Let a field of single-tear emoji bloom, and let mine be the first: 😢.

What we’ll get, instead, is the chance to meet up, for an hour or two, with the two-dozen other folks from across the world who wore out their own copies of Arms Law in the early ‘90s, or who want to play a LARP created by their very favorite designer, or who are desperate to learn how to deal with VAT while fulfilling their Kickstarters. I’ll attend them all, if someone can just help me get my to-do list under control.

Thanks to Jason Morningstar and Seppy Yoon for their valuable insights on earlier drafts of this article, which helped me improve it a great deal. Message bubbles graphic template designed by Freepik.


Me @ Tabletop Wire Podcast

Not everything about the Covid-times is terrible: Tabletop Wire recently launched a new podcast.

If you’re a podcast-listening human, check it out. Host Andrew Long and I talk about the pandemic, the history of Atlas Games, the wisdom of financial conservatism in publishing, whether it makes any sense to become a screenwriter, how GAMA’s doing, and more.

Me @ CreativeMornings/MSP

In April I gave a mini-talk at the Minneapolis chapter of CreativeMornings, where I evangelized about the magnificence of tabletop gaming, talked about how gaming is inherently creative, and shared the idea that Ernie and Bert can help us understand what’s happening when we try to make games. Have a look!

It Is Wise for GAMA to Seek a New Executive Director

I was elected to the board of directors of the Game Manufacturers Association about 14 months ago. I’ve been a fan of the organization for longer than that, and have been attending its conventions — the GAMA Trade Show and Origins — for the last 20 years.

From time to time, I had been publicly critical of this or that bit of GAMA logistics or execution, and a few voices suggested that if these things concerned me, I should get involved. So, I ran for the board.

What I Think GAMA Is For

For many, GAMA is synonymous with the GAMA Trade Show and with Origins. For them, the organization maps directly and entirely to putting on those two shows.

However, GAMA is much broader than that. GAMA has a clear and written mission, purpose, and vision. They’re publicly accessible on the front page of All three were updated by a special committee in 2016, and those revisions ratified by a vote of the members, so these are not irrelevant, unexamined statements from the before-times. They reflect recent thought, and the organization’s active assent.

GAMA’s purpose is its reason for being. It serves the hobby games industry in three ways:

  • Advancing its members’ interests
  • Providing educational programs and opportunities
  • Promoting our unique form of quality social entertainment

GAMA’s mission is its ambition for action. Under the umbrella of being an essential nexus for new and experienced game industry professionals, it aims to:

  • Increase adoption of and engagement with hobby games
  • Foster networking
  • Foster sharing of best practices and innovations
  • Pool resources toward common goals
  • Host trade and consumer shows
  • Host industry events
  • Provide an information and resource hub
  • Carry out marketing activities
  • Interface with other trade organizations in adjoining industries

GAMA’s vision is the world it imagines. It’s short and to the point:

  • A game on every table, a table for every gamer.

That’s my essential preamble, what informs my opinions at the bottom of it all.

My Vision for GAMA

There are 13 bullet points above, between GAMA’s mission, purpose, and vision. I believe GAMA currently does perhaps two or three of those items to a level of quality. However, I think they’re all important, and I think they’re all things that GAMA’s members deserve.

I’ll suggest a few example of how I think those bullet points might be made concrete:

  • I’d like to see the presentations from the GAMA Trade Show video-recorded and made available on the web to the membership.
  • I’d like to see GAMA provide sample contracts to its members for things like art, design, copywriting, and editorial services.
  • I’d like to see GAMA provide a sample code of conduct for conventions.
  • I’d like to see GAMA make available a code of professional conduct for game professionals.
  • I’d like to see GAMA promote worldwide events for gamers, in conjunction with our retail membership.
  • I’d like to see GAMA host online discussions about the art and business of gaming.
  • I’d like to see the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design work more like an organization of creative professionals.
  • I’d like to see GAMA networking events at other conventions.
  • I’d like to see the collection, collation, and dissemination of data about commerce in the business.
  • I’d like to see GAMA spec out a POS system for game retailers, with this industry’s specific needs in mind. I’d like to see GAMA build and license it to stores, if the research suggests it’s practical.

GAMA could perhaps do all of those things given enough time, but it can’t do any of those things without the will to do substantially more than put on two conventions a year. In my experience, that will is simply not there at present.

