On the 21st of April last year, I got a Facebook message from my relatively recent Aussie friend, Kate. She had just started working for a start-up that was making a rapid prototyping service specifically for board games, and her message was inviting me to do a beta test of their system.
The start-up was called Launch Tabletop, and the service was called Launch Lab.
Of course, I had no idea what would be involved, but I am a business analyst with a lot of experience in software testing, I knew I would learn a lot, I wanted to help my friend – and I was excited about getting a copy of one of my prototypes!
After a bit of discussion, we settled on Brambleton as the best candidate for this process – it was a game that I had been developing recently, it had a component list and prototype-level artwork, a rulebook, and a wide range of components, so we could test a bunch of different things.
We had an initial call, and Kate helped me figure out which elements I needed to improve to get a better result. I thought we were pretty close to sorted. Guess who had never sent files to a “real” manufacturer before?
ALL the learning
When we started, I thought you just “exported a PDF”. I had no idea what all the settings were for, and I went with the presets, because someone who knew more than me had set that up. Well, that changed pretty quickly! I still know close to nothing, but I do know a little bit more about CMYK, RGB, die lines, spot colours, layers (including in PDFs), rich black vs true black, and a lot of other things that really stretched my capabilities – I am a much more skilled user of the Affinity Suite now than I was at the start of this process, that’s for sure!
A month after the first message, we had a first run-through of the site, with my first set of files. My job was to just try and build a game without being told what to do or how to do it, so they could observe and make notes to improve both the UI (the interface) and the UX (how it felt for me to use the UI). Even though it was clearly still a test version, it was already quite intuitive. As someone who had used a lot of other print-on-demand services, I had a lot of comments about what I wanted to see and what things irked me, and a lot of those things were taken into account, so I felt really heard.
Tweaks and revelations
From May to September, we worked periodically on different aspects of the game, going through a lot of the validation processes and trying to figure out why my files were causing errors, and how to fix them – I build my files with a LOT of layers, and somewhere in those layers, there were elements that didn’t meet the requirements of the checking system. Kate and her colleague, Jason, spent a lot of time working through the process with me – and I think as a result, realised that even with templates and support, most game designers probably can’t manage this level of file preparation. By August 25th, I thought I had uploaded the final versions of everything, and was focused on other tasks, waiting for my prototype to arrive.
In early October, Kate let me know they were working through some updates to the pre-flight checker and that we needed to run my files back through it before we could go to print. I was in full prep mode for BGG.CON, and didn’t have the time I had had back in April when I first signed up, so it took quite a while between messages for me to make each update. I started losing heart a bit at this stage, thinking I would never get my files to the level that was required, and wondering if maybe I should just give up.
George swung into action at this point and took over the checking and re-uploading that was causing my ADHD to error out, and Kate and Jason went over them all and did their best to get them functional – although because of the number of objects in some of my files, they kept crashing the server! That’s because all my art is vectors, and I hadn’t figured out how to remove the anti-aliasing in the export that turned my lovely crisp lines into fuzziness. By late November, I got that part sorted, and I was able to use png files instead.
In early December, we uploaded all the new files again – except for one. I couldn’t figure it out, and December was very busy for us with kitchen renovations in full swing, so I didn’t get my updated files made and uploaded until late January.
I like big games and I cannot lie
The way that Launch Lab works is that, rather than creating one version of your game that you re-order, the way The Game Crafter does it, they create a separate instance of the game for each order. This is great for versioning, but when you have a big girl like Brambleton to copy, it breaks everything – that’s what happened with my first attempt to order my new version of the game, with all the new files, including the one I made using their new PDF Stitcher facility.
Here she comes!
So, they had to make the copy through the back end of the system, let me order it, then make a second copy. And my orders went through! My game was on its way to me, and to my family in New Zealand!
Measure twice, but check your files at least 3 times
In the overwhelm and stress of trying to do so many things at once, and this thing several times in a row, I somehow, and I cannot figure out how, managed to generate the exact same card front 36 times. While it passed the stitching test, I still should actually have checked the file properly, but as I had decided to update one of the other card files, I barely looked at this one – even though I am always the one saying to check and check again before printing, so… that’s pretty funny.
Other than that, though, the process had gone from “aarrgh this is impossible” to remarkably smooth. For the development of a totally new piece of software from scratch, with so many moving parts, this is very fast work. There are aspects to every service that I love, and others that I dislike intensely, and Launch Lab has very few of the latter. My main negative, for me, is making and archiving a copy of each game, rather than having a single version that you can duplicate if desired. It feels like the “wrong” way to go about it, and that’s a bit strange, because it’s the exact process I follow for all my art and design files, but I think it’s to do with this: I perceive my completed game as a product, so I want to order that product, not a copy of it.
What do I wish I could get from Launch Lab?
UV-printed acrylic standees
While in general, I am not in favour of adding a lot of plastic to my games, I really like custom-printed acrylic pieces. If I make something from plastic, I want it to be beautiful, durable, and practical. I want people to feel like the game is more precious as a result, not more disposable. The other thing with custom-printed acrylic is that it allows for a lot of creativity with relatively little cost in comparison to, for example, cast minis.
Another good alternative to the cast miniature is a 3D printed version. While there’s a lot of work to make a 3D-printed item as good as a cast item, there’s also no need to cater for sprues, molds, and other pre- and post-production costs. The option to 3D print is something a lot of creators have already embraced in their own home set-ups, but not everyone can afford a 3D printer or a laser cutter, so these two would be my top priority options for Launch Lab to consider down the track, especially if they were able to offer more sustainable options that aren’t accessible to small business owners.
Tabs on the shrink
From an accessibility perspective, it’s much more difficult to get into shrink-wrapped cards and boards without a pull-tab on them. Not everyone will want one, but having that option as an add-on is also something designers have to consider when they are becoming publishers, and getting quotes from manufacturers, so it’s a good learning option. Launch Lab is an intermediate stage between using standard POD services and dealing with a manufacturer directly, and adding this kind of detail to their options would be great. As you will see in my unboxing below, I had to pause the camera and get help to open the shrink on the punch boards, and I had the same challenge with the card decks.
I didn’t see the ability to add in an insert when I made my order, but I did see that Eris showed an example of their Launch-Lab-printed game on the Launch Tabletop Materialise podcast, where there was an insert they designed, so I am really interested in being able to do that in the future.
just, more. We like more. More colours, more shapes, more box options, more tin sizes, more ways to create, more accessories, more. We always want more.
The quality (reflecting the cost and complexity to create) is considerably higher than the Game Crafter, which is already impressively high for print-on-demand. The use of a die rather than a laser is obviously more expensive, and not something to be taken lightly – the tooling fee was appropriate, and when I actually have to pay for my prototype, it will be something I approach very cautiously. But the experience of having a game that I designed and illustrated printed to this level is something I will never forget – just like when I got my first prototype printed and assembled by hand, or when I unboxed my first TGC game, or any other time I take a step towards having a really real game manufactured, this experience has been absolutely awesome.
Thank you, Kate and Launch Tabletop, for offering me this opportunity, taking the time to teach me so that I could attempt to produce useable files, and most of all, for giving this unpublished indie designer a preview of what publishing my game might feel like IRL: stressful, confronting, with a steep learning curve and a whole collection of errors and language barriers (I don’t speak graphic design very well), but incredibly rewarding at the end.
Check out my unboxing video below – I will go into more detail about the components and the game itself once we have played this version.
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