Funding and Publishing (and Final Thoughts)
Cardboard Revolution, Part 4
In this series of posts I examine how the Internet transformed the boardgame industry and hobby in the past 20 years. If you haven’t already, you might want to go read the first three parts before plunging into this one.
In part 3, we looked at how the Internet created an international, online community around boardgames. This community helped raise the quality of games, providing direct feedback, suggestions, bug reports, playtests and balancing data to designers, helping them improve their games. But the Internet helped budding designers in other ways, creating a wider offering and lowering barriers of entry.
Boardgames, like most businesses were previously heavily dependent on publishers taking on risk. A would be designer would flog his design to publishers, who would in turn finance the development, graphics design, layout, proof reading, production runs and ultimately distribution to retailers and warehouses.
Only then would any actual revenue come in and the popularity of a game be gauged. Even with experienced designers and publishers, this was a proces replete with risk. A game might be a runaway hit, but it might tank. Often factors beyond their control would impact it significantly and invariable publishers would end up either over- or under-estimating demand.
Like any business involved risk and consumer choice, publishers would try to reduce risk, often by betting on established designers, familiar themes or tried and tested mechanics. Alternatively, they might bet on a core audience and cater very specifically to their tastes, selling deep into a specific segment with a focused product line. Traditional wargames were one such niche and were for many years pretty conservative in their replication of similar designs to new conflicts.
This stiffled innovation and made it harder to break into game design. Aspiring designers had to compete for limited spots with a limited number of publishers, who were often one publishing fiasco away from going belly-up.
Enter crowd funding. Through the rise of the Internet and wide availability of online payments, platforms such as indiegogo and Kickstarter were created. Their model, where consumers commit to a product before it even exists, helping to fund development, production and distribution, was a perfect match for the boardgame industry. Suddenly the risk could be shared with consumers and cash flow concerns could be mitigated by early charges or commitments. Crowdfunding and preorders also let publishers see demand prior to production, allowing massive prints of breakout hits and letting unpopular titles die in preproduction.
With the risk and cash flow issues mitigated, there was also an opportunity for bypass, with designers going at it themselves and cutting publishers out entirely. In some cases that leads to highly integrated processes, well run funding campaigns and subsequent delivery of outstanding products. In other cases the result is disastrous, endless delays, subpar quality or even outright scams. For many designers, the pitfalls of production, the commercial management of a campaign or the logistics of global supply chain distribution isn’t really core skillsets or primary interests.
Other forms of crowd funding were utilised by publishers. The GMT P500 has brought numerous classics to the market, by letting consumers preorder early stage designs with 500 preorders being the cutoff for progressing the game into production. This models allows GMT to cast a wide net and for a minimal cost see if a novel concept or an esoteric theme has appeal, again reducing risk.
As online funding has mitigated risks in game publishing, the supply has widened and lots of concepts that would previously go unpublished find their way into the market. This includes novel mechanics and odd themes, but has also permitted the testing (and succes) or higher price points for games with previously unthinkable component quality or content quantity. A game like “Gloomhaven” with literally hundred of hours of story lines and content would struggle to find publishing and distribution in the traditional publishing model, but became a runaway succes in the era of crowdfunding.
Crowd funding also gets players and fans involved early, giving designers opportunity to use the community actively to refine, develop and balance games, as well as building further hype and awareness.
The Internet impacted most aspects of society, including manufacturing. New file formats and the ability to transfer them online made design easier and more iterative and lowered barriers to production in China and other markets. Suddenly processes of industrial design could be executed and managed across borders and geographies.
As production in most industries moved to China, so did boardgames, lowering production costs. Using the global supply chains, online tracking and cross border payments, games could be produced and distributed on a global scale, opening both the demand and supply side of the market further up.
Obviously bigger publishers and big production runs benefited from this, but so did hobby projects and early stage designs. Generic components can be procured online and at low costs. Services online offer print on demand services for standard components like cards and tokens. The advent of 3D printing allowed for prototyping and quick iteration of figures and components, beyond allowing fans to pimp out their favorite game with improved components.
Print & play, where a game is released open source or as “shareware” lets designers share and release games with no distribution cost, letting them test their concepts or first attempts without securing distribution or tackling the logistics of a self-run crowd funding. Boardgame tools like Vassal and TableTopSimulator allow for the design and distribution of digital versions, either of a finalised product to build interest or of early versions to allow for user feedback, playtesting and iteration.
Taken together, the paths to get a game published have multiplied, publishers have been able to risk novel and odd designs and the lines have started blurred on what it means for a game to be published and at what point in it’s development cycle we consider it published. Even absent the massive lift in the industry (which in itself obviously opens the field up), barriers to entry have come crashing down, which has increased variety, innovation, competition and quality.
The Internet has fundamentally changed many industries. As boardgames are a composition of intellectual property and physical products, they as an industry have been affected by trends from both sides. The sharing and refinement of content and ideas has been supercharged by the Internet age, but so has logistics, production and funding. Boardgames sit at a happy center of these trends and have benefitted immensely.
Clearly, the advent of mobile gaming and an adult generation raised on computer games have moved games away from a kids only existence. Now even the most respectable and serious adult can play a game and not be considered silly. After all, if grown ups can play “Angry Birds”, then surely they can play “Ticket to Ride”.
As our media consumption has increased and fragmented, we’re spending more and more time with our individual screens. Boardgames represent an opportunity to put the smartphone away and for everyone to be present and focused on a shared experience. As the online world has exploded into our lives and given us each our exact preference, shared experiences become rarer and more attractive.
The Internet has changed our lives in many ways. Some of these changes have been expected and predictable, but many (if not most) have not. That boardgames would explode as an industry and as a hobby was hardly an obvious bet 20–30 years ago. But here we are. Thankfully.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed my musings on boardgames and the Internet. I certainly enjoyed putting some of my thoughts onto “paper”. Let me know if you agree, disagree, feel I missed something or want to point at a specific example.
PS: I will (likely) do a bonus installment with a few of my favorite games, both as recommendations and to talk about specific examples of how the Internet helped make them the amazing games they are today. Stay tuned.