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 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.
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.
Because 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.
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.
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.
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:
- You can change anything in a green cell to any other number that you want. Experiment!
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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!)
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 funny. And 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 bandoralbum.com domain will forward visitors to the Kickstarter page, so it’s as simple as saying, “Hey, check out bandoralbum.com, you might dig that.”
I’m looking forward to your help, and to playing Band or Album with you. Thanks in advance!
The most admired companies of each age are often associated with a certain core competency. Ford popularized assembly line manufacturing in the 1910s. Toyota kicked off the lean revolution with its Toyota Production System in the postwar years. GE’s enthusiastic adoption of Six Sigma in the ’90s spread the mantra of quality. These capabilities are credited with helping transform the respective industry of each company.
Apple is unquestionably the most admired company in the world today. So what is Apple’s defining capability?
Lest there be any doubt, they told us last summer [in 2013]: Apple is about design.
Putting aside all the trappings associated with them, the big management ideas described above can be whittled down to first principles. The core object of the Lean philosophy is waste. Quality is fundamentally about variability. And design is about intent.
Yes: Design is about intent. It is about choosing.
Many other things should be, can be, or often are in the orbit of design: Observation. Creation. Iteration. Execution. But Morgan is exactly right that none of these are design’s first principle.
But to be clear: Design isn’t about your intention. Some other discipline takes rationale as its first principle. Philosophy, maybe.
Morgan calls out three design evasions: preserving, copying, and delegating. These are ways that designers avoid choosing, and so, avoid designing.
Preserving and copying are two aspects of the same sin. The difference is whether the old idea being uncritically pushed forward comes from the inside or the outside.
We see the problem of regurgitating previous designers’ choices with depressing frequency in game design. Regurgitation is the umbrella problem of the fantasy heartbreaker. It arises when game designers have mastered other peoples’ games without achieving a parallel depth of insight into game design in general, or even into their own creative capabilities. In other words, don’t play your new game with James Ernest unless you want to go home angry.
The delegation evasion isn’t what you think. It’s not pushing the decisions to co-designers, it’s pushing decisions to users — in game design, to gamers — instead of making a design choice yourself. It’s preserving a million options and configurations rather than deciding which one meets your goals. It’s easy to see why the delegation evasion is attractive, but it leads to oatmeal: A food that’s as flamboyantly for no one as it is for everyone.
I’m far from immune to this evasion. I just shipped a game to press with three rules variants, right there in the rulebook. One of them was a necessity based on the nature of this particular game-as-product. Another was an astute playtester suggestion that came too late, procedurally, to be fully integrated into the core gameplay, though the design would be better for more people with this particular variant as a non-optional rule. The last variant should have been left out entirely, because I separately solved the problem it addresses in a better way, it just didn’t occur to me until now.
When I was at Fantasy Flight Games, Christian Petersen hated variant rules. (And probably, he still does.) His objection stemmed more from wanting everyone to be playing the same game, as I recall. But Christian was also not afraid to alienate people by making a decision, so it’s easy to imagine that that motivation was at play, too.
If you want to design, don’t evade. Choose. Design is about intent, so don’t push the choices downstream.
I had a blog on Blogger a long time ago. I’ve blogged on and off (mostly off, these days) at Gameplaywright since 2007. I have a Tumblr tumble-thing, although I don’t think of using Tumblr as blogging.
I created the current iteration of jefftidball.com without a blog in 2009 because I wanted it to be clean, and I wanted to focus on actually designing games and doing my work, not blogging. Things have rolled around, and now I’d like to be able post blog-like thoughts here from time to time. I’ve come to terms with the idea that if that happens infrequently, it doesn’t mean that it’s less a blog, or that it’s bad.
So, with the relaunch of what’s essentially the same site, but built on WordPress, there’s now a blog.
Posts will be sporadic. Perhaps as infrequent as once a quarter. Probably more like once a month. Almost certainly not as often as once a week.
There won’t be comments. A fine writer said, of his own site, “You write on your site; I write on mine.… My goal is for not a single wasted word to appear anywhere on any page of the site.”
I attended my first smelt fry in Madison with John Kovalic, Ken Hite, Matt Forbeck, Hal Mangold, Brett Myers, and Alex Aulisi. So delightful. ¶ At Atlas Games, we announced Witches of the Revolution, a cooperative deck-builder I’ve been producing. We showed it off at the GAMA Trade Show.
I beavered away on the first full layout of the Gravstrike rulebook, complete with diagrams, sidebars, and a ton of minor fixes and tweaks to make everything easier to understand. It’s not quite ready to post as of this writing, but it’s coming soon. ¶ February is Con of the North!