Executive Director

The GAMA board of directors announced on Friday that it is not renewing the employment agreement of its Executive Director, John Ward. (Read a copy of the press release hosted on this site.) A fair number of members want to know why, and that’s great, because it indicates that GAMA’s members are interested in the governance and management of their trade organization.

The board’s decision arose in a closed meeting of the board, so the details and voting record of individual board members are confidential. The board’s consensus in recent discussion has been that the decisions made by the body are the decisions of the entire body, and so it would be inappropriate to publish a list reciting the votes of each member.

(Side note: This is based on very recent dialogue, the ultimate resolution of which is still pending. The question arose in the first place when a previous board decision led to a board member’s business being threatened. So, if you’ve seen or been part of board meetings in the past where detailed notes and vote-tallies were circulated, that’s why what I’m reporting here may be different from your experience.)

I wasn’t on the GAMA board ten years ago when John Ward was hired as its Executive Director. Many people, some of whom were intimately involved in the hiring process, some of whom were on the board at the time, many of whom were acquainted with the state of GAMA at that time, have assured me that John Ward was the best candidate for the position of ED when GAMA faced existential crises of finances and responsible organization. I believe them.

It’s been suggested that because John was the right person for that job, ten years ago, he must therefore still be the right person for the current job. There’s a logical disconnect there. The right person to turn a company around is not necessarily the right person to envision its future. The right person to fight a war is not necessarily the right person to rebuild the landscape. And so on. The skill sets are different.

Circumstances change, and GAMA’s have changed. The change is largely thanks to John Ward. The board gives him credit for what he’s done and applauds what he’s accomplished. So make no mistake: I thank John Ward for the hard work he’s done for GAMA. At the same time, I believe that a new voice and skill set would be better to lead GAMA for the next ten years.

The Leader I Want

The new leadership that I’d like to see at GAMA would be someone who:

  • Sees the big picture and viscerally understands emerging seismic trends, like crowdfunding and streaming, to better educate the membership and light the way into the future.
  • Includes and motivates a wide variety of volunteers to do real work to improve the organization, such as improving the Academy and Origins Awards websites, and staffing committees to welcome and orient new members.
  • Crafts and maintains transparent and rock-solid internal processes — most effectively built in good financial times — for financial record-keeping, transactional communications, convention operations, and the like.
  • Builds and mentors a team of staff and volunteers who are empowered to do great work independently, and make clear reports when the circumstances prevent them from doing so.

Some doubt that these are realistic expectations. These doubts underestimate the growth of the industry over the last five years, and underestimate the quality of people who’re interested in the business of tabletop gaming. Every time in recent memory that I’ve had to hire someone to do a job, making a public posting of my needs has resulted in a greater wealth of qualified applicants than I’ve known what to do with. I suspect the same will be true here, especially given the competitive compensation GAMA is able to offer.

* * *

I love games, gamers, gaming, and the game business. I said this out loud when trying to convince people to elect me to the board, and to everyone’s credit, no one laughed.

I believe that GAMA is a positive force for the industry, and can be an even greater one in the future if it continues to evolve.

In order to continue growing in the way that most benefits the widest variety of GAMA’s members, I have come to the conclusion that it’s a wise decision to seek and hire a new Executive Director at this time.

As always, you can easily reach me to share your opinions. My email address for GAMA business is jeff dot tidball at gama dot org, and my cell number is (323) 253-6258. I’ll talk to anyone about nearly anything, including any of this. In case you’d like to reach the entire board by email, you can send a message to board at gama dot org.

If you’ve read this far, I appreciate that you care about GAMA — thank you!

The Easy, Non-Obvious Answer

This spring has seen a substantial uptick in the number of emails I get from students who’ve been assigned by their teachers to interview someone who has a job they think they might want. “Game designer” seems relatively popular.

Most students follow what I assume is a standard template issued by the Platonic Teacher of Career Inquiry: “What kind of education do you need to be a game designer?” “How many hours do you have to work?” “What skills do you need?” These are fine questions, if unimaginative. Until very recently, when the volume became Simply Too Much, I always answered them.

The question I always wanted to get almost never showed up: “What should I do, right now, if I want to be a game designer?”

Here is the easy and yet astonishingly non-obvious answer: “You should start designing a game, right now.”

