As an independent game designer, I am operating within a world where hype is the norm – we have to generate insane amounts of interest in our games, often with a team of just one or two people, who are also doing everything else. If crowd-funding campaigns don’t fund within 48 hours, they often fail completely, because potential backers change their mind about coming on board, others cancel, and the whole thing collapses.
So imagine my surprise when I read an incredibly brave and bold Kickstarter update email from my friend and fellow designer, Bez, which starts with “Some reasons to cancel your pledge“.
My first reaction was concern – when I read a block of text that starts with, basically, “reasons you should give up on me”, my gut reaction is “oh no, is she ok?” because I thought it was going to be an Eyeore email like I sometimes write in the depths of depression and imposter syndrome. I have been down that spiral, and I was concerned not only for Bez herself, but for how many backers this might scare off, even if the game would have appealed to them.
Luckily, that wasn’t the content of the update at all. Instead, it was a measured and helpful review of the flaws in Bez’s own game, something we at Drayer Ink tend to keep in-house during development. Bez just put it all out there.
Who is Bez?
Behrooz Shahriari (Bez) is an experienced and successful game designer. You may have heard of her most well-known game, Yogi. She is a prolific content creator on YouTube, and she has this heart-warming vision of creating games (Bezzy Bargain Bags) that don’t cost much and allow pretty much anyone to buy and play them – and just in case, she also encourages backers of her Kickstarters to contribute to a fund for those who aren’t in the “pretty much anyone” category, so they can play, too. Admirable, positive – but not really a way to make enough money to live on!
As well as being a bit of a thought leader in the low-cost game space, Bez is also the model for one of my characters in The Valley, the Chanterelle Cottager Bahar, although I know she would have preferred to wear red – it’s her signature colour, after all!
Bez has a very direct way of talking about where her games are up to, what level of polish she plans to give them, and how her process works. While I absolutely love and respect the strength of character to say “this is how I do it”, statements like “if you expect your games to be ‘in their final state’, this isn’t for you” make me really uncomfortable.
I decided to work through some of that discomfort in my reply to her Facebook post about it, because I can sense there’s a bias under all this that I need to confront.
- giving people the chance to opt out early rather than be disappointed later
- human touch with thanking people backing you for your own sake
I was a little uncomfortable with:
- something in the wording that suggested we should expect disappointment
- the sense that I won’t be getting a finished game, ever
For Drayer Ink, I have a very different model in mind – our games will definitely be finished and ready to release into the world when we sell them. If we ever revisit them after publishing, we might make an expansion, or offer a rulebook revision if there’s something that really needs clarifying, or include a start-up pack for first plays in later editions, the way they did with Wingspan, if it ever does well enough to justify it.
For me, part of selling my work is letting it go after I publish. I couldn’t live in a permanent state of iteration, so it makes me uncomfortable to think that this game won’t be finished. So from that perspective, according to Bez’s update, “if you expect your games to be ‘in their final state’, this isn’t for you”.
That being said, I am also backing to support Bez the person as well as Bez the brand, so I have no issue with maintaining my pledge. And at this price-point, I probably won’t mind backing a future iteration of the game, if I like the changes enough. I would never ask people to do that in my games’ price range, though, and I think that’s why I am uncomfortable – I have to separate my games and my model from hers.
Overall, I think it’s bold, positive, and very Bez to ask people “do you really want my game? Are you sure?” and I commend her for it.
Books vs. Games
Bez replied to my comment, comparing a game to books with multiple editions and revisions, and I wanted to take some time to work through that concept.
In terms of whether there should be improvements in new editions of anything, I absolutely agree – if there is a revision after a first printing, and with books, there almost always is, even if it’s just correcting typos, that’s all to the good.
But when the book was first published, they didn’t say “this will need revision forever”, they said, “I think this is finished, I have checked it over and over, it’s ready to sell to people”. When revisions were made, it was because new information came to light, or other corrections and expansions on the original material were required – and they were generally only made because there was enough demand to justify another print run.
There’s something about this update from Bez that makes me feel more like we are buying a WIP prototype than a finished game.
Usually, the game you get from a Kickstarter is something that the designer intends to finish as best they can, but acknowledges may need touch-ups in a later version. You also generally don’t get the game immediately – there are often months, if not years, of development, testing, and back-and-forth with the printers before the final product comes out to backers.
With indie games, there’s huge pressure to always be incredibly positive about your game at all times, but especially while crowd-funding.
If you (ever) manage to sell through your first print run of maybe 1,000 copies, you have done very well indeed.
If you are then lucky enough to get a shot at a second imprint, with revisions and improvements, you can incorporate them – and this is usually at least a year after the first printing, a year which will be filled with feedback and all the workarounds you have done in the meantime to make the game better – but there’s no guarantee that most of us will have that chance. There are, of course, exceptions.
