Post-GAMA 2013 Roundup

Wow, it’s been a crazy two weeks. I’m back from GAMA (and GDC) with eyes wide open. I am now more familiar with the hobby game industry and the people who make it work.

The gist of GAMA is hobby game publishers and distributors coming together to market products to retailers (it’s hobby games as opposed to mainstream games, like Hasbro or Mattel board games). The publishers and distributors are also able to maintain their relationships with each other and establish new ones.

Each day had a mix of seminars, networking meals, and expo floor time. Some seminars were advertisements for publishers’ games. In these, the retailers got to see new products coming out that may make them money in the coming year. Other seminars were more educational for me, such as the New Publisher and New Retailer Track seminars. I saw an excellent talk by Byron of Collins Epic Wargames in which he explained the entire process of becoming a new game publisher. He mentioned tips, pitfalls, good uses of your time, and so on.

The advertisements continued through the show meals. I paid $65 for the All Access Meal Ticket of three lunches and a dinner. This wasn’t a bargain, but I was able to meet a mix of people in the industry and get a feel for their state of mind. During these meals, publishers put on short presentations outlining their product offerings for the year. A lot of times, the content of these presentations overlapped with the seminar content from earlier in the day. It was redundant, but for me it was helpful to soak up how publishers hawk their wares to retailers. Some publishers were much more prepared than others.

Those were the calmer parts of the show — the expo floor is where a lot of the business happened. It felt like any other expo with people moseying around and chit-chatting with each other, but this wasn’t like the incredibly mixed attendees of GDC. GAMA is a small but concentrated group of 2,500 people coming together with either buying or selling on the mind. Obviously, these are people that love games first, but they need money to continue supporting that love (like me). On the expo floor, it was clear that essential conversations were happening to move relationships forward (especially with the schmoozing towards retailers).

In addition to these key parts of the show, there were special events like the GAMA Dinner/Awards, Game Night and GAMA Poker Night. I attended the first two, but Poker Night happened after I left. Game Night was cool, it’s when publishers set up their games for retailers to learn. Again, this was all in an effort to get retailers to carry publishers’ games. Retailers need to know if a game is good or if their community will buy it. If they don’t, they won’t recommend them to customers or even order them from distributors in the first place.

When I arrived at GAMA, I wasn’t sure what information I would get from the show, or how I would get it. So I tip-toed in, acting like I was one of the guys, and just sat in a bunch of the seminars listening to people. I eventually figured out where I wanted to be and why, and it became about gathering information on this specific question: Do I want to self-publish my games, or do I want other publishers to publish them?

It’s a tough decision because each avenue has tradeoffs. If I self-publish, I will earn more money, but I will spend a lot more time getting my games to market than actually designing them. On the other hand, if I freelance design and other publishers pick up my games, I will make a lot less money (and the game won’t come for 1 to 2 years), but I get to spend more of my time designing games. There are only a handful of designers in the world that make a living designing board games full-time, so I’m still questioning if it’s even an option. Plus, with 49% of board games on Kickstarter finding success these days, the self-publishing route is a lot more feasible than it used to be (and it has more predictable upfront manufacturing costs than previously). I have yet to answer the freelance vs. self-publish question for myself, but it will come in time.

In exploring these paths, I met and spoke with a variety of people at GAMA. I interacted with self-publishers, traditional publishers, and retailers. Curt from Smirk and Dagger Games and Sam from Slugfest Games are in the trenches of the self-publishing world, and they explained to me how much hard work and time they’ve put into their products to get them to where they are. Curt has a new pirate booty bluffing game coming out soon called Dread Curse (his first externally designed game), and Sam let me play an unreleased Red Dragon Inn game. Both were fun.

As for traditional publishers, I met a bunch of nice folks on the expo floor and asked them how their pitch process works for looking at freelance designs. Many publishers had a presence there: Cryptozoic, Fantasy Flight, Queen, Mayfair, Wizkids, and more. I am now in the process of setting up demos with publishers at Essen/Spiel and talking with others beforehand. I met retailers and distributors who were nice as well. It’s great to start establishing connections and friendships.

The experience was eye-opening in many ways. Apart from the information I expected to learn, I was pleasantly surprised to discover so much of the retailer angle. This will be helpful in the future when I’m figuring out the best way to assist retailers to sell my games.

All in all, it was a good trip. After GAMA, I headed from Las Vegas to San Francisco to see my friends during GDC. I played my game with 7 new players there. Casual gamers enjoyed the game more, while core players enjoyed it less. The resounding piece of feedback from hardcore gamers is that the game would benefit from less luck/randomization. There were other discussions regarding theme, cohesion, and hidden information. Reducing luck/randomization is now my top priority, and I’ve already started testing options that address this. I know I must target one market with this game and not try to make the game for everyone, but I see a world where this game can fit into the same casual-core market that Settlers of Catan fits into. This is the type of game I’ve always been into as a player and as a designer, and I think it’s worth striving for.

On a different note, a few days ago was Tabletop Day. I played my game with a couple of new players here in Seattle who enjoyed it. Hearing feedback from as many people as possible is so important so you don’t just hear from a vocal minority.

That’s all I have for ya for now. Enjoy the rest of your week!