The White Box

The week before last, I launched a Kickstarter for something called The White Box. It’s a game design workshop-in-a-box. It has a book of essays about game design in it, along with a boatload of generic components that can help with early prototyping. As I keep writing in tweets, posts, and emails, The White Box is all about getting the game design out of your head and onto the table.

To be clear, I’m the publisher and producer of The White Box, not its author. Jeremy Holcomb is its creator, and it’s being released with the cooperation of my friends and colleagues at Gameplaywright and Atlas Games.

As much as you don’t need anything at all to sit down and start designing a game right now, if you think game design is, or sounds, awesome, The White Box could be just the thing to help you overcome the grim force of inertia and start designing.

If you’re reading this before May 17, 2017, have a look at our Kickstarter. If it’s after that, don’t fret. Our partnership with Atlas Games will keep The White Box in distribution for years and years to come, so look for it in your Friendly Local Game Store.

I think designing games is awesome. If you think so, too, check out The White Box.

Adapting Doctor Who

My latest game design, Doctor Who Time Clash, came out in December. I wanted to write here—briefly, because time!—about how I approached the challenge of adapting the Doctor Who source material into a card game.

Time Clash Starter Set BoxBecause different mediums have different strengths and different needs, quality adaptation must do more than shuffle the names of characters and places from one to another. The worst adaptations of novels into film are the ones that thoughtlessly transplant scenes and dialog from the page to the screen. What’s important in an adaptation is to translate, rather than re-produce. In looking at episodes of Doctor Who, the key elements that I identified were…

Two sides. Our protagonist Doctor is always opposed by an Enemy. Great news! Games thrive on conflict between players. More than two players means more opportunities to play (and so, better sales) but rather than shoehorn multi-way competition into the world where it doesn’t make sense, in Time Clash, players team up, with up to two Enemy players opposing up to two Doctor players.

Myriad settings and villains. Hundreds upon hundreds of episodes of Doctor Who—a show about literally traveling through time and space— present wildly varying historical, futuristic, and totally fabricated settings. Exception-based gameplay (think of CCGs, where each card has some particular power that’s an exception or addition to the general rule of play) seemed like the perfect way to deploy such diverse background material in a game without making the general rules of play totally unwieldy.

Companions. With few exceptions, the Doctor is accompanied by one or more companions. Companions and settings both became exceptions-based elements expressed as arcs. Three arcs combine in any given game to form a unique battleground, with the added bonus that a changing landscape of different challenges (arcs can be swapped in and out independently) promotes repeat play.

Varying strengths and tactics. Canonical Doctor Who enemies make plans that advance implacably—plans that if not stopped, will prevail. Think of massed ranks of Cybermen on the march. Conversely, the Doctor tends to flail around making clever observations until he hits on a harebrained plan to save the day. So the final key element of the adaptation was to make each side’s deck, and method of winning, different. The Enemy team deploys Threats, Plans, and Tech, while the Doctor relies on Plans, Tech, and Quips. The Enemy wins by bringing the balance of scores into their favor, while the Doctor wins by throwing a game’s worth of card plays behind one high-stakes, make-it-or-break-it roll of a die.

Time Clash Table Layout

Doctor Who Time Clash is available and in stock around the world right now. Try your friendly local game store first; their knowledgable staff and space to play games make your local community better, and they could use your support. Time Clash‘s first expansion, Against the Cybermen, is in the works. You can download the Time Clash rulebook from the Cubicle 7 website. And if you’ve already played, an honest rating on the Time Clash page at BoardGameGeek is always helpful.

Fast & Fhtagn at the GAMA Trade Show

Fast & Fhtagn, my latest design, is in stores! A standalone sequel to Cthulhu 500, the game made its way from the Atlas Games warehouse to retail stores around the world in March.

Board Game Geek interviewed me for their livestream at the GAMA Trade Show, which was a great opportunity to give an overview of Fast & Fhtagn‘s gameplay. Check out the video on BGG, or embedded below.

Budget Game Projects Well

My first game design aspirations were creative, but as my career unfolded I learned that many of my strengths were operational. I’m organized, I’m pretty good with detail-work, and I have an unusual affinity for the process of bringing creative products to market.

I try to do a new presentation each year at the GAMA Trade Show. I like to talk about things that interest me, but I also try to choose topics that will prove genuinely useful, especially to newer creators, designers, and publishers.