Let’s take Wingspan as an example. This was an unexpected smash hit, landing as it did at the perfect time in the market for board games in general, and board games about nature in particular. We were all on lockdown from the Coronavirus epidemic, and here comes this game that’s not only quite easy to learn, even for people who haven’t played board games since they were kids, but it’s also crunchy enough to reward hours of play with better rewards. And the expansions keep coming – there are, after all, MANY birds in this world of ours, assuming you believe that they are real.
I belong to several groups dedicated to playing games, and there were a LOT of questions about specific bird cards. After fielding what I assume would have been many millions of these questions, Stonemaier included an improved rulebook and a start-up kit in their later printings of the game. I don’t know how many editions of the base game they have made now, but they are also including more eco-friendly components in the next run.
For most of us, even a fraction of the success of a title like Wingspan would be the dream. But as I don’t want to bank on that level of success, I plan to release the best possible version of my game the first time – you only get one chance to make a first impression – pun intended.
So when someone says “I know there are problems and they won’t all be fixed”, it can certainly feel… off-putting.
Sales vs. Community
Some people view for-profit businesses and community organisations as being in direct opposition to each other. If that were the case, Bez and I would be facing each other across a great divide.
I don’t see it that way – I see us as being different ends of the same group of people, with different aims and personal circumstances contributing to our different approaches.
I see games as being something intended to BUILD community. But in order to have the luxury of making them, I need to be doing my share to pay our way.
My husband, George, has been our only income earner since I left my job in 2018 to run my small craft business and manage the renovations and sale of our NZ home, and our big international move from Wellington, New Zealand to Portland, Oregon.
Copper Catkin, my craft business, relied heavily on craft markets to survive, and while it was starting to produce revenue at last, the global pandemic put a stop to that.
Once the renovations, house sale, move, house purchase, and pet transport were complete, I was ready to work again at last – but it’s hard enough to get work when you haven’t worked recently in the same country. Moving to a new one with a gap in your resume is even worse.
I am a highly qualified business analyst, but I can’t even get an interview here.
In the meantime, for my sanity and to stay productive, I am designing and illustrating games. We simply can’t afford for me to work basically for free – so Drayer Ink needs to make a profit.
I also suffer from a kind of ADHD-fed perfectionism that requires my illustrations and components to be as clean and professional as my skills allow – another reason I can’t make quick and cheap games, just to get them out there. What gives me the most joy, when playing a board game, is the beauty of the art, the tactile nature of the cards, and the satisfaction of a well-made component. For me, the game experience itself is enhanced or degraded by the quality of the physical pieces. So I could never release a game into the wild that wasn’t as good as I can possibly make it
I think that’s what makes me so uncomfortable.
The cutter and the galley
Bez is doing something I simply can’t do. She is making games that are cheap and cheerful and out in the world quickly. A new print run is inexpensive and easily arranged, so iteration isn’t the obstacle it is for my bigger, more complex games.
It’s like watching someone base-jumping when you are afraid of heights – it makes you confront why you don’t dare to do something that looks so freeing, and accept that your risk appetite just doesn’t include the possibility of finishing your day as a human pancake.
Another thing to take into account is attitude:
For Bez, a game that didn’t work out is simply an opportunity to keep working on it: the low investment of a card game with charmingly simple art that you make yourself is that you can re-draw a card illustration in minutes. You can change the card count any time because the print runs are small and cheap. Bez’s game design model is quick and nimble.
Once my game is in advanced development, I can’t pivot as quickly or as easily, and once we move into production, changes become even harder to make. My (small!) print runs will cost tens of thousands of dollars, instead of in the low hundreds for a card-only game like Bez’s. A late change to one of my games could mean expensive re-tooling, a whole new raft of print-ready files (and the attached costs), and substantial delays in delivery.
To stretch a naval metaphor until it frays like a hawser under too much strain, Bez is the speedy little sloop, the cutter that can slice close under my bows as I ponderously try to come about and catch her with a broadside. My risks are greater, but so is my capacity. Bez may be faster and more manoeuverable, but if my games come safely into port, my bounty is significantly higher.
It takes completely different personality traits to do what we do, and I think that’s the heart of it: it’s always uncomfortable to see someone do something differently from how you would do it, especially when you want them to succeed and you believe in what they do.
A cliché is a cliché for a reason: it’s true. And in this case, the truthful cliché is that it takes all sorts.
Should I, could I operate my Kickstarters like Bez? No, definitely not.
Equally, should she operate hers like me? Also no – because we have different philosophies, products, and expectations from our crowd-funding efforts.
Life would be incredibly boring if we were all the same, and without innovators like Bez pushing us into uncomfortable places where we confront our biases and challenge our preconceptions, the board game world would be like a stuffy room.
Thanks for opening the windows, Bez!