It occurred to me this year that a sample game production budget would meet both criteria, and could be presented in the form of a functional document for real-world use. Here it is, with commentary.

What Project Budgets Are

The first principle of budgeting — which you’d think would be obvious, but sort of turns out not to be — is this: A budget is a plan. A budget isn’t cash, isn’t a guarantee, can’t be used to buy groceries. But a budget is a great tool for predicting what’s likely to happen financially.

Doing anything that’s important without a plan is a bad idea, especially if whatever project you’re considering has lots of moving parts and you haven’t done many things like it in the past. Go grocery shopping without a budget — you’ve bought groceries lots of time before. Don’t make a game without making a budget.

Before we go any further, may I grossly over-simplify the general topic of financial reporting? There are two kinds of financial documents. One shows profit and loss over some period of time. (Fancy term alert: This is called a “P & L.”) It records how much revenue came in, how many costs were paid, and how far out of balance those two subtotals were. It’s a document about how much. The other kind of financial report documents cashflow, or on what date each bit of money was collected or spent. Cashflow documents are primarily about when.

With those magnificent simplifications in hand, understand these two things about budgets:

  • A project budget is a guess-filled, forward-looking, profit-and-loss document, where the period of time is the duration of the project.
  • A project budget says nothing about cashflow. Even with the sparkles-and-magic of Kickstarter, you’re likely to need at least a little bit of actual money before any of your theoretical profit has turned into Earth-monies. A budget doesn’t help you very much with financial issues related to when.

Estimation is the Key Technology of Budgeting

A budget is a plan, so everything in your budget is an estimate. It follows that your budget can never be any better than your estimations. The great news is that it’s possible to train yourself to make better estimates, even about things you don’t know anything about.

(Entirely apart from the question of project budgets, being able to make good estimates about things you know very little about is a killer professional and life skill. Even if you never plan to make a game, teaching yourself to make good estimates is one of the best things you can learn.)

Most of what I know about estimating I learned from (a) practice, and (b) a book called How to Measure Anything (book site, Amazon affiliate link). You should buy it or reserve it at your local library immediately.

This isn’t the place to half-assedly regurgitate what you can learn from How to Measure Anything, but there’s one key insight you’ll need to understand how the budget document works, and it’s this:

Estimates should be ranges, not points. When you make an estimate, it should be a range of values as wide as it needs to be for you to be certain that the actual result will fall within your estimated bounds 90% of the time. Don’t estimate that it’ll take 45 days to edit the manuscript, estimate that it’ll take somewhere between 18 and 120 days. The odds that you’ll be on-to-the-day with a 45-day estimate are ridiculous; you can’t win that game. (Does “18–120 days” seem like an exceptionally broad range? If that’s all the more accurate your 90% confidence interval can be given what you know, a tighter estimate won’t actually help you. It’ll just make your budget — or, in this case, your timeline — a useless sham.)

Here are some things you should be aware of when making estimates. Please keep in mind that this is the barest possible introduction imaginable to a truly critical subject.

  • The vast majority of people wildly overestimate their ability to make accurate guesses. When in doubt, assume that you’re overreaching.
  • The Equivalent Bet Test is an extremely useful exercise. As suggested above, you should try to estimate ranges where the actual result will be within your range 90% of the time. The Equivalent Bet Test says that if you could win $1,000 by either (a) the actual answer being within your range, or (b) rolling a ten-sided die and having it come up 1–9, and that if you have a preference between winning based on your guess or based on the die, then you’re not actually 90% confident about your range.
  • When estimating a range, consider the upper and lower bounds of your range as separate questions. For example, when trying to predict how many backers you might have at a given tier of your crowdfunding campaign, consider the lowest number you might reasonably have, and then consider as a separate question the highest quantity you might reasonably achieve. (Perhaps obviously, to generate a 90% interval using this strategy, you must be 95% confident about each individual boundary.)
  • When you think you’ve got a good guess, brainstorm and consider one additional factor that might affect your estimate. Better yet, think of a couple. Considering additional factors increases the accuracy of your estimates.

As regards creative projects, here’s a good rule of thumb: Creative projects tend to cost at least twice as much as your first ballpark guess, and always take three to eight times as long as you think.

Seriously. Ask anyone who’s done it before.

And Now, the Sample Budget

The sample game budget is a Google spreadsheet, so it has a long, gross Google URL. Through the magic of redirection, this much-easier URL redirects there.

Open that in another window, maybe, so you can keep following along here while you check it out. You can’t edit that document directly, so to make you own version where you can experiment, choose File > Make a Copy and go to town.

First, three notes about the whole spreadsheet:

  1. You can change anything in a green cell to any other number that you want. Experiment!
  2. You can change pretty much anything in Column A, too. These are almost all just labels for the rows, so if a different label makes more sense to you, by all means, switch it up.
  3. None of the placeholder values are endorsements. The cost on the “cover illustration” line says $1,250. I’ve paid lots more, and lots less, for cover art. That number might or might not be reasonable for your project. (In fact, given the wide range of possible amounts that could be spent on cover art, it’s almost certainly not the right number for your project.)

Those things in hand, let’s go through section-by-section.

First, the Expenses section is about money you’ll have to spend.

Wordcount expenses are most applicable to books, be they novels or roleplaying games. If you’re not making one of those, zero those lines out and move on.

Illustration expenses are straightforward; there’s one line for each kind of illustration you need. The “Page % Each” column and its extension work with the wordcount section, above, to help you calculate the number of pages long your book will be, if you’re making a book, which is important because page count is a number you need to know to get a useful printing quote. If you’re not making a book, zero those out and move on.

The hourly and flat rate expenses section is about how much it will cost to get the creative and producing work done. You’ll estimate a range of hours each kind of task will take (“low estimate” to “high estimate”), and how much you’ll pay for each of those hours.

This section tends to cause panic. People notice that there’s a “playtesting” line and an “hourly rate” cell on that line, and they leap to assumptions. No, I don’t expect that you’ll pay your playtesters; that would be unusual. You can go ahead and zero out the “hourly rate” cell on that line. But I’m not going to do it for you, and the reason is that I want you to spend just a minute on the barest consideration of how much volunteer work your friends are going to do to help you make the thing you’re planning. Contrary to Popular Internet Wisdom, you are not an asshole if you ask people to help you without paying them, unless you fail to appreciate what that means, in which case, yes, you are an asshole. Making you zero that cell out yourself is my way of helping you not be an asshole.

You’ll probably be doing lots of the work described by this section yourself, and you probably won’t be paying yourself. And that’s fine. Zero out any of the hourly rates where that’s the case. Don’t let yourself off the hook by failing to make estimates about how long each category of work is going to take you, though. One of the best ways to improve your ability to make good estimates in the future is to compare past estimates to the way reality actually unfolded.

You’ll probably pay some kinds of work at a flat rate rather than an hourly rate. Graphic design for an entire project is often billed that way, for example. There’s a separate column for flat rate work.

Production expenses are what the factory or printer will charge you to build the physical product. (Assuming that there is a physical product. Is yours digital-only? Zero this out and move on!) Request quotes for three different quantities. The quantities you choose should represent the top and bottom of your 90% confidence interval, and a third number (between those) that you think is the most likely size of your print run.

Other expenses are the unique things your product needs, your special snowflakes.

Contingency is a slush bucket for the things you’re going to need to spend money on that you don’t know about, and can’t foresee. Ten percent is pretty reasonable if you’re new to game production. Vets can push that down to 5%, or lower if deluded.

Next, there are two revenue sections, one for crowdfunding revenue and one for traditional (“post-crowdfunding”) sales.

Crowdfunding revenue assumes six backer tiers; create more rows in this section as needed. Each line includes low and high estimates for backers at that tier. “Add’l Expense Per” is a place to account for expenses unique to that tier, such as the cost of printing a t-shirt or bumper sticker per backer. “Stock Use Per” is the number of games (or whatever) you’ll send to each backer at that level. Stock use doesn’t apply to digital-only backers, obviously.

There’s an expense lurking beneath the crowdfunding revenue block, for royalties to creators (or whoever — it’s also useful for calculating fees to the platform and credit card prcoessor) that are based on the gross campaign take. It could have gone up in the expenses section, but since it’s tied to a concrete revenue line, I thought it made more sense to put it here.

Post-crowdfunding revenue is broken down into rows for different sales venues like Amazon, your web store, traditional distribution-to-retail, and so on. Each venue can have a different retail price (because your print-and-play edition will probably cost less than your boxed game) and a different discount off of the retail price. The “% of Sales” area is the proportion of your overall sales, in units, that you think this row will represent. If, for every 100 sales, you think ten of them will be through your web store, that line should read “10%.”

In the unit sales by venue section, you can create seven different sales scenarios to span your 90% confidence interval about how many units you’ll move.

After another lurking expense section, this one for royalties on post-crowdfund revenue, there’s — finally! — a table of profit and loss. These are your best- and worse-case scenarios, by print run, per sales scenario. Best- and worst-case scenarios arise from your low and high estimates of hourly expenses, and your high and low crowdfunding estimates, respectively.

Three Warnings

Beware impossible scenarios. This spreadsheet doesn’t eliminate the possibility that your plan rests on selling more games than you actually printed. As with the driving directions your phone provides, always sanity-check what the spreadsheet says before driving off a cliff.

Beware massive overprinting. You can’t lose money on every sale but make a profit due to volume. Your skill at estimating things it’s impossible to know — seriously, read How to Measure Anything — will be a huge help in figuring out how many copies of a game it’s reasonable to imagine selling.

Beware the Excel Three-Column Fantasy. This is a state of delusion you can engender by putting the budgetary answer you really want to see in between two other budgetary possibilities that are complete nonsense, one of which is optimistic and one of which is pessimistic. Just because you can describe in writing both a spectacular scenario and a dreadful scenario doesn’t mean that any scenario in the middle of them could reasonably transpire.

Planning the Work; Working the Plan

A budget is not a document you’ll prepare in one sitting, set aside, and never return to.

Expect to revise your budget over multiple visits as you accumulate both more information (e.g., additional printing quotes) and better estimates (e.g., “the veteran publisher I asked to look over my budget laughed out loud at my sales projections and told me to cut them all in half”).

Don’t move forward with a budget that shows a loss all the way across the P&L table, even if you really want to. Revisit the sections, change your component mix, look for new vendors, raise the MSRP, and keep working around the edges until you have a plan that presents at least a theoretical break-even. If you’ll allow me a platitude, you owe it to yourself.

Come back to your budget while you’re executing the plan that it represents. Make sure your contact-with-the-enemy reality doesn’t completely demolish your potential to make money.

Get In Touch!

I hope this budget template and commentary on it is a useful tool for you or someone you know. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask. If you find an issue or have a suggestion for some future iteration, drop me a line. Most importantly, if you use this tool to plan for and then actually produce a project, please let me know, whether the project works out or not.

I’m eager to hear from you!

Band or Album Credit and Blame

As I wrote last week when I launched the Band or Album Kickstarter campaign, it’s been ten years — give or take — since I learned what Band or Album is. If you’ve been alive and alert during the past ten years, you may have noticed changes in the world since then. Your smartphones, your social media, your pair of additional editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

When I learned about Band or Album, there was no reasonable way to publish it. Even with Ken Hite’s majestic name on the front, investing a few thousand dollars in molds, coins, and printing would only have necessitated the additional investment of thousands of dollars to line up distribution, solicit pre-orders, and fall into despair at the lack of pre-orders for any project that seems wacky and new.

It’s really the confluence of Kickstarter, social media, the charitable expertise of the folks at Campaign Coins, and the able assistance of Renee Knipe that have come together to make 2015 the Year of Band or Album. Can I tell you about them?

Although Kickstarter serves many different marketplace purposes these days — It’s a marketing platform! It’s a pre-order system! It’s a three-tier disintermediator! — the original idea was to get projects just like Band or Album off the ground when they couldn’t succeed any other way. Projects where creators wanted to make something of marginal or unknown commercial viability, with as little risk as possible.

It was pretty much unimaginable, ten years ago, how social media would change the landscape of human relationships. I don’t need to sell that idea to you. Less obvious, though, are the webs of purpose that have arisen through it. It’s not just people talking to (and past) each other, it’s also people organizing themselves to do things for themselves, rather than waiting for the Pope or some corporate marketing department to tell them what to do. The rise of a community around making things has been astounding and welcome, and — to me, anyway — a completely unforeseen benefit of the rise of social media.

I’ve made coins before — remember my game, Pieces of Eight? — and what I remember of that experience is that it was a lot of work that resulted in products that had to be priced waaay higher than the market would bear. (Need a good deal on some Po8 sets?) Getting hooked up with the folks at Campaign Coins — who have sorted out how to make beautiful, wonderful collector coins at affordable prices — was a necessary Band or Album ingredient in no uncertain terms.

For the last year, I’ve been working with Renee Knipe on a number of projects. Personal creative projects like this one as well as projects for Atlas Games, Gameplaywright, and Drive & Energy (the company that will publish Gravstrike). Her assistance over the past year has revived dead projects, moved stalling projects forward, and paid dividends in sanity. Renee has facilitated art, coordinated meetings, written text, provided feedback, and edited video in service of Band or Album. I’m extremely grateful, and this project could not be where it is without her help.

Band or Album as a thing that will happen in 2015 comes down to Kickstarter, social media, Campaign Coins, and Renee Knipe. It’s good to know why things happen.

(Interested in backing? The Band or Album Kickstarter campaign runs through November 24, 2015!)

The Things I Love About Band or Album

Gen Con SoCal ran from 2003–2006, which is how I know that in one of those years, I learned about Band or Album from Ken Hite.

Essentially, Band or Album is an observation: That every word or phrase in English is the name of a band, or of an album, but never of both, and there is always a single correct answer to the question of which. Need proof? Try it out.

I can’t remember whether Band or Album was a game in any formal sense when Ken brought it up, or whether we gamified it later. Either way, since whenever-it-was, we’ve added written rules and commentary, a game piece–cum–totem, and a method of playing on social media complete with a #bandoralbum hashtag.

Today I’m launching a Band or Album Kickstarter campaign, which has two purposes: To spread a fun idea, and to get it out of my system.

Spreading a fun idea is simply a Good Thing. I love Band or Album and I want to share it with you.

It’s less clear why I’ve become nigh-obsessed with the idea of publishing Band or Album, to the extent that it appears to require an exorcism-via-crowdfund to once-and-for-all drive out the idea that, “One of these days, I really oughta publish that thing…”

But as this campaign neared and I thought about it more and more, the reasons orbiting my need to get this thing out of my system have come into greater focus. There are basically four.

I’m a game designer, and I have this conviction that things are more fun when they’re formalized.

I love clever things, things that fit together and do what they do even better because they’re well-designed. The core observation of Band or Album is clever, exceptionally so, and all the more because it’s non-obvious. It delights me.

I like funny things. Analytically, something’s funny when it’s simultaneously logical and illogical; essentially, humorous things are really well-designed nuggets of communication. The central Band or Album conceit is funny: The suggestion that there are formal rules for something so idiosyncratic. But also: That those rules seem to actually work is funnyAnd what’s more: The play it generates is also intrinsically funny, because it’s not like anyone sets out to name bands and albums in their everyday conversation. So Band or Album brings welcome humor to everyday chat, and that’s great.

The least obvious reason I love Band or Album — my wife is responsible for this observation, though she didn’t make it about Band or Album — is that my own conversational style is that of a grenade lobber. If you know me very well, you know that I’m an introvert, emotionally recharged by being alone rather than being with others. As an introvert with functioning social skills, my style is often to lurk at the edges of a conversation and hurl short, crafted observations and additions into the dialog. They’re funny, if I can manage it, because laughter an one of this introvert’s ways to immediately gauge social success. And hey, how about that: Lobbing short, funny observations and additions into an ongoing conversation is exactly how you play Band or Album.

I hope you’ll have a look at the Band or Album Kickstarter. If you love some of those things that I love about it, please consider backing it. Also, and perhaps even better, if you know someone else who loves those things, I’d be grateful if you passed the word along. Crowdfunding only works via word-of-mouth, and yours would help me out. For the duration of the campaign, the domain will forward visitors to the Kickstarter page, so it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, check out, you might dig that.”

I’m looking forward to your help, and to playing Band or Album with you. Thanks in advance!



As you can see from the fact that this update about what happened in July is being posted in mid-August, it was a busy month! ¶ Band or Album Remix funded successfully, and went to press.¶ Prolific Games signed an exclusive license to distribute Morning’s Kill the Unicorns in the United States. ¶ Plus: kid lacrosse tournaments! ¶ Plus: Las Vegas vacation! ¶ Plus: Other things I can’t even remember!


The official announcement won’t come until early May, but in April I bought Prolific Games from John Harris and Bill Sininger. Sign up for the Prolific newsletterrun by bears! — for news and promotions when Operation: New Management goes fully live and totally public.

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